Friday, January 09, 2009

The vanity and suffering of life

January is perhaps not the best month to be thinking such thoughts, but I am preparing a talk for the Cambridge undergraduate Classics society, the Herodoteans and for some reason I decided that I would talk about ‘The evil of being born’. The topic is related to my work on the fear of death and also to something on Cicero Tusculans 1 in which A. begins with the thought that death is bad and therefore it makes the living wretched since they have to die.

Anyway, I have been reading a bit of Schopenhauer, specifically his essay ‘On the vanity and suffering of life’ (ch. 56, supplement to book 4 of The world as will and representation). He’s a cheery soul, isn’t he? Still, he knew his classical sources well and concludes the essay by noting that in many ways they too were, as he puts it ‘deeply affected by the wretchedness of existence’. (He goes on to cite Homer, Plutarch, Theognis, Sophocles, Pliny and so on.) But earlier in the essay I noticed that he came up with this rather interesting observation:

If life itself were a precious blessing, and decidedly preferable to non-existence, the exit from it would not need to be guarded by such fearful watchmen as death and its terrors. But who would go on living life as it is, if death were less terrible? And who could bear even the mere thought of death if life were a pleasure? But the former still always has the good point of being the end of life and we console ourselves with death in regard to the sufferings of life, and with the sufferings of life in regard to death. The truth is that the two belong to each other inseparably, since they constitute a deviation from the right path, and a return to this is as difficult as it is desirable.

So the harm of death makes continuing to live bearable and the sufferings of life make the prospect of death bearable. There’s something satisfying about Schopenhauer’s paradox and it seems to me to be a smart antidote to the Epicurean claim, for example, that death is not harmful and it is possible to live a life which is somehow both satisfied such that we should not worry that it can be prematurely curtailed but also is such that it can provide sufficient reasons for us to wish to continue living.

1 comment:

patrick said...

First thank you for your interesting blog... I'm sorry to write in french mais I fear my english is not good enough to make me understand by you. If you don't understand french, next time I'll try to do my best in your own language...

Ce que dit Schopenhauer dans le passage que vous citez ne vaut que pour les hommes ordinaires; Epicure d'ailleurs caractérise cette attitude dans La lettre à Ménécee: " la multitude tantôt fuit la mort comme le pire des maux, tantôt l'appelle comme le terme des maux de la vie". Mais l'épicurien visant à faire de la vie un plaisir, la mort ne peut pas être vue comme une consolation de la vie. En fait l'argument de Schopenhauer ne vaut que pour ceux qui sont bien certains que la conversion épicurienne est tout à fait illusoire. Ils ont d'ailleurs peut-être raison !