Christopher Janaway gives an excellent summary of Schopenhauer’s analysis of life in the introduction to one of his works. In a word it states that real value can be found in life by rejecting life. This is a paradox with a very deep meaning. Here is an extract from Janaway’s introduction:
If ethics in the broadest sense considers what is of value in human life, then Schopenhauer’s ultimate ethical position is as follows. Although we exist as empirical individuals separate from one another and so naturally regard the good as consisting in what we can attain through the activity of our own individual wills, this is a mistaken view. When fully understood, the life of a human individual does not and cannot contain anything of true value. Worse, the existence of everything – as a manifestation of the pointlessly self-perpetuating and self-devouring will – is something ultimately to be lamented. To exist as a manifestation of will is to strive without fulfillment, and hence to suffer. Attaining an end through willing brings us nothing of positive value – it just temporarily erases a painful lack or absence. New desires flood in almost immediately to plague us with their non-satisfaction. And if no new desires arrive we are tormented by boredom. Because will is our essence, ‘All life is suffering’ – and consequently we need ‘salvation’ or ‘redemption’ from it. Such redemption can be achieved only by the will within us ‘turning’ and ‘denying itself’. Schopenhauer has argued that the notion of a ‘highest good’ makes no sense. But, he says, if we wish to bring that expression back from retirement and apply it to anything, then it must be to the denial of the will: cessation of desires and wants that relate to the individual we find ourselves as, detachment of identification from this individual, elimination of one’s personality, one’s natural self with its in-built attachment to the ends of living and willing, and contemplation of the whole world, with all its strivings and pains, as if from nowhere within it. Calling on mystical pronouncements from diverse cultural traditions, Schopenhauer argues that only such a radical transformation, occasioned by a deep and rare knowledge of the ubiquity of suffering and the illusoriness of the individual, can restore any value to our existence.
If we have the courage to look at life without rose tinted spectacles, and see its futility and barbarity, then sooner or later something within us will turn away from life. This, believe it or not, is an extremely joyful outcome. To no longer have any doubts that “all life is suffering” and to assign no value to life, brings a clarity and inner freedom that many have experienced.
People who have this inner sense of the futility of each individual life existing at the expense of other lives, can suffer greatly. Something within us does not want to make that final step of seeing it all as meaningless. However once a person looks at the horror with no reservations, and no hope that it can be anything other than a carnival of carnage, such a person becomes inwardly free. For Schopenhauer, this inner action of the will-to-life turning against itself, is the highest manifestation of human existence. Jesus Christ agreed with him:
He who hates his life in this world will keep it to eternal life.