Schopenhauer

I was on the train, on my way back home. Sitting comfortably at my preferred corner seat, I took out a book and started reading: On the Suffering of the World 1, by Arthus Schopenhauer, a book I had just loaned from the library. Schopenhauer, in case you didn’t know, is very well known for his caustic insights into the human condition, and is known as one of, if not the most, pessimistic philosopher who ever lived.

Perhaps it is not enough for me to just say this, so I shall quote one of the passages in the book:

In our early youth we sit before the life that lies ahead of us like children sitting before the curtain in a theatre, in happy and tense anticipation of whatever is going to appear. Luckily we do not know what really will appear. for to him who does know, children can sometimes seem like innocent delinquents, sentenced not to death but to life, who have not yet discovered what the punishment will consist of. Nonetheless, everyone desires to achieve old age, that is to say a condition in which one can say: “Today it is bad, and day by day it will get worse — until at last the worst of all arrives.”

And if you are still not convinced,

If you imagine, in so far as it is approximately possible, the sum total of distress, pain and suffering of every kind which the sun shines upon in its course, you will have to admit it would have been much better if the sun had been able to call up the phenomenon of life as little on the earth as on the moon.

Before I had picked up this book, I was feeling horrible; this feeling having lasted a few days, ever since I had returned from Brunei, I figured it was a mild form of depression. As new mothers often suffer from post-natal blues, I seemed to be suffering from the post-Brunei blues. Sure, I was relieved that Brunei was over, but horribly disappointed that the relief wasn’t as great as I thought it would, and should, have been. 2

But in the most ironic way, it seemed reading Schopenhauer helped cheer me up. His pessimissic outlook on life, which seemed to be a downright contempt for it, made me feel strangely happy — happy that I did not feel as unhappy as him. In his own words,

The most effective consolation in every misfortune and every affliction is to observe others who are more unfortunate than we: and everyone can do this. But what does that say for the condition of the whole?

As I read his essay On the Suffering of the World (the title of the book was named after the first essay that appears in it), I was aware of how happy it made me, causing me to break into smiles every now and then, and I couldn’t help it! It had been months, maybe years, since I last felt that way.

I so lost myself in the book that I hardly realised I was on a train until a small crowd entered, and remnants who couldn’t get a seat were left standing around me. Looking up, I saw a middle-aged woman, no where near what I would consider old, or at least old enough to warrant anyone giving up a seat, standing in front of me. She was talking to another woman beside me, who was probably in her early to mid-twenties (who, incidentally, was dressed in very peculiar clothes, which I had thought bordered on some Japanese cosplay, though it might well have been her normal get-up!)

Looking at the middle-aged woman, something inside me stirred, and made me stand up and ask if she would like a seat.

“M’am,” I said, an address I surprised myself with, perhaps too used to the military’s method of addressing women, “would you like a seat?”

“Oh, no no no,” she replied, almost as if ordering me to sit back down, “I’m getting off soon.” A pause. “Quite soon,” she added, looking at her previous conversation partner, who glanced at her then at me.

“Really?” I asked, “sure? How far?” I didn’t believe she was getting off soon, and thought she might just have been embarrassed or courteous.

“I’m getting off soon, don’t worry,” she said, sternly, almost like a mother reassuring her young son that school is fun.

I sat back down, suddenly extremely self-conscious, but realised Schopenhauer, who had brought me so much joy, was still in my hands. Suddenly the world reset itself, and I continued my reading. The middle-aged woman left the train a couple of stops after the incident, while her partner stayed with me all the way till my stop at Kovan.

Not sure why, but I felt like such a gentleman that day; reminded me of the scene in Take the Lead where the Antonio Banderas character opens the door for the ladies. I used to do that. A pity I don’t do that so much anymore.

A Real Ladies Man

Schopenhauer himself was a real ladies man, or at least he shows it in his writing. Upon reaching home, I started on his essay, On Women, and was pleasantly surprised by how many points on women he shared with me. Allow me to share with you some of the passages in that essay:

These few words of Jouy [express what is truly to be praised in women]: Sans les femmes, le commencement de notre vie serait prive de secours, le millieu de plaisirs, et la fin de consolation .(Without women, the beginning of our lives would be deprived of security, the middle of pleasure, and the end of consolation.) Byron says the same thing with more pathos in Sardanapolis:

The very first
Of human life must spring from woman’s breast,
Your first small words are taught you from her lips,
Your first tears quench’d by her, and your last sighs
Too often breathed out in a woman’s hearing,
Which men have shrunk from the ignoble care
Of watching the last hour of him who led them.

And then he goes on with some of the best writing on women I have read thus far (the numbers above the paragraphs follow the paragraph headings in the book),

– 2 –

One needs only to see the way she is built to realize that woman is not intended for great mental or for great physical labour. She expiates the guilt of life not through activity but through suffering, through the pains of child-birth, caring for the child and subjection to the man, to whom she should be a patient and cheering companion. Great suffering, joy, exertion, it not for her: her life should flow by more quietly, trivially, gently than the man’s without being essentially happier or unhappier.

– 3 –

Women are suited to being the nurses and teachers of our earliest childhood precisely because they themselves are childish, silly and short-sighted, in a word big children, their whole lives long: a kind of intermediate stage between the child and the man, who is the actual human being, ‘man’. One has only to watch a girl playing with a child, dancing and singing with it the whole day, and then ask oneself what, with the best will in the world, a man could do in her place.

– 5 –

A completely truthful woman who does not practise dissimulation is perhaps an impossibility, which is why women see through the dissimulation of others so easily it is inadvisable to attempt it with them. — But this fundamental defect which I have said they possess, together with all that is associated with it, gives rise to falsity, unfaithfulness, treachery, ingratitude, etc. Women are guilty of perjury far more often than men. It is questionable whether they tought to be allowed to take an oath at all.

– 6 –

…fundamentally women exist solely for the propagation of the race.

– 7 –

Men are by nature merely indifferent to one another; but women are by nature enemies.

Schopenhauer seems to know a lot about women, doesn’t he?

***

1 He does not write in English. Throughout my years of reading translated books, I have learnt that oftentimes many ideas, especially that of irony or humour, gets lost in translation. This particular book had no such loss. Published by Penguin Books, in their Great Ideas series, and translated by R. J. Hollingdale, this book was surprisingly accessible.

2 There’s an interesting blog entry by laughingcow on the General Elections. This is a paraphrase of one of the passages in there, which in its original was: he looked like the way I felt when my ‘A’ level results were released — disappointed at not having done better, but mostly relieved that he didn’t do worse.

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