On The Suffering of The World is an essay by the German philosopher Alfred Schopenhauer musing on how suffering is an integral part of humanity.
He is considered to be a proponent of philosophical pessimism, although this shouldn’t put you off reading this book!
It’s an interesting take on a topic that doesn’t get discussed, just how big of a role does suffering play in our existence.
To be human is to suffer. All of us will suffer at some point. Whether it’s through our own folly, or at the hands of someone else, suffering is inevitable.
The book contains several essays as well as the aforementioned one and is an interesting read if you want to get a deeper insight into the tenets of pessimistic philosophy.
I promise it’s not as miserable as it sounds! It’s a philosophical text that is applicable to real life and that’s what makes it a worthwhile read!
On The Suffering of The World summary
Takeaway 1 – Is suffering necessary in life?
Over a year ago, I wrote an article asking whether suffering makes life worthwhile. The general argument in that article is that some suffering is necessary.
If we were to go through life without any pain, how do we derive meaning from life? As uncomfortable as it is, suffering allows us to derive meaning from life.
If you think about all the improvements in living standards that occurred throughout history, almost all of them have come about because of some form of suffering.
The desire for the vote was because the working man felt he was suffering at the hands of the ruling classes. Likewise with female suffrage. Women were suffering as a result of their inability to vote.
Schopenhauer illustrates the prevalence and perhaps, the importance of suffering in life with the following passage:
“This is also consistent with the fact that as a rule, we find pleasure much less pleasurable, pain much more painful than we expected. A quick test of the assertion that enjoyment outweighs pain in this world, or that they are at any rate balanced, would be to compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating another with those of the animal being eaten.”
When put in terms such as these, it becomes clear that suffering is much visceral and real than pleasure.
If I think back through my life, the moments I remember more were ones were I suffered. The pain of getting hit by a car lasted for days, while the euphoria of seeing Liverpool win the European Cup lasted for a night and wore off after a day.
Pain and suffering last longer than pleasure. Thus, it is from suffering that we derive meaning in life. We suffer to know what it’s like to be at the bottom and then strive to improve matters so we never sink so low again.
Takeaway 2 – The only time we have is the present
One of our major flaws as humans is to either look back at the past or look into the future. It’s this ability to reflect and ponder what may come that has led to us to become the dominant species on the planet, but it presents a problem.
Let me explain:
This ability comes at the expense of realising that the present is the only time we ever get. The past is the past and the future never comes.
Schopenhauer realised this and stated this fact in the following quote:
“Every moment of our life belongs to the present only for a moment; then it belongs for ever to the past. Every evening we are poorer by a day.”
This may seem like a morbid way to look at life, but it’s true. This is how life functions. Something happens and then we move on. That moment is now the past.
Every day we get a shorter and shorter amount of time on this planet. The sands of time are slowly running out for all of us, we just have no idea when.
If you were to sit down and think about this, the thought of being closer to death as each day passes should be a motivator to make the most of your life.
However, most of us just meander through life and never accomplish as much as we would like. Ironically, Schopenhauer was not too fond of ‘living in the moment.’
He referred to it as ‘life’s greatest folly.’ In a way, he has a past. If moments are fleeting and pass quickly, living this way is a waste of one’s time on the planet.
A better use would be to devise a plan for your life and act upon it. This way, every moment has an intention and you are making the most of the time you have on Earth.
Takeaway 3 – Is boredom bad?
When it comes to being bored, society has decried it as something that only happens to boring people.
While this may sound true on the surface, it’s too simplistic an answer to be correct. Schopenhauer was of the opinion that boredom was something else:
“…for boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence.”
As morbid as this sentiment is, there is a lot of truth in it. Existence by itself is meaningless, we have to derive meaning from our lives to make them worthwhile.
If the mere feeling of being in existence was enough then we would have no need for boredom. Our existence alone would sustain us.
We know this is not the case. Boredom drives us mad, but it also pushes us to become better, smarter and to achieve.
We tend to think of boredom as a problem, but we are looking at it the wrong way. Boredom is a base state of existence. If we just exist, we will be bored, because just existing is boring.
It is from this state that we set out to derive meaning from the world. To do something worthwhile, to make our lives better.
This is how humanity has got to where it is today. Without boredom, we may not have got very far at all.
Next time you begin to feel the twinges of boredom, remember that it’s only natural to be bored and that boredom can lead to great things.
On The Suffering of The World review
This On The Suffering of The World summary has looked at the work of Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher known for his pessimism.
Mark Manson, the author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck, argues that Schopenhauer’s views are more realistic than pessimistic.
I’d agree with Manson’s summation of Schopenhauer after reading this book. A lot of self-help today can be too focused on positivity and a belief that you only have to visualise your success to achieve it.
This is nonsense. No amount of visualising a Ferrari is going to make one appear. What Schopenhauer gets at in his work is that life is tough and it’s hard.
Sure, we can improve, we can be better, but we have to accept that life can be a bit shitty at times. It’s not all rainbows and sunshine. Living throughout the Covid pandemic has hammered that home.
I enjoyed this book because it offers an alternative take to improving your life and one that isn’t talked about enough. Meditations and Letters From a Stoic are fantastic books, but you should compliment them with On The Suffering of The World too.
Who should read On The Suffering of The world?
Anyone that’s interested in philosophy should read this book. His work is associated with pessimism, as I mentioned above, but reading it you’ll see it’s more grounded in reality.
If you’re looking to improve your life, this book is a good read in that regard. It gives you a sense of the way the world and although we can’t change the fundamental principles of life, we can change our response to them.