In his great work “The World as Will and Representation” Schopenhauer summarizes his whole effort with a chapter called “The Road to Salvation”. It sounds a bit Biblical, but there are some great truths hidden in this gem. He starts his attack with the following quote:
There is only one inborn error, and that is the notion that we exist in order to be happy.
Happiness is the absence of pain and suffering according to Epicurus, and sure enough we all flee from pain and suffering and gravitate toward pleasure. The only problem is that pain and suffering tend to be fairly persistent in one way or another. Here is Schopenhauer again:
Thus everything in life is certainly calculated to bring us back from that original error, and to convince us that the purpose of our existence is not to be happy.
Schopenhauer’s core idea is that the will-to-life, the thing that drives us on, is the real problem. Billions of creatures all hell bent of surviving in the best way possible are bound to cause each other pain. They eat each other, establish dominance over each other, and kill each other when feeling threatened in some way. Some people see nothing wrong with this, although they do complain bitterly when things don’t go their way. Even so, while everything in the garden is rosy, such people will display their prowess and pour contempt on anyone who might question the basic dynamics of life. However when things go badly wrong they squeal like pigs in the slaughterhouse. Other people might be a bit more reflective and come to the conclusion that the will-to-life is a wholly contemptible thing, and that it might be better to see it for what it is – a suffering machine. As such unhappiness is the natural outcome and not something we should be surprised by. Here is Schopenhauer once more:
Misfortunes of every sort and size will no longer surprise him, although they cause him pain; for he has seen that pain and trouble are the very things that work towards the true end of life, namely the turning away of the will from it.
This is not pessimism, it is realism. The purpose of human life is to turn away from life, because it is incapable of offering any true happiness.
In my opinion it is enough simply to see the nature of the beast called life. We don’t have to fight our will-to-life, we just need to see it for what it is. Then we can do whatever we need to do to maintain our lives in the least harmful manner, and focus on things that deliver aesthetic pleasures. Even Jesus thought life was a fairly rotten deal:
“He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25).
The moral of the story is simple. If we think life is supposed to serve up unending pleasures we will be disappointed. The will-to-life guarantees that life will cause suffering. If on the other hand we understand that life is a “pain machine”, to quote Gurdjieff, then we will not be so surprised by our own sufferings, and might even understand that the purpose of life is to suffer so that we turn away from life.