Philosopher Schopenhauer was doomed to pessimism by his very circumstances, says Will Durant in his famous book, The Story of Philosophy. “(A) man who has not known a mother’s love – and worse, has known a mother’s hatred – has no cause to be infatuated with the world,” writes Durant in his inimitable style. Schopenhauer’s mother was a novelist of some repute. His father committed suicide when Schopenhauer was 17. His mother soon took to free love. She had little love for her husband anyway; she thought of him as too prosaic. Durant compares Schopenhauer’s dislike of his mother to Hamlet’s attitude to his mother after the death of his father.
Schopenhauer grew up hating women. “(H)is quarrels with his mother taught him a large part of those half-truths about women,” says Durant. He despised women as impulsive creatures with no aesthetic sense and totally lacking in intelligence. He told his mother that she would eventually be known not for her books but for his. He was right about that though his mother ridiculed him for the inscrutability of his writings.
The philosopher hated not only women, however; he was no lover of mankind. Life is evil, he argued. The Buddhist concept of nirvana fascinated him. Non-existence is the ultimate solution, he argued. If the legend about Diogenes’ choosing death by refusing to breathe is true, it was a great victory over the will to live. But it’s of no use, argues Schopenhauer. It’s only an individual victory. The species will carry on since there are so many other individuals who will not embrace such a victory. The logic is quite absurd. It is like saying: I refuse to get out of shit because my entire species has chosen to roll in shit.
Schopenhauer lived all alone. He couldn’t love his species though he loved cats and dogs. When he died his cat was found nestled in his lap. Cats and dogs apart, he led a solitary life. In the wearisome monotony of that solitude, he contemplated philosophical concepts and wrote mystifying books which outlived the popular fiction written by his mother.
“Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world,” he wrote. It is as much applicable to himself as to anybody else. His mother taught him to hate people. And that hatred circumscribed his vision all through his life. Our experiences circumscribe our vision. That’s why our experiences matter. They are inescapable. I mean, our experiences. Well, we have little choice when it comes to certain people who plough through our life rather mercilessly. There’s no escape from people at least until one is in a position to choose solitude like Schopenhauer. But is solitude better than society? More often than not, solitude engenders what Will Durant calls “passionless and petulant boredom.” And the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer’s type.
There’s no escape from people. There’s no escape from the hurts they bring along. The hurts are our experiences. We may have little choice about the kinds of hurts we have to endure. We have a choice, however, about how to respond to the hurts. As Oprah Winfrey says, we can turn our wounds into wisdom. And the wisdom need not necessarily be pessimistic. Unless you happen to be a Schopenhauer.