Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation (read online)
Schopenhauer developed many great ideas in this philosophical masterpiece, but we will extract the most interesting ones, including some of those not widely discussed. Many have marked Schopenhauer’s views as pessimistic, but they can actually be very inspiring, especially as a creative starting point for constructing your own worldview. The core of Schopenhauer’s ideas is the primary force that lies within each and every one of us: the will-to-life. This Will forces us to continue living despite all the tragedy we experience: it is illogical and irrational, and it makes us humans fools. But it is strong and very often indestructible. According to Schopenhauer, people are aware of the absurdity of life, they constantly suffer and yet they firmly grab on to life, which makes it tragicomic:
The life of every individual, viewed as a whole and in general, and when only its most significant features are emphasized, is really a tragedy; but gone through in detail it has the character of a comedy.
The affirmation of this Will is represented through our desire for love. There is an inner impulse inside every one of us that guides us towards sex, mainly to reproduce. The result of falling in love is losing one’s mind: this is inevitable since it is completely irrational, but it ensures the extension of the human race. According to Schopenhauer, one of the greatest misapprehensions of the human race is thinking we are living in order to be happy. The pursuit of happiness is tragic, as it can never be achieved. Schopenhauer thinks that we are not free, as freedom is merely an illusion: we are all victims of our own characters and are forced to act accordingly.
The world is mainly a representation of the Will: we can never experience the true essence of the outer world, only the one way it is revealed to us. Therefore, we see things as they appear to us, not as they are. Our body is the only connection to the world which we can experience both from the inside and from the outside. Although Schopenhauer’s philosophy can be perceived as too pessimistic, it is actually about man’s will to survive, despite everything. Schopenhauer does not explain the purpose of life per se. But, he does underscore the importance of reaffirming our inner humanistic nature, by getting engaged with art and philosophy. That is what makes one’s life bearable.
Gottfried Leibniz, Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil (read online)
This work by the great German mathematician and philosopher Leibniz is also known as theodicy. It is a form of text that tends to explain the reasons God permits the existence of evil and how these two notions (God and Evil) are not mutually exclusive. You probably are not even aware of it, but you most certainly have lived by Leibniz’s philosophy, at least for one part of your life. The often-used, comforting phrase everything happens for a reason is actually a great part of what this philosophical writing is about. Directly, it is connected to Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason. There must be a reason for which something happens in a certain way and not otherwise. It is actually a consoling way to live: something that happened had to happen, and there was no chance for it not to happen (since it did)!
So, if God truly is almighty and omnipresent, why does he permit evil? According to Leibniz, the world we live in is the best of all possible worlds and was created by God. There is no other created world that is more perfect than the one we have. It is the best, although it sometimes does not seem that way, since we are incapable of seeing the wider picture, our position in the world does not permit it. This world has its reasons and its order: the goodness of it does not imply the necessity of its every constituent part being good. Therefore, God is perfect, and he is not vicious in his creation: it is logically possible to think of a creation of a different world, but it would not be better than the one we already live in:
As in mathematics, when there is no maximum nor minimum, in short nothing distinguished, everything is done equally, or when that is not possible nothing at all is done: so it may be said likewise in respect of perfect wisdom, which is no less orderly than mathematics, that if there were not the best (optimum) among all possible worlds, God would not have produced any.
As for the concept of human freedom, Leibniz believed that we are capable of learning about the ruling principles of the world, but our actions are still determined by them. We may feel we are making autonomous decisions when in fact – everything is predestined.
Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus (read online)
Epicurus, the great ancient Greek philosopher, was one of the very few at the time who dedicated his writings to the pursuit of happiness. Reaching happiness was far more important than reaching wisdom, he thought. His philosophy (the school of Epicureanism) is known to us mainly through the works of other commentators, as only a small fragment of his letters has been preserved to this day. He advocated a life of pleasure: one must release oneself from fear and suffering in order to find peace, and release from pain in the body and from trouble in the soul. Fear of death is therefore irrational:
Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terror; for those who thoroughly apprehend that there are no terrors for them in ceasing to live.
According to Epicurus, happiness consists of three main ingredients: having friends and socializing, working for yourself (and for a better world), and spending time in solitude – finding peace within. Too often, people do quite the opposite: they devote their whole energy to the hope of finding one true love (which often is not satisfactory), they work exclusively for someone else and become alienated from themselves, or they seek peace in some outer source.
Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals (read online)
In this philosophical work, Kant questioned the great issues of morals and constructed a moral law called the categorical imperative. He formulates three principles around this law. First, he introduces us to the notion of the good will:
There is nothing it is possible to think of anywhere in the world, or indeed anything at all outside it, that can be held to be good without limitation, excepting only a good will.
This will is good in itself and is the one thing that acts in accordance with the categorical imperative. Our moral actions must be guided by this imperative, but what is it actually?
Kant says that the categorical imperative implies that you are acting in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law. This is the first principle. In other words, you have to be conscious of the reason for your actions and do so with the will of it becoming the universal law, as if everyone else should recognize and adopt your reason for acting. In layman’s terms – it implies reciprocity and consistency, and means acting towards someone as you wish to be treated yourself, which leads us to the second principle:
Act so that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means.
The third principle is the formula of autonomy: it says that one should always follow the maxim of one’s choice so that there is comprehended within it the same volition as universal law. Basically, this philosophical writing teaches you the importance of right action, but it does not necessarily teach you how to distinguish right from wrong or what makes one person good, and the other one bad. It all comes down to: treat others as you would like to be treated.
Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death (read online)
This Danish existentialist dedicated an entire book to a single, yet complex, notion of despair. For Kierkegaard, it is deeply connected to the Christian idea of original sin. Despair is something deeply universal, and every single person is desperate, even though he or she does not know it yet. The Sickness unto Death explores all the possible situations where one’s despair might occur. Therefore, it is not a typical philosophy work, but a quite unusual one, and very dark in its premises. Every being is made out of body and spirit; despair arises from any disconnect between these two elements. We are all desperate, which makes us sinful; and we are sinful, which makes us desperate. Christianity showed us that faith is the only solution to despair. By failing to overcome it, we become and stay desperate.
It sounds like a pretty pessimistic worldview. Still, Kierkegaard wrote about those natural attempts of a human to escape the inevitable, that is – his own despair in life:
At one moment it has almost become clear to him that he is in despair; but then at another moment it appears to him after all as though his indisposition might have another ground, as though it were the consequence of something external, something outside himself, and that if this were to be changed, he would not be in despair. Or perhaps by diversions, or in other ways, e.g., by work and busy occupations as means of distraction, he seeks by his own effort to preserve an obscurity about his condition.
We may conclude in a humorous way: according to Kierkegaard – happiness lies in denial, but even then, it’s only an illusion!
Reading philosophers who may have a completely different point of view from yours can be encouraging. In the end, that is how they arrived at their principles, laws and thoughts in general: by reading and exploring what had been said before.
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