Schopenhauer’s great intuition: human existence is a constant vacillating between pain and boredom. The existence of boredom is more than just evidence of a disagreeable state; it is proof that man is fundamentally unhappy.
“If life possessed in itself a positive value and true content, there would be no such thing as boredom: mere existence would fulfill and satisfy us. As things are we take no pleasure in existence except when we are striving after something..”(Essays and Aphorisms 53 – 54)
The default reaction to bare conscious continuity, being awake but not doing anything, is boredom. This awareness disappears once we institute and pursue a goal, thereby distracting ourselves from the empty or illusory nature of our lives. During those fleeting moments of satisfaction, we return to raw existence itself.
The final irony of pessimism: even if our desires are satisfied, although imperfectly, the outcome is naught but boredom.
Pure consciousness, framed by space and time, consists of nothing, nothing at all. That nothingness allows us to become most intimately aware of the der Nichtigkeit des Daseins, the Schopenhauerian nothingness of existence, i.e., better known as vanity.
While boredom is not as wounding as sheer pain, it is a form of suffering unique to conscious beings. It is the byproduct of an intuitive understanding of the metaphysical situation of man – the existence in time.
Vanity is not to be confused with the Christian view, where all things are empty as opposed to the heavenly. The phenomenal, temporal and conscious world is illusory because it conceals the real yet transcendental world of the will, and Schopenhauer says “the way in which this Nichtigkeit (vanity) of all objects of the will makes itself known and comprehensible to the intellect that is rooted in the individual, is primarily time. It is the form by whose means that vanity of things appears as their transitoriness, since by virtue of this all our pleasures n enjoyments come to nought in our hands” (WWR II 574)
Because the fundamental element of all individual wishes, for Schopenhauer, is the will, then this Nichtigkeit is “the only objective element of time, i.e., that which corresponds to it in the inner nature of things” (ibid)
Consequently, boredom is the correlate of this essential emptiness of conscious experience, something we become aware of once we quit the striving for individual goals and return to the bare model of existence. While boredom is not a byproduct of reason, it is a cognizance of the evanescent quality of all physical goods.
There is an explanation for why the achievements of our individual goals fail to satisfy: our normal/default condition is active suffering, and since pleasure lacks positive existence, the temporary relief of pain results in boredom, which is but merely a lesser form of suffering. In order to escape boredom we institute fresh new goals. Hence, the constant vacillation between pain and boredom where each extreme sends us in a rush toward the other.
Although our constant yearning, striving, struggling is on the face of it futile, it actually achieves a completely different result other than what we hoped for. Even if we do arrive at our goals, they fail to bring us satisfaction, if at all. But during the process, there is a subtle, yet true achievement: the understanding of the futility of our actions. We can perceive and understand the vanity of existence, once the ongoing effort to keep and maintain physical objects turn out to be utterly pointless. Consequently our illusions about the purpose of life is replaced with the shattering truth.
The predominance of boredom only confirms that it is understood. Look at the countenance of virtually every elderly person, Schopenhauer says. It is an expression of disappointment. If the “fundamental characteristic of old age is disillusionment; the illusions which hitherto gave life its charm n spurred us to activity have vanished. We have recognized the vanity and emptiness of all the splendors of the world… We have learnt that there is very little behind most of the things desired and most of the pleasures hoped for; and we have gradually gained an insight into the great poverty n hollowness of our existence. Only when we are seventy do we thoroughly understand the [second] verse of Ecclesiastes.” (Parerga and Paralipomena, p. 494)
Conclusion: for Schopenhauer, boredom is the outcome of the illusions of conscious life.