Optimism/Pessimism: Schopenhauer vs Nietzsche

by Werner Horvath

This essay seeks to compare and contrast Schopenhauer and Nietzsche by putting their philosophies of pessimism and optimism in high relief. In relying on Georg Simmel’s analysis, I suspect I may have caricatured Nietzsche in order to write a balanced essay, so feel free to disregard this as an adequate representation of Nietzsche’s multifaceted philosophy. It was originally written for a friend who argued that I had no reason of siding with Schopenhauer over Nietzsche, and it became a lengthy analysis of optimism and pessimism.

1. The higher cultures are so structured that they force the inhabitants to live along longer and more difficult paths. The higher this culture develops, the more indirect man becomes. Older cultures have simple means of acquiring food, while modern man orders pizza through a system of interlocking functions and patterns. The elongated strand of means and ends make it impossible to be totally aware of every inch of every strand. The entire sequence is unmappable, which leaves our modern consciousness limited to the means, the mechanisms, and the final goals that bring meaning to the steps are pushed off towards the horizon and eventually lie past it. Us moderns are surrounded by an endless web of enterprises and institutions where the final and valuable goals are missing. In this culture, the need for a final goal and meaning for life emerges.

As long life is constituted by brief means-ends relations, sufficient and comforting in itself, it lacks the existential questioning that is a byproduct of being lost amidst a gigantic network of means with detours and dead-ends. When all these activities and interests (supposedly absolute values themselves) become transparent, being exposed as means, then the question of the sense or meaning of the whole emerges.

People first became aware of this disquietude during the Roman era, before the Christian era. Their system of living had become complicated, and thought and action so complex, interests and movements of life so varied and dependent on so many conditions, the unconscious mass tendency and the self-reflection of philosophers ignited a search for the meaning of life. Imported religions and cults from the east and the general demand for the occult demonstrated that people could no longer tolerate the extreme width and breadth of a complex and complicated life.

In steps Christianity with redemption and fulfillment. It brought an absolute meaning to life, for it was required, after life itself had become splintered into multiplicities and formalities in a chaotic system of means. The salvation of the soul and kingdom of God offered an absolute value for the masses and a definite goal beyond the meaninglessness of an individual and fragmented life. This final meaning was satisfactory until in recent centuries – Christianity crumbled and lost its appeal and power. However, the need for a final goal hasn’t disappeared – for every need develops deep roots if it is satisfied for a long period of time. Hence life retains a deep need for an absolute goal, especially now the content has been excluded. This desire is a remnant of the heritage of Christianity, a need for a definition of life’s movement that continues as an empty urge for a goal that is no longer accessible. The absolute philosophical expression for this inner condition of modern man is Schopenhauer’s.


2. Schopenhauer’s philosophy is essentially a single thought: the metaphysical essence of the world and ourselves is expressed in will. This will is the substance of our subjective life, and equally the substance of being as such for it is a restless urge, a constant movement beyond itself. But as the be-all and end-all, it is eternally dissatisfied because nothing is beyond itself. Thus it can only feed on itself in a thousand aspects, and continually pushes from every point on an endless path. The tendency of existence towards a final goal and the denial of this goal is projected into an interpretation of reality. The absoluteness of will, identical with life, does not have any room for an external resting place. Our modern culture is adequately described through its search for a final goal in life, but a goal that may have disappeared forever.

This culture, goal oriented but lacking a goal, is Nietzsche’s starting point. Where Schopenhauer stops at the negation of a final goal, and proposes the negation of the will to life, Nietzsche sees the evolution of man as the potential of affirming life. Schopenhauer sees life as being condemned to emptiness and pointlessness, for it is obviously not what it should be. The ugliness of life is but the tip of the gigantic iceberg of horror that some may experience in the face of naked reality as an existence that is a form bereft of content. Schopenhauer does miss out on the experience of life as celebration, something Nietzsche knows all too well. He has taken a completely new view of life, in opposition to Schopenhauer, from the concept of evolution. Life is in itself, intimately and essentially, an increase, maximization, a growing concentration of the power of the subject. In this innate urge and affirmation of increase, life can become the goal of life. Therefore, the problem of a final goal beyond life’s own process is mooted. This interpretation of a philosopher-poet who absolutized Darwin’s idea of evolution may be the ultimate expression of the affirmation of life.

Life, including and beyond the physical and the spiritual existence is the total sum of powers and potential that themselves are geared towards the augmentation, intenstification and increased effectiveness of the life process. Nietzsche attempted to remove the meaning-giving goal of life from its illusory position outside of life and return it back into life itself. Life as self-augmentation is a radical view. Each stage of existence does not require an anchor in something absolute, but rather something higher that succeeds; what was antecedent and potential becomes more efficient and expansive. Life becomes fuller and richer. The Ubermensch is a level of development that is one step higher than the level of a specific humanity at a specific time. The Ubermensch is not a fixed goal that gives meaning to evolution, but the expression that a goal isn’t required. Life, in the process of replacing each stage with a fuller and more developed one, is its own value.

It could be objected that only with a final goal can this chain of events become truly genuine evolution. Won’t the later stages be more evolved than earlier ones if its greater worth is legitimized by being closer to the final goal? The idea of evolution seem to smuggle a final goal through the back door even if its purpose is to redeem life from that very goal. The solution is that evolution is the unravelling of latent energy in a given phenomenon or the realization of latent potential.
Another objection: each stage is evolved because each are the actualization of existing potential. Yes, but only within psychological and social evolution. There remains untold and untapped potential, unrealized, and shackled by fortune and distorted by insufficient or an excess of development. When latent energy with direction exist within a being and a good amount of energy is realized, this is natural evolution. This paints a picture of unlimited optimism.

Well, does evolution only include valuable but not adverse potential? If this is the case, then the theory is circular for it locates the value of life in the evolution of life whereas evolution presupposes a selection according to the criterion of value.  The change of quantity to quality is metaphysically exemplified. What is bad or worthless is whatever prevents the potential of humanity, and what is good or valuable is what liberates the maximum of potential energy of humanity.

For Schopenhauer, more life is relentless monotony… Schopenhauer’s pessimism may have less to do with pain and more to do with ennui, the dulling monotony of the days and the years. Without evolution, the world and mankind are condemned to sameness. As long life had absolute purpose, all the relations to this purpose proved to be sufficient. Since absolute purpose collapsed into ennui, the only legitimate response or feeling to life is a dull anger. But the desire for purpose remained and people refused to concede to the banal uniformity of life. Ennui is the proof of the meaninglessness of life. If we aren’t preoccupied with distractions or filled with content, then we experience pure life itself. The deepest depreciation of life and greatest triumph of process requires the negation of absolute purpose or value beyond life. But life turns on itself, empty and meaningless, evolving life reabsorbs the purposive character that external forces appropriated and lost.
If life has no scale in itself for distinguishing difference in value, then all relations with people become monotonous in the long run. If existence has no positive value, or if existence gains value by self-abnegation, then a typical moment of existence as well as the totality of moments have no distinguishable rank. They are all always the same grey goo. True moral individuals do not distinguish themselves from others, for they recognize the deep metaphysical unity of all beings. Individuality is deceptive appearance.

super nietzsche
3. The negation of absolute purpose for existence, a common point between thinkers, has direct bearing on value in Schopenhauer’s devaluation of existence. If there’s no absolute goal, (as in Christianity) and no relative ones (as in Nietzsche) then value depends on emotions, pleasure, pain, all tied to the ever vanishing now. To reject meaning of life is to be an eudaemonist because pain and pleasure are the only aspects of life, composed of moments that don’t have any import beyond themselves.

The decisive argument against a world with meaning, given its structure as will: no amount of happiness can equal the vast total of pain, suffering, and no amount of pain can be redeemed by any experience of happiness. The negation of will to life is Schopenhauer’s practical solution to the mystery of universe, the only redemption from the experience of pain in life. Nietzsche escapes the problem of making temporary values absolute by defining evolution values in terms of transcendent individual moments. It seems perverse to restrict the entire value of life to pain or pleasure, especially when existence is to be destined to transcend itself.

For Schopenhauer, happiness and pain are definitive of life value because they’re the only options if ennui is to be avoided, after the death of meaning/final goal. For Nietzsche, happiness and pain are mere embodiments of ennui because they’re mere stopgaps. Zarathustra says:

“joy – deeper than hearts agony
Woe says fade! Go!
But all joy wants eternity
Wants deep deep deep eternity”

This character of happiness isn’t its psychological reality but an ideal sense…even if happiness is only fleeting, some of eternity’s splendor is infused in happiness.. Eternity appears to be mystical but is actually a logical consequence of Nietzsche’s philosophy.

For Schopenhauer, eternity is the worst of all possible existence because it stands as the ultimate opposite of redemption, where each moment is painful and never ends. If there’s no redemption within existence then eternity is the polar opposite of metaphysical negation. Nietzsche escapes this dark pessimism because life triumphs upwards, ad infinitum. Eternity for Nietzsche is the bridge from pessimism to optimism.

Conclusion: We moderns will more than likely side with Nietzsche when we first encounter both thinkers. Even including creationists who oppose Darwin, because modernity is essentially the idea that life fundamentally has the possibility and the promise of continuing onto more perfect forms by transcending itself beyond the now. Therefore, Nietzsche expresses modernity much better than Schopenhauer in certain respects.

However, Schopenhauer ends up defending the tougher case with better results. He is the superior philosopher, for he has that mysterious relation to the absolute that preoccupies both great thinkers and great artists alike. By peering into the abyss of himself, Schopenhauer detects the echoes of being. Even though these faint echoes are contaminated by his subjectivity, and resonate perhaps only with others of like disposition, the resonance extends deeply and the totality of cosmos is detected therein.

The nonmetaphysical thinker is more likely to be limited by particulars. The extension of subjectivity to the abyss of existence is not there in Nietzsche, because he deals with moral questions instead of metaphysical ones and seeks imperatives instead of the essence of humanity. Nietzsche had the psychological genius for identifying the most distinguished type of man… But his brilliance isn’t complemented by Schopenhauer, who comes from being attuned to the secret of humanity, values and the primordial music of being.

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...a philosophisticator who utters heresies, thinks theothanatologically and draws like Kirby on steroids.

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