Life Is (Not) Great
Suffering creature, born for a day, child of accident and toil, why are you forcing me to say what would give you the greatest pleasure not to hear? The very best thing for you is totally unreachable: not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing. The second best thing for you, however, is this — to die soon. (The Wisdom of Silenus)
The world is a wonderful place, life is good, it is better to be alive than to be dead — so goes the prevailing wisdom of the ages. But not all agree. Including some philosophers. And some of them have even hated life with a passion.
Exactly how much of their sour judgements of reality stem from subjective emotional reactions — as some led particularly unlucky lives — and how much from pure philosophical inference is hard to tell. Suffice it to say, however, that they all thought of themselves as seeing the world as it truly is — which for them was a ghastly and meaningless place full of pain and suffering.
A word of warning. The extreme pessimistic views of the philosophers in question make other so-called pessimists, such as Nietzsche (who, though nihilistic, was actually the opposite of a pessimist) or Camus, appear like mere choirboys in comparison. This may also explain their relative obscurity for most people presumably do not read philosophy in order to be told that life is terrible and that we should abandon all hope; in fact, it is usually for the exact opposite of reasons. As such, this article is more or less the exact opposite of the usual “inspirational” drivel that you will find copied throughout most of the internet.
Read at your own risk.
We laugh, but inept is our laughter;
We should weep and weep sore,
Who are shattered like glass, and thereafter
Remolded no more.
Al-Ma’arri was a blind Arab poet and philosopher who lost his eyesight at an early age due to smallpox. He was also a skeptic centuries ahead of his time, rejecting all of the prevailing custom, tradition, and authority of his day.
You see, unlike his contemporaries, Al-Maʿarri was an atheist — which, considering that he lived in 11th century Syria, was almost unheard of at the time. Yet somehow he had the balls to dismiss all of religion as mere fiction devised by the ancients in order to exploit the masses. He also regarded the clergy as liars and the prophets as phonies. “O fools, awake!” he wrote, “The rites ye sacred hold are but a cheat contrived by men of old.” Although charged with heresy, he was never prosecuted for his beliefs, possibly hinting at a more tolerant time in Islamic history; unlike today, when even his statue in Syria was both shot and decapitated by Islamic militants.
However, Al-Ma’arri was not only critical of religion but of life in general. Indeed, he thought kindly of death, arguing that that in order to spare future generations of suffering, we should not conceive children. And, true to his beliefs, he remained celibate throughout his whole life, which lasted for 83 long years. His wish not to harm living beings extended also to animals, which means that he was a vegetarian.
To give a specific example of his “grim” outlook of life, he purportedly wanted the following verse inscribed over his grave:
This wrong was by my father done
To me, but never by me to one.
To that creature, being born,
Its birthday is a day to mourn.
Yet another crippled poet and philosopher — this time from 19th century Italy — Giacomo Leopardi was a sickly hunchback with failing eyesight. He believed this was due to the long and grueling studies he took part of in solitude in his father’s library, which he said had turned him into a walking corpse. He was frequently depressed and at one time considered committing suicide.
According to Leopardi, there were three ways to judge life: the way of happy fantasy through the eyes of children; the way of the uncritical acceptance of the mediocrity of life by so-called civilized adults; and, lastly, the way of men who realize that life is empty and meaningless. In other words, “Children find everything in nothing,” he said, whilst “men find nothing in everything.”
Leopardi’s poetry revolves largely around the illusory nature of life and the inevitability of disillusionment and despair. According to him, we continue living only because of our hope and imagination, which constantly is dreaming of a better future that rarely arrives.
Although he had few friends and was despised by many, it was none other than the famous German pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer — who lived at the same time, though they never met — who happened to admire Leopardi, even going so far as to call him his “soul brother”. Misery loves company, as they say.
Due to his ill health, Leopardi died at the early age of 38. Considering how little he enjoyed life, however, it is unlikely that he would have had many regrets about dying so young. In the poem titled To Himself, for instance, he had the following kind words to say about life:
Life is a bitter, weary load,
The world a slough. And now, repose!
Despair no more, but find in Death
The only boon Fate on our race bestows!
Life is hell, and the sweet still night of absolute death is the annihilation of hell.
The philosopher with one of the darkest views of existence that ever lived, Philipp Mainländer was born in Germany to well-off parents and even worked in banking for a period of time.
Although initially inspired by Schopenhauer’s philosophy, he would end up vastly surpassing the former’s pessimism. According to Mainländer: before the beginning of time there was God . . . and the only thing God wanted was to die. Since he was a being of infinite unity, however, the only way he could kill himself was to shatter his timeless being into a time-bound and material universe.
Thus, since it was God’s death wish that gave life to the world, everything in it possesses an intrinsic will-to-die and is therefore destined towards permanent oblivion. In other words, we are the rotting pieces of God’s remains. It may be interesting to note that this idea somewhat resembles the scientific concept of entropy, which is said to result in the eventual heat death of the universe.
Like Al-Maʿarri, Mainländer suggested that humanity should stop reproducing. Yet he went one step further still; once we have stopped, he thought, we should thereafter commit suicide — for, we would thus be following along with “God’s plan” and would therefore be redeemed.
Here is an excerpt from his “cheerful” philosophy:
In the heart of things, the immanent Philosopher sees in the entire cosmos only the deepest longing for complete extinction; it is as if he heard clearly the call that pierces all the celestial spheres: Redemption! Redemption! Death to our Life! and the cheering reply: you all will find extinction and will be redeemed!
When he was 34 years old, Mainländer, true to his beliefs, committed suicide. He supposedly did it by hanging himself using a batch of his freshly published magnum opus The Philosophy of Redemption as a pedestal. In fact, it was this very book — which Nietzsche had read — that said:
God is dead and his death was the life of the world.
The world is an inextricable tangle of contradictions of the most tragic negativity.
The roots of Julius Bahnsen’s pessimism appear early; already at the age of seventeen he announced: “Man is only a self-conscious Nothing.”
In his autobiography, Bahnsen tells of the numerous disappointments in his life — for instance, his first wife’s death seventeen months after their marriage; his unhappy second marriage; and his thwarted dreams of an academic career.
Instead, he ended up working as a school teacher in a small town in the middle of nowhere, where he had few friends. And, to make matters worse, his books did not sell. Yet despite all this, he maintained that his pessimism was not the result of his life experiences, but rather from his philosophy of life.
For Bahnsen, the world was chaotic, irrational, meaningless, with no order or goal. His philosophy paints the world as eternally self-tormenting, constantly tearing at itself for no reason. There is no hope and there is no salvation, neither through self-denial nor through art or science, which he claimed cannot hope to see the world as it truly is due to the world’s fundamentally irrational and self-contradictory nature. “The goal of all ideal striving,” he said, “is, essentially, the metaphysically impossible.” Why? Because the world, according to him:
Knows only an endless self-masochism and torture.
Peter Wessel Zapffe
A coin is examined, and only after careful deliberation, given to a beggar, whereas a child is flung out into the cosmic brutality without hesitation.
According to Norwegian philosopher and mountaineer Peter Wessel Zapffe, humans have evolved an intrinsic need for meaning and purpose in their lives —however, their actual environment lacks both.
Zapffe found that humans have been cursed by a certain “evolutionary oversight” — too much consciousness; in other words, we are the only animal able to contemplate the tragic meaninglessness of existence, as well as the fact that we have been brutally thrust into it without a choice. And that is where depression stems.
In an essay titled The Last Messiah, Zapffe pointed out the four major strategies mankind has invented in order to cope with this existential ordeal:
- By isolating all the disturbing and unpleasant thoughts in our consciousness and dismissing them from our daily lives.
- By anchoring ourselves to various arbitrary institutions, such as family, god or country, in order to live within the comfortable illusion of certainty that they provide.
- By distracting ourselves from our predicament with a variety of pointless pastimes and mindless amusements — for example, sports.
- By sublimating our awareness of the absurdity of life into valuable stylistic or artistic experiences — for example, art.
Zapffe regarded the last strategy as the most valuable and recognized his own work as an example. However, he also found suicide a perfectly natural reaction to our existential predicament, saying that “the modern barbarity of ‘saving’ the suicidal is based on a hair-raising misapprehension of the nature of existence.” Zapffe also advocated for a voluntary extinction of the human race by abstaining from reproducing. And, for his part, he remained childless throughout his long life of 90 years.
His overall view may be summed up by the following “life guidance” that he offered near the end of his aforementioned essay:
Know yourselves — be infertile, and let the earth be silent after ye.
The final aim of history is a crumbling field of ruins. Its final meaning is the sand blown through the eye-holes of human skulls.
Ulrich Horstmann is a literary scholar and philosopher who is virtually unheard of outside Germany. And, unlike the philosophers above, he is still alive — which means that the past tense of the title is perhaps not entirely accurate, since he presumably still hates existence.
Through his analysis of history, he has concluded that our species is engaged in a constant process of armament, with the eventual end goal of wiping itself out through war. History, for him, is nothing more than a slaughterhouse . . . “the place of a skull and charnel house of a mad, incurably bloodthirsty slaughtering, flaying and whetting, of an irresistible urge to destroy to the last.”
Although inspired by the already extreme philosophy of Philipp Mainländer, Horstmann ends up with an even more explicit solution regarding the problem of human existence. In his book The Beast he actually goes so far as to suggest the use of nuclear weapons in order to bring forth the extinction of the human race.
For him only the annihilation of life would give rise to a universal redemption in which we would once again achieve the existential peace of inorganic matter. According to Horstmann’s apocalyptic vision:
The true Garden of Eden is desolation.
PS: If you liked this article, you may like the author’s novel, The Nihilist, which features similar themes.