Schopenhauer: On the Suffering of the World




Life is a loan received from death, it’s a dream and death an awakening.

Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher from the late 18th century, is known in academic circles as a pessimist.

He calls life a suffering, and man, being the intelligent creature he is, essentially bored. This boredom he fills with numerous wants and desires; expensive clothes, holidays and also love. In working towards a goal, he kills boredom, but once he reaches it, he is bored again and preoccupies himself with the next project.

“Imagine this race transported to Utopia where everything grows of its own accord and turkeys fly around ready-roasted, where lovers find one another without any delay and keep one another without any difficulty: in such a place some men would die of boredom or hang themselves, some would fight and kill one another, and thus they would create for themselves more suffering then nature inflicts on them as it is.”

He goes on to say most people are oblivious to the suffering of life and live in the moment enjoying the small things. But time is so fickle, that each moment that goes by is the past and no one knows what the next moment holds, so is it even worth enjoying this moment?

He gives the example of a man going for surgery who has been given a strong dose of anesthesia. He does not feel physical pain because his brain does not register it, even though his body is being torn apart. A spiritually weak man is a similar creature. The more knowledge one gains, the more one is aware of the suffering every day.

I particularly enjoyed his take on the cycle of life, where based on established social norms, a man and woman marry and raise a family.

“If the act of procreation were neither the outcome of a desire nor accompanied by feelings of pleasure, but a matter to be decided on the basis of purely rational considerations, is it likely the human race would still exist? Would each of us not rather have felt so much pity for the coming generation as to prefer to spare it the burden of existence, or at least not wish to take it upon himself to impose that burden upon it in cold blood.”

He says he believes in ascetism which he describes as “the denial of the will to live”. Although, he calls this the true Christian philosophy, the concept is also part of Islam, in the form of Zuhd or detachment. Where one lives like a traveler, and does not hold on to too many worldly things.

Perhaps, this exchange sums it up best.

Man: But what do I get from existence? If it is full I have only distress, if empty only boredom. How can you offer me so poor a reward for so much labour and so much suffering?


Spirit: Should I tell him that the value of life lies precisely in this, that it teaches him not to want it?

Tagore: The Home and the World



“Do I really want to be emancipated?”

That’s Bimala talking, a character from Rabindranath Tagore’s novel The Home and the World. Her self reflection resonates with so many women today who are trying to find their way outside the comfort of their homes. There’s a reason why the Bengali author was ahead of his time.

I first read a collection of his lectures as a freshman at college, about 10 years ago, and was intrigued by how he differentiated modernity from western thought.

“True modernism is freedom of mind, not slavery of taste. It is independence of thought and action, not tutelage under European schoolmasters.”

The novel is set in Bengal when the independence movement was in full swing. And Tagore takes off the romanticism surrounding it.

When Swadeshi leaders burned imported goods in the markets urging small traders to buy, produce and sell local, Tagore says: “Now you would dictate what salt they shall eat, what clothes they shall wear. [..] As it is, every moment of theirs is a life-and-death struggle for a bare living.”

He is not fond of narrow ideas like Nationalism, and writes: “Man’s history has to be built by the united efforts of all the races in the world, and therefore this selling of conscience for political reasons – this making a fetish of one’s country won’t do.”

The story is told by three protagonists; Bimala, a woman who has just been introduced to ideas outside her home; her doting husband Nikhil who happens to be a Nawab, and who’s character I felt was the closest reflection of the author; and Sandip, a freedom fighter with a head full of lofty ideas.

Sandip tries to woo Bimala, but not for love. In Tagore’s words: “The colouring of ideas which man gives himself is only superficial. The inner man remains as ordinary as ever.”

He talks her into stealing 50,000 rupees for the cause from her husband, saying whatever the rich hide in their vaults does not belong to them, but the motherland. Bimala complies, but in the process sees Sandip for who he is; an opportunist.

She tries to salvage whatever is left of her marriage, but it’s too late.

“God can create new things, but has even He the power to create afresh that which has been destroyed?”

In my heart of hearts I’m hoping a filmmaker picks this novel, and turns it into a movie, because this masterpiece deserves a much wider audience.