Rather coincidentally, through a friend I recently came to read a bit about German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. There are many interesting points in his philosophy. His starting point is the sentence in the title, that we cannot see the things how they really are, but only have a subjective idea of them, the way we see them. This is nothing new, and was already observed by Kant, who distinguished between the representation of a thing as we perceive it, and the Thing-in-itself as it really is.
Schopenhauer now postulated that the Thing-in-itself is Will. We can get an idea of this will by our body. We not only perceive it like other objects as a representation, but we also feel it from an inner perspective, we experience will and see the representation of it by our actions following the will. This will is just a particular individual will which is somehow controlled, or restricted, by a general overall will that lies at the origin of everything. It is a causeless, blind, unreasonable will pervading everything.
As will leads to willing, to desire and thus to the feeling of lack, of shortage, it causes suffering. And this suffering is endless. Whenever we fulfill some desire, it is only for a very short time before another desire replaces it. “All life is suffering”, as Schopenhauer says himself. He was influenced by Eastern philosophy as you can see at this point: it corresponds to two of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, namely that everything in life is suffering, and that this suffering is caused by desire.
There are several ways to get some release of this painful life. Suicide is none of them, as it does not deal with the will in the large (in Buddhistic terms you would just be reborn and would have to continue to suffer). First, you can try to get rid of this will of life, reaching a state of inner peace without any desire, leading to an ascetic life, to nirvana. This corresponds to the third Noble Truth.
The other way to deal with life is to take it as it comes, knowing that every living thing experiences the same suffering, and being compassionate. This view reminds me of Camus’ way to deal with an absurd life by revolting, not quitting it or giving up. Of course there is a huge difference between Schopenhauer and Camus in that “free will” for Schopenhauer exists only in a strange way. All our actions are subject to the will, but to our individual will which is directed by our “character”, which according to Schopenhauer is chosen freely before we are born.
An interesting point is his statement that you can get a temporary release through art. An artist is a genius who every now and then sees behind the “representation” of things, to the “idea” of things (which is still not the Thing-in-itself, but closer), and who is able to express it in his piece of art. Looking at it (or listening to it, or reading it) you get a glimpse of the things, of the idea of things. This contemplation on art is maybe a bit like meditation, like ignoring the will and by this seeing an “idea” of something.
I don’t really understand most of the things I wrote above, and I have not yet read Schopenhauer himself. But still these views (or my understanding of them so far) resonate with me, maybe most of all that art yields a temporary relief of this painful life.
Let me close this long piece of gibberish with a fun fact: Schopenhauer called his poodle “Atman”, a Sanskrit word for soul. Recently a friend of mine told me that the German word “atmen” (engl. to breathe) comes from this Sanskrit word.
* The original German quote is “Die Welt ist meine Vorstellung” which I would translate as “The world is my imagination”. But I guess there’s some good reason why translations usually use “idea” or “representation” instead of “imagination”; they seem to be the more philosophically correct terms.