Happiness, Love, Meaning & the Wisdom of Arthur Schopenhauer (Redux)

According to Arthur Schopenhauer, we are biologically driven to seek out unsuitable partners. So if you are unlucky in love, don’t take it to heart – happiness was never part of the bigger plan!


It is a warm spring day. A man is attempting to work on his book on a train between London and Birmingham. But the man has been unable to think even a coherent sentence since a woman entered the carriage and seated herself opposite him. This woman has short brown hair and wears jeans, trainers and a canary-yellow sweater. He notices she has little freckles around her nose. He imagines caressing the back of her neck, sliding his hand inside the sleeve of her pullover, watching her fall asleep beside him…

He speculates that she may be a teacher or a graphic designer, or a doctor specialising in genetic research. He considers asking her for the time, for directions to the loo… He longs for a train crash – he would guide her safely outside, where they would be given lukewarm tea and stare into each other’s eyes. But because the train seems disinclined to derail, the man cannot help leaning over to ask the angel if she might have a spare ballpoint pen as his dastardly fountain pen has decided to run out of ink…

Philosophers have not traditionally been interested by the tribulations of love. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), was puzzled by this indifference:


‘We should be surprised that a matter that generally plays such an important part in the life of man has hitherto been almost entirely ignored by philosophers, and lies before us as raw and untreated material’


The neglect seemed strange to Schopenhauer. He wondered how it was that Philosophers had not thought about love. Because love:


‘…interrupts at every hour the most serious occupations, and sometimes perplexes for a while even the greatest minds… It knows how to slip its love-notes and ringlets even into ministerial portfolios and philosophical manuscripts…’


Like Michel de Montaigne, Schopenhauer was concerned with what made man less than reasonable. He concurred that our minds were subservient to our bodies, despite our arrogant faith to the contrary. But Schopenhauer went further. He gave a name to a force within us which he felt invariably had precedence over reason: the will-to-life (Wille zum Leben) – defined as an inherent drive within human beings to stay alive and reproduce. It ensured that the most cerebral, career-minded individuals would be seduced by the sight of gurgling infants, or if they remained unmoved, that they were likely to conceive a child anyway, and love it fiercely on arrival. And it was this will-to-life that drove people to lose their reason over pretty passengers on long-distance train journeys from Birmingham to London…


Schopenhauer refused to think of love as something trifle:


‘It is no trifle that is in question here… The ultimate aim of all love affairs …is more important than all other aims in man’s life; and therefore it is quite worthy of the profound seriousness with which everyone pursues it.’


And what is the aim of love? Neither communion nor sexual release, nor understanding or entertainment. Love dominates life because:


‘What is decided by love it is nothing less than the composition of the next generation…’


The fact that the continuation of the species is seldom in our minds when we ask for the phone number of a girl we’ve met in a club is irrelevent.The intellect understands only so much as is necessary to promote reproduction – which may mean understanding very little: an exclusion, which explains how we may consciously feel nothing more than an intense desire to see someone again. Why should such deception even be necessary? Because, for Schopenhauer, we would not reliably agree to reproduce unless we first had lost our minds. And when we fall in love, we do invariably lose our minds! Think about it. It is total madness to think that this one person, that you have just happened to fall in love with, is out of the 2 billion or so other suitable inhabitants on earth, the only person right for you. Such exclusivity! It’s irrational. But as Schopenhauer said Love is not meant to be rational.


One of the most profound mysteries of love is “Why him?” and “Why her?” And why, despite good intentions, were we unable to develop a sexual interest in certain other people, who were just as attractive and might even have been more convenient to live with?
This choosiness did not surprise Schopenhauer. Our will-to-life drives us towards people who will raise our chances of producing beautiful and intelligent offspring, and repels us from those who lower these same chances. So we’re NOT selecting people we can live happily with. We’re selecting people who will give us healthy offspring.
Since our parents inevitably made errors in their courtships, we are unlikely to be ideally balanced ourselves. We have typically come out too tall or too short, too masculine or too feminine; our noses are large, our chins small. The will-to-life must therefore push us towards people who can, on account of their imperfections, cancel out our own (a large nose combined with a button nose promises a perfect nose). Schopenhauer liked predicting pathways of attraction. Short women will fall in love with tall men, but rarely will you see tall men go for tall women (they unconsciously fear the production of giants). Feminine men will often be drawn to boyish women with short hair:

‘The neutralisation of the two individualities… requires that the particular degree of his manliness shall correspond exactly to the particular degree of her womanliness, so that the one-sidedness of each exactly cancels that of the other.’


Unfortunately, the theory of attraction led Schopenhauer to a conclusion so bleak, perhaps readers about to be married should leave the next few paragraphs unread; namely, that a person who is highly suitable for our future child is almost never very suitable for us (though we cannot realise it at the time because we have been blindfolded by the will-to-life). Happiness and the production of healthy children are two radically different projects, which love maliciously confuses us into thinking of as one for a requisite number of years.


‘Love… casts itself on persons who, apart from the sexual relation, would be hateful, contemptible and even abhorrent to the lover. But the will of the species is so much more powerful than that of the individual, that the lover shuts his eyes to all the qualities repugnant to him… Only from this is it possible to explain why we often see very rational, and even eminent, men tied to termagants and matrimonial fiends…’


So back to the train. She has offered you her ballpoint pen. You decide to take a risk and ask her out for a coffee once the train arrives in London. She say’s yes! Over coffee you discuss everything under the sun: life, the universe, and everything. She talks about her family. You talk about yours. She tells you what she does and you tell her what you do. You talk music, books, movies, food and even a little philosophy. Wow! You think. She’s perfect. Then she says she has to leave. You give her your number and email address and she promises to phone you. But ten days later she still hasn’t rung. Nor has she sent an email. It seems you were duped. You may have found her perfect but not she you. The philosopher offers consolation if we are rejected by the pretty lady on the train: our pain is normal he says! A force powerful enough to push us towards child-rearing could not vanish without devastation. What is more, we are not inherently unlovable. Our characters are not repellent, nor our faces abhorrent. The union collapsed because we were unfit to produce a balanced child with that particular person. One day we will meet someone who will find us wonderful (because our chin and their chin make a desirable combination!).

We should in time learn to forgive our rejectors. They may have appreciated our qualities; but their will-to-life did not. We should respect the edict from nature against procreation that every rejection contains. We should draw consolation from the thought that a lack of love might only produce:


‘a badly organised, unhappy being, wanting in harmony in itself.’


There were many works of natural science in Schopenhauer’s library. He felt particular sympathy for the mole, a stunted monstrosity dwelling in damp narrow corridors, but doing everything in its power to perpetuate itself. The philosopher did not have to spell out the parallels. We pursue love affairs, chat in cafés with prospective partners and have children, with as much choice in the matter as moles or ants – and are rarely any happier. He did not mean to depress us, rather to free us from expectations which inspire bitterness. It is consoling, when love has let us down, to hear that happiness was never part of the plan.


‘Much would have been gained if through timely advice young people could have had eradicated from their minds the erroneous notion that the world has a great deal to offer them.’


We do have one advantage over moles. We can go to the theatre, the opera and the concert hall, and we can read novels and philosophy – here is a supreme source of relief from the demands of the will-to-life. Schopenhauer admired Goethe because he had turned so many of the pains of love into knowledge, most famously in The Sorrows of Young Werther, a story of unrequited love suffered by a young man. It simultaneously described the love affairs of 1000s of its readers. There is consolation in realising that our case is only one of thousands. Of a person who can achieve such objectivity, Schopenhauer remarks:


‘He accordingly will conduct himself… more as a knower than as a sufferer.’


We must, between periods of grappling in the dark and turning down blind alleyways, endeavour always to transform our tears into self-knowledge. The art of living and the art of love, much has the sage Schopenhauer to teach us on these things!

Read Schopenhauer. Live. Love. Learn. Explore.

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