If we are to be happy, we must first know what happiness means, in what does consistence? Schopenhauer begins with Aristotle’s definition happiness consistency in the avoidance of pain rather than in some pleasure, “The first and foremost rule for the wise conduct of life seems to me to be contained in a view to which Aristotle …. not pleasure, but freedom from pain, is what the wise man will aim at.”
Aristotle works through a number of options concerning the nature of happiness becomes to his consideration of happiness as the avoidance of pain. Schopenhauer comes about the matter in a fundamentally different manner than Aristotle. Rather than reason to a conclusion, he begins with the conclusion and justifies that conclusion.
First, he takes over the observation of Aristotle, “It is clear, therefore, that Moral Goodness has to do with pleasures and pains.” Thus, the only axis upon which to measure happiness is a matter of relative pleasure or pain. Having laid out the axis, he then proceeds to make his justification: “Happiness is but a dream and sorrow is real, would be as false as it is, in fact, true.”
It is a curious argument concerning happiness to begin by rejecting even the potential for happiness, but this is where Schopenhauer begins:
A man who desires to make up the book of his life and determine where the balance of happiness lies, must put down in his accounts, not the pleasures which he has enjoyed, but the evils which he has escaped. That is the true method of eudaemonology [the study of happiness]; for all eudaemonology must begin by recognizing that its very name is a euphemism, and that to live happily only means to live less unhappily–to live a tolerable life. There is no doubt that life is given us, not to be enjoyed, but to be overcome–to be got over.…The happiest lot is not to have experienced the keenest delights or the greatest pleasures, but to have brought life to a close without any very great pain, bodily or mental.
He does not make an actual argument on this point, rather he makes the assertion as an axiom and rejects all other positions as “chimerical”:
To measure the happiness of a life by its delights or pleasures, is to apply a false standard. For pleasures are and remain something negative; that they produce happiness is a delusion, cherished by envy to its own punishment. Pain is felt to be something positive, and hence its absence is the true standard of happiness. And if, over and above freedom from pain, there is also an absence of boredom, the essential conditions of earthly happiness are attained; for all else is chimerical.
His argument is grounded in the understanding that the world is cursed and cannot be redeemed. There is and can be no escape from sorrow. I was told once that all the winners in Las Vegas have their names in lights: the casinos. The house has unbeatable odds; no matter how well you may bet in the short term, in the long term, probability will win. The downward curve is built into the nature of the world:
While it is a complete inversion of the natural order to try and turn this scene of misery into a garden of pleasure, to aim at joy and pleasure rather than at the greatest possible freedom from pain–and yet how many do it!–there is some wisdom in taking a gloomy view, in looking upon the world as a kind of Hell, and in confining one’s efforts to securing a little room that shall not be exposed to the fire. The fool rushes after the pleasures of life and finds himself their dupe; the wise man avoids its evils; and even if, notwithstanding his precautions, he falls into misfortunes, that is the fault of fate, not of his own folly. As far as he is successful in his endeavors, he cannot be said to have lived a life of illusion; for the evils which he shuns are very real. …The failure to recognize this truth–a failure promoted by optimistic ideas–is the source of much unhappiness. … To desire to get rid of an evil is a definite object, but to desire a better fortune than one has is blind folly.
If the greatest unhappiness comes from loss of expectation, then, “[T]he safest way of not being very miserable is not to expect to be very happy.”