Here, Schopenhauer makes the argument that all happiness or woe takes place not in the environment but in the mind: happiness or sorrow or merely how I feel. Or, as he puts it, is “purely intellectual”; it is a matter of the mind.
Whether we are in a pleasant or a painful state depends, ultimately, upon the kind of matter that pervades and engrosses our consciousness. In this respect, purely intellectual occupation, for the mind that is capable of it, will, as a rule, do much more in the way of happiness than any form of practical life, with its constant alternations of success and failure, and all the shocks and torments it produces.
At one level, he makes a correct observation: happiness is not an objection in the environment, like a flower or a star. Happiness is a conclusion about that flower or star. When confronted by a flower, I see it, understand it in some manner and conclude that I am happy.
There is a “natural” movement from a pleasing event or object and a pleased contented experience: in a colloquial manner, the flower “makes” one happy.
He is right that the happiness is not in the flower, but in the person.
For instance, if I have just buried a loved-one and have put flowers on the casket, then the sight of flowers would produce sorrow rather than happiness.
It seems that Schopenhauer counsels a decoupling of the environment from response so that one routinely responds with happiness. Nothing is either good or bad, happy or sad, but thinking makes it so.
Let’s consider this a bit more. There are steps to move from observation of environment to happiness or sorrow. There are the mechanical aspects of observation and recognition.
There is then a evaluative process by which the object becomes meaningful. For instance, the flowers in a garden or the flowers on a grave will each have a different meaning. The meaning takes place in the subject’s intellectual apprehension.
The meaning assigned to the object then produces an emotion: Flowers mean death and loss of someone I loved; I feel sad. The emotion itself is not the result of a conclusion about what emotion I desire; rather the emotion is the result of the meaning I assign to the object and circumstance.
Therefore, I achieve a particular emotion, I do not lean my will upon my emotion. Rather, I must alter my evaluation of the event: I must change the meaning of the event so that the conclusion will be a meaning which produces happiness.
Here are two problems: First, and most importantly for Schopenhauer, what rational basis within the context of his worldview is there for evaluating anything in such a manner as to produce happiness? All of live is accidental, contingent, brief, meaningless. Necessity governs all things; and even my subjective experience of free will is an illusion. (One wonders how I will ever be able to alter my evaluations when they are the result of necessity.)
Second, if ignore the fact that Schopenhauer needs to cheat on his system to even make this argument we have to consider the cost of our reliance upon this process.
We should seek to have increasingly accurate understandings of the world, so that our emotive responses properly follow from experience (and this opens up a great series of issues, which I will bracket for right now). But I take as a self-evident that a goal of one’s understanding of the world should be rational and accurate to the degree possible.
Schopenhauer can provide no basis for why I should hope for a rational or true understanding. Indeed, a rational response would be despair. But since despair is unpleasant and I desire happiness and desiring happiness is itself rational, I should hope for a false understanding of the world. He needs to decouple reason and truth.
And then, we cannot be certain that such a decoupling will itself produce a greater happiness. With the “reasonable” goal of avoiding sorrow we transform the nature of what it is to be human. Our excessive desire to avoid sorrow and pain stunts our development as human beings. There is a depth of joy and love which comes only at excessive cost.
An awakened understanding of loss and the potential of loss and the rarity of joy and love and happiness, causes us to better treasure and better love.
A stoic distance protects us from pain, but at the cost of maturity. Again, we will bracket maturity.
Or take the matter at another level: What do we think of someone who would smile at the death of a child; who would laugh at results of a fire? Would the “happiness” of the one laughing through a cancer ward be a true benefit?
Schopenhauer is correct that happiness or sorrow are the results of “intellectual” exercise; that judgment is in the mind, not in the object. He is implicitly correct that a great deal of sorrow follows from the defects (if you will) in thought. But Schopenhauer can offer no real help in correcting our thought in such a manner to lead to any sort of increase in true (well-grounded) happiness.
The only real thing which he can offer is a Stoic resignation.
At this point, I’d offer some observations of Puritan Thomas Brooks on a Stoic resignation to trouble:
First, There is a stoical silence. The stoics of old thought it altogether below a man that hath reason or understanding either to rejoice in any good, or to mourn for any evil; but this stoical silence is such a sinful insensibleness as is very provoking to a holy God, Isa. 26:10, 11. God will make the most insensible sinner sensible either of his hand here, or of his wrath in hell. It is a heathenish and a horrid sin to be without natural affections, Rom. 1:31. And of this sin Quintus Fabius Maximus seems to be foully guilty, who, when he heard that his mother and wife, whom he dearly loved, were slain by the fall of an house, and that his younger son, a brave, hopeful young man, died at the same time in Umbria, he never changed his countenance, but went on with the affairs of the commonwealth as if no such calamity had befallen him. This carriage of his spoke out more stupidity than patience, Job 36:13.
And so Harpalus was not at all appalled when he saw two of his sons laid ready dressed in a charger, when Astyages had bid him to supper. This was a sottish insensibleness. Certainly if the loss of a child in the house be no more to thee than the loss of a chick in the yard, thy heart is base and sordid, and thou mayest well expect some sore awakening judgment. This age is full of such monsters, who think it below the greatness and magnanimity of their spirits to be moved, affected, or afflicted with any afflictions that befall them. I know none so ripe and ready for hell as these.
Aristotle speaks of fishes, that though they have spears thrust into their sides, yet they awake not. God thrusts many a sharp spear through many a sinner’s heart, and yet he feels nothing, he complains of nothing. These men’s souls will bleed to death. Seneca, Epist. x., reports of Senecio Cornelius, who minded his body more than his soul, and his money more than heaven; when he had all the day long waited on his dying friend, and his friend was dead, he returns to his house, sups merrily, comforts himself quickly, goes to bed cheerfully. His sorrows were ended, and the time of his mourning expired before his deceased friend was interred. Such stupidity is a curse that many a man lies under. But this stoical silence, which is but a sinful sullenness, is not the silence here meant.