Schopenhauer on suffering


In a powerful passage in the third volume of his The World as Will and Idea, Schopenhauer argues that suffering expresses itself as the true destiny of the whole of human existence. Life is deeply sunk in suffering, and cannot escape from it; our entrance into it takes place amid tears, its course is at bottom always tragic, and its end still more so. There is an unmistakable appearance of intention in this. As a rule humanity’s destiny passes through one’s mind in a striking manner, at the very summit of our desires and efforts, and thus our life receives a tragic tendency by virtue of which it is fitted to liberate us from the passionate desire of which every individual existence is an example, and bring us into such a condition that be parts with life without retaining a single desire for it and its pleasures. Suffering is, in fact, he argues, the purifying process through which alone, in most cases, a person is sanctified, i.e., is led back from the path of error of the will to live. So closely did Schopenhauer identity holiness with suffering that he concluded that we cannot help regarding every sorrow that exists as at least a potential advance towards holiness, and, on the contrary, pleasures and worldly satisfactions as a retrogression from them.

It seems to me that Schopenhauer’s instinct is right to identify that there is – or can be – a relation between suffering and holiness, though his seeming failure to distinguish between different reasons for suffering seems to undermine his blanket statements. What do you think?


  1. Jason,

    When you say, ‘different reasons’ do you mean ‘different causes’? Nevertheless, suffering is a ‘vale of soul-making’, right? Suffering does ‘produce character, and character hope,’ right? We must ‘suffer many things to enter the kingdom,’ right? Doesn’t God bring together good in all things for those who love him? Holiness matters, yes, but perhaps our holiness isn’t yet complete when we have attained perfection. Christ was surely holy, and yet even he was ‘made perfect through what he suffered.’ Perhaps it is true for us too.

    I surely don’t think that suffering is pleasing to God, but suffering is a fact of life in a sinful, fallen, and yet to be fully redeemed world, isn’t it? What shall God do with that suffering? Defeat it? Yes. Triumph over it? Yes. Embrace it? Yes. Transform it? Yes. Evil is not an end in itself and cannot be.

    But isn’t there also something to be said of the longing for redemption? That is, if life was filled with no suffering now, what would there different and better about then? But Hebrews is filled with the word ‘better,’ as in, there is something infinitely better that awaits beyond this thin vale, this wrecked monster. My favorite story is The Count of Monte Cristo. At the very end the Count says, “He who has felt the deepest grief is best able to experience supreme happiness. We must have felt what it is like to die, Morrel, that we may appreciate the enjoyments of life.”

    Perhaps we would never appreciate life, and life to the fullest, if we never experienced the depths and the emptiness of life filled with pain. If that is his only reason for a theology of suffering then I would say he has indeed missed out on the complex reasons, indeed, why Christ doesn’t snap his fingers and end all suffering and evil.



  2. “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” 2 Timothy 3:12 Suffering must not be seen in as a means in and of itself. This is one of the main thrusts of Buddhism. Yet the very fact that we live in a fallen world will bring about suffering through sin, disease, etc… But Jesus has said, “My grace is sufficient for thee.” What the sinner misses in his life without Christ is not only the hope of a better world to come, but the exhilerating happiness we enjoy here and now as we know Jehovah reins and His love and tender mercy are ours to help us amidst the struggle of life. There is no trial so dark that the mere thought of Jesus and His all consuming love can bring the Son out from behind the clouds. As to righteousness, here is another cause to rejoice from the depths of our hearts as believers. Not only did Jesus die our deaths that we should suffer as just recompense for our sin as fallen ethical rebels, but He fulfilled the law perfectly and His righteousness can be ours by faith. Whatever we owe God to be acceptable in His holy sight is freely granted to Christians by God who declares us righteous and imputes Christ’s perfect obedience to us. We don’t have to wonder if we have enough works to make it to heaven. All we need to be declared holy was worked out by Jesus in His life. Now that is a cause for joyful, thankful, riotous celebration. RLJ


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