On this, my 38th birthday, I reflect briefly on the nature of tragedy through a consideration of Schopenhauer’s pessimism and its compatibility with Christianity.
In his book Arthur Schopenhauer, Philosopher of Pessimism, Frederick Copleston characterizes the German thinker’s pessimism as a comprehensive indictment of life born from metaphysical commitments. Copleston writes, “That Schopenhauer’s personal character and temperament, together with his own experiences and observations of human suffering and the apparent futility of life, contributed to the formation and elaboration of that philosophy, is no doubt correct; but he was convinced of the truth of his metaphysical system and, if that metaphysic were actually true or if it were only held to be true, then from the logical standpoint, the one possible attitude towards life would be a pessimistic attitude.” What was Schopenhauer’s metaphysical position, and can it be defended?
Contrary to Augustine, Schopenhauer insisted on the ontological primacy of evil over goodness. Human suffering persists almost unabated, Schopenhauer observed, and so evil must be the positive, dominant quality of the universe. Only when evil momentarily wanes does goodness, the negative quality, hold sway and supply humankind fleeting relief. Hence the evil character of life predominates, and “misfortune in general is the rule.” Life is either spent laboring in pursuit of material goals or, should someone manage to achieve his or her goals, passed in boredom and disillusionment at having satisfied the only objectives imaginable. All the while, time weighs oppressively on humankind, burdening it with reminders of pending death. “Today is bad,” Schopenhauer writes, “and day by day it will get worse – until at last the worst of all arrives.” So miserable is our plight that Schopenhauer condemns the whole affair in the severest terms: “it would have been much better if the sun had been able to call up the phenomenon of life as little on the earth as on the moon; and if, here as there, the surface were still in a crystalline condition.”
To appreciate the full scope of Schopenhauer’s pessimism, we must combine his dire observations on the overall phenomenal character of life with his conception of ultimate reality. While he accepted Kant’s basic distinction between the outward appearance of things perceived by the senses and the thing-in-itself existing apart from the influence of human cognition, Schopenhauer went further than Kant to identify Will as the fundamental stratum underlying appearances. An impersonal, eternal Will animates all things living and inorganic, compelling them to expend their energies and perpetuate their existence. Individual beings are merely phenomenal expressions of the one Will, thought Schopenhauer, and our sense of independence and autonomy is an illusion. Captive to Will’s domination, we strive impotently to satisfy unconscious impulses, and our mindless submission to Will is the source of our abiding frustration and misery. The finite existence available to humans cannot possible provide opportunities to satisfy the Will’s striving, and so we suffer. Schopenhauer writes, “That the most perfect manifestation of the will to live represented by the human organism, with its incomparably ingenious and complicated machinery, must crumble to dust and its whole essence and all its striving be palpably given over at last to annihilation – this is nature’s unambiguous declaration that all the striving of this will is essentially vain.” Life and all its travails are meaningless. The fundamental composition of reality is therefore in some crucial respects at odds with itself – our embodied lives as biological beings are at cross purposes with the deeper structure of existence and, despite our best efforts, we inevitably reach a disappointing impasse.
Schopenhauer offers a solution to this dismal predicament by appealing to art as a means of overcoming enslavement to Will. This solution appeals to me as a philosophy of beauty, but I want to consider whether his radical form of pessimism can be reconciled with theism and, more specifically, with orthodox Christianity. Prima facie, the two outlooks appear incompatible, and in important respects they are. Schopenhauer was an atheist, and there can be no question of his philosophy countenancing the existence of a deity or accommodating a redemptive eschatology compatible with Christianity’s. It isn’t Schopenhauer’s solution to pessimism I’m interested in defending so much as his general assessment of life as being at cross purposes with itself, as imposing limitations while demanding that we exceed them. Can we depict Christianity’s vision of reality as tragic in a similar fashion?
There are formidable challenges to such a view. One of the twentieth century’s greatest theologians argued that Christianity should not be viewed tragically. In his essay “Christianity and Tragedy,” Reinhold Niebuhr contrasts Christianity’s redemptive vision with what he identifies as two types of Greek tragedy, the Promethean and the Dionysian. In the Promethean variety, tragedy results from human actors exercising their essential creativity to violate natural limitations. Similar to the way in which Prometheus defied the gods by delivering fire to humankind, human actors transgress natural boundaries by invoking their creative impulse in pursuit of the infinite. Promethean tragedy, Niebuhr writes, “recognizes the perennial self-destruction of man by his overreaching himself.”  Dionysian tragedy, on the other hand, portrays unconscious motivations as leading human actors to violate established moral norms. Oedipus is the locus classicus in this case, as his blind actions reveal the calamity wrought by self-ignorance. “The Greek drama thus surveys the heights and depths of the human spirit and uncovers a total dimension which prudence can neither comprehend nor restrain.”
In its depth of insight, tragic drama reveals an irreconcilable tension at the heart of life. Niebuhr writes, “Greek tragedy declares that the vitality of life is in conflict with the laws of life.” Portraying the human impulse to defy its finitude as an affront to nature and god, Promethean tragedy illustrates humankind’s incompatibility with life’s order and limits. And by depicting Oedipus’ demise at the hands of unconscious impulses, Sophocles shows how ill-equipped we are to navigate the circumstances that determine our fate. The Greek vision of life was one in which human nature stood in conflict with the laws governing the universe – hence its tragic quality.
Can such a reading be given to Christianity? Niebuhr concedes of a superficial accord. “Christianity and Greek tragedy agree that guilt and creativity are inextricably interwoven.” But unlike the Greeks, Christianity locates the origin of guilt and conflict in human freedom. Guilt arises contingently during the exercise of free will, not as a necessary product of human nature. Human beings created the conflict that ensnares them, argues Niebuhr, and so life itself cannot be viewed as tragic. He writes, “Life in its deepest essence is not only good but capable of destroying the evil which has been produced in it. Life is thus not at war with itself. Its energy is not in conflict with its order.” If Christian anthropology judges that humankind willfully creates tensions from sin and error, then Niebuhr denies it qualifies as a tragic outlook. Furthermore, any conflict encountered in this life is on the Christian view temporary, not irreconcilable. Yet even for Schopenhauer there was a means of escaping the domination of Will through artistic contemplation, and surely his worldview, if any, qualifies as tragic. The availability of escape or redemption doesn’t bar classifying a state of affairs as tragic, as simultaneously imposing irreconcilable demands and limitations upon human nature. Might the Christian vision still be depicted as involving tensions resulting in tragic consequences, even if those consequences are temporary?
It’s revealing to note that Schopenhauer saw in Christianity a point of similarity with his own philosophy. He writes, “Renunciation in this world and the direction of all hope towards a better world constitutes the spirit of Christianity.” Just as Schopenhauer prescribes suppression of Will as a means of escaping life’s torments, Christianity preaches renunciation of this world in preference for eternity. If renunciation factors so crucially in Christianity’s moral prescriptions, isn’t it safe to assume that this mortal life is in some key respects deficient or adverse? Not only Paul’s declaration that “to live is Christ and to die is gain” provides evidence of Christianity’s admission that life is of secondary value to eternity, but the entire book of Ecclesiastes affirms unequivocally the futility of human striving. Its constant refrain “Everything is meaningless” testifies to the impotence of human endeavor. All labor, we are told, is God’s way of reminding humankind of the common fate it shares with the animal kingdom. Like it, we shall return to dust. Obedience to God constitutes our only legitimate vocation and the genuine target of our labors.
The author’s parting words in chapter twelve bear uncanny similarities to Schopenhauer: “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them.’” Schopenhauer expresses a similar sentiment when he writes, “In our early youth we sit before the life that lies ahead of us like children sitting before the curtain in a theatre, in happy and tense anticipation of whatever is going to appear. Luckily we do not know what really will appear.” Far from denying the irreconcilable tensions in life that undermine our striving and reveal our inadequacies, the Bible blatantly affirms them. It goes so far as to cast judgment on the whole of human ambition as meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
We possess incessant drives to create and exert ourselves that necessarily end in frustration and disappointment. If that assessment doesn’t qualify as tragic, then the deficiency lies with the legitimacy of the literary convention, not the state of affairs comprising our lives. While the author of Ecclesiastes would no doubt condemn Schopenhauer’s uncompromising pessimism as ungrateful and sinful, there is enough common ground to warrant further investigation into the extent that Christianity constitutes a tragic worlview.
I leave you with this Schopenhauerian admonition from the 11th chapter of Ecclesiastes, verse 8:
However many years anyone may live,
let them enjoy them all.
But let them remember the days of darkness,
for there will be many.
Everything to come is meaningless.
 “On the Suffering of the World,” § 1
 ibid, § 8
 “On the Vanity of Existence,” § 6
 “Christianity and Tragedy”
 “On Religion”
 “On the Suffering of the World,” § 8