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The Philosophy of Freedom

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The Philosophy of Freedom

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The Reality of Freedom


The Value of Life
(Optimism and Pessimism)

A COUNTERPART to the question concerning the purpose of life, or the ordering of its destiny (see Chapter 11), is the question concerning its value. We meet here with two mutually opposed views, and between them all conceivable attempts at compromise. One view says that this world is the best that could conceivably exist, and that to live and to act in it is a blessing of untold value. Everything that exists displays harmonious and purposeful co-operation and is worthy of admiration. Even what is apparently bad and evil may, from a higher point of view, be seen to be good, for it represents an agreeable contrast with the good; we are the more able to appreciate the good when it is clearly contrasted with evil. Moreover, evil is not genuinely real; what we feel as evil is only a lesser degree of good. Evil is the absence of good; it has no significance in itself.

The other view maintains that life is full of misery and want; everywhere pain outweighs pleasure, sorrow outweighs joy. Existence is a burden, and non-existence would in all circumstances be preferable to existence.

The chief representatives of the former view, optimism, are Shaftesbury and Leibnitz; those of the latter, pessimism, are Schopenhauer and Eduard von Hartmann.

Leibnitz believes the world is the best of all possible worlds. A better one is impossible. For God is good and wise. A good God wants to create the best possible world; a wise God knows which is the best possible — He is able to distinguish the best from all other possible worse ones. Only an evil or an unwise God would be able to create a world worse than the best possible.

Whoever starts from this point of view will find it easy to lay down the direction that human action must follow in order to make its contribution to the greatest good of the world. All that man need do is to find out the counsels of God and to behave in accordance with them. If he knows what God's intentions are concerning the world and mankind, he will be able to do what is right. And he will be happy in the feeling that he is adding his share to the other good in the world. From this optimistic standpoint, then, life is worth living. It must stimulate us to co-operative participation.

Schopenhauer pictures things quite differently. He thinks of the foundation of the world not as an all-wise and all-beneficent being, but as blind urge or will. Eternal striving, ceaseless craving for satisfaction which is ever beyond reach, this is the fundamental characteristic of all active will. For no sooner is one goal attained, than a fresh need springs up, and so on. Satisfaction, when it occurs, lasts only for an infinitesimal time. The entire remaining content of our life is unsatisfied craving, that is, dissatisfaction and suffering. If at last blind craving is dulled, then all content is gone from our lives; an infinite boredom pervades our existence. Hence the best we can do is to stifle all wishes and needs within us and exterminate the will. Schopenhauer's pessimism leads to complete inactivity; his moral aim is universal idleness.

By a very different argument von Hartmann attempts to establish pessimism and to make use of it for ethics. He attempts, in keeping with a favourite tendency of our times, to base his world view on experience. From the observation of life he hopes to discover whether pleasure or pain outweighs the other in the world. He parades whatever appears to men as blessing and fortune before the tribunal of reason, in order to show that all alleged satisfaction turns out on closer inspection to be illusion. It is illusion when we believe that in health, youth, freedom, sufficient income, love (sexual satisfaction), pity, friendship and family life, self-respect, honour, fame, power, religious edification, pursuit of science and of art, hope of a life hereafter, participation in the progress of civilization — that in all these we have sources of happiness and satisfaction. Soberly considered, every enjoyment brings much more evil and misery into the world than pleasure. The disagreeableness of the hangover is always greater than the agreeableness of getting drunk. Pain far outweighs pleasure in the world. No man, even though relatively the happiest, would, if asked, wish to live through this miserable life a second time. Now, since Hartmann does not deny the presence of an ideal factor (wisdom) in the world, but rather gives it equal standing with blind urge (will), he can credit his primal Being with the creation of the world only if he allows the pain in the world to serve a wise world-purpose. The pain of created beings is, however, nothing but God's pain itself, for the life of the world as a whole is identical with the life of God. An all-wise Being can, however, see his goal only in release from suffering, and, since all existence is suffering, in release from existence. To transform existence into the far better state of non-existence is the purpose of all creation. The course of the world is a continuous battle against God's pain, which ends at last with the annihilation of all existence. The moral life of men, therefore, will consist in taking part in the annihilation of existence. God has created the world so that through it He may free Himself from His infinite pain. The world is “to be regarded, more or less, as an itching eruption upon the Absolute,” by means of which the unconscious healing power of the Absolute rids itself of an inward disease, “or even as a painful poultice which the All-One applies to himself in order first to divert the inner pain outwards, and then to get rid of it altogether.” Human beings are integral parts of the world. In them God suffers. He has created them in order to disperse His infinite pain. The pain which each one of us suffers is but a drop in the infinite ocean of God's pain (see fn 1).

Man has to permeate his whole being with the recognition that the pursuit of individual satisfaction (egoism) is a folly, and that he ought to be guided solely by the task of dedicating himself to the redemption of God by unselfish devotion to the progress of the world. Thus, in contrast to Schopenhauer's, von Hartmann's pessimism leads us to activity devoted to a sublime task.

But is it really based on experience?

To strive for satisfaction means that our activity reaches out beyond the actual content of our lives. A creature is hungry, that is, it strives for repletion, when its organic functions, if they are to continue, demand the supply of fresh means of life in the form of nourishment. The striving for honour means that a man only regards what he personally does or leaves undone as valuable when his activity is approved by others. The striving for knowledge arises when a man finds that something is missing from the world that he sees, hears, and so on, as long as he has not understood it. The fulfillment of the striving creates pleasure in the striving individual, failure creates pain. It is important here to observe that pleasure and pain are dependent only upon the fulfillment or non-fulfillment of my striving. The striving itself can by no means be counted as pain. Hence, if it happens that in the very moment in which a striving is fulfilled a new striving at once arises, this is no ground for saying that, because in every case enjoyment gives rise to a desire for its repetition or for a fresh pleasure, my pleasure has given birth to pain. I can speak of pain only when desire runs up against the impossibility of fulfillment. Even when an enjoyment that I have had creates in me the desire for the experience of greater or more refined pleasure, I cannot speak of this desire as a pain created by the previous pleasure until the means of experiencing the greater or more refined pleasure fail me. Only when pain appears as a natural consequence of pleasure, as for instance when a woman's sexual pleasure is followed by the suffering of childbirth and the cares of a family, can I find in the enjoyment the originator of the pain. If striving by itself called forth pain, then each reduction of striving would have to be accompanied by pleasure. But the opposite is the case. To have no striving in one's life creates boredom, and this is connected with displeasure. Now, since it may be a long time before striving meets with fulfillment, and since, in the interval, it is content with the hope of fulfillment, we must acknowledge that the pain has nothing whatever to do with the striving as such, but depends solely on the non-fulfillment of the striving. Schopenhauer, then, is in any case wrong to take desiring or striving (will) as being in itself the source of pain.

In fact, just the opposite is correct. Striving (desiring) in itself gives pleasure. Who does not know the enjoyment given by the hope of a remote but intensely desired goal? This joy is the companion of all labour that gives us its fruits only in the future. It is a pleasure quite independent of the attainment of the goal. For when the goal has been reached, the pleasure of fulfillment is added as something new to the pleasure of striving. If anyone were to argue that the pain caused by an unsatisfied aim is increased by the pain of disappointed hope, and that thus, in the end, the pain of non-fulfillment will eventually outweigh the possible pleasure of fulfillment, we shall have to reply that the reverse may be the case, and that the recollection of past enjoyment at a time of unfulfilled desire will just as often mitigate the pain of non-fulfillment. Whoever exclaims in the face of shattered hopes, “I have done my part,” is a proof of this assertion. The blissful feeling of having tried one's best is overlooked by those who say of every unsatisfied desire that not only is the joy of fulfillment absent but the enjoyment of the desiring itself has been destroyed.

The fulfillment of a desire brings pleasure and its nonfulfillment brings pain. But from this we must not conclude that pleasure is the satisfaction of a desire, and pain its non-satisfaction. Both pleasure and pain can be experienced without being the consequence of desire. Illness is pain not preceded by desire. If anyone were to maintain that illness is unsatisfied desire for health, he would be making the mistake of regarding the unconscious wish not to fall ill, which we all take for granted, as a positive desire. When someone receives a legacy from a rich relative of whose existence he had not the faintest idea, this fills him with pleasure without any preceding desire.

Hence, if we set out to enquire whether the balance is on the side of pleasure or of pain, we must take into account the pleasure of desiring, the pleasure at the fulfillment of a desire, and the pleasure which comes to us without any striving. On the other side of the account we shall have to enter the displeasure of boredom, the pain of unfulfilled striving, and lastly the pain which comes to us without any desiring on our part. Under this last heading we shall have to put also the displeasure caused by work, not chosen by ourselves, that has been forced upon us.

This leads to the question: What is the right method for striking the balance between these credit and debit columns? Eduard von Hartmann believes that it is reason that holds the scales. It is true that he says, “Pain and pleasure exist only in so far as they are actually felt.” (see fn 2) It follows that there can be no yardstick for pleasure other than the subjective one of feeling. I must feel whether the sum of my disagreeable feelings together with my agreeable feelings leaves me with a balance of pleasure or of pain. But for all that, von Hartmann maintains that, “though the value of the life of every person can be set down only according to his own subjective measure, yet it by no means follows that every person is able to arrive at the correct algebraic sum from all the collected emotions in his life — or, in other words, that his total estimate of his own life, with regard to his subjective experiences, would be correct.” With this, the rational estimation of feeling is once more made the evaluator (see fn 3).

Anyone who follows fairly closely the line of thought of such thinkers as Eduard von Hartmann may believe it necessity, in order to arrive at a correct valuation of life, to clear out of the way those factors which falsify our judgement about the balance of pleasure and pain. He can try to do this in two ways. Firstly, by showing that our desire (instinct, will) interferes with our sober estimation of feeling values in a disturbing way. Whereas, for instance, we ought to say to ourselves that sexual enjoyment is a source of evil, we are misled by the fact that the sexual instinct is very strong in us into conjuring up the prospect of a pleasure which just is not there in that degree at all. We want to enjoy ourselves; hence we do not admit to ourselves that we suffer under the enjoyment. Secondly, he can do it by subjecting feelings to a critical examination and attempting to prove that the objects to which our feelings attach themselves are revealed as illusions by the light of reason, and that they are destroyed from the moment that our ever growing intelligence sees through the illusions.

He can think of the matter in the following way. If an ambitious man wants to determine clearly whether, up to the moment of his enquiry, there has been a surplus of pleasure or of pain in his life, then he has to free himself from two sources of error that may affect his judgment. Being ambitious, this fundamental feature of his character will make him see the joys due to the recognition of his achievements through a magnifying glass, and the humiliations due to his rebuffs through a diminishing glass. At the time when he suffered the rebuffs he felt the humiliations just because he was ambitious; in recollection they appear to him in a milder light, whereas the joys of recognition to which he is so susceptible leave a far deeper impression. Now, for an ambitious man it is an undeniable blessing that it should be so. The deception diminishes his pain in the moment of self-analysis. None the less, his judgment is wrong. The sufferings over which a veil is now drawn were actually experienced by him in all their intensity, and hence he enters them at a wrong valuation in his life's account book. In order to arrive at a correct estimate, an ambitious man would have to lay aside his ambition for the time of his enquiry. He would have to review his past life without any distorting glasses before his mind's eye. Otherwise he would resemble a merchant who, in making up his books, enters among the items on the credit side his own zeal in business.

But the holder of this view can go even further. He can say: The ambitious man will even make clear to himself that the recognition he pursues is a worthless thing. Either by himself, or through the influence of others, he will come to see that for an intelligent man recognition by others counts for very little, seeing that “in all such matters, other than those that are questions of sheer existence or that are already finally settled by science,” one can be quite sure “that the majority is wrong and the minority right.... Whoever makes ambition the lode-star of his life puts his life's happiness at the mercy of such a judgment.” (see fn 4) If the ambitious man admits all this to himself, then he must regard as illusion what his ambition had pictured as reality, and thus also the feelings attached to these illusions of his ambition. On this basis it could then be said that such feelings of pleasure as are produced by illusion must also be struck out of the balance sheet of life's values; what then remains represents the sum total of life's pleasures stripped of all illusion, and this is so small compared with the sum total of pain that life is no joy and non-existence preferable to existence.

But while it is immediately evident that the deception produced by the instinct of ambition leads to a false result when striking the balance of pleasure, we must none the less challenge what has been said about the recognition of the illusory character of the objects of pleasure. The elimination from the credit side of life of all pleasurable feelings which accompany actual or supposed illusions would positively falsify the balance of pleasure and pain. For an ambitious man has genuinely enjoyed the acclamations of the multitude, irrespective of whether subsequently he himself, or some other person, recognizes that this acclamation is an illusion. The pleasant sensation he has had is not in the least diminished by this recognition. The elimination of all such “illusory” feelings from life's balance does not make our judgment about our feelings more correct, but rather obliterates from life feelings which were actually there.

And why should these feelings be eliminated? For whoever has them, they are certainly pleasure-giving; for whoever has conquered them, a purely mental but none the less significant pleasure arises through the experience of self-conquest (not through the vain emotion: What a noble fellow I am! but through the objective sources of pleasure which lie in the self-conquest). If we strike out feelings from the pleasure side of the balance on the ground that they are attached to objects which turn out to have been illusory, we make the value of life dependent not on the quantity but on the quality of pleasure, and this, in turn, on the value of the objects which cause the pleasure. But if I want to determine the value of life in the first place by the quantity of pleasure or pain which it brings, I may nor presuppose something else which already determines the positive or negative value of the pleasure. If I say I want to compare the quantity of pleasure with the quantity of pain in order to see which is greater, I am bound to bring into my account all pleasures and pains in their actual intensities, whether they are based on illusions or not. Whoever ascribes a lesser value for life to a pleasure which is based on an illusion than to one which can justify itself before the tribunal of reason, makes the value of life dependent on factors other than pleasure.

Whoever puts down pleasure as less valuable when it is attached to a worthless object, resembles a merchant who enters the considerable profits of a toy factory in his account at a quarter of their actual amount on the ground that the factory produces nothing but playthings for children.

If the point is simply to weigh quantity of pleasure against quantity of pain, then the illusory character of the objects causing certain feelings of pleasure must be left right out of the question.

The method recommended by von Hartmann, that is, rational consideration of the quantities of pleasure and pain produced by life, has thus led us to the point where we know how we are to set out our accounts, what we are to put down on the one side of our book and what on the other. But how is the calculation now to be made? Is reason actually capable of striking the balance?

A merchant has made a mistake in his reckoning if his calculated profit does not agree with the demonstrable results or expectations of his business. Similarly, the philosopher will undoubtedly have made a mistake in his estimate if he cannot demonstrate in actual feeling the surplus of pleasure, or pain, that he has somehow extracted from his accounts.

For the present I shall not look into the calculations of those pessimists whose opinion of the world is measured by reason; but if one is to decide whether to carry on the business of life or not, one will first demand to be shown where the alleged surplus of pain is to be found.

Here we touch the point where reason is not in a position to determine by itself the surplus of pleasure or of pain, but where it must demonstrate this surplus as a percept in life. For man reaches reality not through concepts alone but through the interpenetration of concepts and percepts (and feelings are percepts) which thinking brings about (see page 67 ff.). A merchant, after all, will give up his business only when the losses calculated by his accountant are confirmed by the facts. If this does not happen, he gets his accountant to make the calculation over again. That is exactly what a man will do in the business of life. If a philosopher wants to prove to him that the pain is far greater than the pleasure, but he himself does not feel it to be so, then he will reply, “You have gone astray in your reckoning; think it all out again.” But should there come a time in a business when the losses are really so great that the firm's credit no longer suffices to satisfy the creditors, then bankruptcy will result if the merchant fails to keep himself informed about the state of his affairs by careful accounting. Similarly, if the quantity of pain in a man's life became at any time so great that no hope of future pleasure (credit) could help him to get over the pain, then the bankruptcy of life's business would inevitably follow.

Now the number of those who kill themselves is relatively unimportant when compared with the multitude of those who live bravely on. Only very few men give up the business of life because of the pain involved. What follows from this? Either that it is untrue to say that the quantity of pain is greater than the quantity of pleasure, or that we do not at all make the continuation of life dependent on the quantity of pleasure or pain that is felt.

In a very curious way, Eduard von Hartmann's pessimism comes to the conclusion that life is valueless because it contains a surplus of pain and yet affirms the necessity of going on with it. This necessity lies in the fact that the world purpose mentioned above (page 177) can be achieved only by the ceaseless, devoted labour of human beings. But as long as men still pursue their egotistical cravings they are unfit for such selfless labour. Not until they have convinced themselves through experience and reason that the pleasures of life pursued by egoism cannot be attained, do they devote themselves to their proper tasks. In this way the pessimistic conviction is supposed to be the source of unselfishness. An education based on pessimism should exterminate egoism by making it see the hopelessness of its case.

According to this view, then, the striving for pleasure is inherent in human nature from the outset. Only when fulfillment is seen to be impossible does this striving retire in favour of higher tasks for mankind.

It cannot be said that egoism is overcome in the true sense of the word by an ethical world conception that expects a devotion to unselfish aims in life through the acceptance of pessimism. The moral ideals are said not to be strong enough to dominate the will until man has learnt that selfish striving after pleasure cannot lead to any satisfaction. Man, whose selfishness desires the grapes of pleasure, finds them sour because he cannot reach them, and so he turns his back on them and devotes himself to an unselfish way of life. Moral ideals, then, according to the opinion of pessimists, are not strong enough to overcome egoism; but they establish their dominion on the ground previously cleared for them by the recognition of the hopelessness of egoism.

If men by nature were to strive after pleasure but were unable to reach it, then annihilation of existence, and salvation through non-existence, would be the only rational goal. And if one holds the view that the real bearer of the pain of the world is God, then man's task would consist in bringing about the salvation of God. Through the suicide of the individual, the realization of this aim is not advanced, but hindered. Rationally, God can only have created men in order to bring about his salvation through their actions. Otherwise creation would be purposeless. And it is extra-human purposes that such a world conception has in mind. Each one of us has to perform his own particular task in the general work of salvation. If he withdraws from the task by suicide, then the work which was intended for him must be done by another. Somebody else must bear the torment of existence in his stead. And since within every being it is God who actually bears all pain, the suicide does not in the least diminish the quantity of God's pain, but rather imposes upon God the additional difficulty of providing a substitute.

All this presupposes that pleasure is the yardstick for the value of life. Now life manifests itself through a number of instinctive desires (needs). If the value of life depended on its producing more pleasure than pain, an instinct which brought to its owner a balance of pain would have to be called valueless. Let us, therefore, examine instinct and pleasure to see whether the former can be measured by the latter. In order not to arouse the suspicion that we consider life to begin only at the level of “aristocracy of the intellect”, we shall begin with the “purely animal” need, hunger.

Hunger arises when our organs are unable to continue their proper function without a fresh supply of food. What a hungry man wants first of all is to satisfy his hunger. As soon as the supply of nourishment has reached the point where hunger ceases, everything that the instinct for food craves has been attained. The enjoyment that comes with being satisfied consists primarily in putting an end to the pain caused by hunger. But to the mere instinct for food a further need is added. For man does not merely desire to repair the disturbance in the functioning of his organs by the consumption of food, or to overcome the pain of hunger; he seeks to effect this to the accompaniment of pleasurable sensations of taste. If he feels hungry and is within half an hour of an appetizing meal, he may even refuse inferior food, which could satisfy him sooner, so as not to spoil his appetite for the better fare to come. He needs hunger in order to get the full enjoyment from his meal. Thus for him hunger becomes at the same time a cause of pleasure. Now if all the existing hunger in the world could be satisfied, we should then have the total quantity of enjoyment attributable to the presence of the need for nourishment. To this would still have to be added the special pleasure which the gourmet achieves by cultivating his palate beyond the common measure.

This quantity of pleasure would reach the highest conceivable value if no need aiming at the kind of enjoyment under consideration remained unsatisfied, and if with the enjoyment we had not to accept a certain amount of pain into the bargain.

Modern science holds the view that nature produces more life than it can sustain, that is to say, more hunger than it is able to satisfy. The surplus of life thus produced must perish in pain in the struggle for existence. Admittedly the needs of life at every moment in the course of the world are greater than the available means of satisfaction, and that the enjoyment of life is affected as a result. Such enjoyment as actually does occur, however, is not in the least reduced. Wherever a desire is satisfied, the corresponding quantity of pleasure exists, even though in the desiring creature itself or in its fellows there are plenty of unsatisfied instincts. What is, however, diminished by all this is the value of the enjoyment of life. If only a part of the needs of a living creature finds satisfaction, it experiences a corresponding degree of enjoyment. This pleasure has a lower value, the smaller it is in proportion to the total demands of life in the field of the desires in question. One can represent this value by a fraction, of which the numerator is the pleasure actually experienced while the denominator is the sum total of needs. This fraction has the value 1 when the numerator and the denominator are equal, that is, when all needs are fully satisfied. The fraction becomes greater than 1 when a creature experiences more pleasure than its desires demand; and it becomes smaller than 1 when the quantity of pleasure falls short of the sum total of desires. But the fraction can never become zero as long as the numerator has any value at all, however small. If a man were to make up a final account before his death, and were to think of the quantity of enjoyment connected with a particular instinct (for example, hunger) as being distributed over the whole of his life together with all the demands made by this instinct, then the pleasure experienced might perhaps have a very small value, but it could never become valueless. If the quantity of pleasure remains constant, then, with an increase in the needs of the creature, the value of the pleasure diminishes. The same is true for the sum of life in nature. The greater the number of creatures in proportion to those which are able to satisfy their instincts fully, the smaller is the average value of pleasure in life. The cheques on life's pleasure which are drawn in our favour in the form of our instincts, become less valuable if we cannot expect to cash them for the full amount. If I get enough to eat for three days and as a result must then go hungry for another three days, the actual pleasure on the three days of eating is not thereby diminished. But I have now to think of it as distributed over six days, and thus its value for my food-instinct is reduced by half. In just the same way the magnitude of pleasure is related to the degree of my need. If I am hungry enough for two pieces of bread and can only get one, the pleasure I derive from it had only half the value it would have had if the eating of it has satisfied my hunger. This is the way that the value of a pleasure is determined in life. It is measured by the needs of life. Our desires are the yardstick; pleasure is the thing that is measured. The enjoyment of satisfying hunger has a value only because hunger exists; and it has a value of a definite magnitude through the proportion it bears to the magnitude of the existing hunger.

Unfulfilled demands of our life throw their shadow even upon satisfied desires, and thus detract from the value of pleasurable hours. But we can also speak of the present value of a feeling of pleasure. This value is the lower, the smaller the pleasure is in proportion to the duration and intensity of our desire.

A quantity of pleasure has its full value for us when in duration and degree it exactly coincides with our desire. A quantity of pleasure which is smaller than our desire diminishes the value of the pleasure; a quantity which is greater produces a surplus which has not been demanded and which is felt as pleasure only so long as, whilst enjoying the pleasure, we can increase the intensity of our desire. If the increase in our desire is unable to keep pace with the increase in pleasure, then pleasure turns into displeasure. The thing that would otherwise satisfy us now assails us without our wanting it and makes us suffer. This proves that pleasure has value for us only to the extent that we can measure it against our desires. An excess of pleasurable feeling turns into pain. This may be observed especially in people whose desire for a particular kind of pleasure is very small. In people whose instinct for food is stunted, eating readily becomes nauseating. This again shows that desire is the standard by which we measure the value of pleasure.

Now the pessimist might say that an unsatisfied instinct for food brings into the world not only displeasure at the lost enjoyment, but also positive pain, misery and want. He can base this statement upon the untold misery of starving people and upon the vast amount of suffering which arises indirectly for such people from their lack of food. And if he wants to extend his assertion to nature outside man as well, he can point to the suffering of animals that die of starvation at certain times of the year. The pessimist maintains that these evils far outweigh the amount of pleasure that the instinct for food brings into the world.

There is indeed no doubt that one can compare pleasure and pain and can estimate the surplus of one or the other much as we do in the case of profit and loss. But if the pessimist believes that because there is a surplus of pain he can conclude that life is valueless, he falls into the error of making a calculation that in real life is never made.

Our desire, in any given case, is directed to a particular object. As we have seen, the value of the pleasure of satisfaction will be the greater, the greater is the amount of pleasure in relation to the intensity of our desire (see fn 5). On this intensity of desire also will depend how much pain we are willing to bear as part of the price of achieving the pleasure. We compare the quantity of pain not with the quantity of pleasure but with the intensity of our desire. If someone takes great delight in eating, he will, by reason of his enjoyment in better times, find it easier to bear a period of hunger than will someone for whom eating is no pleasure. A woman who wants to have a child compares the pleasure that would come from possessing it not with the amount of pain due to pregnancy, childbirth, nursing and so on, but with her desire to possess the child.

We never aim at a certain quantity of pleasure in the abstract, but at concrete satisfaction in a perfectly definite way. If we are aiming at a pleasure which must be satisfied by a particular object or a particular sensation, we shall not be satisfied with some other object or some other sensation that gives us an equal amount of pleasure. If we are aiming at satisfying our hunger, we cannot replace the pleasure this would give us by a pleasure equally great, but produced by going for a walk. Only if our desire were, quite generally, for a certain fixed quantity of pleasure as such, would it disappear as soon as the price of achieving it were seen to be a still greater quantity of pain. But since satisfaction of a particular kind is being aimed at, fulfillment brings the pleasure even when, along with it, a still greater pain has to be taken into the bargain. But because the instincts of living creatures move in definite directions and go after concrete goals, the quantity of pain endured on the way to the goal cannot be set down as an equivalent factor in our calculations. Provided the desire is sufficiently intense to be present in some degree after having overcome the pain — however great that pain in itself may be — then the pleasure of satisfaction can still be tasted to the full. The desire, therefore, does not compare the pain directly to the pleasure achieved, but compares it indirectly by relating its own intensity to that of the pain. The question is not whether the pleasure to be gained is greater than the pain, but whether the desire for the goal is greater than the hindering effect of the pain involved. If the hindrance is greater than the desire, then the desire gives way to the inevitable, weakens and strives no further. Since our demand is for satisfaction in a particular way, the pleasure connected with it acquires a significance such that, once we have achieved satisfaction, we need take the quantity of pain into account only to the extent that it has reduced the intensity of our desire. If I am a passionate admirer of beautiful views, I never calculate the amount of pleasure which the view from the mountain top gives me as compared directly with the pain of the toilsome ascent and descent; but I reflect whether, after having overcome all difficulties, my desire for the view will still be sufficiently intense. Only indirectly, through the intensity of the desire, can pleasure and pain together lead to a result. Therefore the question is not at all whether there is a surplus of pleasure or of pain, but whether the will for pleasure is strong enough to overcome the pain.

A proof for the correctness of this statement is the fact that we put a higher value on pleasure when it has to be purchased at the price of great pain than when it falls into our lap like a gift from heaven. When suffering and misery have toned down our desire and yet after all our goal is reached, then the pleasure, in proportion to the amount of desire still left, is all the greater. Now, as I have shown (page 189), this proportion represents the value of the pleasure. A further proof is given through the fact that living creatures (including man) give expression to their instincts as long as they are able to bear the pain and misery involved. The struggle for existence is but a consequence of this fact. All existing life strives to express itself, and only that part of it whose desires are smothered by the overwhelming weight of difficulties abandons the struggle. Every living creature seeks food until lack of food destroys its life. Man, too, does not turn his hand against himself until he believes, rightly or wrongly, that those aims in life that are worth his striving are beyond his reach. So long as he still believes in the possibility of reaching what, in his view, is worth striving for, he will battle against all misery and pain. Philosophy would first have to convince him that an act of will makes sense only when the pleasure is greater than the pain; for by nature he will strive for the objects of his desire if he can bear the necessary pain, however great it may be. But such a philosophy would be mistaken because it would make the human will dependent on a circumstance (the surplus of pleasure over pain) which is originally foreign to man. The original measure of his will is desire, and desire asserts itself as long as it can. When it is a question of pleasure and pain in the satisfaction of a desire, the calculation that is made, not in philosophical theory, but in life, can be compared with the following. If in buying a certain quantity of apples I am obliged to take twice as many rotten ones as sound ones — because the seller wants to clear his stock — I shall not hesitate for one moment to accept the bad apples as well, if the smaller quantity of good ones are worth so much to me that in addition to their purchase price I am also prepared to bear the expense of disposing of the bad ones. This example illustrates the relation between the quantities of pleasure and pain resulting from an instinct. I determine the value of the good apples not by subtracting the total number of the good ones from that of the bad ones but by assessing whether the good ones still have value for me in spite of the presence of the bad ones.

Just as I leave the bad apples out of account in the enjoyment of the good ones, so I give myself up to the satisfaction of a desire after having shaken off the unavoidable pain.

Even if pessimism were right in its assertion that there is more pain then pleasure in the world, this would have no influence on the will, since living creatures would still strive after the pleasure that remains. The empirical proof that pain outweighs joy (if such proof could be given) would certainly be effective for showing up the futility of the school of philosophy that sees the value of life in a surplus of pleasure (eudaemonism) but not for showing that the will, as such, is irrational; for the will is not set upon a surplus of pleasure, but upon the amount of pleasure that remains after getting over the pain. This still appears as a goal worth striving for.

Some have tried to refute pessimism by stating that it is impossible to calculate the surplus of pleasure or of pain in the world. That any calculation can be done at all depends on whether the things to be calculated can be compared in respect of their magnitudes. Every pain and every pleasure has a definite magnitude (intensity and duration). Further, we can compare pleasurable feelings of different kinds one with another, at least approximately, with regard to their magnitudes. We know whether we derive more entertainment from a good cigar or from a good joke. Therefore there can be no objection to comparing different sorts of pleasure and pain in respect of their magnitudes. And the investigator who sets himself the task of determining the surplus of pleasure or pain in the world starts from fully justified assumptions. One may declare the conclusions of pessimism to be false, but one cannot doubt that quantities of pleasure and pain can be scientifically estimated, and the balance of pleasure thereby determined. It is, however, quite wrong to claim that the result of this calculation has any consequences for the human will. The cases where we really make the value of our activity dependent on whether pleasure or pain shows a surplus are those where the objects towards which our activity is directed are all the same to us. If it is only a question whether, after the day's work, I am to amuse myself by a game or by light conversation, and if I am totally indifferent to what I do as long as it serves the purpose, then I simply ask myself: What gives me the greatest surplus of pleasure? And I shall most certainly abandon the activity if the scales incline towards the side of displeasure. If we are buying a toy for a child we consider, in selecting, what will give him the greatest happiness. In all other cases we do not base our decision exclusively on the balance of pleasure.

Therefore, if the pessimists believe that by showing pain to be present in greater quantity than pleasure they are preparing the ground for unselfish devotion to the work of civilization, they forget that the human will, by its very nature, does not allow itself to be influenced by this knowledge. Human striving is directed towards the measure of satisfaction that is possible after all difficulties are overcome. Hope of such satisfaction is the foundation of all human activity. The work of every individual and of the whole of civilization springs from this hope. Pessimistic ethics believes that it must present the pursuit of happiness as an impossibility for man in order that he may devote himself to his proper moral tasks. But these moral tasks are nothing but the concrete natural and spiritual instincts; and man strives to satisfy them in spite of the incidental pain. The pursuit of happiness which the pessimist would eradicate is therefore nowhere to be found. But the tasks which man has to fulfill, he does fulfill, because from the very nature of his being he wants to fulfill them, once he has properly recognized their nature. Pessimistic ethics declares that only when a man has given up the quest for pleasure can he devote himself to what he recognizes as his task in life. But no system of ethics can ever invent any life tasks other than the realization of the satisfactions that human desires demand and the fulfillment of man's moral ideals. No ethics can deprive man of the pleasure he experiences in the fulfillment of his desires. When the pessimist says, “Do not strive for pleasure, for you can never attain it; strive rather for what you recognize to be your task,” we must reply, “But this is just what man does, and the notion that he strives merely for happiness is no more than the invention of an errant philosophy.” He aims at the satisfaction of what he himself desires, and he has in view the concrete objects of his striving, not “happiness” in the abstract; and fulfillment is for him a pleasure. When pessimistic ethics demands, “Strive not for pleasure, but for the attainment of what you see as your life's task,” it hits on the very thing that man, in his own being, wants. Man does not need to be turned inside out by philosophy, he does not need to discard his human nature, before he can be moral. Morality lies in striving for a goal that one recognizes as justified; it is human nature to pursue it as long as the pain incurred does not inhibit the desire for it altogether. This is the essence of all genuine will. Ethical behaviour is not based upon the eradication of all striving for pleasure to the end that bloodless abstract ideas may establish their dominion unopposed by any strong yearnings for the enjoyment of life, but rather upon a strong will sustained by ideal intuitions, a will that reaches its goal even though the path be thorny.

Moral ideals spring from the moral imagination of man. Their realization depends on his desire for them being intense enough to overcome pain and misery. They are his intuitions, the driving forces which his spirit harnesses; he wants them, because their realization is his highest pleasure. He needs no ethics to forbid him to strive for pleasure and then to tell him what he shall strive for. He will strive for moral ideals if his moral imagination is sufficiently active to provide him with intuitions that give his will the strength to make its way against all the obstacles inherent in his constitution, including the pain that is necessarily involved.

If a man strives for sublimely great ideals, it is because they are the content of his own being, and their realization will bring him a joy compared to which the pleasure that a limited outlook gets from the gratification of commonplace desires is a mere triviality. Idealists revel, spiritually, in the translation of their ideals into reality.

Anyone who would eradicate the pleasure brought by the fulfillment of human desires will first have to make man a slave who acts not because he wants to but only because he must. For the achievement of what one wanted to do gives pleasure. What we call good is not what a man must do but what he will want to do if he develops the true nature of man to the full. Anyone who does not acknowledge this must first drive out of man all that man himself wants to do, and then, from outside, prescribe the content he is to give to his will.

Man values the fulfillment of a desire because the desire springs from his own being. What is achieved has its value because it has been wanted. If we deny any value to what man himself wants, then aims that do have value will have to be found in something that man does not want.

An ethics built on pessimism arises from the disregard of moral imagination. Only if one considers that the individual human spirit is itself incapable of giving content to its striving can one expect the craving for pleasure to account fully for all acts of will. A man without imagination creates no moral ideas. They must be given to him. Physical nature sees to it that he strives to satisfy his lower desires. But the development of the whole man also includes those desires that originate in the spirit. Only if one believes that man has no such spiritual desires can one declare that he must receive them from without. Then one would also be entitled to say that it is man's duty to do what he does not want. Every ethical system that demands of man that he should suppress his own will in order to fulfill tasks that he does not want, reckons not with the whole man but with one in which the faculty of spiritual desire is lacking. For a man who is harmoniously developed, the so-called ideals of virtue lie, not without, but within the sphere of his own being. Moral action consists not in the eradication of a one-sided personal will but in the full development of human nature. Those who hold that moral ideals are attainable only if man destroys his own personal will, are not aware that these ideals are wanted by man just as he wants the satisfaction of the so-called animal instincts.

It cannot be denied that the views here outlined may easily be misunderstood. Immature people without moral imagination like to look upon the instincts of their half-developed natures as the fullest expression of the human race, and reject all moral ideas which they have not themselves produced, in order that they may “live themselves out” undisturbed. But it goes without saying that what is right for a fully developed human being does not hold good for half-developed human natures. Anyone who still needs to be educated to the point where his moral nature breaks through the husk of his lower passions, will not have the same things expected of him as of a mature person. However, it was not my intention to show what needs to be impressed upon an undeveloped person, but what lies within the essential nature of a mature human being. My intention was to demonstrate the possibility of freedom, and freedom is manifested not in actions performed under constraint of sense or soul but in actions sustained by spiritual intuitions.

The mature man gives himself his own value. He does not aim at pleasure, which comes to him as a gift of grace on the part of Nature or of the Creator; nor does he fulfill an abstract duty which he recognizes as such after he has renounced the striving for pleasure. He acts as he wants to act, that is, in accordance with the standard of his ethical intuitions; and he finds in the achievement of what he wants the true enjoyment of life. He determines the value of life by measuring achievements against aims. An ethics which replaces “would” with mere “should”, inclination with mere duty, will consequently determine the value of man by measuring his fulfillment of duty against the demands that it makes. It measures man with a yardstick external to his own being.

The view which I have here developed refers man back to himself. It recognizes as the true value of life only what each individual regards as such, according to the standard of his own will. It no more acknowledges a value of life that is not recognized by the individual than it does a purpose of life that has not originated in him. It sees in the individual who knows himself through and through, his own master and his own assessor.

Author's addition, 1918

The argument of this chapter will be misunderstood if one is caught by the apparent objection that the will, as such, is the irrational factor in man and that once this irrationality is made clear to him he will see that the goal of his ethical striving must lie in ultimate emancipation from the will. An apparent objection of exactly this kind was brought against me from a reputable quarter in that I was told that it is the business of the philosopher to make good just what lack of thought leads animals and most men to neglect, namely, to strike a proper balance of life's account. But this objection just misses the main point. If freedom is to be realized, the will in human nature must be sustained by intuitive thinking; at the same time, however, we find that an act of will may also be determined by factors other than intuition, though only in the free realization of intuitions issuing from man's essential nature do we find morality and its value. Ethical individualism is well able to present morality in its full dignity, for it sees true morality not in what brings about the agreement of an act of will with a standard of behaviour in an external way, but in what arises in man when he develops his moral will as an integral part of his whole being so that to do what is not moral appears to him as a stunting and crippling of his nature.


  1. Hartmann, Phaenomenologie des sittlichen Bewusstseins, pp. 866 ff.
  2. Philosophie des Unbewussten, 7th edition, Vol. II, p. 290.
  3. Those who want to settle by calculation whether the sum total of pleasure or that of pain is the bigger, ignore that they are subjecting to calculation something which is nowhere experienced. Feeling does not calculate, and what matters for the real valuing of life is what we really experience, not what results from an imaginary calculation.
  4. Philosophie der Unbewussten, Vol. II, p. 332.
  5. We disregard here the case where excessive increase of pleasure turns pleasure into pain.

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