Philosophy for the layman II: Despair and The Human Condition

Age of Awareness
Published in
10 min readApr 22, 2023

Last time in this series of articles I discussed epistemology. Or at least the basics of epistemology. Looking back I think I need to make a follow up later. But I don’t want to bog you too deep into one specific subject, I want to offer some of the more exciting and varied parts of philosophy.

So today we’re going to examine a rather daunting problem, namely the human condition.

And if we want to understand the problem of the human condition, then there’s two very important authors. Namely Arthur Schopenhauer and Sigmund Freud.

I know Freud gets a lot of criticism, especially in the English speaking world. And some of it is very valid but a lot of it is also unfair, and generally based on how the German language doesn’t always translate well into English which makes his ideas seem dumber than they really are.

For instance Freud is often described as a sexist because of his views on hysteria. But a lot of people don’t bother to explain how he arrived at those conclusions, which was actually because a lot of his patients were abused women who suffered under deeply patriarchal family structures.

And it’s true that on one hand, Freud didn’t entirely understand that. But on the other hand, a lot of his ideas about psychoanalysis started with him actually paying attention to the suffering and the problems of women. No one else was doing that at the time.

Moreover, his use of communicational therapy actually helped a lot of these women. They don’t talk about that either. How the cure for hysteria as it were is to actually sit down and listen to women and to pay attention to their needs.

So I think it’s a bit weird how, for some reason, we’ve decided that the one guy who took the time to actually invite women’s perspectives into an environment where women were largely ignored is somehow the big sexist of his time. I would argue the situation is more nuanced.

So Freud is an easy target for English academics and critics. When you translate his writings he sounds like a goofy foreigner that’s easy to pick apart. Some quick grant money for anyone who needs it. There’s absolutely things that should be criticised about Freud, but the intelligent criticisms of Freud are hard to find in the English language.

But even so, Freud’s harshest critics can’t deny that he uncovered a lot of problems with the human condition, and these problems in many ways echoed Arthur Schopenhauer. Why? Because human beings are cursed with a libido.

(The German libido mind you, which is the pleasure drive. Not the English libido which is largely sexual.)

And Arthur Schopenhauer explains the problem with the human condition quite well, which is this:

Life is hopeless.

You’re successful? Hah, life is hopeless.

You’ve found God? Life is hopeless.

You’re happy? No you’re not, life is hopeless.

You’re immortal? Your life just got infinitely hopeless.

You’re dead? Well played. But even so, your life was hopeless.

And the reason why your life is hopeless is because you’re going to get hungry. And then you’re going to eat. And guess what? Then you’re going to get hungry again.

You’re doomed to walk throughout life, just eating things and get hungry again like some kind of idiot.

You’re going to have hopes and dreams. And you’re going to be foolish enough to pursue them. And then you might actually be stupid enough to succeed. And then you’re going to have your great job and your great house and your nice family, and guess what?

You’re going to think “We should go on holiday.” Or maybe “We should get a dog.” or perhaps “We should save money for my daughter’s college tuition.”

You’re going to have hopes and dreams, and you’re going to achieve them, and then you’re going to have even more hopes and dreams. Success is the worst kind of failure. Your ambitions will grow and grow and grow and eventually become impossible.

And then you become impossible. Which means you’re either going to do two things: You’re either going to despair, or you’re going to be corrupted and alienated by your ambitions and turn into yet another evil rich guy who doesn’t care about anyone but themselves. Because ambition creates monsters like Caligula or Adolf Hitler.

In fact, according to Schopenhauer’s philosophy, the greatest moral tragedy would be that of Adolf Hitler. A guy who followed his ambitions to the point of sheer absolutism, and who then buckled under the pressures of such impossible and delusional ambitions and killed himself.

So that’s why life is hopeless. Because you can either fail and despair, or even worse: Succeed and despair. In the spiritual world, there are only homicides and suicides, no one dies of natural causes.

And it’s hard to deny that he’s right. Generally the most morally reprehensible things in our history are done by very successful and ambitious people. Tyranny and genocide and dictatorships are almost universally done by the rich and the powerful. There is no such thing as a working class Napoleon.

Whether it’s Bill Gates exploiting conflict minerals in Africa, or Christopher Columbus trading slaves in Hispaniola, you have got to admit that the road to hell is not in fact paved with good intentions, usually the road to hell is paved with gold.

You need very strong ambitions to feel that kind of entitlement. Most people look at child labour in Congo and think “No. I don’t want to profit from this, nothing is worth this, I’d rather fail at my project.” Most people are not Bill Gates.

And sure, we see a lot of articles about business and the secret to success and having the right mindset, and Schopenhauer would be absolutely mortified at the idea of being a “Go getter” or having a “Can-do attitude”.

Because in the end it leads to dangerous ambition. And it’s not surprising we see this kind of stuff in the media since Bill Gates owns MSNBC. A lot of these “Go-getters” do. Musk recently bought twitter. Bloomberg owns Bloomberg (big surprise), Bezos has ownership in the New York Times, Washington Post, and several others. So it’s not just some fluke, it’s a pattern of ambition.

It completely denies the problem of the human condition, and I think it does so intentionally. I think a lot of these powerful people buy large media outlets to flatter themselves. I think the fact that pretty much every billionaire now owns their own personal news network is a good example of Schopenhauer’s idea of despair.

They’re beginning to wake up and see that they’re living in the real world, and that their ambitions are ultimately impossible. That every kid needs to learn that sometimes the answer is “No!”… even if some of these kids don’t grow up until they’re in their mid-50s.

So they hire a building full of people to tell them — and to some annoyance, the rest of us — that they’re all really smart and important people.

But in Schopenhauer’s view, they’d be the biggest losers of them all. Because all their ambition has really done in the end is to create despair. Both for the people of Congo and for themselves. Schopenhauer could’ve achieved the same goal much more easily just by failing.

And I think if we step back and look at it, we would probably think most billionaires are losers too. Because the absolute worship that the media has for these people, the way they flatter them, and say that they’re so smart and so innovative and so great and so important… it seems kind of sad when you realise who owns that media.

They’re sort of sending valentine cards to themselves, you know?

That’s why I think Arthur Schopenhauer has a point. Maybe they are losers in a more existential and spiritual way. Because most of us don’t need to throw hundreds of millions of dollars at a building full of journalists just to have someone say something nice about us.

In many ways I think there is a kind of falsehood in larger success. Because no pharaoh ever actually built a pyramid. And another philosopher, Georg Hegel talks about that, what he calls the master-slave dialectic (a dialectic is like a parable of sorts, a story that explores ideas).

How it’s ultimately the slaves who build pyramids. How the slaves are independent from the master, but the master is infantilised by his dependence on the slaves.

How Bill Gates probably stopped understanding the complex engineering that went into his products several decades ago.

So as your ambitions become more advanced. Your corporation, your empire, whatever it is you’re doing… they actually weaken you. Because you’ve created something more powerful than yourself, that is comprised of people who probably outnumber you in the thousands.

And then you realise that you’re really just a domino that’s fallen a long time ago, and that all your claim to this prestige is just an illusion.

And that’s when you see how life is hopeless.

So when you look at the Epstein scandal and think “Why would all these rich and famous people do such horrible things?” then Schopenhauer has the answer for you. It’s because the mind becomes a very twisted place when you’ve run out of things to do.

So if you are poor then look on the bright side: At least you’re not rich. At least you can still hope that life isn’t hopeless.

(And with that tagline I wish to officially welcome you to philosophy.)

And this human condition is really a historical product of large scale organising and economics. That’s what made the Bill Gateses and the Genghis Khans of the world possible.

In prehistoric times they would just be weird lunatics. They’d have no way to boss people around. Economics makes power a little bit more abstract, and leaves more room for irrational appeals. It has an alienating effect, and alienation is philosophy refers to how something distances or separates us from the meaning of our experiences.

For example the assembly line is very alienating because it means that auto workers can build a car without actually knowing how to build a car.

Before economics you’d have to say things with more clarity, and nobody was going to listen to you.

“Build me a mansion while you live in a cheap tenement building with rats and no air conditioning!”

No thank you. I’m not going to do that. I have other plans.

But there are of course also benefits of economics. It gives us certain comforts and abundances. It means regular meals, nice shelter, amenities, even recreation. But that comes with a downside because it nourishes our ego. It makes our inner psychological doomsday clock move just a little bit closer towards despair.

So a lot of what Schopenhauer’s philosophy explores comes from a very contemporary (con meaning “with” or “together” and temporary meaning “time”, ie: Our times, if you will) situation.

So the human condition often refers to the contradictions of being a human being. The paradoxes (something that logically contradicts itself, for example: ‘This is not a piece of writing.’) that arise from combining instinct with self-awareness.

There are a lot of examples of the human condition. A big one that scientists struggle with is whether or not our minds are actually capable of understanding themselves. Can our thoughts be more complex than the mind that makes them?

But I wanted to focus on the contradiction of the human ego because it’s probably the most relevant to your everyday life.

And it is also in my opinion central to the big philosophical question: What is the meaning of life? And the lesser known big question: What is the meaning of meaning?

And the second one is pretty easy to answer (thanks to 2000 years of intellectual history anyhow), and the answer is this: Forms.

Consciousness exists in forms, and as such, meaning exists in forms. A chair for instance has forms. It has space. You can’t just walk through it. It has quantity. There’s a certain number of chairs, in this case one. It has opacity, we can’t see through the chair. It has material, colour, smell, weight, whatever else. We use forms to invent meaning through formal logic.

So forms are kind of like the building blocks of meaning. From this we get language, science, philosophy, engineering, mathematics, list goes on.

Problem is to put all of life and humanity into a series of forms. Because we have too much to work with, and no real blueprint. Asking what is the meaning of life is the formal equivalent of someone saying “Hey, I need you to build me a universe.”

Where do you start? Or even worse, where do you finish? That’s the challenge to that question.

Although I suppose you would start with the forms. Everything comes down to forms. We know that much already.

So what is Schopenhauer’s answer to this riddle? He simply says: Kill the ego. Quit wanting things. Deny yourself what you want, and control your own destiny.

So that’s where we see the spiritual needs of humanity. That’s why there is purpose to meditation, fasting, art, poetry, creative expression, and what we would call mysticism. Because it negates our ambitions and makes the ego a bit more manageable.

Which introduces another fun paradox: The logical justification for art is that it has no logical justification. It’s just something we do for the sake of doing it. Art is without ambition. Ambitious art isn’t really art, it’s vanity, and it stops being creative because it becomes a means to an end. Money or fame perhaps.

So Schopenhauer’s rebellion against hopelessness is to say that you should sing a nice little song, simply because it’s nice. No applause, no recognition, no talent. Just do it for its own sake. Make it about the song, not about you. Not because you want it, but because it’s there. Objectify yourself for a moment, and live outside of this prison of wants.

The truest, most saintly form of Schopenhauer’s virtue would be someone who exists in a weird gray area between life and death. Who is neither all that interested in life, but who is also not suicidal. A person who in some deeper sense accepts their mortality, and who, in the face of decline, fear, despair, pain, want, desire and especially failure, will simply say “So what? It’s just death.”

All these things represent an allegory (a kind of hidden meaning) for death. To waste time is to waste life, and to be spiritually complete is to understand that there is no wastage. All you’ve done is disappoint your ego, and only a fool trusts the judgements of their ego.