In the essay titled ‘On the Vanity of Existence’, author and philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer examines the meaning of life in accordance with the past, present and future. He comes to the conclusion that in order for us to live a meaningful life and our best life, we have to spend our time focusing on the present rather than the past or the future because they do not exist. In order for this to be true, he established two premises. One being that our lives are chaotic and it's hard to find peace and the other being that things that resonate with us from the past and or the future are infeasible, unlike things from the present. In this essay, I will first address these premises and how they connect to the arguments. Then I will shift to address a counter argument, the past plays a very important role in our lives and how we conduct ourselves, and how this argument is not a strong one. Then, I will shift to explain how this connects to the meaning of life and why it is important.
In this case, one burden of proof that Schopenhauer provides us with is that finding happiness is our daily life struggle is hard given the daily chaos we experience. He explains: “In such a world, where no stability of any kind, no enduring state is possible, where everything is involved in restless change and confusion and keeps itself on its tightrope only by continually striding forward - in such a world, happiness is not so much as to be thought of”. We live in a world filled with chaos, and we get so winded up in it, that it's hard for us to find happiness. This world's ‘involved restless change’, where nothing is constant and things are always changing. And this is a world that is ‘continually striding forward’ and never stops to wait on anyone or anything. In a world like this, getting caught up in things that do not help us move forward will cause us to fall behind. Many people experienced this as Schopenhauer explains that this is a naturally occurring thing that humans have to deal with and if they do not, they will consequently fall behind into a state of unhappiness. So, furthermore, if we take the time to focus on things other than the present, we will get wounded up in these things even though they are not things that can necessarily help or benefit us. This ties into the second premise that Schopenhauer addresses which relates to implacability.
The other premise that Schopenhauer addresses is that the past and present are both impalpable, unlike the present. As he elaborates on this idea, he states: “That which has been no longer is; it as little exists as does that which has never been...Thus the most insignificant president has over the most significant past the advantage of actuality, which means that the former bears to the latter the relation of something to nothing”. This quote is saying past events and people no longer exist because they are not present as something we can see or understand like an event occurring now or a person we see. Essentially what Schopenhauer is trying to say is that in comparison to the future, there is nothing that connects us with the past. As mentioned earlier, given that life is always moving forward the best thing for us is to focus on the now to keep us moving forward because we cannot find happiness in something that is not constantly with us.
Given what we’ve established, the world is constantly moving forward and the daily struggle we experience in our attempt to find happiness, the best way to obtain happiness is to focus our time and energy in the present. As Schopenhauer explains: “Our existence has no foundation on which to rest except the transient present. Thus, its form is essentially unceasing motion, without any possibility of that repose which we continually strive after”. What Schopenhauer is saying is that our lives are in daily motion and there is no time in which we reach a state of tranquility. This is why it becomes difficult, as mentioned above, to find happiness. The only way for us to get close to this sense of happiness is if we are constantly moving forward and focusing on our now. There is no other ‘foundation on which to rest’, meaning there is nothing else we should do but put our time in except the ‘transient present’. The best way to keep moving forward is to focus on the short period of time that is now in order to keep moving forward and find some degree of happiness.
Some may argue that past events are not only relevant in our lives, but play a crucial role in our lives and affect the way we conduct our daily lives. However, this would only be true if these events and people were consistently relevant in our lives. People and things that we tend to pay attention to and give credit to will eventually fade. These things will eventually become irrelevant and you cannot be as sure about these people as you can about the present moment, that is, you can be certain of what is in the now.
Furthermore, we are constantly in the present and can be certain of what is occurring because we are living in its occurrence. Take for example a celebrity such as Michael Jackson. We hold so much praise with him, as we should, and his death gathered a lot of attention, but overtime even attention faded off. This is because our ability to resonate with him went away. He was no longer in the present moment, and therefore our connection with him began to fade. Schopenhauer elaborate on this idea in his essay, explaining: “You could, to be sure, base on considerations of this kind a theory that the greatest wisdom consists in enjoying the present and making this enjoyment the goal of life, because the present is all that is real and everything else merely imaginary”. While the past has existed and the future will exist eventually, neither exists as the present moment. We move with the present and can be sure that the people we are in it will exist. All other things, as Schopenhauer explains, can be considered to be ‘merely imaginary’. There is no guarantee that things are and do exist, but you can be sure that the present does exist. Furthermore, you cannot connect with things that do not exist, and in order to find happiness you have to live with and enjoy the present and making this your goal. Schopenhauer argues that the only way to find meaning in life is to focus on the here and now. We can never be sure of the past and what is to come, but we have the present. Anything that is not in the present is not tangible, and we cannot be sure it exists. In our daily lives, we experience struggles, and given these two things, we cannot gain happiness without these two ideas.
So, overall, we need to focus on the present and make it our daily goal to live within it and accept the chaos that comes with our daily lives. This is how we will be able to accept who we are, the circumstances and situations that we are in. This connects to the meaning of life because, as Schopenhauer explains, there is no meaning to life except what we have in the present. Nothing other than what is now holds meaning in our lives. In order for us to truly have meaning in life, we have to strive towards focusing on and living the best life we can in the present and not let our focus be altered towards other things. So, in order to find happiness and live a meaningful life, as argued in this paper, we have to accept the present for what it is, remove the connection that we hold with the past and the present, and strive towards being the people we need to be in poverty now.
- Schopenhauer, Arthur. The Vanity of Existence. Gray Cadence Publishing House, 2011.