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In the end, of course, we might not be able to liberate ourselves, either from suffering or from illusions. Life is hell, and it looks as though no heaven awaits us, to top it off. This, in itself, might be a path to liberation since, after all, we have nothing to lose.
The most problematic patient might be the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), well known for his contention that suffering is unavoidable and a key part of human existence. Schopenhauer argued that there is no meaning or purpose to existence, and that life is moved by an aimless striving that can never be fulfilled. He turns our positive worldview upside down – the normal basic mode of our existence is not happiness that, from time to time, gets disrupted by suffering. Instead, life is itself a bone-deep suffering and endless mourning. It will never get better, Schopenhauer claimed: ‘It is bad today, and it will be worse tomorrow …’ Schopenhauer posits that consciousness further worsens the human condition, since conscious beings experience pain more acutely and are able to reflect on the absurdity of their existence. ‘I shall be told … that my philosophy is comfortless – because I speak the truth; and people preferred to be assured that everything the Lord has made is good,’ he wrote in the essay ‘On the Sufferings of the World’ (1851). ‘Go to the priests, then, and leave the philosophers in peace.’
For Freud, the goal was helping patients to accept and reflect on the hell that life is
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) doesn’t provide much reassurance either. He referred to anxiety as a basic mode of human existence and distinguishes between authentic and non-authentic human forms of living. We mostly live inauthentically in our everyday lives, where we are immersed in everyday tasks, troubles and worries, so that our awareness of the futility and meaninglessness of our existence is silenced by everyday noise. We go to work, raise children, work on our relationships, clean the house, go to sleep, and do it all over again. The world around us seems to make sense, and is even richly meaningful. But the authentic life is disclosed only in anxiety. Then we become self-aware and can begin to think freely, rejecting the shared illusion that society has imposed. For Heidegger, anxiety represents a proper philosophical mood.
The Norwegian thinker Peter Wessel Zapffe (1899-1990) took philosophical pessimism even further. Human consciousness is tragically overdeveloped, he said, resulting in existential angst. In his essay ‘The Last Messiah’ (1933), Zapffe referred to it as ‘a biological paradox, an abomination, an absurdity, an exaggeration of disastrous nature’. Humans have developed a need that cannot be fulfilled, since nature itself is meaningless; to survive, he argues, humanity has to repress this damaging surplus of consciousness. This is ‘a requirement of social adaptability and of everything commonly referred to as healthy and normal living’.
Zapffe named four universal defence mechanisms humankind has developed:
isolation, including repression of disturbing and destructive thoughts and feelings;
anchoring, the establishment of higher meanings and ideals. The examples of collective anchoring he gives are: ‘God, the Church, the State, morality, fate, the law of life, the people, the future’. Anchoring provides us with illusions that secure psychological comfort. The shortcoming of anchoring is the despair we feel upon discovering that our anchoring mechanism is an illusion;
distraction, the focusing of our thoughts and energy on a certain idea or task to prevent the mind from self-reflection; and
sublimation, a type of defence mechanism in which negative urges are transformed into more positive actions. For instance, we distance ourselves from the tragedy of our existence and transform our awareness into philosophy, literature and art.
The father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was – like the philosophers – against religion, and claimed its purpose is to satisfy our infantile emotional needs. ‘Neurotics are a rabble, good only to support us financially and to allow us to learn from their cases: psychoanalysis as a therapy may be worthless,’ he reportedly told his colleague Sándor Ferenczi. Freud wasn’t optimistic about the outcome of psychotherapeutic treatment, and was reluctant to promise happiness as a result. In Studies on Hysteria (1895), he pledged that psychoanalysis could transform hysterical misery into ‘common unhappiness’. For Freud, the goal was helping patients to accept and reflect on the hell that life is. Not in any beyond, but here on Earth.