Christmas is a time for holiday cheer and joy well, at least it is for most people. But then there are those grumpy “Scrooges” who have to put a damper on everybody else’s good times. Scrooge himself would look down on his happy but less well-off cousins with lines like “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.” Well over the course of human thinking there have been some ivory tower Scrooges who had a pessimistic outlook on life. Arthur Schopenhauer can be considered quite the Scrooge, as can Blaise Pascal, although with perhaps a bit of a more optimistic silver lining. When one stops to seriously consider their thoughts, a deeper insight can be gained on the human condition that can actually lead to better decision-making, and maybe even a better outlook on life.
Many times in life we think that we’ve satisfied our aims and ambitions. Perhaps we sign a promising contract. We marry the love of our lives. A child is born. But yet troubles still come our way, as Pascal observes: “We sail on a vast expanse of being, ever uncertain, ever drifting, ever hurried from one goal to another. If we seek to attach ourselves to any one point, it totters and fails us; if we follow, it eludes our grasp, vanishing forever”. As adults find out, we could lose that job. Our marriage could fall apart. Our child could get seriously ill or even pass away. But perhaps one could argue that there are some people who really are happy and satisfied. But both of these philosophers would argue that even these people don’t really have it quite so good.
If there ever was a perfect state for man, it would be summer vacation for school children. There is no school, no troubles, just freedom. Yet after just a few days, what’s the number one complaint of these children? Boredom. Schopenhauer, long before the advent of modern education, easily could have predicted this: “Why is man a compound of needs and necessities so hard to satisfy? And why, if perchance they should be satisfied, is he thereby abandoned to boredom?” One final argument for supposed happiness is perhaps really rich people like lottery winners are happy. But for those who remember spoiled brat Dudley from the Harry Potter series, who screamed about only getting 36 presents, it seems even these people aren’t happy. J.K. Rowling seems to be following Pascal’s thoughts from ages ago: “too much truth overwhelms us, too much pleasure cloys on us, too many benefits annoy us”. So what’s the solution to man’s seemingly pointless, unfulfilling existence? Skeptic curmudgeon Schopenhauer left his complaints at this. But Pascal was a man of faith and gave us at least something to chew on.
Pessimism can perhaps best be summarized by Pascal’s following observation: “Thus while the present never satisfies us, experience never teaches us; and from misfortune, to misfortune, we are led on to death, the eternal crown of our sorrows”. But for those of with faiths-those of us who try to maintain strong moral character and act righteously, whatever cruel blows life throws our way perhaps, just maybe, there will be comfort in the next world. Whether this faith comes from Pascal’s famous (albeit rather logically suspect) wager or a genuine conviction, spirituality offers us the keys to open the chest of hope and promise which man, wrongly or rightly, always seems hell-bent on hanging on to.