This is a task that deserves far greater time than what I currently give it. I am very poorly read in Kierkegaard, and perhaps should read Sickness Unto Death if I choose to explore this further. Though in personal experience reading any philosophical text in full is seldom worth it. I have interests and curiosities that flee from one thing to the next, so I intensely pour my soul into Epicurus just to write a paper just short of two thousand words only to be intensely interested in Sextus Empiricus the next day. So please excuse my rather short exploration of a topic that, as I’ve said, deserves further thought and citation.
The Pessimism of Schopenhauer is for lack of a better word “pragmatic.” It is rational, sober, clear-headed and reflecting on our unhappiness and the wretched state of our condition. The Pessimism of Kierkegaard is largely about things that Schopenhauer is unconcerned with – at-least not in the same way. Kierkegaard laments that people live in bourgeois comfort and have embraced what he calls the “nonsensical Christianly Optimism.” That is the promise of eternal life through Christ, but have failed to reflect on the more troubling aspects of life or to truly realize themselves as separate beings to others in a deep sense. The radical difference then, to put it simply, is that Schopenhauer laments the world and the deep miseries in it in a rather Utilitarian sense, while Kierkegaard laments the fact that we don’t lament more. He says in his Sickness Unto Death:
Is despair a merit or a defect? Purely dialectically it is both. If one were to think of despair only in the abstract, without reference to some particular despairer, one would have to say it is an enormous merit. The possibility of this sickness is man’s advantage over the beast, and it is an advantage which characterizes him quite otherwise than the upright posture, for it bespeaks the infinite erectness or loftiness of his being spirit. The possibility of this sickness is man’s advantage over the beast; to be aware of this sickness is the Christian’s advantage over natural man; to be cured of this sickness is the Christian’s blessedness.
— Anti-Climacus, The Sickness Unto Death p. 45
It is here clear that he feels that despair has a deep personal or existential purpose, and is necessary for us to live above the realm of animals. Schopenhauer would say that we despair in a way the brutes cannot, which is why the brutes’ lot in life is far-more enviable than our own – we feel forms of pain in a way they could never even conceive.
For Schopenhauer despair only has a purpose, that is to say, can be called loosely speaking a “good” thing only if it has us recognize the cruel nature of the world and has us reach out to other’s to help them in their misery in this apathetic and chaotic world. Like the Buddha who I’m sure felt some despair after realizing that other’s suffer greatly when he left his palace, we should only despair when it provides some reinforcement to the moral sentiments of our being – and thereby be a pain that in consequence alleviates the pain of others. But Kierkegaard does not see it this way. He is a silly man, who says we must feel despair to be human, to be Christian and in no way to have any moral approach or effect on anyone through this personal agony.
Though this should not be a surprise that this ludicrousness would appear in the mind of he who said that the religious transcends the ethical and that we should choose the religious over the ethical. Such a statement is clearly made by a mind so wrapped up in pain and confusion that he will sacrifice not only his own common sense but the well-being of others to achieve the solace he believes only surrender to Christ can give him. Much like Tolstoy and Augustine, he seems unable to accept the finite and unpredictable nature of life, so leaps into the arms of an unethical (as a whole, Christianity does have various ethical sentiments however) system as to not deal with the facts of our reality that have been made uncomfortable (that is, has been made a problem) by their sickness. Once one realizes that mortality and death are not a problem – only suffering is – then one feels no need to surrender to God if only he’ll let him live forever; for life itself has no intrinsic value.
The Pessimism of Schopenhauer is despair over the fate of the world and the people in it. The Pessimism of Kierkegaard is the despair over God and that people aren’t loving him enough (or the right way) and not doing as He has told them. While the pain felt by Schopenhauer is noble and makes him commendable in our eyes the pain of Kierkegaard is silly and makes him look like a Woody Allen neurotic who worries about the details of life incessantly. Schopenhauer wishes to liberate us from our pain by adopting the surrender of the will-to-live; while Kierkegaard could only claim to wish to liberate us from what he would call ignorance through despair. It’s so comical I’m not sure a satirist could come up with it as a mockery of philosophy. How awful is the world! Not everyone sees what I do. People aren’t miserable enough! I need to educate them of their subjective state of affairs so they’ll be properly in despair!
Though Kierkegaard deserves respect for some of his ideas I don’t think he deserves much respect as a thinker on the whole. Schopenhauer gives a description of life that is both intuitive, sensible and understandable – Kierkegaard’s philosophy can claim none of the three as a merit for itself. The fact that Schopenhauer isn’t celebrated and loved the world over as an idol and guide of what human beings can achieve with their minds shows the stupidity and baseness of men’s souls. The fact that Kierkegaard isn’t given accolades shows that in some basic sense the world is still sane.