Despite the wide range of views philosophers have taken across history, one of the more consistent things that they have told us in one form or another is that we should not value pleasure and the things of this world. That this world is empty and devoid of meaning. Not only that, the pleasures found in this world are often ruinous and psychologically addictive. We yearn for things and then fall into despair when the imagined pleasure and meaning we attach to the pleasure is not met or materialized into our lives. Failure is painful, but the Stoics advise us that we should define ourselves not by what others do to us (if we are loved – a happy fact it doesn’t matter since more-often than not we are not loved) by what we do to others – in-effect we are who we choose to be.
This view, combined with the Stoic mindset of Existential Nihilism and Negative Utilitarianism are perhaps the wisest truths of all philosophy in my view – from the pragmatist outlook of philosophy is supposed to shape our lives not tell us what it cannot about reality. The two main sects that seem to get the main pragmatic points of our perception to existence, our own identity and what our aims or goals should be (or if we should have personal aims or goals) are Schopenhauer and the Cynics.
The Cynics take the view that the things valued by society are without extrinsic value. Not merely that society (nor law, religion or any aspect of society) does not determine what is valuable, but what they value is without. So, for example, someone could take the view that society values money, and though it is valuable not because society says it is it is still valuable; this however is not the view of the Cynics. The view of the Cynics is that sex, money, power, fame, reputation, love, and all external things that we pursue for pleasure are without intrinsic value. They give the argument that they do not follow “from Nature” which seemingly all things to be valued are to be found in or derive from.
This emphasis on Nature is a mistake, and Schopenhauer is a philosopher to point it out. What the Cynics are essentially presuming is a rational and ethical nature of humanity and existence that humans are straying away from. Quite the contrary. Our desires, our urges, the drives of our lives and all existence is evil says Schopenhauer, for they bring great pain through lack of satisfaction and through perpetuating this vane veil of tears and sorrow through perpetuating the species and the cultural norms (e.g. capitalism, superficiality, hedonism etc.) that perpetuate both political (social) and psychological (personal) forms of suffering. Clearly it is better never to have been, but since we cannot undo our births, it is best says many (Cynics, Stoics, Buddhists, Epicureans, Buddhists etc.) to be serene and detach ourselves from this external existence and the sinister desires that keep us attached to this existence.
So in essence it is not nature that we return to but the very thing we reject when we become ascetics and deny the deepest desires of our material existence; we instead focus on the internal life of the mind, since all joy is truly found there though happiness can be created momentarily through satisfaction of desires or through various external stimuli. Focusing on the life of the internal requires mental training – as the Cynic-Stoics advise for us – and it also involves appreciation of the intellectual and the aesthetic (philosophy and art) since both things create a disinterested or non-personal form of pleasure that cannot be destroyed the way the “false-gods” of love, fame and the pleasures created by the external world can. In the Old Testament the false-god Mammon, the god of material desires is shunned in favor of the Christian God. If this is viewed metaphorically, rather than literally, and Mammon is the loves and desires of this world while the Kingdom of God exists in our own minds, then many philosophers would preach the same parable as true and wise.
Many, if not most, philosophers say very comparable things, though some are wiser and make further connections in our intellectual and emotional understanding than others. Schopenhauer for example realizes that this existence is evil, the Cynics still want to believe our nature is good though they are Anti-Natalists (technically a tenable position but it seems that if our nature was truly good and rational then it wouldn’t be preferable not to have been born) and the Stoics believe all things are good though we should be dispassionate in all things and not value them (which is a contradiction – for if all things were truly good and to be valued then it would not be an error to attach ourselves to external existence). All three are wise but despite the errors of Schopenhauer he seems to have the most accurate and complete picture of the dispassionate view of existence. His appreciation of art should be combined with the Cynics insistence that philosophy must be lived (it exists to help people – to be practical – not to depict or debate the constituents of reality) to finish the picture of things.
Philosophy is not meant to discover reality. It is only meant to discover the nature of things to the extent we discover whether we should value the practical or the Noumenal – and we discover what Kant could not in knowing it is the practical and not the Noumenal which has value. For of course Kant thought that if we have free will in the Noumenal (which he says if memory serves we might or do if God exists so he assumes wrongly that we do) this supersedes the apparent lack of free will in the phenomenal knowable realm of existence. Quite the contrary. Though it is true that we could theoretically (though we’ll never know) have free will in the Noumenal realm, it is the phenomenal and practical realm of existence which only has value and meaning to us. If I told you in a way that you would know with absolute certainty that a tiger was not in reality a tiger but a rabbit would you rush over to pet it? Most-likely not, and just as if some hypothetical absolute source of knowledge told us we were crabs, we would not scuttle to the beach and crack shells, so whether or not free will or God or anything else in the Noumenal has no effect on our lives. Our lives are experienced in this world (which is full of delusion and deception on some levels – and may be a deception altogether) and we must cut ourselves off from both the intellectual vanity of attempting to discover the Noumenal and the false hopes of love and desire in this material world.
Philosophy in the personal realm is as depicted by the philosophers I have previously mentioned; in the ethical it is concern for our fellow sufferers who inhabit this evil world with us; and in the political sub-division of the ethical it is having the policies and institutions put in place so people can live freely and with as little pain as possible. In the ethical realm we should be compelled to practice compassion for all life (to the extent possible). One of the founders of Cynicism said he would rather go mad than feel pleasure, and Schopenhauer (though it is stated implicitly by many other wise men) says that which we must always remember for it is perhaps the greatest piece of wisdom ever uttered: it is far-better to pursue lack of pain than pursue pleasure. If we remember this, all desires that have our heart race slips away, and we can once again be dispassionate enough to pursue the life of the mind and creativity rather than the false-gods of status, fame and love.