Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), the German philosopher of pessimism, famously once compared human existence to running downhill. For him, life is a futile pursuit with each moment vanishing into nothingness:
'That which has been exists no more; it exists as little as that which has never been... A man finds himself, to his great astonishment, suddenly existing, after thousands and thousands of years of non-existence: he lives for a little while; and then, again, comes an equally long period when he must exist no more... Of every event in our life we can say only for one moment that it is; for ever after, that it was. Every evening we are poorer by a day.
The whole foundation on which our existence rests is the present — the ever-fleeting present. It lies, then, in the very nature of our existence to take the form of constant motion, and to offer no possibility of our ever attaining the rest for which we are always striving. We are like a man running downhill, who cannot keep on his legs unless he runs on, and will inevitably fall if he stops; or, again, like a pole balanced on the tip of one’s finger; or like a planet, which would fall into its sun the moment it ceased to hurry forward on its way. Unrest is the mark of existence. In a world where all is unstable, and nought can endure, but is swept onwards at once in the hurrying whirlpool of change; where a man, if he is to keep erect at all, must always be advancing and moving, like an acrobat on a rope — in such a world, happiness in inconceivable' (On the Vanity of Existence).
For Schopenhauer then, this ceaseless motion is pointless even if he admits that the alternative would be 'some timeless, changeless state, one and undiversified' which might be rather dull. But maybe recognising that human life is short and meaningless (at least from the perspective of the universe) offers a kind of freedom. If life is a race from cradle to the grave and nothing more, we need not worry too much about eternity and can find meaning in the moments we have - and just enjoy the run. And what can be better than running down a long slow descent? Now if life was just a run uphill, there might be a cause for pessimism...
|The highlight of my weekly 5k at Hilly Fields parkrun - the charge downhill|