Humility instead of desire. A plea for more dignity in life


The following article analyses the origin of human suffering. It is desire that leads to suffering, because it can never be completely satisfied. In times of forced consumption within the framework of liberal capitalist values such as competition, rivalry and ambition, an alternative attitude must be devised. People who are addicted to desire must find their way back to dignity, to a proud life of healthy humility. The thoughts of the film director Sokurov and the philosophers Schopenhauer and Voltaire are particularly helpful here. Conclusion: The virtue of humility must replace the vice of desire.

Full line of thought

All wanting comes from need, therefore from lack, therefore from suffering.” Schopenhauer’s philosophical insight comes to a simple but effective equation: wanting = suffering. The absolute urge of the will for more, less philosophically expressed the desire for everything, can only lead to indignation and disappointment. It ultimately intensifies suffering and leaves us ridiculous and exposed. If these thoughts are spun on, Schopenhauer will soon find himself in a dilemma: “Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom.” I feel pain and suffering when I am denied what I desire. Boredom overcomes me when I have finally achieved what I desire. After a short (or no) moment of personal fulfilment, there is desolation and bitterness again. Schopenhauer’s philosophy here becomes a cynical vicious circle – we, humans, are like rats in endless wheels of suffering.

Arthur Schopenhauer

But man would not be man if he allowed himself to be steered like helpless puppets by his suffering, alias his desire, and did not try to escape this fate. Schopenhauer therefore continues to show what remedies there are against this Sisyphos of suffering: Art, morality and asceticism. Art makes the sublime exit from the suffering wheel possible and gives us a moment of peace, morality lets man realize that he is not alone with his suffering and comforts him, and asceticism – the highest form of fighting suffering, but also the most difficult – consists of a total renunciation of life, of a personal nirvana. Ironically, Schopenhauer himself has never reached such a nirvana – his desire and thus his frustration have continued to control his life, whether on a professional or sexual level. The grumpy impulse man probably lacked the final touch of grandeur and humility.

But these two states of grandeur and humility are not so difficult to achieve if we are willing to work on ourselves. Wouldn’t it be better if man were no longer the slave of his primitive, insatiable and often thoughtless needs? If ruthless desire for more and more – think of Goehte’s insatiable character Faust – not only leads to personal damage, but also damages his environment, a critical point has been reached. This inexorable desire has reached alarming proportions over the past centuries and has led to man’s turning away from nature. Until now, man has failed to master nature and appropriate it, but he has come ever closer to destroying it. Talked to the Russian director Alexander Sokurov, the actually sublime and truly dignified people are those who (simply) accept the silence of nature. First, the human being has to practice humility and humility himself. It is enough to look at Sokurov’s impressive power tetralogy (Moloch (1999), Taurus (2001), The Sun (2005) and the excellent Faust (2011)).

But how does man reach modesty and humility? He must combine Schopenhauer and Sokurov. Suffering on the one hand, acceptance on the other hand.

Filmmaker Alexander Sokurov

Suffering is the core of life, it is written down in our DNA from the very beginning, because a priori after birth there is always a lack, which man must satisfy. If he were alone, he would certainly not survive. He needs food, warmth, affection – that’s why he screams. Little by little, man realizes what he needs and accepts it: food, fellow human beings, personal development. The wise among us will try to satisfy these needs, but he will not go beyond them. So, he desires things only to a certain degree. There is – and Schopenhauer overlooked this – also a positive desire that leads to personal development. But in contrast to other wills, this has limits.  Personal insight, understanding of the origin of the suffering as well as reverent interaction with one’s fellow human beings and one’s surroundings are the result. On the other hand, anyone who wants more and more, who cultivates an infinite desire to distance himself from himself and his suffering, ends up in a dead end and lies to himself.

But practicing modesty and indulgence requires hard work. After an odyssey of suffering and disaster, Voltaire concludes in his philosophical adventure Candide: “We must cultivate our own garden.” This credo must be followed: Man should first work on his inner being and his thoughts – not look at the great things and promises. Voltaire’s sentence is a unique lesson in modesty that gives man a dignified place in a sensitive world.

As is often assumed, humility is not a weakness, but a behavior of strength. Ambition and rivalry, desire and competition – these liberal capitalist values – lead to disaster, to human and worldly disaster. Desire is stimulated by this value system, but its means of satisfaction – consumption – is all the more dreadful because it cannot stop this desire in itself! (Modern) consumption is only a partial gap-stopper.

The once high Christian virtue of humility (e.g. with Luther) is today more important than ever. We humans should live with deliberate modesty, not blind desire. That would do us all good!

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