فصل 23

دوره: تاریخچه کوتاهی از فلسفه / درس 23

فصل 23

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chapter 23

Glimpses of Reality

Arthur Schopenhauer

Life is painful and it would be better not to have been born. Few people have such a pessimistic outlook, but Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) did. According to him, we are all caught up in a hopeless cycle of wanting things, getting them, and then wanting more things. It doesn’t stop until we die. Whenever we seem to get what we want, we start wanting something else. You might think you would be content if you were a millionaire, but you wouldn’t be for long. You’d want something you hadn’t got. Human beings are like that. We’re never satisfied, never stop craving for more than we have. It’s all very depressing.

But Schopenhauer’s philosophy isn’t quite as dark as this sounds. He thought that if we could only recognize the true nature of reality, we would behave very differently and might avoid some of the bleaker features of the human condition. His message was very close to the Buddha’s. The Buddha taught that all life involves suffering but that at a deep level there is no such thing as ‘the self ‘: if we recognize that, we can achieve enlightenment. This similarity was no coincidence. Unlike most Western philosophers, Schopenhauer had read widely in Eastern philosophy. He even had a statue of the Buddha on his desk, next to one of his other great influences, Immanuel Kant.

Unlike the Buddha and Kant, Schopenhauer was a gloomy, difficult, vain man. When he got a job as a lecturer in Berlin, he was so convinced of his own genius that he insisted that his lectures should take place at exactly the same time as Hegel’s. This wasn’t his greatest idea, as Hegel was very popular with students. Hardly anyone showed up to Schopenhauer’s lectures; Hegel’s, meanwhile, were packed. Schopenhauer later left the university and lived for the rest of his life on inherited money.

His most important book, The World as Will and Representation, was first published in 1818, but he kept working on it for years, producing a much longer version in 1844. The main idea at the heart of it is quite simple. Reality has two aspects. It exists both as Will and as Representation. Will is the blind driving force that is found in absolutely everything that exists. It is the energy that makes plants and animals grow, but it is also the force that causes magnets to point north, and crystals to grow in chemical compounds. It is present in every part of nature. The other aspect, the World as Representation, is the world as we experience it.

The World as Representation is our construction of reality in our minds. It is what Kant called the phenomenal world. Look around you now. Perhaps you can see trees, people or cars through a window, or this book in front of you; perhaps you can hear birds or traffic or noises in another room. What you are experiencing through your senses is the World as Representation. That is your way of making sense of everything and it requires your consciousness. Your mind organizes your experience to make sense of it all. This World as Representation is the world we live in. But, like Kant, Schopenhauer believed that there was a deeper reality that exists beyond your experiences too, beyond the world of appearances. Kant called that the noumenal world, and he thought we had no direct access to it. For Schopenhauer, the World as Will was a bit like Kant’s noumenal world, though there were important differences.

Kant wrote about noumena, the plural of noumenon. He thought that reality could have more than one part. It is not clear how Kant knew this, given that he had declared that the noumenal world was inaccessible to us. Schopenhauer in contrast held that we couldn’t assume that the noumenal reality was divided at all, since that kind of division requires space and time, which Kant believed were contributed by the individual mind rather than existing in reality itself. Instead Schopenhauer described the World as Will as a single, unified, directionless force behind everything that is. We can glimpse this World as Will through our own actions and also through our experience of art.

Stop reading this and put your hand on your head. What happened? Someone watching you would just see your hand going up and resting on your head. You can see that too if you look in the mirror. This is a description of the phenomenal world, the World as Representation. According to Schopenhauer, though, there is an inner aspect to our experience of moving our body, something that we can feel in a different way from our experience of the phenomenal world in general. We don’t expe- rience the World as Will directly, but we do come very close to that when we perform deliberate actions, when we will bodily actions, make them happen. That’s why he chose the word ‘Will’ to describe reality, even though it is only in the human situation that this energy has any connection whatsoever with doing something deliberately – plants don’t grow deliberately, nor do chemical reactions happen deliberately. So it’s important to realize that the word ‘Will’ is different from ordinary uses of the term.

When someone ‘wills’ something they have an aim in mind: they’re trying to do something. But that is not at all what Schopenhauer means when he describes reality at the level of the World as Will. The Will (with a capital W) is aimless, or, as he sometimes puts it, ‘blind’. It isn’t attempting to bring about any particular result. It doesn’t have any point or goal. It is just this great surge of energy that is in every natural phenomenon as well as in our conscious acts of willing things. For Schopenhauer there is no God to give it direction. Nor is the Will itself God. The human situation is that we, like all reality, are part of this meaningless force.

Yet there are some experiences that can make life bearable. These come mostly from art. Art provides a still point so that, for a short time, we can escape the endless cycle of striving and desire. Music is the best art form for this. According to Schopenhauer that’s because music is a copy of the Will itself. This, he felt, explained music’s power to move us so profoundly. If you listen to a Beethoven symphony in the right frame of mind you aren’t just being stimulated emotionally: you are glimpsing reality as it truly is.

No other philosopher has given such a central place to the arts, so it is not surprising that Schopenhauer is popular with creative people of various kinds. Composers and musicians love him because he believed that music was the most important of all the arts. His ideas have also appealed to novelists including Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann and Thomas Hardy. Dylan Thomas even wrote a poem ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ which was inspired by Schopenhauer’s description of the World as Will.

Schopenhauer didn’t just describe reality and our relation to it. He also had views about how we should live. Once you realize that we are all part of one energy force, and that individual people exist only at the level of the World as Representation, this should change what you do. For Schopenhauer, harming other people is a kind of self-injury. This is the foundation of all morality. If I kill you, I destroy a part of the life force that joins us all together. When someone harms another person it is like a snake biting its tail without knowing that it is sinking its fangs into its own flesh. So the basic morality that Schopenhauer taught was one of compassion. Properly understood, other people aren’t external to me. I care what happens to you because in a way you are part of what we are all part of: the World as Will.

That’s Schopenhauer’s official moral position. It is questionable, though, whether he achieved anything like this degree of concern for other people himself. On one occasion, an old woman chatting outside his door made him so angry that he pushed her down the stairs. She was injured, and a court ordered Schopenhauer to pay compensation to her for the rest of her life. When she died some years later, Schopenhauer showed no compassion: instead he scribbled the joke-rhyme ‘obit anus, abit onus’ (Latin for ‘the old woman dies, the burden goes’) on her death certificate.

There is another, more extreme method for coming to terms with the cycle of desire. To avoid getting caught up in all this, simply turn away from the world altogether and become an ascetic: live a life of sexual chastity and poverty. This, he felt, would be the ideal way to cope with existence. It is the solution many Eastern religions opt for. Schopenhauer, however, never became an ascetic, despite withdrawing from social life as he grew older. For most of his life he enjoyed company, had affairs, ate well. It is tempting to say that he was a hypocrite. Indeed, the vein of pessimism that runs through his writing is so deep in places that some readers thought that if he had been sincere he would have killed himself.

The great Victorian philosopher John Stuart Mill, in contrast, was an optimist. He argued that rigorous thought and discussion could spur social change and bring about a better world, a world in which more people could lead happy and fulfilled lives.

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