Arthur Schopenhauer: The World as Will and Representation. (10/26/2001)

Arthur Schopenhauer has always had the reputation of being a consummate pessimist, and one that is quite well deserved, since the main tenet of his philosophical position revolves around the notion that human life is, at its best, brief, brutal, and essentially unfulfilling. He states in a chapter entitled "The Road to Salvation," for instance, from his book The World as Will and Representation (Vol. II, Dover Press, 1966) that

"every day of our life up to now has taught us that, even when joys and pleasures are attained, they are in themselves deceptive, do not perform what they promise, do not satisfy the heart, and finally that their possession is at least embittered by the vexations and unpleasantnesses that accompany or spring from them. Pains and sorrows, on the other hand, prove very real, and often exceed all expectation. Thus everything in life is certainly calculated to bring us back from that original error [defined as the will-to-live], and to convince us that the purpose of our existence is not to be happy . . . . so that our heart may be cured of the passion for enjoying and indeed for living, and may be turned away from the world. In this sense, it would accordingly be more correct to put the purpose of life in our woe than in our welfare." (635)

For Schopenhauer, then, "salvation" springs precisely from the fact that life's essential brutality conditions us over the course of its day-to-day passing in absolute wretchedness and desolation to abandon the will-to-live as an individual ego-consciousness so that it will be easier, if not even a pleasant relief, to accept and embrace the inevitability of our own death when it finally comes. Needless to say, he does not, at the same time, hold out even a dim glimmer of hope for an afterlife that might compensate us for the tribulations received in having to live under such horrid conditions as the ones he envisions. I suppose if sufficiently pressed for an answer, Schopenhauer might even venture to say that an afterlife, if such a thing were possible, would only be a repetition of what anyone had already experienced in his/her first attempt at living.

One cannot help but be reminded of Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan, when he characterizes civil society in a condition of "mere nature," prior to the adoption of the "covenants" that formulated the Puritan Commonwealth in 17th Century England, as being a place where everyone lived with "continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutal, and short." In some sense, it is reasonable to assume that Schopenhauer is pursuing a course set out for him, not so much by the perceptions of Thomas Hobbes, but by the conditions that must have existed in European culture over the two hundred years that separated one vision of life and reality from the other. I say this because Schopenhauer's vision, while incredibly pessimistic, is not all that dissimilar on its essential ground, as I understand it, from the way native Americans perceive and describe reality and man's place in it. The difference, however, which is both vast and startling, is that native Americans are almost never pessimistic in their assessment of the human condition, certainly not to the extent that we see in Hobbes and Schopenhauer. The only thing likely to account for that difference is the existence of an underlying ideology in European culture that drives one to a despair that is also, and simultaneously, absent from the thought processes and experiences of the people in the Western hemisphere. Before trying to identify the components of the ideological differences, however, the similarities need to be carefully analyzed and articulated.

Firstly, Schopenhauer notes the utility of employing a circular model in describing how nature manages to create a sense of recurrence in the world; that is,

"The genuine symbol of nature is universally and everywhere the circle, because it is the schema or form of recurrence; in fact, this is the most general form in nature. She carries it through in everything from the course of the constellations down to the death and birth of organic beings. In this way alone, in the restless stream of time and its content, a continued existence, i.e., a nature, becomes possible." (477)

Differences and similarities arise here between Schopenhauer and native perceptions in the fact that he perceives the emergence of "a nature," consistent with "a continued existence" for members of the same class of animals and plants, people included, as it springs forth from "the restless stream of time and its content." In native perceptions, what Schopenhauer refers to as "a nature" giving continuity to individuals over time is the same as what native people have always called spirit. One very meaningful distinction that arises here is that native people would never refer to time as existing in a "restless stream." Indeed, as the Maya have clearly demonstrated, and even on behalf of the entire native population of the Americas prior to Columbus's regretful and destructive advent in 1492, time is circular in both short and long durations, is completely known, measured, and predictable from day-to-day across virtually any temporal distance or duration, is the bridge across which the spirit-world achieves accessibility to people and to the rest of nature, and is endlessly recurrent in its regenerative processes. Schopenhauer's view is severely constricted by virtue of the fact that Europeans have never managed to evolve to a high enough level of awareness to see beyond the idea that time's passage is a threat to the survival of every individual ego-consciousness. This idea has become an intellectual obsession in Western civilization. Schopenhauer avoids this fallacy, if only partially, because he was able to recognize the fact that human beings live in nature and are connected to natural processes exactly in the same way that every other living thing has always been. He says, for instance, that

"With man [nature] does not act otherwise than she does with the animals; hence her declaration extends also to him; the life or death of the individual is a matter of indifference to her. Consequently, they should be, in a certain sense, a matter of indifference to us; for in fact, we ourselves are nature." (474)

What Schopenhauer says here has a specific object in sight, even if he does not seize the opportunity, to my way of thinking, to bring it clearly to the surface of his discourse. Martin Buber, in Paths in Utopia (Beacon Press, 1966), for instance, express a conceptualization of human reality much more traditionally orthodox, from a Judeo-Christian perspective, than the one Schopenhauer calls forth here. Buber says that

"The essential thing among all those things which once helped man to emerge from Nature and, notwithstanding his feebleness as a natural being, to assert himself . . . was this: that he banded together with his own kind for protection and hunting, food gathering and work . . . . This creation of a 'social' world out of persons at once mutually dependent and independent differed in kind from all similar undertakings on the part of animals, just as the technical work of man differed in kind from all the animals' work." (130)

The ideology underlying this perception of profound difference between man and animal, and a position Schopenhauer rejects, claims that God gave man an immortal soul, as the essential seat of all reason, which enabled him to "emerge from Nature" as a religious and social being profoundly set apart from the animal world, from nature itself. One highly questionable assertion in Buber's account is that man was created, when in fact it is more appropriate to say that he evolved, with an essential "feebleness as a natural being," which, if true, would probably have condemned him to extinction long before he/she managed to band together for any purpose at all. In other words, the idea that man was too feeble to survive in the natural world without the help and assistance of an immortal soul is more a religious prejudice than it is a description of anything that is true or verifiable from available scientific evidence. Schopenhauer, well in advance of Buber and in a prior anticipation of his assertion, sees human reality in a similar light, for instance, when he says that

"We shall have false notions about the indestructibility of our true nature through death, so long as we do not make up our minds to study it first of all in the animals, and claim for ourselves alone a class apart from them under the boastful name of immortality. But it is this presumption alone and the narrowness of view from which it proceeds, on account of which most people struggle so obstinately against recognizing the obvious truth that, essentially and in the main, we are the same as the animals." (482)

A second, earlier source underlying Buber's perception, this one Christian as opposed to the likely Hebraic origin of his point-of-view, occurs in Augustine's On Christian Doctrine where he says that

"For a great thing truly is man, made after the image and similitude of God, not as respects the mortal body in which he is clothed, but as respects the rational soul by which he is exalted in honor above the beasts."

While Augustine's statement differs hardly at all from anything that Buber has said, where both stand distinctly in opposition to Schopenhauer and in agreement with virtually all other people of European Christian and Jewish heritage who have been converted by it, Buber's position is more detailed in how the existence of the "rational soul" has allowed human beings to escape from natural restraints, supposedly, by creating social structures and technologies that both accomplish a more radical separation from nature in a physical sense than any that have existed before and then mask that separation, which is really alienation, in forms of linguistic usage and denial that make it seem, intellectually and psychologically, a normal and acceptable way of living in the real world. One consequence of following Augustine's and Buber's point-of-view has been an ever-accelerating lost of respect for the natural world, for the world of "mere" animals and plants, that has thrown all of us headlong against a vision of the future as desolate and barren as the one we see in the war-torn fields of drought-stricken Afghanistan.

As Buber moves to the end of his appeal for a renewed effort to create a Utopian state in the real world, which he models after the communal structure of the modern-day Israeli Kibbutz, he brings forth the image of a circle, one whose "centre cannot be discerned unless it is discerned as being transpicuous to the light of something divine" (135). In sharp distinction to this idea, Schopenhauer argues that nature is the primal force that resides at the center of the universe. In native American philosophy, spirit, which is radically distinct from both nature and God, rests at the center of that same circle. The problem that always arises when God is placed at the center of a circle perceived as defining the true nature of the universe is that His presence there generates the appearance, but never the reality, that everything in nature is arranged in hierarchical structures radiating outward from absolute Goodness at the center to absolute Evil at the circumference. This is inevitable, even if it is not necessarily consistent with Buber's view, because God is usually defined as being all-goodness, a fact which leaves nothing of that quality in any other aspect of reality. The saving grace for man, as it were, is the notion that he has been endowed with a rational soul, which, of course, elevates him to a position above the rest of the natural world. Hence, man, by nature, necessarily leaves the natural world behind to bear the burden of Evil, which often manifests itself in circumstances that are destructive to human life and which just as often arise precisely because human beings believe they are exempt from natural processes. Man escapes any taint of Evil by exercising his free choice to live morally, which is a primary function of the rational soul and is known to it by a kind of instinct arising from the fact that the soul is the essential part of man most closely identified with God's all-encompassing Goodness.

While all this seems perfectly agreeable in the abstract, and indeed it must be so since three of the world's major religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) adhere to most of its primary tenets, in actual concrete practice certain major problems seem to follow along behind the adoption and implementation of attitudes based on so-called God-ordained and immutable laws of binary opposition and hierarchical structure when they actually surface in real human relationships. A first casualty of hierarchical thinking in human society is always and inevitably equality, since by definition one thing or person must be ranked above another for hierarchy to exist at all in the first place. When equality is defined out of existence by prior adherence to hierarchical structure, freedom cannot be said to exist either. Even worse are the effects that arise between and/or among nations that adhere to different versions of this ideology when they find themselves competing for the same speck of holy ground, or natural resource, or population of believers, or anything else that seems to possess some intrinsic, if elusive, value. If only one thing, one idea, one God can be good, then all other things, ideas and Gods must be evil.

The sad fact is that people are not responsible for their own behavior when they undertake a mission from a higher ground to a lower one in the hierarchical structures that exist in this religious ideology. This is made clear, even again and again, when the claim is put forth that only a few radical extremists are responsible for the terrorist attack against the WTC in New York City on September 11, 2001. The fact is that it did not take all of Islam to launch that horror against the world, and it never does require that, when only a few adherents to the ideology are actually required to accomplish the execution of the act. What is true in this circumstance, however, is the fact that the behavior would not have occurred in the absence of the ideology that demanded it as the ultimate response to the existence and to the threat represented by the Other. America's response, the bombing of Afghanistan, is not different. It too has, and will, kill innocent people. It's the ideology, stupid, that drives the killing. It's Yahweh who kills. It's God who kills. It's Allah who kills. Only people can stop the killing.

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