Thursday, July 29, 2010

The world as will

In chapter 28 of volume II of The World as Will and Representation Schopenhauer writes:
Every glance at the world, to explain which is the task of the philosopher, confirms and proves that will to live, far from being an arbitrary hypostasis or an empty word, is the only true expression of its inmost nature. Every thing presses and strives towards existence, if possible organised existence, i.e., life, and after that to the highest possible grade of it. In animal nature it then becomes apparent that will to live is the keynote of its being, its one unchangeable and unconditioned quality. Let any one consider this universal desire for life, let him see the infinite willingness, facility, and exuberance with which the will to live presses impetuously into existence under a million forms everywhere and at every moment, by means of fructification and of germs, nay, when these are wanting, by means of generatio aequivoca, seizing every opportunity, eagerly grasping for itself every material capable of life : and then again let him cast a glance at its fearful alarm and wild rebellion when in any particular phenomenon it must pass out of existence; especially when this takes place with distinct consciousness. Then it is precisely the same as if in this single phenomenon the whole world would be annihilated for ever, and the whole being of this threatened living thing is at once transformed into the most desperate struggle against death and resistance to it.
Nietzsche, at various times, seemingly rejects the idea that we can know the inmost nature of the world and insists that this inmost nature is will to power. (People who read Nietzsche tend to believe that he contains multitudes or else that we should carefully exclude remarks he probably did not mean so that a consistent Nietzsche emerges.)

Bernard Reginster argues that Nietzsche wants to improve on Schopenhauer's theory. Schopenhauer, he says, identifies suffering with resistance to the will, sees suffering as an inescapable feature of life, and thinks the best we can do is resign ourselves to it. He thinks that Nietzsche, in contrast, wills (or advocates the willing of) suffering so that the will has some resistance to overcome. So both see suffering as inevitable but Schopenhauer pessimistically regards this as bad and unavoidable, while Nietzsche optimistically regards it as good and embraceable. He sounds a a bit like Camus on Sisyphus.

Reginster knows much more about Schopenhauer and Nietzsche than I do, so I'm probably wrong, but I wonder whether maybe Nietzsche is misreading Schopenhauer if this is what he really thinks. For one thing, willing endless suffering does not sound like the most optimistic thing one could do. For another, as Iris Murdoch has pointed out, Schopenhauer isn't really that pessimistic. He recommends not mere resignation but an enlightened love of the world. Life, after all, will go on after my death, and so will the matter I am made of. Some people find no comfort in this idea, but Schopenhauer praises dust:
Oh! Do you know this dust then? Do you know what it is and what it can do? Learn to know it before you despise it. This matter, now lying there as dust and ashes, will soon form into crystals when dissolved in water. It will shine as metal; it will then emit electric sparks; It will, indeed, of its own accord, form itself into plant and animal; and from its mysterious womb it will develop that life, about the loss of which you in your narrowness of mind are so nervous and anxious.
(WWR, Volume 2, p. 472)

Since we are mostly water I imagine we will evaporate and then fall as rain, like the newlyweds and others on the train at the end of Larkin's "The Whitsun Weddings." Perhaps most importantly, Schopenhauer writes that it would be just as accurate to call the world embodied music as embodied will. This is not a resigned, pessimistic idea. Nor does it suggest that we should be too literal about interpreting his ideas about the will to live. Suffering, finally, belongs to the rather illusory world of maya. Enlightenment releases us from it.

In fact, since suffering helps us find enlightenment, Schopenhauer claims that it is desirable. He gives the example of the satisfaction people take in hard physical work. At this point, the contrast with Nietzsche's position is hard for me to see.


  1. I don't have anything to say about the S vs. N issue, but I think fairly often--roughly every time I teach an excerpt from Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning--about suffering and whether it is desirable. I think the comparison of suffering to hard work can be seriously misleading, because one can work hard without suffering (and the work might be strenuous, exhausting, etc.). But there's suffering and then there's suffering. Frankl talks of finding meaning in "bearing one's cross," but importantly, he stresses that suffering is inevitable. (Compare to Buddha's first noble truth.) So, it's not like one needs to go find a cross to pick up! (Indeed, if there's something else you can do that's worthwhile, go do that instead of self-flagellation.) And having something to live for (a "why") can make suffering bearable. So I don't know why anyone would need (or want) to say that suffering is desirable rather than, more simply, that it is a fact. What's desirable is the struggle to overcome it (and perhaps what we can learn about our own potential in successfully struggling).

  2. Yes, one can work hard without suffering, that's certainly true. I think Schopenhauer's point is that, as bad as it is, even suffering can be a good thing. And this is the case when, like hard work, it achieves something. And he thinks it can achieve something because it can lead to enlightenment. When it does that it is not really suffering at all but joy. He wants to think that he's saying something that Buddhists and Christians might agree with. Reginster reads Nietzsche as saying that the struggle to overcome suffering is desirable and that, since you can't have this struggle without suffering, suffering is therefore desirable too. I think both S and N are trying to find the possibility of meaning in suffering, and I'm really not sure how different their views are in the end. But I prefer Schopenhauer's way of putting things.

  3. whenever schopenhauer registers a similarity between his thought and a religious tradition, it always sounds like the darkest parody to me: he grants the suffering but eradicates all trace of hope. i don't quite get the relevance of the book I, part 4 passage you point to; i doubt that i've understood it properly, but i read it in the context of the doctrines about character and the denial of practical moral guidance from the beginning of part 4. it sounds to me like the kind of enlightenment schopenhauer is referring to there is dependent upon one's character, and thus the possibility of reaching it is not within our control (unless we're lucky enough to be saints).

    (the formulations that put 'resignation' in terms of knowledge do start suggesting that there's a connection between schopenhauer's philosophy, as some variety of knowledge, and the concrete knowledge of suffering leading to denial of the will and salvation, but i haven't yet been able to make out whether that's coherent on schopenhauer's part. elsewhere he seems to insist that philosophy is a kind of knowledge autonomous from any of the others he mentions, significantly including any pure knowledge of the ideas, and that it has nothing like any of the practical effects like cessation of the will he associates with the latter knowledge.)

  4. Thanks, j. I'm not quite sure which passage you're referring to (did you mean book II, part 4?), and it is entirely possible that I am misreading it anyway. I've read Schopenhauer, but I'm no expert. It's also quite possible that what he writes is not really coherent. But I think I disagree about the dark parody idea. I know that others don't find consolation in Schopenhauer's ideas, but I do. And I think there is a real similarity between what he says and what some Buddhists would say, and some Christians too (Simone Weil perhaps, for instance). J.S. Mill recommends moving away from egoism as a way to avoid boredom and fear of death. Schopenhauer's view is similar, if more extreme, and I think there is something to it. But I don't know how to demonstrate that it isn't absurd.

  5. oh, i had in mind the one you linked to—i meant vol. 1, book 4... §68?

    i didn't say i didn't take any consolation in the dark parody, just that that's the character i take it to have. in that respect i suppose in those moments schopenhauer seems to me like a metal band who really revels in their gestures of denial. perhaps like schopenhauer it could be interpreted as a small pleasure taken at the justice of what is said, rather than one especially attaching to what is said itself, or its significance. (certainly a cousin to the attitude some of the buddhists, particularly zen buddhists, i've read seem to have toward their own words and the reaction they are likely to meet with in their listeners.)

  6. Thanks. I thought you must have meant a passage that I linked to, but I couldn't find one that fit that description. Still can't in fact, but I must be mad or blind. Everything above seems to be from Vol II.

    Anyway, you might be right about the character of Schopenhauer's remarks. When he talks about nothingness he seems to be reveling in denial, at least a little bit. I suppose it is dark, but it's so full of a kind of love of life that the darkness is not what strikes me. That might be just because he's so famous for his pessimism that darkness is what you expect, whereas the humour and joy, the energy and reveling, come as a surprise.