Shadows of Schopenhauer

Arthur_Schopenhauer_Portrait_by_Ludwig_Sigismund_Ruhl_1815

In his masterwork, The World as Will and Representation (1818), which is heavily influenced by Kant, Plato, and the Vedas, Schopenhauer begins by drawing a distinction between the world of appearances, or ‘representation’, and the world as it actually is.

The world as representation
The world of appearances is the world that we perceive through our senses, and it is governed by certain structures, notably, space, time, and causality. It is our experiencing selves that impose these structures onto the world of appearances, and it is through these structures that we apprehend the individual material things that make up the world as we know it. Thus, the world as it appears to us is a product of the kind of organism that we are. Moreover, individual material things depend on us for their order and existence; without us, they simply would not exist as such. Although our bodies are objects in the world of appearances, we ourselves are somehow outside this world and so beyond knowledge. The experiencing subject, says Schopenhauer, knows all things and yet is known by none. It is like the eye that sees everything but cannot see itself.

The world as will
Beneath or beyond the world of representation is the world as it actually is. Now here things get much more interesting. The world-in-itself is the world of will, a fundamentally blind process of striving for survival and reproduction. The whole world is a manifestation of will, including the human body: the genitals are objectified sexual impulse, the mouth and digestive tract are objectified hunger, and so on. Everything about us, including even our higher, cognitive faculties, have evolved for no other purpose than to help us meet the demands of will. Although able to perceive, judge, and reason, our intellect is not designed to pierce through the veil of mâyâ (or illusion) and apprehend the true nature of reality. Instead, it and we are driven by blind will into a life of inevitable frustration, strife, and pain.

Awakened to life out of the night of unconsciousness, the will finds itself an individual, in an endless and boundless world, among innumerable individuals, all striving, suffering, erring; and as if through a troubled dream it hurries back to its old unconsciousness. Yet till then its desires are limitless, its claims inexhaustible, and every satisfied desire gives rise to a new one. No possible satisfaction in the world could suffice to still its longings, set a goal to its infinite cravings, and fill the bottomless abyss of its heart. Then let one consider what as a rule are the satisfactions of any kind that a man obtains. For the most part nothing more than the bare maintenance of this existence itself, extorted day by day with unceasing trouble and constant care in the conflict with want, and with death in prospect…

The unconscious
Our intellect is like a lame man who can see, riding on the shoulders of a blind giant. Schopenhauer anticipates Freud by effectively equating the blind giant of will to our unconscious drives and fears, of which our conscious intellect may not be entirely or even mostly cognizant. For instance, the most powerful manifestation of will is the impulse for sex. Schopenhauer says that it is the will-to-life of the yet unconceived offspring that draws man and woman together in a delusion of lust and love. But with the task accomplished, their shared delusion fades away and they return to their ‘original narrowness and neediness’. Despite what we may tell ourselves, it is blind will that takes charge of our destiny, while our intellect remains largely ignorant of its workings, and is only employed, if at all, to help us justify and come to terms with its dictates.

We often don’t know what we desire or fear. For years we can have a desire without admitting it to ourselves or even letting it come to clear consciousness, because the intellect is not to know anything about it, since the good opinion we have of ourselves would inevitably suffer thereby. But if the wish is fulfilled, we get to know from our joy, not without a feeling of shame, that this is what we desired.

Aesthetic contemplation and genius
So long as we are enthralled to the will, we can know no peace or happiness. One way of disengaging the will is through aesthetic contemplation, when we adopt a disinterested attitude that enables us to consider things free from their or our relation to the will. Through aesthetic contemplation, we can glimpse at the timeless reality of things, not as the individual material things that they are but as the universals or essences that they represent. Genius is nothing but the ability of the perceiver to disengage from the will and, as it were, merge with what he perceives (I say ‘he’ because, according to Schopenhauer, a woman cannot be a genius). Unlike people of mere talent, the genius lives outside the strictures of time and place, and marries insight with imagination to create works of art that in some sense embody and reveal his higher knowledge. Thus, aesthetic contemplation serves both to release us from the tyranny of the will and to enable us to acquire and enjoy a higher knowledge. Schopenhauer speaks highly in particular of tragedy, which, through the enacting of suffering and resignation, brings out both the problem of life and its solution. Music, he says, is ‘a copy of the will itself’, with the progression of musical notes—especially the melody on top—mirroring the progress of our own inner strivings. Music replicates the structures of emotions without however furnishing their contents, enabling us to feel the emotions without feeling or fearing the pain that they are normally associated with.

Compassion
While we have the freedom to do what we will, we do not have the freedom to will what we will, and so, in effect, our actions are determined. Yet we somehow feel responsible for our actions, indicating that there is an aspect of us that lies beyond the world as representation and that escapes deterministic causal necessity. Our character is inborn and constant, and manifested through our actions over time. Three fundamental forces drive our actions: compassion, malice, and egoism, with egoism most commonly in the driving seat. Yet, some people are brimming with compassion, the existence of which, Schopenhauer tells us, is ‘a mystery’. Compassionate people not only make the world more bearable for others, but also exist in a higher plane. This is because they tend to see other people less as other objects in the world and more as other selves, and so are closer to apprehending the unity and indivisibility of reality—piercing through the veil of mâyâ to the Vedantic principle that tat tvam asi (‘that art thou’).

Pessimism and renunciation
The will is the cause of constant suffering, creating deficiencies for us to satisfy. On this account, satisfaction or happiness is not a positive state but merely the removal of striving and suffering. Once a deficiency is satisfied, another inevitably arises, and, with it, more striving and suffering; even if satisfaction can be sustained for a short while, this only leads to boredom. All considered, says Schopenhauer, it would have been better for us and the world never to have existed. The only way out of this predicament is to reach the realization that our individuality and the world of appearances are illusions, renounce those illusions, and welcome the eventual release of death—which, since reality is outside of time, is itself an illusion. A man who has found this nirvana (‘blown out’, as in a candle) is either a saint or has suffered so intensely or for so long that his will has been broken. Freed from willing, he is left as a pure knowing being, ‘the undimmed mirror of the world’, and marked out from other men by his calm confidence, his insight, and his compassion. And this, for Schopenhauer, is as good as it’s ever going to get.

How Can We Tell When We Are Deceiving Ourselves?

masks

Last week, I received a question from one of my readers.

“Just a quick question: I’ve gotten a bit confused about your posts considering self-deception. Are ordinary things like seeing the bright side of bad things, a silver lining or an opportunity in misfortune just feeble rationalizations in order for us to live in a comfy illusion?

Your example about ‘sweet lemons’, a rejected love interest explained away as a blessing in disguise doesn’t feel to me as an illusory or self-deceptive belief. If a cancer patient is glad that they can respect life more fully after getting sick, surely they’re not just dwelling in self-deception and rationalizing away things, clinging in some mistaken belief.

Could you clear things up a little about the murky world of self-deception, for example, what is considered as a deception? It’s true that someone might for example, say that they got connected better, they’re keeping doors open, that at least they got experience and that it’s all part of life when their job interview got rejected, and this would allow them to feel better, but I’ve never considered that this would be some sort of self-deception, that they’re “wrong” in some respect.

Thanks in advance for your answer.”

My reply:

“Dear X,

That’s a very good question. How do we know when we are deceiving ourselves, rather than learning or growing from our experiences? It is in the nature of self-deception that it is very hard to distinguish from the truth—whether the internal (emotional) truth or the external truth. To a large extent, one has to develop and trust one’s instinct: what does it feel like to react in the way that I am reacting? Does it feel calm, considered, nuanced, and mature, or does it rather feel like a shallow, knee-jerk reaction? Does it take the welfare of others into account, or is it just all about me? Am I satisfied with, even proud of, my self-conquering effort, or do I instead feel angry or anxious or gratuitously and inappropriately elated?

Second, self-deception does not ‘add up’ in the grand scheme of things, and can easily be brought down by even superficial questioning. As with a jigsaw, try and look at the bigger picture and see how the thought or reaction fits in. Did I react from a position of vulnerability or a position of strength? Am I being fair (or just) to myself and others? What would the person I respect the most think? Talk to other people and garner their opinions. If they disagree with you, does that make you feel angry or upset i.e. even more defensive? The degree of coherence, or lack thereof, of a reaction can in itself give us a clue as to its real nature.

Third, truth is adaptive whereas lies are destructive. So how useful is my thought or reaction going to be? Is it just covering up an irrational fear that I have always been unable to face, or is it a solid foundation upon which to build a secure and reliable future? Is it going to help me fulfill my highest potential as a human being, or is it depriving me of opportunities for growth and going to cause me even more problems down the line? Is the cycle going to repeat itself, or will I, so to speak, escape the circle of eternal rebirth?

I hope this goes some way to answering your question.

With best wishes,

Neel”

What Lies Behind Pythagoras’ Theorem

pythagoras

Pythagoras (570-500 BC) was born on the island of Samos in what is now Greece. On the advice of Thales of Miletus, he travelled to Memphis in Egypt where he came into contact with priests renowned for their wisdom. At the age of 40, he fled the tyranny of Polycrates to Croton in Southern Italy, where he established a philosophical and religious community. Those who entered the community’s inner circle were governed by a strict set of ascetic and ethical rules, forsaking personal possessions, assuming a mainly vegetarian diet, and—since words are so often careless and misrepresentative—observing the strictest silence. Some of the community’s more eccentric rules, such as ‘do not break bread’ or ‘do not poke the fire with a sword’ may have been riddles or allegories that required interpreting. Pythagoras’ brotherly community has been hailed as a prototype for later philosophical institutions such as Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and Epicurus’ Garden, and, indeed, for the monastic life and associated early universities.

Music played an important role in Pythagoras’ community. Pythagoreans recited poetry, sang hymns to Apollo, and played on the lyre to cure illnesses of both body and soul. It is said that, one day, Pythagoras passed by some blacksmiths at work, and found that their hammering on anvils produced especially harmonious sounds. He then found that the anvils were simple ratios of one another, one being half the size of the first, another two thirds of the size, and so on. This discovery of a relationship between numerical ratios and musical intervals led Pythagoras to believe that the study of mathematics was the key to understanding the structure and order of the universe. According to his ‘harmony of the spheres’, the heavenly bodies move according to mathematical equations that correspond to musical notes and form part of a grand cosmic symphony.

Pythagoras never separated religion from science and philosophy, which, even in his day, left him open to accusations of mysticism. No doubt under the influence of Orphism, an Ancient Greek mystery religion that arose from pre-Hellenic beliefs and the Thracian cult of Zagreus, he believed in the transmigration of the soul; that is, in the reincarnation of the soul over time into the bodies of human beings, animals, or plants (metempsychosis) until such a time as it became moral. He claimed to have lived four lives and to remember them all in great detail, and once recognized the cry of his dead friend in the yelping of a puppy. After his death, the Pythagoreans deified him, and attributed him with a golden thigh and the gift of bilocation (being in two places at once). But in his own lifetime Pythagoras had always been a paragon of modesty, declining to be called a ‘wise man’ or ‘sophos’, and preferring instead to be called ‘a lover of wisdom’ or ‘philosophos’—thereby coining the term ‘philosopher’.

It is said that Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, had been schooled by Pythagoras, whence his great wisdom and piety. This story is referred to and discredited by Plutarch and Livy, not least because the dates do not tally, with Pythagoras having lived from about 570 to 500 BC, and so considerably later than the semi-legendary King Numa. Even though Pythagoras and Numa never met, Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans exerted a strong influence on the Roman mind. In the Tusculan Disputations, Cicero indicates that Pythagoras rose to fame in southern Italy at just the same time that Brutus brought an end to the monarchy, and that many Roman usages derived from the Pythagoreans. Unfortunately, he does not elaborate on the nature of these usages. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder tells us that, in 343 BC, during the war with the Samnites, the god Apollo ordered the Romans to erect one statue to the wisest and another to the bravest of all Greeks, with their choices falling upon Pythagoras for the former and Alcibiades for the latter. Pliny expresses surprise that they picked Pythagoras over Socrates, whom Apollo himself had called the wisest of all men. But the fact is that the Romans liked to think of the Greek-Italian Pythagoras as their very own philosopher, and spun all sorts of stories, such as the one about Numa, to better appropriate him.

Apart from this, Pythagoras also exerted a strong indirect influence on Roman thinking, and indeed on all philosophy and theology, through the teachings of Plato, the principal architect of the western mind. Aristotle, who was Plato’s pupil of twenty years, claimed that his master’s teachings owed much to those of Pythagoras; so much, in fact, that, in his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell upheld not Plato but Pythagoras as the most influential of all Western philosophers. Pythagoras’ influence is especially evident in Plato’s mystical approach to the soul and in his emphasis on mathematics and, more generally, abstract thinking, as a secure basis for the practice of philosophy.

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