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…
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.
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.