Life and works
Arthur Schopenhauer was born in Danzig (Poland) in 1788: his father was a banker, his mother a well-known novelist. He traveled in his youth to France and England; and after the death of his father he attended the University of Gottingen where he had the skeptic Schulze as a philosophy teacher. His formation was influenced by the doctrines of Plato and Kant. In 1811 in Berlin he listened to Fichte’s lectures; in 1813 he graduated in Jena.
In the following years he lived in Dresden. Here he waited to compose a paper On sight and colors in defense of Goethe’s scientific doctrines. After a trip to Rome and Naples, he becomes a professor at the University of Berlin. The cholera epidemic drove him out of Berlin; he settled in Frankfurt am Main where he remained until his death in 1861.
Cultural roots of the system
Schopenhauer stands as a meeting point for heterogeneous philosophical experiences (Plato, Kant, Enlightenment, Romanticism, Idealism and Indian spirituality). He is attracted by Plato’s doctrine of “ideas”, understood as eternal forms removed from the painful fragility of our world. The subjectivistic approach of his gnoseology derives from Kant. Of the Enlightenment he is interested in the materialistic vein and that of ideology, from which he inherits the tendency to consider psychic and sensorial life in terms of physiology of the nervous system. From Romanticism he draws some basic themes of his thought, such as irrationalism, the great importance attributed to art and music, and the theme of infinity, that is the thesis of the presence, in the world, of an absolute principle of which various realities are manifestations. Another romantic reason is that of pain. Schopenhauer, however, unlike Romanticism, appears to be oriented towards pessimism.
Idealistic thought (“black beast”) is presented as a philosophy not in the service of truth, but of vulgar interests such as success and power, and which sophistically proposes beliefs that are useful to the Church and the State. However, in Fichte and Schelling he recognizes a certain ingenuity, albeit badly employed.
Whatever the judgment in this regard, it is beyond doubt that Schopenhauer:
- he was the first Western philosopher to attempt to recover some motifs of Far Eastern thought
- has drawn from it a precious repertoire of “images” and suggestive expressions
- was an admirer of Eastern wisdom and a “prophet” of his success in the West
The world of representation as a “veil of Maya”
The starting point of Schopenhauer’s philosophy is the Kantian distinction between phenomenon and thing in itself. For Kant the phenomenon is reality, the only reality accessible to the human mind; and the noumenon is a limit concept that serves as a critical reminder to remind us of the limits of knowledge. For Schopenhauer the phenomenon is an illusion, a dream, or what in ancient Indian wisdom is called “Maya’s veil”; while the noumenon is a reality that “hides” behind the deceptive plot of the phenomenon, and that the philosopher has the task of “discovering”. Schopenhauer brings the concept of phenomenon back to a meaning foreign to the spirit of Kantism, close to Indian and Buddhist philosophy. The phenomenon Schopenhauer talks about is a representation that exists only within consciousness. So much so that he believes he can express the essence of Kantianism with the thesis that “the world is my representation”.
Representation has two essential and inseparable aspects, the distinction of which constitutes the general form of knowledge: on the one hand there is the representative subject, on the other there is the represented object. Subject and object exist only within the representation, and neither precedes or can exist independently of the other. Consequently, there can be no subject without object. Materialism is false because it denies the subject by reducing it to the object or matter. Idealism (Fichte) is wrong because it makes the opposite attempt.
Following in the footsteps of criticism, Schopenhauer also believes that our mind, or more precisely our nervous and cerebral system, are accompanied by a series of a priori forms. However, unlike Kant, Schopenhauer only admits three a priori forms: space, time and chance. The latter is the only category, as all the others are attributable to it. Since Schopenhauer compares a priori forms to faceted glasses through which the vision of things is deformed, he considers that life is a “dream”, that is a sort of “spell”, which makes it something similar to dream states. Searching for illustrious precedents of this intuition, Schopenhauer cites the philosophers Veda, Plato, Pindaro, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Calderon de la Barca. But beyond the dream there is true reality, about which the philosopher who is in man cannot help but question himself. In fact, Schopenhauer maintains, man is a “metaphysical animal”, which, unlike other living beings, is led to be amazed at his own existence and to question himself about the ultimate essence of life. This happens in proportion to his intelligence.
The discovery of the way of access to the thing itself
Schopenhauer presents his philosophy of him as the necessary integration to that of Kant, since he boasts of having identified that way of access to the noumenon that Kant had precluded. If we were only knowledge and representation we could never leave the phenomenal world, that is, from the purely external representation of ourselves and of things. But since we are given to ourselves not only as a representation, but also as a body, we do not limit ourselves to “seeing ourselves” from the outside, but we also “live” from the inside, enjoying and suffering. And it is precisely this basic experience that allows man to break the veil of the phenomenon and grasp the thing in itself. More than intellect or knowledge, we are life and the will to live, and our own body is nothing but the outward manifestation of the whole of our inner desires. And the entire phenomenal world is none other than the way in which the will manifests itself or makes itself visible to itself in the space-time representation.
Based on the principle of analogy, Schopenhauer states that the will to live is not only the noumenal root of man, but also the secret essence of all things, that is, the thing in itself of the universe, finally revealed.
Characters and manifestations of the “Will to live”
Being beyond the phenomenon, the Will presents characters opposed to those of the world of representation, as it escapes the forms of the latter: space, time and causality. First of all, the primordial Will is unconscious, since awareness and the intellect constitute only its possible secondary manifestations. Consequently, the term Will is not identified with that of conscious will, but with the more general concept of energy or impulse.
Secondly, the Will is unique, since existing outside of space and time, it escapes what the philosophers of the Middle Ages called the “principle of individuation”. In fact the Will is no more here than it is there. Being beyond the form of time, the Will is also eternal and indestructible, that is, a Principle without beginning or end. Being beyond the category of cause, the Will is configured as a free and blind Force, that is, as an uncaused Energy, without a why and without a purpose. In fact we can look for the “reason” of this or that phenomenal manifestation of the Will, but not of the Will itself. The primordial Will does not have a goal beyond itself: life wants life, the will wants the will, and every motivation or purpose falls within the horizon of living and wanting.
Billions of beings (plants, animals, humans) live only to live and continue to live. According to Schopenhauer, this is the only cruel truth about the world, even though men have tried to “mask” its terrible evidence by postulating a God to whom it would be aimed and in which their life would find a “meaning”. But God, in Schopenhauer’s painful universe, cannot exist and the only Absolute is Will itself.
Pain, pleasure and boredom
Affirming that being is the manifestation of an infinite Will is equivalent to saying that life is pain by essence. In fact, to want means to desire, and to desire means to be in a state of tension, due to the lack of something that one does not have and would like to have. Desire is therefore, absence, emptiness: pain. And since in man the Will is more conscious, he is the most needy and lacking of beings, and destined never to find definitive “fulfillment”; however for one wish that is satisfied, at least ten are left unsatisfied. Indeed, the final satisfaction itself is only apparent: the satisfied desire gives rise to a new desire. No object of the will, once achieved, can give lasting satisfaction.
What men call (physical) enjoyment and (psychic) joy is a cessation of pain, that is, the discharge from a previous state of tension. The same is not true for pain, which cannot be reduced, since an individual can experience a chain of pains, without these being preceded by as many pleasures. Consequently, while pain is a primary and permanent datum, pleasure is only a derivative function of pain, which lives solely at the expense of it.
Alongside pain and pleasure, there is boredom, which occurs when desire or worries disappear. What distinguishes human cases and situations is only the different way or forms in which it manifests itself.
Since the Will to Live manifests itself in all things in the form of a real cosmic Sehnsucht (unfulfilled desire), pain does not concern only man, but every creature. Everything suffers. And if man suffers more than other creatures, it is because he, having greater awareness, is destined to feel the urge of the will more accentuated, and to suffer more from the dissatisfaction of desire and the offenses of evils. In this way, Schopenhauer arrives at one of the most radical forms of cosmic pessimism in the entire history of thought, believing that evil is not only in the world, but in the very Principle on which it depends.
The illusion of love
The fact that Nature is only interested in the survival of the species finds its emblematic manifestation in love, a phenomenon that Schopenhauer considers fundamental for the individual, and which philosophy must deal with. In fact, love is one of the strongest stimuli in existence. The purpose of love, or the purpose for which it is wanted by Nature, is only mating. But if behind the charm of a beautiful face there is, in truth, a hidden sexual desire, it means that the individual is the laughing stock of Nature right there where he believes he can most enjoy his enjoyment and personality. Manifestation of the biological essence of love is the extreme case of the female mantis, which devours the male after sexual union, or the sad observation that the woman, after having fulfilled the procreation and rearing of children, loses beauty and attractions. But if love is a tool for continuing the species, there is no love without sexuality.
And it is for these reasons that love is unconsciously perceived as “sin” and “shame”.
The ways of liberation from pain
From what has been said it emerges that life is pain. One might think that Schopenhauer’s system leads to a “philosophy of universal suicide”. Instead Schopenhauer rejects and condemns suicide for two basic reasons:
- Suicide is not a denial of the will, but an act of strong affirmation of the will itself
- suicide suppresses the individual, that is a phenomenal manifestation of the Will to live, leaving the thing itself intact
consequently, the true response to the pain of the world does not consist in the elimination, through suicide, of one or more lives, but in the liberation from the Will to live itself.
From the awareness of pain and disillusionment in the face of the illusions of existence, the various “stages” of liberation are born. Schopenhauer articulates the salvific process into three essential moments: art, morality and ascesis.
Art, according to Schopenhauer, is free and disinterested knowledge, which turns to ideas, that is, to pure forms or eternal models of things. This happens because in art this love, this affliction and this war become love, affliction and war, or rather the immutable essence of these phenomena. The subject who contemplates ideas is no longer the natural individual, but the pure subject of knowing, the pure eye of the world. Because of its contemplative character and its ability to move in a world of eternal forms, art removes the individual from the infinite chain of daily needs and desires.
Music does not reproduce ideas, like the other arts, but is an immediate revelation of the will to itself. It is configured as the most profound and universal art, capable of putting us in contact with the very roots of life and being. Every art is therefore liberating: since the pleasure it provides is the cessation of need. But the liberating function of art is temporary and partial and has the characteristics of an ephemeral game or a short spell. Consequently, it is not a way out of life, but only a comfort to life itself.
The ethics of piety
Unlike aesthetic contemplation, morality implies a commitment to the world in favor of one’s neighbor. In fact, ethics is an attempt to overcome selfishness and to win that incessant struggle of individuals with each other, which constitutes injustice which is one of the greatest sources of pain. Schopenhauer argues that the law does not spring from a categorical imperative dictated by reason, but from a feeling of “pity” through which we perceive the sufferings of others as our own. Consequently, piety does not arise from an abstract reasoning, but from a lived experience. So much so that it is not enough to know that life is pain and that everyone suffers, because we need to feel and realize this truth.
Morality is concretized in two cardinal virtues: justice and charity.
Justice: the first brake on selfishness, it has a negative character, since it consists in not doing evil and in being willing to recognize in others what we are ready to recognize in ourselves
Charity: positive and active will to do good to others. Unlike eros, it is true love. At its highest levels, piety consists in making one’s own the suffering of all past and present beings and in taking on cosmic pain upon oneself.
Ascesis arises from the “horror” of man “for the being of which his own phenomenon is a manifestation, for the will to live, for the essence of a world full of pain”. It is the experience for which the individual intends to eradicate his desire to exist, to enjoy and to want. The first step of ascesis is “perfect chastity”. The suppression of the will to live, of which ascesis represents the technique, is the only true act of freedom that is possible for man. In fact, the individual is a link in the causal chain and is necessarily determined by his character. But when he recognizes the will as a thing in itself, he escapes the determination of the motives which act on him as a phenomenon. In other words, the awareness of pain as the essence of the world is not a reason, but a quietive of the will, capable of overcoming the individual’s character and his natural tendencies. When this happens, man becomes free, regenerates himself and enters that state that Christians call of grace. However, while in the mystics of Christianity asceticism ends with ecstasy, in Schopenhauer’s atheistic mysticism the path to salvation leads to Buddhist nirvana, which is the experience of nothingness. a nothing relative to the world = negation of the world itself.
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