Arthur Schopenhauer was an Eighteenth century German philosopher who was by all accounts an egotistical, dour, misogynistic man. He lived during a seminal time in that country’s philosophical history, and his philosophy was an answer to one of the great philosophers in whose shadow he lived — Kant.
Kant had divided reality in two: the the world of appearances — what our senses report, and the thing itself — the underlying reality responsible for it all. Kant said the thing itself was unknowable. However, Schopenhauer concluded the thing itself was The Will.
The Will was not just desire and intention (driven by desire). The Will was also a single, universal force, that applied to even inanimate objects! Yes, The Will was not only responsible for the struggles of life, but even for rocks falling, lightning striking, etc… But the real upshot was the consequences.
The Will was the source of all life’s suffering, and for Schopenhauer, all life was one long string of suffering, broken only by the occasional moments of boredom. It was a miserable view of existence, subject to only temporary relief.
This relief came in denying the will. This could be done via asceticism, compassion or the contemplation of art. For Schopenhauer, art — true art — was an objectification or idealization of the will, and in contemplating art the will was contemplating itself and would temporarily cease.
The will as the one true reality? A universal will? Rocks and trees subject to will? Life as (largely) unrelieved suffering? Salvation through artistic contemplation? Our efforts only yielding temporary relief? On the surface, the philosophy seems a curious mix of the depressing and the false. Yet, there is much to salvage and a certain interpretation supports these views.
A MORE DEFENSIBLE PHILOSOPHY
If I equate the world (reality) with experience, then many problems vanish. Doing so is defensible. After all, reality is what I know and that comes from experience. Even “objective” reality is an experience. If I “know” the planet Jupiter exists or that Alexander The Great existed, it is because I had an experience of reading it in a book or hearing someone claim this.
But my experience is not passive. I actively create it by selective attention and interpretation, both of which are a function of my will. For example, if I see two people pushing plastic pieces around, what is my experience? If I don’t know what they are doing, it is meaningless and I may not even notice them. If I know they are playing chess (and like the game), then I may see an exciting battle unfold, lose track of my surroundings, time, and even myself.
An analogy may help. Potential Reality is like a pitch black room and my attention is a narrow beam of light I sweep through it. It only reveals things fuzzily, so I have to interpret what I see. Where I choose to direct the beam and how I interpret the things I barely see become (actual) reality for me, and these are driven by the will
The reality that matters most is my emotions (eg: happiness, misery, etc..) And it is this — the emotional content of things — in which the will is most active.
So it is not a stretch to claim that the will is the true reality underlying appearances.
But how can it be active in inanimate objects? This is a stretch, but maybe I can treat it as a shorthand for the most relevant force that drives things to motion? Gravity in falling rocks, atmospheric conditions in lightning and desires in people?
Obviously the will is a sign that something is lacking, otherwise I would not be motivated to do anything. This lack can be seen as suffering, provided it is broadly defined as anything from a mild desire, to soul crushing grief. To this end, suffering is ubiquitous even though I make do and often dismiss it as a part if life.
If the will is the problem, then denying it is the solution. This denial must also be mental. That is, surface asceticism must be accompanied with an inward renunciation. Compassion is action, but requires a mental state that seeks the benefit of others and sheds egotistical thought.
How does art fit in? Why would contemplating an objectification of the will help? Mindfulness may help provide an answer. When I observe something — no matter how personal — I detach from it. So for example, I can feel anger, but if I observe it, it seems separate from me and does not move me. Perhaps art, by objectifying the will, accomplishes this detachment? Now, I observe something external, but which I recognize as within me? Maybe in this form, I see it as universal and in this recognize a kinship with others and hence transcend myself?
Is relief only temporary? I can nitpick and claim that temporary means anything short of 100% of the time. Is this supported by Schopenhauer? That he thinks this temporariness is a problem would seem to imply otherwise, but maybe he nitpicks? After all, he rejects suicide as an escape because he thinks The Will still wins, so it seems he values ideals above relief. Such an attitude would seem to reject anything short of complete relief, no matter how beneficial. But there is another angle from which to view this.
If temporary means relief only while I am denying the will, then relief can be extended by maintaining the denial into daily life. This assumes levels of relief, instead of an all or nothing proposition. I can be more ascetic, more compassionate and even see more art (will) in things like architecture, music, movies, and even the strivings of others. In seeing this, I see in that moment the universality of will and my kinship with others.
Additionally, the possibility of relief colors my day to day experience. Suffering decreases upon the backdrop of knowing it can be overcome, a knowing strengthened by having done it before. Sure, I can forget and fall into the same patterns, but for a good while, I remember and things differ on that memory alone. The more I transcend, the more the realization sits before me to blunt suffering. The moments can even start to merge, the more experiences I have.
Schopenhauer had some fascinating views, although his pessimism caused him to overstate the case and blinded him to the more universal applicability of his solutions. It is easy to dismiss his views as pathological, especially in light of his life. However, there is enough truth to what he says to reward a more liberal interpretation of his work. As metaphor or hyperbole, his views on the will provide ways of looking at the source of dissatisfaction in life, and serves as a reminder that desire underlies intentionality. Finally, his merger of aesthetics and salvation is — as far as I know — unique.
The Wikipedia article is quite readable and informative. Its views on how artistic contemplation works feels more like absorption, but has some affinity to the mindfulness approach described above. It also sets his views in historical perspective,