Philosophy, Videos

The Ethics of Schopenhauer

The following is a transcript of this video.

In this lecture we will investigate the ethical side of Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Which as he put it, is:

“the part of our discussion which proclaims itself as the most serious, for it concerns the actions of men, the subject of direct interest to everyone, and one which can be foreign or indifferent to none.”
The World as Will and Representation

In the first lecture of this 2 part series, we saw how Schopenhauer thought the role of philosophy to be:

“To lay bare the true nature of the world. “

Building on the ideas of Immanuel Kant, he arrived at the conclusion that this universe is a manifestation of a single underlying blind force which is characterized by a restless striving. He called this inner core of all things will or the will to live, since it’s manifestations in this world first and foremost strive towards survival and propagation. As human beings, like all other things, are manifestations of will, it follows that humans are also, like will, characterized by a restless striving. This means according to Schopenhauer, that it is in our nature to spend our days frantically pursuing desires and goals. Even when are basic survival needs have been satiated, we cannot relax in a state of peace and happiness, but instead must find new needs and desires to keep us in a state of frenzied striving.

According to Schopenhauer, what keeps us motivated to maintain our continual pursuit of desires and goals, is the belief that upon satiating our desires and achieving our goals we will rid ourselves of our suffering and attain happiness and lasting satisfaction.

…happiness lies always in the future, or else in the past, and the present may be compared to a small dark cloud driven by the wind over the sunny plain; in front of and behind the cloud everything is bright, only it itself always casts a shadow.

Although, we think happiness awaits us in the future, according to Schopenhauer such a future never arrives and no matter how hard we strive, the dark cloud always looms over us.

“Everything in life proclaims that earthly happiness is destined to be frustrated, or recognized as an illusion. The grounds for this lie deep in the very nature of things.”

When we desire something or set a goal, we do so from a state of deficiency, wanting something we do not have. Not having something we want implies we are dissatisfied with our current condition. Which in turn implies that we are suffering from the pain of longing for something that is not yet ours.

“All willing springs from lack, from deficiency, and thus from suffering”

Motivated under the deluded condition that once we attain that which we desire we will be satisfied with our life, we work hard, persevere and strive to overcome the obstacles that stand between us and our goals. However, when we secure what we crave, Schopenhauer thought we do not experience the joy we had been expecting, rather according to Schopenhauer we experience merely an anticlimactic feeling of being released from our previous state of suffering. In other words, the satisfaction felt upon attaining a goal or satiating a desire is not positive but negative, meaning that it is nothing but the elimination of a prior pain.

“All satisfaction, or what one commonly calls happiness, is really and essentially always only negative and never at all positive. It is not a gratification that come to us originally and of itself, but must always be the satisfaction of a desire… Therefore, satisfaction or gratification can never be more that liberation from a pain, from a hardship “

Failing to achieve the lasting happiness and joy which we thought would befall us upon attaining our goals, Schopenhauer declared that the novelty of being free from the suffering associated with the striving after goals would ware off, and when this happens the dreadful burden of boredom takes over. With no desires or goals to keep us in the state of striving, we are stripped of the delusional or yet consoling belief that happiness awaits and we succumb to anxiety and despair.

“Accordingly we see that almost all men, secure from want and cares, are now a burden to themselves, after having finally cast off all other burdens. They regard as a gain every hour that has got through, and hence every deduction from that very life, whose maintenance as long as possible has till then been the object of all efforts. Boredom is anything but an evil to be thought of lightly; ultimately it depicts on the countenance real despair.”

The only way to escape the despair ridden burden of boredom is to choose new goals and again to assume the delusional conviction that their attainment will bring us lasting happiness, and so goes the life all humans, slaves to the will within, that insatiable and ravenous force at the core of everything. Speaking of the will Schopenhauer wrote:

“…its desires are unlimited, it’s claims inexhaustible, and every satisfied desire gives birth to a new one. No possible satisfaction in the world could suffice to still its craving, set a final goal to its demands, and fill the bottomless pit of its heart.”

If this view of human existence were not pessimistic enough, Schopenhauer thought there was one final fact which indelibly stamped upon human existence the mark of tragedy. For unlike all other animals who are slaves to the present moment, we are aware that what awaits us after this miserable life of striving, suffering and boredom is the utter annihilation of our individual being.

“Life itself is a sea full of rocks and whirlpools that man avoids with the greatest caution and care, although he knows that, even when he succeeds with all his efforts and ingenuity in struggling through, at every step he comes nearer to the greatest, the total, the inevitable and irremediable shipwreck, indeed even steers right on to it, namely death. This is the final goal of the wearisome voyage, and is worse for him than all the rocks that he has avoided.”

Even though Schopenhauer thought that life as a whole was rendered futile by the fact that is filled with boredom, suffering and ends in death, he did believe that certain ecstatic and highly meaningful moments can thrust us from our normal state of misery into one of bliss and peace of mind. Such euphoric experiences arise when we contemplate a beautiful piece of art, a stunning natural landscape, or an excellent piece of music. In such moments our will momentarily ceases its desirous striving and we become what Schopenhauer called, “disinterested spectators.” We no desires, needs or wants tugging at our being we are wholly free to absorb our consciousness in pure beauty. As Schopenhauer put it:

“What might otherwise be called the finer part of life, its purest joy, just because it lifts us out of real existence and transforms us into disinterested spectators of it, is pure knowledge which remains foreign to all willing, pleasure in the beautiful, genuine delight in art.”

These moments even for those most sensitive to beauty only last for a fleeting moment, after which one must return to the normal state of striving and suffering or in other words of being enslaved to the will within.

In this normal state of being enslaved to the will Schopenhauer claimed that we are all “Egoists”, that is, we are concerned solely with our own self-interest. Schopenhauer thought Egoism was the natural condition of all humans,

“The only world everyone is actually acquainted with and knows is carried about by him in his head as his representation, and he is thus the center of the world. Accordingly, everyone is all in all to himself; he find himself to be the holder and possessor of all reality, and nothing to be more important to him than his own self.”

Giving that nothing is more important to him than his own self the Egoist is,

“ready to annihilate the world, in order to maintain his own self, that drop in the ocean, a little longer.”

Egoism for Schopenhauer, although a natural state, was not an enviable state, for the Egoist is wholly enslave to his will and thus condemned to live a miserable life either suffering in the pursuit of goals or plagued by a state a despair ridden boredom. Schopenhauer believed that the vast majority of humans would live and die as Egoists and never attain any semblance of peace. That being said, he did think that a small minority were capable of emerging from this wretched state by taking what he called,

“The road to salvation”

Those most capable of removing themselves from the anguished condition of human existence are those individuals especially drawn to the ecstatic experience of being absorbed in pure beauty.

“…pleasure in the beautiful consists, to a large extent in the fact that, when we enter the state of pure contemplation, we are raised for the moment above all willing, above all desires and cares; we are, so to speak, rid of ourselves…And we know that these moments, when, delivered from the fierce pressure of the will, we emerge, as it were, from the heavy atmosphere of the earth, are the most blissful that we experience. From this we can infer how blessed must be the life of a man whose will is silenced not for a few moments, as in the enjoyment of the beautiful, but forever, indeed completely extinguished.”

The individual who longs to silence his will not for a few moments but forever, must arrive at the knowledge of the true nature of will and thus the world at large. To attain such knowledge one must use their intellect the faculty which renders humans capable of abstract thought. However, according to Schopenhauer the intellect developed not for the grasping of truth but rather to devise means to satiate the fundamental desires of the will, namely nourishment and propagation. In the average individual therefore the intellect is the will’s slave and cannot breaks it’s chains and arrive at knowledge of the true nature of he world.

“From the start, the intellect is a hired hand assigned to a miserable task at which its overly demanding master, the will, keeps it busy from morning until night.”

This means that the task of arriving at knowledge of the true nature of the world, in order to silence the will, is a task fit only for the genius. One whose intellect is so powerful that it can escape its slavery and seek knowledge divorced from the will’s desires and needs. Genius is an intellect that has become unfaithful to it’s destiny wrote Schopenhauer or in other words,

“Whereas to the ordinary man his faculty of knowledge is a lamp that lights his path, to the man of genius it is the sun that reveals the world.”

In seeking out knowledge of the true nature of the world Schopenhauer thought the genius would arrive at wisdom that all human beings are at their essence ‘one’, since all are manifestations of will. In grasping this not merely abstractly but with the whole of his being Schopenhauer thought that such an individual would attain the state of compassion, realizing he is one with all living beings he would identify with the suffering and anguish of the world.

“Such a person who recognizes his own inner and true self in every being, must also regard the endless suffering of all living things as his own, and therefore must take upon himself the pain of the whole world.”

With the pain of the whole world wrenching at his heart, the compassionate individual strives to alleviate the suffering of others as much as possible, however he soon understands that no matter how hard he tries his actions are futile. All living beings are manifestations of will, that demonic and insatiable force at the inner core of everything and therefore so long as life exists suffering will too.

“Suffering is essential to life, and therefore does not flow in upon us from outside, but everyone carries around within himself its perennial source”

Understanding that the ceaseless efforts to banish suffering achieve nothing more than a change in its form, the compassionate individual comprehends the futility of attempting to alleviate the suffering of others. This leads to a growing hatred towards the will which is the source of the cries of anguish and agony which emanate from the world.

“It is no longer sufficient to love others as himself and to do as much for them as he would do for himself; rather, a repugnance arises in him… towards the will-to-live, towards the core and essence of that world recognized as filled with misery.”

His hatred turns towards the manifestation of will which is closest to him, his own being and he proceeds to commit himself to asceticism and thus denied gratification to his desires and ceased to chase after the enticements of the world. Since one of the fundamental desires of the will is the desire to reproduce and hence for sexual gratification he first and foremost denies himself any sexual satisfaction whatsoever.

“Voluntary and complete chastity is the first step in asceticism or the denial of the will-to-live”

After dedicating himself to chastity he brands a no on to all those desires which had previously kept him in a state of striving and pain and he assumes an attitude of complete indifference to everything.

“Nothing can alarm or harass him anymore, nothing can move him; for he has cut all the thousand filaments of willing which hold us bound to the world and which, as appetite, fear, envy, and rage, drag us…in constant pain. He now looks back, calm and smiling, upon the illusions of this world, which were once able to move and agonize even in his mind, but which now stand before him as indifferently as chessmen when the game is ended…Life as it forms now merely hang before him as a fleeting appearance, like a light morning dream to one who is half awake.”

According to Schopenhauer this description of the will denier is not a tale of an ideal unrealizable condition for as he noted many individuals throughout history have devoted their lives to asceticism.

“What I have here described with feeble tongue and only in terms, is no philosophical fable, invented by myself, and only of today; no, it was the enviable life of so many saints and beautiful souls among Christians, and still more among Hindus and Buddhists and also among the believers of other religions.”

For those of us who are not saints or will-deniers we will look at the ascetic as a strange and curious fellow and feel that he has renounced this world in favor of nothingness. Schopenhauer had a reply for the skeptics among us.

“…what remains after the complete abolition of the will, for all those who are still full of will, assuredly nothing. But conversely, to those in whom the will has turned and denied itself, this very real world of our with all its suns and galaxies, is – nothing.”

For those of us still full of will, we will regard the ascetic, one who has destroyed the will within, as an empty being a fleshy encasing of nothingness. However realizing the worthlessness of the will and all its manifestations the ascetic regards this universe as nothing or worthless and in fact the state of mind attained by the ascetic is only nothing from our perspective because of the fact that it transcends conceptualization. To understand this state of mind one must leave the limited domain of philosophy and proceed into mysticism.

“For, if something is no one of all the things that we know, then certainly it is for us in general nothing. Yet it still does not follow from this that is nothing absolutely, namely that it must be nothing from every possible point of view and in every possible sense, but only that we are restricted to a wholly negative knowledge of it; and this may very well lie in the limitation of our point of view. Now it is precisely here that the mystic proceeds positively, and therefore, from this point, nothing if left but mysticism.”

Further Readings