Schopenhauer’s Pessimism

This piece assumes some knowledge of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, here is an excellent introduction. I will do my best to explain the elements of his philosophy pertinent to the following discussion, but only very briefly.

Schopenhauer believed that the world is an expression of a blind force: the will. Through blind striving it produces the continuation of the species and life in general. Humans spend their lives as slaves to this omnipresent will and it is the cause of suffering. Humanity is the result of the will being objectified through the operations of consciousness (time, space and causality). In this piece, I want to examine the reasons for Schopenhauer’s pessimism and propose an alternative perspective.

Throughout Shopenhauer’s writing he rightly brings attention to the suffering that is experienced by all forms of life on a constant basis. However, he errs by not also talking about the many wonderful things this ephemeral existence of ours has to offer. It feels as if he has made his mind a long time ago about the meaning of life and stuck to this belief no matter what happened to him subsequently. R.J Hollingdale thinks this, and says this in his introduction to a collection Schopenhauer’s later writings that Schopenhauer was afflicted by an “… immovability of mind1.” which meant the beliefs of his early life he stubbornly carried with him into his later years. His belief that life is essentially meaningless seems to have come from bad experiences he had in as a young man, Hollingdale contends that the two years he spent working as a clerk after the death of his father were so miserable that the negative attitude towards life in general became an “irremovable part of his make-up2“. His suborn attitude can seen in the fact that in his main philosophical work The World As Will And Representation he has almost nothing to say about the positive aspects of life at all. Nor in any of his subsequent work has he changed his mind. Setting aside psychological explanation I will now examine the reasons for he presents for his pessimistic outlook. I will try and show how he was mistaken and what a more balanced outlook on life might be.

The Case For Pessimism

The first argument Schopenhauer uses for the essentially meaninglessness of life is that the metaphysical whole from which all individuals are representation of is in essence blind and without purpose that brings forth individuals into lives of suffering: “Awakened to life out of the night of unconsciousness, the will finds itself as an individual in and endless and boundless world , among innumerable individuals , all striving , suffering and erring 3…” We can see this most clearly in the forces of nature which operate without any agency. As we move higher up the hierarchy of being that Schopenhauer calls levels of wills objectification we arrive at animal life, at this level of complexity all we can perceive and endless struggle for reproduction and survival in having this insight he has discovered the basic premise of Darwinian thought many years before Darwin’s time. Moving next to the level of sophistication,namely, human society we see that humanity is also engaged in similarly brutal and harsh existence. Many die every day of disease, poverty, are enslaved and become the victims of war and oppression. If these fates are avoided then they often become trapped in what Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation” unable to do what they truly want but instead subject to the will of another whether that be family, employer or government.

The second argument Schopenhauer uses is that pleasure is essentially negative and ultimately empty; no sooner are our desires satisfied than our cravings are renewed afresh and must be satisfied again. “All satisfaction or what is commonly called happiness, is really and essentially always negative 4….” We become trapped in a vicious cycle of pleasure seeking that ultimately leads nowhere. This claim has a great deal of factual weight behind it, we have only to consult our own experience to see countless examples of such a dynamic. For example, on a hot day when I am thirsty the need for a drink becomes all consuming. When my thirst is quenched I am deeply satisfied. However, this satisfaction is only temporary. If I have another drink the effect is not nearly as strong and decreases with each drink I have. Eventually, my mind wanders to considering the next desire that must be fulfilled, and so on…

Schopenhauer believed that the only ultimate release from perpetual cycle of desire, toil, satisfaction and unhappiness is death. Aside from this, the only route of escape he saw a being possible in this life was living a life of aestheticism; as the saints of all religions have done. He recognized that his teaching had many similarities with those of Buddhism and Christianity in so far as they preach the denial of the will and a life of self sacrifice and hardship as preferable to one of hedonism. Further, that they have pessimistic views of the external world and its ability to deliver us happiness and fulfillment. However, Schopenhauer errs here in that he has not paid very close attention to the contents of the gospels, for as much a Jesus advocated poverty and simplicity of living he also turned water into wine. He is also reported to have to have in John 10:10 that “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” In light of this a life of pure aestheticism is not totally consistent with the teachings of Jesus.

Schopenhauer was the first philosopher to take the role of art seriously. He thought that through the aesthetic experience consciousness could temporarily be relieved from the dominance of what we would now refer to as the ego. I am going to use the word “will” (in the metaphysical and psychological sense) and “ego” interchangeably. He also believed this escape was also possible through the operation of an unusually strong intellect, that this is what makes the discoveries of genius possible. Great minds were endowed with an excessive amount of the intellect capacity that was more than the bare minimum by required by the will/ego for the practical matters of life. Further, that occasionally the intellect is able to escape the service of will and operate freely in the same way we are able to escape the its dominance through aesthetic experience. Crucially, he thought any dethroning of will could only ever be only temporary that even the most gifted were still subject to its dominance most of the time. This idea is supported by the evidence of the greatest artist and intellectuals have had the capacity to be as narrow minded and petty as anyone else. Kant complained that the inmates at the prison near his house sang too loudly. The famous architect Brunelleschi pretended to unwell in order to to show up a rival who was working on a project with him. Schopenhauer himself unwittingly proved his own point by pushing a woman down the stairs outside his apartment because she was making too much noise.

The tragedy in Schopenhauer’s philosophy is that he believed without living a life of pure aestheticism release from the dominance of the will was impossible. That the most that could be hoped for were fleeting moments of reprieve in a life otherwise controlled by the selfish agenda of the ego. He never seriously considered the idea that any form of enlightenment was possible without a life of privation. It is said the Buddha only found enlightenment once he had given up aestheticism. Further, that as described in this excellent video the pursuit of deprivation for its own sake can never constitute a true release from attachment as implicit in the pursuit itself is an attachment, namely, an attachment to the avoiding pleasure. In erring on this matter we must not judge Schopenhauer too harshly. According to Eckhart Tolle some Buddhists think enlightenment is “just for the Buddha5“. The belief that the the will/ego can be never be defeated permanently is a a widespread one. Even if such a total defeat was not possible would not even the slightest loosening grip of the ego’s control over our lives be a wonderful thing? It seems to me that Schopenhauer like myself in the past had decided this was not possible in advance and had therefore never tried.

What of Schopenhauer’s arguments for the futility of life? Regarding the purposelessness of existence in general it is by no means clear that this is the case. For although the forces of nature of evolution appear to operate without purpose this purposelessness and existence these thoughts are inexorably linked to our perspective as human beings. To an ant the foot that squashes is not capable of being attributed with any concept of agency, as agency is not part of the ant’s mental framework. However, from the perspective of the person stepping on the ant all sorts of motives can be attached to the action. As an idealist Schopenhauer should have appreciated this. To be clear, I am not trying to smuggle any teleological explanation of the universe here. However, it must remain an open question from a purely philosophical perspective as whether existence has a purpose. For is entirely possible that there is a purpose to life that is beyond of the capacity of our cognitive abilities or that some aspects are comprehensible, whilst others are simply out of reach. We simply do not know. Schopenhauer’s mistake is to jump from the conclusion that life appears to be meaningless (an idea supported by evidence) to the far stronger conclusion that this is must be the case of a metaphysical level. In some respects this mistake is similar to the mistaking of appearance for reality that he lambasts materialists for.

The second argument Schopenhauer’s uses, namely, the futility of all desiring in general is backed by a great deal of psychological evidence but is it true? For are there also not those who live lives of contentment also? Who do fall victim to the hedonic treadmill on occasion but are able to see it for what it is and are not deceived by it. Schopenhauer does not see this possibility except outside the realm of sainthood. This is clearly a mistake, this attitude may have been motivated by the snobbery that was a large component of his outlook on life, he is forever contrasting the brilliant intellectual and artists with the generic and replaceable mass of mankind. He clearly sees himself as part of the former category. The problem with this attitude is not that there is no such thing as those who are uncommonly talented and exceptional. His mistake is to fixated on the extremes of the human condition rather than seeing all achievements spiritual or otherwise as existing on a continuum. Even if the will (in the metaphysical sense) cannot be totally defeated perhaps meaningful victories are possible. Further, that such questions cannot merely be answered by philosophical reasoning alone, an investigation into what is possible in the human experience must be done on a empirical basis also. This is not to say Schopenhauer did not partially conduct such an investigation; he lived in many different countries throughout his life and read widely. Rather, the deficiency is that even if he did not see examples of more ordinary levels of enlightenment he did not consider the possibility seriously. Instead, he dismissed it on theoretical grounds.

In summary, both of Schopenhauer’s arguments for the inherent futility of life are insufficient. In his defense it must be pointed out that much philosophy prior to him had been characterized by a misguided optimism. The classic example being Leibniz’s idea that we live in the of the best of all possible worlds. Schopenhauer correctly shows the this idea cannot make sense of the vast amount of suffering in the world. However, by arguing against one extreme of belief he ends up advocating an equally extreme position that life is inherently futile. This position cannot make sense of all that is undoubtedly good about life. The two opposing positions cancel each other out.

The Alternative

If life can have a meaning what meaning should we give to it? I fear a blog post is not going to answer such a perennial question. However, what I hope I can achieve is to outline an approach to the question.

First, I must a make a crucial distinction this is between what I know intuitively and what can be established within the bounds of reason. The theologian Hans Kung persuasively argued in his work Does God Exist? that nihilism and specifically the ideas espoused by Nietzsche rest on shaky foundations. That the fundamental meaninglessness of life is something that does not accurately take into account all aspects of reality “For fundamental trust can also accept the element of truth in fundamental mistrust -the nullity of reality- while, on the other hand, fundamental mistrust cannot recognize any element of truth fundamental trust, any reality in all the nullity. Hence the attitude of fundamental trust , and this alone, is open to reality in its uncertainty6. This asymmetry reveals to us the that fundamental trust is the more rational attitude to life. However, one might argue that a false dichotomy has been set up here, surely, a third intermediate attitude is possible? Where one maintains an ambivalent attitude to life neither fully trusting nor wholly rejecting its meaningfulness. Kung could easily respond to this criticism by saying that the alternative I am describing is really just a lesser form of nihilism and thus can still be fitted into the his conceptual schema. In light of this, the criticism I have offered is not fatal to Kung’s project but we must bare in mind that he has not considered all options. Reason can establish (although tentatively) that life having meaning is a rationally defensible position.

It is my belief that intuitively we can know on a deeper level that life is meaningful with no reference to reason. That when the egoic consciousness is stripped away we are able to feel a freedom that his hard to describe. Over and over again such experiences of transcendence have been reported by those in the most desperate and wretched circumstances. I must make it clear that I am not trying to glamorize suffering nor pretend that all suffering is somehow for the good. What I wish to assert is that within a dark situation the opportunity for transcendence is always present, it is up to us whether we take it or not. Each of us most confront the riddle of life for ourselves and decide which way we chose to go. Suffering is a bottomless pit, that if we allow it to will consume us. Even in materially prosperous societies where there is little poverty many still suffer. The path to true happiness lies within not without.

In closing, it is a tragedy that Schopenhauer came so close to a deeper happiness but never discovered it. However, his stubbornness also aided him by enabling him to continually promote his philosophy decade after, decade whilst being almost totally ignored by the public and his intellectual peers. If he had not been so single minded it is possible he would never have completed his works and his writings would not have been transmitted to our time. For all the mistakes Schopenhauer made there is much of great value in his philosophy. His style is direct and conversational, his style is free of needless technical jargon and technical nit picking that which plagues modern philosophy. At times when reading him you feel as if he is speaking directly to you. It is my firm belief that his stubborn commitment to his work in face of many obstacles was not misguided. It is my hope that one day his philosophy will be appreciated more widely.

Triumph and Unease, The Rise of Nerd Culture

One of my few memories I have of primary school was being given a teased because I was reading The Lord of The Rings. At that time all things fantasy and sci-fi were definitely not cool; skateboarding and sports were cool. As a young boy I could never have predicted the great cultural reversal that has taken place in the last decades. Even the meat heads who I practice martial arts with have all watched the Avengers film Endgame and probably all of the proceeding titles to boot. What happened? How has our cultural world been turned upside down? I will do my best to answer this question and through this specific change try to understand how culture has changes in general.

For me it all started fittingly with Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptations of The Lord of The Rings. What he achieved with these films was to take what is sprawling and inaccessible story, which is full of obscure lore and an unmanageable large cast of characters and render it into something accessible. At the same time retaining the Wagnerian imagery and emotional power that made the books resonate so deeply with so many. The films went on to be wildly successful both commercially and critically. This I believe was the genesis of the new cultural trajectory. For surely somewhere in Hollywood a light bulb must have turned on in the head of many a film executive when they realized that nerds were willing to shell out to see cinematic renderings of beloved classics. Further, that the even those who were not hardcore fans were sucked into the orbit of these pieces by the minority who were obsessive in their devotion the sci-fi and fantasy genre. This has lead in turn to more “mainstream” titles being fully or partially displaced. This logic was proved by the earlier massive success of Star Wars which although is by comparison with Lord of The Rings quite light in terms of the complexity and intellectual challenge is none the less definitely nerdy. Another precursor to the turn in the cultural tide was the explosion in popularity for the Pokemon card game (which despite being an avid collector of the cards I never played), cartoons and films. The key difference between this and the success of the The Lord of The Rings is that Pokemon was always bounded to the younger generation and never shed its childish connotations in a way that it could be adopted by adults without some element of embarrassment, at least this was my experience growing up, now this has to some extent changed which I will discuss later.

By contrast, the success of The Lord of The Rings crossed boundaries of age, as the older generation fondly remembered the books and and the younger gained access to Tolkien’s universe through the films. Of course, there were purists who despised both the literalness that comes with the cinematic rendering of a book and the boiling down of the narrative to its barest essentials. In my experience these were a minority.

Next came the early Spiderman films staring Tobey Maguire, this development was portentous as it paved the way for every comic book no matter how stupid to be turned into a film. Once the flood gates were opened a vast quantity of such films were released, there was simply too much money to be made. This is not to say that the spate of comic book adaptations that came after this were all devoid of artistic merit, many of the Xmen films where decent. However, clearly the majority were motivated as all Hollywood blockbusters are by narrowly commercial concerns.

At the same time in the early 2000s information technology began exerting more and more influence over peoples lives, as a result many in the tech world were becoming exceedingly wealthy. The rise of the nerd in the business world is perhaps connected to the rise of nerd culture. For surely money and power have always been sources of prestige. By attain these things the nerds by proxy legitimatized the cultural expressions of this identity.

This change in our cultural landscape leaves me with a sense of vertigo and unease. the main source of this being that the changes in culture bear eerie parallels with changing generational dynamics. For fantasy and especially the type of fantasy epitomized by the popular Marvel and DC comics is childish. In many comics the motivations of the characters, the emphasis on action and the simplistic the morality are childish (although it must be said much that is considered “adult” could also be guilty of these sins). Have not the lives of millennials become increasingly indicative of a an eternal pseudo adolescence? Fewer and fewer people will have will children many still live with their parents well into their 20s and beyond. What I am not suggesting that the cultural change has caused a change in lifestyle, rather, that the two trends have occurred in parallel and each has reinforced the other. It is the infantalisation of the adult that the rise of nerd culture symbolizes. I say this as someone who is undoubtedly a nerd, I work in IT, not a day goes by when I am not interacting with one form of device or another, the majority of fiction that I have read is of the sci-fi/fantasy genre.

Part of my mistrust must surely stems from the resentment that arises when something that you used to feel was the exclusive property of you and other connoisseurs is now the property of the masses. There is an element of snobbery here which cannot be denied. In my defense, I think some of this feeling are justified. For example, the films of the The Lord of The Rings have largely supplanted the books, the memories I had of the books are supplanted by the styling of the cinematic depiction. The clunkier parts of the books were largely evaporated away from the plot of the films (with the exception of the extended editions) . This boiling down is necessary for the purposes of adaptation but removes much of what was charming from the original story. As tedious as many of the passages in the trilogy were to read they added a sense of depth and eccentricity to the narrative that linked them to strangeness of the ancient myths and legends Tolkien was inspired by. The removal of this elements can make the narrative of the films feel flimsy by comparison. Further, this theme occurs again in again in the adaption of any narrative that originally appeared in book form to film regardless of genre. Whilst the two mediums are not mutually exclusive but I cannot help but feel that in many cases the reduced low fat narrative of the film has supplanted the original. Here I must also add that in some cases this taking liberties with the original plot can lead to improvements, especially if the story being adapted was not very good in the first place.

Is my unease justified? Or a mere exercise in snobbery? One way of answering this questions is to consider the qualities of both the mediums. Is there is an inherent difference between events depicted in film and those of the written word beyond the surface and obvious? One key difference is the way they are experienced by the viewer. In the cinema you are a passive observer of the action rather than an active participant. By contrast, a book requires the reader to engage their mind and imagination with the work. A film through its immersive quality can silence the viewer’s critical faculties in a way that a book simply cannot. This is not to say their cannot be thought provoking films, but that their ability to impose their message on the mind of the viewer is far stronger due to the passive state they induce. In light of this, we can see how a bad film is far worse than a bad book, for a bad book does create as immediate an effect on the mind than the written word. The violence done to the mind by a low quality work is greater. Further, that the simplification of narrative and concept that the film encourages increases the likelihood a film will be bad as consequence of its medium. In so far as this is true my unease is justified. Unease is not the same a condemnation; I do not share Roger Scruton’s wholesale opposition to film as a medium.

Another question that should be asked is what this shift in taste can tell us about mass culture? Does it operate by a sort of logic? Or are its operations blind and purposeless? Earlier, I have argued the former. That the changes in culture has run in parallel with the changes in the world at large. Further, that they can to limited extent influence each other. As this influence can only be observed through the similarities between the two trends it is impossible to say with any precision how accurate this conjecture is and if it is true which of the two trends is the more influential. There is undoubtedly a element of cultural change that is cyclical and presumably the dominance of nerd culture is itself part of one of these larger cycles. Contrastingly, there is an element of cultural change that is undoubtedly random, I can remember when for brief period of time blue suits were all the rage in central London; now they are nowhere to be seen. It is as if they were like freak growth of some plant triggered by unusual conditions; blooming quickly but then disappearing.

However, the rise of nerd culture has by this point had many years of upward trajectory and cannot simply be dismissed as a fad or something that is likely to go away any time soon. As many societies in some respects have become increasingly anti-social might this lead to a counter reaction to a life excessively based in the world of fantasy and by proxy the internet, which in many ways embodies the idea of a fantasy world. It offers types of interaction that is simply impossible face to face or by any other medium. Further, the ability to adopt any number of pseudonyms that Edward Snowden so eloquently describes in his memoir Permanent Record, means that a user can indulge in any number of fictional existences. Surely the dominance of the internet over almost every aspect of modern society must also be symbiotic with the cultural changes under discussion? For the “real” world has increasingly become transformed through the application of internet based tools whether this be shopping, dating, careers or socializing. One consequence of this is that stereotypical interests of the computer programmers behind this change have a cachet to them that previously did not exist. Science fiction seems less ridiculous and overblown when our lives are increasingly dominated by the influence of technology.

To conclude, whatever comes next culturally after this phase (if we are indeed in a transitory state affairs rather than something permanent) is unknowable. However, a reactionary move against the constant presence, for better and for worse, of technology in our lives seems likely. I am skeptical that this could ever reach the level of mass culture as surely the vast majority of people seems to be happy with the convenience and new opportunities technology affords. To buy into some new cultural option they must surely turn against it analogue in the everyday world as well. Until this happens I suspect that any wider change in the cultural landscape is unlikely.

What I Am Listening To, January 2021

I am celebrating the start of 2021 by enjoying some new music to hopefully spark new ideas and refresh my creatively. The first CD I checked out is the raucous album Somewhere Far Beyond by Blind Guardian.

This album exists very far outside my musical comfort zone and I have enjoyed it all the more for that reason. The Tolkienesque theme reminds me of Argus by Whishbone Ash which set the standard for combining high fantasy and electric guitars. What is different about Blind Guardian’s effort is its total lack of restraint and the wild musical aggression which is characteristic of most of the songs. I find this complete lack of what would conventionally called “taste” refreshing and something I have always admired heavier music and Metal in particular. I have always thought that genres like Metal that exist far away from the mainstream have often attracted the most open minded musicians and audiences. Heavier music has consistently pioneered new technology, namely: distortion, seven string guitars, larger drum kits and many other innovations. Of course, it must be pointed out that amongst Metal fans there are certainly a fair share of idiots too.

On this CD Blind Guardian utilize an impressive instrumentation that includes bag pipes and church bells. These elements combined with the usual rock instruments create a interesting combination or archaic and new. One minor complaint I have is that on the 2011/2012 remixed version I am listening to the vocals are at times lost under cacophony of guitars and drums. Also, as is often the case at in Metal the bass is often inaudible as so much low end in present in the guitar and drum sounds. Overall, I really enjoyed Somewhere Far Beyond and will certainly be listening to it again in the future.

Next is the soundtrack from the third season of Battle Star Galatica.

I remember enjoying the show just after I had graduated from University it was fun to revisit this chapter in my life via this album. It has much in common with my previous choice as again there is unusual instrumentation: Japanese drums, strings and a variety of wind instruments are all used by the composer Bear McCreary to great effect. The most notable track is probably the heavily modified version of All Along The Watchtower McCreary’s treatment of this classic song gives it a fresh eastern flavor. I also like the very unhendrix solo at the end of the song, there is no slavish tribute here. Further, the use of strings on this album avoids cinematic cliché, the strings do not dominated the soundscape plenty of room is left for the other instruments to shine. However, is the creative use of percussion that sets this soundtrack apart from generic sounding rivals. That said, there are moments on this CD that remind me of every film that has ever been made that has American soldiers exploring a war zone somewhere in the middle east. This is the only real criticism I have to offer.

Aside from this minor the flaw the album is full of powerful (at times demented) emotional highs especially on Storming New Caprica. By contrast, there are also many tender moments too, an example being the celtic sounding Admiral and Commander.

It was a great surprise when I discovered the new TV series having only known the very kitsch original. The soundtrack was an inseparable part the new aggressive direction the new version took the basic ideas of Battle Star Galatica. I think this CD is enjoyable to listen to even if you have never watched the show. This is a testament to the strength of the music it is not merely background padding for the action on-screen, it stands by itself. Having enjoyed this soundtrack so much I am eager to check out what else Ben McCreary has done.

Recently I have been taking a trip to the past and revisiting some past favorites. One of these being Vicarious by Tool:

I have previously written about Tool’s most recent and lackluster effort Vicarious is such strong and powerful track it is hard to believe that the same band that wrote this had anything to do with Fear Inoculum. Vicarious is a study in songwriting each section flows seamlessly into the next. With great patience Tool build the musical tension gradually approaching a fierce climax. The lyrics confessing any addiction to other peoples suffering that does not just reflect on the individual but a society fed a constant stream of news that mostly consists in suffering of one form or another. There is something clinical and pornographic in the way the news is served up to us without remorse, without anything being left to the imagination. In some cases perhaps this can justified as it may spur people to action against injustice. But does not the constant stream of media which we are bombarded with also cast a spell of passivity over the viewer. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno expressed this idea in their essay The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception where they reflect that one of purposes of mass media in America, one of them being, to keep the population in a state of perpetual distraction and stupefied compliance.

On the other hand, surely being uninformed can equally engender a state of passivity? As surely one cannot change what one is ignorant of? Perhaps what is to be avoided is what the sentimentalist philosopher Martin Heidegger called “idle talk” in which topics are discussed according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy “…in a critically unexamined and unexamining way about facts and information while failing to use language to reveal their relevance…”. When we fall into this mode of discourse that is shallow and lacking in authenticity.

Returning to the music, I think writing these post has taught me is that there is always more to discover and enjoy. I look forward to more musical adventures in 2021.