seeing the world aright, or why schopenhauer has a magnificent head of hair

October 11, 2011

Schopenhauer is you. (To see this clearly is to master his metaphysics.) For those of you who have questions about life, death, and salvation, your questions are his questions. And the world’s most famous misanthrope has kindly answered them for you, for me, for anyone who cares to read The World as Will and Representation, a deeply puzzling work of realism. Schopenhauer can help “fellow sufferers” (his phrase, not mine) achieve redemption without atonement, salvation without grace. He can help us win eternity by secular means only. Can we save ourselves? Yes. Through willing as little as possible, knowing as much as possible, and playing the piano or the violin with great care and devotion, be your piano or violin what it may. Do we control anything? Yes, our perspective on life. That is, seeing things aright, namely, that although everything passes—particles, entities, organs, individuals, groups, species, and their social and cultural accomplishments—they’re still pleasant, enjoyable, beautiful, meaningful, and worthwhile. Epictetus gets it right: “Imagine that you are on a voyage, and your ship is anchored. You go onto shore to get some fresh water, and along the way you amuse yourself by picking up a shell or some other object. Even though you are enjoying yourself, your attention should be focused on the ship, waiting for the captain to call, ‘all aboard.’ When this happens, you must immediately leave your shells and run back to the ship. So it is with life. If you are given a wife or nice home, that is fine. But if the captain calls, you must run to the ship. Your focus should always be on this.”

Clouds, Twisting and Twining (1 of 5)

April 1, 2010

In David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, there’s a heady brew of post-Christian metaphysics, which is heavily influenced by Nietzsche’s doctrine of the will to power and eternal recurrence. Which in turn is heavily influenced by Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the will to life. Of course, both Nietzsche and Schopenhauer labor in the long shadow of Kant. So by the transitive power invested in me by the golden state of California, I hereby pronounce that David Mitchell’s apple has fallen from Kant’s tree. Huh? Come, follow me. The basics of Kant’s metaphysics are tolerably clear. The world of appearance consists of things we can know and study through the arts and sciences. We can conceive of a reality independent of what we experience. This is Kant’s noumenal reality. Because there’s a categorial difference between appearance (which we can know) and noumenon (which we can’t), we can never know the intrinsic nature of reality. Schopenhauer adopts Kant’s appearance / thing-in-itself distinction but claims that we can know the intrinsic nature of noumenal reality. It’s will to life, a blind ceaseless striving for self-preservation. For Schopenhauer, everything consists of will, from stones and apples, to earwigs and beetles, to chimps and men and women. Everything, without exception. According to Nietzsche, however, Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the will to life ignores a remarkable feature of the human condition. There’s something more important than self-preservation, and we’re often willing to risk life and limb for it. Power. The elite rock climber risks life to chart a daring new route. The artist forgoes warmth and comfort to create an innovative aesthetic vision. The politician defies public opinion to advance a set of narrow interests. Nietzsche has several different conceptions of the will to power. And while they don’t always jive well together, the basic idea is simple enough: The will to power is the ability to lead one’s life in a way that is maximally consistent with one’s conception of how it should be lived, come what, come may. Behind the twisting, twining world of appearance, then, there is something that remains the same — for Schopenhauer, it’s will; Nietzsche, power. Mitchell? Well, you’ll just have to await my eternal return…