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Schopenhauer the Optimist

Duncan Richter explains why Schopenhauer thinks art, especially music, can provide a kind of salvation.

Schopenhauer the pessimist is famous. He thinks of life as a pendulum swinging between pain (when we want something but don’t have it) and boredom (when we have something and no longer care much about it). He also thinks that a key to understanding life is to think about the struggle for survival, especially in terms of getting food. Consider a pepperoni pizza. For the pigs and cows from which the pepperoni is made, it’s an unthinkable nightmare: to be raised a prisoner, then slaughtered, butchered, and eaten. (Life in the wild isn’t much better, replacing imprisonment in a confined space with a life of fear and a constant struggle to survive likely to end in being eaten alive by a pack of ravenous animals.) On the upside, someone gets a spicy, greasy treat. But relatively speaking, it’s not much of an upside. Here, as elsewhere in life, the pain outweighs the pleasure, massively.

Something similar, albeit usually less violent, could be said about most people’s lives. We hate school, and can’t wait to grow up; hate our jobs (or being unemployed), and can’t wait to retire; then hate the discomfort, boredom, and indignities of old age. We, like the pigs and cattle, would be better off dead.

This is the kind of thinking that people associate with Schopenhauer. But it’s not the whole picture, by any means. Schopenhauer the optimist has good news for anyone who buys that pessimistic view. You think we’d be better off dead? Well, guess what? We will be dead, and before too long – and we have no soul to possibly suffer eternity in hell. When we die, we die, and what we were becomes dirt.

That’s the good news? Seriously?

Yes! Do you think dirt is such a bad thing to be? ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ might sound sad, but dust is great. As Schopenhauer says in The World as Will and Representation:

“Learn to know it before you despise it. This matter which now lies there as dust and ashes will soon, dissolved in water, form itself as a crystal, will shine as metal, will then emit electric sparks, will by means of its galvanic intensity manifest a force which, decomposing the closest combinations, reduces earths to metals; nay, it will, of its own accord, form itself into plants and animals, and from its mysterious womb develop that life for the loss of which you, in your narrowness, are so painfully anxious.”

You will die, but the matter you’re made of lives on. This is very good news, because matter is fantastic, and your life is full of pain. The matter of which you are made cannot be destroyed and will form crystals, metals, plants, and even animals. It is very cool. You, on the other hand, while made of cool stuff, are a victim of stress and suffering. It will be better when that stress and suffering come to an end.

It’s not only matter that’s fantastic. Everything is awesome. This is why great artists can paint or take a photo of anything whatsoever and create a masterpiece. We don’t usually realize this universal awesomeness because of our egoism. In other words, we care too much about ourselves and not enough about the rest of the world. We tend to take little interest in things we do not want to have, and the things we do want either frustrate us because we cannot have them or, eventually, bore us once we do have them.

The Concert
The Concert by Gerard van Honthorst, 1620s

Welcome To A Willful World

But what if we could step aside from wanting and from thoughts of ownership; aside from fearing and from thoughts about what’s in it for me? What if we could just let things be?

This is the sort of possibility a still life painting presents to us. There is no question of eating the fruit in the painting or buying the farm in the landscape. And when that type of possibility of using or owning is removed – when we are liberated from our grasping and resenting will – and our minds are turned to simple contemplation, we can finally enjoy peace of mind and see how beautiful things – all things – are. Art can show us this, which is why we like it: but if you get your mind in the right state you can experience everyday objects as if they were art without needing to spend millions on a masterpiece. The world itself is one big masterpiece. And it’s free to enjoy.

There’s more. Schopenhauer’s great book is called The World as Will and Representation because he thinks of the world as having those two aspects. Representation is how things seem to us. It is all appearance, not much more real than a dream. Will is the underlying, real nature of the world.

What does this mean? Schopenhauer’s argument (to vastly oversimplify it) is that I know that in my true, inner being, I am (my) will; and it would be crazy to think that I am somehow unique, so everything must be will.

How do I know I am ultimately will? I know that I am not a corpse. The major difference between me and a corpse is that I do things other than slowly disintegrate. So it is my actions which make me who or what I am. And my actions express or embody my will. I am what I do and I do what I will. Even when I don’t do what I want to do (for instance, when I’m at work) I do what I’ve chosen to do for some reason, such as my desire to get paid.

I am, then, the incarnation of (my) will. And there’s no reason to think that I am special in this regard. You are the incarnation of (your) will. The same goes for animals and, indeed, all living things; and for Schopenhauer, all nonliving things too. Plants are not conscious, but they grow in ways that help them find sunlight, water, and chances to reproduce. They are driven by the will to live. Even non-living things do stuff – rivers run to the sea, mountains slowly grow or crumble, and so on. Schopenhauer does not mean that rivers want to flow downhill; but their flowing is an expression of will nevertheless. We know that living things act from will (manifested as the will to live, mostly), and that living things are made of the same stuff as non-living things. So like Schopenhauer, we can think of all things as motivated by the same fundamental force, which we can call will.

This will can never be satisfied, since it is the precise nature of will to strive for something more, and it is not rational, so it wants blindly. This sounds a bit scary, like a constantly biting mouth. However, Schopenhauer says that we can just as accurately say that the world is not will, but music.

Music, Matter, & Meaning

Now Schopenhauer says that music can move us powerfully without itself representing anything in the represented world. This shows, first, that music can be a direct representation of the will, unmediated by anything else. A movie or a story might fill us with fear by depicting a monster or a battle, affecting our inner self by making us think of things of which we are afraid. But music can, without any intervening thoughts, speak directly of the will. In this sense he thinks that music can be a direct manifestation of the will itself.

Another argument is that music is a bit like will. The blind will that Schopenhauer supposes to be the underlying nature of reality has no target: it just wants, without wanting anything in particular that might satisfy it. It is, as it were, goal-oriented without a specific goal. This makes it very similar to art as defined by Schopenhauer’s hero, Immanuel Kant. Kant said that art, particularly beautiful art, is purposiveness without purpose. In this sense, what is most truly real (will) and what is most truly beautiful (great art, for instance), are the same. And Schopenhauer considers music to be the highest form of art. So music is like ultimate reality – which means that ultimate reality is like music. “We might, therefore, just as well call the world embodied music as embodied will,” says Schopenhauer.

Goethe said that architecture is ‘frozen music’, but Schopenhauer claims everything can be thought of as embodied music. And as we have seen, he sees physical objects as defined not so much by what they are made of (it’s all matter, after all) but by what they do. So everything does what it does as the physical representation or embodiment of music. The universe is one big dance, or whatever we should call three-dimensional, moving music. Trains do the locomotion; sharks do the shark; volcanoes do the volcano, and so on. As you walk down the street, each thing you pass is doing its own dance, expressing the will in its own way. Every plant is like a slow explosion of branches, leaves, and blossoms. The hills really are, in a sense, alive with the sound of (silent) music. But it’s not quite as individualistic as I have portrayed it, because, according to Schopenhauer, all is one. So while cats do the cat and rainbows do the rainbow, all of this is part of one enormous symphony. Nature is a harmony. Underlying and moving it all is one will, not many. T.S. Eliot wrote in ‘The Dry Salvages’ (number three of his Four Quartets, 1941) that “you are the music / While the music lasts.” This is what Schopenhauer thinks, too; but he would add that I am the music too; and so is T.S. Eliot; and so is everyone and everything else. And while none of us last forever, the music does last. It is eternal.

Two Men Contemplating The Moon
Art from 1819, the year of WWR: Two Men Contemplating The Moon, Caspar David Friedrich

Schopenhauerian Salvation

Through art, and especially through music – and indeed, through anything which causes us to contemplate ultimate reality without engaging our own wills – we’re offered a cure for the desire and boredom that Schopenhauer the pessimist brings to our attention. You might get bored with the things you have, but what about all the many things you don’t have? Not to mention the thing that you are – the marvelous dust? They are all wonderful, if only you could overcome your egoism long enough to appreciate them.

Schopenhauer seems to have sometimes managed to achieve a sort of rapture among the wonders of nature. He once fairly literally lost himself among the flowers in a Dresden park. An official who saw him acting strangely asked him who he was; Schopenhauer said that he wished the official could tell him. If you accept his philosophy, the weirdo among the flowers could be you.

Schopenhauer’s philosophy does not, unfortunately, offer a cure for pain. But it doesn’t create pain either: it just recognizes how much suffering there is. What it does in addition, is to make clear just how much beauty and wonder there is in the world too, and, by doing so, perhaps makes us less likely to want to eat those marvelous pigs (Schopenhauer was not a vegetarian, but his ethics of compassion seems to imply that one ought to be). If we don’t eat them, preferring a vegan pizza to the pepperoni kind, we will have reduced the suffering in the world. We will not have reduced our own suffering, of course; but the more we care about the flowers and the pigs and everything else, perhaps the less we will care about our own troubles, which, after all, are as temporary and insignificant as they are inevitable.

The differences between me and you are trivial: hair color, age, address, and so on. What we have in common, on the other hand, is far more important: our humanity. What we have in common with all living, and even non-living, things, is even better: we are all manifestations of the eternal will.

Being itself is tremendous. When I die the trivial stuff will die with me, but the important stuff goes on. What is most truly real is immortal. And that really is good news.

© Duncan Richter 2019

Duncan Richter is the Charles S. Luck III ’55 Institute Professor at the Virginia Military Institute. He is the author of a Historical Dictionary of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy, Anscombe’s Moral Philosophy, and Why be Good?: A Historical Introduction to Ethics.

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