In the Third Book of The World as Will and Representation Schopenhauer presents his account of aesthetic experience. Here the notion of a transformedconsciousness that removes us from the everyday concerns of the will is at its clearest, as is the Platonic ancestry of Schopenhauer’s thought. In aesthetic experience we perceive timeless Ideas, a series of grades at which the will manifests itself throughout nature.
To avoid confusion with Kantian or Hegelian uses of ‘Idea’ Schopenhauer typically refers to his conception as ‘(Platonic) Ideas’. They are universals that are instantiated in nature, and in aesthetic experience we gain a privileged, objective cognition of them, while perceptually experiencing some particular object, be it an art work or a thing in nature. We see the universal in the particular object of intuitive perception rather than attaining knowledge of it through concepts or abstract reasoning. So this kind of experience has a higher cognitive value than that of ordinary everyday consciousness, which is taken up with particular objects and their spatial, temporal and causal inter-connections.
Indeed, for Schopenhauer, aesthetic cognition reveals to us timeless realities common to all objects, and in that sense is more objective even than that of science, which only makes inferences about the universal forces of nature, and does not intuit them directly. Aesthetic experience has another great value for Schopenhauer in that while it lasts, our will is in abeyance. We do not seek to understand the object we perceive in relation to what it can do for us, whether we desire or need it, what associations it has with other objects or with our emotions:
‘we no longer consider the where, the when, the why, and the whither of things, but simply and solely the what’ (WWR I: 178). Thus we experience the exceptional state of a will-less consciousness. Nothing troubles us, because no felt lack or need moves us at all. We are free of the will for some blissful moments, attaining a peace without which, Schopenhauer tells us, true well-being would be impossible.
In the history of the philosophy of art, art has been assigned widely differing values. Schopenhauer’s account is interesting partly because it appears, at least at first sight, to unite two different conceptions of the value of art, one cognitive, the other to do with a disinterested aesthetic attitude. Often with an ‘aesthetic attitude’ type of theory art is said to attain its value by virtue of its affording an experience of a kind that can in principle be had in response to any kind of object. It looks as if Schopenhauer has some such view in mind when he talks of experiencing things in nature, such as landscapes, trees and rocks, as examples of the pure, will-less consciousness which art is also capable of giving us. At the same time Schopenhauer wants a superior form of cognition or knowledge, that of universal Ideas, to be characteristic of all aesthetic experience. He seems confident that whenever we enter the aesthetic state of will-less, timeless consciousness we shall encounter universal Ideas, and that whenever we are in contact with universal Ideas we shall be in a state of will-less consciousness.
However, when he comes to reflect on the many specific art forms, with which he shows considerable familiarity, he admits that in some cases their value has more to do with will-less tranquillity and less to do with cognition of any very important universals, and at the other end of the spectrum more to do with the latter and less with tranquillity. A challenging case at this end of the spectrum is tragedy, whose portrayal of a frightening universal aspect of humanity has its value in making us shudder before the truth of what is, or could well be, our ownlife. It is at least not obvious how the value of tragedy will also be found in its offering the bliss of will-less, painless contemplation.
The artistic genius for Schopenhauer is someone who commands a technique for articulating his experiential grasp of the universal in such a way as to transmit it to the rest of humanity, and has the ability to remain in the state of will-less objectivity for an abnormal length of time, to experience the world continuously with a unique intensity of perception. Yet even the artist must return to the life of willing and is not permanently inured to it. There awaits a further transition to a state of resignation in which the will is quietened altogether:
That pure, true, and profound knowledge of the inner nature of the world
. . . does not deliver him from life for ever, but only for a few moments. For
him it is not the way out of life, but only an occasional consolation in it,
until his power, enhanced by this contemplation, finally becomes tired of
the spectacle, and seizes the serious side of things. The St. Cecilia of
Raphael can be regarded as the symbol of this transition. (WWR I: 267)
The Fourth Book of The World as Will and Representation accordingly delivers Schopenhauer’s account of this ‘serious side of things’. It concerns ethics, both in the ‘narrower’ sense of moral goodness and badness, right and wrong, justice, obligation, freedom and so on, and in the wider sense of considering what (if anything) is of value in human life as such. Schopenhauer also dealt with the ‘narrower’ issues of ethics in two independent pieces of writing entitled ‘Prize Essay on the Freedom of the Will’ and ‘On the Basis of Morality’, which he published together under the title The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics. In these essays, submitted anonymously to two competitions, Schopenhauer addresses the issues of free will and the grounding of morality directly, rather than embedding them first in his own metaphysics of representation and will. Much of their content is also present in The World as Will and Representation, but it is often presented more clearly and more thoroughly in the essays.
Schopenhauer aims to describe what kinds of action and person qualify as morally good. He thinks that there is decisive evidence for this in ordinary experience: we feel a certain inner satisfaction when we have acted in certain ways, and the unpleasant sting of conscience when we have acted in the opposite way. Certain of our actions towards others tend to be especially applauded by third parties, and there seems to be a great deal of consensus about which persons and actions are the very worst, the furthest away from what is morally good. The single criterion of moral goodness for Schopenhauer is that one’s action spring from compassion. Compassion (German Mitleid) is an irreducible incentive present in the character of human beings: it disposes their individual will towards the well-being of others: towards helping them and preserving them from harm. Two kinds of virtuous action arise from this fundamental incentive, those of justice and human loving kindness (Menschenliebe). They correspond to different levels of intervention by the incentive of compassion, which either restrains the individual from harming another or brings it about that theypositively seek the other’s benefit.
The justice that is a moral virtue for Schopenhauer is quite distinct from the kind of justice which consists in acting out of respect for law, and which holds sway in a stable State or other human community. There, he maintains, it is fear of punishment and hope of reward that provide the motivation to be just—but such hopes and fears show that the incentive at work is not compassion, but egoism. He regards the State as an institution that arises from collective egoism, and not, strictly speaking, as a matter of morality.
Schopenhauer admits that the existence of compassion is somewhat mysterious. We are in our essence, and not by choice, beings that will their own well-being, which means, in ethical terms, that we are all egoistic. Even animals are egoistic, for Schopenhauer, meaning that they are constantly out to preserve and enhance themselves (though they cannot be called ‘self-interested’ because they lack the conscious conceptual mechanisms for forming interests as such). Compassion therefore seems to go against our nature as individuals, at least given the way Schopenhauer has set things up. Against the sceptical line that all would-be compassionate actions are ultimately egoistic, Schopenhauer appeals to the reader’s intuitions about particular examples: a case of selfsacrifice in battle or an incident in which a poor person returns valuable property when they could have escaped undetected. All that Schopenhauer needs from us here is the concession that, despite the egoistic nature of human beings, it sometimes occurs that someone’s action aims solely at the well-being of another.
Without that concession, he says, ethics would become an empty subject.
However, action from compassion is a rare and fragile thing because it must compete with egoism, the incentive that is vastly more common, and also with a pure incentive towards harming others, namely malice. Each human character contains an element of each incentive, Schopenhauer claims, though the proportions are very different. Schopenhauer’s views on character play a central role in his ethics. He says, on a certain amount of anecdotal evidence, that character is unique in each individual human being, that it is inborn and unchangeable. This has the corollary that one cannot change someone’s basic moral character, the direction in which their individual will tends to carry them.
What one can change is their knowledge, their understanding of the world and of the consequences of their actions. An egoist can be trained to harm fewer people in pursuit of his own interests, but only by supplying him with a richer and more considered set of interests to pursue. Schopenhauer sometimes refers to this figuratively as reforming the head but not the heart of the human being. The heart is his will, as opposed to the less essential and mutable intellect through which his cognition of the world is channelled.
Schopenhauer’s notion of character also features in his rejection of freedom to act. Given my inborn, unalterable character, and given the experience I have at any one time, my resulting action is necessary: I could not have acted otherwise. Schopenhauer frequently quotes the scholastic formula operari sequitur esse: acting follows from being. It is not in my power to change what I am, and what I do follows necessarily from what I am, given the occurrence of particular experiences, which Schopenhauer calls motives. A motive is a cognition thatmoves someone to action. Self-consciousness gives us the impression of being free when we act, but Schopenhauer unmasks this as an illusion.
We can often know that there are no obstacles to our doing something if we will it; but we are in the dark about what it is and is not possible for us to will. In order to know that, we would have to step outside of self-consciousness and understand what brought about our willing. But a motive, which sets our will in motion on a particular occasion, is a cause like any other in nature, and the individual character is on a par with the fixed dispositions to behave in certain ways that we find throughout the empirical world. So human action is subject to the rule that every event must be necessitated by its cause.
Why then do we have feelings of responsibility and guilt, and moreover ones that are not dissipated even by the conviction that our actions are determined?
Schopenhauer’s answer uses two distinctions: that between our actions and our self (or our doing and our being) and that between the empirical realm and the transcendental. He makes use of Kant’s distinction between the empirical and intelligible character. The latter is what we can think of ourselves as being in ourselves, beyond what we are in the realm of appearance.
There is no space, time or causality beyond that realm, so our intelligible character is uninfluenced by nature and can be regarded as freely initiating courses of events without being part of them. There is no absolute necessity of my actions occurring when and where they do. If someone else had been here in my stead, there might have been a different course of events; but given that I am present, the resulting actions are necessary. So if a morally bad action occurs, the fault lies in my being myself.
Hence there must be a transcendental kind of responsibility and a transcendental kind of freedom: what I feel responsible for and guilty about is my character as it is in itself, which Schopenhauer rather remarkably describes as a free ‘act of will outside time’ (WWR I: 289). Schopenhauer runs into a metaphysical tangle here, for if the thing in itself is beyond individuation, how can there be an ‘in-itself’ that pertains uniquely to me? And how can there be any ‘acting’ outside of time, space and causality? A deeper thought lurks behind this discussion, however: that the will (i.e. the world as it is in itself) has freely manifested itself as me, and thereby burdened me with being an individual through whom will flows, with all the potential it has for harmful expression against other individual wills that appear as distinct from it. On this reading, any human being rightly feels guilt about his or her very being as an individual. For all the genuine atheism of his metaphysical system, Schopenhauer adopts the Christian notion of ‘the deep guilt of the human race by reason of its very existence, and of the heart’s intense longing for salvation therefrom’ (WWR II: 625).
Schopenhauer’s account of compassion as the source of all moral goodness also gains its ultimate underpinning from his metaphysics. If compassion is a feeling of someone else’s pain that motivates me to alleviate it in as immediate a manner as my own suffering would, I must be experiencing less of a distinction between myself and the other than an agent who acts according to the normal egoistic incentive. I identify with the other person, as we commonly say. But Schopenhauer grounds this attitude of identification towards others in ametaphysical identity. Morally good and morally bad human beings relate differently towards the very fact of individuality. The bad character regards the basic metaphysical divide as lying between ‘I’ and everything else which ‘not-I’.
The good character regards all others as ‘I once more’. And it is the latter who has the superior insight into reality. However unreflective and inchoate their insight may be, compassionate human beings sense the allegedly deeper truth that the separateness of individuals is an illusion.
Earlier we saw Schopenhauer adopt the religious notion of salvation. Of this he says that it can be attained only by ‘the denial of one’s own self, hence by a complete reform of man’s nature’ (WWR II: 625). Schopenhauer also describes this as the will to life within me turning against itself, denying or negating itself.
Towards the end of The World as Will and Representation Schopenhauer says that a ‘knowledge of the whole’, and ‘comprehension of its inner nature . . . [as] a vain striving, an inward conflict, and a continual suffering’ (WWR I: 379) can quieten or sedate the will within an individual. Something very radical is to be imagined here, which he describes as ‘the abolition of the character’ (WWR I: 403), a process in which ‘the whole being is fundamentally changed and reversed’, and ‘a new person takes the place of the old’. He seems to have in mind that the will to life as it is manifest in me freely abolishes itself. The will to life is ‘the real self’, what I really am, like it or not, will it or not. It gives rise to my dispositions to respond to motives, which dispositions are again not subject to my own agency, or to what we normally call my own will. I cannot in any ordinary sense will what it is I will, or what my character is, or how it is that I am disposed to respond to motives, or how I am moved or affected by the world of appearance as it strikes me. The effect of attaining ‘knowledge of the whole’ is that the will to life as manifest in me is switched off; my essence changes; my character disappears; my natural dispositions to respond to motives are no more. My own real nature kills itself off in recoil at the content of that ‘knowledge of the whole’. So it is not so much that I try to stop being a being that tries for things.
Rather the responding and trying part of me, which is my very essence, the will to life in me, gets disabled by knowledge. Because of such a dramatic shift in my real nature, at the level of conscious willing I become resigned before all suffering and desire, and attain a mystical state in which I do not distinguish myself as an individual from the whole. For Schopenhauer only a change of this nature can redeem our existence for us, and give it any ultimate point.
Nietzsche frequently returned to the assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Schopenhauer, whom he still called his ‘great teacher’ even when opposing all his central doctrines. In The Gay Science Nietzsche complains that some of his contemporaries are enchanted not by Schopenhauer’s virtues (‘his sense for hard facts, his good will to clarity and reason, . . . the strength of his intellectual conscience, . . . his cleanliness in matters of the church and of the Christian God’), but rather by
Schopenhauer’s mystical embarrassments and evasions in those places
where the factual thinker let himself be seduced and corrupted by thevain urge to be the unriddler of the world; the indemonstrable doctrine
of One Will (‘all causes are merely occasional causes of the appearance of
the will at this time and this place’; ‘the will to life is present wholly and
undividedly in every being . . .’), the denial of the individual (‘all lions are
at bottom one lion’; ‘the plurality of individuals is an illusion’. . .); his
ecstatic reveries on genius (‘in aesthetic intuition the individual is no
longer individual but pure, will-less, painless, timeless subject of
knowledge’; ‘the subject, in being wholly taken up in the object it intuits,
has become the object itself’); the nonsense about compassion and how, as
the source of all morality, it enables one to make the break through the
principium individuationis. . . . (The Gay Science, sect. 99)
If we react to Schopenhauer’s metaphysics in a similar way, we have various choices of approach. We might attempt to preserve Schopenhauerian accounts of aesthetic value, morality, moral psychology or the meaning of existence that can be made intelligible without the aid of the metaphysics. Another approach is to treat elements of the metaphysics as a kind of figurative expression for would-be fundamental truths about the values in life. Another is to start with the attitude that reading Schopenhauer is a source of philosophical understanding and at the very least of new philosophical questions—perhaps with answers quite other than his own—and follow him as far into his metaphysics as is necessary to comprehend and address those issues, keeping a sceptical eye open for outright embarrassments and evasions.
Contributors to this volume are united in rejecting the further option of simply pulling apart Schopenhauer’s metaphysical system and moving on. As Nietzsche saw, too much would be lost by that course of action: too much that is challenging and worrying, and too much penetrating insight into the human condition.