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The Philosophy of Life
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 13: Arthur Schopenhauer

If Hegel is the philosopher of the Intellect, Schopenhauer is the philosopher of the Will. He takes his start from Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and holds that the thing-in-itself which for Kant was an unknowable noumenon is knowable directly in one's own self as volitional activity. The Will is the thing-in-itself. Schopenhauer's Will is not the individual psychological will, but a universal metaphysical principle, spaceless and timeless and uncaused, even as Hegel's Reason, as he held, is not merely an individual function. The Will, says Schopenhauer, manifests itself in the individual as impulse, instinct and craving. The Will, again, it is that appears as consciousness and body. Thus the true self of man is identified with the Will.

Everything in the world, too, becomes an expression of the Will. The world is Will and Idea and has no independent material existence. The Will is above the Idea and is the only reality. The Will is blind, unconscious, and the Idea which is conscious is only its appearance in the intellect. We see nothing anywhere except the Will and the body which is the expression of the Will. Right from unconscious matter up to the self-conscious man the Will alone reigns supreme. It appears unconscious in something and conscious in another. It is all strife, activity, yearning that we observe everywhere. Desire is the cause of all things. With the Yogavasishtha, Schopenhauer would say that there is the eye because there is desire to see, there is the ear because there is desire to hear. The body and bodily functions are the expression of the Will. The digestive organs are the objectifications of hunger, the feet of the desire for movement, the brain of the desire for knowledge. There can be no body, and no world, without the Will. Longing, craving, or function, determines the nature of being, of the kind of organisation which becomes the body of the Will. The Will-to-live is the root of all things. It is the cause of struggle, suffering, pain. The Will is the great evil that accounts for the misery of all beings.

Schopenhauer's concept of the Will is fascinating. The Will is the Reality and it is blind urge. Consciousness or intelligence is its phenomenal effect made manifest in higher organisms in order to pave the way for the work of the Will in the world. For Schopenhauer intelligence is not the essential nature of the self. It is only a production of the brain created by the Will for its own purposes. Consciousness is an appearance, Will the Reality which is the immortal force that never dies with the death of individuals, never perishes through change. It may manifest itself in a mortal shape as individuals, but it cannot itself cease to be. The Will is imperishable being.

Schopenhauer's Will is more like the Mula-Prakriti of the Vedanta, which is essentially unconscious activity, rather than Reality whose essential nature is consciousness. Individual consciousness which expresses itself in the intellect is defined by the constitution of Prakriti whose representation is the intellect. Intellect is the medium through which intelligence becomes manifest. But, in the Vedanta, Prakriti is not Reality, and consciousness is not the expression of Prakriti. Consciousness is the essence of Reality which is beyond Prakriti. But it is true that the intellectual intelligence in man is controlled by its unconscious Master, the Prakriti with its primary modes of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. Perhaps the Freudian psychoanalysts would be friendly with Schopenhauer as he would be an aid in demonstrating their theory of psychological determinism, that the conscious is always determined by the nature of the unconscious, and that free will is an illusion produced by the false notion that the conscious is independent of the unconscious. Instinct, craving, urge, is at the root of even the operation of reason. We are here reminded of Bradley's saying that metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct, and that to find these reasons, again, is no less an instinct. But the urge for knowledge is not an irrational blind force. The instinct that makes it impossible for us to desist from the noble enterprise of metaphysics is a super-rational aspiration which voices forth the longings of the infinite in us. Schopenhauer's blind Will cannot answer to this deepest truth in us, nor can the unconscious of Freud go beyond a mere sum of the unmanifested creative impressions and impulses left by our past conscious acts, since ages. Consciousness is not a by-product of the unconscious Will, any more than it is a secretion of the material brain.

Schopenhauer's theory that consciousness is only a mirror of the unconscious Will is, as it can be very easily shown, an untenable assumption. The arguments against materialism naturally level themselves against this view of Schopenhauer. How can consciousness be manifested by an unconscious principle unless it is hidden in the unconscious itself? If consciousness is latent in the unconscious, then the unconscious itself must be endowed with consciousness, though we may accept that this consciousness remains unmanifested in it. If consciousness is different from the unconscious, it is not even a manifestation of the unconscious, and in this position even the existence of the unconscious cannot be known for want of any relation between consciousness and the unconscious. We can as well say that the unconscious does not exist at all. If, on the other hand, consciousness and the unconscious are one in essence, the unconscious gets illuminated by consciousness and its essence becomes consciousness. Even on this supposition the unconscious ceases to be. If it is said that the unconscious alone is, and there is no such thing as consciousness, we say that, as in that case no one would know that there is the unconscious there is no warrant for the supposition that the unconscious exists. Schopenhauer can convey to us no meaning by asking us to run away from Reality or to overcome Reality. Reality cannot be abandoned or destroyed or overcome; it is the Supreme Being which every one has to realise in one's own self. How can such a Reality be a blind Will, a body of craving that brings misery? Instead of asking us to rise from phenomena to Reality, he wants us to be rid of Reality. Moreover, the Real should necessarily be the good. It requires no argument to prove this, for the Real is naturally not different from one's own self. Have we to flee from our own selves? Has this teaching any sense?

Schopenhauer's Will, the evil principle, has to be considered a cosmic conception of the individual will which is characterised by the evil of craving. A cosmic being, by itself, cannot be evil, for no ethical or moral value, desire, pleasure or pain can be attributed to what is super-individual. Evil is meaningful only in the individual, not in Reality. We can accept the theory of a primordial unconscious cosmic existence, as the Prakriti of the Vedanta, and a conscious Idea appearing in it, as Isvara or Hiranyagarbha. But we cannot make even this conscious Idea an appearance of the unconscious, for consciousness cannot proceed from unconsciousness. We have to posit a Reality whose essential nature is consciousness and which manifests itself in the cosmic unconscious as the conscious Idea. Further, the evil has to be confined to the individual psychological will which is a spoilt child of the cosmic Will, and should not be taken to the cosmic Will itself which is a metaphysical principle transcending good and evil. Schopenhauer's advice that one should free oneself from the evil will amounts to nothing more than that one should transcend individual existence, and cannot mean that one should avoid Reality itself, which is an impossibility. He has made the mistake of objectifying the individual will in the cosmos and calling it a metaphysical Reality. Even if everyone's will is to be evil, it does not mean that the cosmic Will is evil, for even all individual wills put together cannot make the cosmic Will. The argument against Kant's supposition that the categories of the understanding, objectively present in the sense that they are in all men, determine the nature of perceived objects, applies also to Schopenhauer's belief that the evil will has a metaphysical existence. Will is not Reality; it is the dynamic executive power of consciousness, cosmically as well as individually. In the cosmos it is free; in the individual it is bound and determined.

Schopenhauer's philosophy has, however, great value if only we would take it in its application to psychology, and not as a fully convincing system of metaphysics, not forgetting at the same time that while psychology is concerned with the behaviour and the functions of the individual mind, it is totally ignorant of the transcendental aspirations and the sublime conscious endeavours of the higher spiritual reason in man. Our want, says Schopenhauer, determines and is at the bottom of our reasonings. It is not because we reason that we want; reason is the servant of want. Want is considered to be the master of even the reason. We cannot influence people by appealing always to their understanding; understanding is dominated by volitional cravings. We have to appeal to the Will which is the seat of desire. Schopenhauer thinks that there is no use of reasoning and argumentation with people,—they can never be persuaded or convinced by appeal to reason,—they yield when the activities of their Will, their private cravings, their urges, their interests are appealed to. We forget what we merely understand; we remember what we desire. Reason or understanding is a mere tool in the hands of the cravings and fears of the Will. The Will-to-live, not the understanding, is the mainspring of all action. Schopenhauer would agree with us if we say that all life is a struggle for food, clothing, shelter, sex and protection from outside attack. Only we have to add, though Schopenhauer never seems to have had the patience to reflect over it, that there is another higher instinct, a secret aspiration in man which supersedes all the lower instincts, the aspiration for the wisdom of Truth, notwithstanding that this is rarely seen in most human beings.

Organic attraction and mechanical pull are both to Schopenhauer expressions of the Will-to-live. This Will tries falsely to overcome death by self-reproduction. This is why, says Schopenhauer, the sexual urge is so strong in all beings. It is just another phase of the Will-to-live, the assertion of its immortality, its attempt to live eternally as an individual of the species. The instincts for self-preservation and self-reproduction are not different from each other. The latter is only the process of ensuring the existence of the former in the future, too. Hence there is only one instinct, the turbulent, unquenchable Will-to-live. The intellect has no power over this instinct. Schopenhauer makes the romances of love merely the subtle contrivances of the Will-to-live, the instruments used by it in its dark and wild operations to preserve itself. He concludes that sexual love brings misery to the individual because its aim is not the pleasure or the good of the individual but the continuation of the species, for which Nature shrewdly covers the reason of the individual and induces it to lay faith in the illusion that this is for its own pleasure and good. Thus the attempt of the Will to immortalise itself ends in its defeat, for what is here immortalised is not the individual but the species. The individual has been cleverly deceived! Pleasure has no place in the process of the preservation of the species.

Here Schopenhauer gives merely a psychological interpretation of the Will-to-live asserting itself as the Will-to-reproduce. Its metaphysical implications are to be discovered in the dialectical process of Hegel and the ‘satisfaction' of ‘actual entities' in the philosophy of Whitehead. The neutralisation of the thesis and the antithesis in the synthesis, which is the way in which all things create and recreate themselves and which Hegel employed to describe the integrating process of the higher evolution of the individuals towards the realisation of Self-consciousness in the Absolute applies distortedly in relative individuals, ignorant of any such higher purpose, to the reproduction of individualities. In Whitehead the Hegelian dialectic continues in an elaborate manner. The actual entities of Whitehead supply the data which are sought to be unified into the ‘satisfaction' of the innate urge to create. An ‘actual entity' is said to enjoy the process of creating itself out of its data, feel a ‘satisfaction' in its self-emergence. An ‘actual entity' becomes a ‘subject' when it emerges out of the pre-existing world of actual entities. The implied meaning of all this is that a creative urge is immanent in all things, which in its higher liberating archetypal existence becomes an integrating conscious march to the realisation of the Absolute, and in its lower binding reflected aspect in mortal individuals assumes the form of a blind seeking to perpetuate the species. Here the lower becomes a travesty of the higher. The Greek philosophers had evidently this in their minds when they held the extraordinary view that sexual love represents in the world of sense a shadow of Divine love. The Hindu ethics, too, regards marriage not as a contract of love, but as a sacrament, a devout union of souls for the fulfilment of a purpose higher than the mundane. It was not any element of passion but a dutiful surrender to law that determined the meaning of marriage in ancient Hindu society. It was a spiritual aim that directed the union of the sexes.

A note, however, has to be added that all this is true metaphysically and in highly advanced societies, but the ordinary individual in the world of sense gets perpetually blindfolded and stupidly forgetting all spirituality in the nature of things, does not only fail to benefit by these higher implications, but heads towards a fall into the mire of bondage and grief due to its cravings. As a rule it has to be held that there is no possibility of discovering the spiritual in external objects as long as one is locked within the prison-house of a world of ignorance, desire and attachment. Schopenhauer gives the lower empirical side of the picture, and does not rise to these heights which we know the man of today is not endowed with the ability to understand. For Schopenhauer marriage is the disillusionment of love, a trick by which every one is made to fall a victim to the blind Will. The Will can be conquered, says Schopenhauer, by overcoming the Will-to-reproduce. The Will-to-reproduce is considered the greatest evil, for it seeks to perpetuate the misery of individual existence.

Schopenhauer says that passions can be subdued by the domination of knowledge over the Will. Most of our troubles would cease to be troubles if only they could be properly understood in relation to their causes. Self-control provides to man the greatest protection against all external compulsion and attack. True greatness is in self-mastery, not in victory over the worlds. The joy of the within is greater than the pleasure of the outside. To live in the self is to live in peace. The evil Will can be overcome by conscious contemplation on the truth of things. Schopenhauer even recommends the company of the wise and intimate relations with them as aids in this contemplation. Knowledge is the great purifier of the self of man. When the world is viewed not by sense but by knowledge, man is liberated from the evil and bondage of the Will. Knowledge takes us to the universal essence.

How can this profound insight be consistent with the notion that consciousness, intelligence or knowledge is only a phenomenon, an appearance of the Will? How can knowledge give man freedom from the Will if it is only a creature projected by the Will? Further, when the Will is Reality and also blind and evil, there can be no such thing as freedom, for the ultimate aim of existence is to return to Reality, and so the eternal experience that we have to aspire for ought to be one of unconsciousness, evil. How can Nirvana from the Will or the attainment of happiness and peace be possible, which Schopenhauer so forcibly pleads for, if the Will is Reality and consciousness its effect? How could Schopenhauer give us a chaste philosophy through his intellect if the intellect is an appearance of the evil Will? Will not then his philosophy itself become a product of blind craving and evil? Schopenhauer gives evidence to a confused mind which longs for universal and eternal freedom in perfect knowledge, but which at the same time condemns this longing by denouncing Reality as a blind and evil Will. His resignation to asceticism which, he says, can destroy the Will and enable one to attain freedom shows that the Will is not Reality but a clinging to individual existence, and that Reality is freedom, happiness and peace.

A recognition of the limitations and sufferings, cravings and evils in the relative world ought to be no doubt the beginning of any true philosophy. But Schopenhauer commits himself many times to extreme statements which a sober mind will find difficult to appreciate fully. The limit is reached when Reality itself is jibed as evil. Such a theory is the result of an imperfect and one-sided view of life, though at times, side by side with an expression of prejudice and personal sentiment, he gives intimations of profound knowledge and a wisdom that cannot but win the admiration of the thinking world. Schopenhauer is no less a genius than either Kant or Hegel, but his genius often gets marred by certain immature conclusions, a defective metaphysics and an attempt to give the touch of wholeness to what is only one side of the nature of things. There is evil when craving rules our realm, but beyond all this is a goal which is unsurpassable splendour and bliss eternal and which we are bound to achieve. However, it has to be admitted, in the end, that Schopenhauer has done a great service to mankind by drawing its attention to the fact that life is not all roses, that there is a dark and bitter side of existence here, that there is ignorance, deception, suffering and pain, and that no philosophy which ignores this truism can ever hope to be complete.