Schopenhauer’s lineage

Schopenhauer is well known for his assertion that what disappears with our demise is the most vulgar and uninteresting part of our existence: in other words, when we die our individuality goes away. That is not to say that everything that is us disappears with our final day of light. In the essay on “Immortality: a dialogue,” Schopenhauer puts it thus:

As far as you are an individual, death will be the end of you. But your individuality is not your true and inmost being: it is only the outward manifestation of it. It is not the thing-in-itself, but only the phenomenon presented in the form of time; and therefore with a beginning and an end. But your real being knows neither time, nor beginning, nor end, nor yet the limits of any given individual. It is everywhere present in every individual; and no individual can exist apart from it. So when death comes, on the one hand you are annihilated as an individual; on the other, you are and remain everything. (p.405 in T. Bailey Saunder’s translation)

What is less trumpeted is that Schopenhauer should have drawn some of his ideas from his colleague Spinoza, who wrote some 200 years earlier. Spinoza held that there really is only one substance — God — and everything else is part of this single substance. As Bertrand Russell noted in his History of Western Philosophy, Spinoza made this claim in distinction to¬† Descartes, who had made a clear separation between mind — which is the element that allows us to connect with God — and matter, our physical, machine-like substance. What sets us apart from the determinism of matter was to Descartes our ability to perceive ideas, or, in his famous dictum, our ability to think: I think therefore I am.

Russell notes in no uncertain terms that Spinoza would take exception from this view: God is not only omnipotent, but is in fact everything. Thought and extension are attributes of this single substance, and, subsequently,

Individual souls and separate pieces of matter are, for Spinoza, adjectival; they are not things, but merely aspects of the divine Being. There can be no such personal immortality as Christians believe in, but only that impersonal sort that consists in becoming more and more one with God. (p. 571)

What is crucial is to perceive the way in which Spinoza arrived at a conclusion remarkably similar to Schopenhauer’s well-known rejection of individual immortality some centuries later: individuality is nothing but an aspect of our “true and inmost being,” and this being is timeless.

It follows that, for Spinoza, logical necessity is not limited to the material domain (as noted in this blog post): “Everything that happens is a manifestation of God’s inscrutable nature, and it is logically impossible that events should be other than they are” (ibid.).

Our path to contentedness? To find peace in the wisdom of knowing that things are the way they are by necessity, and that they could not be otherwise.

Spinoza on Descartes

The mind has greater power over the emotions and is less subject thereto, in so far as it understands all things as necessary.

Spinoza, Ethics, V

It is thoroughly established that Baruch Spinoza drew on the work of his predecessor Rene Descartes when he assembled his philosophy. What is most often put in the centre of this assumption is the way Spinoza sought to reaffirm Descartes’ system through a geometrical — and therefore, as it was thought at the time, indefeasible — superstructure.

The full extent of Descartes’ influence on Spinoza becomes clear when we turn to the Ethics. Descartes held that there is a division between our biological nature — which is wholly subject to deterministic relations — and our spirit, which is exempted from such determinism. There is a logical insufficiency at work here: if it were so that our spirit is wholly outside the biological machinery, how are we to explain that the spirit cannot withdraw its body from the iron-laws of nature?


Baruch Spinoza

It is in response to such questions that Spinoza would mould his refinement of Descartes. To Spinoza it isn’t so much that the mind — which is what the spirit receives as its reformulation — is singular in its exemption from iron-cast determinism, but that we can become conscious of determinism, and that this raising to the level of consciousness is what enable us to withdraw from the biological machinations of nature.

Spinoza upends Descartes’ absolute division between nature and spirit: rather, it is the extent to which the mind apprehends its situation in a domain of necessity that indicates our ability to command our emotions. We are reminded of Schopenhauer’s’ later wisdom: “to obtain something we have desired is to find out that it is worthless; we are always living in expectation of better things.”

To desire is to be dissatisfied, and to be able to regard one’s desire as transitory is our only source of tranquillity.

Nietzsche’s rejection of happiness

Nietzsche makes no secret of that it is Schopenhauer — Europe’s great pessimist — that is his true and most magnificent teacher. It is from him that Nietzsche got his idea of the will as essential to man and his existence, and it is against Schopenhauer that Nietzsche can finally announce the end of all values, or, to put it more precisely, the zero-point of morality that has as its entailment the transvaluation of all hitherto acknowledges values.

Let’s begin from the beginning: the question of the will. To Kant the world as it appears to us had a dark and hidden underside, what he referred to as the noumenon. Behind the phenomena were this entity, shrouded in darkness and knowable only as negation. To speculate about the noumenon, Kant believed, was tantamount to delving in metaphysics, and this was something Kant would advice strongly against.

To Schopenhauer things were different. While he acknowledges the division between the world as it is experienced and some hidden core or essence to this world, the noumenon was not beyond speculation. In fact, the noumenon was renderable as will. Hidden behind everything we see — the representations of our world — is a world-governing will, and the will manifests itself in people, but also in animals, in organic matter — trees, grass, plants — and even in dead objects: planets moving through space is governed by will. There isn’t anything morally laudable or desirable in the will — it’s on the level of what later philosophers would refer to as an existential facticity.

It is only with Nietzsche that the will takes on the appearance of something that is in itself beneficial. In his Genealogy of Morals he critiques Schopenhauer for claiming to have found an essence to ethics: the pessimist held that our ability to experience compassion lay at the core of our morality. It is this claim that Nietzsche cannot endure. The will, Nietzsche held, doesn’t rely on any preconceived ethical core. Not even compassion or happiness can hold that position. Instead, the will is nourished by that which supports and strengthens the will itself.

Such considerations tend to turn curious travellers away from Nietzsche: should life have some ethical core or daimonic goal? Commentators have claimed that Nietzsche’s will to power has to do with the kind of self-preservation that was hailed by biologists and 19th Century social critics influenced by Darwin. Such readings of Nietzsche should be complemented with a fuller understanding of what it is that Nietzsche’s Superman — the Ubermench — is above or beyond. And the answer is not other people or some such, but values that have been received as essential without being subjected to the kind of trans-valuation prescribed by Nietzsche.

To Nietzsche the essence of life lay not in “self-preservation,” but in a self-transcending enhancement. Valuable are those moments that supports, furthers, and awakens the enhancement of life.