Mis à jour le Dimanche, 12 Février 2023
About the life of Arthur Schopenhauer
Arthur Schopenhauer was born on February 22nd of 1788 in Danzig, Germany, he was the son of Henri Floris Schopenhauer aged 38 and Johanna Henriette Trosiener who was then 19 years old. His father was a wealthy merchant and banker who had already planned for his son to become a business man before his birth, and hoped Arthur would follow in his steps. Henri Schopenhauer was also an independent minded man who moved his family from the city of Danzig when it was taken over by Prussia in 1793. The new family home was in Hamburg. Arthur Schopenhauer left to visit England and other countries, on the understanding that when he completed his tour, he would begin work in a business. The latter, then 16 years old, kept his promise but being much more intellectually oriented, he did not have a mercantile mind and had no interest for business and so when his father died, he got consent from his mother to continue his studies.
In 1809, he entered the University of Göttingen to study medicine, but he changed to philosophy in his second year, as he put it “life is a problem and he decided to spend his life contemplating it”. He also studied at Weimar where he lived with his mother until he became estranged from her. Schopenhauer had a moody, irritable temperament and could be violent in his passion.
At the university, Schopenhauer developed an affection for Plato and visited Berlin to hear the lectures of contemporary philosophers Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762 – 1814) and Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768 – 1834). Fichte was the first transcendentalist idealist and Schleiermacher was a founder of modern Protestant theology. Schopenhauer found Fichte’s comment, “No one could be a true philosopher without being religious” absurd and retorted that no man who was religious turns to philosophy since they have no need for it [a questionable statement when religion (e.g. Christianity) does not cover all the aspects of the experience of life in detail, or study God’s works methodically through the lens of science and rationality, to understand the further implications in the betterment of the human world].
Schopenhauer left Berlin when Prussia rebelled against Napoleon. He never developed strong German patriotic values and sentiments [perhaps never given or found a reason to do so], and always regarded himself more as a cosmopolitan without any strong national affiliation. In that sense we can deduce that Schopenhauer’s vision resonates with the French intellectual heritage because it tends towards universalism; like Montaigne, Descartes and Voltaire, he genuinely had a universal vision of humanity and did not restrict himself to the particular collective frame of mind of a group of organisms conditioned within the limits of a geographical region, which is also similar to the vision of Socrates who said: “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world“.
The thinker went into retirement to write his first dissertation called “On the fourfold route of the principle of sufficient reason”, which was published in 1813 and earned him a doctorate at Vienna. The poet Goethe congratulated Schopenhauer, and in return he wrote an essay called “On Vision and Colours” which supported Goethe in his stand against Isaac Newton. But the dissertation, although it won the admiration of Goethe, went practically unnoticed. The author however always considered it the groundwork and essential introduction to his philosophy. Shortly after he published his dissertation, Schopenhauer met an Oriental scholar, Friedrich Majer (1771 – 1818), who introduced him to Indian philosophy and literature. He maintained an interest in Indian philosophy throughout his life, and as an old man, he meditated on the Upanishad, part of the Vedas [the sacred script of the Hindus]. He would later associate his theory of the world of ideas with the Indian doctrine of Maya [to the Indians, Maya is illusion or the world as an illusion]. To Schopenhauer, this meant that the individual subject and object he wrote were “Maya”, all at the end.
For 4 years between 1814 and 1818, Schopenhauer lived in Dresden, which is where he wrote his masterpiece “The World as Will and Idea”. He sent the manuscript to his publishers and left for an art tour of Italy. The book was published the following year in 1819, and although it received attention from some philosophers, it sold very few copies. This was a disappointment to the author who felt sure it contained the secret of the universe.
This failure did not kill his eagerness however, so he returned to Berlin and started lecturing. By now he was 32 years old. He deliberately scheduled his lectures for the hour at which the philosopher Hegel was also accustomed to lecture – planning to compete with the master. But his lecturing career was a failure and Schopenhauer gave it up after only one semester. His ideas seemed at odds with the dominant spirit of the time.
Schopenhauer roamed around a bit and then settled in Frankfurt in 1833, he read European literature and scientific books and journals looking for illustrations or confirmations of his theories. He frequented the theatre and also continued writing, publishing on the Will of nature and winning a Norwegian prize for an essay on freedom. He failed to win a similar prize from the Royal Danish Academy of the Sciences for a separate essay on ethics; they disapproved of his disparaging remarks about other philosophers. These two essays were later published together in 1841, under the title “The two fundamental problems of Ethics”. In 1844, Schopenhauer published a second edition of “The world as Will and Idea”, which contained 50 new chapters. In the Preface, he took the opportunity to make a strong statement of his views about university professors of philosophy, which were of course not admiring.
In 1848 there was an unsuccessful revolution in Germany. A revolution from which Schopenhauer had no sympathy whatsoever. But after the failure of this revolt, people were more willing to consider a philosophy which emphasised the evil in the world which preached the rejection of life for the route of contemplation. Schopenhauer’s popularity was on the rise.
In 1851, he published a collection of essays that dealt with a wide variety of topics, and finally in 1859, he published third edition of the “World as Will and Idea” with more supplements. In the last decade of his life, the author finally became a famous man, all kinds of visitors with all kinds of philosophies came to see him and to enjoy his brilliant conversations. Lectures were given on his system at the University, the very university he has attacked, a sure indication that he had finally achieved success. Schopenhauer has spent a long, lonely life of reflection and only after his works were ignored for many years that he attained fame and reputation. He died in September 1860, at the age of 72.
Schopenhauer, was a realistic philosopher, focused on the raw nature of life: the mental evils and cruelty that lies within man, which he considered inevitable sides of human nature that psychologists view as mental disorders with a negative effect on both the character of the ill mind and the human environment at large exposed to that vile animalistic side of human nature. Schopenhauer’s negative view of man’s behaviour and role in life was a sharp contrast to the other more euphoric and at times unrealistic philosophers who marked the spirits of the generation before him, focussing on a an idealistic and exaggerated side of man’s mind and character.
Although Schopenhauer’s work originally gained little attention at the time it was published [perhaps for being too avant-garde for the atavistic institutions of his time when neither the theory of evolution was known nor evolutionary psychology], he expressed an interpretation of the world that was dragging, and embodied an opposition to the major intellectual figures who had imposed their thought before him: great names in philosophy such as Victor Schelling and Hegel. Schopenhauer opposed their thoughts on important points but did not deny expressions of art such as the romantic movement in its various forms. Schopenhauer who never refrained from publicly criticising people and ideas he disliked was very vocal in his complete contempt for these men, and regarded himself as their great opponent in the ring of the leaders delivering the “Real truth” to mankind and civilisation. Schopenhauer’s work in many ways could be viewed as an extension of another famous German philosopher, namely Immanuel Kant, who preceded him by one generation, delivering his major philosophical work, “a critique of pure reason”.
As a man, Schopenhauer was cultured, broadly educated, eloquent and articulate, witty and conversational, and a very talented writer, but he was also opinionated, egotistical, and often quarrelsome. His remarks about other philosophers were assaulted and his remarks about women in general were so scathing that they had to be deleted from his book by his editor. He was obsessed with the suffering of humanity, but did nothing to alleviate it. He himself made the comment that it is no more necessary for a philosopher to be a saint than it is for a saint to be a philosopher, and he never tried to prove otherwise. But, in the final analysis he was exactly the man he needed to be to write what he wrote.
Arthur Schophenhauer’s pessimistic and grim interpretation of life are not very likely to have come from a man of infallible tolerance or patience, and that interpretation of life played a significant role in the development of human thought and philosophy by keeping the debate open and providing inspiration to viewpoints that forced humanity to re-examine itself yet again.
The “Will to Live”: Schopenhauer’s concept, Human Love, Science & Evolutionary Psychology
The concepts of Arthur Schopenhauer’s major work, “The World as Will and Idea” constitutes the foundations for the future works of major thinkers in both psychology and philosophy. As a modern thinker, it is fundamental to get a good understanding of the core concept that structure the work of Schopenhauer, more precisely his philosophical concept of the “Will To Live“, which is echoed in evolutionary biology [i.e. in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which is widely accepted by the scientific community worldwide]. Schopenhauer was incredibly avant-garde because at the time he composed his philosophical treaty of the “World as Will and Idea”, Darwin had not yet formulated the theory of evolution, which would only be published in 1859 – just one year before the death of Arthur Schopenhauer.
The importance of grasping the concept of Schopenhauer’s “Will To Live” cannot be escaped as that “Will” is also synchronised with our philosophical orientation in regards to desire and motivation for the “Organismic Theory of Psychological Construction“, since it resonates with the fundamental belief of the mind as an active, dynamic and self-generating entity, and this is in the German intellectual tradition of mental life [it was also a founding assumption for Jean Piaget as he developed his Theory of Cognitive Development in Children]. Freud also saw psychoanalysis as a revolution of the mind that had to disturb the consciousness of the world, and viewed the unconscious as a reservoir of impulsive force repressed in the biological depths of the soul – a notion that also relates to Schopenhauer’s “Will To Live”.
When Darwin published his theory of evolution, he was opposed to all the reigning ideas of the times, and faced a lot of criticism from religious scholars as he demonstrated that life appeared on Earth by complete chance and in an absurd manner. Life then developped and became more complex and sophisticated through the process known as natural selection. Darwin radicalised his vision of the world since he would go on to even discard any “Will” and his theory of evolution explains life based on the simplistic mechanic of “natural selection”; for example, natural selection allowed human beings to have organs such as eyes simply because such an organ gave man the ability to escape predators – there is absolutely no “Will” behind this procedure and no finalised plan.
What is genuinely interesting about the philosophical theory of the “Will To Live” in Schopenhauer’s work is that it would eventually come to resonate with the much later works of Charles Darwin. The scientific translation of the “Will to Live” in Schopenhauer’s work is what Darwin called the “struggle for life”. Hence, this connection between Schopenhauer’s thought and Darwin’s theory allows us to understand that for both of them, everything that human beings have inside their bodies is at the service of this “Will to Live” [i.e. survival instinct]. Hence, to acknowledge Schopenhauer’s sharp insight as a truly avant-garde thinker, we have to note that he set the foundations for the field nowadays known as “Evolutionary Psychology“ at a time when it was inexistent.
What are the principles of evolutionary psychology? Simply to fully extrapolate and firmly apply the logic of the theory of evolution to work out its consequences. The theory of evolution explains that all the organs present in the human body are the simple consequence of the evolutionary process of “natural selection” because those organs allowed the species to survive, i.e. we have eyes, a nose, ears and a mouth because those organs allowed homo sapiens (i.e. humans) to survive. So, evolutionary psychology goes even further to apply that survival and evolutionary logic to develop the school of thought on the foundational argument that, since the brain is also an organ that allowed us to survive, so what mankind has in the mind (i.e. our psychology itself) is also the direct result of the evolutionary process of natural selection. Thus, evolutionary psychology claims that the homo sapien mind (i.e. human psychology) is structured in such a way because it favoured the survival of homo sapiens.
The “Will to Live” what we could also call the “instinct for survival” is a profound force deeply embedded in the biological depths of all homo sapiens. That “Will to Live” impacts behaviour at both an individual level and at the level of the species (i.e. homo sapiens). The will to survive of the species is stronger than the will to survive of the individual – which means that the individual wants to survive but there is an unconscious will which is even stronger in the mind which aims not to ensure the individual’s survival, but to ensure the survival of homo sapiens. If we were to express this phenomena from the perspective of natural selection in Darwin’s theory of evolution, it would explain how nature, over the course of evolution, has selected and favoured individuals who were most apt in showing empathy towards their fellow human beings [e.g. towards their children] because such empathetic behaviour promoted the survival of the group [the species itself].
Schopenhauer pointed out that this “Will to Live” has no specific objective except that of preserving itself; which means that man reproduces life for life itself [i.e. one has children so that those children can have children and their children can also have more children, and so on – an infinite process without any precise objective or end result]. As such, no life has any sense, no life has any precise or known final objective; humans pass down the task of devising sense to the next generation and so on – the question of sense is completely inexistent.
Since, life has no clear final objective and no clear sense, Schopenhauer observed that life is absurd because it is mainly an experience of various kinds of suffering. Hence, his famous formula that life is like a pendulum that oscillates from right to left between suffering and boredom: what does this mean? It means that life is made of desire, and desire is always a lack [e.g. a poor person’s desire to have money results from the lack of money in order to be able to stay alive].
This idea of desire as lack will also be echoed in the works of Jacques Lacan as an explanation to human motivation. Hence, as Schopenhauer explains, lack is a form of frustration and suffering. When a human being desires, that person suffers, and when that desire is satisfied, peace and calmness are obtained and the person is in a state of serenity [for some time], but eventually that state of calmness does not last forever, and boredom soon engulfs the individual because nothing leads to moving forward in that state. It is desire that motivates man, it is desire that allows man to live and move forward, and so man oscillates between suffering [when one desires] and boredom [when a desire is accomplished].
If human psychology [i.e. the mind or psyche] is also direct result of evolution which includes the “Will to Live”, then what purpose do feelings and emotions serve? Much before Darwin and much before evolutionary psychology itself, Arthur Schopenhauer through his meditations asked and answered questions about the purpose of feelings and emotions in the human mind:
– In what way do feelings and emotions help us to survive?
– Is romantic love simply an elaborate illusion at the service of our survival instinct?
All human emotions and feelings are nothing more than illusions at the service of the will to live [or we could say the instinct for survival in evolutionary terms]. What Schopenhauer posits, is that when one understands [i.e. becomes aware] how one is being manipulated by emotions and feelings at the service of the “Will to Live”, it becomes possible to detach oneself from those emotions and feelings. But unfortunately, as Lev Fraenckel points out, detachment also leads the human mind to kneel to the demands of the cold and icy calculations of science in the quest to discard those feelings and emotions manipulating us; that could also compel us to become robotic, mechanical and purely utilitarian in our outlook and behaviour – which nature itself did not design human beings with such a mode of operation. Can we can find a balanced mode of existence to maintain our humanity in a life experienced with emotions while also embracing rationality and reason? This will be elaborated and discussed below in our constructive critique building on Schopenhauer’s foundation while also linking concepts from other disciplines and thinkers.
By the logic of the philosophy of Schopenhauer and evolutionary psychology, human emotions are fake (i.e. a seductive, elaborate and beautiful illusion), because they are simply nature’s manipulation to drive the individual to protect his fellow human beings so as to promote the survival of the species. It is exactly the same for romantic love because we have the impression of following and going after our own individual pleasure and romance when in fact it is also nature’s manipulation (i.e. a trick in the shape of a powerful spectacle of nature inherited through thousands of years of human evolution and natural selection) to push individuals to mate and reproduce – a powerful drive at the service of the will to live (or survival instinct). Lev Fraenckel, the French philosophy professor suggested that as a modern example, we could consider the reason why Jack in James Cameron’s film from 1997, Titanic, went as far as to die for Rose out of love; the reason behind his dramatic sacrifice lies in the fact that he was manipulated by his unconscious at the cost of his own life (i.e. the will to live or survival instinct as nature’s manipulation in the form of emotions that drive man to protect our fellow human beings).
Hence, from Schopenhauer’s perspective and even from the standpoint of evolutionary biology, sexual pleasure is simply a bait used by nature to promote reproduction among human beings [which makes a lot of sense in justifying the presence of sexual drives in human beings and animals alike since without them, a species would be devoid of the desire to procreate and become extinct]. That idea may shed some light on man’s love choices in a fairly interesting manner according to Schopenhauer, since it suggests that a male will fall in love with a female with whom he may hardly care about simply because it serves the interest of our species, i.e. the human race. The male will fall in love scientifically (and in many cases unconsciously, driven by his evolutionary instincts or manipulated by his will to live) with the signs of female fertility, i.e. hips wide enough to procreate and breasts adequate enough to breastfeed.
In an episode of the French show, Arrêt Sur Image, Sébastien Bohler, the chief editor for the magazine Cerveau & Psycho and doctor in neurology explained how “in general”, men tend to be attracted to females with particularly shaped hips, scientifically caracterised by the waist to hip ratio. It is a value obtained by dividing the waist circumference by the hip circumference, and the ideal waist-to-hip ratio is 0.7 in all cultures apparently (Singh and Singh, 2011). As for females, according to evolutionary logic and Schopenhauer’s perspective, their primary biological instincts tend to make them fall in love with males who bear the apparent signs of virility and who manifest a fairly high level of testosterone in order to ensure the protection and security of the offspring. As such, females are also manipulated by their “Will to Live” towards a particular form of masculinity, which generates the female reproductive instinct.
This allows Schopenhauer to give a strong biological reason to the observation that the rate of infidelity is always higher among men than among women even if it is tending more and more towards equality, but still not the case.
Logically, going by the physiological limitations of the female body, once a female falls pregnant, it becomes impossible for her to continue reproducing for 9 months; she can only produce an offspring once at a time. As such, it is in her best interest to remain with the same partner. On the other hand, in the male’s case, the dynamic is different, because his physiology does not halt or impose any limitation on his inherited reproductive instinct derived from thousands of years of evolution as a mammal, which allows him the choice to continue reproducing with more female partners. As such, Schopenhauer extracts meaning from this evolutionary logic at every level, and in his line of thought it becomes clear that males are also being manipulated by their survival instinct [i.e. their deeply rooted instinct of sexual selection], which renders them highly reactive and receptive to female signs of fertility, which Schopenhauer points out as the main cause for males’ attraction to young females. The simple and fundamental scientific reason behind such attraction being that the apparent desirable signs of female fertility [i.e. perfect waist-to-hip ratio and adequate breasts for feeding and raising offsprings] are mostly found in young females; although in the modern world, with widespread education about nutrition science, eating patterns, intermittent fasting and fitness, in some societies, for e.g. France, older females are preserving their signs of fertility longer. Fertility after the age of 40 has been rising steadily since 1980 in France.
This inherited “Will to Live” or survival instinct in homo sapiens is also one of the reasons why human beings have an instinctive attraction to beauty, since beauty has a biological basis. Human beings are attracted to the averageness and symmetry of faces, and by the harmony of the body because those signs are linked to good health and internal condition. A study carried out in 1994 by biologist Randy Thornhill supported the hypothesis that human beings prefer averageness and symmetry in faces (Grammer and Thornhill, 1994). Thornhill explained that this attraction and the selective criteria biased towards physical beauty has been observed and is also common among animal species; it is now known that symmetry is linked to better performances in terms of reproduction, survival and resistance to disease – we can now conclude that there is a similar pattern among homo sapiens, i.e. human beings.
As opposed to many common opinions, scientifically we find that beauty is not subjective at all because those criteria for sexual selection are similar across all human cultures., i.e. waist-to-hip ratio, averageness and symmetry of faces, and the harmony of the body.
Hence, Schopenhauer’s argument leads to the position that “love”, on the surface as experienced from the individual perspective of human beings, may seem like a romantic ideal, but this illusion is simply the elaborate spectacle used by the “Will to Live” to manipulate our species towards its survival by favouring mating – in order to replicate the lifeform that contains the will. This comes to echo Spinoza’s thought when he said: “Men are mistaken in thinking themselves free; their opinion is made up of consciousness of their own actions, and ignorance of the causes by which they are determined.”
It is very important to not apply those criteria for sexual selection blindly [as we would for animals], to every single individual because human beings with good reflective self-function [i.e. the ability to reflect on conscious and unconscious psychological states, and conflicting beliefs and desires] have the ability to rise above their basic biological instincts and change their internal working models, and consequently their behaviour. However, it would also not be perceptive or realistic to completely ignore the presence of this powerful biological force in homo sapiens, because no matter how much human beings manage to detach themselves from it (i.e. the biologial will to live, or survival instinct), it is embedded through thousands of years of evolution in the biological depths of the human mind and operates most of the time at an unconscious level.
Sigmund Freud’s founding psychoanalytic concept states that intra-psychic conflict within the human mind is inescapable, which is a fundamental concept in psychoanalysis also taken over by the flamboyant French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who also argued that desire is inextinguishable. Psychoanalysis is also founded on the fundamental concept that human beings are driven by forces beyond their own understanding and are a mystery to themselves, with a reservoir of instinctual “psychic energy” grounded in basic biological processes; the sexual form of this energy is referred to as “libido“. The case of Sigmund Freud’s patient Elisabeth von R. illustrated this well: torn on the one hand between her high morality, which dictated that she preserves the balance of her family, and on the other hand her deep erotic desire for her brother-in-law, of which she had been completely unaware of (unconscious). That unconscious conflict provoked a strong feeling of guilt in her such that she started suffering from violent physical symptoms.
Hence, the concept of the deeply embedded “Will to Live” which is accepted as the “Survival Instinct” of homo sapiens in evolutionary psychology, is also echoed in psychoanalysis. The major motivational constructs of Freud’s theory of personality was derived from instincts, defined as biological forces that release mental energy. Psychoanalysis implies that conflict within the mind’s opposing forces is inevitable:
- i.e. the wild Unconscious (known as the Id or the “Ça” in French, where the “Will to Live” or survival instinct is located) will get into conflict with the Super-Ego (the preconscious or the “Surmoi” in French, which acts as the person’s conscience and the internalization of society’s rules); and the Ego (which is the conscious part of the mind but also with a partially unconscious side) will have to mediate between those two. The Ego now becomes the servant of three masters: the Id, the Super-Ego and the External Environment [Societal Rules]. It is now not enough to reconcile what is desired with what is possible under the circumstances because now the Ego also needs to take into consideration what is socially prohibited and impermissible. Instinctual drives must still be satisfied; which is a constant, however the Ego now attempts to satisfy them in a way that is flexibly “realistic” – that is, in the person’s best interests under current conditions – but also “socially” permitted. In the case of the majority of people, these prohibitions of various kinds are often very unreasonable and inflexible, rejecting any expression of the drive with an unconditional “NO”, either because the moral structures of a particular “culture” are intrinsically rigid, atavistic or unsophisticated, or because the individual’s internalisation of these structures is simply black-and-white, without any grey area to compromise for an adequate and acceptable form of expression of the drive. Thus, the Super-Ego imposes a pattern of conduct that results in some degree of self-control through an internalised system of rewards and punishments.
Intrapsychic conflict within the human mind is inevitable because the demands of society – or “civilization” – are generally opposed to the natural instincts and drives of homo sapiens. Indeed, intrapsychic conflict is one of the fundamental and defining concepts of psychoanalysis, and conflict within the mind is at the root of personality structure, mental disorder, and most psychological phenomena [e.g. artistic expressions of various forms]. The goal of personality is to reduce the energy drive through some activity acceptable to the constraints of the Super-Ego, which represents the conscience of the individual in line with what is acceptable or what can reasonably be made acceptable to society [This has been explained in detail in the Essay, Psychoanalysis: History, Foundations, Legacy, Impact & Evolution]
A explanatory review of the philosophical concept in “The World as Will and Idea”
Arthur Schopenhauer worked out a system in which reality is known inwardly by a kind of feeling where intellect is only an instrument of the “will to live”: the biological will to live and where process rather than result is ultimate.
Schopenhauer’s pessimism lies in his very strong rejection of life. In fact, this rejection is so strong that he even had to address the question of suicide as a solution to life although he never recommended it. He fortunately rejected this “suicidal solution” to life, which reflected influences rooted in Asian philosophy, particularly Buddhism and Hinduism. That is one of the most significant aspects of his work, being the first thinker produced by Western European intellectual heritage to assimilate Asian spiritual thought and leave a lasting impact on the Western mind. His preoccupation with the evil of the world and the tragedy of life is also reflected in ancient Hindu philosophies, and his writings stimulated an interest in Asian thought and religion in Germany, which can also be seen in the work of many later German philosophers.
In “The World as Will and Idea”, Schopenhauer also considered the important question of the function of art in far more depth than any of his predecessors; he even theorised a hierarchy for the arts, grading music, poetry, architecture [etc], from most important to least important. For that reason, his work had a profound effect not only on future philosophers, but also artists, particularly poets and composers, such as the enigmatic Wagner, who felt indebted to him and sent him a letter of gratitude when he was first introduced to Schopenhauer’s work.
It is believed that Wagner’s popular opera “Tristan und Isolde” in particular, shows Schopenhauer’s influence as a philosopher who believed that music was the highest form of art, an idea that of course, Wagner found pleasing, and so the composer began to think of himself as a prime example of Schopenhauer’s concept of a genius.
People in other fields of the arts were also influenced by Schopenhauer, including the novelist Thomas Mann. Schopenhauer’s ideas had the unique ability to influence not only philosophy but many other fields of human endeavour and expression. Within philosophy itself, Schopenhauer’s intellectual originality cannot be classified or allocated to a specific school of thought “per se”, but his influence stimulates other philosophers towards a particular line of thought, which logically varied from one individual to another in terms of their response to Schopenhauer’s writing. The latter’s writing had a major impact on the enigmatic Friedrich Nietzsche, who was also a friend of Schopenhauer’s admirer, Richard Wagner.
Nietzsche shared the belief that life is tragic and terrible but can sometimes be transformed through art. Nietzsche was also the thinker famous, for his concept of the “Overman”. Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s writings and thought was taken out of context by his sister after his death to fit the ideologies of the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler. The “Overman” is in fact universal and not simply nationalistic as the true writings revealed after many scholars rejected the falsified and manipulated versions published by Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth [This was portrayed in Hedwig Schmutte’s documentary Nietzsche: Entre Génie et Démence, released in 2016].
Nietzsche’s concept of the Overman states that man is something that must be surpassed. That idea resonates strongly with Schopenhauer’s “Will to Live” (i.e. the wild survival instinct) as something that man must overcome, since those basic animalistic instincts along with other social distractions prevent man from becoming the Overman. Nietzsche’s philosophy sees the elevation to the state of the Overman as the result of one who rises above one’s lowest instincts and habits to reach a higher state of consciousness, in doing so, establishing a distinction from the mass mediocrity of the herd.
Those three names, Schopenhauer, Wagner and Nietzsche are often linked and are associated at times, through no fault of the men themselves with the controversial period of human history that saw the National Socialist regime come to power in Germany with unscientific ideologies and inhuman policies.
“The World is Will and Idea” begins with the famous line, “The world is my idea” when Schopenhauer says the world is his idea, he is referring to the relationship between an “object” and “the subject” [i.e. The person (subject) who perceives (or senses) the object and extracts meaning from it]. As an example, he did not mean that an apple is identical with your abstract concept of an Apple, he means that the apple as perceived by you exist only in relation to you as a person [the subject] who perceives it; its reality is only in what you perceive, it is what you perceive it to be so.
So, the world is my idea means that a whole visible world and its sum of total experience is simply “object” for a “subject”, its reality consists in the interpreted perception by a subject.
This theory of the world of idea was taken and developed from Kant’s philosophy, but the second part of Schopenhauer’s philosophy “The World as Will” is completely his own and expresses his very unique interpretation of human life. Briefly, this interpretation says that the will, i.e. “the will to live” is the strongest force in man and everything else is subordinate to it. Schopenhauer’s conception of the supreme wisdom of life lies in the ability of man to reject the irrational force in this “will to live” and escape from the tragic results of it.
The world is my idea. This truth applies to everything that lives and knows, but only man can reflect on it and bring his abstract consciousness to it. It becomes clear to him when he looks at the sun that what he knows is not a sun, but an eye that sees the sun, not a nurse but a hand that feels the earth. This truth is by no means new, it was a fundamental text of the Vedanta philosophy of the Hindus, it was also part of the reflections of the French philosopher René Descartes and finally it was also clarified by the philosopher George Berkeley – although neglected by Kant. But this view of the world as idea is one-sided and must be balanced by another one which is the impressive and awful truth that the world is my “Will”.
The world has necessary hands, the subject and the object. The object and the subject that perceives that object operate together. If one were to disappear, then the whole world would cease to exist. All objects have universal forms and either space, time and causality or the relation of cause and effect as Kant has demonstrated, they may be discovered and known apart from the objects in which they appear, as an expression of reason or the principle of sufficient reason. But what if our whole life is but a dream, or how do we distinguish between dream and reality? Kant tried to answer this question by stating that the connection of ideas, according to the law of causality, constitute the difference between them. But the long life dream in distinction from our short dreams has always had complete connection, according to the principle of sufficient reason. We are such stuff as dreams are made of and our little life is rounded with a sleep.
Life and dreams are leaves of the same book, the book we read through and the one whose leaves we turn idly to read a page here and there. Any system of philosophy that starts with the “object” has to deal with the whole world of perception, the most consistent form of these philosophies is simple materialism; which regards time and space and matter as existing absolutely. It ignores the object’s relationship to the subject (as perceived by it) in whom these ideas exist, then it takes a law of causality as its guiding principle: causality exists by understanding alone. Materialism seeks the most simple states of matter and then tries to develop all other states from it. It ascends from mere mechanism and chemistry: the chemical properties and attractions of objects. It ascends to vegetable and animal life, to sensibility and thought. But, the thoughts and knowledge reached through materialism in a long, laborious process, assumed from its starting point that there was a subject or perceived matter: eyes that side, hands that felt it and understanding that knew it.
The system of philosophy which opposes this materialism is idealism, which instead starts with the subject and then tries to derive or reach the object from the subject, but it overlooked the fact that there can be no subject without an object, like materialism this idealism begins by assuming what it is supposed to prove later.
The method of Schopenhauer’s system is different from both materialism and idealism, for it starts from neither object nor subject, it starts from the idea. The idea is the first form of consciousness and its essential form is the antithesis or opposite of subject and object. For each one of us, it is our own body that is the starting point in our perception of the world, and we consider it like all other real object, simply as an idea.
The understanding which develops ideas could never come into being if there were no simple bodily sensations from which to start. If the thinker were no more than a pure knowing subject without a body like a winged cherub that is all spirit, he would not be able to know the nature of the world. He would be like a man going around a castle getting to its façade and trying in vain to enter it, all reality would be a riddle.
But because the subject of knowledge is also an individual with a body and a bodily nature, the world becomes revealed, it is revealed in the will. Every true act of the will is a movement of the body for the action of the body is nothing but will expressed through an object. The body is the object, my body and my will are one. The double knowledge which each one has of his body out of idea and inner will becomes the key to the nature of the world. Phenomenal existence, the existence we perceive with our senses, is an idea and nothing more. Real existence or the thing in itself is the will.
Will is a term that applies to both the highest and lowest in man’s nature, it is that which drives us to pursue the light of knowledge and it’s also that which in nature strives blindly and dumbly to survive. Both come under the common name of will, just as the first dim light of dawn in the rays of the full midday are both called sunlight.
If we consider the impulse with which water hurries to the ocean, or the way in which a magnet turns to the North Pole, or the eagerness with which electric poles seek to be united, or the way a Crystal takes form, we can recognise our own nature, for the same will describes the inner nature of everything that is in the world. The world as will is one, it knows nothing of the multiplicity of things in the outer world: the world of perception, the world of time and space. Notions like more or less, don’t exist to it, it knows nothing of quantities or qualities. For this reason, it cannot be said that there is a small part of the will in a stone or a large part of the will in a man. Relations like this between part and whole belong to the idea of space which does not apply to the will.
In reality, the will is present in its entirety and undivided in every object of nature and in every living thing. Yet in terms of its objectification, that is, its external expression, it has different grades in inorganic matter, in vegetation, in animals and in man. The lowest of these appear in the most universal forces of nature, in the form of gravity, rigidity, elasticity, electricity and the like, which are in themselves manifestations of the will, just as much as human actions are. The higher grades are seen in man where the will takes the form of individuality and consciousness. It is here that the will shows its second side. For in the human brain lies the potential of comprehending the will, so that as it is kindled by a spark it brings the whole world as idea into existence. In this manner, knowledge proceeds from the will, knowledge that is either from the senses or is rational and is destined to serve the will in its aim of expressing itself.
In all beasts and in most men, knowledge remains in subjugation to the will, yet in certain individuals, knowledge can free itself from this bondage to the will, so the subject of knowledge exists for itself as a pure mirror of the world. As a rule, knowledge remains subordinate to the will and grows on the will [so to speak] as a head on the body. In the case of the beast, the head is directed towards the Earth where the objects of its will are. But in the case of man, the head is elevated and set freely upon the body as in the Apollo Belvedere where the head of the guard stands so freely on his shoulders that it seems delivered of the body and no longer subject to it.
The transition from the individual’s knowledge of particular things to the knowledge of the idea takes place suddenly. It happens when the knowledge of the will changes someone into a pure will-less subject of knowledge, contemplating things as they are in themselves. If raised by the power of the mind, a man leaves the common way of looking at things behind and forgets both his individuality and his will, then he becomes a pure “without will”, timeless and painless subject of knowledge – this appears in the genius; because when Genius appears in a man a far larger amount of the power of knowledge comes to him than is necessary for the service of his will. This extra knowledge is free and purified from will: a clear mirror of the inner nature of the world.
All willing arises from want (desire). The satisfaction of a desire ends it, but for one wish that is satisfied, there remain 10 which are denied. No attained object of desire can give lasting satisfaction, for it is likely alms thrown to a beggar that keep him alive today so that his misery may be prolonged tomorrow. Attending to the demands of the will continually occupies and influences our consciousness. But when we are lifted out of the endless stream of willing, we can comprehend things free from their relation to our will without any personal interest or subjective opinions, and then the peace we have been seeking comes of our own accord. For we are, at least for the moment, set free from the miserable striving of the will – the wheel stands still. There is no more slavery to the will.
It is the function of the fine arts to express this freedom from the will: the different grades along the way. Matter as such cannot be an expression of the idea, but when it is expressed through a form of art like architecture (its characteristics of gravity, cohesion and hardness), the universal qualities of stone appear as a direct but low grade of the objectified or expressed will. In the building, nature reveals itself a conflict between the gravity of the building and the rigidity of the structure of the support, as in the simplest form of a column. The problem of architecture, apart from practical utility, is to make this conflict appear in a distinct way so that the building material instead of a mere heap of matter bound to the earth is raised above it, so that the roof for example is realised only by the means of the columns or arches which support it. The pleasure that comes from looking at a beautiful building lies in the fact that the viewer is set free from the knowledge which serves the will and is raised to the kind of knowledge which comes from contemplation that has no will.
The highest grade of the expression of the will is found in anything that reflects human beauty in a way which reveals the idea of man. No object transports us so quickly into will-less contemplation as the most beautiful human form. We know human beauty when we see it, but true artists can express it so clearly that it surpasses even what we have seen. In the genius of a sculptor, we find a representation of what nature intended to express, so that if you were to present his statue to nature, he would say “This is what you wanted to say!”
In order to detach oneself from the “Will to live” which imposes suffering and meaningless striving, art plays a major role for Schopenhauer; the artist is not locked in a utilitarian relationship with the functional world, i.e. that of the “Will to Live”, but on the contrary, the artist will produce objects that have no functional use but that are simply beautiful. Schopenhauer defined beauty as a biological attraction for good health (i.e. the symmetry of the face, the harmony of the body, etc), and so we are still at the service of the desire imposed by the “Will” for reproduction. However, the artist will gain the ability to detach beauty from its functional goal (i.e. of reproduction): we can find the above sculptures by Auguste Rodin, “Danaide” and “Le Baiser” exquisitely beautiful, but we know that nothing concrete biologically (as desired by the “”Will”) can happen between oneself and those works since they are not living organisms. Hence, Arthur Schopenhauer noted that the artist does not participate in this tragic comedy of existence which consists of reproducing life at any cost, but instead, the artist is uninterested and produces objects of beauty in a completely uninterested frame of mind.
Painting as an art has character as well as beauty and grace for its object, for it attempts to represent the will of the highest grade in the idea of humanity. This, however, can be an abstract form of the concept known as the picture attempt [as it does at times an allegorical painting] to represent something other than what is perceived.
In poetry the relationship is reversed, for here what is given directly in words is the concept that leads readers away to the object of perception, this is done through metaphors, similes, parables, allegories and the like. The aim of all poetry is the representation of man. When it is a representation of the poet himself, we have the lyric. The lyric poet reveals himself in joy or more often grief as the subject of his own will, but along with this as the sight of nature impresses him, there is the awareness of himself as the subject of pure will-less knowing, and his joy now appears as a contrast to the stress of desire: desire imposed on him by his will. Epic poetry portrays man in a more historical context in connection with significant situations in human life. Drama in the form of tragedy is not only the best of poetic art, but the most significant in terms of this system of philosophy because it is the strife of the will represented at its highest grade of objectivity, it becomes visible in human suffering that is brought about by fate or error or wickedness, in which the will lives on while people fight against and destroy one another. The tragic effect in poetry may be produced by means of a character of extraordinary evil such as Iago in Othello or Creon in Antigone or by blind fate as in the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles or by circumstance and the situation in which the character finds himself such as Hamlet. In the tragic character we can observe how the noblest of men – after a long personal conflict and inward suffering – come at last to renounce the pleasures of life and the particular goals once so keenly fought for, instead the character joyfully surrenders to life itself. It is in this sense that Hamlet renounces life for himself but askes Horatio to remain a while and to – in this harsh world – draw his breath in pain to tell Hamlet’s story and clear his name.
Beginning with architecture, in which gravity and rigidity reveal the lowest grade of the conflict of the will with itself and ending with tragedy where this conflict reaches its highest grade, we have considered the arts and how they represent the will and the idea, but music stands quite alone, cut off from all the other arts, since it’s not a mere copy of any idea of existence in the world.
Music is as direct an expression of the whole will as the world itself is. Nature and music are two different expressions of the same thing, and so music speaks a universal language.
In the deepest tones of harmony in the bass we recognise the lowest grades of the will, for bass is in harmony with the crudest matter on which all things rest and from which they originate. The higher complimental parts of music are parallel with animal life and in the melody of high voice singing we recognise the high grade of the will in the effort and intellectual life of man.
The pleasure we received from beauty, the consolation we get from art and the enthusiasm of the artist, rest on the fact that whereas existence in the world is something sorrowful and terrible, the contemplation of the world as idea is both soothing and significant. But in the case of the artist, the contemplation of beauty doesn’t quiet the will and it doesn’t provide a pathway out of life as does the resignation of the saint. The deliverance from the will only occurs when – tired of the game – one renounces life and gets a grasp on what is real.
When the will – this blind and incessant impulse of nature – becomes conscious in man, it is recognised as the will to live. Man may affirm or deny it. He affirms the will to live when – having seen it as that which has produced nature and his own life – he then adds his own desires to it. The denial of the will to live occurs when the awareness or consciousness of it means the end of desire. The phenomena of the world – what we see and perceive – no longer motivates the will, for the comprehension of the world as idea has freed the will and allowed it to be silent.
It the essential nature of the will: nowhere free and everywhere powerful – to strive endlessly towards satisfaction that it is incapable of getting. Just as in nature, gravitation is the ceaseless striving towards a mathematical centre and this striving will not stop even if the whole universe were rolled into a single ball. In the same way the solid will become a fluid, the fluid will become a gas, and the plant – restless and unsatisfied – will strive through ascending forms until it goes to seed where it finds a new starting point.
All nature is a struggle in which war is waged that is deadly to both sides. All striving is in vain, and yet it cannot be abandoned and all this is identical to what appears in us. In us, the blind striving of nature becomes the will to live, but it is self-conscious will: we are aware of it! The fate of this will is in keeping with its striving nature in the face of constant obstacles and hindrances, and anyone who will consider the character and destiny of the will to live, will be convinced that suffering is essential to all life.
“Sadeness Partie I” par Enigma / Album : MCMXC a.D. (1990)
From where then did Dante take the materials for his hell? From the world! And when it came to describing the delights of heaven he had an insurmountable task, for the world could offer him no proper material. The fatal assertion of the will to live has produced man’s body and the desire to preserve and perpetuate it. So the assertion of the will is really the assertion of the body. In such assertion, we find the source of all egoism and all wrongdoing, but such selfhood is really an illusion due to a false philosophy in which the individual imagines he lives to himself alone. He is really only a product of the one will to live. Just as a sailor sitting in a boat trusting to his frail barque in a stormy sea, so it is that in the world of sorrows man sits quietly, trusting to the principle of individualisation and separateness, in which he only knows things superficially or as they appear to him, but when he comes to understand that the one will to live exists in all men alike, he realises that the difference between those that inflict suffering and those that bare it is only a perceived difference that is not real.
In truth, the evil man is like a wild beast, who frenzied and excited, unintentionally buries its teeth in its own flesh, injuring itself as it tries to injure another. But no matter how veiled and evil man is by illusion, he still feels the sting of conscience, which creates a sense that the gulf which seems to separate him from others isn’t real.
As all hatred and wickedness rely upon egoism and as egoism rest on the assertion of the will to live, so do all goodness and virtue spring from the denial of the will to live. The will turns around and no longer asserts itself but denies its own nature instead. Man then denies his own nature as expressed in his body and no longer desires sensual gratification under any condition.
Voluntary and complete chastity is the first step in the denial of the will to live. But then the human race would die out, and with it the mind in which the world is reflected, and without a subject of knowledge, there would be no object, there would be no world. To those in whom the will to live has turned and denied itself [miserable and utterly dead inside], this world of ours with all its sun and milky ways is nothing.
These are some of the ideas and the basic themes presented in Schopenhauer’s “The world as Will and Idea”, a very lengthy work that of course includes many other ideas and elaborations of the ones we have mentioned. But the essence and main thrust of Schopenhauer’s philosophy can be found in a few basic points.
To begin with, he sees the will of man, and specifically the will to survive as the dominant force in the universe and slavery to this will is the root of all evil. Man and all other creatures are subservient to their will to live. In exercising his will, man inflicts all kinds of cruelties and evil. Schopenhauer first examined these cruelties in the world of nature, spending a lot of time on the way in which animals of one species prey on those of another. Then he moved onto man and says, “the chief source of the most serious evils which afflict man is man himself”. Whoever keeps this last fact clearly in view, sees the world as a hell which surpasses that of Dante through the fact that one man must be the devil of another. Schopenhauer uses war and various other cruelties such as industrial exploitation, bravery and social abuses to back up his claim.
Schopenhauer had no sympathy for the revolution of his time because he felt the state was justified, exactly because of the cruelty of man. It existed to make the world a little more bearable than it would otherwise be. He did not consider the state government divine, but he considered it necessary [a view he may have been willing to revise had he been alive in the 21st century with democracy falling apart and not being properly applied, leading to evil, unethical, unscrupulous and unskilled street politicians getting into positions above their understanding – forgetting that they are the servants of the people and instead believing that they should have power over the people].
Schopenhauer believed that we can take action to alleviate human suffering but that it is pointless to think that we can change the fundamental character of the world or of human life. If war was abolished for instance and if all of men’s material needs were met, they would eventually still resort to conflict – “it is their nature”. He is quick to condemn the optimism or idealism of other philosophers who disregard the ugly side of human nature, or who try to justify it as rational. To Schopenhauer these dark aspects of life were not secondary feature, they were the most significant aspects of human life in history. On this basis, he created his theory of The Blind and Striving Impulse, he called the Will. Then, he looked around and found support for his theory in the inorganic, organic and human phenomena of life.
Unquestionably, Schopenhauer held a one-sided vision of the world, but because of its one-sidedness and exaggeration it served as a counterbalance to philosophers like Hegel who focused attention on the glorious triumph of reason throughout history and he tended to dismiss evil and suffering with elaborate, evasive, phrasing. He did believe that the human mind could develop beyond what was required just to satisfy his physical and material needs; it could develop a surplus of energy over and above what was needed to fulfil its biological function. When that happened, man can use the extra energy to escape the life of desire and striving, of assertion of the ego, of conflict, none of which brings him satisfaction anyway.
Schopenhauer did offer 2 ways of escape from the slavery to the will:
(i) one was the path of contemplation, which is the way of art;
(ii) and the other was the path of asceticism, which involves renouncing the world in one’s personal desires or will (i.e. to completely get rid of the “will to live”). Man must stop willing to live, not only at the level of our species but more importantly at the individual level.
In transcending the Will through art [expressing it with insight], Schopenhauer was very specific about which art forms served what purpose, and in defining which were superior to others. Not surprisingly, the supreme poetic art is tragedy, for tragedy reveals the real character of human life expressed in dramatic form or as he said the unspeakable pain: the wail of humanity, the triumph of evil, the mocking mastery of chance and the irretrievable fall of the just and innocent.
However, art and contemplation, besides reflecting on the evil of life, can also open a door that becomes perhaps the only hopeful point in Schopenhauer’s entire book. This door is opened when man can see through the veil of Maya [illusion]. That is precisely where Schopenhauer finds much inspiration from hinduism and buddhism; in those philosophies of Asia, there is the notion that in order to attain the state of nirvana, one must extinguish the “will to live” and thus one’s irrational desire, which is simply a form of manipulation that is referred to as “Maya”. We find this idea resumed in the four noble truths of Buddhism.
Maya, being the Hindu concept for the illusionary nature of the world and life. It is Maya [i.e. the illusionary manipulation of the will to live] that causes one to see separateness and division where there is none. Schopenhauer observed that man had the intellectual capacity to develop gradually a site that penetrated this illusionary manipulation that is Maya. He raised some very important questions:
– What is the purpose of achieving such virtue?
– What happens afterwards?
To start with, the man who denies the Will treats the world as nothing, for the world is just the appearance of the will, which he denied. So it is true that when we discard our will to live, it is a scenario when the will denies itself, and when this happens our world with all its sun and Milky ways means nothing! But then what happens at death? Schopenhauer is convinced of the finality of death. “Before us”, he says “there is indeed only nothingness”. Death or the withdrawal from the world means the extinction of consciousness. In life, he reduces existence to thin thread, and at death, it is finally destroyed.
The man who denies his will to live reaches the final goal, which is to not live. This is where Schopenhauer finds strong inspiration from Asian spiritual philosophy, more precisely in Buddhism, which is to say that when one renounces the “Will to Live”, life becomes much more enjoyable and serene. This is a powerful remedy since it allows us to put all our suffering into perspective when we are at our worst [for e.g. in deception in love matters when one realises the feelings are simply the manipulation from the will]. However, like all great remedy, extreme abuse can have a negative effect since we can overdose on them, which would lead us to completely shut down our “Will to Live”, and that can lead to suicide because human experience and life itself would lose all meaning and taste: no desire and no motivation. A clinical investigation among community-dwelling older adults in the US found that the will to live decreases with age, and that decrease in the “will to live” predicts depressive symptoms (Carmel, Tovel, Raveis and O’Rourke, 2018). However, those older adults studied were not meditating from a conscious desire to extinguish their will to live, and as such developped depressive symptoms.Individuals who consciously extinguish their will to live after firmly acknowledging the belief that it is the source of their suffering will not feel depressed, but will instead reach a different frame of mind; and with it, a different model of perception. We find that some people sometimes known as “Gurus” in deep meditation in Asia [where Schopenhauer adopted the concepts of Hinduism and Buddhism] are often barely dressed, sitting under the trees and surrounded by nature, in a meditative trance in the posture of the hindu god, Lord Shiva. It appears that their consciousness has been elevated to a point unachievable to the majority of people who are fully under the powerful control of their “Will to Live” and conditioned to the modern civilization of industrialized capitalism, i.e. the majority of Westernized societies all over the planet nowadays. In some regions of Asia (particularly India), those enigmatic figures are treated as living legends as close to gods, where the common people even go to touch their feet and then their own heads, as an act of taking their blessing; which is different from most of the modern societies of our Westernized planet, where the complete opposite to these kinds of individuals are treated as the model of the perfect man, for e.g. billionaires on the covers of magazines.
When extreme meditation allows such spiritual individuals like we find in Asia to detach themselves from the “Will to Live”, the whole world of perception changes within the mind and every single object that structures modern life [that to most people conditioned to the modern materialistic world gained a particular meaning that was passed on to them through their parents, teachers, the media, the government or books] loses meaning to the individual who goes to the extreme and extinguishes his will to live; the way his mind experiences life changes [i.e. perception and interpretation of everything in our world]. Those kinds of people may turn into passive lifeforms as close to plants and the very atoms that constitute every single particle in the universe, completely in harmony with nature and the cosmos, since they would find no meaning in life as defined by the industrialized world; they would have no desire and no motivation unlike most people, since by extinguishing their “Will to Live”, they renounced the suffering that comes with desire, and life is made of desire which is a lack, and lack is a form of frustration and suffering. That path may partially fit the direction of Nietzsche’s “Overman” in the search for nirvana.
Reaching such extreme levels of consciousness by rejecting the “Will to Live”, detaches the mind from all external influence in interpreting the universe and life, it can also lead to seeing everything simply as atoms, which constitute the whole universe, and hence generating the feeling of being one with the cosmic reality of the universe. In the case of organic life, which includes, plants, animals and human beings, those too are simply atoms [i.e. dust from the universe] that have gathered into living cells simply because the atmospheric conditions on Earth allowed such transformation. From such perspective, human consciousness is simply the product of the brain, which is the organic matter resulting from the assimilation of atoms from the universe expressing themselves through the limited senses of the human body.
Schopenhauer does leave one last hope beyond the grim disappearance of consciousness and of the world, admitting that it is possible that ultimate reality, which he called the thing in itself may possess attributes that we do not know about and that we cannot know. That reality would not be a state of knowledge since there would not be a subject and an object [that phenomenal and illusionary relationship that is required for knowledge], but it might resemble some experience that cannot be communicated and to which mystics refer to, but only in obscure vague ways.
In the end, like all great thinkers are expected to, Arthur Schopenhauer admitted that he did not have all the answers, but he thought he had some. Ultimately, it is the questions his answers posed to others that became his most significant contribution, for the role of the philosopher and of philosophy itself is not only to solve our problems, but also to express points of views that stimulate us to further thought and consideration on human nature and the meaning of life, in that, he was incredibly successful.
Concluding Thoughts on “The World as Will & Idea”
One of the interesting aspects of Schopenhauer’s philosophy is that it is in a fairly strong resonance with science, i.e. the theory of evolution, which is accepted among the scientific community, and it also set the groundwork for the field of evolutionary psychology. In that aspect, the philosopher was incredibly insightful and avant-garde.
Schopenhauer’s philosophical framework empowers individuals by providing a mode of thinking and perception that acts as a the tool to rise above grief & sadness from the many tribulations of life, especially love matters.
The concept behind the “World as Will and Idea” can become a very strong remedy for people depressed and weakened by love deceptions because Schopenhauer’s foundational framework clearly explains that those emotions and sentiments are simply an illusion (i.e. a manipulation) at the service of one’s survival instinct or “Will to Live”. Schopenhauer strenghens the individual by giving the individual the awareness of this manipulation of nature and hence the ability to rise above, discard and become detached from those feelings and emotions to heal their pain.
This is quite ironic, because while many personal development coaches advise us to reinforce our “Will to Live” to be better in life, the philosophy of Schopenhauer orients us towards the complete opposite, but only after developing the awareness of the consequences of renunciation that such action can lead towards personal empowerment. However, precautions must be taken to not completely extinguish our “Will to Live” since it can lead to suicide if we are not firmly aware of its implications and ready to cope with the life it imposes.
Schopenhauer does not recommend killing oneself even if he does not condemn the act in some texts – he even describes suicide as nonsense. However, he does not hide his admiration for the courage of the Hindus who go as far as to offer themselves as food to the crocodiles, or allow themselves to die of starvation voluntarily, or even throw themselves from the top of the Himalayas – as such the philosopher saw the end of life as a solution to the incessant suffering imposed by the will to live but did not openly promote or propose it as a complete solution the wider human population. It appears that those people who consciously end their lives, have extinguished their will to live after coming to terms with the fact that life is a state of various kinds of suffering and also an endlessly replicating cycle without any clear end result, i.e. living or not living has absolutely no impact on the state of things in the universe. No matter how far human civilization goes [for e.g. colonizing planets in the universe], the same cycle will be repeated endlessly without any clear end objective, i.e. human beings would replicate everything on Earth on those planets and continue to mate, reproduce and pass down the task of finding sense to life to the next generation; we would invest tremendous resources to reach other planets [e.g. developing artificial intelligence, creating sophisticated and articulate androids with human-like capabilities, developing cryogenics or some other technical solution to survive journeys that may last from 50 to 100 years or more], and once there, we would build houses, roads, restaurants, shops, an economic system, create jobs, etc.
In the case of people who become completely aware of the manipulation imposed on human experience by the “Will to Live” and make the conscious choice to extinguish it completely, the continuity of the human race or the survival of his fellow humans have absolutely no importance or meaning since life has no sense to such a being because it simply replicates for the sake of replicating itself – in the cosmic order of the universe we are nothing but atoms, or space dust.
The final and fundamental powerful point to keep is that thanks to Schopenhauer’s philosophy, we can at any moment we choose to detach ourselves from all of the most violent emotions and feelings that inhabit our thoughts simply by reminding ourselves that our “Will to Live” (i.e. survival instinct) is simply manipulating us.
A constructive critique for joie de vivre & progress
A reason to live for the human race
We can base ourself on the observation that if atoms from space dust in the universe collected on a very specific planet known as Earth where the atmospheric conditions are perfect to allow the transformation of those atoms into living cells which over thousands of years became more complex to eventually give rise to human beings, then there must be a hidden force that lead to this creation. In that sense, we can also question this creative atomic force and meditate forever about the reason behind our creation. The explanation from the Christian bible about the creation of man by The Lord God from the dust of the ground comes across as a great metaphor since all life is made from matter.
Some people may link this creative force that sparked life on our planet to the notion of divinity and the process of creating life. So, on that issue if we were to allocate reasons behind every form of creation, we can assume that the cosmic forces of the universe had a reason for creating humans and as such, those forces that may be linked to the divine creation and wanted us to live, and may have planned for us to achieve some form of task in the story of the universe. This, I believe, makes a case for the human race to value surival and continuity, even if we are unaware of any final objective or final result that our continuity will lead to. Perhaps one day, we will understand why we were created and why we are the most sophisticated lifeform on this planet, unmatched in terms of intellectual abilities by no other species known to date.
The Right to Choose a Mode of Existence
Every individual should have the right to choose how to experience life and it would be extremely arrogant to impose a particular model of living or a particular mode of existence as the ultimate way of being. If an individual chooses to restrain his “Will to Live” to the limits of extinction and wishes to experience life through his organic body in a minimalistic and spiritual way as some people in Asia do, then it is a choice as valid as any other, moreover those people are not asking anything from others and are not imposing this mode of existence of humanity; it is a matter of personal perspective and desire in line with a vision to discard what some see as an existence of suffering and desiring endlessly in the industrialised world. Whatever the reasons behind the choice of an individual to live such a minimalistic life by repressing their “Will to Live” [or survival instinct], as long as it is personal, it should be respected. Among those personal reasons, may also be the choice to not replicate life to endure various forms of suffering, and this may be a reasonable and admirable choice for individuals who unfortunately are not in the best conditions due to a range of factors, to bring a new life into this world and provide it with the best chances to prosper and live a fulfilling existence.
According to the epicurean school of thought, pleasure is the absence of suffering, and in order to stop suffering, it is a duty for individuals to question whether it is fair to create life when the conditions awaiting mean struggling through various kinds of hardship.
There is only a limited amount of living space on our planet, and the issue of population growth being mismanaged and unrestrained should be a great topic of concern for humanity to reflect on as the world begins to deal with the question of over-population which will only cause extreme mass suffering when also having to deal with the problems of climate change that will lead to many catastrophic environmental disasters in the future (e.g. limited resources to feed a dangerously growing population). For example in many poor regions on the planet, for e.g. Africa, the population growth has been steadily increasing despite the lack of resources to provide an adequate and respectable standard of living to the new born, who come to the world only to suffer due to the lack of family planning. Hence, this topic should be the concern of all respectable community leaders, and should raise the urgency for providing education about family planning.
A Sense of Concern for the Survival of Homo Sapiens
Complete detachment from our feelings and emotions once an individual extinguishes the “Will to Live” can lead to suicide, which is nonsense. Complete detachment may also lead to a mind that is stale and completely devoid of any form of reaction to any external event that is not connected to the organism that is in such a state, this would also lead to a lack of emotions, for e.g. compassion and empathy (since those are the products of the ability to feel the pain of others and react to the emotions and feelings elicited).
If an individual discarded the “Will to Live” completely, it would also mean discarding the very behaviours linked to the “Will” that are responsible for the survival of homo sapiens, which lead us to protect our fellow human beings [i.e. the evolutionary purpose of emotions and the ability to feel].
The individual who kills the “Will to live” completely would also have no sexual drives, which would also not promote the survival of the human race as there would not be motivation to mate and reproduce. In that sense, if the whole population were to choose to completely extinguish their will to live, it would lead to the extinction of homo sapiens (i.e. the human race).
Engineering our Modern World in Harmony with Nature
The evolution of our species has led to the development of its various intellectual abilities and eventually given rise to the modern world, which took homo sapiens out of the primitive lifestyle from the caves and the jungles and into settlements of the modern world with a range of facilities, for e.g. sophisticated healthcare, education, technological advancement, legal protection, literary and artistic developments, to name a few.
However, with all those developments as advantages, also came disadvantages, since human suffering is still a reality in our modern world, with inequality, greed, lack of concern, badly managed economic systems, laws that are still primitive in terms of promoting human wellbeing.
We also have corrupt governments run by mediocre politicians who lack the philosophical knowledge and values of legendary imperial leaders, but are nothing more than simple minded bureaucrats from mainly financial and legal backgrounds who seem to think of the management of a civilisation as if it was an enterprise to manage. People trained in a particular subject should stay in their field.
A strong economy provides a lot of options and helps to foster development, and hence those trained in finance should be in charge of departments for economic development to ensure that the economy is working to improve and sophisticate human existence and civilisation not the other way round [i.e. education, traning, wellbeing and human development at every level]. As for those trained in legal matters, they should manage the department of justice to ensure that the funds are being used properly and also to protect the rights of individuals at every level of society.
To place people with purely financial and legal perspectives at the head of civilisation is a sure way to a ship wreck; because that is the scenario in store when a civilisation places its destiny in the hands of people who lack the proper knowledge to understand how human beings function [i.e. what leads to wellbeing and harmony, what kind of support individuals need to prosper, what individuals feel and desire, how a human being’s mind works, and what philosophical values to implant and protect in order to defend human dignity, foster creativity, provide freedom at every level, and eradicate suffering].
Logically, living as a recluse in a meditative trance in nature or living as a citizen of the modern world is a personal choice for the individual that both comes with advantages and disadvantages. My perspective on this issue will also come with a frame of mind as an individual who is a pure product of Western European intellectual heritage, and also someone born and raised in the the modern Westernised world. In that sense, throughout history, all thinkers have had to side with an argument. In the end, as we know from the history of civilisation, we have to take a stance and believe in something, because whether we choose not to have any opinions, or we choose to spectate quietly, we are going to be judged. As educated human beings of the post 20th century, we have to find the balance and extract meaning from the lessons history has taught us. We have to synthesise the advantages of a life in nature and the advantages of a life in the modern technological world.
We need to find a sense of harmony in the modern world with nature and continue to push for the design of a civilisation that respects:
(i) the environment;
(ii) the liberties of the individual;
(iii) the promotion of a greener lifestyle;
(iv) the scientific discoveries about the creative force of the human brain;
(v) the philosophy of individual growth;
(vi) the dignity of working men and women;
(vii) the right to rise in a meritocratic system of values;
(viii) the belief in an economic system that is organized so that everyone has a chance to prosper;
(ix) the right to decent education at every level for everyone at every stage of life;
(x) the free access to high quality health care and guidance for everyone; and
(x) the fact that there is no eternal essence since evolution means that everything is locked in a constant process of change; however, we have the power to steer this change in the direction that leads to a civilisation that embraces those elements for a harmonious human experience for mankind.
Only after engineering our modern world to be in harmony with nature, i.e. both the environment and the psychology of human beings, that life will become a noble and pleasant experience – only the absence of suffering brings pleasure, happiness and prosperity, as the Epicurean school of thought posits.
Thus, Lucretius, the Roman thinker’s main philosophical thrust would definitely be a great doctrine for human beings to read, reflect on and adopt if we are to steer civilisation on the right track and live a harmonious life without suffering while embracing the advantages and possibilities of the multi-dimensional senses that nature has equipped mankind with, i.e. the ability to experience existence through an incredible brain.
Mental Conditioning: Justified Desire & Rational Emotions as Restraints to a Healthy Will to Live
The powerful aspect of Schopenhauer’s concept is that it operates similarly to our very own “Organismic Theory of Psychological Construction” as it does not aim to simplify human life or experience, but it acts as a strong guiding compass that allows individuals to shift their perception at any moment to find clarity, order & stability when they may be faced with a clouded mind due to stress or a lack of mental clarity caused by the many obstacles of human life.
Both concepts provide strong intellectual frameworks or skeletons as foundations to explain human experience, and although those foundations may come across as mechanical, they are also dynamic and provide a precise objective model to understand the way organisms function. Those models also do not claim to be permanent modes of perception that individuals should be locked in all the time, but rather act as a perceptive filter and guiding restraint based on logical reasoning that will be used to shape human consciousness through practice; once firmly embedded in the conscious mind, all human emotions can be released, since they would be synchronized with reason and logic, and simply be a layer superposed over, in order to be able to experience life with human emotions since they motivate us and also allow us to feel.
So, those philosophical frameworks allow all the layers that sophisticate, deepen, add symbolic meaning and bring artistic complexity to be superposed, constructed and developed on them; in that sense they are mechanical, but also dynamic since they do not discard an organic reality.
In the attempt to generate an imagery in the reader’s mind, I will use the metaphor of a tsunami causing a massive displacement of water rushing towards an area. If that area had a well designed barrier to receive the full blow of the torrent of water with a perfectly designed system of tunnels that would cause the force of the torrent to be broken down by evenly splitting the water through an articulate system of canals, there would be no catastrophic damage, and the water could even be used for a range of purposes. The powerful torrent of water is meant to represent the survival instinct, or the “Will to live”; and the well designed system to channel that torrent is meant to represent a trained “consciousness”. Similarly to this metaphor, Freud used a wilful horse to describe the force of the unconscious Id, and explained that the human consciousness [which in his theory is represented by the Ego] should act as a rider in order to channel all of the horse’s force into a desired outcome or direction.
That is exactly what it means to shape one’s consciousness. In order to orient oneself in life and make the right decisions, it is important to calculate and think with a clear mind oriented with reason. Every individual does not have the same objectives in life [i.e. in terms of career goals, philosophical values about a range aspects in life, vision of success, tastes in various personal matters, etc], and as such, every individual should be able to use pure reason to situate themselves in life and know what their objectives are and what they need to do to attain those objectives [e.g. the short-term objectives and the long-term objectives]. Such reflection is best done with a rational mind that is not clouded by irrational emotions; however emotional feelings cannot be permanently discarded because they serve the purpose of motivating human beings in various situations in life and play a significant role in the enjoyment and jouissance of existence itself.
Emotions paint a picture of both our inner world and the external world, telling us where to look, what to remember and what to forget, what to think about, and what our next step should be – this is backed up by science. The choices we make as individuals are influenced by our emotional feelings, for e.g. we watch particular types of films or read particular types of books that elavate us, empower us, enlighten us, make us smile, laugh or cry. In other social situations, we tend to avoid people who elicit a sense of disgust, anger or fear in us. At a physiological level, our bodily feelings indicate us that our stomach is full when we eat. Until this day, the human mind’s depth and complexity has not allowed psychologists to precisely figure out the exact number of the types of emotions that human beings feel.
Scientists have always had problems with emotions and trouble on agreeing what it really means; most of them assume that emotions involve other things than simply feelings [e.g. bodily reactions, like when a person’s heart is racing from a feeling of excitement; or expressive movements such as facial expressions and sounds; or behaviours like yelling at someone when we are angry]. Despite the fact that there are many types of emotions, feelings are usually seen as the most important; as such scientists studying emotions measure them as much as their metholodologies allow by asking participants in their study how they are “feeling”. In an investigation published in 2017, to study the number of emotional feelings human beings experience, 300,000 self-reported emotional responses elicited by 2,185 emotional videos were collected. Mathematical modelling was then used to find out about the different emotions captured in those responses; this lead to the patterns of emotions being found corresponding to at least 25 different categories of emotions where many of them can be mixed together (Cowen and Keltner, 2017). Those 25 categories of emotions are:
admiration, adoration, appreciation of beauty, amusement, anger, anxiety, awe, awkwardness, boredom, calmness, confusion, craving, disgust, empathic pain, entrancement, excitement, fear, horror, interest, joy, nostalgia, relief, sadness, satisfaction, and surprise.
As such, it was found that the emotions people reported experiencing are much more complex than scientists had theorised. Hence, in order to achieve this state of equilibrium between reason and emotions and embed that particular state into one’s consciousness, every individual may resort to different methods depending on their uniqueness. Some may achieve it instantly, others may need to resort to meditation and practice, and others may use whatever techniques from coaches or psychologists. This is a matter of individual differences that best suits a particular type of person. However, once this stage is perfected, that individual can then shift his/her mode of thought from the focused, disciplined, meditative and reasoned state to a relaxed state of being. It is a scientific fact nowadays, through the field of Neuroscience that new experiences shape the nervous system, a phenomenon known as “neuroplasticity”, and the more we practice a particular task, the better the brain gets at performing it – as the well known saying goes “Practice makes perfect” [See the essay, Biopsychology: How our Neurons work].
This is where we can refer to the act of extinguishing the “Will to live” temporarily to find clarity as the extreme meditators do. When an individual is in this state, the mind is detached from all external influence, emotions, and gains a sense of freedom to interpret everything the external world and life itself. This exercise resonates with Descartess words, when he said: “In order to seek truth, it is necessary once in the course of our life to doubt, as far as possible of all things.”This state of serenity can be reached from meditation, and when in that frame of mind, it becomes easier to think and reason rationally and logically, with a clearer perspective of everything in one’s life about topics of concern and solutions required. However, an individual should ensure that the “Will to live” is not extinguished permanently and that a return to a normal state of conciousness is possible. Logically, most normal individuals in the modern world do not remain in a meditative state 24 hours a day and 7 days a week.
Meditation can be likened to a form of temple (metaphorically) that one enters to find clarity and to think rationally and logically about a problem in the search for solutions. Once the solutions are obtained, one can leave the temple and get back to normal life with a new mode of thinking and perceiving obtained from the “temple” when one was in a state of calmness and oriented purely by reason in the search for clarity and solutions. Now that the solution is in hand, or rather in mind and rationally implanted in one’s consciousness, one can relax, allow the brain to return to its natural state, and allow emotions to compliment that state of clarity and knowledge about one’s path towards the desired objective.
The main objective here is to point out that reason should lead but emotions should follow, those two major qualities of the human condition must be synchronized with each other, i.e. the head and the heart must work together, but the mind must lead and the heart must follow.
Most human beings tend to act on emotions and instincts without questioning their behaviour. However, a human who becomes conscious of life and his/her objectives by reaching an elevated sense of awareness gains the ability to synchronise emotions with reason. It is not a stage easily achievable for every single person, and it is also dependent on talent, individual differences in the ability to reflect, and also personal dedication and will power.
However, when this state of higher consciousness is reached and it becomes a skill that is perfectly managed and firmly embedded, it manifests itself as a reflex (almost normally and unconsciously and goes as far as to shape one’s dreams); life becomes much more stable; through the mental clarity achieved, the individual gains the power to experience life with justified desire and rational emotions; and those restrain the force of the “Will to Live” in the direction that is beneficial to the individual and the human race; to use Freud’s metaphor, the rider (consciousness) learns to master the force of the horse (the Will to Live).
Our Conversion: a Lucretian guide to “l’Art de Vivre”
Lucretius, the great Roman thinker, proposes a conversion for a better life, that is, a renunciation of our old life which brought us only mediocrity, stress and pain.
After an enlightened understanding of life brought about by his reflections, Lucretius the Roman philosopher asks us to abandon this old life forever and to start a conversion by motivating ourselves for our new life, built on an enlightened perspective: an initiation based on an existential wisdom, edifying, practical and really practicable – we just need to want it!
In a 2021 conversation with Pierre Coutelle at Mollat Editions about his book, “La conversion: vivre selon Lucrèce”, the French philosopher Michel Onfray explains precisely the major foundations of Lucretius’ thought.
Roman philosophers discuss suffering and old age, wealth and frugality, love and friendship, women and pleasure, life and death concretely and openly to give the ability to truly live one’s life and not merely think about it.
Onfray says that Lucretius saved his life, and he would like to pass on this philosophical knowledge with his book to people, with the thought that it could be useful to people who are in pain; who are suffering ; who are facing friendship or love pains or wounds inflicted by friends who are not friendly; who are anxious about the passing of time, the money they don’t have, the money they don’t have anymore or the money they have in excess; who are questioning themselves about honours or happiness, etc.
With Lucretius we find answers to all these existential questions and with concrete epicurean solutions – we just need to want it!
Philosophy changes your perception, and therefore your mind, and preserves your health
Cohen et al (1998) identified two types of stresses associated with increased health impairment:
(i) Interpersonal problems with family and friends
(ii) Enduring problems associated with work
While many other studies have revealed the dangers of stress, Marucha, Kiecolt-Glaser and Favagehi (1998) found that healing was prolonged in experimental subjects (dental students) in the period leading up to their exams, and conversely, faster healing was observed during holidays (when stress was at a minimum).
Research by Janice Kiecolt and colleagues (1995) also found that wound healing was prolonged in people exposed to continuous stress, but at the same time these people also had lower levels of cytokines, which are essential for maintaining a functioning immune system, and stress is known to cause an increased secretion of cortisol, a hormone that may stop cytokine production (Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 2002). However, cortisol is crucial for increasing access to energy during stressful experiences and is released daily through two well-defined components: the Cortisol Awakening Rise and diurnal levels that gradually decrease throughout the day. It has also been found that high levels of stress can lead to lower cortisol production in the morning (O’Connor et al., 2009b).
An individual going through a series of severely stressful events would have an increased risk of developing an infectious disease, regardless of age, gender, education, allergic status and/or body mass index (Cohen, 2005). The conclusion that experiencing stress is a reaction to stress triggers in the environment has led researchers to study stress triggers in our daily lives in order to work out ways to improve the environment and eliminate them.
Scientific research has shown that subjective apprehension (our reasoning to justify our choices and actions) of a situation in a positive or negative way plays a major role in the detrimental effects of stress on physical health (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984, p.19); we explained this in the essay “Design, Selection & Stress in Occupational & Organisational Psychology” – calm your fears and stay positive!
One can really live by Lucretius’ philosophy, we just have to want it!
This sentence can change life, as philosophy changes life, and Lucretius’ philosophy can change the life of those who read and understand it, because philosophy changes our perception, and therefore our mind, by providing us with a more harmonious and positive perspective for “apprehending” life and the world around us.
An intellectual material available to everyone for everyday life
Lucretius’ thought aims at solving problems quickly and logically in a few arguments, and in this sense it is truly pragmatic and rooted in the Roman intellectual tradition.
Roman philosophers are interesting because it is possible to live a lifetime according to their principles. As Onfray describes it, it’s an eminently concrete, pragmatic and poetic philosophy; if the arguments are useless then they are rejected; as for the arguments that really bring about a concrete change in life, they must serve in a really effective way.
The Romans were inspired by the Greek arts, but were also disinterested in the thinking of many Greek intellectuals. Roman thinkers didn’t see philosophy as a practice of complicating life with big superficial visions and rhetoric and then running away from life and favouring ideas as many Greek thinkers did; all this complicating didn’t lead to anything concrete and so the Romans thought it was a Greek tradition and they weren’t interested.
Lucretius was a great Roman thinker inspired and influenced by Epicurean philosophy. Despite the fact that Epicureanism originated in Greece, Lucretius retains a truly Roman intellectual trait and did not simply restate Epicurus’ thought in verse as many have often claimed.
For every problem there is a solution; for every suffering there is also a jouissance
Only the one who cannot think will be afraid of death, of the future, of lack of money (if he is poor), of losing his money (if he has too much). If man is able to use his mind to think, then it is possible to address all these questions about suffering, pain, death, honours, wealth, and so on. The philosophical thought of the Epicureans, undoes all these fictions, and allows us to understand that for every problem there is a solution; for every suffering there is also a jouissance (a form of joy); whenever there is a reason to be unhappy, there is a reason to be happy.
These are really simple logical schemas, but with extraordinary power and depth! To live serenely, we simply have to be where we are in life, to live in the present moment and not to destroy this present with what no longer exists or does not exist (e.g. sorrows, pains, arguments from the past, transient feelings based on anger, etc.).
Michel Onfray said it clearly when he explained that if the pain is there and it is so terrible that it embarks you, then you have to go. But if the pain doesn’t take you away, it means that the situation is not serious and you just need to learn to breathe and stay calm – simple yet extraordinary philosophical recipes for keeping your composure!
Pleasure is the absence of suffering
Cicero, who was a Stoic, criticized the Epicureans and argued that the only thing they were interested in was pleasure, which for him was enjoyment, which he judged to be a crude goal that gave rise to all sorts of obscenities.
Obviously, Epicureanism is a hedonistic thought where the triumph of pleasure is sought. Julius Caesar was an Epicurean, but the pleasure was far from the crudeness that Cicero described. Pleasure among the followers of Epicurean thought is not an obsession with unbounded and total enjoyment; it would be a grotesque caricature of Epicureanism to imagine grand scenes with stuffed sows, generalized orgies and other coarsenesses, explains Onfray.
The pleasure of the Epicureans is above all the absence of suffering. If you don’t suffer then you are happy: when you are thirsty, you drink to quench your thirst, and when you are hungry, you eat bread to quench your hunger. So these images are far from the scenes with stuffed sow’s teats, which was a crude caricature of Epicureanism by the Stoic opponents.
Simply calm your fears!
« Je sais qui est Lucrèce ! Je vais le mobiliser dans ma vie ! Je vais le mobiliser parce que je suis dans une situation où il me faut régler des problèmes. » said Onfray.
[French for: “I know who Lucretius is! I will mobilise him in my life! I will mobilise him because I am in a situation where I have to solve problems”]
With the thought of Lucretius one can approach and solve all the questions about the problems of every day and of everyone: friendship, death, suffering, pain, honours, wealth, and many other questions of existence and of daily life.
Lucretius’ thought is based on the Epicurean school of thought:
– If death is here, you are no longer here, but if you are here, then death is not here!
So, it suggests that in order to live without spoiling your life on a daily basis, you should stop focusing on anxious events that are not yet present!
This is a simple thought, but with a profound effectiveness that can be adopted by all humanity! If we inhabit our present fully, we will not destroy it with nostalgia for the pains of the past, nor with a depressing and negative future when this present is calm and harmonious.
A man who tells himself that it was really good in the past, in his youth when he was handsome and slim, will ruin his life; in the same way if he tells himself that his advanced age means that death is near, while complaining of being tired, carried by the thought that he does not have much time to live.
Epicurean philosophy explains that a person destroys the moment by nostalgia for what was, or by a future that anguishes him: this is the recipe for unhappiness. For the Epicureans, to live harmoniously and not to be depressed and unhappy, one must live in the present moment!
Are you going to die? It’s true, this applies to you, me and every human being. But is death for now? No ? So why talk about it and think about it? Michel Onfray explains it very well: death will come one day, we can wait for it serenely, and when it comes, it will only be a bad quarter of an hour to spend. We simply have to calm our fears!
Onfray asks the question: “What do you want? A legion d’honneur?”
We can deconstruct this desire by thinking that it is simply a piece of cloth, and that many noble people have not received it, which illuminates us with the understanding that it is not proof of a person’s greatness or nobility; especially since nowadays it is the politicians in charge who decide who to give the Legion of Honour to; politicians who rarely have unbiased opinions. There are many noble people who have refused the Legion d’honneur, such as the economist Thomas Piketty who even said: « Je refuse cette nomination, car je ne pense pas que ce soit le rôle d’un gouvernement de décider qui est honorable » [French for: “I refuse this nomination, because I don’t think it is the role of a government to decide who is honourable”].
Do you want to be President perhaps? Again, Onfray notes that there is not only happiness in this pursuit since it means having lots of stress, and trouble and having to make decisions about everything constantly, while knowing that the whole world will be scrutinizing your every move. And by being in charge of the administration, you will be surrounded by liars and hypocrites; you will also lose many of your friends while not being completely free of your emotions and to express yourself, or to indulge in the everyday pleasures of life – you will be forced to wear a social mask and take part in a bureaucratic theatrical sham that the whole world is aware of in the 21st century. Epicurean thinking undoes all these fictions that make you unhappy.
In citing the above examples, the point is not to discourage anyone from desiring a Legion d’honneur or to dissuade from wanting to reach the head of state, but it is simply to argue that if the conditions are against these goals, it should not stunt you since life is layered and there will always be reasons to be happy, to live fully, to have an exciting existence and to remain serene while keeping your inner greatness and your honour intact.
Lucretius thought tells us that wisdom can be achieved, and that it consists of an arithmetic of pleasures with a dietetics of desires – we have to give the body what it desires but we also need to make sure that we stay within a limit so that the body does not become a slave to what we give it.
The idea is truer than reality
Onfray reminds us that the history of philosophy is made up of opposition between idealists and materialists. In the end, it is the idealists who have come to dominate the world of thought since Christianity is a form of idealism – Friedrich Nietzsche said that Christianity is Platonism for the poor.
Idealism is based on the argument that the idea is more true than reality. What we perceive as reality is in fact an illusion. This thought is also supported by Jacques Lacan, who explains that the real is not reality, because reality for the individual is what has a symbolic value.
What we see in the real, in all its banality, is not reality since the ideal world does not need it to exist, nor does the individual since he does not attach any importance to it – it is a part that is almost invisible to the eyes and especially to the mind.
These concepts, in the time of Cicero and Lucretius, made the philosophers did politics in spite of themselves. Politicians were also involved in philosophy, since to be a Stoic or an Epicurean is to have a certain belief in the structural values of a world and of the individual, and therefore, these are political issues. Onfray skilfully and ironically invites us to try to imagine the climate of political mediocrity in the 21st century with presidential candidates who would have been Sartreans, Camusians, Aronians, etc.
Moreover, towards the end of his writings, Lucretius explained the beginning of the end of his era; he could clearly see that the republican Rome in which he lived had nothing of the great imperial Rome of before. Onfray finds the present situation in the 21st century comparable to that precise historical epoch described by Lucretius, who sensed the decomposition of the republican Roman state and saw this as the herald of a new form of civilisation, which is the one of our generation today; he predicted that our civilisation too would disappear in its turn to give birth to something else.
An aesthetic of existence: a dynamic world that allows for self-sculpting
In contrast to Epicurean thought, the philosopher Plato’s vision of a republic was not truly egalitarian and just, because the Platonic republic was based on an almost unmovable hierarchy. In Plato’s republic, we have a social structure that places the philosopher at the top of the pyramid, then at the base we have those who work, and in between these two categories we have the military to enforce the law and act as a barrier to prevent individuals from the working classes from having the desire to be people of power.
A true republic must be the result of a vision of justice, but this Platonic republic is not truly just, since it prevents and discourages a section of its population from rising – an idea contrary to the science, psychology and enlightenment heritage of Descartes and Voltaire. In this Platonic republic, we find the aristocrats (who nowadays might represent the very wealthy) who after esoteric classes among themselves get the opportunity to maintain or take power in order to keep this terrible hierarchy going.
But in Epicurean philosophy, we have what is called the garden of Epicurus. And since Epicureans believe that one must live to resemble gods who know ataraxy (the absence of suffering), Onfray extrapolates to point out that this presupposes that in Epicureanism, men live as friends; and observes that if Lucretius had completed his writings, there would most likely be a greater consideration of friendship between men than in the texts that influenced him, i.e. Epicurus himself.
Onfray argues that there is an idea in Epicureanism about friendship that tells us that on earth we can build an ideal community – a kind of republic in Epicurus’ garden that would be truly egalitarian and just, and that would contrast with the injustice in Plato’s republic. Unlike Plato, among the Epicureans there is room for everyone: men, women, young, old, poor and also those who are not poor. In this sense, this human composition is astonishing since it really aims at making a civilisation work while synchronizing in a spirit of fraternity and mutual aid all its members.
The modern society closest to those ideals of the Epicurean garden republic or “république du jardin” (as Onfray phrased it) is the French civilisation. It was the French revolution, which had been heavily influenced by the ideas of the intellectuals of the Enlightenment [i.e. the 18th century intellectual movement of reason], that would secularise a number of concepts inspired by Christianity into the constitution, most notably the famous « Liberté, égalité, fraternité » [Translation / French for: “Liberty, equality, fraternity”], which is inspired from the free will of Christians. Equality [Égalité] is derived from the belief in equality before God, and brotherhood [Fraternité] is derived from the concept of the community of the ecclesia. Liberté [Freedom], of course, most people know what this means, which is the freedom to explore, to choose, to discover, to learn, to express ourself, to speak, to have open debates, to question, to propose, to love, to create, to live life fully within the limits of reason and respect for the mother psychosocial sphere. The new generation of French people secularised and embedded those values with the firm belief that “we have a universal world view; we want everyone to share our values – liberté, égalité, fraternité!“.
In this vision of the Epicurean republic, which could be called a “garden republic”, there is an idea that echoes the organic theory of psychological construction that we have developed; a belief in line with modern psychological science in the capacity of the human organism (the individual) to educate itself, to cultivate and sculpt its mind, to deepen its discourse, and to elevate itself through its own intellectual efforts; and so there is a belief in the nobility of meritocracy – a meritocratic hierarchy based on effort, talent and merit, and open to all!
In the Epicurean garden, we have this idea that it is never too late or too early to philosophise: you can philosophise if you are young, or if you are very old! If some of you think that at 80 years old it might be too late to philosophise, Epicurean thinking will prove you wrong! The time is always right – better late than never.
The very young, children, as soon as they have the capacity to think, can start philosophising. Of course, it would be unreasonable to impose on a three-year-old the knowledge and full understanding of the logical reasoning of the thoughts of Lacan, Nietzsche, Darwin, Schopenhauer, Voltaire, Kant, Camus, Descartes, Freud and Rousseau. But we can start to implant the ability to reason and question from a very young age; to teach them to think about the world, to think about their place in the world, to question life and the structures of civilisation to develop a critical sense and also a sophisticated reasoning that will allow them to have solid opinions; this is what I call creativity, and this foundation will develop and serve them in all fields for a lifetime and maybe even their children if the transmission is done.
Time is limited: put excellence into every moment and don’t waste the second
In a logic and line of thought similar to ours, Onfray very perceptively suggests that an individual must understand that the moment we live is not eternal. Therefore, to live as if we have an infinite number of moments is not reasonable, since our time on earth among humans is counted. Just as in the womb there is a limited number of eggs and at a certain age the ability to give life stops – for some this is not even possible from birth, for some it stops early, for others late, for some with much pain, for others peacefully.
But Epicureanism opens the eyes of those who encounter it, and asks the individual not to waste the second, not to waste the moment, not to waste the day; if we do not use our time productively to live, we lose it forever since time is counted and will not return.
In the 2021 interview with Pierre Coutelle, Michel Onfray uses everyday scenes from life in the modern world to emphasise the importance of not wasting time, explaining that many people simply think that their lives will magically turn out okay; those ordinary people who are in the industrialised routine of the five-day week (i.e. wake up every morning, look at the time, shower, coffee, get the kids ready for school, train, office, work, anecdotes from the kids who find school unbearable, trouble at the office, coffee breaks for a quick bite to eat, and then the same recipe on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday) As for the weekend, everyone is exhausted, so on Sunday these people stay in slippers or trainers, they don’t shave, they don’t wash, they’re not clean or fresh, they smell bad, they watch TV, they flick from one channel to another, and then, on Monday, it all starts again!
In the face of all this, Onfray’s observations invite civilisation to ask itself the following questions:
« Est-ce que c’est ça la vie ? »
Traduction[EN]: “Is this what life is all about?”
« Est-ce que c’est ça que nous voulons comme vie ? »
Traduction[EN]: “Is this what we want as life?”
« Est-ce que nous pouvons nous s’asseoir paisiblement en pensant qu’a un moment donné tout cela va changer magiquement et le bonheur apparaitra ? »
Traduction[EN]: “Can we sit back and think that at some point all this will magically change and happiness will appear?”
« Ne serait-il pas convenable de prendre les choses en main toute de suite sans perdre de temps pour changer notre existence de tel sorte qu’on ne vive pas cette vie raté et nulle ? »
Traduction[EN]: “Wouldn’t it be nice to take matters into our own hands right now without wasting time to change our existence so that we don’t live this failed and lousy life?”
The Epicurean thought that inspired the writings of Lucretius asks us to put excellence in every moment and not to bear mediocrity, every moment lost is definitely lost! This may not be a great revolution for those who are self-aware, civilised and have cultivated the art of critical thinking, but these questions simply push us towards answers that ask us to live each moment as if we could see it reappear infinitely.
If you are still reading this essay and have felt and understood the arguments, then asking yourself the other three questions would be constructive:
« Est-ce qu’on va encore démarrer sa semaine de la même manière ? »
Traduction[EN]: “Are we going to start our week the same way again?”
That is, for example:
– Going to work knowing that we live with people we don’t love, and who don’t love us?
– Knowing that the relationship with the people you work with or with your children is not serene and healthy?
« Est-ce qu’on a envie que ça continue ainsi et que ça se répète sans cesse ? »
Traduction[EN]: “Do we want it to continue like this and repeat itself over and over again?”
« Pouvez-vous vous mettre à la place d’un autre être humain ? »
Traduction[EN]: “Can you put yourself in the place of another human being?”
« Pensez-vous qu’un autre être humain puisse éprouver des émotions ? »
[Par exemple, des émotions telles que la confusion, le dégoût, la colère, l’horreur, la honte, la tristesse, la faiblesse, l’anxiété, la solitude, l’ennui, la douleur empathique, la nostalgie, le soulagement, la satisfaction, l’admiration, la joie, le calme, l’excitation, etc ?]
Traduction[EN]: “Do you think another human being can experience emotions?”
[For e.g., emotions such as confusion, disgust, anger, horror, shame, sadness, weakness, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, empathic pain, nostalgia, relief, satisfaction, admiration, joy, calmness, excitement, etc ?]
« Puisque l’on serait Dieu si l’on était parfait, et que l’on n’est pas Dieu. Pouvez-vous imaginer la possibilité que votre comportement ou celui d’un autre être humain puisse déclencher certaines des émotions négatives ou positives mentionnées ci-dessus chez un autre être humain ? »
Traduction[EN]: “Since one would be God if one was perfect, and one is not God. Can you imagine the possibility that your behaviour or another human beings’s behaviour could trigger some of the above negative or positive emotions in another human being?”
« Ne devrions-nous pas faire tout ce qui est nécessaire pour arranger les choses, afin que les expériences négatives et horribles n’aient plus lieu et que le reste de notre vie soit différent ? »
Traduction[EN]: “Shouldn’t we do whatever is necessary to make things right, so that negative and horrific experiences do not take place anymore and the rest of our lives are different?”
Carl Jung was incredibly accurate in saying: “Crises, upheavals and illness do not happen by chance, they serve as indicators to rectify a trajectory, explore new directions, experience another way of life.”In 1948, from an article entitled “Ni victimes ni bourreaux” and in the chapter entitled “Le siècle de la peur” [French for, “The century of fear”], Albert Camus wrote that man lived in terror; between generalised fear of some kind of war that everyone at that time seemed to be preparing for, and the particular fear of murderous ideologies. Surprisingly, his words seem still fresh for our world today.
Camus saw man living in terror because persuasion seemed impossible, since man had been handed over entirely to history [as if history had stopped and could not be written anymore]. For Camus, man seems unable to turn to that part of himself, which is just as true as history itself, that part of himself which he finds in front of the beauty of the world and of human faces; because man lives in a world of abstraction, which is the world of offices and machines, the world of absolute ideas and messianism without nuance. Camus noted that man suffocates among people who believe that they are absolutely right, whether in their machines or in their ideas; he observed that for all us who can only live in dialogue and human friendship, that silence means the end of the world.However, Camus also argued that in order to get out of that terror, one should be able to think, reflect and act on one’s reflection. But if man lives in a world of terror, it is precisely the terror that creates a climate that does not encourage or provide space for reflection. He was of the opinion that instead of blaming that terror, we should work to find a solution to it, and that there was nothing more important because it concerns the fate of a great number of human beings who are fed up of violence and lies, disappointed in their highest hopes, disgusted at the thought of inflicting suffering on their fellow men.
Learning to live a life so that you won’t regret it when death comes
Optimists see the best everywhere, pessimists see the worst everywhere. Tragic people see reality as it is, and this requires a lot of courage because reality in all its rawness is not always easy, even if what it presents is of no value to us and we are almost blind to that empty aspect of life which symbolises nothing. In spite of this, tragics do not tend to make myths or fictions – they see the real, it is not perfect, but it is so.
Lucretius is known to be a vitalist, and this line of thought tends towards the tragic since vitalists are firmly anchored in the fact that everything that is alive will eventually die. In the organic world, there is always a cycle: growth, decay and then extinction. Onfray points out that this also applies to civilisations. This is a very logical observation since the Aztec civilisation, the Egyptian empire with the pharaohs, the Roman empire, the empire of Alexander, to name a few examples, no longer exist – except in the form of fragments preserved in our museums. The conclusion is that nothing and no one can stop the disappearance of what has done its time – of what eventually becomes obsolete.
Tragedy thus reminds us that no one and almost nothing (except atoms) will last forever and that we will all eventually disappear. This notion is exactly the treasure of tragic thinking, because it makes us understand that we really have to learn to live a sublime life in every sense. We must cherish each day and lead a life that will allow us to watch death come with a smile, serenely, telling ourselves that if we had to do it again, we would do it exactly the same way without any regrets.
Reality, as Onfray reminds us, is made up of many people who, at the moment of death, regret not having done a lot of things that were important to them, not having made the right choices, not having given enough importance to this or that person in their life, not having succeeded in realising their dreams, etc. So we have to learn to live and lead a life in a way that will not leave us in pain and regret the day death decides that our journey among humans has come to an end.
Will power: do we have power over ourselves?
The Epicurean philosophers’ reflection on life is nothing more than an invitation to will power to counteract suffering.
In contrast to the Epicurean philosophers, the philosophers of fate always have something problematic; they believe that everything is already written. But if there is only fatality, what can we do with free will? Onfray also invites us to ask ourselves this question. If everything is already written, how is it that we have the possibility of choosing?
– For example, to eat a strawberry instead of a potato? To move to a city or a village? To read Balzac or Camus? To study the mind or law? To become a writer or an electrician? To write an academic book or a work of fiction? To engage in debates and learn from the great intellectuals to change the world or to chat with tramps in a bar? To criticize politics, gastronomy, sports, technology, economics, psychology, philosophy, art or business?
The question of the individual having power over his life has long been the question of Nietzsche, Spinoza, and the Stoics. The Epicureans, on the other hand, never asked this question about the power of the will over oneself. But if there really is a fatality of what happens, then what can be done with will power?
– Does will power exist?
– Does man have power over himself?
Lucretius, like us, truly believes that we have power over ourselves, that we can take matters into our own hands to change our destiny and guide it towards healthier and more harmonious horizons. All we have to do is to want it: to live each moment of life as if it were our last, to live each day as if it were our last. But abusing any good remedy can be harmful, and this is where Onfray asks us to impose a certain reasonable limit.
Living each day as if it were your last should not lead an adult to suddenly throw out his children, whom he finds untalented, personality-less, and future-less; to suddenly divorce his annoying spouse without discussion; to take all his money and spend it at the casino or betting on a horse; to suddenly quit his job while savagely insulting his tyrannical boss, whom he has always found to be rude, disrespectful, insensitive, intransigent, and depressing. If Epicurean philosophy makes you think that it is justifiable to act in this way then you have misunderstood, because if this is not your last day on earth, the next day you will find yourself in a truly miserable and possibly suicidal state.
Living each moment of life as if it were the last, and living each day as if it were the last, should inspire you to build your life discreetly, modestly, but powerfully!
Onfray tells us that it is to willingly accept that your current life is miserable. In that sense, to acknowledge that the elements that define your life are not well organized; and therefore, to say to yourself:
« Je ne vais pas passer ma vie à vivre des choses qui ne me conviennent pas. Je n’aurais pas deux vies. »
Traduction[EN]: “I’m not going to spend my life living things that don’t suit me. I won’t have two lives.”
It’s a way of motivating yourself to build your present so that you can be happy and live in the absence of suffering – it’s a revolutionary healing thought!
Onfray believes that Lucretius’ work was left unfinished, and so there is a clear doctrine on friendship that might be found in the missing pages. There are, however, a few lines, which Onfray believes represent an idea that an individual can have a companion or a being in his life, with whom the capacity to share something serene, calm, without hatred, without war, without contempt, with gentleness and tenderness, develops. There is here the idea of love as a remedy for passion.
An invitation to a sculpture of the self: the psychological construction
Lucretius’ work echoes my own thinking in the sense that it is an encyclopedic elaboration. Lucretius left us an encyclopaedic poem, a knowledge where he painted a dynamic world. Like the logic of the organismic theory of psychological construction that we have developed, Lucretius’ perspective is quite similar since he is a dynamic atomist, not a purely mechanical and reductionist one. He starts with the atom and then explains life; we start with the individual organism and then explain everything by extrapolating a theory derived from established work in various fields, respecting a logic based on scientific observation while valuing clarity in the explanation.
Like the organismic theory of psychological design, Lucretius’ work is also an invitation to sculpt the self, in its psychological depth, in order to re-establish sound philosophical foundations that allow one to structure one’s thinking and thus modify one’s perception for a more harmonious life; it is an aesthetics of existence that aims to decorate and reshape the mind in order to promote mental equilibrium and thus keep the mind harmonious in all the dramatic situations of life.
The Romans proposed a conversion, which was also a consolation quite similar to the initiation ceremony of Freemasonry in the sense that there is the life before which one renounces, and then there is the life after which one adopts for good; it is like a new birth, and so by accepting the conversion, one is reborn – it is a rebirth.
Conversion among Roman thinkers means adopting a new life: rebirth
Among the Romans, when one has accepted one’s conversion, it is no longer the same life; among the followers of Epicurean philosophy there is no initiation ceremony as in Freemasonry, but simply the meeting with, or one could say the adoption of, a “maître” (master); a wise man who initiates us by transmitting his knowledge and reminding us the real is simply made of atoms in free fall in the void; that the real is material and does not constitute reality; that the idea is truer than reality; that this physics of the here below dispenses with a metaphysics of the world beyond; that paradise exists on earth but it must be built with determination!
As Michel Onfray also points out, when we meet this “maître” (master of thought), one fine day he enters our lives, opens the curtains (metaphorically) and everything becomes clear. In Roman antiquity it was like this, with an existential maître of truth who asks us to strip ourselves of all our old clothes (metaphorically – to describe our old life) in order to live another life from now on; a life that will allow us to be sovereign over ourselves, lord of ourselves, and in becoming so we will know truth, freedom and enjoyment.
Onfray emphasises that hedonism is this: be the master of yourself, and you will see what jubilation there is in being so! Lucretius’ Epicurean thought finally seems to wake us up by showing us what an excellent life we have the possibility to live – without pain and without horror.
Rome was founded from a collection of people of different origins, so the Romans genuinely believed in the concept of assimilation and never had any problems imagining that a foreigner could become fully Roman [As explained in detail in the essay, “Psychological Explanations of Prejudice & Discrimination and the Conceptual Philosophy of Assimilation à la Française“]. The Europe of the 21st century – at least in nations with a sophisticated breed of refined thinkers such as those of the French intellectual heritage – is a direct heir to this large-scale assimilation of the Roman tradition.
Matter: everything can be explained from the atom
Lucretius’ philosophy is atomistic and shows us that reality is simply material and consists only of atoms that fall into the void and nothing else. Epicureanism is a very subtle thought, and in Lucretius’s work we find a vitalist materialism. Onfray points out that it is not just the atom that is found in the atom, but much more; there is an arrangement of atoms.
Epicureanism is therefore not a vulgar, simplistic or reductionist mechanism. Obviously, it starts with an atom, but this atom goes on to explain the creation of civilisation, i.e. the whole world; in this sense, Lucretius’ Epicureanism is a profoundly sophisticated proposition.
This idea of the atom was already present in the work of the Greeks and Democritus. The latter had found inspiration in a very ordinary everyday scene. Democritus was in his room with the curtains closed, and through a small opening a ray of light entered, and at that moment Democritus saw a very fine cloud of dust dancing in that ray of light – an event that man does not see with the naked eye, but which is revealed by the light. These dust particles that constitute our whole world and reality as it is, represent the atoms (the term “Atomos” is used in Greek, referring to the hypothetical ultimate particles of matter, a word that meant uncut, since the atom is the smallest indivisible unit of matter).
In Lucretius’ work, everything is explained from the atom: one atom meets another atom and so on to start a chain process and eventually we see the world structured into an infinite number of universes. In this sense, it is a coherent thought, intuitive but also empirical. Onfray points out that even if we visit the works of Lamarck and Darwin, the evolutionary explanations, quantum mechanics, the theory of the multiverse and the multiverse, we can see that Lucretius’ thought cannot be disqualified, since it resonates with the whole scientific philosophy of the modern world.
When we speak of atoms, we are speaking of the making of the whole universe and of all life, and so there is a certain mystical and spiritual aspect where we might well associate the creative process which for many is connected to God, that is, the divine creation of everything from matter. How something as simple and mundane as seeing a few particles of dust in the light through the curtains in a bedroom can reveal to us this idea of the atom giving birth to the world and the universe is truly amazing; moreover, 25 centuries later, the atom and the intellectual debates about creation are still part of our reality.
Anything that has mass and take up a given amount of volume is defined as matter. As such, everything around us is made up of matter, and to go further, everything is made up of atoms. Atoms however are incredibly far from one another since they are more void than they are matter. Every atom has a nucleus in the centre, surrounded by electrons.
To understand the relative size of the empty space that represents the void in an atom, we can imagine the nucleus [noyau in French] being the size of a peanut, and if that was the case, the entire atom would be about the size of a large football stadium. Around the edges of that stadium the electrons exist, their numbers varying by different elements. Hence, a nucleus is about 100 000 times smaller than the atom in which they are locked in, hence the atom is practically empty space.
If all the empty space was removed from every single atom in every single human being on earth (i.e. around 7.6 billion people), then compressed together, the overall volume of all the particles that make up the whole human population would be smaller than a sugar cube. This may sound ridiculous, however, it makes sense when we consider the weight of that sugar cube of human beings, because it would weight exactly the same as the sum of weight of all human beings on earth. If we assume an average weight of 45 Kg (considering children weight less and adults more) for 7.6 billion people, that small sugar cube would reach a weight of 345 billion Kg, which is the equivalent of around 1000 huge skyscrapers.
Atoms make up 100% of the universe and since 99% of the atom is empty space, we come to the conclusion that a human being is made up of nothingness. Every human being on planet Earth is made up of several millions of atoms [around 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (7 octillion) per person], and every single atom is 99% empty space.
If everything is made of matter, what are the gods made of? Matter!
Onfray explains it in a simple way accessible to all, this notion in Lucretius that atoms are extremely subtle, and that there is a theory of simulacra. If you and I are on stage and there is an audience that sees us, this theory of simulacra suggests that metaphorically there is a kind of aura, a layer, or a skin that comes off of us that is made of atomic particles and that diffuses into the external environment.
If you hear me, it is because my speech passes through in the form of sound as I speak, and the act of speaking emits atoms according to this theory of simulacra: these atoms of my speech travel all over the world, and they are simulacra which penetrate into the ears and into the minds of those who listen to us; into the eyes as far as vision is concerned; at which point one develops the possibility of the art of communication.
To sum up Lucretius’ theory of simulacra clearly, it is simply to understand that there are simulacra everywhere, all the time! Onfray invites us to imagine that these atoms of simulacra are like waves during the use of a mobile phone; waves which are invisible to the eye but which remain very present. Simulacra operate in the same way; they are extremely tenuous atoms that travel, circulate and offer the possibility of seeing, tasting, hearing, perceiving, among many other capacities.
Since these atoms of simulacra are indeed present in the environment and proceed subtly in the effects they generate while being invisible, then the gods must be made of this kind of subtle matter. Onfray explains that we have one world, two worlds, many worlds, and this multiplicity of worlds implies that there are interworlds. The gods are present in the interworlds and are made of matter, and represent an autonomous power that is satisfied with itself; a power that knows ataraxy (which means the end of suffering).
The gods rejoice in being and enjoy the power of existence; the Epicureans ask man to resemble these gods, to know the absence of trouble – this absence of suffering is enjoyment!
So, we see that this enjoyment is not crude as Cicero’s Stoic thought conceived it.
Based on this theory of atoms, the Epicureans tell us that death is not to be feared because it is simply a disorganisation and reorganisation of matter and not its suppression; all matter that decomposes will eventually recompose itself, it is an eternal cycle and an atomic recycling of the universe.
This idea of the eternal recycling of matter (and thus of atoms) seems to suggest that there might be a kind of resurrection in atomic terms, that a dead being can have fragments of the matter of which it was composed transported into another being generations later; this is perhaps one of the many reasons for the presence of the qualities of great dead men in succeeding generations, whether in terms of personality or physical resemblance; it is something for deep atomic thinkers to ponder: the atom cannot be destroyed and is eternal, there is a limited amount of matter and on earth it follows an eternal cycle of recycling. This observation seems to echo a metaphoric interpretation of reincarnation in Hinduism, where it is believed that a living being begins a new life in a different physical form or body after biological death.
Most of the atoms on Earth have been present since the formation of the planet itself; a small amount came from outer space and through nuclear reactions. As such, human beings are just a composition of atoms that used to part of something else, we are all recycled. The atoms in our living body used to be the food, the water and the air we consume to remain alive; since our conception in the womb, food, water and air (and all tha atoms that consitute them) has been used by our organic body and transformed into what we are.
When a person dies, the atoms that made up its body is quickly recycled. If a human corpse is buried, the bacteria in the intestinal tract are starved from not being given any food, and they start devouring the corpse itself which leads to decomposition. Decomposition is also dependent on temperature, i.e. a corpse in the tropics will be reduced to a skeleton within days or weeks. If a corpse is buried in a wooden coffin, it quickly becomes food for organisms that live in the soil (e.g. worms), and the atoms that were part of that dead body quickly re-enters the food chain – those atoms become part of whatever consumed the corpse and later of whatever consumes that organism. When the bones decay, which is a slower process, the calcium and phosphorous in those bones will be incorporated in plants. Eventually, those plants will be consumed by people or animals, and those living organisms eventually die, and the cycle through the biosphere goes on over and over. If a corpse is buried in a hermetically sealed container or crypt, then the recycling process is interrupted and that body turns into a soup of rotting flesh and bones. If a corpse is embalmed, then the decomposition process is slowed down, but not halted completely. If a person dies in a very cold region, e.g. on a glacier, then the corpse may be found perfectly frozen and intact dozens or hundreds of year later. In the case where a corpse is cremated, the organic body is combusted, the soft tissues are consumed by oxygen and mostly turn into carbon dioxide: the gases are released into the atmosphere and the bones are reduced to ash, which is mostly carbon. The atoms released in the air from combustion are quickly recycled into other things in the biosphere [environment]; if a person’s ashes are spread around, they eventually re-enter the food chain or are converted into minerals. As such, tiny pieces of a person [his atoms] of this generation, may eventually end up in the pork chop, the corn flakes or the potato salad of his or her grand children.
Hence, the atoms that make up our body come from outer space, and have been around for billions of years since the creation of Earth. We get to use them for a very short amount of time, since our average lifetime is incredibly short and meaningless when we speak in planetary terms [consider a very young planet being 25 million years]. We should make the most of our atoms while we can, because our life is short and once we are gone, our atoms are converted into something else.
The law of thermodynamics states that both matter, which is made up of atoms, and energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Thus, all the atoms in our physical dead body eventually get recycled.
Hence, we can ask ourselves this question:
“Are we truly dead if our atoms still exist?”
Philosophy, Poetry, Tragedy & Comedy were Linked for Centuries
Lucretius’ philosophical work is a huge poem that has been poorly translated like all ancient poetry. Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and the Roman comedy (e.g. The Iliad, The Odyssey) were all written in verse; this aspect has been forgotten because all translations were made in prose. 5 or 6 years before Christ, intellectuals had to memorise, and poetry was used because it facilitates memorising: just as a song allows us to memorise the words more easily (e.g. Aragon’s poem, sung by Jean Farrain).
There is a lyrical dimension to Lucretius, it is a poetic and scenic dimension. Onfray finds that Lucretius, in his style, tries to get people on board. This is a tangible deduction when we know the extent of Lucretius’ Epicurean thought, which gives the concrete feeling of a real intellectual journey that transforms us for good.
If we take the example of a passage of Lucretius in “De Rerum Natura” which is in the last section of Canto VI, where he describes the plague in Athens, we can see with what descriptive mastery he makes the scene of the plague present, explaining to us a detailed chronology of the beginning, the development and then the horrors of death on men. Onfray wonders if this is really reality and asks himself:
– Is it metaphorical?
– Is it allegorical?
Anything is possible in Lucretius, Onfray notes that he seeks to reach those who are listening, in a message that tries to make the point that the real plague is the human condition – again a metaphor that seems to describe what might be called mental illness in the 21st century.
Philosophy, poetry, tragedy and comedy were linked for centuries. What Lucretius leaves us is an immense existential treatise synthesized in an encyclopedia of the world. Translated into prose, it is an intellectual material available for everyday life where pleasure, which means the absence of suffering, is what we seek and aim for!
Throughout this essay, we have also seen how so many thinkers across different generations have had their thoughts echo each other’s perspectives and beliefs with many also confirmed by modern science. Good ideas, or good people, find each other and fit together. This reminds the world that all intellectual work that is built on the solid foundations of reason, logic and rationality will echo in eternity. Voltaire was completely right in his correspondence with M. Thiériot dated June 30, 1760, when he wrote: « Les beaux esprits se rencontrent. » [French for: “Beautiful minds meet.”]In Lucretius’ writings, there is a multitude of ethical and moral propositions that give man the ability to liberate himself by elevating his mind, to lead an Epicurean philosophical life in particular, a life that is made for happiness – “l’art de vivre” according to Lucretius!
D. J. d’Purb | dpurb.com
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