After 7 years, I was burned out by philosophy, yet I continued to haunt the philosophy section in search for anything radical and profound. Amidst the expected titles commonly found at any bookstore, sat A Short History of Decay. I pulled it off the shelf in the faint hopes of killing time until the cigar shop opened in 20 minutes. After a couple of hours disappeared savoring the salacious prose, I begrudgingly closed the book and hurried to the checkout counter, cackling in glee in the wonderful fortune of uncovering a new thinker that spoke blasphemous music to my eyes.
Posts Tagged ‘pessimism’
At the end of the 1949 film, Sands of Iwo Jima, after the US soldiers survive a battle, Marine Sergeant John Stryker (John Wayne) tells his fellow comrades in the trench that he’s never felt so good in his life. He asks them if they want a cigarette, and then he gets killed immediately by a sniper. Later, the others find a letter on his body that contains many things John Stryker planned to say, but never did. Absurd, I thought, when I first saw this movie. I was expecting a happy ending to the movie because the protagonists always survived the climax. I couldn’t help but be reminded of that scene when I read Albert Camus’ essay on the absurd, The Myth of Sisyphus. In this essay I will break down the concepts of the absurd, eluding, suicide and eluding, and make a few observations of my own. ↓ Read the rest of this entry…
(For part one, go here)
Their immortal hearts have been seared and hardened by an insurmountable evil that makes them immune to all fantasies & hallucinations of gods who still believe in ideals. Elder gods reject Cartaphilus, that dangerous prophet, and the most audacious thinker of delirious times.
The elder gods are typically radical skeptics & lovers of doubt. Instead of an impetuous glorification of life, these elders have a disillusioned outlook that considers themselves to be superior skeptics and exorcists of all certainty & conviction. Their observations are fueled with the abysmal mechanisms of doubt – an antiseptic that pacifies the spirit and detaches it from any vital stakes. ↓ Read the rest of this entry…
After hearing about Fukuyama’s End of History thesis, I began to wonder:
Were there truly an “end” of history, a post-history, the possibility of all events coming to an end, who would be a competent historian to observe this end of all cycles?
This does not refer to theoreticians of the “end of history,” but of a different type – a true historian looking back after all histories had ended, a post-historian observing that there are no more events to record, except perhaps the act of recording for the unknown readers of the future. The end of history is the end of the fall into time – when man became historical after being exiled from paradise. ↓ Read the rest of this entry…
How can pleasure “lack” positive existence? It is indeed the case that our simple common sense seem to attribute positive experience to pleasure and negative experience to pain, that they are the opposite ends of a sliding scale of experience.
However, in order for Schopenhauer to argue that we are doomed by nature to suffering is that pleasure is not positive, but only the relief from something painful.
The reason for this is that pain, suffering that includes all want, privation, need, in fact every wish or desire, is that which is positive and directly felt and experienced. On the other hand, the nature of satisfaction, enjoyment, and happiness consists solely in the removal of a privation, the stilling o a pain; and so these have a negative effect. Therefore, need and desire are the condition of every pleasure or enjoyment. Plato recognized this… Voltaire also says: “There are no true pleasures without true needs.” Thus pain is something positive that automatically makes itself known; satisfaction and pleasures are something negative, the mere elimination of the former. On the Basis of Morality, p. 146
If you reflect in certain terms what all gratifications are, all of them, from a sip of coffee to the deep contemplation of the Last Judgment in the Sistine chapel, you will admit they are either the reduction of the will or its suspension. Now, willing is unquenchable – we may achieve some brief satisfactions, or a momentary relief, but given the nature of existence, they are always temporary and then we go back on the rack. Our normal state of affairs is dissatisfaction. I’m more interested in when we do achieve a sustained satisfaction of our wants, and because of our nature as a restless striving, our chief mode of existence is dissolved and we run up against the inner emptiness that is brought about by the absence of the only mode in which we can exist: boredom. This is all the more true for people who live in an affluent society like the USA.
Schopenhauer’s great intuition: human existence is a constant vacillating between pain and boredom. The existence of boredom is more than just evidence of a disagreeable state; it is proof that man is fundamentally unhappy.
“If life possessed in itself a positive value and true content, there would be no such thing as boredom: mere existence would fulfill and satisfy us. As things are we take no pleasure in existence except when we are striving after something..”(Essays and Aphorisms 53 – 54)
The default reaction to bare conscious continuity, being awake but not doing anything, is boredom. This awareness disappears once we institute and pursue a goal, thereby distracting ourselves from the empty or illusory nature of our lives. During those fleeting moments of satisfaction, we return to raw existence itself.
The final irony of pessimism: even if our desires are satisfied, although imperfectly, the outcome is naught but boredom.
Pure consciousness, framed by space and time, consists of nothing, nothing at all. That nothingness allows us to become most intimately aware of the der Nichtigkeit des Daseins, the Schopenhauerian nothingness of existence, i.e., better known as vanity.
While boredom is not as wounding as sheer pain, it is a form of suffering unique to conscious beings. It is the byproduct of an intuitive understanding of the metaphysical situation of man – the existence in time.
Vanity is not to be confused with the Christian view, where all things are empty as opposed to the heavenly. The phenomenal, temporal and conscious world is illusory because it conceals the real yet transcendental world of the will, and Schopenhauer says “the way in which this Nichtigkeit (vanity) of all objects of the will makes itself known and comprehensible to the intellect that is rooted in the individual, is primarily time. It is the form by whose means that vanity of things appears as their transitoriness, since by virtue of this all our pleasures n enjoyments come to nought in our hands” (WWR II 574)
Because the fundamental element of all individual wishes, for Schopenhauer, is the will, then this Nichtigkeit is “the only objective element of time, i.e., that which corresponds to it in the inner nature of things” (ibid)
Consequently, boredom is the correlate of this essential emptiness of conscious experience, something we become aware of once we quit the striving for individual goals and return to the bare model of existence. While boredom is not a byproduct of reason, it is a cognizance of the evanescent quality of all physical goods.
There is an explanation for why the achievements of our individual goals fail to satisfy: our normal/default condition is active suffering, and since pleasure lacks positive existence, the temporary relief of pain results in boredom, which is but merely a lesser form of suffering. In order to escape boredom we institute fresh new goals. Hence, the constant vacillation between pain and boredom where each extreme sends us in a rush toward the other.
Although our constant yearning, striving, struggling is on the face of it futile, it actually achieves a completely different result other than what we hoped for. Even if we do arrive at our goals, they fail to bring us satisfaction, if at all. But during the process, there is a subtle, yet true achievement: the understanding of the futility of our actions. We can perceive and understand the vanity of existence, once the ongoing effort to keep and maintain physical objects turn out to be utterly pointless. Consequently our illusions about the purpose of life is replaced with the shattering truth.
The predominance of boredom only confirms that it is understood. Look at the countenance of virtually every elderly person, Schopenhauer says. It is an expression of disappointment. If the “fundamental characteristic of old age is disillusionment; the illusions which hitherto gave life its charm n spurred us to activity have vanished. We have recognized the vanity and emptiness of all the splendors of the world… We have learnt that there is very little behind most of the things desired and most of the pleasures hoped for; and we have gradually gained an insight into the great poverty n hollowness of our existence. Only when we are seventy do we thoroughly understand the [second] verse of Ecclesiastes.” (Parerga and Paralipomena, p. 494)
Conclusion: for Schopenhauer, boredom is the outcome of the illusions of conscious life.
This essay seeks to compare and contrast Schopenhauer and Nietzsche by putting their philosophies of pessimism and optimism in high relief. I suspect I may have caricatured Nietzsche in order to write a balanced essay, so feel free to disregard this as an adequate representation of Nietzsche’s mutifaceted philosophy. It was originally written for a friend who argued that I had no reason of siding with Schopenhauer over Nietzsche, and it became a lengthy analysis of optimism and pessimism.
1. The higher cultures are so structured that they force the inhabitants to live along longer and more difficult paths. The higher this culture develops, the more indirect man becomes. Older cultures have simple means of acquiring food, while modern man orders pizza through a system of interlocking functions and patterns.
The elongated strand of means and ends make it impossible to be totally aware of every inch of every strand. The entire sequence is unmappable, which leaves our modern consciousness limited to the means, the mechanisms, and the final goals that bring meaning to the steps are pushed off towards the horizon and eventually lie past it.
Us moderns are surrounded by an endless web of enterprises and institutions where the final and valuable goals are missing. In this culture, the need for a final goal and meaning for life emerges.
The insights in this entry are based on my readings of two 18th century thinkers of cultural pessimism: Jean Jacques Rousseau and Giacomo Leopardi.
Why things fall apart
Beyond the structures of knowledge, past the artifices of ideas, and beneath our concepts is a chaotic mass of change, where all is flux, nothing remains constant, including our affections or attachments to these inconstant things - for they also vanish and change as well. Our desires or dreams or wishes are elsewhere; tomorrow, yesterday, but not today. Dour pessimists credit the source of suffering with existence in time, for man is a time-bound species. Although it is possible to experience brief, fleeting glimpses into transcendence – timelessness – only animals experience constant timelessness, and perhaps the preconscious ancestors of the human race as well. While animals do experience age and death, they are blissfully ignorant of this. They do not change – and with much simpler lives, they are also much happier. Their ignorance of time wards off thoughts about the future or the past. The ability to compare ourselves to our memories or visualized future allows us to reflect and invent plans to improve ourselves. Being conscious of time, however, turns us into slaves in our dissatisfaction with ourselves, constantly comparing us with others, competing consciously or unconsciously. ↓ Read the rest of this entry…
Lakshmi : Can you tell me how everything went wrong?
Kartikay : I have gone through the events over and over and I remain at a loss how my plans crumbled, and I ended up 180 degrees from where I began.
Lakshmi : Tell me.
Kartikay : After i acquired a Genesis planet, with the most advanced template I set out to create a race of sublime mortals. I learned from the mistakes of the elder gods and I intended to fulfill all the dreams of these mortals, satisfy their desires and ensure that happiness was a reality, not a mere ideal. My stratagems were put in effect to produce a perfect race that lives comfortably in utopia, and I would become the envy of all other pantheons.
Lakshmi : That is why you created them as children – all the better to enjoy the world, live in the present and be carefree.
Kartikay : No matter how advanced my template was, these mortals were flawed . They did not remain idyllic for long. Much to my surprise, they grew… sophisticated.
Lakshmi : They tired of being children?
Kartikay : Yes. They gained the ability to reason, and that caused a general mood of disappointment. Their childlike hopes disintegrated rather quickly.
Lakshmi : But – the suicides?
Kartikay : That was my first sign. Through reasoning, they figured out how to kill off themselves. Once their hopes were dashed, they could no longer bear living. My ambitious project turned out to be a greater failure than any of the elder gods!
Lakshmi : Weren’t you successful for several centuries of your rule?
Kartikay : Actually, I did try short-term solutions to solve this existential malady – I added more land to the world, and introduced more variety in nature with animals and plants. These changes did work for a while, and they distracted the mortals. As the years passed, the novelty faded, and they grew bored with life again. Even contemptuous! I could never return them to their original state as children.
Lakshmi : Hmmm. Nothing new can outlast the invincible sequence of time.
Kartikay : I didn’t stop there. I tried introducing more obstacles in order to challenge them, force them to expand their reason and find solutions. I also proliferated the mortals into different factions, so they could not intermingle as easily and casually. They were strangers to one another, constantly misunderstanding each other, and that led to discord, violent conflict.
Lakshmi : Wasn’t that Yahweh’s original error?
Kartikay : No, he did it too early, when the population on Earth was much smaller. Never mind that. Despite all the obstacles, and the increase in their intellectual activity, they lapsed back into boredom. Ennui seemed ineradicable.
Lakshmi : Perhaps your template was not flawed.
Kartikay : Indeed, perhaps it was too advanced. Despite all their intellectual development, they are demanding for the presence of Truth!
Lakshmi : No, it isn’t the template. It is time to abandon your original plan. Your problem is an excess of mercy, and that makes it easier for your mortals to take you for granted. I recommend you to answer their demands: Send them the Truth.
Kartikay : You’re mad. By doing so, won’t that turn them into gods?
Lakshmi : Not exactly. Not even Truth could do that. In fact, she will pull off the opposite. She will destroy all their illusions, and become the Tyrant of the race.
Kartikay : Preposterous! Truth is Beauty. She reveals our beatitude.
Lakshmi : Sure, but she shall reflect the mortals’ wretchedness instead. Not their beauty. For them the only truth is the falsity of all things, for they all are temporary, merely transient, and all their griefs are empty. These mortals will always remain dissatisfied, and their dissatisfaction continues to crucify them for all time…..
Why did Enlightenment fail? According to modern philosophy and modern academia the goals of Enlightenment was never realized – the foundation of god, religion, ethics, and especially, a political system, in reason. The idealist might insist that the Enlightenment isn’t without its virtues – that it freed civilization from the shackles of the church, and unleashed a new age of man. However, the result is merely a new election, a new ideology. Instead of God as tyrant, we have the Rational Tyrant. The dogma changes its clothes, but the incantation retains the same syllables, and the stench of the absolutist lingers in propaganda: the “right way,” the “correct method.” Yet, during the baptism of reason at the Hanging Gardens, we also sacrificed subjectivity: the marginalization of the passions and the emotions and intuition.
A general understanding of this topic relies on the context of the times, which was the 19th century, the subsequent era after the Enlightenment (dating from the publication of Hobbes’ Leviathan in 1651 to Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man in 1792).
Ambivalent 19th century thinkers such as Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin and Dostoyevski abandoned the myth of the intellectual progressivism, because of the corrosive effects of rationalism, yet they retained faith in life.
The results of the 19th century thought was a composite of both the dominant optimism, the result of the growth of industry and democracy, and an emerging pessimism due to the failure of rationalism in social change, whether solutions to the problems of society was possible at all.
Although the next generation of thinkers such as Georg Simmel, Max Weber, Henri Bergson, Emile Durkheim, Samuel Alexander, Edmund Husserl, and Sigmund Freud shared in the Weberian “disenchantment of the world,” they also sought to save civilization from that fate.
Specific instances of this disenchantment: the decline of a stable justification for life, and the resulting dispersal of meaning and inspiring despair, in the fragmentation of social cohesion, and schisms from cultural variety and disunity. This generation, initially, belonged to the progressivist camp, and within the paradigm of Darwin, they purged the remaining traces of idealism through the rubric of naturalism, realism or empiricism. Soon enough, progress itself was questioned, and once the cat escaped from the bag when objective meanings were found wanting, they realized the all-too-grave consequences for society and the individual.
Of course there was a noble struggle to restore prominence and absolution to culture and society in order to return it to the Throne of Meaning. This effort ended in failure, and the result is the dispersed and specialized thought of the 20th century, where there is no longer any general discourse, but little and segregated discourses, tailor-made for the specialist. The criticism worked too well, making a reconstructive project impossible.
Moreover, the modern developments in science has led to the decline of optimism in rationalism. In physics and mathematics, two of the most advanced forms of western science, have themselves become paradoxical. In other words they are now at the state where paradoxes are generated according to reason. Kant already highlighted the “ineluctable limits” of reason, but thanks to those comfortably in the grip of enlightenment, the majority of intellectuals and the masses remained positivistic. That means such aforementioned limits of reasons were immaterial until they came from the sciences.
During the early 20th century paradigm shifts in science and mathematics finally caught up with Kant: Heisenberg in physics and Godel in mathematics. Heisenberg’s principle of interderminacy announced the limitations of our ability to know and predict the physical state of affairs at the quantum level of reality, where chaos is the name of the game. Godel’s conclusions have a greater impact, given the sacred cow status mathematics has enjoyed for the majority of the history of western philosophy. In each system of mathematics, there are statements/propositions that cannot be proven within the system, leaving us with the unacceptable flavor of incompleteness. Then our next step in thought ought lie with the recognition of the inherent paradoxial nature of reason.