Tuesday 21 August 2012

Arthur Schopenhauer Looking At Things

Some weeks ago I finished reading Arthur Schopenhauer’s main work, The World as Will and Idea.

Looking at glasses
This accomplishment came a bit late in light of the fact that I first encountered Schopenhauer at the age of 17. This was the time when I decided to study philosophy and was exploring the – admittedly limited – stock of philosophy books in the libraries of my home town. Somehow I bumped into Rüdiger Safranki’s biography on Schopenhauer and was enchanted by the book. It depicted the intellectual scene of late romanticism, Goethe’s Weimar and German idealism in a way that I found fascinating. Thanks to the book, I became interested in Schopenhauer and started to read his minor works. However, I soon realized that his system cannot properly be understood without a basic understanding of Kant, so I began to study Kant. Then I went to university, and many other philosophers diverted me from Schopenhauer. At the back of my mind, I kept planning to read his main work but did not find time to do so until I finished my PhD thesis last year.

Schopenhauer’s most frequently – although simplistically – cited thought is that life is suffering. This may have touched me 15 years ago when – having awakened from the naivety of my childhood – I felt the pain of an unrequited love for the first time. Today, perhaps because I understand more clearly the delight that even an unrequited love can bring, the idea of life being suffering does not affect me much. What I find interesting in Schopenhauer instead is what he wrote about the redemptive power of looking at things.

In Schopenhauer’s view, man is both a willing and a perceiving being. Though perception is principally designed to serve man’s will, man is also capable of perceiving the world irrespectively of what his will dictates. In the first case, one sees objects of the outside world as instruments for, or hindrances to, the fulfilment of his will. In the second case, objects of the outside world are examined for what they are. Schopenhauer calls this second kind of perception pure, will-less contemplation and assigns it a central part in his philosophy. Pure contemplation, he thought, can provide some relief from the pressures of willing which otherwise inevitably lead to suffering.

What called my attention to these thoughts was my recent observation as to how few people are capable of pure contemplation. Most people are simply unable to stop for a minute and simply look at the things around them. If they manage to avoid pain, they start to desperately look for pleasure in order to appease their will. If they get tired of parties, they go on to enjoy sex, if they get tired of sex, they go on to enjoy extreme sports. In modern cities, as Oswald Spengler realized almost 100 years ago, the pleasures pursued are becoming ever more refined and extravagant.

Looking at dog
Compared to these cities, the countryside must look like a world of unbearable boredom. In fact, I know many people who get frightened of the prospect of having to live in a village or small town for some weeks. This is because they cannot hope to find there the level of pleasures they are used to. The silent beauty of a landscape, the organic forms of an old town, the little wonders of the many-faceted life of ordinary people remain hidden from such people because these phenomena cannot affect their will in any way.

The happiness brought by pure contemplation is based on the fact that the world is beautiful and interesting. You can find satisfaction by simply beholding and learning more about it. This can be done during an evening walk, by reading a good book or by carefully observing the work of a craftsman. Apparently, not every people appreciate this kind of satisfaction. But those who do are much closer to the redemption as Schopenhauer understood it.

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