Will of Nature, Will to Power, and Consciousness

As a teenager, Schopenhauer reached a pessimistic conclusion about the world and found resonance in Buddhism. Schopenhauer would later help to pioneer Eastern thought in Western philosophy as he attempted to use Hindu and Buddhist texts to confirm his views. Schopenhauer’s continued explorations of Eastern thought further affirmed his pessimism. McMahon (2005, p. 298) identifies him as “simply the greatest pessimist in the Western tradition.” When he was 17 years old, Schopenhauer wrote:

I was affected by the misery and wretchedness of life, as was the Buddha when in his youth he caught sight of sickness, old age, pain and death. . . . The truth which the world clearly and loudly proclaimed . . . was that this world could not be the work of an all-powerful and infinitely good being, but rather a devil . . . as far as I could see such a view was right. (Young 2005, p. 79)

Schopenhauer’s seventeenth year coincided with the height of the Napoleonic wars in 1805, and the French had seized most of Western Germany. It was also the year Schopenhauer’s father died, likely of his own deliberate doing, and Schopenhauer was soon to break off relations with his mother. It was not the best of times for Schopenhauer. Whether or not we wish to understand the psychology of Schopenhauer, philosopher Julian Young connects the above quotation to a general “nature-pessimism,” which would be further developed by Schopenhauer while he was still in his twenties and was completing the main themes of his system of philosophy, which would be published in 1819 as The World as Will and Representation.

Schopenhauer and Nietzsche both fastened on the will (in two different forms) as a fundamental aspect of nature. Schopenhauer got his idea of the will from thinking about Kant’s “thing in itself.” He came to identify the thing in itself with a universal will of nature, along with a pessimistic outlook, as Young explains:

Schopenhauer’s nature-pessimism focuses on the means by which nature chooses to preserve her system of Ideas. What she does is to overpopulate the world with members of one species—say, antelopes—so that there are sufficient individuals to maintain that species but also a surplus left over to feed another—say, lions. What follows from this is two things. First, that fear, horror, pain and death are not accidental malfunctions of a generally benign order of things. Bellum omnium contra omnes, war, all against all, the struggle for survival and the survival only of the fittest, are, rather, the essence of the system, the means the world-will has chosen in order to realise its scheme of things. The second thing that follows is that the source of this world of suffering is something which, properly understood, cannot be viewed with anything but moral horror. For what it does in treating individuals as mere cannon fodder for the realisation of its grand design is to infringe the fundamental moral principle of, as Kant puts it, treating individuals always as “ends,” never merely as “means.” (Young 2005, p. 80)

For Schopenhauer, nature is ultimately to be understood in terms of a ruthless system, and that system is heading nowhere:

Were it the case, Schopenhauer continues, “that nature was evolving towards some higher state to which the suffering of individuals could be seen to contribute, such moral horror might be to some degree ameliorated. But this is not the case. There is no moral progress in the history of the world, the reason being that the world-will has no goal whatsoever beyond realising, in perpetuity, its system of Ideas.” (WR I 163-4) (Young 2005, p. 80)

Nature, as seen along Schopenhauer’s more pessimistic lines of thought, seems not only pointless, as in the case of Russell’s and Weinberg’s analyses, but evil and horrific. Schopenhauer has shrunk nature into a system of ideas that blinds him to appreciating the universe in ways other than as intellectualized. Nietzsche was triggered by Schopenhauer to formulate his own version of the will as the will to power. However, Heidegger would later come to define all of Western philosophy as a work of will to power, thereby suggesting that Nietzsche was simply one in a long line of mistaken Western metaphysical philosophers, as he argues in his 1961 volume on Nietzsche, which became translated as The Will to Power as Knowledge and as Metaphysics, where he writes:

In the thought of will to power, metaphysical thinking itself completes itself in advance. Nietzsche, the thinker of the thought of the will to power, is the last metaphysician of the west. (Heidegger and Krell 1991, p. 8)

Nietzsche’s metaphysics is nihilistic insofar as it is value thinking, and insofar as the latter is grounded in will to power as the principle of all valuation. Nietzsche’s metaphysics consequently becomes the fulfillment of nihilism proper, because it is the metaphysics of the will to power. (Heidegger and Krell 1991, p. 204)

Heidegger recognizes in Nietzsche the idea of will to power as a human construction aimed at gaining power, expressed in the form of metaphysics. Heidegger sought his own way to transcend this will-to-power perspective, but he too, as discussed, ended up in a position where he came to privilege thought over consciousness.

Schopenhauer realized that there can be an escape from the world in aesthetics, music, and the arts, but he did not quite get to the point where he saw that transcendence was possible through the formless. This is what the Eastern meditative traditions came to realize. What would have happened if Schopenhauer had realized the possibilities of liberation from ego and the self from the standpoint of joy and an affirmation of life? What would have happened if Schopenhauer had read Buddhism in much the same way that the present Dalai Lama reads it, as first and foremost being about alleviating suffering, without the heavy metaphysical connotations that Schopenhauer took himself to have found in Buddhism, and instead with a joyous, practical outlook on life? Whatever answers we might imagine, it is reasonable to assume that the philosophies of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and much of Western philosophy would, in turn, have been different.

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