All of us have at one time or another been confronted with a feeling that leaves a sinking depth in the pit of our stomach. It is the feeling of the essential futility of life, of the purposelessness of human existence, the emptiness behind the veil. Most of us abandon this feeling as soon as we can, finding some comfortable meaning to suit us and our lifestyles. We argue the meaning of life, we find faith in religion or in science, we try not to think about it – in short, we turn away from the Abyss.
And yet some men have always lived on the edge of the Abyss and constantly looked into it – or at least devised methods of how to actually live with this void. Not to fill it – not to run away from it – but how to defeat it. How is it that we can live while knowing our life is purposeless? How can we deal with the gut feeling that we just are, and there is absolutely nothing that we can do about it?
Philosophers have long struggled to give an answer to these difficult problems, but this problem came into a particularly difficult perspective in the 19th century and in the beginning of the twentieth century, when the limits of reason became obvious, the limits of faith even more so, and humanity was faced with the difficult problem of how to live with what it discovered. There are three philosophers particularly concerned with these notions: Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Russel. Their views are vastly different, opposite in some cases and yet influenced by each other and the time of their lives, and all valid in providing some way of life.
Schopenhauer believes that the human life can have no purpose whatsoever, because there is no such thing as a separate human life. He believes that every person is part and parcel of a single Will, a certain desire to live that fills all of nature, and the human being as a part of it that does not in any way differ from any other organism. This Will has no higher purpose, nor does it have a higher intelligence: it is not the God of earlier thinkers. It is a blind creature, struggling to express itself as strongly as possible, and has no other purpose.
It just is – and thus humans are subject to its existence, are manipulated by it, are sent into throes of happiness or pain all at random. Moreover, from this animal desire to live stem all vices of the human being: Schopenhauer thinks that this desire can create a beast out of any otherwise sensible human being: “It is a fact, then, that in the heart of every man there lies a wild beast which only waits for an opportunity to storm and rage, in its desire to inflict pain on others, or, if they stand in his way, to kill them…
I say, however, that it is the will to live, which, more and more embittered by the constant sufferings of existence, seeks to alleviate its own torment by causing torment in others. But in this way a man gradually develops in himself real cruelty and malice. ” The pain of human existence, applied to the will to live, thus, makes a man truly evil in the social sense (for those for whom the word “evil” merits an explanation, as Schopenhauer duly notes). In Schopenhauer’s eyes, the human being is not only depraved, however, but miserable, as well, because he can do nothing with the baseness of his existence.
He can, perhaps, temporarily restrict his nature, but in the end he always has to fight these vices. Besides, should he engage in trying to take the pleasures and good things is life, he will be drawn further and further into Sansara, and there he would be even more miserable – for with virtue always comes the corresponding vice, and to heighten virtue is to strengthen vice. The human being is doomed to fight with others, to misunderstandings over the desire to live, and to limitless desire which cause him constant pain.
Schopenhauer sees no sense in this vicious cycle, and does not think alleviation can be found in the process of existing within it, himself. How, then, might a man break free of the futility and horror of the human existence? If Schopenhauer defines the turmoil of daily existence as the crux of this horror, then it is logical that what he searches for is a transcendent kind of tranquility, a peace of mind found often in the Eastern teachings which influenced him so. This is done mainly by detachment, and there are three main ways to detachment that Schopenhauer describes.
The crux of all three ways is not to act, but to perceive – for Schopenhauer, perception is not an act, but rather, a passive state of being. The first state to strive for is an aesthetic perception as a mode of operation. It has often been noted that if one directs enough attention at physical pain it ceases to be pain but rather becomes just another feeling among a multitude. It is only when the pain is sudden or so great that it turns off the mind that we perceive it as pain per se.
By directing our attention to the forms which human existence takes, the human being loses himself in the form that he is apprehending, and by that he temporarily removes himself from the influences of time and the Will, the part of which he is examining no longer his own. The second desired state is a constant moral apprehension of existence. By constantly remembering the real reason why humans act as they do, it is possible to access a source of deep courage. It is the assurance that one’s own death does very little harm if, indeed, any harm at all.
Besides that, as one apprehends that all torture at the same time inflicts pain on the torturer and vice versa, we come to realize that they are one and the same. By comprehending the tragedy of humanity he acquires an acceptance of it and a peace of mind, similarly as comprehending suffering does in the Buddhist tradition. The third desired mode of thought is asceticism. This is for the simple reason that the will to live is aroused by such things as material wealth, gluttony, et cetera. It is, after all, mere instinct to be denied.
The most powerful way to deny this will to live is to live an existence which minimizes these desires, by denying them. It is easiest and most effective to condition our body and thus to condition our mind to obey and restrict within ourselves the will to live. Aesthetic perception is short-termed for all but the genius, moral awareness does not help against one’s own inner desires, but asceticism is available to all and most effective. Another thinker, Nietzsche, is of a very different opinion on this topic.
Though Schopenhauer was a considerable influence on him, and Nietzsche borrowed many a notion – such as the will to power, which can be seen as a mode of the will to live – Nietzsche does not perceive this as negative, nor does he perceive life as pure suffering. Life is much more complex than that, life is beyond good and evil and is thus beyond pleasure and suffering. Life is the Will to Power, any object’s inherent desire to extend itself beyond, to make itself as large as possible.
It just is, it is huge and tiny, more powerful than all of us are and yet we are in its power. God is dead, or, rather, the Christian notion of him is. The universe lives and throbs with desire, and we are part of its great pulse. Thus, to regulate desire is to go against our nature. It is to deny life itself, it is unhealthy – one could almost say “immoral”, but Nietzsche despised conventional morality. He felt that it was not beneficial to the human being, but harmful.
“Let us articulate this new demand: we need a critique of moral values, the values of these values themselves must first be called in question—and for that there is needed a knowledge of the conditions and circumstances in which they grew, under which they evolved and changed (morality as consequence, as symptom, as mask, as tartufferie, as illness, as misunderstanding; but also morality as cause, as remedy, as stimulant, as restraint, as poison), a knowledge of a kind that has never yet existed or even been desired.
One has taken the value of these “values” as given, as factual, as beyond all question; one has hitherto never doubted or hesitated in the slightest degree in supposing “the good man” to be of greater value than “the evil man,” of greater value in the sense of furthering the advancement and prosperity of man in general (the future of man included). ” Anything given is to be criticized, anything to be taken with a grain of salt and through the prism of a personal understanding. And morality, the basis of which is pity, and pity being only a perversion of life’s true instinct.
When men were dominated, said Nietzsche, saying “no” was affirmative, it was exercising what freed them, at least in part, from the tyranny of others. And it worked at the time, and the slaves bested their masters in the final struggle for domination. And yet their methods were harmful to themselves. Like a man attempting to live at home constantly in full alpinist attire, it is foolishness. Were it only a method! It has become a way of existence, stifling instead of aiding, deadly instead to healthy. The method has outlived its usefulness – and must be reworked.
To live a good life, by Nietzsche, is then to denounce all morality, to denounce all foreign, invented methods. It is to live one’s own life to the fullest, it is to examine the world around yourself not from a position of reason, but from a position of life and power, as it is. It is to go into the world as the fool, fresh and new and defiant. Society is to be discounted – it is someone else’s convention, and what use does a particular manifestation of the will to power has to resort to another in a time of need? It is one’s own strength that needs development.
To ask for another’s protection and succor is to be weak, and thus forfeit the true purpose in life – to make oneself as abundant and powerful as possible, to grow as best we can, to make the most of our ability and of the Will to Power that makes us go on. . Nietzsche proposes a pessimistic exercise in courage: if the world is infinite, there is no such thing as a unique occurrence. Time and time again, we are doomed to repeat this precise life, just as myriads of our copies, almost but not entirely unlike us are doomed to repeat their own versions of it.
If we can do nothing, how to live with it? Nietzsche proposes to live by the gut instinct to life. It is horrible and wonderful, exhilarating and painful, and entirely purposeless, a drama to repeat aeon after aeon. What Nietzsche proposes to do here? Laugh. Laugh and go beyond humility, laugh and go beyond morality, laugh and disdain the purposelessness and live wuth whatever purpose we want. We are bound and by that we are free: he takes no half measures in his view, the half-measures which he so despises in Christianity.
We have desires – and it is a false way of life to deny them, for they are what we are comprised of. Bertrand Russel also understands the human desires as inherent and, in many ways, cause for harm. We are creatures like so many other beasts, welcome towards one another in the herd, hostile to those outside of it. Russel sees all beings as a certain organic part of life, and is irked by any notion of “special purpose”. We have no purpose, because to have purpose would be to deny us the uniqueness of our being.
He is heavily in opposition to most idealistic philosophers: we are determined by the life we have, not being creatures of free will – to be of free will is for him not to accept the actual causes behind our actions. As Russel puts it, “Everyone has always believed that it is possible to train character; everyone has always known that alcohol or opium will have a certain effect on behaviour. The apostle of free will maintains that a man can by will power avoid getting drunk, but he does not maintain that when drunk a man can say “British Constitution” as clearly as if he were sober.
And everybody who has ever had to do with children knows that a suitable diet does more to make them virtuous than the most eloquent preaching in the world. ” Like Nietzsche, he denies religion and theologically-based morality. Unlike Nietzsche, he does not think that a break with what is conventional is always in order and would aways be for the best. Russel’s doctrine is a simple one in this respect, an acceptance of the essence of the human being – that this is an animal with some more functions that arise from our sociality, that make us different from other animals.
We are creatures that know how to count and can have scientific thought, how to organize ourselves more efficiently than mere instinct can afford us, we know such emotions as an aesthetic comprehension of reality and of compassion, we are splendid beings – and yet we have depths that, when plumbed into, terrify us. We are immoral creatures, fearful for our lives, jealous and weak. Which are we, in truth? Russel refuses to so oversimplify the problem. He is of the opinion that we are all of that, and it is precisely what makes us what we are.
He is a calm realist, stating that without a higher purpose, human beings have to live as best as they could. Russel focuses on the world around the human being and its relationship to humans. In stating that there is nothing exceptional about humans he is emphasizing the fact that there is nothing greater than the human. Human society is our habitat: it is in our best interests to make it comfortable. Creature comforts are our comforts: we should know them and take full possession of them, similarly as creature discomforts are our pain, and we should know what causes us pain to alleviate it.
The human being is also yet distinct from animals, and we must, in a similar manner, make full use of all our faculties, such as reason. If there was one word to describe Russel’s relationship to other people, it would be “compassion”. We must be understanding of others – for, placed in their situation, we would have been no different. Russel is humble – he thinks that the human being is in transit, capable of both destroying itself and the world it lives in and of the greatest benefit.
He is an optimist: now that the mind and the human realizes its limitations, now that scientific progress is finally on the steady way to bettering the human life – but while we do not yet completely control our passions – “be plunged into unparalleled disaster, or shall achieve a new level of happiness, security, well-being, and intelligence. ” The good life, then, is to be watchful, careful and kind, to recognize limitations and to not overindulge, to believe in nothing that has not been steadily tested by science (for wanton belief only breeds pain and foolish, harmfully irrational actions).
Man is nothing but an insignificant creature on a tiny planet – and yet a man is an amazing creature capable of a great many things. He does not propose to abandon life or to live it wantonly, but to live life to its fullest – and be as happy at it as possible. To do what can be done and to not ask for more – this would be Russel’s credo. Thus we can see the ways in which ingenious men have dealt with the senselessness of human existence. All agree that if human existence is senseless, then it is largely determined by something greater than ourselves: our blind instincts and the desire to live.
There can be no such thing as truly free will: we follow something greater than ourselves most of the time. We may deny it as much as possible, or we may flaunt it and accept it, or we may take heed of it and act as we find rational. All of these are ways that we can deal with the emptiness. All three are still around and have their followers. Which of these ways is more acceptable? A question beyond the scope of this essay, and, in the end, answered by each for him or herself. One thing is certain: the emptiness is not to be afraid of.
To look upon these people is to understand how this horror became a stimulus for great action and amazing deeds. It would be useful to perceive it as the same: to have it aid us in our understandings and searches rather than hinder. The question, in the end, is what we want to be – and there is no greater freedom than the fatal Will these philosophers perceive, as it is our Will, the absolute backdrop against we can take our stand.
Works cited 1. Schopenhauer, A. The Essays Of Arthur Schopenhauer. Tran. By Saunders, B. Retrieved from http://www. gutenberg. org/files/10739/10739. txt on March 8, 2007.
2. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Arthur Schopenhauer entry. Retrieved from http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/schopenhauer/#5. 1 on March 8, 2007. 3. Writings by Russell on the Web: A list of electronic texts of Russell’s books and essays. Retrieved from http://www. users. drew. edu/~jlenz/brtexts. html on March 8, 2007. 4. The Nietzsche Channel. Retrieved from http://www. geocities. com/thenietzschechannel/ on March 8, 2007. 5. Nietzsche, F. Beyond Good and Evil. Retrieved from http://www. marxists. org/reference/archive/nietzsche/1886/beyond-good-evil/index. htm on March 8, 2007.