Schopenhauer on aesthetic experience as a relief of pain and suffering

A brief historical and philosophical account preceding Schopenhauer seems to me highly appropriate to begin with, much of it for the sake of the clear understanding of this paper and, more importantly, of Schopenhauer’s theories regarding aesthetic experience particularly, how the latter succeed in permeating the field of aesthetics and influence our own aesthetic visions. The knowledge of how these theories came about and, more importantly, what they tried to convey, will help us not only see what, in Schopenhauerian terms, causes our suffering as humans, but will also provide an essential maintenance to our arguments when judging the potential prescription for its alleviation. Some of his core concepts, such as the principle of sufficient reason (PSR, hereto from), or the the “Will” qua thing-in-itself, will be marginally explained, though thoroughly discussed in the exposition to follow.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) never left Europe during his lifetime, however, he travelled extensively across its countries, acquainting himself with much of the world’s misery and sadness. This surely had a huge impact on the development of his predominantly atheistic nature and, in the field of existential philosophy, partly resulted in Schopenhauer’s utter rejection of Berkeley’s (1685 – 1753) theory of perception (namely, that God causes all of the “ideas” that shape our individual sensuous world), and, subsequently, to his own antidote for the world’s pain. After abandoning his father’s business, he devoted himself entirely to the academic studies, studying thoroughly the philosophies of Plato and Kant, whose theories were fundamental to Schopenhauer for the shaping of his own philosophical perception of the world, embodying his most famous works, namely, The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (1813) and the highly influential The World as Will and Representation (1819) (WWR, hereto from).

Based on the Platonic Ideas (viz., the mind-independent universal Forms, on which our perceptive world becomes a “representation” of, and which, to Schopenhauer, become the prime ‘objects of aesthetic experience, the immediate objectifications of the Will) and Kant’s theory of appearances (viz., that in ordinary life we experience mind-dependent appearances of an unknowable mind-independent reality that it is in itself different from what it appears to our perception), Schopenhauer formulated his theories to reveal two aspects of the world, both crucial to our aesthetic experience: 1) the world as representation, such as Kant saw it, which claimed that, since we are subjected to the PSR (space, time, and causality, responsible for shaping the world-as-representation), thus cognitively aware of the world only as an appearance, or as a manifestation, there is no way of perceiving the world as it is in itself, simply because the PSR cannot extend beyond itself; and 2) the world as “Will”, or the thing-in-itself as he often call it, which shapes Schopenhauer’s more metaphysical approach to aesthetic experience. The better understanding of the world-as-Will is what, Schopenhauer believes, will bring relief to the humankind’s sufferings.

Schopenhauer’s concept of the “Will” qua thing in itself is best understood, though thus very aesthetically put, as a zero, a simple nothing (lacking any substance and form, devoid of self-consciousness and morality) which, as he sums it up, “proved to be simply what this world is beside being representation”; it is timeless and truly universal in essence in itself, a blind urge, a purposeless striving. Through the PSR, however, the world-as-Will, or Schopenhauer’s ultimate reality, becomes distorted and its unity disrupted. Our desire and our will for knowledge recognizes the PSR (the spacio-temporal dimension and its rationality) as the only prism through which any knowledge could be attained, however, as Schopenhauer claims, it thus creates a different-from-reality world, purely of our own making and, consequently, highly vulnerable to our own selves. He says that,

“All willing springs from need, therefore from deficiency, and therefore from suffering… Even the final satisfaction [attainment] is itself only an illusion; every fulfilled wish makes room for yet another . . . Therefore as long as our consciousness is filled with our will, as long as we hand ourselves over to the crowd of desires with its constant hopes and fears, as long as we are the subject of willing, we will never have enduring happiness or peace . . .”

We see that, to Schopenhauer, it is human desire (and desire seems to be inevitably, and very closely, connected to knowledge) that brings us most suffering. It is our perception, tied closely to the PSR which causes all suffering. “[W]ithout the quest for knowledge”, as Robert Wick aptly explains, “space and time would not exist, and without space and time, there would be no divisions, no individuals, and no violence.” He analogizes it with with the plight of Adam and Eve, “the quest for knowledge [which] plunges us responsibly into a morally repugnant world of violence, pain, and downfall.”

An alternative aesthetic vision, however, might bring a more elevated and beneficial aesthetic experience. In Book III in WWR Schopenhauer suggests a potential ‘cure’ for its alleviation:

“[S]ince as individuals we have no other knowledge than that which is subject to the principle of sufficient reason, this form, however, excluding knowledge of the [Platonic] Ideas, it is certain that, if it is possible for us to raise ourselves from knowledge of particular things to that of the Ideas, this can happen only by a change taking place in the subject. Such a change is analogous and corresponds to that great change of the whole nature of the object, and by virtue of it the subject, in so far as it knows an Idea, is no longer individual.”

To Schopenhauer, aesthetic experience, one as detached as possible from the PSR, which is less individualistic and more universalistic, seems to provide a much comfortable way of ‘seeing’ the world. The only way of relieving our human suffering is by escaping the mundane sensory experience aimed predominantly at the ‘particular’ (which exist in our PSR-governed daily life by names such as jealousy, greed, physical frustration, etc.), by seeing beyond them, where the Platonic Forms (foreign to the daily world filled with suffering) provide an aesthetic experience, capable of diminishing our worldly pain.

What makes this theory (relief through aesthetic exaltation) veritable is unique to Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Unlike Plato and Kant, who saw the Ideas and the thing-in-itself as objects free from our consciousness, Schopenhauer thus found a way which linked them to our own individualities. It seems much easier to perceive the idea that “the quality of our consciousness mirrors the quality of the objects we contemplate.”  As Wick explains, “if violent objects capture our attention, then we become more aggressive or defensive, and so on.” However, if we focus on the Platonic Ideas, our aesthetic experience will witness a more emancipated from pain and suffering world. Thus, with the shift of our aesthetic awareness from the PSR-governed world towards the more universal and encompassing world of the Ideas, or the world-as-Will, Schopenhauer’s theory promises, it seems to me, a relief from our daily suffering, which is certainly attainable by the individual.

A question surely arises of how exactly do we ‘rationally’ escape the PSR-related world and enter the world-as-Will where the Platonic Ideas dwell. Schopenhauer, as I already mentioned, built his foundation on the Kantian model of true reality as a thing-in-itself, however, he suddenly deviates from it, even opposes it, when it comes to what this thing-in-itself actually is.

Contrary to the Kantian theory of the thing-in-itself as an “object”, he claims that aesthetically no object can exist without a subject because then there would be no one to objectify it. Thus Schopenhauer further explains the Will and “objectifies” through the Forms – (thus now becoming, in essence, purely subjective) – and consequently transfers it to the realm of the subjectively existent, – even though still objectively identical to the Platonic Ideas- and closely linking it to the individual. It gives the “world as representation” a universally subjective aspect, very similar to our own consciousness, though including it (and consequently the individual himself) within the bigger frame of the Will qua thing-in-itself. Metaphysically, it thus becomes the ‘ ”single eye” that timelessly looks out from everything and that constitutes the subjectivity of the world as a whole… it is the universe’s unconscious psyche.” It is our connection with the universe of the Will-in-itself which is crucial and provides a relief from human suffering, generating a more “aesthetically-aware mode of disinterested consciousness.

Thus, as Schopenhauer writes,
           ” [A]ll difference of individuality disappears so completely that it is all the same whether the perceiving eye belongs to a mighty monarch or to a stricken beggar; for beyond that boundary neither happiness nor misery is taking with us.”

However, such deep connection with the universalistic is demanding and not so easily attainable, he goes on to explain. He, then, suggests the existence of a certain kind of people (“geniuses”) who find this state of consciousness more approachable than the others. They are the ‘pure knowing subject[s], the clear eye of the world, [who] dwell on the consideration of life itself, [and] strive to grasp the Idea of each thing.” Schopenhauer’s ‘disinterested consciousness’ finds its way neatly into art, successfully merging artist and beholder into one ‘perceiving eye’. To Schopenhauer, these geniuses (in this case, artists) and their objects (in this case, works of art) are able to exalt the ordinary perceiver, within his own (PSR-governed) physical medium, to the self-same state of “pure perception.” Aesthetic experience through works of art becomes another ‘prescription’ for the alleviating of the mundane human suffering. As he says,

” [O]ur willing with its constant pain, disappears, as long as the purely aesthetic pleasure lasts.”

      In conclusion, it seems to me relevant to adhere Schopenhauer’s theories of aesthetic experience within the framework of our contemporary lifestyle, with the purpose of finding it a place where it might act, and possibly affect, the reader.

In present day, it seems to me, the notion of the intellect fighting against its own rationality seems highly intolerable and self-contradictory. To reject Newton’s or Einstein’s theories and to embrace Kant’s or Schopenhauer’s instead seems to entail the rotation of the world as we know it upside-down. For decades now we are being educated within a rational, mathematical and utterly logical framework. In our rapidly developing world everything seems to be founded on reason and logic, from Europe’s expansion across the Atlantic, through the prolonged emancipation of slavery, to the establishment of egalitarian societies. However, this has somehow resulted in the complete neglect of our continuously decaying humanity and the subsequent failure to unify all human beings as one species. Schopenhauer’s theories will surely strike many as the out-dated teachings of a bygone ideologist. However, in such a materialistic world, scarred by a constant poverty, misery, fear, sadness, death, I believe that Schopenhauerian aesthetic experience is not only acceptable…it is necessary. By adopting a more universalistic approach towards all that surrounds us, towards nature, and, mainly, towards ourselves, we will experience a profound unity and oneness which, to my mind, will not only relief pain and suffering, but will subsequently cure it. It will be impossible to accept a vision, which asks of us to somehow reverse the progress of our evolution and world back to 1813, and start it all anew, nevertheless, Schopenhauer’s theories endows a realistic possibility to aesthetically, and by all means realistically, experience a world where our individual rational actions, in union with our aesthetic wisdom, serve both humans and animals, both organic and inorganic matter, and alleviate all pain and all suffering.

      “There is one end we all have – not in virtue of being rational, but simply in virtue of being human being – and that is happiness.”

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