Tagged: Schopenhauer

The nature of existence in boredom

If it is at all possible to measure the real value that inheres within life, then one must remove all contingencies and qualifications. This would require the possibility of an experience of naked existence as such.

To my knowledge, there is only one condition in which such an experience is possible, this is boredom. In boredom, one becomes lost in the present; separated from that which is meaningful to the individual in terms of his being possible. In the most extreme cases of boredom, one even loses one’s relation to his own self, and becomes free-floating “presence.” Boredom is epitomized by a break-down in intelligibility and meaning. Instead,the ubiquitous and inarticulable background practices that give us any understanding of what it means for anything to be anything at all come to the fore. Their vanity exposed, and having now become within the grasp of the understanding, are no longer to provide the foundation for the individual’s understanding of being. Thus, in consequence of the coming-to-the-fore of that by which anything is made meaningful at all, the self’s relation to everything that is, was, or could be, whether entities or the world generally, fades away into the background and one is left with existing as mere presence.

The onset of the most dreadful boredom thus amounts to our coming-to-terms with the nothingness of existence. When we are no longer able to rely on that which we previously relied upon to provide us with our most fundamental and pre-ontological understanding of being renders us hopelessly lost and alienated from all meaning in the world. In extreme boredom, what was previously concealed within the backdrop of our pre-ontological understanding of being is unconcealed, and thus manifests in a “clearing” by which we are forced to stare the abyss of existence in the face.

Only at this stage can we begin to develop an understanding of the worthiness (or lack thereof) in existence as such. Boredom thus takes on the task of stripping away the cultural practices upon which we take for granted as a necessary structure for our being-in-the-world. Accordingly, when our pre-ontological understanding of what it means “to be” is cleared away and naked existence presents itself as it is in its own, as is the case in acute boredom, it becomes possible to take notice of being without the imposition of the existential structure by which we are “given” on account of our thrownness in the world.  Absent the necessary features of a “world,” this “breakdown” accordingly represents leaves us in a complete state of un-relation; where the individual has now lost his ability to relate to anything in a meaningful way.

The nothingness revealed by boredom makes all the more sense when we step back and consider the distressing nature of ennui generally. Often, human being is willing to go to great and exceptional lengths to escape boredom, including risking life and limb. Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran once said that the remedy for boredom is “fear,” and indeed this seems correct, insofar as the remedy need be of greater quality and strength than the disorder. But the fact that some people are driven to take incredible risks for no other reason than to pre-occupy themselves is a telling illustration. While by no means dispositive, it goes a long way in confirming our suspicion’s about existence itself as revealed through the paradoxical paroxysm of boredom.

This is all possible in the first place on account of boredom being a particular, if not somewhat “special” and revealing type of mood. Moods represent our “affectedness” to being, and thus in reflecting upon our moods, allow us to better comprehend the way in which we are receptive to being. If we’re willing to listen, then certain moods, such as boredom, despair, anxiety, etc., are capable of disclosing primordial truths with respect to being. In boredom, as in other existential moods, we no longer see ourselves in our technological understanding of being, where everything exists as function to be utilized by us towards some end. Only in our receptivity to this disclosing feature of our moods are we able to draw upon that which is revealed in order to truly “learn” something about human being generally.

Thus, in boredom, the vanity of existence becomes manifest and only when we’re prepared to listen to this message does it become clear that all is naught. That most of us are unwilling, unprepared, or incapable of extending the necessary receptiveness to the truth within boredom is exemplified in the way in which we commonly respond to boredom, and thus place ourselves back into the endless antagonism between boredom and suffering generally. It is our despair over boredom that engenders us to re-establish our relation to the world, and ignore boredom’s fundamental revelation that our existence is altogether pointless. Thus, in escaping boredom, one “falls back” into to the average everyday  meaningfulness by which one becomes engaged in the futility of existence.

Yet in the end, boredom is an inescapable part of what it means to “be” the type of beings we are generally. Schopenhauer’s insight that all of existence consists in an eternal oscillation between boredom and suffering seems more prevalent in the present age than perhaps any previous epoch. With an attention span that appears to be measured in nano-seconds, we are perpetually bombarded with  sensory stimulation to satisfy our deep craving for distraction. On the other hand, we continue to strive after and pursue our pointless goals and futile aspirations, and thus expose ourselves to the inherent agony encapsulated within. And so we are always at the mercy of boredom or misery. Only by virtue of our unwillingness or inability to take note of what’s revealed in boredom are we able to delude ourselves to continuing on any further.

A Brief Introduction to Arthur Schopenhauer

Picking up where Immanuel Kant left off, Arthur Schopenhauer believed that all phenomena is representation (or idea, depending on your translation), beyond which lies the “Will to Life,” constituting the un-knowable, but nevertheless inferable, “thing-in-itself.” Thus, for Schopenhauer, all reality is Will. The objects, entities, and even ourselves that we perceive in the phenomenal world are thus nothing more than the objective expression of will.

What does Schopenhauer say about the Will to Life? To begin with, it is not Kant’s “free will,” but rather may be analogized to a universal energy force, perpetuating itself indefinitely through its objective expressions in the phenomenal world. It is blind and indifferent, and exists outside the parameters of space and time, and thus is the universal underlying reality of all existence.

Will for Schopenhauer is never our “individual will,” but rather the other way around: we are nothing but empty vessels by which Will works through us. Accordingly, the Will to Life is entirely indifferent to our existence, our needs, and our desires. We are both objects of the will (body) and subjects (mind). We experience our individuation only in the world of phenomena. But underneath we are all mere cogs in the endless cycle of Will.  Thus, for Schopenhauer, when we die, it is only our phenomenal individuation and personality that ceases to be; but the Will, as thing itself and constitutive source of our being, continues on indefinitely.

We have the ability to infer our relationship to Will by reflecting on the way in which we, as conscious subjects, become aware of ourselves through our own willing. By reflecting on the essential force that motivates all human behavior and activity, we come to have an understanding (in the non-technical sense of that word) of our fundamental relationship to the Will to Life. For its part, the Will to Life is the source of all desire and motivation, and in this sense, is responsible for the ubiquitous human suffering in the world. Thus, all desiring is illogical, purposeless, and ultimately doomed to disappointment. Schopenhauer’s notorious pessimism is accordingly inextricably linked to his metaphysics, and thus making him the premier metaphysical pessimist.

But even for the deeply pessimistic Schopenhauer, we are afforded two options to escape the endless vanity of existence perpetuated by the Will to Life: first, in aesthetic experience; and secondly, through aestheticism.

For Schopenhauer, aesthetic experience offers a temporary reprieve from our tedious and pointless existence. When we partake in aesthetic experience, we essentially suspend our wills, and become will-less subjects of knowledge. When we undergo an aesthetic experience, we escape the perceptual world of representation, and thus escape time, space, and causality. In this sense, we break free from the phenomenal world of space, time, and causality and instead become immersed with the abstract form in a state of contemplation. Accordingly, we no longer perceive ourselves as individuals suffering in the world due to Will; but rather, “pure, will-less, timeless” “subjects of cognition.”

Music, for Schopenhauer, offers the highest type of aesthetic release from the Will. This is possible because music itself is the most pure form of art, depicting the Will to Life itself, rather than representation of given objects of perception.

But it is impossible for the individual to completely suspend himself indefinitely in contemplative aesthetic experience. At some point or another, he must resort back to the banality and misery of his willing existence. In order to truly break free from the Will, Schopenhauer proposes that we must completely deny the Will itself in a complete renunciation of willing and desiring. Thus, only a total and complete asceticism can relieve us from the miserable wretchedness of the plight of existence.

Schopenhauer saw himself as a firm student in the Kantian tradition of Transcendental Idealism; but at the same time went beyond Kant and, in many respects, explained and condensed Kant’s own philosophy better than Kant did. He had a profound impact on later German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose early works, particularly The Birth of Tragedy express an overt indebtedness to Arthur Schopenhauer. And although Nietzsche later abandoned his explicit Schopenhauerian roots, Nietzsche never fully escaped the latter’s influence, even if it became a negative influence.

Schopenhauer is also renowned for being the first major Western thinker to take an active interest in Eastern Philosophy. During his youth, but after arriving at his own philosophical conclusions independently, Schopenhauer was introduced to both Buddhist and Hindu thought. He saw within these traditions a peculiar affinity with his own philosophy of the world.

Schopenhauer, who was a contemporary of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, also foreshadowed many themes and topics which would later be picked up by Kierkegaard’s existentialist descendants, including his concern with boredom, freedom, choice and responsibility, and questioning our notions of historical progress.

On Boredom

“Life presents itself first and foremost as a task: the task of maintaining itself… If this task is accomplished, what has been gained is a burden, and there then appears a second task: that of doing something with it so as to ward of boredom, which hovers over every secure life like a bird of prey.” ~ A. Schopenhauer, On the Vanity of Existence.

Over the course of their lifetime, most human beings will spend a considerable amount of their time, energy, and resources engaged in a vain effort to stay the onset of boredom. Nowhere is this more true than here in the industrialized West, where modern technological conveniences and the vast processes of social leveling have left us with an overabundance of idle time. As a result, we rarely have to do anything for ourselves, and thus most of us are inadequately suited for even imagining what a worthwhile life would be… as such, boredom becomes seemingly ubiquitous.

What’s unique about boredom is the manner in which it reveals the “vanity” or emptiness of “naked existence” as such. That’s because most of the time we’re actively engaged in something and thus become distracted from our own inconsequential existence. When we’re simply going through the motions of being in the world, the hopeless vanity of it all is hidden from view. We become wholly preoccupied and engrossed with whatever it is we’re doing, or whomever is stealing our attention for the moment: whether it’s going to class, finding a career, caring for our children, pursuing sexual satisfaction, or any myriad other pursuits we may have in mind.

At some stage or another, we all become bored. The most widely experienced type of boredom is that of the everyday variety. This type of boredom is a feeling of growing weariness towards whatever it is that we’re focused on. Even if this or that situation or entity initially engaged or interested us, it now no longer does so. I become bored with it;  whereas the it may be comprised of any particular entity. The phenomena of everyday boredom is that of being left in a kind of limbo — where time itself seems suspended and we actively seek out new stimulation to relieve us from our becoming bored.

The second stage of boredom is more inward and thus centered on the Self’s relation to itself. Thus, the Self is not becoming bored with any particular entity, which may or may not retain its original interest to the Self; but rather, the Self is bored with itself. This is the experience of feeling as though one is weary of being oneself. It’s not my situation, or this or that particular entity that fails to capture my attention or spark my interest — but my Self. While at the same time this type of boredom is more depressing and can give rise to deep feelings of despair over one’s Self, it is also more revealing. It is the Self’s disclosure (to itself) that it is bored with being-in-the-world.

The third variety of boredom is the deepest, and thus may be called “profound boredom.”  This type of boredom represents a total breakdown of the Self’s being-in-the-world. Heidegger summarized this level of boredom as simply, “one is bored.” In this level of boredom, the Self becomes an “undifferentiated no one,” and all entities and relations are stripped of meaning. I become no-one; my self a non-self. My relation to the world is transformed into a negative relation relating to the utter meaningless totality of being-in-the-world. It is a relation to un-relatiedness in the world — and so my stance on my self and my world is one of pervasive indifference.

In profound boredom, the Self suffers a complete and total breakdown in its relation to the world: all meaning and intelligibility fall by the wayside, and all choice and decision rendered null. The world and the entities therein are re-cast in dreary shades of grey; and existence itself is drowned in an unyielding and monotonous void.

As its possibilities withdraw, the Self becomes resigned to the meaningless indifference in which it finds itself.  It is at this stage that the Self is afflicted with the meaninglessness of his existence. The projects and commitments which gave the Self its identity (its sense of self by way of relating to itself) are left unrelatable and devoid of meaning. This creates a crisis of the Self in the utter and total annihilation of its intelligible and meaningful relation to the world.

Profound boredom is also marked by its ability to give rise to suicidal ideation. Total annihilation becomes the only plausible solution to escape the miserable suspension of the Self in the world. Robbed of all intelligibility and grounding, but only to the extent that the Self previously upheld such illusions to begin with, boredom then transforms into abysmal despair or melancholy. The failure of the Self to find any grounding — and the hopelessness of ever attaining meaningful relations to the world and one’s place in it — quickly reveal the preference of non-existence over existence. Whereas Heidegger relates in What is Metaphysics that boredom reveals the “whole,” but not the nothingness (this is the exclusive province of angst) of Dasein, boredom, at least in its most extreme and profound manifestation, does have a way of breaking down “worlds” in a way that, in some respects, is similar to the role “death” plays in angst — revealing Dasein’s total vulnerability to world collapse.

The most meaningful difference, however, may be the way in which death discloses Dasein’s own freedom to choose to accept an authentic relationship with its own death and thus live a life of dying. Profound boredom does not disclose freedom, it breaks down the Self’s ability to relate at all. Whereas Heidegger wants to ascribe an activist response to the indifference of boredom (see What is Metaphysics, Basic Concepts), this seems highly questionable in light of the ‘total’ despair of sweeping indifference which overcomes in the third and highest stage of boredom.

Active vs. Passive Nihilism

A great many philosophers have dedicated considerable amounts of their waking moments wrestling with the problem of nihilism; or more specifically, the problem of overcoming nihilism. Nevertheless, nihilism itself remains a mystery — least of all its consequences for mankind. To be sure, an adequate definition of nihilism is wanting. In the most general sense, nihilism refers to the absence of any objective, universal or intrinsic value. From this, it necessarily follows that our metaphysical beliefs, our moral/ethical values, and even our own existence, are completely and utterly lacking any inherent meaning.

As a direct consequence of nihilism, man is forced to see  reality for what it is: a random, irrational, and chaotic existence in which our role is infinitesimal. Nihilism, in this capacity, serves to break down all the illusions, myths, and all other social, cultural constructions that have hitherto given us a false sense of security and hope.

In its active form, nihilism is likened to a hammer — used not only to chisel away all artificial meaning, but to smash them. Active nihilism paves the way for the creation of new values, the overcoming of the self by taking a new relation to oneself as an autonomous creator. In effect, this is the transformation of living as the “one-self,” into “my-self.” Thus, the end result of nihilism in its active form is nothing short of paving the way for the grounds to becoming my own self. 

Passive nihilism, on the other hand, is epitomized by resignation; the prognosis that life is an “unprofitable episode,” (in Schopenhauer’s words). Nietzsche equated passive nihilism with Schopenhauer’s repudiation of life via the denial of the Will as a great threat. Nihilism in its passive form, while adopting the same prognosis of existence as active nihilism, thus nevertheless takes the opposite stance of active nihilism as to how we should respond to the problem of a meaningless, value-less, and chaotic existence.