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Review of The World as Will and Representation by Arthur Schopenhauer

3 Oct

The two volumes of The World as Will and Representation are Schopenhauer’s most important work and his complete philosophy. Surprisingly written in his twenties, this comprehensive work covers all aspects of life and known fields of knowledge to civilisation in the early nineteenth-century; from his critique of Hegel and hailing of Kant to supporting his argument with elements from Buddhism and neuroscience. His philosophy can be summed up in this quote: ‘The will-to-live does not appear in consequence of the world, but the world appears in consequence of the will-to-live (V.II, 360).

Schopenhauer talks about two kinds of will, one includes the other: the will of the world and the will of the individual which is also part of the will of the world. The will of the world represents itself in all forms of life on earth, including human beings. In other words, all forms of existence are a demonstration of the world to be or of matter to live. To Schopenhauer, this is the prime causer of conscious existence (human beings) as well as non-conscious existence, and continues to be the prime mover of all living organisms and their ultimate instinct: survival. The second will Schopenhauer assesses is the will of the human being which is both an individual will by itself and also the universe’s most successful attempt at representing its will: being a conscious form of life. Unlike the will which is always subjective to the universe and/or the individual, representation can be objective as well as subjective; Objective in being an object existing by itself (though still in representation of the will) and independent from conception, and subjective when perceived by the human mind or other living organisms (animals) which can perceive but are incapable of forming concepts. Other forms of the subjectivity of representation could be argued as Schopenhauer himself mentions, such as the secondary representation of the individual’s conception of the universe, but these infinite replications of the Platonic ideal are not Schopenhauer’s concern.

Schopenhauer’s is the most logical fundamental philosophy I have come across and one that has from the beginning gained my attention and agreement with its argument. Having said that, there are several issues I am having with it. One of which is his soft spot towards what he perceived as genuine Indian religions, namely Hinduism, Brahmanism and Buddhism as opposed to his unjustified aggressiveness toward Islam and disliking of Judaism. At one occasion he mentions, ‘atheistic Buddhism is much more closely akin to Christianity than are optimistic Judaism and its variety, Islam (V. II, 444).’ The named above Indian religions have, without doubt, contributed heavily to Schopenhauer’s philosophy, especially when linking concepts such as reincarnation to the infinite cycle of representation. Nevertheless, at times Schopenhauer enthusiastically praises India and gives it credit for groundless achievements. For instance he asserts that Christianity as a doctrine ‘is Indian in spirit, and therefore, more than probably, Indian in Origin, although only indirectly, through Egypt (V.II, 488).’ Not only does this claim an incorrect and unsupported history of Christianity, but it also claims bizarrely that Egypt, the oldest known civilisation in the world, is Indian or India-influenced at the least. On the other hand, Schopenhauer aligns himself with Christianity in a way that undermines the independent superiority of his philosophy.

I wish perhaps to try to resolve the deepest mystery of Christianity, namely that o the Trinity, into the fundamental conceptions of my philosophy […]. The Holy Ghost is the decided denial of the will-to-live; the person in whom this exhibits itself in concerto is the Son. He is identical with the will that affirms life, and thereby produces the phenomenon of this world of perception, i.e., with the Father, in so far as affirmation and denial are opposite acts of the same will (V. II, 629).

Not only is he aligning his philosophy with Christianity here to add to its weight, but in doing so he is also saving Christianity from its opaque mysticism. The Trinity are translated into direct and simple symbols to the essence of life: Will and its consequences.

Schopenhauer’s style is akin to the classical fathers in its simplicity and directness; something which he consciously achieves being opposed to the verbosity of many German philosophers known in his time and particularly Hegel. This makes him one of the easiest modern philosophers to read. His philosophy though borrows from religions and science, carrying over some mistakes from both, stands high and aloof above any faith or philosophy. Its fundamental achievement is in regarding the world comprehensively and logically without superfluous complexity, and spiritually without mystery or mysticism.

The Reviewed translations from German are:

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation, VI. Trans. by Alistair Welchman and Christopher Janaway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

This is a superb translation with a lot of explanations, commentary and footnotes; very helpful in understanding the context of Schopenhauer’s philosophy and his multifarious references to all fields of knowledge. This translation is also sufficient for getting a basic grasp on Schopenhauer’s philosophy and comes with a supplementary consisting of his critique of Kant’s philosophy. I look forward to the publication of the Cambridge translation of volume II.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation, VII. Trans. by E.F.J. Payne (New York: Dover Publications, 1966) – a reprint of The Falcon’s Wing Press edition of 1958.

This translation is equally excellent though it lacks the commentary of the newer translation and its fluidity. Having said that, this remains a masterpiece from its time and currently the best published second volume translation available. I particularly like the italicising of the conceptual phrases; something which the newer translation has adopted. I also like the use of Schopenhauer’s references and quotes in their original languages within the translated text, while translating them in the footnotes.

Note on my use of quotes:

To the critical reader, it may seem inadequate that I have quoted Schopenhauer only from his second volume. I only did so as he goes over many of the topics he discusses in the first volume in his second. It seemed to me more appropriate to quote him from his latest and most developed work while I was writing this review.

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Introduction to John Clare

22 Jul

This was the title of one of the workshops I attended last weekend during the Southwell Poetry Festival. I went to the workshop completely blank on John Clare. The only thing I hardly knew about him was that he was a poet from the Victorian era.

I walked into the workshop room, the Powerpoint was switched on, and a colourful portrait of the pale red-haired poet was projected on the wall. The presenter was standing next to it in a semi anxious waiting pose, looking at a half-empty room. I asked, ‘Is this John Clare?’ She smiled and said, ‘It is.’ I realised instantaneously that she thought I was talking about the portrait not the workshop, and I sat on the second nearest seat from where I stood, trying to deflect any unnecessary attention I brought upon myself by fondling with the survey card that was on my seat. A minute later a woman in her fifties walked into the room and sat next to me. ‘So you didn’t strain any muscles with your heavy lifting this morning.’ I was still self-absorbed in my embarrassment and for a second I didn’t get what she meant. Then I remembered my helping with the chairs in the workshop I attended earlier. She must have been there too. ‘Ahh! I see what you mean.’ She smiled and got out a sandwich from her handbag. ‘There is just not enough time between sessions.’ ‘No there isn’t’ I humoured her thinking that I didn’t know what to do with myself to waste the 45 minutes in-between. ‘Brilliant poet John Clare!’ She said, ‘Do you know that he wrote prose too.’ I shook my head.’Unfortunately most of it is inaccessible because someone called Eric Robinson has claimed copyright to it.’ She said before drawing her attention back to her sandwich.

Soon the room filled in, and the presenter closed the door and introduced herself as a poet and a member of the John Clare Trust and the rest was brilliance. The pictures she used of the village where he grew up, the stories she told of his struggles to get published and his mental issues brought the dead poet to life to me. Apparently he is viewed as the first British ecological poet and the father of environmentalism. One of the things she spoke of was how growing up as an agricultural labourer has shaped his work. Clare loved walking in the communal fields and often found inspiration there and the ban of access to these fields came as a big blow to him and the other agricultural labourers of the area. The ban was something he opposed strongly in his writings.

This piece of fact, along with what the lady sitting next to me had told me before the workshop started struck a major irony in my mind. Here is a poet who promoted communality and open access of property in his work and yet his own work after his death was copyrighted by a non-Clare who prevented the reprinting of it and public access to it. How outrageous Clare would have found such claims had he been still alive!

The Caterbury Tales

30 Jun

I have always wanted to read the Caterbury Tales because I believed it is an important book for an English Literature enthusiast, I tried nine years ago and after a few pages of unfathomable old English I shut the second-hand book and put it back on the shelf. A few weeks ago I saw this version of the Caterbury Tales in the local library, I decided to give it another go, especially that it said on the book that the spelling of the words in this version is modernised, hence easier to understand. It was still difficult though, a book to endure rather than enjoy.

It starts with a group of people on a journey to Canterbury trying to kill the time by telling eachother stories about themselves and people they met, and the book continues with these pilgrims’ tales. The tales are often graphic, obscene, shallow and uncomfortably rude which is completely paradoxical and oxymoronic with the fact that they are pilgrims on a religious journey.

I have pondered a lot while and after reading the Canterbury Tales about why such a superficial difficult-to-read book has been held in such a high regard over the centuries. Eventually I satisfied myself by blaming its historical and linguistic value as the first known major work of literature in the “English” language. I couldn’t help thinking however of other Western literary works which share in their languages this initiality of the Canterbury Tales like the Iliad and the Odyssey, but I realised that their quality of verse, languages and narrative is incomparable to the Canterbury Tales’ embryonic standard of English and literature.

The Canterbury Tales is a book worth knowing about, but reading it and studying it would only be fun for medievalists.

Utopia: Three Thousand Years of Seeking Perfection

9 Jul

The fantasy of Utopia has flirted with the human mind since the dawn of civilisation. The ancient Egyptians tried to establish it in cities dedicated to their gods, the ancient Greeks and Romans founded schools of philosophy upon it, the French went through a bloody revolution to found it and many religions declared it as something not quite from this world. The dilemma of whether it is attainable or not has been expressed in great works of philosophy and literature over the centuries; beginning with great positivity, utter impracticality through to ironic reality, down to pessimism and complete despair. This article goes through the development of the utopian concept from the ancient times to the modern world by briefly exploring Plato’s Republic, Thomas More’s Utopia, H.G Wells’ Men Like Gods, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Orwell’s 1984.

Plato’s Republic is one of the earliest and most significant visualisation of a utopia in the ancient world. As a philosopher, he dissected the inhabitants of his utopian state into three classes based on their mental cleverness. Philosophers like himself would be the ruling elite, those who are a degree less in intelligence would be trained on military tactics to become the army personnel of the state. Those at the bottom of the intelligence scale, in other words the majority, are deemed to be the workers of the state. The idea at a first glance may seem very naive, like many of Plato’s thoughts, but the significance of it originates from the fact that it is the earliest known philosophical attempt of establishing an ideal world based on intellect rather than oratory or wealth as was the case in ancient Greece. It is also an attempt by Plato to rid his society from an unworthy elite class as those who sentenced his teacher Socrates to death. Irony plays a big role here as it will with all the Utopian writings that will follow. First, Plato’s republic can’t be democratic, simply because the majority of the citizens do not have the right to rule, they can only choose between a very limited number of individuals which make up the philosopher-elite class to rule over them. Second, the naivety of the idea is the biggest proof that a philosopher is not always the best person to rule. Politics requires cunning, charisma and the ability to move the masses, and neither Plato nor Socrates, his father in philosophy, enjoyed any of these attributes.
Thomas More’s Utopia is a Renaissance attempt of reproducing the classical utopian ideal in a Christian form to suit the beliefs of the time. More dressed his ideal island state in a fictional gown, alluded to archangels, and monasterial life. He allowed religious freedom, but ironically not atheism. What counts for More though is the equality he allowed in his ideal society between men and women, and by banning private ownership and allowing only communal one, he provided a very early notion of socialism as a means of establishing a perfect society. More depicted a community based on belief in God which leads to an ultimate trust between the community members, but ironically his life ended by a death sentence decreed by his king and life time friend.

One of the most mature attempts of reproducing the concept of Utopia is Huxley’s Brave New World, but before discussing this magnificent book, another important novel has to be mentioned. It is believed that H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods is the father of Brave New World. Wells’ perfect parallel world is very beautiful indeed and the closest a human mind has got to a utopia. There human civilisation has reached the peak of scientific research and managed to get rid of disease for man, animal and plant. Wild animals like lions and tigers have been treated in a way so as to make them tame. Plants have been treated to yield more crops, even climate has been modified and controlled. Human beings have grown taller, healthier and more beautiful, but the same science that had allowed humans such luxuries would turn back on them. Through an experiment aimed at exploring other worlds, a gap gets opened onto the normal world and a group of imperfect human beings pass through to the perfect world by chance. They take with them earthly bacteria and disease to which the Utopian humans have lost immunity and people start to die. The group of humans manage their way back to the ordinary world in the end, but the reader is left to reflect on the vulnerability of this utopian world, and the concept of vulnerable beauty emerges unconsciously with the enigmatic end of the novel.
Huxley’s Brave New World establishes a more sophisticated world, as the title says it is brave and new, but unlike Wells’ world it is not beautiful. It is ugly, basely pragmatic and lacking in morality. In a way Brave New World marks the beginning of human despair in the concept of utopia. Written after WWI, by a writer who belongs to the so called lost generation, the book is a dystopia rather than a utopia. Like Plato, Huxley is obsessed with order. Society is divided according to intellect. Babies are grown in labs upon the demand of the state with certain levels of skill, cleverness and body size modified to suit the requirements of the role the individual is being created for. For example, alpha males are tall, broad and smart and so on. Like Plato also, ruling is exclusive to certain elitist individuals. Everything is censored in this world, and no depths of feelings are allowed, no literature, no art. Men and women are encouraged to have sex actively as a form of hedonistic escapism, and recommend sex mates to each other openly. Everybody is fed on pills that are an equivalent to alcohol to keep their minds at bay. Ironically enough, only a savage who got born outside this orderly and morally degraded society manages to see through the high tech of the brave world and hangs himself in the end in despair, disgusted with himself after being sucked into its lowly ways.

1984 is another dystopian production of the modern world, classed by many as the best of its kind. Written briefly after WWII, London was still being rebuilt, public morale was very low, and the status of the British Empire on the top of world countries rankings had been undermined, if not lost for good. New super powers were emerging, changing the political map of the world with treaties alliances and a looming cold war. In 1948, Orwell captured all that and took it a step further in his prophesying masterpiece 1984. He drew the world into three large countries who are constantly at war with eachother which required ceaseless manipulation of human and natural resources, continuous implementation of intelligence and censorship and complete suppression of individuality. In this dark world everybody is being watched, everybody has got his/her own function which he/she is required to fill by duty to the country and deny his/her own natural needs like freedom of thought and feeling. Any banned thoughts or feelings are met with ruthless punishments. Men and women only get intimate with each other upon orders by the state for the practical need of producing more man power. Winston, the main character in the novel who works as a history distorter for the party, eventually meets a girl and falls in love with her. Together they start a banned relationship, get caught, brain washed and tortured till they learn only to love the party and Big Brother. Again, the irony lies in the fact that true love did not survive, and only fed love through brain washing prevailed in the end.

Arriving at Orwell, humanity has gone a long way from the initial naivety of Plato’s utopia; through to Huxley’s sophistication, and ending by Orwell’s mature despair. Flawed human beings have always aspired for perfection, sought the possibility of it, and attempted imagining a world where it has been achieved, discovering in the end that utopia is a mirage: seen, sought, but has never existed and will never be.