Monday, 19 March 2012 07:42

Arthur Schopenhauer: Men of Ideas

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Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was a German philosopher. Schopenhauer wrote many books but is primarily known for his book, The World as Will and Idea. In that book he elaborated on his understanding of what motivates human beings to live and do what they do. He called the primary motivator, will, the desire to live. Today we would call it instinct.

As Schopenhauer sees it, we, human beings, desire to live. This desire to live is irrational and cannot be understood in rational terms.

If you asked: why do people live and or why do people desire to live you would probably posit pseudo rational reasons. But, ultimately, you would find no rational reason for why people live.

There is absolutely no reason why people live. There is no meaning and purpose to people’s lives yet people desire to live.

This is because the desire to live is a force that transcends pure reason. Human beings are like animals and trees. They have built into them the desire to live and live they do. But they do not know why they live.

Philosophers and theologians often claim to know why people live. Some say that people live to do the will of God. Then point a gun at a person and see what he does. He begs to live, not live to do the will of God, just to live.

Apparently, some force in the individual wants to live through him and that is all there is to it.

People live not for any noble reason but because nature built into them the desire to live. The desire to live is not intellectual, is not a thing of the head, it just is.

As Schopenhauer sees it, desire is prior to thought, to any idea we might have as to why we live.

In fact, the day people have reason to live is the day they are dead, for death would seem the logical thing to do. Pure reason suggests that folk should not live.

Schopenhauer thinks that life on earth is a mistake, an awful mistake that nature ought not to have made.

Yet we have the will to live and live we do. We ravage the earth in search of food and other means to maintain our lives.

What is the life that we are trying to maintain?   It is life in body. We do everything we do to maintain our bodies. We are, in fact, slaves to the human body. We slave at meaningless work to earn food to maintain the human body.

But, alas, sooner or later, the human body dies, rots, and smells to high heaven. Why work to maintain it?

Pure reason cannot explain why we want to live in body. In fact, pure reason would suggest that folk not be alive.

In his follow up book, The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer continued on the theme that we live because of a blind desire to live, not by any theology or thought that philosophy and theologians adduce.

(See when Adolf Hitler threatened to kill German theologians and philosophers suddenly they did not remember the nonsense they wrote  that they were living for and like any other animal begged to live and were allowed to live to do their new master’s will. But when the war need folk like Heidegger who had served Hitler returned to filling the air with noise as to why they lived.)

Schopenhauer’s desire to live was written before Charles Darwin’s notion that we have an instinct to live (and Herbert Spencer’s notion of survival of the fittest).  In that sense he contributed to the theory of evolution.

These days, biologists assume that there is a force in people that makes them want to live. Call that force will, as Schopenhauer did, or call it instinct, as some biologists call it, call it what you like, what is true is that it is simply a desire to be alive, a desire that does not posit a reason for itself.

There is no reason to live, or any reason not to live. We live because we find ourselves living; whatever we say is the reason or not reason why we live is adduced reason and not true.

Animals want to live. They evolved fear to alert them to threats to their physical and psychological survival. Fear is a survival mechanism. It does not matter why animals survive, they just survive.

Consider slaves. Why are some human beings enslaved, and tolerate their slavery? Oh, they have all sorts of rationalizations. But the simple truth is that they have a desire to live. They have fear that makes them fear harm and death. When some sadistic persons threaten to harm and or kill them unless they become their salves, to avoid death they go along and become their slaves.

Human beings are prone to slavery because of their tendency to fear; their tendency to fear is rooted in their desire to live at all costs.

If people did not have an irrational desire to live and did not fear death no one could enslave them, for they would look at would be slave masters in the face and say: go to hell, go ahead and kill us, we shall not do what you ask us to do, be your slaves. The slave masters could accept the dare and kill them and there would be no slaves.

The point is that it is desire to live and the fear that maintains it that makes human begins prone to slavery. Remove desire to live and the fear that maintains it and there would be no slaves.

Gautama Buddha, whom Schopenhauer claimed to have read, said that human suffering is rooted in people’s desire to live.

As Buddha saw it, people desire to live as separated, ego selves. As long as they desire to live as separated, ego selves they would suffer. To not suffer the desire to live must be extinguished

In meditation Buddhists try to overcome the separated ego self, the self that desires to live. If one can transcend the separated ego self then there would be no self desiring to live and living in fear of death. When the ego is transcended one is liberated and is now fearless and is merged with undifferentiated life, a life that is not differentiated into this or that person, animal or thing, just one life, a formless life, an eternal, permanent life.

I have just explained Buddhism for you; an explanation that few of those who claim to be Buddhist know.

There are no Buddhists, just as there are no Christians. As Nietzsche observed, the last Christian, Jesus, died on Calvary, and the last Buddhist, Gautama, died twenty five hundred years ago.

The reason there are no Christians and Buddhists is that those who call themselves Christians and Buddhists do not understand what the two great souls were teaching; they were teaching that to live on earth is to have desire to live as a separated self, and that that desire is responsible for human suffering. When that desire is defied one no longer suffers.

Jesus defied the desire to live as a separated self in body and therefore was not afraid of death. He did not beg to live, so it made no difference to him that he was condemned to death, crucified and died. He defied the ego’s desire to live. In dying to the separated ego self Jesus awoke to a different self, a self he shared with God and all of us.

Buddha did the same thing. In meditation he let go of his ego, died to the ego’s desire to live and merged with one life, the eternal, formless life. Buddha lived on an earth for a while to teach about how to attain nirvana, the eternal state of being one with all and in it be fearless, happy and peaceful

Schopenhauer claimed that he tread Hinduism, particularly the philosophical aspect of Hinduism, the Upanishads. If he did then he understood what I said above, for what I said is gleaned from studying Hinduism.

As Schopenhauer himself said, western philosophy is child’s play relative to the profound insights found in Hinduism.

Like other philosophers, Schopenhauer wrote on the usual subjects that exercise the minds of Western philosophers. He wrote on ontology, epistemology, metaphysics and aesthetics and so on. He provided us with interesting opinions on these subjects.

I believe that Schopenhauer’s understanding of will, instinct, as desire to live and that it is more than thought is useful contribution to psychology.


Arthur Schopenhauer. The World as Will and Idea. (1818)

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176