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Aesthetic Experience as Temporary Relief from Suffering: Schopenhauer, Buddhism, and Mu Qui’s Six Persimmons

Tony Lack, Jefferson College, Roanoke, Virginia, USA

Abstract

Assesses the relationship between Arthur Schopenhauer’s theory of art and aesthetic principles derived from Buddhism. Begins with an overview of Schopenhauer’s philosophy and its relationship to his aesthetic theory.Develops closer analysis of Schopenhauer’s theory of art, placing emphasis on the relationship between aesthetic experience and relief from suffering.Continues with analysis of the convergence between Schopenhauerian and Buddhist philosophy and aesthetics. Concludes with an interpretation of Mu Qi’s Six Persimmons, ink on paper,13th century China.

Introduction

This article assesses the relationship between Arthur Schopenhauer’s theory of art, as adumbrated in The World as Will and Representation (1818) and related aesthetic principles derived from Buddhism. It begins with an overview of Schopenhauer’s philosophy and its relationship to his aesthetic theory. This is followed by a closer analysis of Schopenhauer’s theory of art, with special emphasis on the relationship between art and redemption. The convergence of central aesthetic principles in Schopenhauer’s and Buddhist philosophy and aesthetics is then discussed before turning to an interpretation of Mu Qi’s Six Persimmons, Ink on Paper, from13th century China.

Schopenhauer’s Aesthetic Theory

The World as Pure Idea: Schopenhauer’s Philosophy and Aesthetics: The World as Will and Representation is divided into four sections.Each section has a distinctive focus. The best way to begin an overview of Schopenhauer’s philosophy of art is to explain the content of these sections.

            In section one, Schopenhauer develops an analysis of what his predecessor, Immanuel Kant, had called the world of phenomena. The phenomenal world is the world as we know it, constituted in terms of space, time, cause, substance, and so forth. This is the world of representation in Schopenhauer’s idiom.

            In the second section, Schopenhauer discusses Kant’s noumenal world or the world of things-in-themselves. Kant had claimed that this world was unknowable, a question mark. Schopenhauer argued that the Kantian thing-in-itself was pure will. He suggested that we do have access to this world of will, the deeper reality. When I exercise my individual will, I catch a glimpse of the primordial will as it operates through me. When, for example, I raise my arm, I gain crude access to the primordial will through my bodily action. However, this access is not something to be celebrated, because, as we shall see, the will that manifests itself in our actions is desire, a relentless striving for satisfaction that can never be sated. For this reason, everyday access to the will is a type of suffering, experienced as endless dissatisfaction which can be alleviated by aesthetic experiences.

            In the third section of The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer discusses art. For Schopenhauer, art has a redemptive quality. Art can provide an escape from the suffering caused by the relentless drive of the will. The contemplation of art provides us with a pure experience, devoid of desire and hence devoid of the dissatisfaction created by the will.

            Schopenhauer concludes on a pessimistic note. Although it may be true that art can rescue us from the clutches of will, this is only a temporary fix. Aesthetic contemplation must eventually end, and when it does, the restless will reasserts itself with a vengeance. The only solution to human suffering is asceticism, the mastery of desire. With this brief summary in mind, I will trace out the argument in The World as Will and Representation more carefully.

When Schopenhauer claims, “The world is my idea”,[1] he means to suggest that the world that we know, the Kantian world of phenomena, is no more and no less than representation. The world that I come to know is a world that I have created. I have created it through the constitutive action of my mind. I can only know the world as it appears to my mind, and therefore as it appears under the mental conditions of time, space, number, cause, substance, and so forth. I do not have immediate access to the world as it really is; I only know my mental representations. The world that I have created operates according to several principles. First, Schopenhauer claims that the world of representations is a world defined according to the principium individuationis, the division of the will into particulars of time and space that create the illusion of discrete individual entities and persons.[2] The world as representation is also a world that operates according to the principle of sufficient reason.

“The will as a thing in itself is quite different from its phenomenal appearance, and entirely free from all the forms of the phenomenal, into which it first passes when it manifests itself, and which therefore only concern its objectivity, and are foreign to the will itself. Even the most universal form of all idea, that of being object for a subject, does not concern it; still less the forms which are subordinate to this and which collectively have their common expression in the principle of sufficient reason, to which we know that time and space belong, and consequently multiplicity also, which exists and is possible only through these . . . According to what has been said, the will as a thing-in-itself lies outside the province of the principle of sufficient reason in all its forms, and is consequently completely groundless, although all its manifestations are entirely subordinated to the principle of sufficient reason. Further, it is free from all multiplicity, although its manifestations in time and space are innumerable. It is itself one, though not in the sense in which an object is one, for the unity of an object can only be known in opposition to a possible multiplicity; nor yet in the sense in which a concept is one, for the unity of a concept originates only in abstraction from a multiplicity; but it is one as that which lies outside time and space, the principium individuationis, i.e., the possibility of multiplicity.”[3]

            As the individual comes into being and passes away it exists only as a series of phenomena, existing only for knowledge generated by the principle of sufficient reason, in the principium individuationis. In terms of this knowledge and the experiential awareness generated by it, the individual receives his life as a gift, rises out of nothing, suffers the loss of the gift through death, and returns to nothing.

            From a different frame of reference, that of science, there is a reason behind every individual thing that exists in the world of representations. There is no freedom in nature. There is no freedom in human behavior either. Our behavior is caused by our biology, our past, our social situation, and our character. We have the illusion of freedom, but pure freedom does not exist in the world of representation. The world of representation is a law-like world, a mechanistic world. It is Kant’s world of phenomena and natural laws.

            On the other hand, the world of will is similar to an all-encompassing fountain from which all of reality flows. This is Schopenhauer’s way of modifying Kant’s noumenal realm via a retrieval of the ancient idea of emanation. The will is a life-giving, form-producing, eternal source, conceived of in somewhat sexual terms. The phenomenal world is then seen as the formal manifestation of this life-giving force.

“We have therefore called the phenomenal world the mirror, the objectivity, of the will; and as what the will wills is always life, just because this is nothing but the presentation of that willing for the representation, it is immaterial and a mere pleonasm if, instead of simply saying “the will,” we say “the will-to-live.”[4]

            The will is an indivisible whole, best understood as a process, not a collection of things. As will endlessly actualizes itself; it pours itself into the differentiated forms that we, on the other side of the veil created by the limitations of our mind, grasp as reality. What we grasp and perceive is all illusion. We see our desires as individual, indeed we see ourselves as individuated, but we are nothing more than manifestations of one outpouring of will, a continual, restless, life-giving, process that shapes the reality that we know.

            Art has a privileged place in Schopenhauer’s philosophy. The contemplation of a work of art allows us to escape temporarily from the relentless process of willing that inevitably draws us back down. When we contemplate a work of art, we set aside our practical concerns and assume a disinterested posture. We get lost in contemplation. Beautiful objects or experiences in nature can jolt us out of our endless dissatisfaction.

[1] Schopenhauer, Arthur, The World as Will and Representation, translated by E. F. J. Payne, Colorado: Indian Hill, 1958, p. 1.

[2] Ibid: 23

[3] Schopenhauer, Arthur, The World as Will and Representation, translated by E. F. J. Payne, Colorado: Indian Hill, 1958, p. 146.

[4] Schopenhauer, Arthur, The World as Will and Representation, translated by E. F. J. Payne, Colorado: Indian Hill, 1958, p. 45

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