By Clark Ogier
What is the nature of time? How do we track the trajectory of an individual’s history? How do we define the past, present and future of ourselves? These questions have plagued the human mind for millennia. Some see time as our mortal enemy, while others see time as an illusion, a natural order with which to peacefully reconcile. What we find when we explore the different views on time is often presented as an East/West dichotomy. Western spirituality (Judeo-Christian-Islamic) favors the view that time is linear; history is constantly moving forward toward an end point, a revelation, an “hour of judgment” of sorts. Eastern spirituality, on the other hand, views time cyclically; rather than an arrow shot toward a target, time is fundamentally a cosmic wheel of repetition, or a recycling of itself.
Here, I have oversimplified this East/West distinction (as is often unjustly done) because I do not wish to entertain such starkly different views. Instead of using this either/or approach to ponder the mysteries of time, I would like to illustrate a couple of specific instances where we can use a both/and method. Like East versus West, there is another dichotomy to be considered, a false one I believe, between spirituality and intellectualism; the two are simply not mutually exclusive. Nineteenth Century German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, is a prime example of an academic intellectual whose ontological view was greatly inspired by Eastern religions and spirituality, such as Buddhism and the teachings of the Upanishads.
Now, I personally have always seemed to naturally steer clear of anything spiritual, favoring an intellectual and often clinical (or cynical?) view of the world. I would always play games on my TI-83 calculator during chapel at my Episcopalian high school, and, for some reason, I could never take our school minister seriously in religion class, as he would constantly draw quotes from the movie Pootie Tang. It also didn’t help when I got kicked out of my church’s youth group for playfully (yet sincerely!) asking, “When we die and go to heaven, what if there’s just a giant Buddha sitting there, laughing at us?” And so it was that my left-brain gradually guided me into studying philosophy at university, eventually arriving at our friend Schopenhauer’s doorstep.
Without delving too deeply into the history of philosophy, I will try to set the stage for our dear Schopenhauer. First, we must try to get into his head and see through the lens of his Nineteenth Century understanding of the world. Schopenhauer was an idealist. Idealism is a philosophical theory that asserts that we can only be sure of our own mental states, and that we can never trust that the external world is not just a construct of our own personal consciousness. More simply: there is no material world outside of our perception (our five senses), and it is only through our senses that we understand the world.
“Well then, what is it that we are perceiving if the world is not made up of actual stuff?” you might be asking yourself. This is where the idealist philosophers like to use obscure, hyphenated terms to refer to concepts that are actually quite easy to grasp. Let’s use an apple for an example. You point and say, “I know there is an apple there.” Okay. An idealist would reply, “Mehh. Actually, what you know is that your eyes are absorbing photons that are being reflected off of something situated in the place to which you are pointing, something that we both can agree is an apple. But, what that something actually is, neither you nor I can ever know. Why can we never come to know this “something” that we call an apple? Because we only have access to it via our senses, which are fallible. These “somethings,” like the apple, that populate the world we live in are almost infinite (tables, dogs, cheeseburgers, vegans, iPads, carpenter bees, the Great Wall of China, etc.), and though we, as conscious beings, can all share experiences with each other and with these things, we can never know the true nature of these things. This has been characterized before as the “veil of perception.”
Enter Schopenhauer, stage right. Schopenhauer believes that he can explain what these “somethings” are, the true nature of the objects that lie beyond our senses. Most other idealists just kind of ignore the status of these “somethings,” as I have been calling them; I should now refer to them as the metaphysical properties of objects in the world (what objects really are). But Schopenhauer attempts to tackle the task of defining these metaphysical properties. In fact, he does not believe that each individual object in this world, or person for that matter, has its own distinct metaphysical property. Everything in this world that exists is defined and driven by one underlying metaphysical force, which he calls the Will.
The Will can be understood as the latent, primordial drive, the impetus, the momentum that keeps things, nature, people, everything moving. Most importantly, though, is that the Will is inherently and fundamentally illogical. Theories from which Schopenhauer developed his thought posited that this drive, the Will, possesses some kind of order, or intelligence. Schopenhauer openly rejects the idea that there is an underlying logic to the universe; rather, this irrational Will is solely responsible for what we experience. He also states that it is the Will, this underlying drive, which causes men and women to act; he believes that all human action is driven by desire, which he concludes causes suffering. Here is where we can begin to see how this western intellectual incorporates eastern spirituality into a theory that he intended to be viewed, and is still viewed, with academic rigor.
It is no accident that Schopenhauer’s ontology of the Will resembles the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Let us briefly visit these Truths of Buddhism so that we can see how closely Schopenhauer’s western adaptation matches up (the Truths have been taken from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):
1. There is suffering.
2. There is an origination of suffering.
3. There is a cessation of suffering.
4. There is a path to the cessation of suffering.
Regarding the first Truth, Schopenhauer believes that desire is the sole drive behind human action, which causes suffering. Funny, though, that he grounds his ontology in suffering, because by most accounts, Schopenhauer lived a pretty carefree and cushy life. In response to the second Truth, he states that there is an underlying force in the world called the Will. The Will is illogical, and is responsible for every headache, orgasm, ant, flea, and anxiety that we might ever encounter. All driven by desire. All driven to suffer.
The parallel between Schopenhauer’s thought and the third Truth is where we see his western (Eurocentric) formulation cleave from its eastern counterpart. Schopenhauer does not believe that there is a cessation to suffering, only that we may momentarily escape suffering. He believes that humans are capable of diverting their awareness of the Will (of suffering) by thoughtfully and carefully engaging with, and in, fine art. Music, in particular, is the form of art that he holds in the highest esteem. He believes that the calculated, temporal interplay between melodies and harmonies and different voices all come together to create something that ultimately resembles the Will, and therefore is able to distract us from it. Music resembles the Will because it hits us most viscerally; it affects our emotions in ways that we intuitively do not understand (like the Will). For this reason, Schopenhauer believes that music can trick our consciousness away from desire, and allow us to temporarily “lose ourselves” in the beauty of sound.
Unfortunately, like all great symphonies, the moment of refuge must come to an end. Once again, the individual is left stranded in his or her own suffering via the Will. Despite his affinity for the eastern religions, Schopenhauer does not offer a parallel with the fourth Truth; there is no path to cessation. After disregarding fine art as being too fleeting of an object to help us truly escape the Will (to cease suffering), he says that we must decide to either accept or reject the Will. Instead of diving deeper into the metaphysics of his theory, Schopenhauer decides to develop a form of ethics in regard to the Will, a topic that I will not pursue in this current endeavor.
But, given that every human being is just another iteration of the underlying Will, this force that Schopenhauer has described can sometimes resemble the cycles of life and time that we see in eastern spirituality (i.e., Samsara, Avidya, etc.). According to Schopenhauer’s theory, I am no different than you, because beneath everything is the Will, and you and I both are just mere representations of it.
Inspired by Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche formulated a theory of time that was radically different from eastern and western doctrines alike. Nietzsche was not concerned with talking about metaphysics, but instead used metaphysical concepts, like Schopenhauer’s Will, to formulate a sort of thought experiment called the “eternal recurrence.” Nietzsche was sickened by the tenets of Christianity that he believed to be life negating; an example of this would be any doctrine that tells its adherents to accept their suffering in this world in exchange for everlasting life in the next. He believed that this kind of mentality caused people to view their actions as, at best, righteous suppression, or at worst, inconsequential. The idea of the eternal recurrence opposes this resigned way of living; instead, it places a crushing heaviness to the way in which we view our actions. The concept of the eternal recurrence urges us to consider that anything that we have ever done, we have already done, and will do “once more and innumerable times.” Nothing was different in the past, and nothing will be different in the future. The heaviness is on the now. From Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, he asks the reader how would you respond to this idea:
“Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or did you once experience a tremendous moment when you would have answered [the demon], ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more godly.'”
Again, Nietzsche could care less about the metaphysical import on a claim like the eternal recurrence, which is why it should in no way be considered to be the same as reincarnation. What this thought experiment is meant to do is to help you re-focus your perspective on the actions you are performing NOW. It’s irrelevant if you sat on the couch all day today watching Jersey Shore. What’s important is that in every interaction in which you engage, and in every project that you undertake, you are able to own what you are doing. In every second that you live, you are able to say, “I have done, and will do this for eternity, and that’s damn fine by me.”
Both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche seem to emphasize the primacy of the present moment. Schopenhauer believes that we can find sanctuary from the struggles that we encounter throughout life in art and in music. Nietzsche would certainly not disagree with this claim; he would go even further to tell us to make every moment that we experience a piece of art, so that we may always accept and appreciate each second that we are fortunate enough to experience. These two philosophers did not create their theories in a vacuum. Schopenhauer was inspired by his western predecessors, as well as what he read of eastern spirituality. Nietzsche admired Schopenhauer, who led him to produce thought-wrenching aphorisms about how we might better understand time and existence.
So what would you say to Nietzsche’s demon? Could you bear to repeat what you are doing, what you have done, again and again, for the rest of eternity? Yes? All right. No? Then change.
Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science; Thus Spoke Zarathustra