Sunday, 2 May 2010

Nihilism & Becoming (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Heidegger)

"If the purpose of our life is not suffering then our existence is the most ill-adapted to its purpose in the world." - Arthur Schopenhauer (Essays and Aphorisms)

It seems absurd, even incomprehensible that our lives lead inexorably towards nothingness. Changes occur every day, things come into our lives, and things pass away from our lives. We toil endlessly, constantly striving to acheive ends, to acheive a happiness which always seems a step away. We wait weeks for a package to arrive, only to forget all about it, once opened, and begin desiring something new. We build, and build, and build, only for the ebb and flow of the universe to wipe it, and us, away.

Schopenhauer insists that human life is a mistake, and a worthless mistake at that. Schopenhauer sees pain as the positive, that which is tangible, and pleasure as mere release from pain. We notice only the place where the shoe pinches, but not the healthy whole body, he writes. Our lives are goal oriented, we must always have a purpose. Once a desire is satisfied, we must then create a further purpose.

If we neglect to find another goal then we experience boredom, the primary condition from which all activity essentially springs: the naked essence of existence, which is, alongside transiency, for Schopenhauer, the indication of life's worthlessness. When we are not seeking purposes which will ultimately disappoint us, we are "delivered over to boredom."

"What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? All that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome." - Friedrich Nietzsche (The Antichrist)

We might ask if Schopenhauer's estimations were entirely in order. Certainly we can all sympathise with his judgements with regards the futility of striving to possess happiness, and that boredom is that seedling from which activity ultimately springs. But must we agree with his insistence that this renders life as worthless?

I think not. The reasons underlying Schopenhauer's evaluations are, I believe, a misappropriation of where to create meaning in life. Becoming, not being, is the aim of life - life, as Nietzsche says, continually overcomes itself. We may understand boredom, and the feeling that our endeavours will be, in the long run, fruitless, but we do not have to take these as given.

But in spite of the conditions of nihility which face us, we are nontheless free to assume an attitude towards life which does not want to rest in the stale satiety of satisfaction and its closely related cousin boredom. We want to find activity wherever we can, and not simply to crave ends in themselves, but rather the process by which we arrive at them. We can demand of ourselves that we never remain beings, but rather becomings - processes which never end, and are never satisfied.

The appropriate response to nihilism is, in my eyes, an absurd affirmation of life and a veneration of activity. If we are doomed to never be satisfied with the ends for which we aim, then we must apply value to the struggle we endure to get there. We must seek strife, not satiety. How-to's, not where-to's.

"As soon as man comes to life, he is at once old enough to die." - Martin Heidegger (Being and Time)

But have we solved the absurdity of life in the face of death? As Heidegger relates, it is our being-towards-death which makes us understand the finitude of our existence, the limits on our possibilities. It is the anxiety resulting from this understanding which inspires us to act and to create, in spite of death. Death ought not to be a negating force, but a force which demands us to live right now.

The dual forces of anxiety in the face of death and boredom in the face of emptiness paradoxically create fertile ground by which to cultivate a mode of being which affirms life, rather than rendering it as worthless. If we had not the prospect of life passing us by at every moment, and if we could be satisfied with emptiness, then what reason, besides the biological necessity of survival, could there be for action? For poetry, music, philosophy, film, or the novel?

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