Each organic being is striving to increase in a geometrical ratio; each at some period of its life, during some season of the year, during each generation or at intervals, has to struggle for life and to suffer great destruction. When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply” (1)
No fear is felt?? Death is generally prompt? Wow, what a consolation for life’s conditions … !
But perhaps Mr Darwin was not (primarily...) referring to human organic beings, but rather to nature’s multitude of fearless swallows, intrepid thrushes, healthy bees and frivolous fruit flies, all vigorously vying for food & residence? And of course, it’s not up to science to lament the human condition. Better leave the moaning and meaning-seeking to philosophers and other unproductively reflecting organic beings.
But so, there we have the human species, composed of a great many assertive varieties – there we have the “plurality of man, out of which arises the whole realm of human affairs – in its grandeur and misery”. (2) And, finally, there we have Darwin’s observation that “competition is most severe between allied forms, which fill nearly the same place in the economy of nature”. So are we humans doomed to blindly struggle and compete, to live a life of “intense and uninterrupted contest of all against all, of ceaselessly showing oneself to be the best of all” (2) ?
In classical jargon this is called the “agonal spirit” (3), nowadays one might euphemistically speak of "peer-pressure".
In polite, political terms, the plurality of man is expressed in the many opinions that reflect each man/woman’s particular position in the world. Opinions that are competing for supremacy - and it is a matter of force which opinion will be eventually be imposed on the multitude. Force which can be exercised either through persuasion and rhetoric or through violence. But whatever way - one opinion will try to get the better of another
And yet, amidst the clashing assertions of subjective desires and opinions there’s also man’s ability to reflect and to dialogue, to understand another man’s position. Instead of trying to push through one’s own opinion one might strive to find the truth in each opinion – not by practicing the political art of persuasion, but rather by indulging in the eminently philosophical art of dialectic speech.
It’s a famous topos in western philosophy of course: the Socratic tradition as recorded in Plato’s early dialogues . These dialogues, 'merely' talking through a subject from diverse viewpoints, end inconclusively. They yield no result, except perhaps to have arrived at “understanding how and in what specific articulateness the common world appears to the other”. It’s the kind of exchange “most appropriate for and most frequently shared by friends” . (2)
But of course this post could not yet end on such a promising, albeit inconclusive, note of human dialogue.
Nope – there’s still more moaning to endure! If only because I won’t let go of the opportunity to introduce in this blog the gloriously-abundantly pessimistic Schopenhauer with his view of life as sheer hell.
In quite Darwinian terms (4), Schopenhauer identifies each individual’s selfish will to live & reproduce as the basis of human misery. As long as we’re at the mercy of this tyrannical drive, we will vacillate forever between the stress of asserting our individual will in an inimical world and the boredom of being at rest without any stimuli to keep us busy. A bit more of this individual will to live, he states, and life would altogether have been too hellish to sustain (quite Darwinian undertones again!(5) )
Is there no escape then, no deliverance from this dreadful condition? Ah, but yes, there is – in the aesthetical state of being, in our enjoyment of and engagement with art, when we exercise all our faculties of feeling, intellect and imagination without suffering the stress of real life battle. When we do not have to “will” anything at all – when we can merely bask in the pure delights of the mind & the senses – without any individual selfish assertion in the world. It’s perhaps in art that we get the closest to substituting our limited individual perspective for a universal one. But these moments of aesthetical escapism are only transient, and offer no enduring redemption.
So is there then no true way out, short perhaps of a superhuman (and eventually self-defeating) self-negation?
Well, deliverance from this continuous strife might start with the simple realization that others have this individual will too, “l’autre est un je / the other is an I“. Call it empathy (yes, a bit of a recurrent theme in this blog – and besides, Schopenhauer himself thought of loving kindness and compassion as the basis of all morality (6)). Or call it ‘piercing through the illusion of the individual self’ . Anyway, here we have Schopenhauer’s precepts for a good life: devote thyself to the life of the spirit & art ; transcend the illusion of thy individual will through compassion.
Anyone familiar with Indian philosophy will of course be nodding her head off by now - and yes, Schopenhauer was profoundly influenced by the great Indian writings (7) and his ideas echo their teachings (8) .
Now what was the point of this particularly ponderous post? Is there at least a conclusion? Or have I merely been frivolously indulging in an inner dialogue? (But mind you: a dialogue with long dead writers and sages, as well as with a very alive and kicking correspondent (9)) .
But actually, yes, there is a point I did want to make: that the world with its inexorably brutish facts may be adequately explained and controlled only by objective science but that we as human beings cannot and will not be content with truth only – we will always seek meaning. And this quest for meaning (however unproductive and inconclusive) reverberates throughout the centuries and across continents, – be it in a 20th century political philosophy like Arendt’s, or in 19th century pessimist-humanist ruminations ( Schopenhauer) or in the ageless ideas of Indian philosophy.
quite a serious series of footnotes
(1) Charles Darwin – The Origin of Species – Chapter III Struggle for Existence
(2) Hannah Arendt – The Promise of Politics
(3) Agonal – Agony – I picture gladiators relentlessly fighting for victory (or a heroic 4.5 hours battle between two top-tennis-players?)
(4) Schopenhauer (1788-1860) wrote his main works before Darwin had published his magnum opus (1859) – another instance of a philosophical intuition anticipating scientific theories based on elaborately ascertained facts
(5) And thus the seeming mystery of altruism (in evolutionary terms, that is) may precisely lay in the fact that too relentless and too aggressive an egoism of competing varieties might eventually result in extinction of the whole species.
(6) But alas, alas, this wise, compassionate philosopher, who so eloquently promoted art and loving kindness, in other writings saw fit to vent the most blatant misogyny. Fearlessly this brilliant philosopher contradicted his own moral teachings when denouncing as a 'defect' women’s allegedly greater sympathy for human suffering.
(7) He qualified the “Upanishads” as the solace of his life (and death)
(8) I’m not very well acquainted myself with Indian philosophy , but luckily there’s Phoenix summarizing the gist of it all in a single sentence: it’s about “balancing the business of living, your 'karma' and the 'maya' ( i.e. the superficial things that are illusory - life itself actually) with the life of the spirit.” And the upbeat conclusion of this savoir-vivre is that this balancing act “is pretty much doable and is the only way to be, or rather become...”
(9) Actually, this post may be a reply to a mail by Phoenix ….