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Bernard Reginster/ Paul Klumpe
15 December 2007
Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard: Boredom and the Will To Power and Love
How I Spent My Christmas Vacation
Philosophy, notably Existentialism, has often been criticized as being an activity for the
bourgeoisie, and in no area does this seem more true than in the analysis of boredom. Doubtless,
boredom is a problem that many philosophers in the past have had to endure-- many worked little or not at all. The problem has always been how to overcome boredom, and this problem tends to extend beyond the often esoteric philosophical realm of metaphysics and epistemology into the world of normal, everyday Joe Six-pack who doesn't know what to make of his life after the Cowboys game on Sunday.
I plan to focus primarily on one particular grapple with boredom: Friedrich Nietzsche's famous Will To Power, a plan to overcome boredom by seeking and overcoming resistances.
However, to properly understand the Will To Power we will need to disinter its roots in Arthur Schopenhauer's Pessimism, the view that all life is suffering and boredom and that we cannot achieve our highest goals, so there is no reason to live. It's not so sunny, but it's Schopenhauer.
Once we have adequately examined the Will To Power, we will turn out minds to an earlier existentialist thinker, Soren Kierkegaard, who in his book Either/Or presents us with seducer Johannes Climactus driven by passion, repelled by boredom. Our objective in paying attention to Kierkegaard is to relate Pessimism and the Will To power to Schopenhauer's seducer in order to examine how Schopenhauer and Nietzsche might see Kierkegaard's seducer. We will find, and I will argue, that Kierkegaard's seducer is a paragon for a life lived by the Will To Power.
I. Schopenhauer's Pessimism: Bored? Kill Yourself!
Schopenhauer offers us a rather dismal view of meaning and life via his arguments for Pessimism. He believes that life swings back and forth from pain to boredom like a pendulum.
For Schopenhauer, boredom is an empty longing, or a longing without a determinate object. In a key paragraph he says “If [life] lacks objects of willing, because it has once been deprived of them again by too easy a satisfaction, a fearful emptiness and boredom come over it; in other words, its being and its existence itself become an intolerable burden for it.” So he claims a few things here. Firstly, boredom is a burden, it is unpleasant. This can be generally agreed upon for our purposes. The mission for almost any boredom philosopher is to find out how to handle boredom. Secondly, boredom is when we lack objects to desire, when all of our determinate goals have been satisfied, and we are left with a desire to desire, which I will explain in a moment. Determinate goals can be explained by example. We have no more determinate goals when we have, say, finished all of our Holiday shopping, wrapped all the presents, set up the tree, cooked the Turkey and so forth. We sit down, we've watched “Charlie Brown Christmas” and “Frosty The Snowman” and we find that there is nothing to do, nothing we desire to do, because all of our goals have been met and, as a consequence of this, we are met with nothing. A determinate goal is a first-order desire, which can be contrasted with a second order desire, which is a desire to desire. At the point when we are left with nothing, it is not that there is nothing to do necessarily, it is that we are left with a dulling lack of desire. And since boredom is unpleasant and we wish to escape it, we desire to desire something. Boredom is the frustration of this. Thirdly, Schopenhauer says that the lack of desire for things comes from too easy a victory or from actually obtaining that object of desire. The state that we reach after determinate desires have been reached is not necessarily the state of leisure and satisfaction we might expect. At least, not for long. As Schopenhauer says, “the goal was only apparent;
possession takes away its charm.” Ten minutes of satisfaction inevitably transitions quickly into our desire to desire something.
Boredom must be contrasted with Schopenhauer's insights into pain. Schopenhauer believes that willing and striving are life's whole essence. He compares this willing and striving to an unquenchable thirst—our desires insatiable. The basis of all willing, in his eyes, is need, lack, and, as a result, the pain of need and lack. So by the nature of desire and because it is impossible to satisfy all of our desires, then “all life is suffering..” Ergo the Schopenhauer pendulum of pain and boredom. If we are desiring, we are in pain and suffering. If we are not desiring, we are bored. Even our escape from boredom leads us to an equally unfortunate frame of being. Additionally, there is no god to intervene in our lives and give us meaning.
Schopenhauer boils down to nihilistic despair, the belief that life is not worth living. If our highest values are life-negating values, values that we cannot realize under the conditions of this world, and if there is no God to intervene in this world and save us, then we are alone, meaningless, and hopeless. So Schopenhauer's answer to boredom? It's not even worth living.
There are a few problems to this that Nietzsche will address.
Nietzsche is probably most famous for the claim that God is dead, or, to be more specific, that the belief in God has been discredited by society and is no longer needed. So Nietzsche and Schopenhauer can agree very much on this point. However, Nietzsche becomes most concerned with the thought that suffering is a bad place to be if we wish to overcome boredom. In fact, as we will see, Nietzsche believes that a life of suffering is a necessary and valuable way of living.
Nietzsche initially describes boredom as a desire to act. When we are bored we want to do something. And what should we do? We should take action. What kind of action? Well, the action of going to the fridge and eating a Snickers is a rather small action as compared to embarking on the literary venture of writing a novel. Both are determinate goals, but the latter is much more challenging and will in any case provide us with more to do more often. So we desire a challenging action. But it wouldn't be enough just to wish to be challenged only to fail.
Naturally, we desire a successful challenging action in our times of boredom. So the way to escape boredom is to pursue successful challenging actions. This is the Will To Power. It is a second order-desire because it is a desire to overcome resistance, which is not a determinate desire in itself (which would be first order like putting up the Christmas tree or turning the lights on outside) but it is a desire fueled by determinate desires.
But why the fancy language? What is power? Power can be first seen as a kind of domination, but this need not mean that one must literally conquer countries and exploit the weak in order to achieve it. This can be a consequence of the Will To Power, but this is not the Will To Power in and of itself. Domination, thus power, can be seen as overcoming resistance.
But if the resistance is overcome, then you are not using power. And if the resistance is present but you are not trying to overcome it, there is no power. Therefore power lies not in the ends, but in the means. Power is the activity of overcoming resistance. The more difficult that activity is, the more meaningful it becomes, and the more power you have. When we will for Power, we will that we should be should be in the process of overcoming a challenging resistance and the we should be faced with as much a challenge as can be offered, so that we may be more powerful. Think about it in an everyday context. A challenging resistance may be a beginner trying getting a promotion at work. In working for this promotion we are overcoming a challenging resistance, thus we are in a state of power. The time it takes for one to overcome a resistance, also is often an indicator of the difficulty of it. So producing a play may be viewed as bringing about more power than making it home on slightly slippery roads.
This has interesting implications. By desiring to overcome resistance, this implies that a part of us wants the resistance to try and overcome, only so that we can overcome it. This resistance brings pain and thus suffering. A person who desires the Will To Power desires a state of suffering to overcome. In this way, suffering is in fact needed for happiness. Suffering is an ingredient for good, so it is valuable. This is Nietzsche's revaluation of suffering.
Johannes is Kierkegaard's seducer and author of “Diary Of A Seducer” in his book Either/Or, contrasted with Judge William, a more ethical, faith-driven author in the second part of the work. Johannes wants to obtain the willful love of Cordelia and does so in a very intricate and clever manner. For most of the diary, he carefully plots out his seduction of Cordelia. In the final parts of the diary, he writes her letters playing with her psychology in order to sway her in his favor by her own will. Once Johannes makes his move he is soon engaged to Cordelia, whom he then drives to end the engagement, only to once more seduce her back into the relationship.
Then, and only then of course, does Johannes leave her.
“A” is the author of the first section of volume one and establishes the views of boredom that will come to be elucidated in the actions of Johannes. A is concerned mostly with what Kierkegaard calls aesthetic experience, or personal, sensory experience. “All men are bores,” A says in the beginning of his exposition of boredom. “Boredom is the root of all evil...what can be more natural than the effort to overcome it?” He claims that nothing good can come out of boredom, that the gods were bored so they made Adam. Adam was bored so they made Eve. The masses after them were bored so they diverted their attention to building the tower of Babel to reach the sky, an effort that A says was as boring as it was high.
A rather introspective character, he makes it clear that boredom is different from idleness.
Idleness is actually a very good thing, he says, unless one is idle and bored. If we peer into the personal life of Kierkegaard, separate from his texts, we can see an ideological parallel, though this is in no way to claim that Johannes is the mask of Kierkegaard. This idle, introspective characteristic is an important aspect to how Johannes deals with boredom, and a characteristic theme to all Kierkegaardian writing. In fact, as Bretall tells us in the Kierkegaard Anthology, Kierkegaard left the love of his life on account of the fact that he felt he was too introspective to be completely happy in a relationship. This idleness and introspection is shown through Johannes' drawn out framing of the seduction of Cordelia.
Concerning A once more, an interesting judgment is made when he chastise those who work too much to keep themselves busy. These people, he says, are bores in this fact. This illustrates Johannes' idea that boredom cannot be overcome by continually finding easy, new things to do, but that boredom should be overcome by a slow, juicing method, that “everything should be savored in slow draughts.” A voices this idea through a comparison with Don Juan, one of the most renown selfish, hedonistic aesthetes in history. A separates the lifestyle of Johannes from the lifestyle of Don Juan, by positing that Don Juan blindly followed his passions, never making love with the same woman more than once. He does this to avoid repetition, which creates boredom, but A says that Don Juan was never truly happy because he began to repeat making love to a new woman, and thus the effect inevitably dulled. So how would Kierkegaard's seducer, on a more general level, say we should address the problem of boredom? Taking our time, engrossing ourselves in long, challenging games or projects, and moving on the moment we have sucked all of the potential non-boredom out of its essence.
So how would our duo deal with this? If we recall Schopenhauer's Pessimism, we can see that his views on Kierkegaard's seducer would be nothing but negative: his pursuits are meaningless! They prolong pain! The attempts to escape boredom only bring him to pain! It is not worth it!
When the determinate goal is met, a goal which we can consider to be the proper seduction of Cordelia, indeed Johannes once again becomes bored just as Schopenhauer forecasted. But one could argue that Johannes determinate goals changed. First it was to seduce, then to repel, then to seduce a second time. If this were the case, then one determinate goal done did not immediately render Johannes bored, but one determinate goal gave life to a new determinate goal. By this Johannes escapes boredom rather well. Nonetheless, in the grander scheme, this does not affect the assertion Schopenhauer had made that boredom comes when determinate goals have been accomplished.
But looking closer, Johannes would surely be an odd case for Schopenhauer. Clearly, Johannes derives a significant degree of pleasure from what Schopenhauer would otherwise call suffering. Johannes has the determinate goal of achieving Cordelia, yes, but his pleasure is found dominantly in the pursuit of pleasure rather than the attainment of it. Means, and not goals, are what is important. All signs direct us toward Nietzsche.
If we take a look once more at the Will To Power, we can recall it as the desire to successfully overcome resistances. Here we see a strong tie to Kierkegaard's seducer. In fact, Kierkegaard's seducer fully embodies a life lived by the Will To Power. Schopenhauer says that in order to avoid boredom, avoid living. Nietzsche says to avoid boredom, confront living! We see that Johannes does this very thing.