The Triumph Of What Kind Of Will?

The Nazi worship of the Will may be derived from the way in which this notion became a fashionable idea in the late 19th century, which in turn may be blamed on philosophers who wanted to revolt against a model of man as a disembodied rational mind in a world of abstract concepts. Such a model has survived to this day in the world of economics.

What the philosophers were doing, however, was pointing out how their discipline had for centuries concentrated on what a man can be said to know rather than what he wants, and thus treated our life in the world somewhat as a leisurely promenade through an art gallery. That is not how the world really is. The nineteenth century consequently saw the birth of the idea that what we are pleased to call our intellect is not after all a reflection of the divine, the pinnacle of creation and so on and so forth, but simply nature’s instrumentality for getting the animal what it needs. Its basic programme can be termed the Four Fs: feeding, fleeing, fighting and fucking. The purpose of the intellect is not to perceive some objective reality like the Beatific Vision but to facilitate this practical programme – it frequently has need of verbal smokescreens or downright lies and has no use for dispassionate enquiry, reflection or creativity.

Schopenhauer gave the name of Will to that programme, what I would call “the animal agenda”, of which we are merely the epiphenomenon. He might equally as well have called it “the Life Force”, as Shaw later did. His follower Freud, denying his master at cockcrow, called it “Libido”. The original choice was unfortunate, because Will is employed by most people, not as a designation for the Kantian ding-am-sich but as a synonym for determination, for a bloody-minded insistence on having one’s own way, or even for ruthless inhumanity. This is certainly how the Nazis employed it. Leni Reifenstahl’s film titled Triumph des Willens uses a term from a serious metaphysics rather like the way modern journalism uses “quantum” – pick it up and stick it on anything. For Schopenhauer the triumph of the will would be a very bad thing.

One might even seize upon the poster, showing a man in a coalscuttle helmet with iron jaw but quite invisible eyes, and mediate upon the contrast with, or even challenge to, the Enlightenment idea of rationality. This soldier does not want to perceive, or know, or understand in any sense recognisable to Locke; showing his eyes would provoke the question of what he sees and what he thinks, and this would detract from what he wills. Even the poster tells us, therefore, “do not think, just will”. Be like unto a little child –– wanna, wanna, wanna!

What Schopenhauer actually meant was something far subtler and more difficult than this unthinking brute would suggest. Let us begin with the word invented by the materialists to account for why inanimate matter does stuff, namely “force”. A moment’s thought will show that this is actually a metaphor derived from human coercive activity against other humans. If you strip this metaphor out, what you are actually left with is a confession of ignorance; all we can say is that stuff just happens, in predictable patterns. We cannot actually see the mechanism – which is another damned metaphor.

The language of natural “law” is even worse, implying that nature is obliged by something outside itself to do certain things, which is absurd. Sartre was on the right track with his dictum that nature has no laws, only habits. When we see the planet Mars orbiting the sun, we might talk about it “obeying” Kepler’s laws, as if it has heard of Kepler and is afraid of him, or we might more profitably say that Mars is in the habit of circling the sun in the manner described by Kepler. Now, of course “habit” is a metaphor too, but at least it does not suggest coercive third parties. Schopenhauer describes the behaviour of an object in terms of “will”, and this too is a metaphor. (To be pedantic, what we call “will” in ourselves is a higher-level expression of the same thing that at a lower level of awareness is expressed by the motion of Mars, but we are still in need of a convenient name for the thing.) I sometimes get the feeling that he is positing the universe as a single living entity, the sum total of an ultimate metaphysical force that is expressed at different levels of materialisation. If this reminds you of Plotinian emanationism, so it should. Schopenhauer is that most peculiar hybrid, therefore, a gnostic atheist.

Can you look at a rock and see it as “frozen will”, an example of will that isn’t doing very much right at the moment, just possessing solidity and extension? I have been trying. Then can you look at the breakers on the beach and see them as will that has risen to the level of motion; and then see a plant as vegetative will – the same actual, fundamental stuff as the rock, though clothed in a different matter, that has bestirred itself to do rather more? The green fuse, as Dylan Thomas called it. I have been trying. And then of course we have a human being, who aside from the various molecules that constitute man-stuff, is also will, namely the most dynamic expression yet of the fundamental world-nature. About which bottom line we simply cannot say anything much, because it is ding-an-sich and so by definition not perceivable as it really is through our sensory apparatus. Because to do so would mean our perceiving it not-as-we-perceive-it, which is absurd.

I know what some people will say. They will want to call this world-stuff something that can bring the personal god of westerners in through the back door. In Schopenhauer’s system, however, there is no level at which “will” is brahma. It is just another word for “blind striving”, a concept not far removed from “maya” and thus absolutely not something to be venerated. The rock strives to stay where and how it is, the wave strives to break, the plant strives to push through the earth, and man strives to get laid. Can you look at human behaviour, a plant, a wave and a rock and see them as different levels of materialisation of the very same thing? I can’t, perhaps nobody can, but I’m working on it.

Then Will, or the materialisation of this fundamental life-force, develops something we are pleased to call a brain, in order to help it succeed in its feeding, fighting and fucking by telling fairy-stories and scoffing at the fairy-stories of its competitors. Last of all the really weird stuff happens, and this originally-instrumental intellect begins to twist its neck and contemplate the agenda of the animal that houses it.

And if this is what Schopenhauer meant by Will, why should we wish it to triumph in the Riefenstahlian manner? And what would that mean anyway? All things are will, except only “will-less knowing”, that is, contemplation of reality as and for what it is, devoid of personal interests and desires. So the only thing that Triumph of the Will could strictly mean would be the death of contemplative intelligence in the universe. Which is pretty much what the Nazis wanted – a population of dumbed-down consumers stomping on anything they didn’t understand. A world made safe, by iron-jawed heroes, for lowbrow culture (in those days, comic operetta and oompa-oompa music) without end. A bit like the red-state dream of America, except with a lot more physical exercise in the fresh air?

Posted on March 30, 2014 at 20:53 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, Introduction

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