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Monday, April 5, 2010


"Mens aeterna est, quatenus res sub aeternitatis specie concipit." (The mind is eternal in so far as it conceives things from the standpoint of eternity) [Tr. Schopenhauer] Spinoza, Ethics, V, Prop. 31, schol.)

Schopenhauer quotes Spinoza in this fashion to support his own argument about how to find a way out of the suffering and travail of willing, striving and desiring. Schopenhauer's deep pessimism causes him to look askance on life, insofar as it is the eternal cycle of desire. The only release from this "wheel of Ixion" is possible if the "subject," the self, were to withdraw into purposeless contemplation. To do this, it is necessary for the observer, one's self, to pry the thing we are observing from the context which makes it understandable to us, namely, its context in time, in space, and within laws of causality. I am staring at the computer screen, for example, and it is here (in space), now (at this time of day, today), and I know it because I know what it's for, how it got here, what it does for me; it is enmeshed, in other words, in a whole network of causes and effects that make it understandable to me. If I take all that context away, time, space and causality, what is left is an idea, a thing whose essence I will, hopefully, comprehend as neutral to me. "If, therefore, the object has to such an extent passed out of all relation to something outside it, and the subject has passed out of all relation to the will, what is thus known is no longer the individual thing as such, but the Idea, the eternal form, . . . " World as Will and Idea, Part I, volume I, sec.34, p. 178 of the E.J. Payne translation) [emphasis added]. And there's that other requirement, namely, that the subject, the self, must contemplate without willing, without a "vested interest" in the thing, as it were. And then we have the Ideas in their eternity, conceived from the standpoint of eternity. Then the computer screen, in my instance, becomes an essence, a thought for me to contemplate, and is no longer a tool to use, to write all this down.


Spinoza is recapitulating Plato. Schopenhauer repeatedly refers to Plato's famous Myth of the Cave from the Republic. There, people are chained down staring at a wall in the back of the cave. There's a fire behind them, and between the fire and their backs are people and animals and things, and the shadows of these objects are projected on the wall that people are facing. We see shadows only, says Plato, and can only see the eternal realities if we cast off our chains and turn around, and leave the cave, to see the world in its truth, in what he would call its "reality." Schopenhauer argues that, as long as we are chained to the will, to striving, desiring, living the life of intentions, we are seeing only shadows. We can only see the eternal things that are truly real if we cast off the chains of the will.

Spinoza's house in Rijnsburg

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