Schopenhauer in love

Schopenhauer famously argued that the fundamental reality of the universe is Will (with a capital W), and that our individual wills are just phenomena of this Will. He was a major influence on Nietzsche, and appeals to people who are fascinated by power, such as people who engage in S&M, cocaine addicts, and politicians.

Schopenhauer’s view is exactly inverted, though. The fundamental reality of the universe is Love, and its reflection is Praise.

It was this inversion of reality, in fact, which cost Schopenhauer his friendship with Goethe. Goethe was a regular visitor to Schopenhauer’s mother’s house, and the two became friends and collaborators when Schopenhauer became an adult. But when Schopenhauer stubbornly clung to his belief that Will is the noumenon, they parted ways. Goethe is reported to have written in Schopenhauer’s notebook, “If you want to enjoy your own worth, you have to give the world some as well”. Of course, if someone is blind to the nature of Love, it doesn’t do any good to rub it in his face, and appealing to utilitarian motives doesn’t help. But I’m convinced that Goethe was genuinely worried about his friend and was frustrated that he couldn’t give him sight.

To Schopenhauer, love was just a mechanism. In his essays on love, he cited Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” approvingly, claiming that Goethe has admirably used the suffering of love to produce knowledge. Of course, this “compliment” was passive-aggressive, since Goethe would be the last person in the world to endorse using love as a tool of the will, and Schopenhauer knew it.

Schopenhauer’s inversion of love presages Aliester Crowley’s famous maxim, “Love is the law, love under will”. Crowley was once mentored by Yeats, and they parted ways for essentially the same reason that Goethe and Schopenhauer parted ways. Like Nietzsche, Crowley was not exactly original.

Ugly Bags of Mostly Water

The other day, the kids and I watched a local production of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline“. It’s a fairy tale about Cymbeline, king of Britain.

It’s one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, in part because of the hilarious caricature the bard makes of the physical reductionist mindset. You know the type of person I’m talking about. Evolution formed man from dust, and like the silicon-based life form in the old episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, this person looks at humans and sees only the constituent parts. We humans are “ugly bags of mostly water“.

To this critic, our component parts such as atoms, molecules, and neurons are the primary reality. He insists that love is an illusion, and that life has no intrinsic value. If you’re not sophisticated or courageous enough to agree with him, you’re a superstitious nut. Such people might remind us of a child with William’s Syndrome:

Asked to draw a bicycle, a person with Down’s syndrome will come up with something that’s crude but recognizable. Someone with William’s syndrome, on the other hand, will produce a drawing with the person underneath the bike, the chain stretched out below the wheels, and the pedals off to the lower left, connected to nothing. All the parts are there, but they’re not in the correct relationship to each other.

Bellugi has shown as much with a test in which she briefly presents a card with a large letter D made up of many small Ys and asks children to reproduce what they saw. Normal children reproduce the figure accurately. Children with Down syndrome generally draw a large D, ignoring the little Ys. Children with Williams syndrome, however, will draw a collection of Ys, but it won’t be arranged in the shape of a D. One group seems to see just the forest, while the other sees only the trees.

Cloten and Posthumous

In Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline”, the king’s daughter, Imogen, is in love with Posthumous, who is in exile. Imogen’s stepbrother, Cloten, attempts to woo her away from Posthumous, at the prompting of his mother (and Imogen’s stepmother) the queen. The characters of Cloten and Posthumous are typically played by the same actor, but their actions and personalities couldn’t be more different. Cloten is boorish, completely oblivious, and very physical. Posthumous is chivalrous, intense, and a model of elevated character. Shakespeare provides Cloten with dialogue that is laugh-out-loud funny at several points, and a great parody of a person who can’t see the forest for the trees. “Cymbeline” is one of Shakespeare’s more complicated plays, and I won’t even attempt to summarize the plot here. I’ll just share a sample of the lines that slice so sharply against the physicalist mindset; you’re sure to notice many more if you watch the play yourself.

At one point in the play, Cloten’s advisors tell him that music is a good way to woo a woman. He turns both music and wooing into a hopelessly physical activity, starting his song with human body parts and ending with animal body parts:

I would this music would come: I am advised to give
her music o’ mornings; they say it will penetrate.

Enter Musicians
Come on; tune: if you can penetrate her with your
fingering, so; we’ll try with tongue too: if none
will do, let her remain; but I’ll never give o’er.
First, a very excellent good-conceited thing;
after, a wonderful sweet air, with admirable rich
words to it: and then let her consider.

Hark, hark! the lark at heaven’s gate sings,
And Phoebus ‘gins arise,
His steeds to water at those springs
On chaliced flowers that lies;
And winking Mary-buds begin
To ope their golden eyes:
With every thing that pretty is,
My lady sweet, arise:
Arise, arise.

So, get you gone. If this penetrate, I will
consider your music the better: if it do not, it is
a vice in her ears, which horse-hairs and
calves’-guts, nor the voice of unpaved eunuch to
boot, can never amend.

Eventually, Imogen spurns Cloten, telling him that he is beneath Posthumous’s “meanest garment”. Cloten becomes obsessed with the garment, and with getting revenge.

He never can meet more mischance than come
To be but named of thee. His meanest garment,
That ever hath but clipp’d his body, is dearer
In my respect than all the hairs above thee,
Were they all made such men.

‘His garment!’ Now the devil–

‘His garment!’

You have abused me:
‘His meanest garment!’

I’ll be revenged:
‘His meanest garment!’ Well.

As his hatred of Imogen grows, so does his inability to see her as anything other than parts. He literally can’t see the person for the body parts:

I love and hate her: for she’s fair and royal,
And that she hath all courtly parts more exquisite
Than lady, ladies, woman; from every one
The best she hath, and she, of all compounded,
Outsells them all; I love her therefore: but
Disdaining me and throwing favours on
The low Posthumus slanders so her judgment
That what’s else rare is choked; and in that point
I will conclude to hate her, nay, indeed,
To be revenged upon her.

Like Werther in Goethe’s “Sorrows of Young Werther”, Cloten’s speech becomes hyphenated as he loses his mind. Fixated on the garments, he declares his desire to see both Posthumous and Imogen completely humiliated and subjugated, like so many objects:

Meet thee at Milford-Haven!–I forgot to ask him one
thing; I’ll remember’t anon:–even there, thou
villain Posthumus, will I kill thee. I would these
garments were come. She said upon a time–the
bitterness of it I now belch from my heart–that she
held the very garment of Posthumus in more respect
than my noble and natural person together with the
adornment of my qualities. With that suit upon my
back, will I ravish her: first kill him, and in her
eyes; there shall she see my valour, which will then
be a torment to her contempt. He on the ground, my
speech of insultment ended on his dead body, and
when my lust hath dined,–which, as I say, to vex
her I will execute in the clothes that she so
praised,–to the court I’ll knock her back, foot
her home again. She hath despised me rejoicingly,
and I’ll be merry in my revenge.

The line “knock her back, foot her home” is pure Shakespeare genius. Cloten is now so far gone that he is using body parts as adverbs and verbs! And one can only chuckle at Cloten’s insistence that he is a “natural person”. Indeed!

Cloten dresses himself up in Posthumous’s garments, and determines to cut off Posthumous’s head. He figures that he will get away with it, since his mother (and Imogen’s stepmother) is the queen:

I am near to the place where they should meet, if
Pisanio have mapped it truly. How fit his garments
serve me! Why should his mistress, who was made by
him that made the tailor, not be fit too? the
rather–saving reverence of the word–for ’tis said
a woman’s fitness comes by fits. Therein I must
play the workman. I dare speak it to myself–for it
is not vain-glory for a man and his glass to confer
in his own chamber–I mean, the lines of my body are
as well drawn as his; no less young, more strong,
not beneath him in fortunes, beyond him in the
advantage of the time, above him in birth, alike
conversant in general services, and more remarkable
in single oppositions: yet this imperceiverant
thing loves him in my despite. What mortality is!
Posthumus, thy head, which now is growing upon thy
shoulders, shall within this hour be off; thy
mistress enforced; thy garments cut to pieces before
thy face: and all this done, spurn her home to her
father; who may haply be a little angry for my so
rough usage; but my mother, having power of his
testiness, shall turn all into my commendations.

Very soon after uttering this proclamation against Posthumous, Cloten provokes a young man named Guiderius, and Guiderius cuts Cloten’s head off. Like Haman, Cloten’s own words become his death sentence. His head was at the top of the mountain, now it is beneath the fish of the sea:

With his own sword,
Which he did wave against my throat, I have ta’en
His head from him: I’ll throw’t into the creek
Behind our rock; and let it to the sea,
And tell the fishes he’s the queen’s son, Cloten:
That’s all I reck.

Where’s my brother?
I have sent Cloten’s clotpoll down the stream,
In embassy to his mother: his body’s hostage
For his return.

Of course, it is not fitting for commoners to chop off the heads of nobles, no matter how boorish and clueless those nobles may be. One of the most moving parts of the play comes when Guiderius proudly tells the king that he has murdered Cloten:

Let me end the story:
I slew him there.

Marry, the gods forfend!
I would not thy good deeds should from my lips
Pluck a bard sentence: prithee, valiant youth,
Deny’t again.

I have spoke it, and I did it.

He was a prince.

A most incivil one: the wrongs he did me
Were nothing prince-like; for he did provoke me
With language that would make me spurn the sea,
If it could so roar to me: I cut off’s head;
And am right glad he is not standing here
To tell this tale of mine.

I am sorry for thee:
By thine own tongue thou art condemn’d, and must
Endure our law: thou’rt dead.

This dialogue is clearly intended to mirror the story of Saul’s death in 2 Samuel 1:1-16. While nobody liked Saul or Cloten, neither were fair game for murder. Saul was theanointed, and Cloten was the son of a queen. Just as Cymbeline reluctantly concludes, “by thine own tongue thou art condemn’d”, David says, “Your blood be on your own head. Your own mouth testified against you”.

In Shakespeare’s version of the story, though, Guiderius is shown to be even more noble than the noble Cloten, and is thus redeemed. While it takes noble blood to redeem Guiderius, we also see that Guiderius is in every manner of action more noble than Cloten. His confession is not a witless blunder against sovereign order, but is instead an affirmation of noble principles that he was willing to die for: “With language that would make me spurn the sea, If it could so roar to me: I cut off’s head”.

Like all good fairy tales, the story ends happily.

Raging Against the Void

avalokitesvaraI had heard Rinpoche’s teachings about compassion before, and they had seemed innocent enough. But that night, listening to him speak, it suddenly dawned on me that he was teaching something terrible and inhuman. You see, Buddhists teach that love is a means to an end. By responding to the suffering of others, they say, we let go of our selfish egos, learn the illusory nature of the “self”, and open ourselves to the realization that nothing has a permanent, enduring identity. Understanding that nothing has essential, enduring identity (Sunyata), is essential for achieving Nirvana, says Nagarjuna.

A good humanist might react with revulsion. Using “love” to achieve some other end? Isn’t that called “prostitution”? Using love in a way that is not directed towards enduring personhood? Isn’t that Onanism, Cronus-like, or worse? Instinctively, we feel that love should be the ultimate end, not a means. Love is a fruit, not a seed. A Nirvana that leaves personal love behind seems, to many, to be a Hell.

Some Buddhists have responded by arguing that these objections are a symptom of our selfish egos. If only we dropped our egotistical attachment to identity, they say, we would realize it’s a good thing when people let go of self-reference. The most loving and compassionate thing we could do for anyone would be to hasten along their abandonment of miserable self-reference. Redefining “compassion” to mean “elimination of the identity” is repulsive to the layman. We can’t blame those who hear this and think of “I love you, I’ll kill you”.

The story of Avalokitesvara, developed most fully by the Tibetans, is the best Buddhist answer. In the story, developed hundreds of years after Christ, Avalokitesvara was ready to ascend to Nirvana. However, he looked back and saw the suffering of all the beings who were left behind. Out of love for all, Avalokitesvara refuses to ascend to Nirvana until all other beings have been rescued. In Buddhism, the beings who are ready to attain Nirvana, but remain in this world out of compassion for the lost, are known as Bodhisattvas. Thus, Avalokitesvara is the personification of the vows of all Bodhisattvas.

It’s a beautiful story. According to the Tibetans, Avalokitesvara is the great creator, the father and first king of the Tibetan people, and the Dalai Lama is considered to be an incarnation of this Bodhisttva. This is love, right? Avalokitesvara sees the suffering of all beings and weeps. In his tears, he is driven to make a great sacrifice. He stays in this plane of suffering in order to save all of those who remain behind. You could say it’s almost Christ-like.

Except, it’s not. In the touching stories about the weeping and tears of the Bodhisattva, it’s easy to forget what he’s holding out for. It’s easy to forget what is on the other side of his “love”. Sunyata, the true nature of things, can be translated as “void”. Where are the tears for those who cease to exist as individuals? Where is the rage against the void?

For the Tibetans, the void is typically symbolized by the sky. The sky in Tibet is not the life-giving place that most of us think of when we think of the sky. The climate is arid and cold; warmth is rare, and rain is rarer. Tibet is the one place on earth where you can get frostbite and sunburn in the same day. The oxygen is thin; the air tends to kill infants who don’t have a specific genetic mutation.

According to one version of the Tibetan myth, Avalokitesvara was asked by Buddha to establish a kingdom on the rooftop of the world, to reign until all beings have abandoned self-reference. Avalokitesvara sits atop the highest throne on earth, beckoning all souls to the great void above him, where there are no eternal souls, no resurrected bodies.

Ben Bulben

Gyres run on;
When that greater dream had gone
Calvert and Wilson, Blake and Claude,
Prepared a rest for the people of God,
Palmer’s phrase, but after that
Confusion fell upon our thought.

Irish poets, learn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.


These lines from Yeats’ final poem, “Under Ben Bulben“, remind me of the scene in Homer’s “Odyssey” where Odysseus returns to find the young men camped out in his house attempting to woo Penelope. These young men regard themselves as entitled heirs of Odysseus’s estate, strong and fit to take over from the old man. Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus challenges them to draw Odysseus’s bow, with Penelope agreeing to marry the man who can shoot an arrow accurately from Odysseus’s bow.

These young men, full of strength and pride, soon find that they are unfit to even draw the bow. Odysseus finally draws the bow, shoots the arrow accurately, and then the old man proceeds to slaughter all of the prideful young pretenders.

Yeats himself experienced something vaguely reminiscent of this when he was forced to evict a young and proud Aliester Crowley from the Golden Dawn. And in this poem, Yeats’ praise of Blake is right on. Who today is fit to draw the bow of William Blake, or even Yeats? Every generation has plenty of Antinouses and Eurymachuses, but ever fewer true giants.

Chess is Violence

chess-boxing Chess is typically considered to be a passive activity closely associated with mental pursuits like philosophy and poetry.  Most people would never mentally categorize chess alongside wrestling or boxing.  And indeed, it is this apparent contrast that makes the sport of “chess boxing” so idiosyncratic.

Of course, major chess tournaments are advertised as battles between titans, but the relationship between chess and violence goes far deeper than metaphor.  Chess is violence.  Chess is about unilaterally imposing your will on another human being, while he tries desperately to avoid having your will impose.  And if you fail, his will will crush yours.  Some might argue that all two-opponent games could be tarred with this same brush of “violence”.  But no other voluntary game presents such a distilled essence of violence, except perhaps for the middle game and tesuji of the game of Go.

Violence is about will power.  With physical violence, the body is simply an instrument of the will.  In fact, wrestling could be seen as half cooperative dance, and half violence.  Boxing is much closer to pure violence.  And chess is pure violence – all that is preserved is the ruthless wills locked in combat.

To understand why chess is unique, you need to consider what other sorts of non-violent mental activities can be involved in games.  Cooperation, clarity of communication, pun and fancy, metaphor, narrative, empathy, persuasion, seduction, estimation of probabilities, and so on.  None of these mental skills are very important to chess, and are not developed with chess practice.  To become great at chess, you need brute force mental capability and extreme will power and concentration.  Your killer instinct and desire to crush the opponent needs to be strong and sustained over much longer periods than in the typical physical confrontation.  There is a reason that chess is physically exhausting, and that chess masters often go mad.

What else compares?  Maybe only love.  As Shakespeare said, “all’s fair in love and war”.  St. Paul gave the most beautiful definition of love in his letter to the Corinthians, saying that “love is not self-seeking”.  We all know that most human love affairs are completely the opposite of St. Paul’s description, and end up looking a lot like chess boxing: periods of intense mental calculation and scheming punctuated by bouts of overwhelming physicality.


Note that this is not a criticism of chess.  I personally enjoy the intensity of chess.  And when I play Go, I often play on a smaller board, to increase the element of battle and will power and to reduce the component of broad strategy that is critical on a larger board.  I am simply arguing that chess is a fun game because it strengthens and exercises the selfish will; a point which I intend to revisit in a future post about C.S. Lewis’s “Bulverism” and the “ad hominem” fallacy.