Noise, Human Natu re and Democracy
Written by Sophie van der Linden
I imagine Arthur Schopenhauer would have been happy to die. He had little time for most people and didn't think much of worldly matters. He viewed himself as homeless. The world could not be called his home as it lacked warmth, cordiality and safety. According to its very nature the world was an intensely painful place to be stuck in. He was a frustrated man who had few friends, was abandoned by his family and could not find requited romantic love. His philosophy is like no other and his brutal honesty and satire entirely loveable. Schopenhauer spent most of his life thinking great thoughts albeit adding to his frustration they were not recognized until his last years. Years later Schopenhauer declared the nemesis of any serious intellect to be noise. I hope to explore my world through the thoughts of Arthur Schopenhauer.
Like many philosophies Schopenhauer's metaphysics emerged from wonder. Not wonder corresponding with amazement or awe but the wonder of why the world is such a vile and desolate place. He thought quite literally, "life swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom" . The world is merely representation therefore we cannot look to it for answers about what things really are. The energy force at the center of all things and what causes our representations is demonic energy force called will. The will is blind and it infests everything on earth, humans, animals and inanimate objects. We cannot escape it; it is what propels life forward. It means everything is striving and never satisfied and nothing will ever reach its goals. Therefore everything is eternally frustrated and unhappy. This means that at its very heart, the universe is laden with purposelessness, meaningless conflicts and irrationality. All life endeavors toward nourishment, preservation and existence. As will is the life force of all things this means the will simultaneously nourishes and destroys itself at every moment. The will is Ouroboros the serpent biting its own tail for infinity. Humans are selfinterested self-promoting creatures who are egotistical at the very essence of our beings. Schopenhauer argues we are always in quest of something implying we are always deficient. We cannot achieve lasting happiness through getting what we want, because there is always more ad infinitum. The fulfillment of desire makes man bored merely opening the gap for another desire. Most humans are completely enchained in will, chasing desires futilely or being bored to death. At the end of all our grappling and grasping for what we think will make us happy (and never does) we are faced with the inevitability of death, the direct opposition to the life-loving will – and our ultimate fear. We are eternally incomplete. This is why Schopenhauer states, "all life is suffering". Remember, you are going to rot.
Schopenhauer thought that most of us would live and die as egoists with most humans never realizing that the nature of things is so horrid. The lower a person's intelligence the more he felt at home in the world. These people are at conflict with everything about the world including other humans and themselves. This means that each of us always jumps first, we are selfinterested and we are ready to cut others down and seize opportunities for ourselves. We are all always scrambling over each other to get to the top. Reality is only what each person knows and the common man takes representation to be absolute truth, so empathy or sympathy isn't easy, either. Schopenhauer argued that humans aren't supposed to be social and are never truly free until they find inner peace and deny will, alone. The disease of will is hard to cure. It is a Hobbesian state of all against all.
His view of common people was very cynical. He believed that mankind was naturally divided by intellect, with the majority being lower. He saw himself as part of the intellectual elite and had little time for ordinary people. He found them annoying. He was frustrated by them, thought they could not be helped, they were insensible, ill mannered and vulgar. Most humans would never question their existence because for them the world is hardly mysterious, because they think their knowledge exhausts all there is. Other people are a nuisance; they are something we just have to put up with. He speaks of Germans of his time saying that they smoke and slam doors instead of think. A specific characteristic that demonstrates their stupidity and obtuseness, is their toleration and making of pointless noise. Schopenhauer called this a direct proof of "dullness and poverty of thought" .
Noise silences the brain, hushing and suppressing thought processes in favor of distractions. The simplest sound can throw a person off their mental track, forgetting their train of thought. Toward the end of his life Schopenhauer declared noise as the ultimate ailment of mankind. It made him sick and wrapped chains around the human mind, "depriv(ing) life of all peace and sensibility" . Thoughts are dropped and then shattered into pieces when interrupted. Schopenhauer likens the impact on noise to thought to a diamond being cut up into pieces or an army scattered into merely men. The diamond loses its value as a whole, the army its strength and power.
For thinking to be successful or productive, the brain must be focused on just one particular thing, a task made difficult by noise. He believed only those with an extremely strong mind could overcome noise and "those who are not sensitive to noise… are not sensitive to any kind of intellectual impression: a fact to be assigned to the coarse quality and strong texture of their brain tissues" . It could follow that the majority of human beings didn't know what it was to think deeply because they were always so over-stimulated. Schopenhauer wrote of his hatred for doors slamming, dogs barking, things hammering and tumbling. He specifies the most piercing offensive noise of his time to be whips cracking. "I would like to know how many great and splendid thoughts these whips have cracked out of the world" . Compared with today Schopenhauer's examples of troubling noises are almost laughable. The racket of our everyday lives would likely send Schopenhauer into shock. Traffic, dogs barking and doors slamming seem to barely be noticeable and blend into silence in our busy lives. For contemporary society noise is extended to refer to the visual also, as we are swarmed with advertising, we are constantly over-stimulated and don't even seem to realize. In the cities we are blanketed by a constant hum of bustling city life at even the quietest of times that we do not seem to even notice. In our homes the persistent vibration of the fridge, the whirr of air-conditioning or heating, never mind the digital noises screaming from our mobile devices.
There are so many things we experience in our contemporary lives that we have very little say about. If we wish to be active participants in modern society, have a job, family and friends there is so much noise we cannot escape. We are bombarded with imagery and told, consciously or subconsciously how to think. With the rapid transitions of phenomena like Facebook, TV, advertising, smartphones and tablets I doubt many would argue with the fact that we are tempted away from productive thoughts and activities all the time. Even when we try to educate ourselves online there is so much information out there we are simply baffled. I would argue that noise has multiplied excessively and intensely in our lifetime but most of us don't seem bothered or aware, we are too entertained. The distraction in our lives means we have little time or means to contemplate or reflect on ourselves, or the world we find ourselves in (which Schopenhauer suggests we ought to do to achieve peace and happiness).
In our lives today Schopenhauer might argue we do not get the silence we need for serious thinkers to emerge, or even to think authentically at all. Only a select few of us have enough determination and will power to isolate themselves both from the will and from the commanding noises of day to day living in order to make something of his brain. Is the society we live in dependent on our quiet and passivity? Are we encouraged to be passive spectators, not to care, or to be neutral? This is something I thought excessively about in the weeks coming up to the recent election. Every media outlet was spewing out information constantly on billboards, the TV news, banners, public talks, television ads, pamphlets, books, radio and newspaper. Even driving through some of the most remote areas of New Zealand there were big bright shiny sparkly new National Party billboards. This intense noise propelled at society from every angle is easily dizzying; we are told everything is for the best and everything is right. We are fed masses of hyped up superficial information that skims over the heart of real issues. It is more concerned with smearing the opposition and personal issues things we might find scandalous or entertaining. We are not given time to process. Why is it only on Election Day that this mass feeding of information is halted? It's such bad offense to talk politics on Election Day that fines are imposed for breaking electoral law. Meanwhile every day up to the election we are going about our lives to come home to the news, ads and television leaking information into our brains whether we know it or not, taking up our cognitive space and filling our minds with goodness knows what. It is a game all in all demonstrative of greed and power control. Some people are overwhelmed and some stay out of it completely believing politics is too complicated and a realm above them. Some might get riled up for the wrong reasons. Some feel an affinity and trust to parties based on untrue or superficial information.
Sure we can vote for who's in parliament and sure this could be argued that ‘New-Zealand has spoken', but the only freedom we really have is that one vote. The decisions made from there that have potential to derail our agency and freedom are not ours. An example of this is the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement that our government is negotiating presently. If it passes the agreement is destined to have actual, life-altering change on what it means to be a New Zealander. One of the most concerning changes is the Americanization of our healthcare system. Instead of having our own companies regulating what medicines we bring and use in the country, we will be largely bypassed by larger international pharmaceutical companies. With decisions as big as this that are clearly financial and economic at heart lessening the autonomy of New Zealanders, there is little official platform for refusal, as the government speaks representatively of New Zealanders. This is worrying especially when democracy is dependent on a knowing public to be looked after by a government. The TPP A is being negotiated in secret. We are not told the finer details or what other implications it will have and once its signed, we cannot turn back. This is worrying when such big decisions made by our government need to be transparent.
Schopenhauer's theory of what makes a good person also seems to be at odds with democracy. Schopenhauer asserts that if we are to be good, selfless people we need to abolish will and takes on the suffering of the world as our own. This seems inherently opposed to the goals of politicians. We must trust and be confident in their ability to be good people with other people's interest in their hearts. If we are all egotistically centered like Schopenhauer says, a democratic system at its very conception is making a beeline for corruption. There should be other outlets and voices for change to be implemented. The people should be louder than the leaders. "We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered… that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe."