Beyond Desire and Illusion: Schopenhauer vs. Nietzsche on Art and the Will of the World

Schopenhauer posited that our daily comprehension of phenomena is imbued with diverse desires; we consistently construe the elements in our surroundings as objects either gratifying or impeding our desires. For instance, when we gaze upon a chair, we do not merely perceive a composition of wood—seat, backrest, and four supports harmonized in a particular fashion—but rather a chair affording solace for our seated repose. The exigency for repose prevails, and entities manifest in relation to their pertinence to our requisites.

Moreover, Schopenhauer contends that the scientific delineation of entities merely simplifies the nexus between their attributes and our needs through induction. Our demand for a tepid or frigid object is distilled to its thermal nature, while the challenge of relocating it is reduced to its mass or friction. To satiate our progressively intricate needs, scientific abstractions such as electric current, molecular mass, and chemical valence have been conceived to further facilitate the fulfillment of our desires. However, in the ultimate analysis, these scientific abstractions merely expound upon the capacity of entities to gratify our desires, not their intrinsic appearances.

Conversely, art diverges from this paradigm. Schopenhauer avers that genuine art can emancipate us from the entanglement of desires and unveil the essence of entities. In the contemplation of authentic works of art, we enter a realm of selflessness—bereft of the vexations of diverse desires and oblivious to our independent existence apart from the artworks. In this state of selflessness, we apprehend the authentic nature of entities, the embodiment of the world’s will. Schopenhauer posits that the world’s will is the metaphysical origin of all entities, transcending time and space, devoid of observable and classifiable attributes like form and hue. The sole attribute of the world’s will is its perpetual strife: flora burgeons ceaselessly, fauna perpetually preys upon itself, and gravity incessantly hauls objects. Our temporal and spatial distinctions regarding entities exist solely to facilitate the realization of our desires, as aforementioned.

Commonly, it is perceived that Nietzsche inherited Schopenhauer’s aesthetic notions due to the resonance between Nietzsche’s Apollinian and Dionysian art and Schopenhauer’s discourse on representation and world will, aiding in ascertaining life’s significance. Nietzsche posits that the inexorable vicissitudes dealt by fate necessitate justification; otherwise, we risk being ensnared in a pessimistic vortex of purposeless existence. Nietzsche contends that life’s meaninglessness arises not from suffering per se, but from the senselessness of suffering—we endure without cause. Apollinian art, it is often believed, beguiles our perception of suffering akin to Schopenhauer’s representation of the world, providing elevation to tragic events and uncovering meaning in life. The Olympian gods attest to the divinity inherent in human misery, dwelling in a realm subject to fate’s caprice, encountering betrayal, murder, and deceit. This sublimity obscures our comprehension of existence’s essence, impeding further exploration into life’s tragic genesis and enabling serene acceptance of inexplicable tragic occurrences.

Dionysian art, in contrast, rationalizes our suffering by unveiling the metaphysical structure of the world. Nietzsche asserts that the meaning of our existence resides not in appearances but behind them. Many opine that this “behind the appearance” aligns with Schopenhauer’s concept of the world’s will. Nietzsche contends that through the tragic portrayal of personal felicity shattered by the lightning strike of fate, the audience can transcend the fear of personal annihilation, realizing that all existence must brace for a tragic denouement. Amidst the tumult of ever-shifting characters on stage, the foundational existence that underpins all individual existences converges. In this juncture, one comprehends the indomitable nature of foundational existence while concurrently sensing the eternal joy in humanity’s ceaseless creation. At this juncture, “man ceases to be an artist; he becomes a work of art: here, in the quivering inebriation, the artistic potency of the entire nature is demonstrated, attaining the pinnacle of ecstatic ‘Taiwan.'”

Diverging from Schopenhauer’s conviction that individual existence is an illusion spawned by the principle of individuation, Nietzsche’s Apollinian art validates the authenticity of individual existence. The deification and sublimity of life in Apollinian art are absent in Schopenhauer’s aesthetics. Conversely, the somber aspects of life—its tribulations, melancholy, somberness, mishaps, and disquiet—persist in Greek mythology. Following Schopenhauer’s aesthetic trajectory, if the gods epitomize flawless personality, then the gods’ or demigod heroes’ ordeals reinforce the notion that life lacks worth—even the most impeccable beings cannot evade the torments of fate, nor discern a path to circumvent pain. The apotheosis of Apollinian art, we contend, imparts to the audience an exaggeration of humanity’s moral capacity to transcend suffering: “Human virtue can withstand the ravages of fate and radiate even in the darkest moments.”

Illustrating Nietzsche’s philosophical ethos, we might cite the confrontation between Hector and Achilles in “The Iliad.” Hector, cognizant of his impending demise at the hands of Achilles, foresees his family’s subjugation and lamentations, dragged from their abode by the enemy after his demise. Despite being devastated by his fate, Hector opts not to abandon the city with his kin or sacrifice Prince Paris’s head to spare his family from the Greek army. Instead, Hector elects to adhere to his virtues of loyalty and civic obligations, persisting in the struggle until his final breath.

On the eve of his demise, aware that he ventures into perpetual darkness, Hector articulates to his family on Troy’s walls his reluctance to bid them adieu eternally and his contemplations on their impending misery. Rather than easing the bitter pill of fate by dulling his affection for his family, Hector confronts death serenely in the ensuing day’s battle, piercing through the shadows of doom with the brilliance of virtue. Nietzsche encapsulates this sentiment in “The Birth of Tragedy”: “Man, the most precious clay, the most precious marble, is kneaded and carved here, and in response to the sound of the axe-chisel of the Dionysian cosmic artist, the Eleusinian breath sounds. The cry from the Mystery: ‘O people, have you fallen to the ground in awe? O universe, have you realized the Creator?'”

Furthermore, unlike the world’s will in Schopenhauer’s aesthetics, our emulation of Dionysus is essentially a performance, another illusion distinct from Apollinian art. When appreciating tragedy, what we genuinely undergo is a form of role-playing, assuming the guise of the god of wine, thereby diverting our gaze from personal anguish and achieving transient detachment, overlooking the entire world. This revelry in the joy of sexuality is the authentic experience.

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