Schopenhauer freed himself only partially from these ideas. Schopenhauer traced most human actions to the unconscious, the “will”; thus he reduced the importance of the rational soul, of reason. But Schopenhauer thought that man could deny the will, that is, sever himself from his unconscious. This, according to Schopenhauer, was the goal of life: deny the will, and thus become a saint or a genius. The greatest achievements in the moral sphere and in the intellectual sphere were, in Schopenhauer’s view, the products of pure intellect, of the mind separated from the unconscious.
Nietzsche and Freud went further than Schopenhauer. They agreed with Schopenhauer that man had much in common with animals, that consciousness was merely a skin over the unconscious, and that people were driven by unconscious forces, especially by a powerful sexual drive. But they disagreed with Schopenhauer about the possibility of denying the will, of breaking away from the unconscious. Schopenhauer had said that the saint and the genius attained a higher level of being, transcended their animal nature, and reached the realm of pure intellect. Nietzsche and Freud argued that all men, including the saint and the genius, were driven by unconscious forces.
Nietzsche and Freud said that pure intellect didn’t exist, that the intellect was always influenced by the body and by unconscious forces, and that even great artists and philosophers were influenced by unconscious forces. According to Nietzsche and Freud, man wasn’t halfway between animals and God, man was part of the animal world, and couldn’t transcend his animal nature. Even man’s loftiest flights in the sphere of culture and religion were attempts to live better, to make life pleasanter, to organize life better.
Nietzsche and Freud were rational thinkers, with little respect for Eastern philosophy, for occult powers, or for spiritual impulses. Their view of human nature is reductive; they tend to reduce human nature to “nothing but” biological impulses. It must be admitted, however, that Nietzsche and Freud made important innovations, and that their thoughts on man’s instincts can contribute to our understanding of human nature. The biological viewpoint may not be the whole truth, but it is a part of the truth. To explore this part of the truth, to explore the life- and death-instincts, is the purpose of this chapter.
2. Freud’s View Schopenhauer said that all organic life has the same basic “will” or instinct, a will to life. Nietzsche said that all organic life tries to do more than just live, it tries to enhance itself, to increase its power. Nietzsche replaced Schopenhauer’s theory of a “will to life” with his own theory of a “will to power.”
But Nietzsche’s theory of a will to power has some weaknesses. Though it can explain mankind fairly well, Nietzsche’s theory has difficulty explaining animals and plants. One must distort the meaning of the word “power” before one can say that animals and plants have a will to power. Furthermore, the theory of a will to power exaggerates the importance of the egoistic drives, and overlooks the non-egoistic drives, the altruistic drives. These altruistic drives are found throughout the organic world — among plants, animals and human beings. They’re especially evident among social animals, such as ants and bees.
Freud’s theory of life- and death-instincts doesn’t have the weaknesses of Nietzsche’s theory. Freud’s theory unites man with the rest of the organic world. According to Freud’s theory, all organic life has descended from the earliest organic life, and therefore all organic life is related. Plants, animals and humans have the same basic instincts, a life-instinct and a death-instinct. According to Freud’s theory, the life-instinct impels every organism to promote not only itself but also its family, its group or its species. Every organism has some altruistic drives.
3. Tai Chen’s View While Western philosophy moved from an emphasis on reason to an emphasis on instinct, Chinese philosophy followed a similar course. The neo-Confucian school had stressed the importance of reason, but the eighteenth-century thinker Tai Chen stressed the importance of instinct. According to Tai Chen, there is no pure reason, no reason divorced from passion and instinct. Tai Chen traced morality not to an abstract sense of good or reason or justice, but rather to man’s basic drives and instincts. These basic drives, in his view, were not merely egoistic. Virtue consists not in repressing these basic drives, but in making use of them in a balanced way.
4. Pleasure and Sex are often put forward as the goals toward which human nature strives. Early in his career, Freud expounded his “pleasure principle”: man’s primary goal was pleasure, and man’s primary pleasure was sex. But late in his career, Freud expounded his theory of the life- and death-instincts, and argued that pleasure and sex weren’t man’s primary goals.
Sexual pleasure is the bait by which man is induced to reproduce. By rewarding man with sexual pleasure, the life-instinct induces man to accomplish its purpose, which is reproduction. According to Freud, man is a creature of the life- and death-instincts, just as animals and plants are, and the life-instinct prompts man to reproduce, just as it prompts animals and plants to reproduce. Reproduction is the end, pleasure and sex are merely the means. According to Freud, when human nature is stripped of its trappings, and reduced to its essence, man’s basic motives are the same as those of animals and plants. The life- and death-instincts are the driving forces of all organic life.
5. Death Instinct The influence of the life-instinct can be seen in many of our actions; indeed, the influence of the life-instinct can be seen in our very existence. The death-instinct, on the other hand, remains backstage and usually escapes attention. A few observers, however, have detected the existence of the death-instinct. Jung, for example, said, “it is as if the libido were not only a ceaseless forward movement... like the sun, the libido also wills its own descent.” When Tolstoy was about fifty, he felt a death-instinct within himself: “An invincible force impelled me to get rid of my existence. It cannot be said exactly that I wished to kill myself, for the force which drew me away from life was fuller, more powerful, more general than any mere desire.”1 Seneca, the Roman philosopher, also noticed the death-instinct; “one must avoid that emotion,” wrote Seneca, “which has seized many people — the lust for dying.” And Dickens wrote thus of the death-instinct: “In seasons of pestilence, some of us will have a secret attraction to the disease — a terrible passing inclination to die of it.” Nietzsche spoke of “those death-seeking mass deliria whose dreadful cry ‘evviva la morte’ [long live death] was heard all over Europe.”2
6. Balance of Power Every organism is a combination of the life-instinct and the death-instinct. Since the death-instinct shares power with the life-instinct, it usually doesn’t bring about the death of the organism to which it belongs. The death-instinct doesn’t prevent one from living, but it does put a brake on activity, just as ankle weights don’t prevent a runner from running, but they do reduce his speed.
Lincoln anticipated that he would be assassinated during his second term as President. Though many people advised him to take precautions against assassination, he declined to do so; rather than avoid assassination, he seemed to invite it. At age thirty, van Gogh predicted that he would be dead in six to ten years; he died at age thirty-seven. At age twenty-nine, Kierkegaard, though his health was sound, wrote: “I have not long to live (I have a feeling) and I have never expected to”; he died at age forty-two. Keats, when his health was still intact, foresaw that he would die young; he died at age twenty-five. When Byron was preparing to go to Greece, he foresaw that he would die there; Byron died in Greece at age thirty-six.
Perhaps people will their own death once they’ve done all that they’re capable of doing, once their work is finished. Lincoln, for example, may have felt that, having won the Civil War, his work was finished, and Byron may have felt that his creative power had reached its limit.3
8. Not A Cannonball Looking at the accomplishments of a writer who has died young, people often make comments such as, “In view of what Keats accomplished at twenty-three, which is far greater than what Shakespeare or Milton accomplished at twenty-three, I’ve calculated that if Keats lived to be seventy-five, he would have written seven plays better than Hamlet, and three epic poems better than Paradise Lost.” Such reasoning assumes that the accomplishments of genius can be plotted on a graph, like the speed of a cannonball dropped from a rooftop. But genius is fickle, moody and unpredictable; it has an ebb and flow that can’t be expressed in an equation. Genius defies mathematics.
A genius who lives to a ripe old age doesn’t usually accomplish much in his twenties; he works slowly and paces himself, anticipating that he’ll have time to work later. Conversely, a genius who dies young usually works with great intensity, anticipating that death is near. Genius anticipates how much time it has to do its work, and paces itself accordingly.
It’s useless to speculate on what Keats would have accomplished if he had lived to be seventy-five. His early death was an expression of his personality, just as his poetry was; to say, “if Keats hadn’t died young” is like saying, “if Keats hadn’t been a poet.” Keats was destined to die young, just as he was destined to be a poet. To say that Keats would have accomplished more than Shakespeare if he had lived to be seventy-five is like saying, “since John ran a mile in 4 minutes, he can run 26 miles in 104 minutes, which means he can easily win a gold medal in the marathon.”
9. Indirect Suicide Sickness often affects those who want to be sick, while those who don’t want to be sick can often overcome sickness. Accidents, like sicknesses, often come to those who desire them. The desire to have an accident is sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious. Abraham spoke of,
Oscar Wilde was the cause of his own trial, conviction, and imprisonment; Wilde’s decline and early death was a prolonged and disguised suicide. Wilde was aware of his own self-destructive impulses, and was puzzled by them; Wilde asked, “Why is it that one runs to one’s ruin? Why has destruction such a fascination?”4
Death in war, like execution, sometimes comes to those who desire it. An unconscious desire to die impels a soldier to act in a way that brings about his death. Conversely, a soldier who is determined to survive can fight courageously, yet still manage to avoid death. Napoleon, for example, was in the thick of numerous battles, and had nineteen horses killed from under him, yet managed to avoid death.
Insanity, too, sometimes comes to those who desire it. Nietzsche, for example, seemed to desire insanity as a way of escaping from the pressures of life. Just as many writers anticipated death, Nietzsche anticipated insanity. Hence Nietzsche wrote his autobiography, and summed up his life and work, when he was just forty-five. When Nietzsche finally became insane, one of his friends said that he acted as if he were glad at how things had turned out.
10. Will to Live A long life, like a premature death, is often voluntary; just as some people die as a result of their own desire to die, so too others have a long life as a result of their own desire to have a long life. Thomas Mann was one such person. At age thirty-five, Mann wrote thus of the protagonist of “Death in Venice”:
Mann lived to be eighty. George Bernard Shaw, who discussed the desirability of a long life, and speculated about prolonging life indefinitely, lived to be ninety-four.
11. Welcoming Death If people have a death-instinct, why do they fear death? When people fear death, they sometimes fear not death itself, but their own unconscious desire to die. The fear of death is sometimes the result of discord between consciousness and the unconscious; man’s consciousness cannot reconcile itself to his unconscious desire to die, and tries to repress this desire. Repression causes fear of that which is repressed, in other words, fear of one’s own desire to die. An analogous situation is the fear of heights, which Freud thought might conceal an unconscious desire to fall to one’s death.
The psychic evolution of man, which eliminates the repressions of primitive man and produces concord between consciousness and the unconscious, may eliminate the fear of death. Man’s whole being, including his consciousness, may someday welcome death, or at least accept it, just as now man’s unconscious often welcomes death.
In Eastern writers, one sometimes finds an acceptance of death, even a welcoming of death. Rabindranath Tagore, one of India’s most famous poets, embraced death with a kind of ecstasy. Tagore was a mystic who affirmed existence in general, affirmed both life and death.
Tagore’s attitude toward death contrasts sharply with Tolstoy’s; Tolstoy said that, throughout his life, he “feared and hated death.”6 As Tagore represents an extreme of accepting death, so Tolstoy represents an extreme of fearing death. Are these just individual reactions, or are they typical of the Indian and the Russian?
A non-Western writer, like Tagore, is more in harmony with his body, with his feelings, than a Western writer; in the words of Alan Watts, the non-Western writer is “more sensitive to the feelings and impulses of the whole organism.” When the “whole organism” is ready for death, a person like Tagore senses that readiness, and ‘goes with it’ instead of struggling against it.
A Western writer, on the other hand, is apt to sharpen his consciousness by repressing his unconscious, his feelings, his body. A Western writer is apt to be insensitive to the “feelings and impulses of the whole organism.” Though his body may desire death, he resists this desire, he doesn’t ‘go with it.’
If this is true of the West in general, it’s even more true of the northern European than the southern European, since the northern European is more apt to repress his unconscious. When Christianity was brought to northern Europe, northern Europeans were still living at a primitive, barbarous level. They weren’t ready for Christianity, which was the fruit of an older, more civilized society. They could only receive Christianity through a kind of violence, a violence that pitted the mind against the body, a violence that repressed feelings and impulses.7
Just as the inner conflict was more intense in northern Europe than in southern Europe, so too it was more intense in Russia than in northern Europe, since Russia was more primitive than northern Europe — more precisely, Russia in 1700 was more primitive than northern Europe in 1700. Russia had its “middle ages” later than northern Europe did; Russia had its period of violent inner conflict later than northern Europe did. Just as European culture was stimulated by its inner conflict, so too Russian culture was stimulated by its inner conflict; this inner conflict, this tension, doubtless contributed to the flourishing of Russian literature in the 19th century. If the West was conflicted, Russia was more so; if the West was rational, Russia was more so. Tolstoy is a rational thinker who tried to strip the irrational elements out of Christianity; he tried to make Christianity rational. Tolstoy loathed Shakespeare because Shakespeare had a Hermetic worldview, not a rational worldview. The inner conflict in Tolstoy (and other Russians) caused him to lose touch with his feelings and his body, and to fear death. Tagore felt that the thought of death made everything precious — every life, every blade of grass, every day. Tolstoy, on the other hand, felt that the thought of death made everything worthless; nothing in life had any value, Tolstoy thought, because it would all end in death.
13. Riddle Bring yourself back to the time when there was no life on earth. No life could arise that wasn’t controlled by the life- and death-instincts, since organic life is a manifestation of these instincts. But how could the life- and death-instincts themselves arise? And what do the life- and death-instincts actually consist of?
These are questions we can’t answer. We must be content to state the laws that describe the behavior of the life- and death-instincts, though we’re ignorant of what these instincts actually are, just as Newton was content to state the laws of gravity though he was ignorant of what gravity actually was, just as quantum physics doesn’t know what a quantum actually is. As Schopenhauer said,
14. One, Many The metaphysician tries to find the one in the many, the one constant factor in a world of different things, the thing-in-itself that lies underneath the variety of phenomena. Schopenhauer thought that he had discovered the one in the many, the one constant factor, the thing-in-itself; Schopenhauer said that the “will” was the thing-in-itself, and that at the core of all individual things was the will. The will was true being, and true being must be one and undivided. Since the will was true being, it had to underlie everything, hence Schopenhauer ascribed the will even to inanimate objects, such as rocks.
The life- and death-instincts, like Schopenhauer’s “will,” can be viewed as the one in the many, the thing-in-itself. Instead of speaking of two separate instincts (a life-instinct and a death-instinct), one could speak of two versions of one instinct: a strong, healthy version of the life-instinct, and a weak, tired version of the life-instinct.
But whether one speaks of one instinct or of two instincts, the life- and death-instincts can’t be ascribed to inanimate objects. The theory of the life- and death-instincts sees a sharp division between the animate and the inanimate. The theory of the life- and death-instincts should be supplemented by a more comprehensive view, a view that embraces both the animate and the inanimate; we discussed such a view in earlier chapters.9
15. Nietzsche On Decadence Nietzsche’s theory of a will to power is not as clear, not as comprehensive, as Freud’s theory of life- and death-instincts. But if one looks at Nietzsche’s entire philosophy, one realizes that Nietzsche’s ideas on human nature are similar to Freud’s. Nietzsche thought that every human being represents either ascending life or descending life, either a will to life or a will to death, either renaissance or decadence, either the Dionysian or the Apollinian, either a strong, healthy will to power or a weak, tired will to power. Thus, Nietzsche’s view of human nature was similar to Freud’s theory of life- and death-instincts.10
Freud didn’t attempt to apply his theory of life- and death-instincts to history and culture. Nietzsche, on the other hand, applied his ideas on human nature to history and culture. Nietzsche called certain philosophers renaissance-type and others decadent; he called certain artists renaissance-type and others decadent; he called certain historical epochs renaissance-type and others decadent. For example, Nietzsche called Schopenhauer decadent; he thought that Schopenhauer’s pessimistic, negative attitude toward life was decadent.
Some might say that Schopenhauer took a pessimistic, negative attitude toward life because life really is filled with suffering, the world really is hell, and Schopenhauer had the genius to understand the nature of life and the nature of the world. Nietzsche, however, realized that life is what we perceive it to be, life has no nature independent of our perception. Therefore, any general judgment about life teaches us about the judge, not about life. For example, when Schopenhauer passes a negative judgment on life, he teaches us about his own nature, not about life; when Schopenhauer passes a negative judgment on life, he reveals that he himself is decadent.
Nietzsche thought that renaissance-type philosophers and artists, unlike Schopenhauer, had positive, affirmative attitudes toward life. Nietzsche himself wanted to be a renaissance-type philosopher, he wanted to take a positive, affirmative attitude toward life. Nietzsche developed a theory of eternal recurrence, according to which everything that has occurred on earth will eventually occur again. Nietzsche thought that if we accept eternal recurrence, if we accept the repetition of life, then we’re renaissance-type people. On the other hand, if we reject eternal recurrence, if we can’t bear to have life repeated again and again, then we’re decadent. Nietzsche thought that by joyfully accepting eternal recurrence, he affirmed life, as the renaissance people of the past had done. In fact, Nietzsche thought that his acceptance of eternal recurrence was the most powerful affirmation of life ever made.11
16. Shaw’s View The central ideas of a historical period are usually shared by several thinkers, not possessed exclusively by one thinker. In Darwin’s time, for example, the idea of evolution was shared by several thinkers. In Nietzsche’s time, the idea of life- and death-instincts was shared by several thinkers, including Freud, Nietzsche and George Bernard Shaw.
Shaw was interested in philosophy, and expressed philosophical ideas in his plays. Shaw was especially interested in the biological side of philosophy. Shaw spoke of a “Life Force,” and said that the Life Force was obstructed by the forces of “Death and Degeneration.” Shaw argued that the Life Force impels man to serve not only his own personal interests, but the interests of his society and his species.12
17. A New Theory Schopenhauer perceived the importance of unconscious instincts in human nature. But Schopenhauer didn’t perceive a will to death in human nature, he perceived only a will to life. Nietzsche perceived both a will to death and a will to life. Furthermore, Nietzsche pointed out how these two opposing instincts manifested themselves in history and culture.
But Nietzsche never developed a theory of decadence and renaissance based on life- and death-instincts; Nietzsche never developed a philosophy of history. Nietzsche perceived Schopenhauer’s decadence, but he didn’t explain Schopenhauer’s decadence. Nietzsche didn’t explain why certain philosophers, certain artists, and certain historical epochs are decadent, and others are renaissance-type. Nietzsche perceived decadence and renaissance, but didn’t explain them. Nietzsche never developed a systematic theory of decadence and renaissance.
Unlike Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Hegel developed a philosophy of history. Hegel argued that the individual is the product of his time, the product of his society. But Hegel didn’t have a biological perspective on human nature, didn’t understand the importance of the unconscious, and didn’t understand decadence and renaissance.
Philosophy advances by utilizing the insights of earlier thinkers, and filling in the gaps in earlier thinkers. The theories of our time can surpass earlier theories by utilizing Nietzsche’s psychological insights, by filling in the gaps in Hegel’s philosophy of history, and by making the life- and death-instincts the basis of a theory of decadence and renaissance.
18. The Idea of Our Time Individuals live and die, grow and decay, as the result not only of external forces, but also as the result of internal forces, of unconscious forces, of unconscious instincts. Societies are similar to individuals. Like individuals, societies live and die, grow and decay, as the result not only of external forces, but also internal, unconscious forces. If we can understand the unconscious forces that affect societies, then we can understand the phenomena of decadence and renaissance, and deepen our understanding of history.
This deeper understanding of history will give us a deeper understanding of the individual. Since the individual is part of the historical process, and is moved by the forces that move society, this new theory of history is also a new theory of the individual, a new perspective on many branches of the humanities. It must be left to posterity to explore the full implications of this new theory of history; what one generation discovers, the next explores.
This new theory rests on three pillars: Hegel’s theory of society as an organism, Freud’s theory of the life- and death-instincts, and Nietzsche’s theory of decadence. This theory isn’t the final stage in the evolution of philosophy. It’s the idea of our time, not the final chapter in the history of ideas. The next philosophy will go beyond this philosophy, and reach new heights.
19. A Flash of Intuition Only recently, only since the development of the psychology of the unconscious, has it become possible to apply a psychological perspective to history. Earlier philosophies of history — including Hegel’s, Spengler’s and Toynbee’s — have lacked a psychological perspective. A philosophy of history can’t be constructed simply by studying history, it needs the help of philosophy and psychology. It can’t be constructed by laborious research, but only by a flash of intuition. Thus, we shouldn’t expect a philosophy of history from one who specializes in history. (In science, those who make revolutionary discoveries are often people who don’t specialize in the field that they revolutionize. Dalton, for example, who revolutionized chemistry, didn’t specialize in chemistry; Dalton revolutionized chemistry by applying to chemistry insights that he had acquired from meteorology and physics.)
Spengler and Toynbee tried to construct philosophies of history simply by studying history. Since they knew Western history best, their theories reflect the general course of Western history. They tried to apply their view of Western history to other civilizations — to Indian civilization, Chinese civilization, etc. Instead of moving from general ideas to particular cases, they started from a particular case (Western civilization), then tried to move to a general idea, a general theory of history. Spengler and Toynbee were preoccupied with historical research, and didn’t utilize the latest findings of philosophy and psychology, didn’t utilize the findings of Nietzsche, Freud, etc. The works of Spengler and Toynbee fill thousands of pages because they aren’t true philosophies, and aren’t based on intuition.
Ortega had a profound understanding of history, though he didn’t construct his own philosophy of history. In an earlier chapter, we saw that Mill recognized the need for a new religion, but wisely refrained from trying to fill that need himself.13 Likewise, Ortega saw the opportunity for a new philosophy of history, but wisely refrained from trying to seize that opportunity himself. Ortega said, “We are now approaching a splendid flowering of the historic sciences.”14 This splendid flowering would start with bold theory, Ortega said, not with painstaking research.
The philosophy of history set forth in the next chapter combines philosophy, psychology and history, instead of looking only at history. It’s set forth concisely — far more concisely than the theories of Spengler and Toynbee. It aims to describe the forces, the unconscious instincts, that underlie history. But it doesn’t attempt to explain all events or all civilizations, and it doesn’t attempt to predict whether present-day civilization will flourish or perish. Thus, it’s less ambitious than the theories of Spengler and Toynbee. (Likewise, new scientific theories are sometimes less ambitious, and explain less, than earlier theories. For example, the theories of Newton and Lavoisier explained less, in some respects, than earlier theories had explained.15)
The philosophy of history must concentrate on cultural history rather than political history. The human spirit expresses itself more clearly in the cultural sphere than in the political sphere, just as one who sings alone expresses himself more clearly than one who sings in a chorus. In the political sphere, the human spirit interacts with foreign countries, with the physical environment, etc. Since events in the political sphere are shaped by a multitude of factors, it’s difficult to describe the role of unconscious instincts in political history. In the cultural sphere, on the other hand, there are fewer factors shaping events, and the role of unconscious instincts is clearer. Though the philosophy of history can deepen our understanding of political history, its primary focus must be on cultural history, on showing how unconscious instincts affect culture, and cause decadence and renaissance.