There is an inherent process in nature that drives complexity forward, a driving force that seems to exist in all organisms, from the minutest of life forms such as bacteria to larger mammals like us human beings. This driving force has been noticed by many insightful people throughout history, the most influential one being Charles Darwin. The interpretation of natural science of this process in nature was named evolution, but there have been many interpretations of this natural phenomena. Not least by the German intellectual giant Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860), as he gave his own philosophical interpretation of this process, which he called “will to life”.
In Schopenhauer’s philosophy, the will to life was/is a “blind incessant impulse” that permeates every living organism, from vegetables and fruits to more complex animals like us human beings, to pursue life. He considered this will to life to be unfathomable from an intellectual point of view, and in the end, meaningless and futile, in its uninterrupted and incessant pursuit of life.
This process and phenomena was regarded by Schopenhauer as something fundamentally dismal that one should escape, preferably and most efficiently through the arts, philosophy and music. Schopenhauer’s worldview was something a kin to the Hindu and Buddhist view on the futility of samsara. He is thus remembered as being a pessimist philosopher.
Schopenhauer had already presented the essence of human beings as a natural drive, an irrational life force. Life appeared as a meaningless, insatiable endeavour, and only artistic contemplation offered momentary respite from its frantic tumult.
Schopenhauer’s concept of will to life can be said to consist of several branches and can be explored and understood from its metaphysical, psychological and biological implications. Thus, the will to life is not merely a study of a certain phenomena existing outside/inside in nature as is case for the biologist, but for Schopenhauer there is just as much to study and understand in regards to the subjective experience of a person.
If you dive deeper into the metaphysical aspect of the will to life, you can observe that Schopenhauer views the will as something that is simultaneously outside and within time. When it is within time, or when it “creates the world”, it manifests as we know it in its all varied diversity of names and forms. Moreover the will to life is impersonal and amoral and thus understood to be beyond good and evil. In itself, it is independent and all-powerful, but when it is “objectified” the wheel begins to turn and the phenomenal world arises.
The essentials of the will to life
Here below I’ve done a summary and compilation of all the essential and central aspects pertaining to Schopenhauer’s concept of the will to life:
- It is impersonal and non-moral and thus beyond good and evil.
- It is the origin of the infinite diversity of phenomena, since phenomena and matter are merely objectifications of it.
- In itself, the will to life is uniform, unchanging and unconditional.
- The subjective will of individual people is just an objectification of the will.
- The will is irrational, blind and meaningless.
- The will to life or the “will to self” is an unfathomable endeavour for life, which for humans means meaningless suffering.
In this section I’ve collected a handful of illuminating quotes pertaining to the will to life from his magnum opus The World as Will and Representation.
For it is not the individual, but only the species that Nature cares for, and for the preservation of which she so earnestly strives, providing for it with the utmost prodigality through the vast surplus of the seed and the great strength of the fructifying impulse.
Spinoza says that if a stone which has been projected through the air, had consciousness, it would believe that it was moving of its own free will. I add this only, that the stone would be right. The impulse given it is for the stone what the motive is for me, and what in the case of the stone appears as cohesion, gravitation, rigidity, is in its inner nature the same as that which I recognise in myself as will, and what the stone also, if knowledge were given to it, would recognise as will.
Thus everywhere in nature we see strife, conflict, and alternation of victory, and in it we shall come to recognise more distinctly that variance with itself which is essential to the will. Every grade of the objectification of will fights for the matter, the space, and the time of the others. The permanent matter must constantly change its form ; for under the guidance of causality, mechanical, physical, chemical, and organic phenomena, eagerly striving to appear, wrest the matter from each other, for each desires to reveal its own Idea. This strife may be followed through the whole of nature; indeed nature exists only through it.
Yet this strife itself is only the revelation of that variance with itself which is essential to the will. This universal conflict becomes most distinctly visible in the animal kingdom. For animals have the whole of the vegetable kingdom for their food, and even within the animal kingdom every beast is the prey and the food of another ; that is, the matter in which its Idea expresses itself must yield itself to the expression of another Idea, for each animal can only maintain its existence by the constant destruction of some other. Thus the will to live everywhere preys upon itself, and in different forms is its own nourishment, till finally the human race, because it subdues all the others, regards nature as a manufactory for its use. Yet even the human race, as we shall see in the Fourth Book, reveals in itself with most terrible distinctness this conflict, this variance with itself of the will, and we find homo homini hvpus. Mean- while we can recognise this strife, this subjugation, just as well in the lower grades of the objectification of will.
As for man, he must be fully investigated and tested, for reason makes him capable of a high degree of dissimulation. The beast is as much more naive than the man as the plant is more naive than the beast. In the beast we see the will to live more naked, as it were, than in the man, in whom it is clothed with so much knowledge, and is, moreover, so veiled through the capacity for dissimulation, that it is almost only by chance, and here and there, that its true nature becomes apparent. In the plant it shows itself quite naked, but also much weaker, as mere blind striving for existence without end or aim.
Will is the thing – in – itself, the inner content, the essence of the world. Life, the visible world, the phenomenon, is only the mirror of the will. Therefore life accompanies the will as inseparably as the shadow accompanies the body ; and if will exists, so will life, the world, exist. Life is, therefore, assured to the will to live ; and so long as we are filled with the will to live we need have no fear for our existence, even in the presence of death. It is true we see the individual come into being and pass away ; but the individual is only phenomenal, exists only for the knowledge which is bound to the principle of sufficient reason, to the principio individuationis. Certainly, for this kind of knowledge, the individual receives his life as a gift, rises out of nothing, then suffers the loss of this gift through death, and returns again to nothing.
For he quite seriously maintains and tries to prove at length, that the shape of each animal species, the weapons peculiar to it, and its organs of every sort destined for outward use, were by no means present at the origin of that species, but have on the contrary come into being gradually in the course of time and through continued generation, in consequence of the exertions of the animals will, evoked by the nature of its position and surroundings, through its own repeated efforts and the habits to which these gave rise.
The form of the world as will. bk. it. this phenomenon is time, space, and causality, and by means of these individuation, which carries with it that the individual must come into being and pass away. But this no more affects the will to live, of whose manifestation the individual is, as it were, only a particular example or specimen, than the death of an individual injures ~the whole of nature. For it is not the individual, but only the species that Nature cares for, and for the preservation of which she so earnestly strives, providing for it with the utmost prodigality through the vast surplus of the seed and the great strength of the fructifying impulse. The individual, on the contrary, neither has nor can have any value for Nature, for her kingdom is infinite time and infinite space, and in these infinite multiplicity of possible individuals. Therefore she is always ready to let the individual fall, and hence it is not only exposed to destruction in a thousand ways by the most insignificant accident, but originally destined for it, and conducted towards it by Nature herself from the moment it has served its end of maintaining the species. Thus Nature naively expresses the great truth that only the Ideas, not the individuals, have, properly speaking, reality, i.e., are complete objectivity of the will. Now, since man is Nature itself, and indeed Nature at the highest grade of its self-consciousness, but Nature is only the objectified will to live, the man who has comprehended and retained this point of view may well console himself, when contemplating his own death and that of his friends, by turning his eyes to the immortal life of Nature, which he himself is. This is the significance of Siva with the lingam, and of those ancient sarcophagi with their pictures of glowing life, which say to the mourning beholder, Natura non contristatur.
Life is assured to the will to live; the form of life is an endless present, no matter how the individuals, the phenomena of the Idea, arise and pass away in time, like fleeting dreams. Thus even already suicide appears to us as a vain and therefore a foolish action ; when we have carried our investigation further it will appear to us in a still less favourable light Dogmas change and our knowledge is deceptive ; but Nature never errs, her procedure is sure, and she never conceals it. Everything is entirely in Nature, and Nature is entire in everything.
Now that such an eternal justice really lies in the nature of the world will soon become completely evident to whoever has grasped the whole of the thought which we have hitherto been developing. The world, in all the multiplicity of its parts and forms, is the manifestation, the objectivity, of the one will to live. Existence itself, and the kind of existence, both as a collective whole and in every part, proceeds from the will alone. The will is free, the will is almighty. The will appears in everything, just as it determines itself in itself and outside time. The world is only the mirror of this willing ; and all finitude, all suffering, all miseries, which it contains, belong to the expression of that which the will wills, are as they are because the will so wills.
In my academic writings in Uppsala I’ve previously written on the similarities and differences between the concept of ‘will to life’ by Schopenhauer and some philosophical aspects of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Chunks of the introduction to this article was translated from my Swedish essay but I might translate the entire piece into English in the near future and share it here on Nirvanic Insights, I think it could be a fascinating read! For now hopefully this clarification of the will to life will prove to you a equally fascinating topic to immerse yourself in.
-  Fin de Siècle: The End of a Century – Nineteenth-Century Europe by Hannu Salmi (p. 134)
Daniel Seeker is a wandering dervish and lifelong student of the past, present and future. He realized that he was made of immaculate and timeless consciousness when meditating in his hermit cave on the island of Gotland. His writings are mostly a reflection of that realizaton. Daniel currently studies history, philosophy, egyptology and western esotericism at Uppsala Universitet. He’s also currently writing his B.A. thesis in history which explores how Buddhist and Hindu texts were first properly translated and introduced to the western world in the late 18th and 19th century.