The rise of human consciousness can be interpreted in different ways. Some hold that human consciousness is a huge development in evolution and is greatly beneficial, being a fundamentally good thing, but others hold that consciousness causes suffering and that we would be better off without it.
Thomas Ligotti, like Arthur Schopenhauer, believes that consciousness is a dangerous and pain-inducing part of human existence. Consciousness causes us to be aware of what we are-creatures that are slowly dying, born for nothing, and destined to die, ultimately, for nothing. He says that ‘most people learn to save themselves by artificially limiting the content of consciousness’, and this is rather obvious today-the phone is the most common way of achieving a state of non-thinking, and people are straight on them as soon as they are awake, throughout the day until before they go to sleep, every day. The phone allows us to limit our consciousness, since a phone user ceases to think. One of the biggest reasons why phones and technology are so widely used is because they are a means which can be used to stop thinking.
Consciousness no doubt has its benefits as well as its flaws, yet perhaps the greatest use of consciousness is to create comedy. Comedy is the use of our reason to create absurdity, and comedy allows us to use our consciousness to laugh at the very thing we are using. Again Ligotti speaks:
‘To my mind, a well-developed sense of humour is the surest indication of a person’s humanity, no matter how black and bitter that humour may be.’
What is art for? Is it to reflect reality or to create something different from it? Is art a way of appreciating what exists, or is it a means of escape, a way out from the real world?
Nietzsche was hugely appreciative of art, particularly music, being a composer himself, and said that without music, ‘life would be nothing’. This idea of the power and importance of art comes from Schopenhauer, and stems originally from Kant, although Kant thought music was a low form of art, opposing Nietzsche who held music in high esteem. It is not clear why we make art, though it seems a necessary part of life, something that most people cannot avoid doing. In some ways it is a form of self-expression. Yet what has occurred to me is that art portrays one thing: a desire for liberation. In this it seems that art is frequently used as a way of escaping reality and taking oneself elsewhere, not as a distraction as such, but more as a will to be someplace else which is, ultimately, purer. Music offers at least a moment of some kind of perfection, even if that perfection is temporary and man-made. And how, then, does one go about the creation of art? Again, Nietzsche must be quoted:
‘For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.’
This is a question which has been asked for centuries, but is there any definitive answer even now? The most common debate is that of relativism and absolutism, whether there are things which are universally right and wrong at all times for all peoples, making morality objective, or whether everything is relative, either culturally or individually, and therefore subjective.
Morality presupposes freedom. If we are not free, then there is no actual morality, just an idea of what it should be like. There is no doubt that societies cannot function without this idea of freedom, otherwise the judicial system would collapse, since nobody could be blamed for anything, since no actions are made freely. However, just because societies would not be orderly without the concept of freedom and objective morality, this does not necessarily mean that freedom and objective morality are actualities. Free will may just be an illusion, and merely provides a basis for responsibility and a system of justice, as well as our brains tricking ourselves into thinking that we are making choices when really we aren’t.
Again, the objectivity of morality seems somewhat absurd. How does one know what is actually right and actually wrong? The general claim is that morality comes from God, thereby making it objective, but what kind of morality is it that comes from God and how do we find this out? There are so many different interpretations of scripture, and religions differ and oppose each other constantly in moral beliefs, all claiming that their own morality is the divine one. It seems to me impossible to reach past our subjective nature to any objective truth about morality. Even if there was a right answer as to what to do, how would we attain this answer without the trouble of subjective interpretation arising?
Morality keeps society orderly and maintains a system or justice, but this system of justice seems based on a set of subjective principles which are then proposed as objective from a standpoint of power. A moral statement seems to be a preference or opinion put forward as a fact. Yet this solves nothing, and the question of what is right and what is wrong may go forever.
The thought of dying can make life seem bitter. Death can propose itself to us as a struggle to be coped with, but only if we let it. The reality of death is inevitable, so it is how we deal with this eventual reality that is crucial, for this may influence our actions now and in the future. If being dead seems terrible, it is because we are clinging onto life, and to hope, too much. Being dead is a tragedy if we expect an excessive amount from life. We are fortunate to be alive at all, let alone forever.
Life is but a break from the state of being dead, and it is an opportunity to explore existence before we return to the ground we came from. Life only becomes bitter if we expect too much from it.
‘To hope is to contradict the future.’ Emil Cioran
In Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses the Golden Mean, the mid-ground between deficiency and excess. For example, in social intercourse, the mean is wit, the deficiency boorishness, and the excess buffoonery. He believes virtue to be in-between the two extremes, and by living the mean we will become virtuous and good people. He admits that acting as the mean suggests is incredibly difficult, and it is easy to slip from the mean into excess or deficiency, since sometimes they are closely related. The question that must follow is whether the mean is always the good thing, or whether excess or deficiency is at times necessary or good. Is the mean the right thing to act upon, or does it breed mediocrity?
Knowing oneself is difficult and tiresome, if at all possible. Nevertheless, knowing what we want is crucial for getting something out of life. Without this knowledge of what we want, we become aimless, and rather than pursuing what we desire, we are taken along with the crowd, chasing whatever the latest craze is.
Knowing what we want should provide a reason for doing what we are doing now: ‘Why am I doing this? Because I want X.’ Why we want X is another question altogether, but knowing what we want enables us to work out what we must do to get what we want.
How, then, do we get to know what we want? This takes time, no doubt, as well as contemplation. What we want depends on our views of life and existence. The reason we think we are here for may in fact be the greatest influence when trying to work out what we want. It isn’t easy, and we may never know what we really want, yet some deliberation may help us realise that what we are currently doing is not worthwhile.