Artistic Metaphysics

This short essay examines how the evolving views of Schiller, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche relate art to metaphysics, from the backdrop of ancient Greek thought. I will argue that these philosophers endorse art as a potent mechanism of metaphysical understanding, promulgating an optimistic life orientation. In this discourse, art is the application of human creative imagination and skill expression, producing works appreciated primarily for their emotional power. As endorsed by Schiller, art “is closely connected with the better portion of our happiness and not far removed from the moral nobility of human nature” (2). To relate such aesthetic activity to metaphysics, we first need to define metaphysics.

Metaphysics splits into two major divisions, ontology and cosmology. Ontology investigates the essence of being and associated relationships, considering what entities exist or might potentially exist. Cosmology investigates the origin, foundation, and workings of the universe, including the entire space-time continuum and its contents. Originally, metaphysics dealt with first-causes of things, which do not change and from which emanates the objects of experience, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, properties, identity, and possibility. Literally meaning ‘beyond physics,’ the goal of metaphysics is to establish the essence of the universe, thereby understanding the ultimate constitution of existence. Such a fabricated abstract theory goes beyond the appearances of physical reality and roams in the unknown, without objective evidence. In this way, metaphysics becomes a universal discipline that conceptually comprises the necessary cognitive backdrop of everything. Within this paradigm, the concept of reality moves through our thinkers from an idealistic scheme to the state of things as they materialize. Truth is a derived fact or belief that is in accordance with this reality. Virtue is human behavior demonstrating high moral standards, or principles of right/good and wrong/bad. Affirmation of life is the attempt to find something that makes life optimistically positive, thereby indicating value, importance, worth, or usefulness.

Rejecting prior beliefs based on myths comprised of anthropomorphized gods and animal deities, the Pre-Socratic Greeks were the first metaphysicians by virtue of searching for naturalistic explanations. In seeking truth, they were interested in determining the foundation of reality—its cause and process. Believing that the visible world is inadequate to provide answers, they came up with the two-world theory, dividing the universe into two different realities: the apparent physical and the hidden metaphysical. This assumed that behind or above the visible physical world is an invisible metaphysical world, imperceivable but inferable. Furthermore, this metaphysical world is the origin of the physical world. Plato’s metaphysical theory elaborated on this theme, by invoking the problem of universals. In this regard, particular physical objects of their respective kind have in common a perfect universal Ideal Form. The Ideal Form is real while the physical manifestations are but illusionary examples. Because time and contingency belong only to the lower sensual world, the realm of the Forms is eternal and unchanging. Although knowledge of the Forms is more certain than mere sensory data, such knowledge is only obtainable by a few exceptional philosophers after years of training. Ethically the Form of the Good establishes an objective standard for morality. For Plato, art is a distortion of universal Ideal Forms, and this makes the artist an agent of corruption.

Rather than an source of degradation, Schiller presents the artist’s struggle to produce work a process that mirrors the strife between metaphysical spirit and physical matter, as “we know that man is neither exclusively matter nor exclusively spirit” (19). As he elaborates, “art has to leave reality, it has to raise itself bodily above necessity and neediness; for art is the daughter of freedom, and it requires its prescriptions and rules to be furnished by the necessity of spirits and not by that of matter” (3). By imposing form on matter, art is the product of the process of freedom that achieves conquest over time, “completely independent of the arbitrary will of men” (13). In this way, beauty functions as a substantive metaphysical concept denoting harmony. Let the artist endeavor to realize the Ideal, “by the union of the possible and of the necessary. Let him stamp illusion and truth with the effigy of this ideal; let him apply it to the play of his imagination and his most serious actions, in short, to all sensuous and spiritual forms; then let him quietly launch his work into infinite time” (13). Channeling Schopenhauer, Schiller claims the infallible effect of the aesthetic is emancipation from the passions (29).

Schopenhauer develops and elaborates a metaphysical system that is an amalgamation of Kant and Plato. He believes that Will is the reality to which all knowledge and reason are dependent. This Will is derived from the Kantian thing-in-itself, the fundamental reality behind the representation/idea that provides the particular content of perceptions (Schopenhauer 426). Furthermore, metaphysical Will is a blind, unquenchable, and pernicious force that produces the apparent physical world and influences all human action. However, acquiescing to the Will’s demand for striving must result in delusion and suffering. Schiller seems to be in agreement, for “who can enjoy life, if he sees into its depths!” (Schopenhauer 278). Aesthetic contemplation and art offer a temporary respite from the futility of life by covering the dreadful truth with a soothing blanket of beauty. But Schopenhauer also employs the Platonic Ideal as a sort of middle ground between Will and representation/idea: “The Platonic Idea . . . is necessarily object, something known, an idea, and is thereby, and only thereby, different from the thing-in-itself (99). He goes on to say the Platonic eternal Forms merely lay aside the subordinate forms of phenomenon. He believes art attempts to depict the Forms by merging the perceiver with the perception, because “as long as our attitude is one of pure perception, all is clear, firm, and certain” (35). From perception and by remaining true to it, “the genuine work of art, can never be false, nor can it be refuted through any passing of time, for it gives us not opinion, but the thing itself” (Schopenhauer 35). In this case, rather than the philosophers, the artists have access to the Ideal. For Schopenhauer, ‘Willing’ generates human desire and lust resulting in misery and pain. Therefore, the goal of the good life is the extinction of Will. This is accessible through aesthetics, for “whenever it presents itself to our gaze all at once, it almost always succeeds in snatching us, although only for a few moments, from subjectivity, from the thraldom of the will, and transferring us into the state of pure knowledge” (197). This knowledge is not universally available, “since the Idea, apprehended and repeated in the work of art, appeals to everyone only according to the measure of his own intellectual worth. For this reason the most excellent works of any art, the noblest productions of genius, must eternally remain sealed books to the dull majority of men, and are inaccessible to them” (Schopenhauer 224). Access to the Ideal Forms is an exclusive club.

Echoing Schopenhauer, Nietzsche thinks only the few who are strong can remain faithful to the earth. The herd has deluded themselves with stories of the existence of an alternate reality, a transcendent dimension where all desires are realized while all failures are redeemed. This is because most people need the solace afforded by belief in a metaphysical world. Plato was one of these weak individuals, unable to accept life as it is, and thus deluded himself with Ideal Forms. Plato claimed art is the imitation of an illusory image and thus belonged to an even lower sphere than the empirical world (Nietzsche 68). But no, “you should first learn the art of comfort in this world, . . . Perhaps then, as men who laugh, you will someday send all attempts at metaphysical solace to Hell—with metaphysics the first to go!” (Nietzsche 12). Thinking that knowledge of a metaphysical world is inaccessible, Nietzsche rejects the two-world theory. This is because he thinks our minds have evolved only to deal with actuality. Nevertheless, if the metaphysical world is preposterous, why is a belief in its existence so prevalent within society? Nietzsche finds the answer in human psychology, postulating that we harbor this irrational belief motivated by fear. We devalue the visible world in a desire to escape suffering. This condemnation of the visible world promotes delusion of the existence of a more perfect and divine realm devoid of fear, suffering, or death. Unfortunately postulating the metaphysical world as the source of the visible world degrades and diminishes the visible world. Because the metaphysical could theoretically exist without the physical, the metaphysical is superior and more valuable. This promotes the negative attitude that the physical realm is nothing but a shadow of the metaphysical realm.

Nietzsche’s own conception of reality is that no matter how horrible and difficult life might be, one must summon the strength not only to endure it, but also to affirm it. The Birth of Tragedy makes clear that acceptance of pessimism offers an element of hope. Although Nietzsche considers much of life reprehensible, in an aesthetically tragic culture one can learn to tolerate this disturbing knowledge (XI). Thus, Nietzsche wishes to investigate “whether affirmation in any sense is possible under these circumstances, and he seems to find that possibility embodied in tragedy [art]” (xxv). Aesthetics and art “can re-direct those repulsive thoughts about the terrible or absurd nature of existence into representations with which man can live” (Nietzsche 40). From Nietzsche’s perspective, the only reality is the one we can experience, and morally judging the physical universe makes no sense. Like a child building sandcastles, “our world is nothing but a momentary configuration of shapes” (Nietzsche xxiv). With no extended purpose other than mere presence, creation and destruction occur indifferently, beyond good and evil. Moreover, “art - and not morality - is the true metaphysical activity of man . . . the existence of the world is justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon” (Nietzsche 8). Art is the supreme human task, able to seduce us into a life worth living.

Works Cited

Schiller, Friedrich. On the Aesthetic Education of Man, In a Series of Letters. Translated by Reginald Snell. Dover, 2004.

Schopenhauer, Arthur, and E F. J. Payne. The World As Will and Representation. New York: Dover Publications, 1966. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, edited by Raymond Geuss. The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Translated by Ronald Speirs. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.