Collected Essays

#4: “How to Look at Television” by Theodor Adorno (All rights reserved to J-Stor)


#3 The Emptiness of Existence by Arthur Schopenhauer

This emptiness finds its expression in the whole form of existence, in the infiniteness of Time and Space as opposed to the finiteness of the individual in both; in the flitting present as the only manner of real existence; in the dependence and relativity of all things; in constantly Becoming without Being; in continually wishing without being satisfied; in an incessant thwarting of one’s efforts, which go to make up life, until victory is won. Time, and the transitoriness of all things, are merely the form under which the will to live, which as the thing-in-itself is imperishable, has revealed to Time the futility of its efforts. Time is that by which at every moment all things become as nothing in our hands, and thereby lose all their true value.

What has been exists no more; and exists just as little as that which hasnever been. But everything that exists has been in the next moment. Hence something belonging to the present, however unimportant it may be, is superior to something important belonging to the past; this is because the former is a reality and related to the latter as something is to nothing.

A man to his astonishment all at once becomes conscious of existing after having been in a state of non-existence for many thousands of years, when, presently again, he returns to a state of non-existence for an equally long time. This cannot possibly be true, says the heart; and even the crude mind, after giving the matter its consideration, must have some sort of presentiment of the ideality of time. This ideality of time, together with that of space, is the key to every true system of metaphysics, because it finds room for quite another order of things than is to be found in nature. This is why Kant is so great.

Of every event in our life it is only for a moment that we can say that itis; after that we must say for ever that it was. Every evening makes us poorer by a day. It would probably make us angry to see this short space of time slipping away, if we were not secretly conscious in the furthest depths of our being that the spring of eternity belongs to us, and that in it we are always able to have life renewed.

Reflections of the nature of those above may, indeed, establish the belief that to enjoy the present, and to make this the purpose of one’s life, is the greatest wisdom; since it is the present alone that is real, everything else being only the play of thought. But such a purpose might just as well be called the greatest folly, for that which in the next moment exists no more, and vanishes as completely as a dream, can never be worth a serious effort.

Our existence is based solely on the ever-fleeting present. Essentially, therefore, it has to take the form of continual motion without there ever being any possibility of our finding the rest after which we are always striving. It is the same as a man running downhill, who falls if he tries to stop, and it is only by his continuing to run on that he keeps on his legs; it is like a pole balanced on one’s finger-tips, or like a planet that would fall into its sun as soon as it stopped hurrying onwards. Hence unrest is the type of existence.

In a world like this, where there is no kind of stability, no possibility of anything lasting, but where everything is thrown into a restless whirlpool of change, where everything hurries on, flies, and is maintained in the balance by a continual advancing and moving, it is impossible to imagine happiness. It cannot dwell where, as Plato says, continual Becoming and never Being is all that takes place. First of all, no man is happy; he strives his whole life long after imaginary happiness, which he seldom attains, and if he does, then it is only to be disillusioned; and as a rule he is shipwrecked in the end and enters the harbour dismasted. Then it is all the same whether he has been happy or unhappy in a life which was made up of a merely ever-changing present and is now at an end.

Meanwhile it surprises one to find, both in the world of human beings and in that of animals, that this great, manifold, and restless motion is sustained and kept going by the medium of two simple impulses — hunger and the instinct of sex, helped perhaps a little by boredom — and that these have the power to form the primum mobile of so complex a machinery, setting in motion the variegated show!

Looking at the matter a little closer, we see at the very outset that the existence of inorganic matter is being constantly attacked by chemical forces which eventually annihilates it. While organic existence is only made possible by continual change of matter, to keep up a perpetual supply of which it must consequently have help from without. Therefore organic life is like balancing a pole on one’s hand; it must be kept in continual motion, and have a constant supply of matter of which it is continually and endlessly in need. Nevertheless it is only by means of this organic life that consciousness is possible.

Accordingly this is a finite existence, and its antithesis would be aninfinite, neither exposed to any attack from without nor in want of help from without, and hence [Greek: aei hosautos on], in eternal rest; [Greek: oute gignomenon, oute apollymenon], without change, without time, and without diversity; the negative knowledge of which is the fundamental note of Plato’s philosophy. The denial of the will to live reveals the way to such a state as this.

The scenes of our life are like pictures in rough mosaic, which have no effect at close quarters, but must be looked at from a distance in order to discern their beauty. So that to obtain something we have desired is to find out that it is worthless; we are always living in expectation of better things, while, at the same time, we often repent and long for things that belong to the past. We accept the present as something that is only temporary, and regard it only as a means to accomplish our aim. So that most people will find if they look back when their life is at an end, that they have lived their lifelong ad interim, and they will be surprised to find that something they allowed to pass by unnoticed and unenjoyed was just their life — that is to say, it was the very thing in the expectation of which they lived. And so it may be said of man in general that, befooled by hope, he dances into the arms of death.

Then again, there is the insatiability of each individual will; every time it is satisfied a new wish is engendered, and there is no end to its eternally insatiable desires.

This is because the Will, taken in itself, is the lord of worlds; since everything belongs to it, it is not satisfied with a portion of anything, but only with the whole, which, however, is endless. Meanwhile it must excite our pity when we consider how extremely little this lord of the world receives, when it makes its appearance as an individual; for the most part only just enough to maintain the body. This is why man is so very unhappy.

In the present age, which is intellectually impotent and remarkable for its veneration of what is bad in every form — a condition of things which is quite in keeping with the coined word “Jetztzeit” (present time), as pretentious as it is cacophonic — the pantheists make bold to say that life is, as they call it, “an end-in itself.” If our existence in this world were an end-in-itself, it would be the most absurd end that was ever determined; even we ourselves or any one else might have imagined it.

Life presents itself next as a task, the task, that is, of subsisting de gagner sa vie. If this is solved, then that which has been won becomes a burden, and involves the second task of its being got rid of in order to ward off boredom, which, like a bird of prey, is ready to fall upon any life that is secure from want.

So that the first task is to win something, and the second, after the something has been won, to forget about it, otherwise it becomes a burden.

That human life must be a kind of mistake is sufficiently clear from the fact that man is a compound of needs, which are difficult to satisfy; moreover, if they are satisfied, all he is granted is a state of painlessness, in which he can only give himself up to boredom. This is a precise proof that existence in itself has no value, since boredom is merely the feeling of the emptiness of life. If, for instance, life, the longing for which constitutes our very being, had in itself any positive and real value, boredom could not exist; mere existence in itself would supply us with everything, and therefore satisfy us. But our existence would not be a joyous thing unless we were striving after something; distance and obstacles to be overcome then represent our aim as something that would satisfy us — an illusion which vanishes when our aim has been attained; or when we are engaged in something that is of a purely intellectual nature, when, in reality, we have retired from the world, so that we may observe it from the outside, like spectators at a theatre. Even sensual pleasure itself is nothing but a continual striving, which ceases directly its aim is attained. As soon as we are not engaged in one of these two ways, but thrown back on existence itself, we are convinced of the emptiness and worthlessness of it; and this it is we call boredom. That innate and ineradicable craving for what is out of the common proves how glad we are to have the natural and tedious course of things interrupted. Even the pomp and splendour of the rich in their stately castles is at bottom nothing but a futile attempt to escape the very essence of existence, misery.

That the most perfect manifestation of the will to live, which presents itself in the extremely subtle and complicated machinery of the human organism, must fall to dust and finally deliver up its whole being to dissolution, is the naïve way in which Nature, invariably true and genuine, declares the whole striving of the will in its very essence to be of no avail. If it were of any value in itself, something unconditioned, its end would not be non-existence. This is the dominant note of Goethe’s beautiful song:

“Hoch auf dem alten Thurme steht
Des Helden edler Geist.”

That man is nothing but a phenomenon, that he is not-the-thing-in-itself — I mean that he is not [Greek: ontos on]— is proved by the fact that death is a necessity.

And how different the beginning of our life is to the end! The former is made up of deluded hopes, sensual enjoyment, while the latter is pursued by bodily decay and the odour of death.

The road dividing the two, as far as our well-being and enjoyment of life are concerned, is downhill; the dreaminess of childhood, the joyousness of youth, the troubles of middle age, the infirmity and frequent misery of old age, the agonies of our last illness, and finally the struggle with death — do all these not make one feel that existence is nothing but a mistake, the consequences of which are becoming gradually more and more obvious?

It would be wisest to regard life as a desengaño, a delusion; that everything is intended to be so is sufficiently clear.

Our life is of a microscopical nature; it is an indivisible point which, drawn out by the powerful lenses of Time and Space, becomes considerably magnified.

Time is an element in our brain which by the means of duration gives a semblance of reality to the absolutely empty existence of things and ourselves.

How foolish it is for a man to regret and deplore his having made no use of past opportunities, which might have secured him this or that happiness or enjoyment! What is there left of them now? Only the ghost of a remembrance! And it is the same with everything that really falls to our lot. So that the form of time itself, and how much is reckoned on it, is a definite way of proving to us the vanity of all earthly enjoyment.

Our existence, as well as that of all animals, is not one that lasts, it is only temporary, merely an existentia fluxa, which may be compared to a water-mill in that it is constantly changing.

It is true that the form of the body lasts for a time, but only on condition that the matter is constantly changing, that the old matter is thrown off and new added. And it is the chief work of all living creatures to secure a constant supply of suitable matter. At the same time, they are conscious that their existence is so fashioned as to last only for a certain time, as has been said. This is why they attempt, when they are taking leave of life, to hand it over to some one else who will take their place. This attempt takes the form of the sexual instinct in self-consciousness, and in the consciousness of other things presents itself objectively — that is, in the form of genital instinct. This instinct may be compared to the threading of a string of pearls; one individual succeeding another as rapidly as the pearls on the thread. If we, in imagination, hasten on this succession, we shall see that the matter is constantly changing in the whole row just as it is changing in each pearl, while it retains the same form: we will then realise that we have only a quasi-existence. That it is only Ideas which exist, and the shadow-like nature of the thing corresponding to them, is the basis of Plato’s teachings.

That we are nothing but phenomena as opposed to the thing-in-itself is confirmed, exemplified, and made clear by the fact that the conditio sine qua non of our existence is a continual flowing off and flowing to of matter which, as nourishment, is a constant need. So that we resemble such phenomena as smoke, fire, or a jet of water, all of which die out or stop directly there is no supply of matter. It may be said then that the will to live presents itself in the form of pure phenomena which end in nothing. This nothingness, however, together with the phenomena, remain within the boundary of the will to live and are based on it. I admit that this is somewhat obscure.

If we try to get a general view of humanity at a glance, we shall see everywhere a constant fighting and mighty struggling for life and existence; that mental and bodily strength is taxed to the utmost, and opposed by threatening and actual dangers and woes of every kind.

And if we consider the price that is paid for all this, existence, and life itself, it will be found that there has been an interval when existence was free from pain, an interval, however, which was immediately followed by boredom, and which in its turn was quickly terminated by fresh cravings.

That boredom is immediately followed by fresh needs is a fact which is also true of the cleverer order of animals, because life has no true and genuine value in itself, but is kept in motion merely through the medium of needs and illusion. As soon as there are no needs and illusion we become conscious of the absolute barrenness and emptiness of existence.

If one turns from contemplating the course of the world at large, and in particular from the ephemeral and mock existence of men as they follow each other in rapid succession, to the detail of life, how like a comedy it seems!

It impresses us in the same way as a drop of water, crowded withinfusoria, seen through a microscope, or a little heap of cheese-mites that would otherwise be invisible. Their activity and struggling with each other in such little space amuse us greatly. And it is the same in the little span of life — great and earnest activity produces a comic effect.

No man has ever felt perfectly happy in the present; if he had it would have intoxicated him.


#2 The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories by Michael Stockerline-divider.png

#1 “On the Pathos of Truth” by Friedrich Nietzsche

Is fame actually nothing but the tastiest morsel of our self-love? Yet the eager desire for it has been linked to the rarest of men and to their rarest moments. These are moments of sudden illumination, moments in which the person stretches out his commanding arm as if to create a universe, draws up light from within himself and shines forth. At such a moment he is pierced by a certainty which fills him with happiness, the certainty that that which exalted him and carried him into the farthest regions – and thus the height of this unique feeling – should not be allowed to remain withheld from all posterity. In the eternal need, which all future generations have for these rarest illuminations, such a person recognizes the necessity of his own fame. From now on humanity needs him. And since this moment of illumination is the epitome and embodiment of his inmost nature, he believes himself to be immortal as the man of this moment, while he casts from himself all the other moments of his life as dross, decay, vanity, brutishness, or pleonasm and hands them over to mortality.

We observe every passing away and perishing with dissatisfaction, often with astonishment, as if we witnessed therein something fundamentally impossible. We are displeased when a tall tree breaks, and a crumbling mountain distresses us. Every New Year’s Eve enables us to feel the mysterious contradiction of being and becoming. But what offends the moral man most of all is the thought that an instant of supreme universal perfection should vanish like a gleam of light, as it were, without posterity and heirs. His imperative demands rather, that whatever once served to propagate more beautifully the concept “man” must be eternally present. The fundamental idea of culture is that the great moments form a chain, like a chain of mountains which unites mankind across the centuries, that the greatest moments of a past age is still great for me, and that the prescient faith of those who desire fame will be fulfilled.

Terrible cultural struggle is kindled by the demand that that which is great shall be eternal. For everything else that lives exclaims “No!” The customary, the small, and the common fill up the crannies of the world like a heavy atmosphere which we are all condemned to breathe. Hindering, suffocating, choking, darkening, and deceiving: it billows around what is great and blocks the road which it must travel towards immortality. This road leads through human brains- through the brains of miserable, short-lived creatures who, ever at the mercy of their restricted needs, emerge again and again to the same trials and with difficulty avert their own destruction for a little time. They desire to live, to live a bit at any price. Who could perceive in them that difficult relay race by means of which only what is great survives? And yet again and again a few persons awaken who feel themselves blessed in regard to that which is great, as if human life were a glorious thing and as if the most beautiful fruit of this bitter plant is the knowledge that someone once walked proudly and stoically through this existence, while another walked through it in deep thoughtfulness and a third with compassion. But they all bequeathed one lesson: that the person that lives life most beautifully is the person who does not esteem it. Whereas the common man takes this span of being with such gloomy seriousness, those on their journey to immortality knew how to treat it with Olympian laughter, or at least with lofty disdain. Often they went to their graves ironically- for what was there in them to bury?

The boldest knights among these addicts of fame, those who believe that they will discover their coat of arms hanging on a constellation, must be sought among philosophers. Their efforts are not dependent upon a “public,” upon the excitation of the masses and the cheering applause of contemporaries. It is their nature to wander the path alone. Their talent is the rarest and in a certain respect most unnatural in nature, even shutting itself off from the hostile towards similar talents. The wall of their self-sufficiency must be made of diamond if it is not to be demolished and shattered. For everything in man and nature is on the move against them. Their journey towards immortality is more difficult and impeded than any other, and yet no one can be more confident than the philosopher that he will reach his goal. Because the philosopher knows not where to stand, if not on the extended wings of all ages. For it is the nature of philosophical reflection to disregard the present and momentary. He possesses the truth: let the wheel of time roll where it will, it will never be able to escape from the truth.

It is important to discover that such men once lived, for one would never be able to imagine on his own, as an idle possibility, the pride of the wise Heraclitus (who may serve as our example). For by its nature every striving for knowledge seems intrinsically unsatisfied and unsatisfying. Therefore, unless he has been instructed to the contrary by history, no one will be able to imagine such regal self-esteem, such boundless conviction that one is the sole fortunate wooer of truth. Men of this sort live within their own solar system, and that is where they must be sought. Even a Pythagoras and an Empedocles treated themselves with superhuman respect, indeed, with an almost religious awe. But they were led back to other men and to their salvation by the bond of sympathy, coupled with great conviction concerning the transmigration of souls and the unity of all living things. But only in the wildest mountain wasteland, while growing numb from the cold, can one surmise to some extent the feeling of loneliness which permeated this hermit of the Ephesian temple of Artemis. No overwhelming feeling of sympathetic excitement emanates from him, no desire to help and to save. He is like a star without an atmosphere. His burning eye is directed inward; from without it looks dead and frigid, as if it looked outward merely for appearances’ sake. On all sides the waves of illusion and folly beat directly against the fortress of his pride, while he turns away in disgust. But even tender-hearted men shun such a tragic mask. Such a being might seem more comprehensible in a remote shrine, among images of the gods and amidst cold, sublime architecture. As a man among men, Heraclitus was incredible. And if he was perhaps observed while watching the games of noisy children, he had in any case been pondering something never before pondered by a mortal on such an occasion, viz., the play of the great world-child, Zeus, and the eternal game of world destruction and origination. He had no need for men, not even for the purposes of his knowledge. He was not at all concerned with anything that one might perhaps ascertain from them or with what other wise men before him struggled to ascertain. “It was myself which I sought and explored,” he said, using words which signified the fathoming of an oracle- as if he and no one else were the true fulfiller and accomplisher of the Delphic maxim, “know thyself.”

But what he heard in this oracle he presented as immortal wisdom, eternally worthy of interpretation in the sense in which the prophetic speeches of the sibyl are immortal. It is sufficient for the most distant generations: may they interpret it only as the sayings of an oracle- as Heraclitus, as the Delphic god himself “neither speaks nor conceals.” Although Heraclitus proclaims his wisdom “without laughter, without ornaments and scented ointments,” but rather as it were, “with foaming mouth,” it must penetrate thousands of years into the future. Since the world forever requires truth, it requires Heraclitus forever, though he does not require the world. What does his fame matter to him! “Fame among mortals who are continually passing away!” as he scornfully proclaims. Fame is something for minstrels and poets and for those who were known as “wise” before him. Let them gulp down this tastiest morsel of their self-love; the fare is too common for him. His fame matters to men, not to him. His self-love is love of truth, and it is this truth which tells him that the immortality of humanity requires him, not that he requires the immortality of the man named Heraclitus.

Truth! Rapturous illusion of a god! What does truth matter to men!

And what was the Heraclitean “truth”!

And where has it gone! A vanished dream, which has been erased from mankind’s countenance by other dreams! It was hardly the first!

Regarding everything, which we call by the proud metaphors “world history” and “truth” and “fame,” a heartless spirit might have nothing to say except:

“Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. It was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of world history, but nevertheless only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star cooled and solidified, and the clever beasts had to die. The time had come too, for although they boasted of how much they understood, in the end they discovered to their great annoyance that they had understood everything falsely. They died, and in dying they cursed truth. Such was the nature of these desperate beasts who had invented knowing.”

This would be man’s fate if he were nothing but a knowing animal. The truth would drive him to despair and destruction: the truth that he is eternally condemned to untruth. But all that is appropriate for man is belief in attainable truth, in the illusion, which draws near to man and inspires him with confidence. Does he not actually live by means of a continual process of deception? Does nature not conceal most things from him, even the nearest things- his own body, for example, of which he has only a deceptive “consciousness”? He is locked within this consciousness and nature threw away the key. Oh, the fatal curiosity of the philosopher, who longs, just once, to peer out and down through a crack in the chamber of consciousness. Perhaps he will then suspect the extent to which man, in the indifference of his ignorance, is sustained by what is greedy, insatiable, disgusting, pitiless, and murderous- as if he were hanging in dreams on the back of a tiger.

“Let him hang!” cries art. “Wake him up!” shouts the philosopher in the pathos of truth. Yet even while he believes himself to be shaking the sleeper, the philosopher himself is sinking into a still deeper magical slumber. Perhaps he then dreams of the “ideas” or of immortality. Art is more powerful than knowledge, because it desires life, whereas knowledge attains as its final goal only- annihilation.