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Will, the Tyrant


Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer described the human will as a “the strong blind man who carries on his shoulder the lame man who can see.” The lame man with vision is the intellect.

The intellect is conscious and hence will take sensible decisions. But beneath that sensible faculty lies the real driving force of human action: the will, which may be conscious or unconscious. Schopenhauer spoke of the will as ‘the vital force’, ‘striving’, ‘spontaneous activity’, and ‘desire’. It is the will that drives us onward in life. Most of the things that we do are driven by the will. We may like to think that our intellect is leading us on. Schopenhauer says that the intellect acts only like a guide who leads his master. Will is the master.

That is why we do a lot of stupid things. The will does not have the vision to see the whole reality. It goes by instincts and desires, partial perceptions and fractional understanding. The philosopher says that we want a thing not because we have reasons for wanting it. We find reasons because we want the thing. The intellect comes to serve the master’s needs.

Desires drive us in simpler words. And our desires are endless. Moreover, quite many of them are no good to anyone. So we create philosophies and theologies to give charming facades to the desires. The intellect is happy to serve again.

Nobody is convinced by logic, however. That is why philosophies and theologies abound, they sound great too, and yet they remain as effete as evanescent butterflies. To convince a person of anything, you must appeal to his self-interest, his desires – his will, in short.

Why does religion with all its dramatics and rituals appeal to human beings though most of the drama and the rituals are absurd even by the faintest of logic? Why does even a tinge of power sway people? Why does wealth enchant people?

People don’t make much use of their intellect. Character lies in the will, says Schopenhauer. Not in the intellect. Character is the continuity of one’s sense of purpose and one’s attitudes. Purpose and attitude belong to the will, not the intellect. Just reflect for a moment: what helped Mahatma Gandhi to win his struggle against the British? Was it his intellect or his will? What do we mean by Gandhi’s character: his intellect which created thousands of pages of thought-provoking writing or his sheer grit and will?

“Brilliant qualities of mind win admiration, but never affection,” says the philosopher. We admire geniuses for their intellectual prowess. But we love people for their character. The will needn’t be a monster, in other words. A good will is profounder and may be even more reliable than a clear mind.

Schopenhauer points out that all religions (without any exception) promise rewards for excellences of the heart (will), but none for the excellences of the head (intellect). The will plays such a significant role in human life. The will can be a tyrant. And often it is a terrible one. Religions try to keep that tyrant under control.

Without some controls, the will is sure to be a tyrant. The will is restless in both the meanings: it does not rest and it is never at ease. It is always on one quest or another. The intellect gets tired and needs rest. But the will never rests, not even when you are asleep.

Even the animals and plants are driven by will. Throw a seed somewhere and watch it grow fighting against all odds. Have you ever watched an animal’s struggle to stay alive even when there is no trace of hope left? They are all driven by will. The world is will, Schopenhauer asserts. That is one reason why there is so much evil in it. The will is blind, remember.

So if we wish to reduce the evil in the world, we need to control the will and cultivate the intellect. That is Schopenhauer’s solution. The ordinary person is mostly will and little knowledge while the genius is mostly knowledge and little will, the philosopher says. As long as this condition prevails, there won’t be lasting happiness or peace.

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Previous post in this series: Violence

Tomorrow: Xenophanes’s God


  1. Is your assertion in the last paragraph really the solution offered by Schopenhauer ? Or it's just your deductive reasoning ? In my humble opinion, the theory of Schopenhauer is a reality. All the same, it's something to be accepted at its face value, instead of a problem which is to be solved. Will overpowers all kinds of intellect and similar things and that's the origin of several problems of the world, it's a fact which can't be denied. There's no need to teach or inspire people at mass level to control their will (and it's not possible also). All the same, it is in the individual's own interest to keep his/her will in check and not override whatever is rational to do (or abstain from doing). If individuals are able to do so (even to some extent), the society and the world will automatically be benefitted by that.

    1. It is indeed Schopenhauer's teaching, I put it in simple words. He suggests aesthetics and moral awareness as strategies for training the mind. But he was aware of their limitations too. In the end, it is a hope that at least a few people will learn something from all this. We can't redeem the world.

  2. If we wish to control evil we need to control will. I had never seen will from this perspective before but now your post has me thinking.
    To convince a person of anything, you must appeal to his self-interest, his desires – his will, in short.. these lines are true and probably the cause of many problems
    Deepika Sharma

    1. That's how the world runs. Look at all effective speakers. They don't speak brainy stuff.

  3. The concluding para of this post makes it clearer because until this post, I hadn't seen 'will' in this light. To me, will is 'the fire in the belly'; an essential ingredient to turn ideas into reality.

    I will have to read this post again to become more familiar with Schopenhauer's constructs.

    So much to learn in such a short life-time:) Thank you for broadening my horizons.

    1. Most welcome, friend. Glad to have you here. You are an added impetus now.

  4. A very enriching post! You made me see will and intellect in a new light. Loved reading it.

    1. I'm glad to have added something to your immense knowledge. I admire the way you present literature in your videos.

  5. Thank you for writing this enlightening article. A very valuable post for me I would say for it made me understand the will and the intellect completely in a different perspective .


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