Omar Khayyam and Max Stirner

Translated by Ulrike Hirschhäuser


The World as Will and Representation

Notions like pleasure and pain, optimism and pessismism stand for two different “outlooks on life” at first sight. Many philosophers reckon the difference to be very big. Epicurus e.g. explicitly represents eudaemonism and defines eudaemonia as the fulfilment of one´s desires and avoidance of displeasure, but he by no means teaches his fellow-men to give in to sensual pleasures unrestrainedly, because such behaviour might hit back on them and cause pain. In Omar´s  case we cannot be certain which view of life he attributes more importance to.

Epicurus´maxim “Live hidden away” is in accordance with Omar´s joie de vivre propagating the enjoyment of life and its realization in a circle of friends without claiming to change the world. On the other hand Omar cannot avoid pain either. He is not an innately melancholic person, but a frustrated one, who is a rebel on account of pain, but wanting to “overcome” his sufferings.

In his book “Max Stirner´s Philosophy of the Ego” H.Stourzh wonders whether Stirner teaches optimism or pessimism. I think the answer also explains Omar´s view of life. Stirner´s eudaemonism, says Stourzh, “ if put into practice will not at all contradict an optimist´s view of and purpose in life, to him passing on life is only natural, nor does it contradict a pessimist´s to whom passing on life is the most fateful question despite all the beauty of life.“[1] In fact we shall meet with these two attitudes in Omar´s poetry, too.

To add to a better understanding of the following, we would like to concern ourselves with another philosopher´s teachings, i.e. Schopenhauer´s.

Omar´s gloomy verse doubtlessly reminds us of Schopenhauer´s pessimistic views. Grief, pain, displeasure, hopelessness are fundamentals of Schopenhauer´s way of thinking, they are integral parts of an ideology. And this actually makes him move closer to Omar. In the Anglosaxon world philosophers very often even assert that the two are in total agreement. But if one has a closer look at things, one will see the difference, yes, even the incompatible differences between the two.In this context some explanations concerning Schopenhauer´s philosophy seem to be necessary.

Schopenhauer begins his book “The World as Will and Representation” by stating, “The world is only my idea (...) – Should there be any truth that can be pronounced a priori, it will be this.”[2]

First of all  objects are given to us immediately in the form of appearances. The visible world therefore consists of an appearance of things, yes, a Maya. We do not know anything about a thing as such. The thing in itself that remains obscure in Kant´s works is now defined as the will by Schopenhauer.

According to Schopenhauer the will is not only “the world in itself” but the origin of being human, the source of human existence. Therefore in reality each of our physical acts is a selfish act of our will. It is not his reason, his mind or whatever idea which governs man, but only his will. This is the chief and basic motivating force in man.

The will implies neither pleasure nor enjoyment, neither happiness nor love. In Schopenhauer´s works the will is synonymous with suffering and pain.

Schopenhauer took an innate, painful will for granted. In other words man is compelled to suffer. Struggling, fighting, grieving are part of human nature. Schopenhauer even asserts that those short moments of happiness only exist so as to increase our awareness of suffering. Schopenhauer compares his hopeless pessimism with Dante´s Inferno:“Wherelse did DANTE find the subject-matter of his Inferno if not in our real world? However when he was confronted with the task of depicting heaven and its pleasures, he met with insurmountable difficulties; since our world does not offer any models for something like that whatsoever.”[3] Schopenhauer thinks that the only purpose in life must be that of escaping the will and its painful strivings. The only final escape will be sheer extinction of the will. The three aids to salvation are asceticism, contemplation of the works of art, and sympathy for others. They are to redeem man from his misery.

Many of Omar´s verse, too, convey the impression that we only perceive appearances of a reality unknown to us. It is not in Omar´s interest to name the unknown hiding behind those appearances. Man is unable to figure out the secret of the objective world, to grasp the truth about it, to solve the puzzle. According to Omar scholars are quarrelling in vain about statutes and dogma. Omar´s sceptical conclusion reads: some believe in something, some reject something, but the secret reveals itself to nobody.

Moreover the enjoyment of life is at the centre of his philopsophy, whereas sadness – declared to be an absolute quantity by Schopenhauer – is fundamental to his teachings. Pain does not only originate in a temporary bad mood, as mentioned above, but penetrates all thought processes.

We also encounter psychical pain in Omar´s philosophy, but it is not fundamental, it is solely part of life. If there is anything that Omar teaches us, it will be pleasure in the first place and we find this teaching objective in Stirner´s work, too, but nowhere in Schopenhauer´s.

Omar can dedicate himself to life with a quiet laughter and a noisy groan. It is important to enjoy earthly life until we sink into eternal nothingness. Enjoying the short period of being human, he creates a paradise here and now. His enjoyment of life contrasts with Schopenhauer´s will , which condemns man to suffer. Because of his desire, which makes him restless, Omar becomes active, while Schopenhauer tries to “exstinguish” the will. Omar tries to satisfy his hunger. He passionately yearns for peace, but does not find it; that is the cause of his restlessness. Therefore Omar does not develop a system of thought: to tie anybody to a certain concept is alien to him. It is only logical that Omar is a rebel and not a fatalist putting up with pain. He does not believe that human life is predestined, and energetically refers to man´s free will, man´s self-determination and counters Schopenhauer´s determinism by stressing the freedom of will. The Omarian individual lives through the ardour of passions and desires and then slides into nothingness, where everything transcient will end. As a poet of the nameless he permits himself to face God to demonstrate his grief, restlessness – this struggle for life and against death. It is an instance of recognizing enthusiasm and despair; an endless dialogue with God between equal minds – that means enjoyment and torture at the same time. All explanations are labelled: useless! by an unbelieving dervish, a scholar without a doctrine, “someone who senses the secret of nature”.

In Schopenhauer the will is a superior force, a malicious demon, which possesses man. Whatever resistance will be useless, man is exposed to it helplessly. Pessimism and misanthropy are characteristic of Schopenhauer´s philosophy, while Omar, though disappointed, but laughing sensually, is wrapped up by nothingness: “Only because of the brief illusion of non-existence! – This is the reason why wisemen booze.”[4]

To use Stirner´s words: Schopenhauer describes his will because of an obsession, a fixed idea which is commonly instilled into men during their childhood. That accounts for perpetual suffering, constant psychical pain. Schopenhauer therefore wants to break man´s will, but Omar longs to be at one with his will.

Conclusion: While their depiction of the world show parallels, the two philosophers clash as to the essence of their philosophies. To Omar the will does not offer an answer to the puzzle named world, but it is the power of being alive that forms the centre of his views in terms of an enjoyment of life and which comprehends suffering as being part of life. Omar is careful enough not to reduce the puzzle or man´s recognition of the world to a single concept. That is why he keeps from making any other than that mystifying statement, “each sect bears its own hatred towards me, I am my own master, I am what I am.” This statement takes us into the centre of Stirner´s philosophy.

[1] H.Stourzh, p. 95

[2] A. Schopenhauer Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung 1st volume, publishers: Haffmann,1988, p. 31

[3] p. 423

[4] F. Rosen, p. 25


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