A lump of rock does not exhibit many sensitivities. You can shout at it, pull faces, insult it, urinate on it, kick it, and even say that its mother was a whore. You will get no response. The only thing a rock understands is extreme physical violence – dynamite or a jackhammer. Plants exhibit rather more sensitivity. Deprive a plant of light, pull it out of the ground, or deprive it of water, and it will probably die. Plants are also susceptible to various diseases, parasites, and predators. Animals respond to almost everything, and the more highly developed the sensibilities the more they respond. So a dog will tend not to respond to a leaking roof, an eclipse of the sun, someone’s noisy radio – and so on. But a human being will respond to most of these things. And of course, animals have almost no facility to cognize language, music, poetry, mathematics, philosophy or science. Human beings, on the other hand, can respond in significant ways to all these things. Schopenhauer summarized this in the following way:
- Inanimate objects obey the laws of physics and mechanics. Kick a ball with the same force on ten occasions and it will travel the same distance every time – all things being equal.
- Plants respond to stimuli, and when a stimulus is removed so the response of the plant ceases. Apply light and the leaves of a plant busy themselves with photosynthesis, but as soon as the light source is removed, so the photosynthesis stops. However applying light at different times in a plant’s life will have different effects, and so mechanical laws apply much less.
- Animals are driven by motives – as are human beings. An animal will continue to run away from a predator even when it is no longer visible, and a woman will work for years to acquire a skill even when the reward for such skills is not certain. But the world of man is much richer than that of animals, and a man or woman may be motivated by some idea (religion for example) all their life.
Here is the rub in all of this. The more complex and sensitive a thing is, the more it will suffer – for several reasons. Its legitimate needs will multiply with complexity. A rock needs nothing, whereas a human being needs food, water, sleep, shelter, human company, mental stimulation, and so on. If any of these things are missing so a person will suffer. And it is also the case that the more complex something is, the more likely it is to go wrong – various diseases, both mental and physical. But perhaps the most devastating implication of greater sensitivity is summed up very nicely by Schopenhauer – irritability is driven by sensibility. As the word suggests, to be irritable is to be irritated by something – loud noise, an itch, someone’s irritating habits, a strained muscle, slow traffic, a queue, mismatching decor – and on and on.
Nature has fine-tuned our sensibilities to such an extent that almost anything can irritate. There are two takes on this situation. One says that we are blessed to have such sensory and intellectual sensitivity, and we should make the best use of it – appreciate nature, art, philosophy, ethics, music etc. But if you are hooked on aesthetic pleasures then you had better be ready to accept aesthetic pain too. We cannot have one without the other. This notion, of exploiting our sensibilities, has no attraction for me whatsoever – I vote for Lao Tsu. Implied in his timeless work called the Tao te Ching, is the instruction to turn the sensitivity down. I quote from verse 12:
The five colors can blind,
The five tones deafen,
The five tastes cloy,
The race, the hunt, can drive men mad
And their booty leave them no peace,
Therefore the sensible man
Prefers the inner to the outer eye
Sensory overload wearies us, and overbearing motives (the race, the hunt) leave us with no peace. To be constantly motivated and stimulated by the world is a curse, and the only course of action is to move toward the inner eye – an inner sense of the vast ocean of stillness within us. The world of phenomena is not a problem for a rock, but it is a problem for a man with his overload of sensory input and mental stimulation. Treat the world as Lao Tsu advises – as a straw dog; something temporary and not really worthy of our attention.