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Schopenhauer is quite a character but there is something intriguing about his philosophy that just may help you during the time you are working your way through your IRS problem with Scott Allen E.A..
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
Finding Meaning Through Aesthetics, Sympathy, Music, and Passivity
Arthur Schopenhauer was born in 1788 in the city of Danzig, Germany on the Baltic Sea. He was the son of Heinrich and Johanna Schopenhauer, who were both descendants of wealthy German middle class families. In 1805 Schopenhauer’s father committed suicide when he was only 16 years old. His mother, who was a famous author, kicked Arthur out of her home when Goethe told her that her son was destined for great things. She followed this up with a letter and wrote, “I hope I never have to see you again.” She could not tolerate any competition from her son for the attention she desired only for herself. There is no doubt that these experiences contributed to Schopenhauer’s view of the world and his philosophy.
Schopenhauer knew at a very young age that he was a genius. A fact that his parents often wished was not discovered by their son until after he was out of their home. There are letters from his parents written to him when he was a child asking him why he was so disagreeable? Why do you need to challenge what everyone says and not accept what others have to say? He was convinced of his genius all his life. Schopenhauer sincerely believed in his genius and his purpose in life was to bring his view of the truth to others not able to “see the target.”
Schopenhauer became a student at the University of Gottingen in 1809. There he studied metaphysics and psychology. In 1818 Schopenhauer published his masterpiece, The World as Will and Idea. In 1820, Schopenhauer became a lecturer at the University of Berlin. It was there that he came into direct competition with G. W. F. Hegel, whose philosophy he despised. He scheduled his own lectures to coincide with Hegel’s in an attempt to destroy student support of Hegel’s philosophy. However, only 5 students came to his first lecture and none came to his second and Schopenhauer dropped out of academia and never taught at a university again. This was the only job that Schopenhauer ever had and it lasted only one day.
While living in Berlin, Schopenhauer was named as a defendant in a law suit by a woman named Caroline Marquet. She asked for damages, alleging that Schopenhauer had pushed her. Knowing that he was a man of some means and that he disliked noise, she deliberately annoyed him by raising her voice while standing right outside his door. Marquet alleged that the philosopher had assaulted and battered her after she refused to leave his doorway. Her companion testified that she saw Marquet prostrate outside of his apartment. Because Marquet won the lawsuit, he made payments to her for the next twenty years. When she died, he wrote on a copy of her death certificate, “Obit anus, abet onus.” (Latin for, “The old woman dies, the burden is lifted). Schopenhauer tended to rub people the wrong way and if they got in his way he was not hesitant to abuse them in his writings, verbally or as in this example physically.
Schopenhauer was considered a liberal in his social views: he was strongly against taboos on issues like suicide and homosexuality. He condemned the treatment of African slaves and supported the abolitionist movement in the United States. He was very concerned about the rights of animals and praised the establishment of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in London and the Animals’ Friends Society in Philadelphia.
In 1831, a cholera epidemic broke out in Berlin and both Hegel and Schopenhauer fled the city. Hegel returned prematurely, caught the infection and died a few days later. Schopenhauer moved south and settled permanently in Frankfurt in 1833. He remained there for the next 27 years living all alone except the companionship of two poodles named Atma and Butz. He enjoyed good health until 1860. He died sitting in his armchair of heart failure on September 21 of that year at the age of 72.
Schopenhauer’s philosophy is considered by many to be deeply pessimistic. But he obviously must have made some valid observations since Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Darwin, Proust, Kafka, O’Neill, Tolstoy and Einstein credit him for having great influence on their work. This list includes leaders in philosophy, music, science, psychoanalysis, authors and playwrights. The breath of Schopenhauer’s influence makes his life and work worthy of serious review.
Schopenhauer wrote that the will is a blind, rationally inaccessible force that is a primitive energy. This energy manifests itself in and through everything. The will gives us pleasure so that we will reproduce and pain so that we will avoid being eaten. It is impersonal, insatiable and dwells within us. It is a source of considerable suffering. After you satisfy the cravings and desires of the will, you have a brief respite, but then typically you become bored. As Schopenhauer put it, “Life is nothing but a pendulum swinging between the pain of unfulfilled desires and boredom. Once we fulfill our desires then we are satiated and our strivings are quieted momentarily but we immediately sink into boredom or emptiness.” Schopenhauer says that unsatisfied desires often have unfortunate and painful consequences. So the two options for human existence are pain and boredom. As long as one is alive, they are under siege by the will and the only way to eliminate that is to eliminate one’s self. Schopenhauer felt that Buddhism offered a way to minimize the negative effects of the will.
Even though Schopenhauer was so pessimistic in his views of life, does not mean that he did not enjoy life. Nietzsche reminds us in his book, Beyond Good and Evil, “One must remember that Schopenhauer played the flute every night after dinner.” Nietzsche felt that Schopenhauer still found things in life that he enjoyed despite his pessimistic philosophy.
One must ask the question, “Was Schopenhauer’s view of life appropriate for everyone or just Schopenhauer?” And secondly, was Schopenhauer more vulnerable to the strivings of the will than others? Was he such a pained, fearful, neurotic person that his personality influenced his philosophy or did he actually discover the truth about certain things that led to his view of the world? I think it highly probably that we are all affected to one degree or another by this will, but that degree differs from person to person. And we are probably more prone to the effects of the will at certain stressful points during our lives than others. Schopenhauer would disagree with my points here. He felt that we are all affected by the will beyond our ability to deal with it and find meaning in life. All we can do is try to minimize its effect on us.
The world is not just will to Schopenhauer, it is also idea. The world is what we think it is and that is always an illusion or a perception. The world is what our mind tells us it is. There is no reality, only illusion and even though an illusion is shared by many, it is still not reality. Life is just a spark in between two pools of darkness without any meaning or purpose.
Schopenhauer felt himself in competition with Hegel. In one of his writings he stated, “I wish to apologize to the reader of the future for mentioning Hegel, a philosopher you have never heard of.” Hegel celebrated the human spirit and taught his students how to enjoy that spirit. He believed that the human spirit controlled the destiny of history. In another classroom across the hall was Schopenhauer saying, “There is a force that wells up in you. It is always there. It gnaws at you. It is always victimizing you because it wants more and more. If you get what you want, you get bored. If you get what you want it might even be painful. Usually you don’t get what you want.”
Schopenhauer contradicted Hegel by saying that history doesn’t have a rational direction. History is just things happening and they happen because of this will that we experience through us, that is at work all the time trying to express and satisfy itself. He would say things like “we have these fancy philosophical types who are telling us we can celebrate the human spirit. They are telling us that we can learn to conquer our desires through reason. They tell us that we can be creative and remove ourselves from the will that is pulsating through us. That is all fine and good, but just let yourself experience your life and think about how you want food, sex, and excitement. Sometimes you get what you want and most of the time you don’t. Most of your desires are not met at all. So you suffer. You are always in a state of tension because of suffering, because of desire, because of the will. You are not even conscious of the will. It is buried below your conscious mind.”
As you can see Schopenhauer’s philosophy is very unpleasant and pessimistic. His ideas did not make people feel comfortable. Some have referred to it as “metaphysics from hell.” Life is a state of being where your desires are not satisfied and your questions are never answered. And you are stuck. There are no options except suicide and if you give in to suicide then you gave in to the will. This is pretty pessimistic stuff.
Nietzsche and Schopenhauer started at the same point with the same data and came to different conclusions. Both looked at life very accurately, both had no supernatural belief; both looked directly at the reality of death, and both looked at nothingness. Nietzsche affirmed and embraced life and Schopenhauer chose to negate it. Hume and Schopenhauer had the same basic beliefs and reacted much differently. Hume was a very pleasant English gentleman and on his deathbed was asked how being an atheist he could be so calm facing death. Hume replied that there was nothing before he was born and he didn’t want to be bored with an association of those who thought they were going to heaven. There was absolutely no hint of pessimism or regret. So it seems that personality and life experiences must have an impact on the philosopher’s philosophy. It has been said that one must first understand the life of the philosopher before trying to understand their philosophy and that one follows the other. But Schopenhauer did not just take us to the edge of the abyss and leave us there to fend for ourselves. He offered remedies to the human condition as he saw it. His remedies are valuable insights into living life whether or naught you believe in effects of the will.
Schopenhauer offers four methods of escape from this pulsing energy he called “the will.” The first solution is what he called aesthetic contemplation. For example we can get our minds off of things by seeing a movie or watching a sporting event. During Schopenhauer’s time you might go look at a painting or other types of art to get your mind off the underlying agony that is the constant companion of all humans. He admits that this type of relief is only fleeting and cannot sustain permanent relief. This notion of getting disengaged from life by getting one’s mind off of its misery can be helpful for a while. This may explain why the entertainment industry is so popular today.
The second suggestion Schopenhauer makes is the cultivation of sympathy for one’s fellow beings. That too is only temporary. It was Schopenhauer’s view that we should recognize that everyone is struggling with the will. All of us are suffering from its manifestations. We all suffer the same agonies, and the realization that we are all in this together makes coping with it easier. Having true sympathy or compassion, and understanding that everyone is struggling with the same thing, partially removes the ravages of the will. It is not a cure, but at least something that can temporarily help us along and perhaps engender a noncompetitive acceptance of the condition we all face as human beings.
The third suggestion is music. He believed that music has a special capacity to capture the will and lessen its negative impact on us. Schopenhauer believed that music has a calming effect. Music for Schopenhauer is not meant to make us understand anything. It is to get us away from thinking about anything. The music he listened to was usually without words or lyrics. Mozart not Rap. He thinks that music speaks in a language that can and does put us more at peace with ourselves.
The fourth suggestion is the most challenging. Hold your breath—the best we might do is lose the will to live. Schopenhauer thinks perhaps the best of all the remedies for the disease called life and its agonies would be to reach a condition of calm and tranquil passivity where our individual wills do not torment us anymore. We don’t allow anything to matter to us, even our very selves. It is his view that the loss of the will to live is not the same as the desire to commit suicide. He is suggesting that we reach a benign and mellow point where things don’t matter anymore, even yourself.
In summary the human predicament is that we are victims of life. Life itself is the disease and we need a cure from that disease and all the knowledge in the world will not bring about a cure. Schopenhauer brings a very strongly negative and pessimistic element into European philosophical thinking. He believes that the best we can accomplish is to find whatever peace of mind we can. This requires a disengagement from the painful cycle of desire and satisfaction of desires.
Schopenhauer proposed a thought experiment in which you go to a cemetery and knock on any tombstone and ask the person there if they want to be alive again and his conclusion was that none of the dead would want to be alive again. Nietzsche would contradict Schopenhauer on this point by saying, if you lived well, if you lived life to its fullest, you would be willing to live it again an innumerable number of times. This was Nietzsche’s law of eternal recurrence. That one must embrace and affirm life to the point that we would want to live it all over again an infinite number of times exactly the same way.
Schopenhauer was very taken with Buddhist beliefs. He was the major influential figure who brought Buddhist thinking to the West in a way that made it spread. The message of Buddhism is that life is suffering and to be alive is to suffer. Buddha said, “All is suffering.” Suffering is brought about by desire and desire does have a cure and the cure is to lose our attachment to our desires. It is this disengagement that Schopenhauer recommends.
I believe that Schopenhauer’s will is just another term to describe the “natural man.” The natural man came into existence because of the Fall of Adam. The Fall brought into the human condition pain and suffering, death, as well as a host of appetites and passions that are unrelenting. As soon as they are satisfied, we are comfortable for a short moment only to be striving to satisfy those cravings again.
Schopenhauer’s remedies are: aesthetic contemplation, cultivating sympathy for our fellow beings, good music, and disengagement from our attachments and desires are similar to many admonitions from the scriptures. The scriptures teach us that we should be willing to bear one another’s burdens, mourn with those who mourn, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort and to deny ourselves of all ungodliness.
I am fascinated that Schopenhauer who is considered the most atheistic and pessimistic of all the philosophers recommends similar remedies to life’s struggles contained in ancient and modern day scriptures. Despite his pessimism, there is much to benefit from understanding the following quotes of Schopenhauer.
– Scott Allen – firstname.lastname@example.org