Arthur Schopenhauer: the first European Buddhist

With its stunning advances in science and technology, the nineteenth century was a century of optimism. Hegel’s presentation of the history of the West as a Bildungsroman, a story of the ever-increasing realization of “reason” in human affairs, captured the spirit of the times. Schopenhauer, however – the only major philosopher to declare himself a pessimist – regarded Hegel’s story as a heartless fiction. Progress, he held, is a delusion: life was, is, and always will be, suffering: “the ceaseless efforts to banish suffering achieve nothing but a change in its form”. Far, then, from being the creation of a benevolent God, or of his surrogate, Hegelian “reason”, the world is something that “ought not to exist”.

Born in Danzig (Gdansk) in 1788, Arthur Schopenhauer was brought up in Hamburg, the son of a cosmopolitan businessman and a literary mother. Independently wealthy, he never held a paid academic post, and had indeed nothing but scorn for those who live “from rather than for philosophy”, namely, “the professors of philosophy”. Independence of means, Schopenhauer insisted, is a prerequisite of independence of thought. Accompanied by a succession of poodles – he never married – he spent the last twenty-seven years of his life in Frankfurt. On the wall of his study he had a portrait of Kant and, on his desk, a statue of the Buddha. For pleasure, he read The Times of London, played the flute, and attended the Frankfurt opera. Unknown until his final decade, he died in 1860, the most famous philosopher in Europe.

Schopenhauer wrote only one work of systematic philosophy, The World as Will and Representation, which he published in 1818. It is divided into four “books”. In 1844 he produced a second edition consisting of the 1818 volume plus a second volume comprising four “supplements” to the four books of the first. This doubled the overall length of the work to 1,000 pages. Given the opacity of most German philosophical writing, the “English clarity” of the work (Schopenhauer was educated for a time in Wimbledon), its wealth of concrete examples and its wit makes reading it a unique pleasure.

The starting point for all nineteenth-century German philosophers is the towering figure of Kant. The first sentence of Book One of Schopenhauer’s 1818 volume (“the main work”) is: “The World is my representation”. This is intended as a summation of Kant’s “transcendental idealism” according to which the world of space and time is not the “thing in itself” but rather mere “appearance”. From a metaphysical point of view, the natural world is, as Schopenhauer puts it, merely a “dream”.

Since transcendental idealism relegates the quotidian world to the realm of appearance, its truth – a given for Schopenhauer and his contemporaries – raises the exciting question of how reality really is: how it is “in itself”. Kant’s frustrating answer is that we can never know. Since space, time, causal connectedness and substantiality (thingness) are the “forms” of the mind that shape all our experience, and since we can never step outside our own minds, reality in itself can never be known. Together with his fellow “German idealists” Schopenhauer took this claim as a challenge rather than a dogma. And although, in his maturity, he finally endorses it, he holds that progress can, nonetheless, be made in digging beneath the manifest surface of things. Although philosophy cannot access the deepest truth about reality, he finally accepts, it can at least provide a deeper account than that provided either by common sense or by natural science.

According to this account, as Book Two of the main work tells us, the world which appears “as representation” is to be understood, at a deeper level, “as will”. This is something disclosed to us, in the first instance, by the consciousness we have of our own bodily actions. In external perception we are aware of, say, the appearance of an apple followed by the appearance of a hand reaching towards it. Were this to be our only mode of consciousness, the connection between the first and second perception would be utterly mysterious. But of course it is not our only mode. The sequence of events is intelligible to us because inner experience reveals that the reason the second perception follows the first is the desire to eat. Introspection tells us that what generates our actions is will – feelings, emotions and desires that culminate in decisions, “acts of will”. Will explains human behaviour and the behaviour of the animals as well. Even on the so-called inorganic level we find will at work: in, for instance, the conflict between centripetal and centrifugal forces we find something similar to the conflict between one human will and another.

Schopenhauer’s discovery that the underlying “essence” of life is will is not a happy one. For, as the second of the Buddha’s “Four Noble Truths” tells us, to will is to suffer. What follows, as the first of the “Truths” tells us, is that life is suffering, from which Schopenhauer concludes that “it would be better for us not to exist”. He offers two main arguments in support of the claim that to will is (mostly) to suffer, the first of which I shall call the “competition argument” and the second the “stress-or-boredom argument”.

The world in which the will – first and foremost the “will to life” – must seek to satisfy itself, the competition argument observes, is a world of struggle, of “war, all against all” in which only the victor survives. On pain of extinction, the hawk must feed on the sparrow and the sparrow on the worm. The will to life in one individual has no option but to destroy the will to life in another. Fifty years before Darwin, Schopenhauer observes that nature’s economy is conserved through overpopulation: it produces enough antelopes to perpetuate the species but also a surplus to feed the lions. It follows that fear, pain and death are not isolated malfunctions of a generally benevolent order, but are inseparable from the means by which the natural ecosystem preserves itself.

It is true that with respect to the human species, civilization has somewhat ameliorated the red-in-tooth-and-claw savagery of nature. Yet, in essence, human society, too, is an arena of competition. If one political party gains power another loses it, if one individual gains wealth another is cast into poverty. As the Romans knew, homo homini lupus, man is a wolf to man: “the chief source of the most serious evils affecting man is man”.

With his “stress-or-boredom” argument, Schopenhauer turns from social life to individual psychology. To live, we know, is to will. Now either one’s will is satisfied or it is not. If it is unsatisfied one suffers. If the will to eat is unsatisfied one suffers the pain of hunger; if the libidinal will is unsatisfied one suffers the pain of sexual frustration. If, on the other hand, the will is satisfied then – after, at best, a moment of fleeting pleasure or joy – we are overcome by a “fearful emptiness and boredom”. This is particularly visible in the case of sex: as the Romans again knew, post coitum omne animalium triste est: everyone suffers from post-coital tristesse. Hence, life “swings like a pendulum” between two forms of suffering, lack and boredom.

Book Three of the main work offers a detailed and comprehensive philosophy of art. Its importance for Schopenhauer’s overall argument lies in its view of art as a brief intimation of the “salvation” that is the topic of Book Four. Life is suffering. Everyday human consciousness is permeated by both present suffering and anxiety about future suffering. But in aesthetic consciousness we are, as we indeed say, “taken out of ourselves”. Captivated by the play of moonlight on gently rippling waves or by a great piece of music, we forget our ordinary will-full selves and hence the pain and anxiety inseparable from ordinary consciousness. For a moment we achieve that “bliss and peace of mind always sought but always escaping us on the path of willing”. Briefly, we inhabit the “painless state prized by Epicurus as the highest good and the state of the gods”. And from this experience we can infer “how blessed must the life of a man in whom the will is silenced, not for a brief moment, as in enjoyment of the beautiful, but for ever”.

But of course, since to live is to will, the will can never be entirely silenced in the “life of a man”. While the ascetic and the thinker may have some success in transferring themselves from the vita activa to the vita contemplativa, as long as one is alive one can never entirely escape the will. Only in death can the will be silenced “for ever”. And so, Book Four tells us, only in death can we achieve final release, “salvation”.

But why should we regard death as salvation? Is it not absolute extinction, an abyss of nothingness to which one might well prefer, for all its pain, life as a human being? One antidote to fear of death is transcendental idealism. Death is something that happens to the self that exists within the “dream” of natural life. But since the dreamer of a dream must be outside the dream, idealism assures us of the “indestructibility of our inner nature by death”. Depending on circumstances, however, indestructibility could turn out to be a curse rather than a blessing. Why should we regard it as the latter?

One of Schopenhauer’s criticisms of Kant is that he often speaks of “things in themselves”. Such pluralistic talk, says Schopenhauer, is entirely unwarranted because it is only space and time that provide us with a principium individuationis: only because we can identify two entities as inhabiting different regions of space-time can we speak of them as two, as distinct individuals. But according to transcendental idealism, space and time pertain merely to “appearances”, so it follows from Kant’s own position that reality “in itself” is “beyond plurality”.

Willing, however, requires plurality. At the very least, it requires a distinction between the subject of willing and its object. Hence to be beyond plurality is to be beyond willing, and so to be released from the anxiety inherent in all will-full consciousness. In the realm of the non-plural, one inhabits permanently Epicurus’ “highest good”, his “state of the gods”. This is intuitively grasped by the mystics. The “pantheistic” sense of the gathering of all things into a divine unity is the theme of all mystical experience. So, for example, Meister Eckhart’s disciple cries out in her ecstasy, “Sir, rejoice with me for I have become God”. That the mystics come from all times, cultures and religious backgrounds means that that their reports cannot be dismissed as delusional. And if we accept their veracity, we are assured that death really is salvation.

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