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Monday, March 02, 2009

Schopenhauer is a Major League Pessimist... but in a good way!

I've heard it said that pessimists always tell the truth. I am not quite sure of the statement or its provenance, but supposedly the pessimists do so in order to ruin it for everyone else. That's a long shot from where Schopenhauer started from, and certainly his intention in coming up with his theoretical argument for pessimism has a bit more credibility than simply hearsay. Will Durant's "The Story of Philosophy" presents a Schopenhauer consistent with the new ideas flourishing in the very late 1700s and early 1800s. Schopenhauer resisted the comfortable line of reasoning that preceded him and presented the world with a few that many deemed "incorrigible" and "denigrating." Durant presents a man obsessed with breaking the mold of complacency; very much the same way Nietzsche will do in a few years.

Schopenhauer theories of the reason behind procreation were not only breakthrough theories at the time, they would probably create havoc in a world obsessed with individual rights. With this I mean the scenario in which you'd have to explain to an individual that despite the hundred of thousands of dollars in tax payers money, they simply cannot conceive. Of course the warranty of life, liberty and the pursuit only extend that far, it doesn't really include the "happiness." The pursuit is warrantied, not the happiness. Now, imagine telling that very same person that the reason tax payers couldn't continue paying for their fertility care was simply because, as Schopenhauer so stubbornly put it and I snobbishly repeat, "the inclination or impulse to recreate is controlled by will, and with the perverse idea that somehow we all need to leave something behind when we depart this world." Schopenhauer not only accuses our infertile friends as fools (his word), but also connects their desire to be parents with an egocentric tendency; the "it's all about me" mentality that drives individual desire. And that's simply a short outline of Schopenhauer's reproductive theory.

Where things get really heated is in "The World as Evil." Here Schopenhauer gives us cause to pause and consider, is it really worth it to live in a world that simply wants our destruction. Do we really want to be part of a world where desires are masked as successes when in reality they are just an increasing list of our demands on that world? "... because 'will' itself indicates 'want,' and its grasp is always greater than its reach... For every wish that is satisfied there remain ten that are denied. Desire is infinite, fulfilment is limited--'it is like the alms thrown to a beggar, that keeps him alive today in order that his misery may be prolonged tomorrow...'" Durant seems to explain Schopenhauer as the seminal existential theoretical background, and considering Nietzsche fell in love with "World as Will and Idea" (Schopenhauer's book), and went on to develop his "survival of the fittest" from this growing idea of meaninglessness. But, what should we live for then? In the words of Harold Bloom, "Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?" Don't bother looking for it in academia, or the Great Ideas of the humanities... Schopenhauer explains that "If the resistance of the 'will' against the apprehension of some knowledge reaches such a degree that that operation is not performed in its entirety, then certain elements or circumstances become for the intellect completely suppressed, because the 'will' cannot endure the sight of them; and then, for the sake of the necessary connections, the gaps that thus arise are filled up with pleasure; thus madness appears. For the intellect has given up its nature to please the 'will;' the man now imagines what does not exist." Certainly Durant quotes Schopenhauer accurately here, and one is left to follow the rest of the outline on Schopenhauer with a feeling of despair bordering on existentialism (as per Sartre). But, of course, there's much hope. Durant spends the rest of the chapter on "The Wisdom of Life." Out of the despair that "The World as Evil" implies comes the hope that "a life devoted to the acquisition of wealth is useless unless we know how to turn it into joy; and this is an art that requires culture and wisdom." This sounds like the proverbial "those who say money can't buy happiness simply don't know where to shop" adage. With wealth, a person could devote himself to a life of learning and of spreading the wisdom of art and culture. That much is very accurate, and how many of our great financial minds need to heed this advice today.

The sections on art and religion also carry with it a powerful punch. Like I said, Schopenhauer was really the seminal thinker of what Nietzsche assessed as the "Will to Power" but too aggressively, and later Sartre would turn into the drudgery of existentialism. I respect and love Schopenhauer now more than ever. I think this re-read is turning into a great learning experience.

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