Schopenhauer, not Scrooge: a defense


by Alex Tarbet

Since students are invited to post on the blog (and I hope I’m not the only one who does!) I thought I’d put together a piece on Schopenhauer. He plays a crucial role in the texts we’re reading in Dr. Huenemann’s seminar (Spinoza, Emerson, Nietzsche) and his moral aesthetic has got to be one of the most enjoyable and profound pieces of philosophical writing there is – something I’ve heard from other majors too. Emerson’s views on education (American Scholar) and early Nietzsche (Birth of Tragedy) reek of inspiration.

[Gutenberg link]

First, Schopenhauer often goes unread, labeled the “Great Pessimist,” and left on the shelf because nobody in their right mind wants to go there. But he goads us into reading on:

…My last refuge is now to remind [the potential reader] that he knows how to make use of a book in several ways, without exactly reading it. It may fill a gap in his library as well as many another, where, neatly bound, it will certainly look well. Or he can lay it on the toilet-table or the tea-table of some learned lady friend. Or, finally, what certainly is best of all, and I specially advise it, he can review it.

He deserves a defense. Wrong are those who brush him off as a “Scrooge” character who profoundly stubbed his toe one day and will never let it go. Rather, he is decisively not a pessimist, beyond his infamous metaphysical claim about the Universe. He offers a profound, surprisingly fresh and breathtaking aesthetic as the philosophical purpose of life.

Though himself an atheist, Schopenhauer impressively justified that human existence ought to be lived with peace, compassion, intellectual wonder and artistic contemplation as its highest goods. So what sounds at face-value like a depressing and miserable philosophy is in fact alluring to those with a religious spirit and a concern about tranquility, beauty and the sufferings of other beings. The ideal man for Schopenhauer is indeed Jesus Christ.

In an age when ancient Eastern religious manuscripts began to be translated and distributed in Europe, Schopenhauer combined Plato, Kant and the Hindu Vedas in a profoundly clever and straightforward way. His system aligns and befriends Christianity and Buddhism with a central interest in alleviating human suffering, while providing a metaphysical explanation by means of rational reflection. This is a high bar to jump, but like any great philosopher, he does many things at once with style.

On the other hand, outside the great system itself, like any other great philosopher (or any of us), Schopenhauer has shortcomings. Kant was a racist; Heidegger a Nazi; Plato a censoring authoritarian; Aristotle argued for slavery. These petty criticisms of course ought to make us yawn under the shadows of their accomplishments. Schopenhauer’s views on women and love are especially scathing, but no reason to look down on his masterpiece.

With that aside, why does this matter in context of our class? Nietzsche and Emerson toy with claims of value. In order to make statements about the meaning and purpose of life, they (and we) must have some metaphysical explanation for why the Universe exists beforehand. (If anyone wants to argue philosophically against this, I’d love the conversation.)

Schopenhauer starts with the limitations of natural science. Naturalists who want to explain the meaning of life, he says, assume that material causality was a ground for all explanations. But real wonder seeks underneath causes and effects; it looks behind all ‘appearances’ – beyond the flux of time, space and causality – into a metaphysical realm. Were one to use only science to explain things, as many today wish to, he would go on and on to the infinite boundaries of the Universe and never truly explain anything (while in the meantime forgetting his purpose and wasting his life).

Every object needs a subject. A physicist may explain what a star is, but that star requires an eye. The presupposition which makes scientific knowledge possible resides in the observer. We must look within ourselves – not out into the world – in order to solve the mystery about why we exist. Metaphysics reveals why things exist, not merely how things work. While natural science may explain the details of the objective world, the biggest question of all remains outside its grasp.

(Note: this is an essential argument against today’s popular atheism, which has what Schopenhauer would say is a shallow reliance on scientific realism. Interestingly, he is an atheist who would profoundly disagree on the very basics with many of today’s nonbelievers.)

Following Kant, we know that the sentient mind is a marvelous thing that has the unique ability to create causality, reason, space and time. These categories are applied to the outside world by the thinking subject, not vice-versa. Put simply, an apple hanging from a tree only exists in space and time insofar as someone’s mind perceives it, and applies time, size, number, and the rest, in order to understand. Space and time are not qualities of the apple in itself, they are qualities my mind gives the apple in order to make sense out of it.

The level of reason, causality, space and time afforded to something in the world is its degree of objectification. When something becomes objective – is created via the subject – it enters past the boundary of the “principium individuationis” and becomes individuated or multiform; things gain number, reason, time and space – rather than being unified in simplicity.

All subjects have different powers of objectification – of bringing things into the principium – with men at the highest level, due to our complicated minds. A bird has little understanding and no forethought of the eggs for which it makes a nest; a spider knows nothing about the prey to be caught in its web; yet according to the Will they go on striving toward existence nonetheless. They experience a lower grade of objectivity. Plants bloom and fade. Stones, oceans, vibrations, molecules, and waves all strive at some level in a chaotic competition for objective reality and life in the minds of subjects. Everything is a pantheistic competition for real estate in a world made up of limited objectivity in time and space, choked as it were through the limitations of the mind.

Nature is a competition for forms of the Will to enter the world of space and time, a place with limited real estate thanks to the principle of sufficient reason (nature is an ‘economy’ of reason). In the objective world, forms strive against each other to fit within space and time. This explains why there is a biological war going on all around us.

At the ever-expanding edges of the objective world of space and time, there are Plato’s Forms, which define the goals of things as they strive for existence. Somewhere out there, there is the Form of a perfect apple toward which all apples are striving; sadly, due to the nature of the limited physical real estate they will never attain it.

So that explains what nature is. Objects need a subject; the mind creates their attributes of space and time, these are limited and so there is a miserable war of all against all. But what is this subject? It cannot be true that the mind alone is the perfect foundation of all knowledge, since it is clearly imperfect. There are constraints upon it from some other source, so there must be a lower foundation for an ultimate explanation.

In deeper reflection (meditation), we find immediately that consciousness is itself a willing force – something that seeks, craves, desires, struggles, and wants. By analogy: we do not see the Sun, but we know the eye that sees the Sun, and when we understand that eye deeply, we know every one of its motions to be identical to the pursuit of a need, desire, or want. This tells us the answer to the biggest mystery of all: the essence of everything is strife. The final innermost sanctum, the deepest root, of all understanding must be the Will.

The Will is necessary as a groundwork to making any other claims about human knowledge.

Note that this epistemological claim becomes a metaphysical one. It is important to see two things: that the Will is fundamentally negative, and that it is infinite. The Universe is the semblance of striving, an underlying desire for fulfillment which can never be fully reached. If the further question is asked toward what end the Will strives, and why it continues to do so, there is no answer. We have already reached the very root of explanation, and exhausted reality entirely. The Will does not exist inside space and time, nor may it be understood under the principle of sufficient reason; so there is no proper human explanation that does it any justice. The Will must simply be accepted as fundamental. There are no reasons for its striving – it just does. It is radically a-rational. (Notice the close ties – if not identity – with Nietzsche’s Dionysian element.)

Our minds have the ability to comprehend Plato’s Ideas, existing as they do outside us at the boundaries of the objective Universe. When we do so, we remove our knowledge from the realm of reason, causality, space and time, and so become disinterested contemplators – geniuses and artists. In other words, we have the capacity to lose ourselves in pondering what things really are in themselves, beyond our own selfish desires and needs, and so transcend the Will and remove our suffering for a short period of time.

For example, rather than considering an apple as delicious or nutritious, an artist forgets his body’s individual nature and becomes a subject of pure knowledge about apple-ness. Even an apple is a magnificent thing when considered apart from its practical use as a common food and viewed simply as a being. This is the utmost fulfillment of the striving of the infinite Will – its annulment – since finally the Platonic Idea is adequately objectified and removed from the limited world of space and time by the perceiver. In this process the artist becomes one with all of reality.


Author: Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.

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