Schopenhauer. 4. The Worst of All Possible Worlds

Leibniz declared that we live in “the best of all possible worlds.” He acknowledged pain and suffering in the world, but regarded them as logically necessary to achieve God’s purposes of freedom, love, and grace – purposes that ultimately benefit all humankind.

A generation later, Voltaire’s short novel Candide made a mockery of “the best of all possible worlds” through the character of Professor Pangloss, who comically portrayed the bumbling optimist. The works of both Leibniz and Voltaire were well known to Arthur Schopenhauer.

As a young man, Schopenhauer had achieved some success with his university dissertation, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason.[1] Later he took fierce pride in what he called “my prize-essay,” On the Freedom of the Human Will, which won the 1839 contest for best answer given to the question about free will posed by the Norwegian Scientific Society.

However, neither those compositions nor his life’s major work, The World as Will and Representation, had achieved more than modest recognition as he approached the 60th year of his life. He decided to gather some notes from his long writing career and publish them in a more popular style – witty, aggressive, sarcastic – which might get public recognition for views that had been spurned by the university professors.

The result was a book titled Parerga and Paralipomena,[2] his own coinage from Greek, translating as “things aside from the main work” and “things left aside or passed over,” or “Chips and Scraps.”[3]  As such, he let his words run free and wrote down what he might have spoken to a friend, preferably canine. Below are a few examples from a section titled Counsels and Maxims. I have tried to put them in an order that may least offend a delicate reader.

§18 Especially in youth, the goal of our happiness is fixed in the form of a few pictures that hover before us and often persist for half our lives and sometimes till the very end. They are really taunting ghosts; for when we have acquired them, they fade away into nothing since we learn from experience that they achieve absolutely nothing of what they promised. Of the same nature are the individual scenes of domestic, private, and social life, pictures of our residence, environment, marks of honour, evidence of respect, and so on; chaque fou a sa marotte (‘every fool has his cap and bells’).

§33 Just as we have paper money instead of silver, so in the world, instead of true esteem and genuine friendship, there circulate outward demonstrations and mimic gestures thereof which are made to look as natural as possible. On the other hand, it may also be asked whether there are men who really deserve the true coin. In any case, I attach more value to an honest dog wagging his tail than to a hundred such gestures and demonstrations. True genuine friendship presupposes a strong, purely objective, and wholly disinterested sympathy with another’s weal and woe, and this again means our really identifying ourselves with our friend. The egoism of human nature is so much opposed to this that true friendship is one of those things which, like colossal sea-serpents, are either legendary or exist somewhere, we know not which. There are, however, many associations between men which, of course, rest mainly on concealed egoistical motives of different kinds, but nevertheless have a grain of that true and genuine friendship. In this way, they are ennobled to such an extent that, in this world of imperfections, they may with some justification be given the name of friendship.

§35 Our trust in others is often very largely made up of laziness, selfishness, and vanity; laziness when we prefer to trust someone else instead of making inquiries ourselves and of being vigilant and active; selfishness when the need to talk about our own affairs leads us to confide a secret to someone; vanity when it is one of those things of which we are rather proud. Nevertheless, we expect our trust to be honoured. On the other hand, we should not get angry at the distrust and suspicion of others; for here is to be found a compliment for honesty, namely the sincere admission that it is very rare, so rare, in fact, that it is one of those things whose existence is doubted.

§17 Effort, trouble, and struggle with opposition are as necessary to man as grubbing in the ground is to a mole. The stagnation that results from being wholly contented with a lasting pleasure would be for him intolerable. The full pleasure of his existence is in overcoming obstacles which may be of a material nature as in business and the affairs of life, or of an intellectual, as in learning and investigating. The struggle with them and the triumph make him happy. If he lacks the opportunity for this, he creates it as best he can; according to the nature of his individuality, he will hunt or play cup and ball; or, guided by the unconscious urge of his nature, he will pick a quarrel, hatch a plot, or be involved in fraud and all kinds of wickedness, merely in order to put an end to an intolerable state of repose.

§9 Generally speaking, every man can be in the most perfect harmony only with himself, not with his friend or even with his betrothed. For differences of individuality and temperament always produce a discord, although only slight. Therefore genuine tranquility of the heart and perfect peace of mind, the highest blessings on earth after health, are to be found only in solitude and, as a permanent disposition, only in the deepest seclusion. If, then, a man’s own self is great and rich, he enjoys the happiest state that can be found in this miserable world. Indeed, let us be frank; however intimately anyone may be tied by friendship, love, and marriage, in the end he quite honestly looks only to himself and at most to his child. The less a man is compelled, in consequence of objective or subjective conditions, to come in contact with others, the better off he is.

§150 The most effective consolation in any misfortune or suffering is to look at others who are even more unfortunate than we; and this everyone can do. But what then is the result for the whole of humanity?

We are like lambs playing in the field, while the butcher eyes them and selects first one and then another; for in our good days we do not know what calamity fate at this very moment has in store for us, sickness, persecution, impoverishment, mutilation, loss of sight, madness, death, and so on.

History shows us the life of nations and can find nothing to relate except wars and insurrections; the years of peace appear here and there only as short pauses, as intervals between the acts. And in the same way, the life of the individual is a perpetual struggle, not merely metaphorically with want and boredom but actually with others. Everywhere he finds an opponent, lives in constant conflict, and dies weapon in hand.

It took an Englishman to recognize the worthiness of these thoughts, how delightfully and terribly accurate they are. John Oxenford wrote an initial positive review of Parerga and Paralipomena and one year later a full article on Schopenhauer entitled ‘Iconoclasm in German Philosophy’ in The Westminster Review. Oxenford named him ‘the misanthropic sage of Frankfort’ and referred to his philosophy as ‘ultra-pessimism.’ Although Schopenhauer disavowed both labels, he was pleased with most aspects of the influential review, which was also translated and published in Germany. At home and abroad, the new book as well as his earlier systematic works began to receive increasing attention. In reaction to the elaborate models of progressive history devised by Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, pessimism became ‘the current of his time’ by the 1870s.

Schopenhauer’s relentless disavowal of goodness in daily life and his embrace of suffering as the essential human condition may have grown steadily from his temperament as a child. Letters to him from his mother urged him constantly to look for the good in things and people. When he was 18 years old, she wrote, “I could tell you things that would make your hair stand on end, but I refrain, for I know how you love to brood over human misery in any case.” In human relationships he tended toward contemptuous, dogmatic, insulting language, as readily verified in Parerga and Paralipomena, including the infamous chapter ‘On Women,’ so misogynist it won’t be quoted here.

For two or three years around 1808, Arthur lived in Weimar, dined daily with his mother and came to her literary receptions. He gained tremendously from his contacts with classicists there, including a scholar specializing in Greek and another devoted to Hindu texts. But his mother became so frustrated with his demeanor and behavior that she wrote to him, saying that her happiness depended on knowing that he was happy, but not upon being a witness to it. They must consent to live apart. After a reunion several years later in Weimar lasting a few months, disagreements related to collapsing family business interests drove them apart, and she would not see him for the last 26 years of her life.[4]

Arthur Schopenhauer died quietly in his apartment in Frankfurt in 1872. He left most of his estate to the benefit of soldiers wounded in Berlin defending the royal party against democratic revolutionaries some 24 years previously. In 1873 a six-volume edition of his collected works was published by his friend Julius Frauenstādt, and his influence blossomed.

An apprehension of bleakness in human affairs infiltrated Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the will. A person’s will may lead her to pursue some project with great fervor, but as soon as the end is reached, the will, having no further task at hand, begins to look elsewhere toward some unmet satisfaction. Time is both too short and too long for the will. Too short resulting in missed opportunities as well as goals too quickly achieved. Too long resulting in boredom. The will is restless, even as we seek rest. Not only the individual, but the whole world engages in unending, frustrated striving, which Schopenhauer named the will-to-live.

A partial answer to this problem, according to Schopenhauer, can be found in art and music. In aesthetic experience, we can forget the individual will and perceive the timeless representation of the existent world through its objective apprehension by a great artist, a state of calm passivity in which the will goes quiet and we rest in contemplation of Platonic Ideas behind and beyond the world.

Art provides only a temporary release, however, from the misery of the will-to-live. Better is the state of some very few people who are able to renounce all desire and striving, thereby negating the will-to-live. They live as saints, ascetic in their activities and accepting in all their relations. They become ready to dissolve the individual self and attain the timeless realm of Brahma, the state of nirvana.

But does Schopenhauer’s assertion of will as the sufficient reason for all representation – that is, the universe – necessarily require a response of frustration and negation of that same will in order to achieve what is truly desired? Is it not the will that frames what is truly desired?

Modern positivists have described human life as an accidental wave on the surface of an ocean of random events. They give insufficient attention to Schopenhauer, who presented a deeper and more satisfying view – that human life participates in movements of will.

Both positivism and Schopenhauer’s vision, however, should be interrogated at the level of an implicit assumption that what is most meaningful must be found in timeless universals. Is it possible that something about temporal earthly life paradoxically endures and is most of all to be desired? Is it possible that the will-to-live arises from and fully accords with that same timeless realm that Schopenhauer seeks? These questions amount to asking: what is the purpose of the will?

Puzzles of self-reference come up here. Is there a deeper will that produces the will? Is the will that underlies the world (and deserves capitalization, hence the Will) connected with a Self? If one answers yes, why not identify both with God? Schopenhauer would likely answer no. We need a consultation from Epimenides.

In the next blog before leaving Arthur Schopenhauer, we shall look more directly at some religious aspects of his thought. I’ll give a personal viewpoint and attempt to respond to his ideas on religion.


Next post:  Schopenhauer. 5. An Atheist Seeks Immortality

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Featured image:  Photograph after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, Pixabay, sjb3949, CC0 Public Domain.

[1] The Principle of Sufficient Reason, of course, was developed by Leibniz.

[2] Schopenhauer, A. Parerga and Paralipomena. Transl. E.F.J. Payne. Clarendon Press, 1974.

[3] Beer, M. Schopenhauer. Jack, London, 1914. Available at Project Gutenberg E-books.

[4] Ibid.


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