The Power of Negative Thinking: 'The Essential Schopenhauer'

Painting (partial) by Bob Row © 2006

“I suppose I will have to be told again that my philosophy is cheerless and comfortless simply because I tell the truth, whereas people want to hear that the Lord has made all things very well. Go to your churches and leave us philosophers in peace!”

The Essential Schopenhauer: Key Selections from The World as Will and Representation and Other Writings.

Publisher: Harper Perennial
Price: $15.99
Author: Wolfgang Schirmacher
Length: 365 pages
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 2010-11

Imagine your life as a handful of copper coins. With them you pay back the debt incurred by your birth. You pay out what you hold, over time and in space, until what you owe nature balances by your own death. So Arthur Schopenhauer encourages us to face our mortal reckoning, to tally up our fatal receipt for our earthly expenses. “For to nothing does our existence bear so close a resemblance as to the consequence of a false step and a guilty lust.” In his post-Romantic, Germanic version of the Fall, we wander this fallen existence already hopelessly having to atone for our very being.

His reputation as a grim, stoic, and unflinchingly realistic philosopher has endured nearly two centuries. But before Wolfgang Schirmacher assembled this anthology—-modifiying and arranging previous translations by E.F.J. Payne (1958 and 1974), Konstantin Kolenda (1960), and Arthur Brodrick Bullock (1903)—-his massive life’s work The World as Will and Representation (1819, with a second edition in 1844 and a third in 1859, the texts of “The Buddha of Frankfurt” had not been published in a one-volume English-language reader that draws from his major work as well as his shorter, if equally formidable, essays. What remains understated is how much Schirmacher contributed to a fresh version of these standard translations. The press release credits him as a translator, while the book credits him as editor. He acknowledges moving footnotes into the main texts and brackets are scattered throughout, but the lack of help for a reader facing this philosopher for the first time does disappoint.

This collection in the Harper Perennial Modern Thought series has a few suggested sources for further reading, and an index, but it does not mediate between the reader and the text. Schirmacher, after a brisk introduction linking Schopenhauer to The Simpsons, George Carlin, Albert Camus, and The Catcher in the Rye, leaves the reader to tackle his subject with no editorial summations, endnotes, nor explanations.

The results, living up to the daunting legacy Schopenhauer leaves for us 150 years after his death, certainly prove bracing. Twenty topically arranged excerpts make the reader confront Schopenhauer. He begins by emphasizing the driving force that moves all: the “will-in-itself”. This natural power carries all along with it, unthinkingly. This inner nature manifests itself through external phenomena. Ideas nestle within the will; forms reveal themselves as representation. But they lack consistent, eternal truth: they no more endure than the shapes discerned in clouds or on a frosty windowpane.

He sums up his metaphysical outlook: “the world as will is the first world (ordine prior), and the world as representation, the second (ordine posterior). The former is the world of craving and therefore of pain and a thousand different woes. The latter, however, in itself is essentially painless; moreover, it contains a spectacle worth seeing, altogether significant, and at least entertaining.” This inspires Schopenhauer’s examination of aesthetics.

In our world, we distinguish the world as will in subjects and in objects as representation. This sounds simple. What complicates this dichotomy unfolds in Schopenhauer’s determination to examine how knowledge, aesthetics, beauty, art, education, the sublime, women, suicide, ethics, eternal and temporal justice, compassion, mysticism and asceticism, and ultimately death and rebirth all align with his construction. These chapters comprise the bulk of this anthology.

His dislike for most opera and most of Dante, his rationalization for the dissimulation women practice, his examples from gladiators, the American prairie, Australian aborigines, and weeping by mourners extend his thoughts into many surprising directions. His worldview takes in all he can imagine. For example, he reconfigures as male an object of art in terms of the subject the artist perceives as female, within which the artist brings forth by its conception the artistic impulse to create and bring forth. Once he searches for the will-in-itself as the wellspring for all nature, he never stops finding it.

Schopenhauer aligns the dual axis within ourselves by a similar polarity. The genitals summon up the will while the brain centers “pure knowing”, the realm for representation. He offers frank appraisals of the allurements of the body and their role in trapping life forms to continue the good of the species at the expense of the individual. For contemporaries, his steady response when confronted with what feminists have long since called the male gaze, and the rationale he gives for why women want what they do, may elicit debate and reconsideration, for he finds in the forces of sex itself our own predicament, the will-in-nature manifested in the urge to merge. His bottom line: “women exist solely for the propagation of the race.” Meanwhile males wonder why females persist with “their whole nature and action a certain frivolity” which weakens marriages but attracts suitors.

Schopenhauer’s appeal for modern readers may also lie in his eagerness to incorporate the imperial and scientific discoveries of his peers into his panoramic survey. He shifts from a Western perspective towards India to contrast mores, customs, and mentalities. Throughout his study, he features Hindu and Buddhist (such as the latter was understood given the limits of the early nineteenth-century’s interpreters and translators) concepts. The Sanskrit injunction tat tvam asi, “that thou art", serves as his motto. He builds his ethics on a shared compassion, a fellowship with ever-suffering humanity.

As in Eastern frameworks, so in Schopenhauer’s pioneering vision: he locates the tension between “occupied time” of the passing moment for the individual within temporal limits as opposed to inconceivable presences outside time and space, themselves in his model non-existent beyond those within these defining limits. He evokes the life-and-death struggles of an insect as vividly as he does the agony of a son who cries out at a gravesite for a departed father, even one who he has come to hate. For readers a century on the other side of Einstein and relativity, such thoughts challenge all the more, for what perhaps has been proven as well as disproven in the years since, as Freud and Darwin, Marx and Jung, quantum physics and cosmological Big Bangs and Big Crunches beckon today’s thinkers towards horizons that in the early 1800s had only begun to be glimpsed within telescopes.

He stresses the commonsensical basis of his enterprise. “To repeat abstractly, universally, and distinctly in concepts the inner nature of the world, and thus to deposit it as a reflected image in permanent concepts always ready for the faculty of reason, this and nothing else is philosophy.” He has no time for piety. “I suppose I will have to be told again that my philosophy is cheerless and comfortless simply because I tell the truth, whereas people want to hear that the Lord has made all things very well. Go to your churches and leave us philosophers in peace!”

Caught in the ever-changing moment, people need to turn to a calm acceptance of their frailty. The species will endure, but the individual, Schopenhauer unflaggingly repeats, remains all too weak and committed more towards a perpetuation of the species rather than its own satisfactions after the momentary pleasure of (at least human) reproduction has passed. As with all evolved organisms, he narrates in often spellbinding fashion, people endure the tug of hunger and the fear of death as the will-in-life in action, deep within us beyond conscious control. These desires contend with the “sexual impulse” and a mother’s “passionate care for the offspring” as signs of the communal, species-oriented demands equally rooted and primordially ineradicable.

A few who seek escape from the flesh may overcome these nagging reminders of mortality. They may wrench themselves outside--as it were by willpower they may force an exit from their own bodies and minds, if briefly. After all, ascetics renounce these instincts in search of liberation from their unending demands. Schopenhauer tells powerfully of the difficulty involved in tearing one’s mind away from the harangues of one’s body, and he convincingly narrates both the saint’s triumph and the profane man or woman’s surrender to such internal, inarticulate, and indomitable commands that defy logic or reason. Ultimately, death awaits all organisms.

Schopenhauer offers neither platitude nor nostrum. Instead, he concludes that our innate will-to-life lures us by the sensual, retains us by the fear of death, and battles the freedom of nothingness, when liberation comes for all who wear themselves out within decaying minds and enfeebled bodies. From the phenomena which encapsulate and entrap suffering and misery, he asks, why should we not seek the ease of a death that eternally follows the eternity which preceded our birth? Before conception, we had nothing to fear, being nothing then: the same condition as the nothing to which we -- as far as we know -- will return.


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