Our series has examined how atheists of earlier generations often exhibited a higher degree of moral and/or metaphysical gravitas than the sophomoric New Atheists of more recent vintage. As we’ve seen, this is true of , , , , and even . There is arguably even more in the way of metaphysical and moral gravitas to be found in our next subject, Arthur Schopenhauer. Plus, I think it has to be said, the best hair. So let’s have a look, if you’re willing.
Schopenhauer’s magnum opus The World as Will and Idea famously begins with the sentence: “The world is my idea.” As opening lines go, that ain’t bad. It’s a grabber. What does it mean? The thesis is the Kantian one that the world as we know it in experience is not reality as it is in itself, but only reality as represented. (Vorstellung, translated as “idea” in this line and in the book’s title, is sometimes translated “representation” instead.) Schopenhauer’s philosophy is essentially a continuation of Kant’s, though also, he thought, a partial correction of it.
The correction involves a greater openness than Kant exhibited toward heavy-duty speculative metaphysics. To be sure, Schopenhauer followed Kant to some extent in the project of clipping the traditional metaphysician’s wings. He has much of interest to say about the Principle of Sufficient Reason, having devoted his first book to the topic. On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason identifies four aspects of reality, each of which is intelligible in its own way: the phenomenal world of physical objects; the logical relations between concepts and propositions; time and space as described in terms of arithmetic and geometry; and the self considered as the subject of acts of the will. Schopenhauer regarded the Principle of Sufficient Reason as a unifying abstraction from the principles of intelligibility governing these four domains. But like a good Kantian (and unlike rationalists such as Leibniz), he took the principle to apply only within the phenomenal world, so that it couldn’t ground an argument for the existence of God as cause of the phenomenal world. Schopenhauer also had a high regard for Plato, and for the Theory of Forms in particular. But the Forms too do not in his view reflect reality as it is in itself, so that Schopenhauer is no more a Platonic metaphysician than he is a rationalist one.
Still, he did not agree with Kant that we could know nothing of reality as it is itself (i.e. the noumenal world, to use the Kantian jargon). Schopenhauer thought we could know something of it, though not via speculative metaphysical arguments. Rather, we know it from consciousness of ourselves, and what we know of it, specifically, is that it is will or volition – it is the impulse or striving we know in awareness of our own actions.
In order properly to understand this, we need immediately to note some crucial qualifications. You might wonder whether Schopenhauer is making a claim to the effect that the nature of all reality as it is in itself is to be found in what you experience when (say) you will to reach your hand into the bag of Doritos for another chip. That would indeed sound odd. But he is not saying that, or not quite. In experiencing this action, you experience it as involving several distinct objects and events – you, your hand, the bag of Doritos, the particular chip you take hold of, the moment of deciding to grab it, the later moment of actually taking hold of it, and so on. All of that reflects merely the phenomenal world, not the noumenal world. It is all just the world as it appears to you, not the world as it is in itself. We catch a glimpse of the world as it is in itself only when we subtract all of that, and focus on the residue that remains – the sheer impulse toward acting that is common to this action and all others.
But it is not just human action that reflects this will or volition. It is, for Schopenhauer, evident in instinctual animal behavior, in a plant’s growing toward the light of the sun, and in a stone’s falling toward the earth. Will as he understands it is not – as it is for, say, Aquinas – necessarily associated with intellect. It is a more general notion, similar to what Aquinas means by appetite, a tending toward activity. This might seem to entail finality or teleology (as it does for Aquinas), but for Schopenhauer, will is blind. It simply aims, but not toward any good. It is a pointless striving or impulse.
This is the deep reason for Schopenhauer’s famous pessimism. It might seem, at first glance, that Schopenhauer’s metaphysics is broadly idealistic or even pantheistic in character. The noumenal will he posits is a single immaterial, undifferentiated, spaceless, timeless, uncaused reality. For the notions of differentiation, materiality, space, time, and causation apply only to the phenomenal world. That might make the noumenal world seem God-like, especially given that “will” suggests, at first hearing, a mind-like reality. And since the noumenal world is just the same thing as the phenomenal world, but considered in its true, inner nature, it might seem that Schopenhauer is committed to the view that all being is identical to this mind-like or God-like reality.
But, again, will as Schopenhauer understands it is not associated with intellect and it does not aim at the good or indeed at anything. Blind and pointless, it can never find satisfaction. This, in Schopenhauer’s view, is the deep explanation of all suffering. Suffering is the inevitable manifestation of the pointlessness of the blind will or aimless striving that underlies all reality. The phenomenal world of our experience is malign because the noumenal world beneath it is malign. Hence, though initially it might seem that Schopenhauer is committed to something comparable to Hindu pantheism (and he did indeed regard the Upanishads with respect), it is really an atheistic Buddhism, with its notion of tanha or craving as the source of all suffering, that is a closer Eastern analogue of his position.
There is in Schopenhauer’s atheism, then, no cheap attribution of human unhappiness to religion, or to ignorance of science, or to bad political structures, the usual scapegoats posited by modern secularists. The source of unhappiness goes much deeper than all of that and would simply reappear in other forms however secularized we become, however much knowledge we acquire, and however we reform our institutions. Indeed, Schopenhauer had some respect for religions like Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism insofar as they recognized suffering to be simply part of the human condition, and tried to mitigate it.
Say what you will about Schopenhauer’s metaphysics, it is not the superficial scientism of pop physics bestsellers and the New Atheism, and it does not yield the chirpy optimism of moronic slogans like the notorious
Schopenhauer? I barely know her!
When I speak of Schopenhauer’s moral gravitas, I am emphatically not talking about his personal moral character. He was not a nice guy. True, he did talk the talk of compassion and asceticism, and he was bound to develop such an ethics given his metaphysics. But his personal life was no model of either. Ascetic self-denial was hardly on display in his self-promoting attempt to draw students way from Hegel at the University of Berlin, by scheduling his lectures at the same time as those given by the then far more famous philosopher. (The result was famously disastrous for Schopenhauer.) Much worse, and the opposite of compassionate, was the notorious episode of his throwing a woman down the stairwell outside the door to his rooms, because he judged that she was making too much noise. (She was seriously injured and he had to pay her compensation for the rest of her life.)
Still, he did recommend an austere morality, rather than the libertinism that many people (wrongly) suppose must follow from an atheistic metaphysics. Like a Buddhist, Schopenhauer regarded resistance to our cravings, rather than indulgence of them, as the surest way to remedy suffering. Now, for Schopenhauer, the will that is the source of suffering is to be conceived of, first and foremost, as the will to live. You might think, then, that he would recommend suicide, but that is the reverse of the truth. Once again echoing Buddhism, he saw suicide as in fact just one more indulgence of desire, and thus to be avoided rather than commended.
Then there is sex, which exists for the sake of reproduction, the generation of new living things. Everyone knows this, of course, but the deep irrationality into which the indulgence of disordered desire has plunged modern people has led them to adopt the idiotic pretense that procreation is somehow merely incidental to sex. Schopenhauer was under no such illusions. The power and unruliness of the sexual drive was, for him, the clearest manifestation of the will to live and the way it brings about unhappiness. It mercilessly pushes us into romantic illusions, irrational decisions, and the compulsive scratching of an itch that only ever reappears, all for the sake of bringing about new people who will in turn only suffer the way we do.
Schopenhauer’s chapter on “The Metaphysics of the Love of the Sexes” in The World as Will and Idea is worth quoting from at length:
This longing, which attaches the idea of endless happiness to the possession of a particular woman, and unutterable pain to the thought that this possession cannot be attained – this longing and this pain cannot obtain their material from the wants of an ephemeral individual; but they are the sighs of the spirit of the species… The species alone has infinite life, and therefore is capable of infinite desires, infinite satisfaction, and infinite pain. But these are here imprisoned in the narrow breast of a mortal. No wonder, then, if such a breast seems like to burst, and can find no expression for the intimations of infinite rapture or infinite misery with which it is filled…
The satisfied passion also leads oftener to unhappiness than to happiness. For its demands often conflict so much with the personal welfare of him who is concerned that they undermine it, because they are incompatible with his other circumstances, and disturb the plan of life built upon them. Nay, not only with external circumstances is love often in contradiction, but even with the lover’s own individuality, for it flings itself upon persons who, apart from the sexual relation, would be hateful, contemptible, and even abhorrent to the lover. But so much more powerful is the will of the species than that of the individual that the lover shuts his eyes to all those qualities which are repellent to him, overlooks all, ignores all, and binds himself for ever to the object of his passion – so entirely is he blinded by that illusion, which vanishes as soon as the will of the species is satisfied, and leaves behind a detested companion for life…
Because the passion depended upon an illusion, which represented that which has only value for the species as valuable for the individual, the deception must vanish after the attainment of the end of the species. The spirit of the species which took possession of the individual sets it free again. Forsaken by this spirit, the individual falls back into its original limitation and narrowness, and sees with wonder that after such a high, heroic, and infinite effort nothing has resulted for its pleasure but what every sexual gratification affords. Contrary to expectation, it finds itself no happier than before. It observes that it has been the dupe of the will of the species. ()
Far better to be free of the whole thing, Schopenhauer thought, though he was far from free of it himself. In his introduction to , R. J. Hollingdale writes of Schopenhauer’s many unromantic sexual encounters:
The strength of his sexual drive was certainly considerable in itself, and when he condemns it as the actual centre and intensest point of the ‘will to live’ he speaks from experience: his fundamental feeling towards it was undoubtedly that he was its victim, that he was ‘in thrall’ to it. In his best recorded moments Schopenhauer understands more vividly than anyone the suffering involved in life and the need felt by all created things for love and sympathy: at these moments he knew and hated the coldness and egoism of his own sensuality. (p. 34)
Naturally, Schopenhauer goes too far. But his excessive pessimism about matters of sex counterbalances the excessive optimism of the age we live in now, which absolutely, foot-stompingly, fingers-in-the-ears refuses to listen even to the mildest criticism of any sexual preference or behavior as long as it is consensual. That our unprecedented hedonism and depravity have given rise to the literal insanity of denying that the distinction between the sexes is objectively real would not have surprised the likes of Plato and Aquinas, and perhaps not Schopenhauer either.
A philosophy can be profound even when it is ultimately mistaken, and Schopenhauer’s is both. In his essay “On Suicide,” he notes that “Christianity carries in its innermost heart the truth that suffering (the Cross) is the true aim of life.” But Christianity nevertheless insists that “all things [are] very good,” so that suffering serves an “ascetic” purpose in properly orienting us toward the ultimate good that will redeem it. Schopenhauer shares Christianity’s view that suffering is central to human existence and ought to be faced ascetically, but he rejects the thesis that all things are very good. Hence whereas Christian asceticism is motivated by hope, Schopenhauer’s is motivated by despair. But he captures a deep truth in facing up to the reality that if there is no God, despair is the only honest response.
Powerful evidence of the profundity of Schopenhauer’s philosophy is afforded by the influence it famously had on the music of Richard Wagner. (Try to imagine – without laughing – a New Atheist, or even a more serious thinker like Russell or Hume, inspiring such music.)
The Schopenhauerian themes that the will to live that underlies all reality is most powerfully manifest in sexual desire, that lovers’ yearning to melt into one another echoes the oneness of all things underlying the phenomenal world, that the happiness lovers hope for nevertheless cannot be realized, that suffering and death are their inevitable tragic fate – such themes are given palpable expression in Wagner’s sublime Tristan und Isolde, and The Ring bears the mark of Schopenhauer’s influence as well.
This is fitting, since Schopenhauer held that of all forms of expression, music, which operates below the level of the conceptualizations that apply only to the phenomenal realm, best conveys our intuition of the blind will that is the true nature of the world as it is in itself. In any event, a man whose thought could inspire has an undeniable claim to being a great philosopher, and for my money, probably the greatest of atheist philosophers.