Schopenhauer’s dog

You might have thought the “dog” in question was the infamous, metaphorical Black Dog of temperamental melancholy and clinical depression. Maybe our philosopher did have a touch of that, as well as a procession of four-legged friends, but he’s always seemed to me too enthusiastically and aggressively (and entertainingly) pessimistic for any reductive diagnosis. Anyway, my black dogs are the picture of happiness. My black cat, on the other hand…*

From Schopenhauer’s Studies in Pessimism:

I shall be told, I suppose, that my philosophy is comfortless—because I speak the truth; and people prefer to be assured that everything the Lord has made is good. Go to the priests, then, and leave philosophers in peace! At any rate, do not ask us to accommodate our doctrines to the lessons you have been taught. That is what those rascals of sham philosophers will do for you. Ask them for any doctrine you please, and you will get it. Your University professors are bound to preach optimism; and it is an easy and agreeable task to upset their theories.

Actually, things have changed since Arthur’s time. I’m about the only living university professor I know who “preaches optimism,” and I really don’t preach at all. I do look for authentic grounds for hopefulness, because I have children and students and they have a future.

I also have dogs. As indicated a few posts ago, I don’t think anyone who loves dogs (as Schopenhauer did) can be all bad. He learned (as did Walt Whitman) what they teach so well:

There is one respect in which brutes show real wisdom when compared with us—I mean, their quiet, placid enjoyment of the present moment. The tranquility of mind which this seems to give them often puts us to shame for the many times we allow our thoughts and our cares to make us restless and discontented.

That’s “Atman” at Arthur’s elbow, one of a series of canine alter egos he named “Self.” He used to reprimand the pooches with “Bad human!”

We pragmatic optimists, on the other hand, hold ourselves and our pets to fairer, more species-appropriate standards. We don’t accept (yet) that the worst is yet to come. We’re not really “optimists” but meliorists, just trying to take a sad song and make it better. A twist can’t hurt.

[Schopenhauer on PhilosophyTalk… The Schopenhauer Cure… SEP… Self-help for PessimistsMisanthropesMark Stone’s SchopenhauerHere Come the Germans…Schopenhauer on “In Our Time“…The Art of Controversy]

Schopenhauer, the oddly-cheerful pessimist, said Kant was right in denying that we could know “things-in-themselves”s but wrong in not naming the one great “thing-in-itself,” the pointlessly-willful universe. But after all, “the human body is suited to survive in this world, not to seek truth.” I’m still going for both.

He was an inadvertent and incomplete evolutionist, more like Spencer (who was the only sibling of nine to survive, JMH notes) than Darwin in noticing the dog-eat-dog quality of a world in which struggle and suffering outpace insight, cooperation, and progress. What we need is a “doggy-dog world” (if you’re a fan of Modern Family you might get that reference) in which both the strong and the sweet (in Darwin’s own words “the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive” and flourish. “There is grandeur in this view of life…”

Schopenhauer was a guy with issues, clearly, a guy in desperate need of a cure. I’m sure art and music must have helped, along with Atman. And maybe he self-administered a small dose of pantheism too.

“Better to embrace Spinoza’s and Einstein’s solution: simply bow one’s head, tip one’s hat to the elegant laws and mystery of nature, and go about the business of living.”

But renunciation of relationships and detachment from the world strikes me as a less-than-promising way to extract the full meaning of each present moment, no matter how “selflessly” you propose to live.

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One Response to “Schopenhauer’s dog”

  1. David Fallah Says:

    Schopenhauer was right about many things. Better if we were never to be born.

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