Posts Tagged ‘Schopenhauer’

Planet walkers

June 5, 2013

Searchers are optimists, and walkers are searchers. Are walkers optimists?

Well, I am. I wouldn’t say I was born that way. I recall a pessimistic teenage phase, coincident (or not?) with pounding headaches and an infatuation with William F. Buckley’s Firing Line. I walked away from it, and them, and from my initially-declared Poli Sci major, after my sophomore year in college. Thank goodness.

I know, there are and always have been pessimists who also walked. Schopenhauer springs instantly to mind. Nonetheless, every walk is an optimistic undertaking. And, I suspect, every self-avowed pessimistic walker is a closet optimist. Can’t prove it, but to paraphrase Camus: one must imagine daily walkers happy. More on that anon.

I discovered Walker Percy and his character Binx Bolling’s “search” in college. Percy saw the search as looking ultimately for a way out of this world, which he and his religious confreres viewed as “fallen” in its natural state. But reading his books, and then standing in his gazebo and surveying his “lost cove,” convinced me that his search was really for a way to love living.

I discovered a happy documentary worth sharing, last night:

Philosophical walkers are like John Francis: planet walkers. That’s another name for cosmopolitans, citizens of the globe and the universe who choose to accept responsibility for the whole. Every step symbolizes that choice, and that sense of a shared and universal identification with the natural world and all its lifeforms. In one of the stranger TED Talks on record, Francis declares “we are the environment, and how we treat each other is really how we’re going to treat the environment.” Similarly, he told  the Atlantic,

The environment is therefore also about human rights, civil rights, gender equality, economic and education equity. It is about all the ways we relate to one another because how we relate to each other manifests itself in the physical environment around us.

That’s a way, Walker.


July 25, 2012

Back on my perch after  another summer road-trip, this one to the sweltering American breadbasket. I was going to lay low ’til August but sometimes, as they say in Mayberry, things have just got to be brung out.

I spent some time with Irv Yolem’s Schopenhauer Cure yesterday, and then with Carlin Romano’s mention in America the Philosophical of the vitriolic philosophy blogger Brian Leiter. I think I’ll find it helpful to myself this morning to think a bit about the uses and abuses of misanthropy.

Old Arthur hated his species,  probably due in large part to a bad formative start with his hard-hearted Mama. She never missed an opportunity to tell him what a drag he was, as a youth, on her freedom. He more than fulfilled her vision of him, long after she was gone. He isolated himself from both his fellow “bipeds” and his own bipedal nature, thinking himself superior.

And who knows, that very attitude may have fueled the imagination and will to write the books that almost give pessimism a good name. What we can’t know, except through the fictive  speculations of people like Yolem, is whether Schopenhauer’s misanthropy seemed to himself to make his own life worth living, in his own mind. We do know he said it did not make him “happy.”

Leiter is merely emblematic of the cheap culture of snide  and sneering rudeness so prevalent and apparently popular on the Internet. I don’t know if it makes him or his readers happy to be that way. It doesn’t me. I tend to avoid his posts and their comments, as I try to avoid mood-dampening & heart-shrinking contaminants generally.

So what I just want to bring out about all this is a small piece of hard-earned self-knowledge: I find that I am a happier and a better person when I actively resist the misanthropic impulse, and do not surrender to it as Schopenhauer and Leiter apparently did.

I also picked up the Dalai Lama’s Beyond Religion yesterday. I like him. He may be naively humane, but at least he’s no misanthrope.

My faith enjoins me to strive for the welfare and benefit of all sentient beings, and reaching out beyond my own tradition, to those of other religions and those of none, is entirely in keeping with this. I am confident that it is both possible and worthwhile to attempt a new secular approach to universal ethics… We all prefer the love of others to their hatred. We all prefer others’ generosity to their meanness. And who among us does not prefer tolerance, respect, and forgiveness of our failings to bigotry, disrespect, and resentment?

I know I do. Anger, in my experience as apparently in the DL’s, is not a usefully generative fuel. But I’m a pragmatic meliorist, and pluralist. I presume to speak only for myself here.

What do you want to do today?

October 7, 2011

We had a good discussion in our James tutorial yesterday about The Sentiment of Rationality, and about the ambivalent “craving for further explanation” that makes philosophers perpetually discontented with every formulation.

As Schopenhauer says, “The uneasiness which keeps the never-resting clock of metaphysics in motion, is the consciousness that the non-existence of this world is just as possible as its existence.”

And that’s unnerving, especially when we draw out the personal implication: my non-existence is just as possible too.

We get that reminder every time a great person dies. Rest peacefully, Steve Jobs. The rest of us are that much closer to gone.

But he was no pessimist. Do you want to do what you’re about to do today? If not, he might just tell you to commence doing something better. The permanent  possibility of change is hopeful, and we’re still here.

“The worst is yet to come.” Schopenhauer

March 31, 2011

We’ll talk a little Schopenhauer before today’s Intro exam, just to get everyone in the mood.

Arthur Schopenhauer was one of the most entertaining philosophical misanthropes ever, “the original pessimistic western intellectual” who borrowed extensively from the east, sought his own nirvana in the extinguishing of “Will,” and thought the termination of existence could be its only point. He  also said:

  • Almost all of our sorrows spring out of our relations with other people.
  • A man can do what he wills, but not will what he wills.
  • A man’s delight in looking forward to and hoping for some particular satisfaction is a part of the pleasure flowing out of it, enjoyed in advance. But this is afterward deducted, for the more we look forward to anything the less we enjoy it when it comes.
  • Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.
  • There is no absurdity so palpable but that it may be firmly planted in the human head if you only begin to inculcate it before the age of five, by constantly repeating it with an air of great solemnity.
  • There is no doubt that life is given us, not to be enjoyed, but to be overcome; to be got over.
  • We forfeit three-quarters of ourselves in order to be like other people.

[Schopenhauer on PhilosophyTalkThe Schopenhauer CureSEPSelf-help for Pessimists…]

Next week, STUDENTS: O 115-137 on Tuesday and PW 101-108 on Thursday (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Mill, Darwin…)

And Happy Opening Day! Speaking of which, tomorrow (Friday) is the big annual “Baseball & Literature” conference hosted by MTSU, featuring scholars from around the world and (ahem) down the hall. (I won’t be asking the Dean to fund this trip.) It’s extra credit if I see you there.

Kant to Marx

November 11, 2010

Hume snapped Kant out of his early infatuation with Leibniz and Rousseau, led him to draw a line between phenomenal knowledge and noumenal speculation, and (ironically) cracked the door just enough to imply the possibility of a rational faith. That’s a lot of philosophical heavy (though inadvertent) lifting, for a skeptic. [Kant’s answerbbc]

Kant said we constitute (kant-stitute, if you please) the objects of our experience, so we don’t have to infer or prove their  reality. Convenient, and revolutionary in a Copernican sort of way.

Copernicus recognized that the movement of the stars cannot be explained by making them revolve around the observer; it is the observer that must be revolving. Analogously, Kant argued that we must reformulate the way we think about our relationship to objects. It is the mind itself which gives objects at least some of their characteristics because they must conform to its structure and conceptual capacities. Thus, the mind’s active role in helping to create a world that is experiencable must put it at the center of our philosophical investigations. The appropriate starting place for any philosophical inquiry into knowledge, Kant decides, is with the mind that can have that knowledge.

As for Descartes’ res cogitans? Kant said it’s not yours or mine, it’s ours in the most inclusive/collective sense imaginable.  The ubiquitous transcendental ego knows all… except what it kant. (Sorry for the puns, it’s Harrison’s fault: “You, Kant, Always Get What You Want.”)

Kant said freedom’s what you get when you suppress inclination and do your duty, as per the Categorical Imperative. But “categorical” means no exceptions, so there doesn’t seem to be much real wiggle room for an ethical Kantian.

Kant said “without faith, our experiences of injustice are bound to discourage us away from morality.” I haven’t found that to be the case at all, myself. Injustice is discouraging, but moral rectitude is strong in those who affirm it on any  grounds. That goes for theists, agnostics, humanists, secularists, naturalists, and atheists. Morality is multi-cultural and resolute.

The concept of a world-historical individual is bracing, even if you’re not Napoleon (or Hegel). Who wouldn’t want to  contribute to the material unfolding of philosophy’s and life’s final goal? But is there such a thing?

Spirit” is bigger than any of us. But so is time, so is history, so is generational succession in general. “The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves…” Is it a coincidence that Dewey began as a Hegelian? And is it a big surprise that such a cosmic optimist would eventually fall to earth with the retrospective “Owl of Minerva“? (Marx disagreed, saying the point is to change.)

Old Hegel was pessimistic when pessimism wasn’t cool, but Schopenhauer [squashed] came along just in time to become the romantic pessimists’ rock star. Kant’s thing-in-itself became his voracious Will. He seemed to enjoy it. Jennifer Hecht says he got off the funniest statement in the history of doubt, saying of believers:

For if we could guarantee them their dogma of immortality in some other way, the lively ardor for their gods would at once cool; and… if continued existence after death could be proved to be incompatible with the existence of gods… they would soon sacrifice these gods to their own immortality, and be hot for atheism.

Kierkegaard, the first Existentialist, said live passionately and leap before you think.

Feuerbach‘s pun was serious: “Man ist was Man isst“? Much depends on dinner.

And, again, Marx turned Hegel upside-down: the clash of ideas is a sideshow, compared to the clash of classes.

Kant, Hegel, Marx…

November 9, 2010
Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable.”*
No, he wasn’t. Not at all. But  that’s still the first thought that ever pops into my head when I hear his name, thanks to the Bruces.* (The second involves my old Kantian professor from grad school, whose Brooklyn accent made semi-shocking his story of “how I met my wife.” But never mind.)
Kant was actually the most soberly stable and fastidious of men. They “set their watches by him as he went on his daily walk” in 18th-century Konigsberg, Prussia. That’s probably the thing about him I like most. He well knew the truth of William James’s  later observation that steady habits are our greatest productive ally. Kant was as productive as he was un-flashy.
“Awakened from his dogmatic slumbers” and his romantic dalliance with Rousseau and  Leibniz by David Hume’s dash of cold water skepticism, he assigned appearance and reality to the phenomenal and noumenal worlds, respectively. He didn’t mean that phenomena are unreal or unknowable, just that we know them through the categorical spectacles of our projective understanding. We don’t know them “in themselves,” the “ding-an-sich” is a non-starter.
But Kant knew what he knew. The stars are awesome, and so is a dutiful conscience (“the moral law within”). Fealty to the latter led him to his “Categorical Imperative” and its “silly” obsession with inflexibly rational consistency.
Kant. Obsessive, punctual of habit, semi-gregarious, a mouth-breather, fond of Cicero, and also a philosophical walker (but with a weird aversion to sweat). Famous last  word: “Sufficit.” Enough. (I like his countryman Goethe’s better: “Mehr licht.” More light. (Or was it “Mehr nicht,” No more?) Famous living words: “Sapere aude.” Have the courage to think.
Hegel said “the real is the rational & the rational is real,” implying a tightly-interlocked jigsaw of spirit, nature, and mind unfolding progressively over time. The zeitgeists of successive eras reflect “the march of reason.”
The end-point of all that marching: the “Absolute,” when nature finally comes to know itself through the self-consciousness of rational agents like, well, like Hegel himself. Seems a bit self-indulgent, doesn’t it? Schopenhauer (“Hegel is a stupid and clumsy charlatan”) and Kierkegaard definitely thought so. They objected to his turgid, convoluted style as well as his project of reducing all to Reason.
Kierkegaard was contemptuous of Hegel’s rational ambitions, doubting there was any place in his grand system of  objective reality for living individuals. Was his “leap of faith” a fatal leap from the bridge of reason, “rational suicide”? Or is it just another way of affirming the will to believe?
“The negation of the negation…” Sounds like gobbledy-gook of the sort that might inspire another philosopher to ingest laughing gas, but it is possible to read Hegel non-mystically as saying some very sensible things about life in its experiential and historical unfolding. He did not believe in disembodied spirits or the immortality of the soul, but he did believe in Spirit as communal self-knowledge. Turn it over and you get hard-boiled history and the political struggle for justice that Hegel (and Feuerbach) provoked in Marx. Hegelian philosophy resembles his student Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge, an impressive structure built on sand.

But Feuerbach thought he was on to something. Some thing: material, social, economic reality. “The philosophical cure consists in overcoming alienation, demystifying Christianity and bringing human beings towards a true self-understanding.” We should stop kneeling before visions of remote perfection that we’ve projected onto Christ (and other iconic objects) and stand up on our own feet.
Schopenhauer, like most post-Kantian Germans, couldn’t resist saying too much about the “thing-in-itself.” For him it was blind, striving, implacable, insatiable will (aka desire, attachment, ambition) which must be renounced and denied. “Sounds like Buddhism to me,” too, but without HHDL’s lightening chuckle.

“You are what you eat,” said Feuerbach. Marx construed “eat” broadly,  in

material and economic terms, and agreed with Hegel that human progress unfolds historically and dialectically. But our ideas (“consciousness”) must catch up to social reality, not the other way around. When they finally do, he predicted, we’ll throw off our chains, abolish private property,  and for the first time really know Eden.
Utopian? So far.
[more realityGermans (mostly)…  Kant to Marxsourpuss…]
NOTE TO STUDENTS: Exams are graded, essays are not. Thanks for not asking. More report presentations this afternoon.

Germans (mostly)

March 24, 2010

Here they come, let’s see if they can put some life into the match. But first a Frenchman, a Scot, a Swiss, an Englishman.

But before that, and speaking of believers: did you catch the debate on ABC’s Nightline last night between Michael Shermer and Sam Harris arguing against “the future of God,” versus Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston? It was a riveting show of belief and counterpoint, though the edited-for-TV version barely conveyed the rare excitement of actual ideas being exchanged in public for purposes of both enlightenment and entertainment. So I stayed up to catch the whole thing in its entirety, online. Check it out. All of the participants had interesting things to say, Sam Harris stole the show, and Deepak Chopra lived up to Julia Sweeney‘s past billing. He really does “layer” the quantum flap-doodle in ways that imply a specious expertise. There should be more of this sort of fare in the popular media! We’ll watch, you & me, and they’ll get decent ratings. Right? But back to our business…

Voltaire. Hectored by a parish priest on his deathbed to repent and declare Jesus’ divinity he protested: “In the name of God don’t speak to me any more of that man and let me die in peace.” He thought hell was a pretty silly idea, and like his friend Ben Franklin he was a Deist and a friend of the Society of Friends, a Quaker-sympathizer.

Hume. “By what arguments or analogies can we prove any state of existence, which no one ever saw, and which no wise resembles any that was ever seen?” Such were the sentiments that roused Kant from his slumbers and led him to “postulate” the unseen noumenal/transcendent realm of God, freedom, and immortality. But “le Bon David” was a skeptic to the end. “The morality of every religion was bad,” though he admitted having known some good religious men. By all accounts he was a good man too. His pal Adam Smith called him as close “to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man” as could be. He was calm in the face of his demise, cheerful and in good humor, without anxiety.

Rousseau. Difficult, paranoid, vain, ungrateful to his benefactor Hume [Rousseau’s Dog, Philosophers’ Quarrel], and “born again” (and then  eventually killed, Critchley speculates) at the paws of a Great Dane.  A strange man, but given to saving spurts of calm– especially when walking.

Bentham. Stranger still: he attends meetings of the University College London council, but does not vote. His perpetual presence in corpore is intended as “a posthumous protest against religious taboos surrounding the dead.” Inspiring.

Kant. Another strange dude. Obsessive, punctual of habit, semi-gregarious, a mouth-breather, fond of Cicero, and also a philosophical walker (but with a weird aversion to sweat). Famous last  word: “Sufficit.” Enough. (I like his countryman Goethe’s better: “Mehr licht.” More light. (Or was it “Mehr nicht,” No more?) Famous living words: “Sapere aude.” Have the courage to think.

Hegel. “The negation of the negation…” Sounds like gobbledy-gook of the sort that might inspire another philosopher to ingest laughing gas, but it is possible to read Hegel non-mystically as saying some very sensible things about life in its experiential and historical unfolding. He did not believe in disembodied spirits or the immortality of the soul, but he did believe in Spirit as communal self-knowledge. Turn it over and you get hard-boiled history and the political struggle for justice that Hegel (and Feuerbach) provoked in Marx. Hegelian philosophy resembles his student Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge, an impressive structure built on sand.

Feuerbach. “The philosophical cure consists in overcoming alienation, demystifying Christianity and bringing human beings towards a true self-understanding.” We should stop kneeling before visions of remote perfection that we’ve projected onto Christ (and other iconic objects) and stand up on our own feet.

Schopenhauer. When we’ve stood up, he says, we need to look mortality in the eye. Life is “a loan received from death, with sleep as the daily interest on this loan.” Why, if he felt this way, didn’t he stuff it? Apparently because he didn’t want to feed the voracious monster “Will.” The problem with suicide is that it maintains the illusion of wilfullness. The only permissible suicide is the self-starvation of the ascetic. No thanks, I’ll just keep eating and pushing that round object. Move over, Albert. You must consider us happy. Even if, like Artur, we’ve had our poor hearts broken. As Emerson prods: “Up again, old heart.” (Is there consolation for too much grading?)

Kant to Marx

March 22, 2010

Immanuel Kant, jostled out of his Leibnizian dreamscape by David Hume’s wake-up call, but equally  frightened by the latter’s skepticism, proposed to limit knowledge to make room for faith, distinguishing experience from things beyond experience, the “things in themselves” we can never know because we know them only by applying our human concepts to the raw stuff of life.

Here’s a handy mnemonic: Kant says we constitute (kant-stitute) the world as we know it, and so should feel fine about knowledge. And here is Kant’s response to Hume’s skepticism. We do not in any sense have to infer or prove its existence, we’re the  suppliers of its very warp and woof. We ourselves, as “transcendental ego.” But this is a “thinking thing” much more spread out and amorphous and no less problematic than the “res cogitans” of Descartes.

But, it gives rise to a moral philosophy  that– if it succeeds– puts a bandage on that Humean pricked finger, in the form of Kant’s “categorical imperative.” Because we all have the same faculty of reason within us, Kant was convinced that we [should] all reach the same conclusions regarding morality. You should always be able to universalize any rational rule (“maxim”), and if you can’t: don’t do it. (That’s imperative.)

Here’s the “making way for faith” part: without faith, our experiences of injustice are bound to discourage us away from morality. We need to believe that, ultimately, moral behavior converges with happiness. Ergo: God, immortality, and an eternal afterlife. This can’t (kant) be experienced on the phenomenal plane (where we empirical egos live) , but is on the Kantian view a rational postulate nonetheless.

Kant was also interested in the concept of the aesthetic “sublime,” when the starry skies and other large natural phenomena put us in mind of an infinity our imaginations still boggle at.  We gain a further sense of our dignity as rational beings in this way, while at the same time experiencing our relative insignificance in the natural scheme of things. For Kant, this too points to the possibility of a rational faith. To me it points to itself: the wonder of nature, and us a part of it all. Nothing “insignificant” about it.

Hegel. In a squashed nutshell: history matters, opposites can be rationally, “synthetically” reconciled in the great perpetual dialectical processes of time and “geist” (spirit).  Michael Prowse: “What Hegel does better than most philosophers is explain how individuals are linked together and why it is important to commit oneself to the pursuit of the general or common good.” We are all in this together.

At the far end of his own dialectical journey, Hegel got owly and cryptic. “The owl of Minerva flies only at twilight,” he solemnly pronounced, apparently taking back some of  his earlier confidence in the power of philosophy (and a philosophy of history) to make history happen.

But, if there is a point to human history, you could do worse than to agree with Friend Hegel (as one of my old profs called him) that it is the realization of human freedom. But now the interesting debate begins: how much of freedom is strictly an individual concern? How much concerns the public interest, the common good, the weal of the collective?

That’s where Marx will come in, soon. (btw: there really is a Hegel Society. Don’t know if they meet for drinks like we did…)

Then comes Schopenhauer, aka ScroogeSourpussHis antipathy toward Hegel was profound. What Schopenhauer most despised in Hegel was his optimism, his sense that humanity was improving. And though he followed Kant in emphasizing the importance of human volition, he departed from Kant by denying the rationality of the will. Will is ultimately without purpose. An  animal is born. It struggles to survive. It mates, reproduces, and dies. Its offspring do the same, and the cucle repeats itself generation after generation. What could be the point of all of this? Use your imagination, Artur! (We’ll see, with Alain de Botton’s chapter, that actually he did. He found refuge from a world he claimed was otherwise unredeemable, in art.)

Kierkegaard.  Existence is not just “being there” but living passionately. Good. But to my taste his emphasais on “subjective truth” is not so good, as a thesis about truth (as opposed to a commitment to seeking your passion).  His skewering of Hegel for ignoring “the existing, ethical individual” is often entertainining and funny, though.  The 19th century rationalists took themselves pretty seriously. Kierkegaard told ’em to take a “leap of faith.”

Feuerbach. Unlike many other Germans of his day, this one was a down-to-earth materialist who punned that “Man ist was Man isst.” You are what you eat. Practically speaking, the dialectical upshot of this view combined with Hegel’s yielded the new Marxian synthesis.

Karl Marx turned to converting Hegel’s dialectic of ideas into a theory about the power of economics. In place of Hegel’s World Spirit were the forces of production. In place of ideas in confrontation were competing socioeconomic classes. The goal of a classless society sounds good.  It doesn’t seem near. Would Marx have consoled himself with a beautiful lounge suite?

The Rock

October 6, 2009

“Some emotions make us flourish, others sap our well-being, others make us wither.”

No kidding. I’ve been talking up the positive emotions, and so does Ricard just a few paragraphs on: “positive emotions broaden our thought-action repertoire” to include joy, interest, contentment, and love.

Great. But a friend reports his 10-year old daughter’s recent diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes, and the attendant emotions are just as you’d expect: “feeling stuck, tired, angry, & not much fun to be around.” I have a 10-year old too, I’m sure I’d be every bit as demoralized and debilitated by that news as he is. There are moments in life when overt demands to flourish ring false.

I’m not about to advise my friend to buck up and be happy. That would be insensitive and probably counter-productive. But I wonder if I’d be able to tell myself that, were we to find ourselves in his family’s  situation.

Ricard mentions William James’s concept of “sustained, voluntary attention“– the key, for James, to free will, self-determination, and ultimately to happiness itself. (Winifred Gallagher just wrote a great big book on this.) When life snaps you over the head with a two-by-four, can you still turn your attention away from “disturbing” emotions to positive, nurturing thoughts? I know, Buddhist meditators can do it for hours on end. But Buddhist meditators, afflicted by many forms of suffering and denial, still tend not to have 10-year olds with Type 1 diabetes. Or is that an outworn, culturally-confused stereotype?

Maybe it is. Buddhists in America especially come in all shapes, sizes, and domestic situations. But I’m afraid the “calming” exercise in this chapter is not a lot more specifically instructive to me than the earlier advice to expand my mind. “With a deep feeling of appreciation, think of the value of human existence and of its extraordinary potential for flourishing. Be aware, too, that this precious life will not last forever…” Carpe diem? Memento mori? I think Hallmark could do better.

In general I have nothing but admiration for such sentiments, which come to me in almost precisely this form and with some considerable frequency– usually on sunny days when I’ve placed myself in my own form of meditative receptivity, while hoofing it around and watching the thoughts rise and fall.

What I still want to understand is how Buddhists and other serene folk summon such comfort and joy when the days and nights are dark and long and the news is heartbreaking. We’re passionately “attached” to our children, we grieve when they suffer, we curse the impersonal universe that dispenses weal and woe so indifferently, and at such moments feel anything but appreciation for life’s maldistributed “potential.” (Is that what Heidegger meant by “presence in the mode of absence?”) At such moments, what we want is to be dealt a new hand… not to be urged to be effusively grateful for the crummy old one.

And we’re going to need a better “exercise,” there’s not much consolation in this one.

Chapter Ten, to Ricard’s credit, picks up the challenge. “There’s no question here of ceasing to love those whose lives we share.” No, there’s not.

“As for anger, it can be neutralized by patience.” Again, details here are wanting. But this is key, if only I could figure out how to make it fit my psychological  locks: “You are overwhelmed by a sudden tide of anger… But look closely. It is nothing more than a thought… It is a temporary condition, and you do not need to identify with it.”

But when conditions objectively “suck,” as my friend observes, shouldn’t we identify with the emotions that express our sharp revulsion? It feels like the right response–not the most pleasant, not the happiest, not the healthiest, just the right one. Why is that wrong? Why are we entitled to stuff those emotions and opt for the positive ones, when conditions do not elicit them spontaneously?

Of course, liberation from anger at the moment it arises would be wonderfully soothing– to me. It would not mitigate a little girl’s anguish, would it?

But is the point, rather, that even righteous anger does no good and might do harm? That begins at last to speak to me, as did the Oklahoma City Dad’s refusal to endorse Timothy McVeigh’s execution (ch12). One more death, one more angry act of retribution, eases no one’s pain.  “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” leaves us all blind and gummy.

Once again, though, the exercise does not work for me. “Don’t unite with the anger… keep on just  observing [it], it will gradually evaporate under your gaze.” Yes, eventually we’ll all evaporate. Just now, though, when the anger is a tight little knot and the world does not feel much like home, is observation the best response? It might be. But it feels like a waste of perfectly good adrenaline.

schopenhauer1Ricard quotes “the great pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer,” and his coupling of striving and desire. The Mark_Twainimplication is that desire always frustrates, is  “everywhere impeded,” always struggling, fighting, suffering. We can escape desire, or suppress it. But Mark Twain said the best way to conquer temptation is to yield to it. Is that not, sometimes, a gratifying strategy? (I don’t know what Shania says about desire, that’s whose image Google wanted me to put here. You prob’ly did too.)

As for dismantling hatred and hostilities: Buddhists and cheek-turning Christians have much to teach us all about this. I confess I simply do not comprehend the sensibility that is capable of feeling love and compassion for even the most hateful and hostile others, simply because they too “strive to achieve happiness and avoid suffering.” I suppose I am deficient in fellow-feeling. I hope I would refrain from calling for Tim McVeigh’s head, but I don’t feel bad about not extending to him the love and compassion I feel for my kids. Should I? Please explain.

My reflections on this book began with some quibbles about renunciation. Ricard is explicit, now, in denying my presuppositions: “Renunciation is not about depriving ourselves of that which brings us joy and happiness… saying no to all that is pleasant… Genuine happiness– as opposed to contrived euphoria– endures through life’s ups and downs.” And smooths them out? “We can get off the endless roller coaster of happiness and suffering.” That’s fine, I’m not that fond of roller coasters anyway. And I’m very fond of Ricard’s next authorial citation: “Simplify, simplify.”

But I still think William James has had the sharpest insight into our correct default position on the question of desires: fulfill as many of them as we can, erring on the  side of the presumption that more (not fewer) satisfactions will raise the sea level of our happiness.

william-james“Take any demand however slight, which any creature, however weak, may make. Ought it not, for its own sake, to be satisfied? If not, prove why not. The only possible kind of proof you could adduce would be the exhibition of another creature who should make a demand that ran the other way. The only possible reason there can be why any phenomenon ought to exist is that such a phenomenon actually is desired. Any desire is imperative to the extent of its amount; it makes itself valid by the fact that it exists at all.” The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life

Is this wrong? If you read it as an excuse for narcissistic, ego-grabbing, non-reciprocal, non-altruistic selfishness, read on:

“Were all other things, gods and men and starry heavens, blotted out from this universe, and were there left but one rock with two loving souls upon it, that rock would have as thoroughly moral a constitution as any possible world which the eternities and immensities could harbor. It would be a tragic constitution, because the rock’s inhabitants would die. But while they lived, there would be real good things and real bad things in the universe; there would be obligations, claims, and expectations; obediences, refusals, and disappointments; compunctions, and longings for harmony to come again, and inward peace of conscience when it was restored; there would, in short, be a moral life, whose active energy would have no limit but the intensity of interest in each other with which the hero and heroine might be endowed. We, on this terrestrial globe, so far as the visible facts go, are just like the inhabitants of such a rock.”

Our emotions and desires need not pull us apart. They can bring us together, here at The Rock. We just gotta follow the rules,barney_fife keep our cool, resist pointless anger, and practice a little tough love (as well as loving-kindness) with the rule-breakers. Don’t be spiteful and immature. (And, don’t get a swell-head like Goob did once.) Ol’ Barn had it all figured out. “Frood wrote a book about it, Andy.”


October 2, 2009
“Life is so short, questionable and evanescent that it is not worth the trouble of any major effort… no man is ever very far from [suicide]… Life has no genuine intrinsic worth… Human life must be a kind of error, [as is] the notion that we exist in order to be happy.”

“Life is so short, questionable and evanescent that it is not worth the trouble of any major effort… no man is ever very far from [suicide]… Life has no genuine intrinsic worth… Human life must be a kind of error, [as is] the notion that we exist in order to be happy.” Thus spake Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), a man of many antipathies and little affection for the world.

young SchopYoung Schopenhauer became a hero to the youthful “romantics” of his time who were so committed to feeling (as opposed to reason), championing “the whole person” against pure and abstract reason, emphasizing the importance of the irrational and thus foreshadowing Kierkegaard (1813-1855), “the melancholy Dane”. Nietzsche (1844-1900), not a contemporary or party pal, was briefly smitten with him. He was one of Wittgenstein‘s (1889-1951) favorite philosophers.

He fell in love but “had no wish to formalize the arrangement”– a classic case of reluctance to commit. Alain de Botton calls him “Dr. Love,” but “his refusal to marry his mistress and mother of his child at a time when this would deeply damage her social and economic status is hardly the behavior of a loving spirit.” It’s not a stretch, though, to imagine his metaphysics being very different if his early interpersonal encounters had gone differently.

Schopenhauer admired his countryman Goethe for turning so many of the pains of love into knowledge. But Goethe‘s weltanschauung was very different: “If you wish to draw pleasure out of life you must attach value to the world.”

Schopenhauer did attach some value to some parts of the world, such as his succession of dogs. He also (reports de Botton) loved Venetian salami, theatre, the opera, the concert hall, novels, philosophy, poetry, and at least one or two women.

So: why didn’t he have a more positive experience of life? Or did he, after all, enjoy living– and complaining about it? Would he have had a better life if he had learned to be more optimistic, more grateful, and less critical? Or is he one of those people whose temperament thrives, somehow, under conditions of self-imposed adversity?

Schopenhauer on love. “The conscious mind is a partially sighted servant of a dominant, child-obsessed will-to-life… we would not reliably assent to reproduce unless we first had lost our minds.” And we would not be sexually or romantically attracted to another person if we weren’t under the domination of that inexorable, insatiable Will… “Love is nothing but the conscious manifestation of the will-to-life’s discovery of an ideal co-parent…”

In other words, nature’s willful agenda is all about biology and procreativity. Nothing more. What’s love got to do with it? Not much, it’s all just so much romantic window-dressing concealing the inexorable, impersonal, driving will of the universe and its progeny to self-replicate, ad nauseum. As Arthur saw it, this is a function that finds us on all fours with all the beasts of creation.  Our sentimental soft-core re-framing of sex in the language of love and affection does nothing to blunt its hard-core reality:  “An animal is born. It struggles to survive. It mates, reproduces, and dies. Its offspring do the same, and the cycle repeats itself generation after generation. What could be the point of all this?” (Passion for Wisdom) Simply, says A.S., the continuation of the race. Period.

The spectacle of it all may be entertaining, for those who like to watch as well as participate. But it’s not ennobling or elevating or ultimately happy-making, just because we write songs and poems and Hallmark cards and dirty books about it. It’s merely, as Isabella Rossellini says, Green Porno. But what makes mechanistic sex between snails and whales and worms (et al) titillating here is the presence of Isabella in a cheesy snail/whale/worm costume. The human presence, specifically the participation in such acts of a consciousness we can relate to, raises the stakes and changes the game. Schopenhauer seems not to have appreciated that, reducing love, romance, and affection to impersonal fecundity. Sad. Stupid.

“The pursuit of personal happiness and the production of healthy children are two radically contrasting projects. We pursue love affairs, chat in cafes with prospective partners and have children with as much choice in the matter as moles and ants – and are rarely any happier.”

So: those of us who think our marriages and the subsequent births of our children were transcendently-joyous events are just deluded.

The World as Will and Idea (1819) contended that the sole essential reality in the universe is the will, and all visible and tangible phenomena are merely subjective representations of that ‘will which is the only thing-in-itself’ that actually exists. ( Squashed Ph’ers)

Like the Buddhists, he recommended asceticism and the blunting of desire. Like Nietzsche, he thought art and aesthetic

nietz head

experience were redemptive. “The essence of art is that its one case applies to thousands…no longer one man suffering  alone, he is part of the vast body of human beings who have throughout time fallen in love in the agonizing drive to propagate the species” and just maybe, in the process, find love and meaning and purpose.

schop dogHe may have been a grinch, a sourpuss, a misanthrope, and a misogynist, but as W.C. Fields said: no one who loves children or animals is all bad. Schopenhauer loved dogs and loathed the restriction of their freedom by man.

“You would think that a philosopher who named his pet poodle “Atman” would have the ability to see the Self in all beings; yet Arthur Schopenhauer’s love of wisdom did not seem to extend to a general love of humanity. In fact whenever the poodle misbehaved Schopenhauer would refer to it as “You Human”. -R.Udovicich, The Poodle Named Atman

“The pursuit of personal happiness and the production of healthy children are two radially contrasting projects.” This from a life-long, childless bachelor.  He literally did not know whereof he spoke.

“An inborn error: the notion that we exist in order to be happy… the erroneous notion that the world has a great deal to offer.” And yet… Schopenhauer finally transcends pessimism, at least on paper. By assigning the absurdities of existence to an implacable, impersonal force of will, he comes to look less at his own individual lot than at that of humanity as a whole. He conducts himself more as a knower than as a sufferer.

But of course we can’t really know that the world is nothing but will. That’s Schopenhauer’s peculiar interpretation and perspective. In an odd way, though, it reconciled him to a life he claimed to find intolerable – and seems even to have made it worth living, from that perspective.

If I could sit down with old Arthur I’d like to share a poem with him. Sometimesby David Budbill, begins:

Sometimes when day after day we have cloudless blue skies,

warm temperatures, colorful trees and brilliant sun, when

it seems like all this will go on forever…

And continues:

when I am so happy I am afraid I might explode or disappear

or somehow be taken away from all this,

at those times when I feel so happy, so good, so alive, so in love

with the world, with my own sensuous, beautiful life, suddenly

I think about all the suffering and pain in the world, the agony

and dying. I think about all those people being tortured, right now,

in my name.

And concludes:

But I still feel happy and good, alive and in love with

the world and with my lucky, guilty, sensuous, beautiful life because,

I know in the next minute or tomorrow all this may be

taken from me, and therefore I’ve got to say, right now,

what I feel and know and see, I’ve got to say, right now,

how beautiful and sweet this world can be.

Arthur would probably hate it. He’d love hating it, and he’d love writing big dense fat books about how much he hated it.

“Sweet,” indeed.