What is Schopenhauer’s Message for the 21st Century?
Schopenhauer’s ‘living philosophy’, written more than 150 year ago still provides us with ‘up to date’ techniques to guide us through a difficult time to be alive, to be living, breathing, thinking, and dying.
Schirmacher, Wolfgang. "Hegel and Schopenhauer on the Threshold of Artificial Life." In: Wolfgang Schirmacher. Just Living. Philosophy in Artificial Life. Atropos Press. New York, Dresden. ISBN 0981946269.
The 21st Century might reveal that “the will turns” (Schopenhauer) and humanity can in artificial life become identical with itself.
What is ethically decisive here is not merely the sum of our inner qualities, as Schopenhauer thought, but just as much, if not even more so, the conditions of post-technological society. The social human being is not the individual pressed into the service of society, but rather the ensemble of all shared and developed life technologies, from the global economy, to education and culture, to the Internet. The fundamental changes in the hardware and software of our global existence, changes which neither individual states nor isolated societies can resist, take place for the most part behind our backs, if not without our active participation. This development need not cause alarm; what one ought to fear is missing out on this transformation itself.
In a paper presented at the XVIIth World Congress of Philosophy in Montreal 1983, and printed in Social Science Information 23, 3 (1984), titled “The End of Metaphysics – What Does This Mean?” Schirmacher claims that a radical change is required for the human species to survive, and if we want to prevent our destruction, we must “learn a "bodily" language which precedes the division into subject and object, and admit the individual to a successful enterprise which needs no planning.”
From: The Essential Schopenhauer, edited by Wolfgang Schirmacher, published by Harper Collins, New York 2010. Introduction Living Disaster: Schopenhauer for the 21st Century
Schopenhauer turned around over 2000 years of Western philosophy which had been fooling itself about who we really are, and declared materiality and expressly the life of the body and not the mind as the moving force of existence.
It was Theodore W.Adorno, the leading thinker of the Frankfurt School and follower of Schopenhauer, who not only insisted that “thinking means thinking against yourself”
Parents and as well as teachers in nursery schools have many cunning ways to manipulate you; and with language you learn to behave “appropriately” and are guided into the process of civilization. To make a human being out of you, as advocated by educators of all kinds, means in effect directing you to your “place in the world” with the insincere promise that through “hard work and study” the future holds for you the chance to make it beyond that station. Western parents will claim you can achieve anything you want if you just set your mind to it; but this does not change your being “thrown into the world,” literally and in terms of your fate, as Schopenhauer put it. Thrown into social circumstances, with a set of genes decidedly an influence in terms of appearance, intelligence and future health, without your consent or the slightest choice. The “David Copperfield kind of crap,” J.D. Salinger, a kindred spirit of Schopenhauer, called it in his book The Catcher in the Rye. Often enough the children of the world are born into circumstances they would not wish on their worst enemies, and it is not overstatement to call children the slaves of our time, treated without regard to their humanity by parents and educators alike.
Schopenhauer called happiness just a moment between misfortunes and our belief that we are somehow protected from the suffering we see around us the greatest of all lies: Victim and victimizer are one and the same. A hundred years after Schopenhauer, the French philosopher and Nobel prize winner Albert Camus acknowledged that “he who lives will become guilty” and affirmed that the question of suicide is a key philosophical question. His answer was the “human in revolt” who like Sisyphus never gives up, even if the negative outcome is not doubt. Is life worth living? Only if you make it worth living, Camus as well Schopenhauer concluded. Schopenhauer did not put away the Zen master’s bamboo stick since he did not believe the people deserved the “truth in the truth” yet, the “turning of the will-to-live”. There is a fullness of nothingness, as Zen has indicated; and Schopenhauer hinted at the mystical “it gives” (Heidegger) compassion and love of humanity as a non-teachable way of ethical living.
- Schopenhauer accepted Kant’s fundamental analysis that our reasoning is forever unable to comprehend “the-thing-in-itself” and needs to humble itself before the “thing- itself-for-us.” Every judgment about the world has to be accompanied by “I think”; there is no true “it is” possible for the human mind.
But Schopenhauer claimed one exception to the rule of rational thinking which he called “introspection,” The insight into what is in me, accessible to me alone, and protected by the sovereignty of being-there (Heidegger’s Dasein) is the authentic path of the Will itself in me.
Living philosophy is Schopenhauer’s mandate for the 21st century. His one thought, that life is suffering, granted him the “the turn of the body” – it is not the mind but the “reason of the body” (Nietzsche) which feels the pain and compassion with all fellow suffering beings. Sexuality is the chief activity, often shamefully hidden, and governed by the “unconscious” (Freud) as well as chemistry. And what we call life is a killing game in which human beings rule supreme.-
Against Kant’s carefully argued dictum that we cannot know the “thing-in-itself,” Schopenhauer was adamant about of that there being one exception and offered himself as proof of the actuality of “introspection“ into the authentic condition of life that is suffering. No argumentation from outside, no matter how professional and well-meaning, can refute such an insight, felt with all senses and absolute certainty. It takes individuals in crisis, bravely facing how things stand, to back up Schopenhauer. Guided by his basic insight, Schopenhauer explained why there is a “metaphysical need” for meaning when death strikes, at any time, with no regard for circumstances.
This is the reason why Schopenhauer considered music the genuine art and the sound of being. In playing and listening of music all our senses, including the sense of the mind, are attuned to the bad and good fortune of living, without being put on the spot. Art is the world mirror and its gift of calmness is ephemeral but – as Romantics emphatically stated – a way from aesthetics to ethics. After Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, the founder of existential philosophy, contented that aesthetical leap into ethics is inevitable. Schopenhauer maintained that the customary ought-to-do ethics with its norms and rules unable to deliver what it promises. Instead of imploring people Sunday after Sunday to be good or threatening them with sanctions, on earth or in hell, we should ask what human beings are capable of. Responsibility, this key word of many ethics, anticipates an authority which has to be believed before it is working. But exactly such kind of common belief was lost already when Aristotle wrote the first Ethics – and he knew it: According to Aristotle it was a sad day for humanity when one feels the need to spell out what everybody should do anyway without thinking twice about it. Schopenhauer understood responsibility appropriately as our “ability to respond” to existential situations which need our ethical attention. For example, egoism does not have to be an ethical problem because accurately understood nothing is wrong with wanting something good for yourself. The ethical question arises when malice takes over, deeply rooted in feelings of insecurity, vanity and hate. Schopenhauer did not believe one can change human beings born with a certain character, a genetic set we would call it today. But he refused to accept the innate character as defense for wrongdoings since nobody can be certain about it – on the death be the most miserly person could turn benevolent. It is the nucleus of Schopenhauer’s ethics that it is involuntarily, an event that overwhelms, a compassion that cannot be denied. It can happen anytime and no precaution is possible – it just happens. Tat tam asi – That Thou art – the sudden revelation of humanity is the founding act of love and the source of ethical behavior. This love of humanity has many layers and shades and is as private as it is public – it is known to all and confused by many. It reveals and conceals the human condition, a “pendulum between suffering and boredom” (Schopenhauer) which is the very process in which ethics, mystics, media coincide. Learning from Schopenhauer one has to be able to respond to disaster, bravely living the turning of the Will, and enjoying how unnecessary suffering recedes. Unrepentant realism is still called for and necessary suffering will never terminate.
- learning from Schopenhauer, one must be able to respond to disaster, bravely living the turning of the Will, and taking pleasure in how unnecessary suffering diminishes. Unrepentant realism will always be called for and we will never be free of unavoidable suffering.