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 one-hundred-and-fifty 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 dissimulations 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.