Top critical review
9 people found this helpful
Misery, misery, all the way
on 27 December 2012
This is an edited selection of Schopenhauer's work, mostly from his early "The World as Will and Representation", but including selections from later works. The selecting has presumably been done by Schirmacher, who has also written an introduction. The purpose of this book seems to be to present to the general reader the "gist" of Schopenhauer's philosophy. The whole project, however honest its aim may be, is deeply flawed.
It is not easy - indeed I found it impossible - to identify which of Schopenhauer's books the selections are taken from. We are told they are largely from "The World as Will and Representaion", but there is nothing obvious to distinguish which bits are from elsewehere. Once we are within Schrimacher's selected text, elisions appear - as [ . . . ] - betraying the fact that Schirmacher has excised part of Schopenhauer's text. This alone is enough to make one profoundly uneasy about accepting this book as a portrayal of Schopenhauer's thought. An academic text should make its sources blindingly clear, and these elisions - well, what has been edited out? Fluff, waffle - or something which dilutes the particular picture of Schopenhauer which the editor wishes to get across?
We turn to the introduction to get some idea of Schirmacher's approach. It very soon becomes clear to the British reader that Schirmacher has a US sensitivity and US priorities. He assumes a largely church-going audience. He drags in, rather clumsily, apocalyptic attitudes to technology, the future of humanity and the fate of the planet. He tries to link Schopenhauer to almost every guru of modern times from Freud and Darwin (where the link is clear) to such sundry figures as Karl Popper, Hobbes, Lacan, Albert Camus and Derrida. He attempts to make Schopenhauer at one with Heidegger, and in the process makes rather a mess of explaining Heidegger. In fact he seems to have tried to make Schopenhauer an influence on everyone he can think of, without any supporting arguments or relevant quotations.
The language of the introduction is often obscure and some of the sentences do not make sense. Nor does Schirmacher's confident assertion that Schopenhauer is a Zen master (a misreading of either Zen or of Schopenhauer). But the oddest distortion comes near the end when Schirmacher, having acknowledged Schopenhauer's manicheist aversion to bringing more victims into this suffering world, suddenly drags in the subject of birth control. Schopenhauer's stance is that the "will to live", manifesting itself in this case as the sex drive, is to be conquered, ideally by celibacy, and that having babies is simply adding to suffering humanity and, in the light of his insights, an act to be avoided. Schirmacher, apparently commenting on this, opines that contraception allows us to have sex without procreating, and adds "Raising children also has an excellent chance of becoming a choice for the many people who are good at it and enjoy mentoring offspring". Somehow, though I am not president of the International Schopenhauer Association, I cannot help feeling this is not what Schopenhauer is saying, even in this selection.
I am going to have to do more than read through this book to get to grips with Schopenhauer's philosophy, but I suspect I will move on to an unedited text and reassure myself that I am reading what Schopenhauer actually wrote, and not someone else's "edited highlights". One thing I was able to confirm straight away, however. Schopenhauer is regularly cited as a Christian philosopher, or one who has meaningful truths about Christianity to convey. Reading "Mystics, Saints, Ascetics", it is clear why theologians reject him. Schopenhauer's worldview, as stated here, is manichean; i.e. it views the world not as a divinely created perfection infused with the godhead, in which only man is vile, but as a grisly, foul, unredeemable pit of misery and horror. He uses the word "salvation" to refer to the Nirvana of Buddhism; to the escape from the circle of reincarnation described by eastern religions, also to the "state of grace" IN THIS WORLD acheived, as a result of their own efforts, by Christian mystics who practice self-denial. He passes over the standard views of the varying sects of Christianity, that "salvation" is something which affects one's fate after death, not before, and which can be achieved either by service to others and the intercession of the priesthood, or, in other sects, by faith alone and a personal dialogue with Christ.
The view of Christianity presented by Schopenhauer is Manicheist and Gnostic. I am not passing judgement on its validity, only pointing out that his views, with their emphasis on the denial of life, on the relative unimportance of altruism (for him altruism is a welcome symptom of the denial of the will, not a virtue to be cultivated because of the help it brings to others), and the neglect of the concept of the afterlife, are not compatible with any of the major Christian theologies.
For Schopenhauer, happiness is no more than the absence of suffering (he does not contrast, as we would, true happiness, a fleeting glow, with contentment, a longer-lasting acceptance of one's lot). Yet, without suffering we are nothing, and would, he asserts, kill ourselves or murder each other from, presumably, an excess of boredom or adrenalin, if the sources of our suffering were removed. From this apparent (in fact constructed) paradox, much is derived. Schopenhauer sets up men of straw: all happiness is trash, all contentment delusion, love a source only of angst and grief - ergo, if all is suffering, we have to find a philosophy to explain it. Some, he concedes, might take issue with this originating premise but, fear not, you're deluded and your life is hell, whether you know it or not. And so on.
Anyone who wants a good laugh, however, can read his views on women.