A Word on Schopenhauer
Theosophical Forum, October, 1904
I remember once attending a drawing-room lecture on Schopenhauer and his philosophy of pessimism, where the audience, as is very often the case when these high themes are treated, consisted almost entirely of ladies.
As the graceful young philosopher, whose outline was clearly marked against a window leading into a charming garden, gradually unfolded his theme, and, bringing one after another joys of life to the balance, found them altogether wanting, his fair and philosophic audience fell deeper and deeper into hopeless depression and melancholy. If the expression were not so hopelessly coarse, I should be tempted to say that you could see those ladies’ jaws drop as the philosophy of pessimism was unfolded; but undeniably coarse this expression is, so I had better say that the light died out of their eyes.
I had come in rather late, as one should do to see the lecturer at his best and thoroughly warmed up to his subject, and I could see he had gone so far that his fair audience was ready to renounce the will-to-live on the spot. I shall never forget the thrill of relief that throbbed through the room, when, the lecture ended, I ventured to say that Schopenhauer seemed to me very much misunderstood; for I always thought him a great humorist, only he had not yet been found out. So genuine and visible was the pleasure that my remark called forth, so re-animated became those erstwhile down-cast faces, that the eloquent lecturer never had the heart to ask me to justify my opinion; and the turned tide of feeling carried the whole party gaily in to supper.
And my remark was, I think, not altogether unjustified, not altogether insincere, though perhaps I should have said that Schopenhauer seems to me misunderstood because I find him to be an optimist and no pessimist at all.
In sober truth, Schopenhauer’s great achievement in philosophy has hardly anything to do with pessimism at all, or, indeed with optimism either. In connecting his name with pessimism, the general opinion has made one of those mistakes, due to the heresy of insufficient knowledge, which make one doubt the validity of popular fame. To understand what Schopenhauer really did, one must consider for a moment what point philosophy had reached when he began his work.
We may remember that the starting point of Shankara’s philosophy was that the whole of the outward world is a series of phenomena, appearances, things objective to our consciousness, and that this consciousness of ours is the only primary reality we can have knowledge of. This is exactly the conclusion reached by the best philosophers of Europe, from Descartes and Berkeley to Kant. Our certain knowledge does not extend beyond our states of consciousness; this is the conclusion established by Descartes and Berkeley, by arguments which, as Professor Huxley says, are simply unshakeable; and “all materialists who have tried to bite this file have simply broken their teeth.”
This was the position of the question when Kant took it up, with that depth and lucidity of thought which make him the greatest philosopher of modern Europe. As the phenomena, the appearances present to consciousness, are not stable, or at best but subject to continual change and variation, Kant felt drawn to postulate some hypothetical outward thing, some external stimulus, which gave rise to these appearances, or, at any rate, which provoke their ceaseless variations; and postulating this outward something, Kant further went on to define what part of the phenomena,—the appearances present to consciousness,—might be assigned to ourselves, the observers, and what part might be assigned to the hypothetical outward something, which he imagined as provoking the sense of change and variation in the phenomena.
It is hardly necessary to repeat Kant’s arguments, though they are entirely admirable as an instance of close and lucid reasoning, consistently carried out. It will be enough to state his conclusions. He felt compelled to assign to us, the observers, or rather “intellect” by which he typified our faculty of observation, three parts in the drama of perception, while one part he assigned to the hypothetical outward something which provoked the variation in our states of consciousness, in the appearances which are present to our consciousness. The three parts he assigned to the observer’s share in the drama of perception were time, space, and causality. In other words, Kant said we contributed to the world-drama the sense of duration, of present, past, and future; the sense of space, the great empty, outer void, in which the varied appearances of the world-drama present themselves; and, thirdly, the sense of the arrangement of these appearances into causal series, or chains of causation, through which each appearance, each phenomenon, is seen as the effect of the appearances which have gone before and as the cause of the appearances which shall follow after. Time, space and causality, Kant said, were the observer’s share in the world-drama, and the mysterious outward something which provoked appearances continually appeared to us, not simply and nakedly, as itself, but as distorted and viewed through a triple veil, a veil of time, of space, of causality. And on account of the triple veil of space, causality and time, which perpetually distorted the outer something and broke it up into appearances as we see them, Kant said that we could never know this outer something simply and nakedly, as itself, but must perpetually view it through the threefold veil of causality, time and space. The thing-in-itself, he said, must remain for us perpetually unknowable. We can never know the reality behind appearances, because the distortion of this reality into appearances is an inherent function of our observing power, a three-sided prism, which always breaks up the simple light, a “dome of many-coloured glass that stains the white radiance of eternity.”
So far Kant.
Then came Schopenhauer. The great achievement of Schopenhauer was the perception of the fact that this hypothetical outer something, this force that provoked the changing appearances, was not so hopelessly unknowable. Schopenhauer found, the outer something, the “thing-in-itself,” a hopeless exile in the eternal void. Taking this exile, he brought it home, like a returned prodigal, and made it as one of the household. Kant had cast the blame of three parts of the world-drama on ourselves, the observers, and left the fourth part, the outer something, the “thing-in-itself,” hopelessly unknowable, and out of reach of us, the observers, for ever. Schopenhauer threw on us, the observers, the blame of the fourth part also.
This outer something, this mysterious “force,” was, he said, not unknowable to us at all; it was, on the contrary, very familiar and a part of every one of us. For it was none other than that Will which every one of us is conscious of within ourselves. Hence the title of Schopenhauer’s greater work, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, “the world-drama, as will and Representation”. The Will being the mysterious outer something, the thing-in-itself, of Kant, and the representation being the three-fold distortion into time, space, and causality, which broke up the one Will into myriad appearances.
This identification of the thing-in-itself with the Will has nothing whatever to do with pessimism, and it is on this great achievement that Schopenhauer’s lasting fame will rest. In so far, I think, I was justified in saying that, by speaking of him as, in the first place, a pessimist, Schopenhauer was very much misunderstood. Where, then, does the pessimism come in? Rightly speaking, I think, the pessimism does not come in at all; but, on the contrary, Schopenhauer teaches only optimism, as does also the old philosophy of India. Yet it is easy enough to see where the belief in Schopenhauer’s pessimism came in, where the general opinion found its pretext for dubbing Schopenhauer a pessimist.
The world-drama, he said, is made up of the Will and a perverse tendency to break the will up into myriad fleeting shadows; or life is made up of the white radiance of eternity, and the dome of many-coloured glass that stains this white radiance. Clearly, then, the ideal condition is the white radiance and not the many-coloured stain; clearly the ideal condition is the Will, in its unity and simplicity, and not the myriad forms into which it is distorted by the veils that we weave ourselves. If then, this is the ideal condition, the practical aim of every one must be to realize this ideal condition, to free the Will of its myriad distortions, to blend the many-coloured stain of world-life once more into the eternal radiance. And in comparison with the pure Will, eternally self-balanced, the myriad forms that it is distorted into must seem hopelessly inferior, the many-coloured stain must seem hopelessly inferior to the pure radiance. And these myriad forms, this many-coloured stain, are nothing but our outward life, the life that concerns us so nearly and so perpetually. But the ideal condition, the white radiance, the pure undistorted balanced Will is the real life “at the back of the heavens”, as the Upanishads and Plato both call it, the life of the freed self dwelling in the Eternal.
In comparison with this ideal life, the outward life is hopelessly inferior; and the only sane aim of any man is to change the myriad distortions back to their ideal rest as soon as possible, to turn the Will back from illusory outward life to real inward life without delay. This, then, is the “pessimism” of Schopenhauer, as the general opinion describes it; but I can only see in it the most exultant optimism.
For is it not the assertion of a life of reality that we are all perpetually craving for in this life of never-ending phantasy? Is it not the assertion of a life eternal, above this life of ours, with its perpetual, inexorable change; a life eternal, not needing to be won by the funeral passage through the tomb, nor indeed to be won by that passage, but a life eternal, perpetually present and existent, as the natural and normal order of things, the natural and normal order that we ourselves have perverted and broken up, and to restore which to its white radiance as of old depends only upon ourselves. A “Kingdom in the Heavens” altogether within our power and yet altogether beyond us, for our power served only to distort it and then to remove the distortion, but never to create the Kingdom that is the white radiance of the Eternal.
Such is Schopenhauer’s optimist pessimism; and one could not wish us better than that we should become such pessimists ourselves.
I think, then, that I was justified in dispelling, in some sort, the black cloud of despondency that had settled down over the fair audience I have described, even though the means I used were rather effectual than candid.