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Schopenhauer and the Perception of the Real or Surreal Postmodernity (Part I)

Tom Sunic

October 25, 2010 

The text below is the expanded version of Tom Sunic’s speech, delivered at the New Right conference in London, on October 23, 2010.

There is a danger in interpreting the text of some long gone author, let alone of some heavyweight philosopher, such as Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860). The interpreter tends to look at parts of the author’s prose that may best suit his own conclusions, while avoiding parts that other critics may find more relevant, and which the interpreter may consider either incomprehensible or irrelevant. This is true for Schopenhauer in so far as he deals in his multilayered work with diverse subject matters, ranging from the theories of knowledge, to the role of women, sex, eugenics, religion, etc., while offering aphoristic formulas on how to live a more or less liveable life.  Moreover, in his entire work Schopenhauer deals extensively with the perception of objective reality, our self-perception, and how our self-perception reflects itself in the perception of the Other, for instance in the mind of my political foe or friend. It’s no wonder that when Schopenhauer is read along with some postmodern authors, his work can retrospectively yield some groundbreaking insights, of which even he was not aware.

The devil is often in the details, but harping on the details alone may often overshadow the whole. Just because Schopenhauer was critical of Jewish monotheism, or made some critical remarks about women, should not lead us to the conclusion that he was a standard-bearer of anti-Semitism or a hater of women. The fact that Adolf Hitler was one of his avid readers should not overshadow the fact that the father of modern psychoanalysis, the Jewish-born Austrian Sigmund Freud, learned a get deal from him on the how irrational will is expressed in sexual drive.     

An Apolitical Meta-politician  

How relevant is Arthur Schopenhauer? At first sight Schopenhauer’s prose may be dated for our understanding of the world today. Schopenhauer can be catalogued as a thinker of the so-called intellectual conservative revolution in so far as many thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Vilfredo Pareto, Julius Evola and others, one hundred years later, were heavily influenced by his writings. Neither can these authors be properly understood unless the reader becomes familiar with Schopenhauer’s writings first. Secondly, Schopenhauer’s teachings about the primacy of the will spearheading our perception of reality can also be of help in grasping the political hyperreality of the modern liberal system.  

Schopenhauer’s name is usually associated with cultural pessimism. Nevertheless, he is far from the caricature of a suicidal author harping ceaselessly on the culture of death, as was the case with many of his 20th-century successors, including the magisterial Emile Cioran. In his aphorisms Schopenhauer provides some handy recipes as to how to minimize a life of pain and sorrow and how to discard the dangerous illusion of happiness. As a fine connoisseur of human psychology, Schopenhauer justly remarks that where there is a violent outburst of joy, a disaster looms just around the corner. It is therefore with maximum efforts that we need to curb shifts in our mood: anxiety is just the other side of ecstasy. One must not give vent to great jubilation or to great sorrow as the changeability of all things can transfigure those at any moment.  By contrast, one must enjoy the “here and now,” possibly in a cheerful manner — this is the wisdom of life. (Die Kunst glücklich zu sein. C.H. Beck 1999, p. 56).

Schopenhauer does not deal with political treatises in his work, nor does he discuss the political sociology of the rapidly industrializing Europe, or governmental institutions of his time. The political changes he witnessed, however dramatic they were, such as the Napoleonic wars in Europe, the rise to power of America, and the post-Napoleonic era, were of no interest to him. Quite consistent with his misanthropic views about human nature, he stayed above the political and historical fray to the point of total disinterestedness.   

Schopenhauer refuses any formula for any ontological, political, or ethical system whatsoever. Instead, he demolishes all doctrines and all systems, be they religious or political. He resented politics and he can be justly depicted as an “anti–intellectual” in a modern sense of the word.

For Schopenhauer, the world is fundamentally absurd and no political philosophy can alter its absurdity. A French theoretician of postmodernity, the philosopher Clément Rosset, is probably one of the best authors who summarized the significance of Schopenhauer for our times.  

Man has forever been successful in passing off past events for new events. He has been thought to be able to act within free and regenerating time. In reality, though, he has been in the arms of the cadaver. A retrospective horror extends to his past, in which he has lived ever since, although, just like his future, that time had lapsed for good. This time-illness, a profound source of intuition about the absence of all finality, expresses itself in the obsessive theme of repetition.  (Clément Rosset, Schopenhauer, Philosophe de l’Absurde, 1967, p. 97). 

In other words, however much we may yearn to affect the flow of time or assign it some goal or purpose, its merciless cyclical nature always bring us to further delusions and the inevitable status quo. 

Nowhere is this absurd repetitive will of living visible as in man’s sexual desire — which Schopenhauer describes in his famous chapter and essay “The Metaphysics of Sex.” Once a sexual appetite is assuaged, the will continues to manifest itself again and again in ceaseless sameness of sexual desire.  

It follows from this absurd repetitiveness that the entire history of the human species is the entanglement of re-enactments. World affairs and political decision-making are manifestations of a self-inflicted desire for something new. Based on such perceptions of repetitive reality, Schopenhauer shows no interest in history, noting that it is always the same people who take the world stage, with the same ideas, albeit framed in a different rhetoric. In short, his target of criticism is the philosophy of optimism and the idea of progress which lay embedded in the eighteenth century teaching of the Enlightenment.   

For Schopenhauer there is nothing new under the sun, as with every fleeting second the new becomes the old and the old becomes the new; the wheel of time turns forever. Time for Schopenhauer is devoid of historicity. Therefore, a study of some historical event, or of some political drama, is totally irrelevant.  Schopenhauer advocates the abandoning of the illusory will to create a better world. He was a willy-nilly supporter of monarchical government because that form of rule offered some semblance of authority and stability.  

Despite his static philosophy that rejected human and political betterment, Schopenhauer ventures often in his lengthy work into interesting and well-founded analyses, such as his brief study on the importance of heredity. But one must be careful not to extrapolate his scattered comments on race and heredity and assume that they make up the bulk of his work. He believed in the hereditary improvement of mankind and some of his remarks about biological betterment are right on target. Irrespective of the fact that he does not delve much into the subject of heredity, one must agree that Schopenhauer could be easily used as a weapon by modern sociobiologists or race realists.

If we could castrate all scoundrels, and shut up all stupid geese in monasteries and give persons of noble character a whole harem and provide men, and indeed complete men, for all maidens of mind and understanding, a generation would soon arise what would produce a better age than that of Pericles (The World as Will and Idea, p. 331, "Heredity.") 

Schopenhauer’s remarks on heredity are perfectly compatible with his teachings on the independence of the will. Just as we can never change the predetermined nature of our genes and our genealogy, we cannot change the predetermined nature of the will:

 

The only freedom that exists is of a metaphysical character. In the physical world freedom is an impossibility. .. [T]he will itself, as something that lies beyond time, and so long as it exists at all, never changes…  Hence it is that every man achieves only that which is irrevocably established in his nature, or is born with him. (Free Will and Fatalism).

 

The Will vs. the Deceptive Reality  

The main driving force of the entire university is the will. Ideas, concepts and images are merely the objectification of our will at different levels of perception. The will is a blind force; it is subject neither to time nor to space, neither does it obey the principles of causality, nor is it subject to accidents.   

In this sense Schopenhauer represents a big break with the teachings of rationalists and idealists of his time, who were enamoured with the principles of causality, and henceforth viewed necessity as a cornerstone of life on Earth. Schopenhauer stood out as an oddity in his times which were imbued with the heritage of the Enlightenment. 

The will is more important than the thought. However, at the conceptual level, as some scholars pointed out, one must carefully distinguish between the will and the instinct, as his later critical admirer and commentator, the National-Socialist Minister, Alfred Rosenberg, noted in his chapter “Will and Instinct” in his now famous book, The Myth of the 20th Century. “Will is always the opposite of instinct (“Trieb”), and not identical with it, as Schopenhauer seemed to teach.”  

In other words contrary to Schopenhauer, Rosenberg objects that Schopenhauer uses the term “will” in an overly general manner. Similar to Nietzsche and his followers, Rosenberg argues for the “implementation” of the free will for Promethean and political goals while contrasting it to the primeval biological impulses which he calls the “instinct.” (Trieb). 

Man is originally not a being of knowledge but a creature of instinct and will — a will that comes alive in cyclical time and in a non-linear way. Will is the fundamental reality of the world, the thing-in-itself, and its objectification is what is visible in external phenomena, such as objects or political events that we witness daily. In practical life the antagonism between the will and reason arises from the fact that the will is a metaphysical substance, whereas the reason is something accidental and secondary: an “appendage to the will. The will is an autonomous desire, that is to say, an irrational need to act or to do something. The will is free in every single thought process and action, but it need not and generally does not follow the precepts of reason.   

Unlike the majority of philosophers of his time, including Hegel, Schopenhauer does not hold reason in high regard. Our illusions, based on self-serving perceptions, remain so entrenched despite the most sophisticated appeals to reason. Therefore, Schopenhauer can be justly labelled as the greatest anti-rationalist philosopher of all time. Only the genius has some capacity for objectivity in so far as he can harness his will and become the pure knowing subject.

The absurdity of Schopenhauer’s “free” will is that man is enslaved by it without ever knowing its origin and reason. Humans act but do not know why they act the way they do: apart from a few geniuses, their self perceptions are nothing more than illusions. This leads us to a dreadful life, full of anguish on the one hand and ecstatic expectations on the other. The absurdity of our will is not how to reach the river and quench our thirst: the absurdity consists in the will for being thirsty! The will has no cause and, given that it excludes causality, it does not have any necessity or purpose.  

That the being is without any necessity is already a dreadful problem. But that this very being is in addition unhappy and miserable only emphasizes the absence of a raison d’être. (Rosset, p. 16)   

Schopenhauer's theories of representation and perception can easily rank him today in the category of the founding fathers of postmodern theory of the Double and the Hyperreal. Everything that we see is fleeting "representations" and not the actual physical phenomena. We dream even when we are awake.  Well, how then tell the difference between the real political truth and the fabricated political truth?  

Go to Part 2 of this article.

Tom Sunic (websites here and here) is author, translator, former US professor in political science and a member of the Board of Directors of the American Third Position. His new book in French, La Croatie; un pays par défaut? and the other, Postmortem Report: Cultural Examinations from Postmodernity, prefaced by Kevin MacDonald, have just been released. Email him.  

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