The first and still unsurpassed critique of humanism was made by Arthur Schopenhauer. This combative bachelor, who retired to Frankfurt in 1833 for the last decades of his reclusive life because he thought the city had ‘no floods’, ‘better cafés’, ‘a skilful dentist and less bad physicians’, brought the way we think about ourselves to a crux we have yet to resolve.
A hundred years ago, Schopenhauer was vastly influential. Writers including Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad, Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Mann, were deeply affected by his philosophy, and the works of musicians and painters such as Schoenberg and de Chirico were infused with his ideas. If he is scarcely read today, it is because few great modern thinkers have gone so much against the spirit of their time and ours.
Schopenhauer scorned the ideas of universal emancipation that had begun to spread through Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. In political terms, he was a reactionary liberal, looking to the state only to protect his life and property. He viewed the revolutionary movements of his day with a mixture of horror and contempt, offering his opera glasses for use as a telescopic rifle sight to guardsmen firing on a crowd during the popular demonstrations of 1848. Yet he also scorned the official philosophy of the day, viewing Hegel – Europe’s most widely esteemed philosopher and a massive influence on later thinkers such as Marx – as little more than an apologist for state power.
In his personal life, Schopenhauer was guarded and self-possessed. He had an acute sense of the dangers of human life. He slept with loaded pistols by his bed and refused to allow his barber to shave his neck. He delighted in company but often preferred his own. He never married but seems to have been sexually highly active. An erotic diary found in his papers at his death was burnt by his executor, but his celebrated essay ‘On Women’ gave him a reputation for misogyny that has stayed with him ever since.
He had a love of habit. During his later life in Frankfurt he followed an unvarying daily routine. Getting up around seven, he would write until noon, play the flute for half an hour, then go out to lunch, always in the same place. Afterwards he returned to his rooms, read until four, then went for a two-hour walk, ending up at a library where he read the London Times. In the evening he went to a play or a concert, after which he had a light supper in a hotel called the Englischer Hof. He kept to this regime for nearly thirty years.
One of the few memorable episodes in Schopenhauer’s uneventful life came about as a result of his hatred of noise. Infuriated by a seamstress talking outside his rooms, Schopenhauer pushed her down a flight of stairs. The woman was injured and sued him. He lost the case, and as a result had to give her a quarterly sum of money for the rest of her life. When she died, he wrote in Latin on her death certificate: ‘Obit anus, abit onus’ (the old woman dies, the burden departs). A disbeliever in the reality of the self, Schopenhauer devoted his life to himself.
Yet it is not Schopenhauer’s life or personality that account for his neglect. It is his philosophy, which – so far as Europe is concerned, anyhow – is more subversive of humanist hopes than any other.
Schopenhauer believed that philosophy was ruled by Christian prejudices. He devoted much of his life to dissecting the influence of these prejudices on Immanuel Kant, a thinker he admired more than any other, but whose philosophy he attacked relentlessly as a secular version of Christianity. Kant’s philosophy was one of the main strands in the Enlightenment – the movement of progressive thinkers that sprang up throughout much of Europe in the eighteenth century. The thinkers of the Enlightenment aimed to replace traditional religion by faith in humanity. But the upshot of Schopenhauer’s criticism of Kant is that the Enlightenment was only a secular version of Christianity’s central mistake.
For Christians, humans are created by God and possess free will, for humanists they are self-determining beings. Either way, they are quite different from all other animals. In contrast, for Schopenhauer we are at one with other animals in our inner-most essence. We think we are separated from other humans and even more from other animals by the fact that we are distinct individuals. But that individuality is an illusion. Like other animals, we are embodiments of universal Will, the struggling, suffering energy that animates everything in the world.
Schopenhauer was the first major European thinker to know anything about Indian philosophy, and he remains the only one to have absorbed and accepted its central doctrine – that the free, conscious individual who is the core of Christianity and humanism is an error that conceals from us what we really are. But it was a view he had arrived at independently, through his devastating criticism of Kant.
Kant wrote that David Hume aroused him from dogmatic slumber. He was certainly shaken by the great eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher’s profound scepticism. Traditional metaphysicians claimed to demonstrate the existence of God, the freedom of the will and the immortality of the soul. In Hume’s view, we cannot even know that the external world really exists. Indeed we do not even know that we ourselves exist, since all we find when we look within is a bundle of sensations. Hume concluded that, knowing nothing, we must follow the ancient Greek Sceptics, and rely on nature and habit to guide our lives.
Kant’s dogmatic slumber may have been disturbed by Hume’s scepticism, but it was not long before he was snoring soundly again. Kant accepted Hume’s argument that we cannot know things in themselves, only the phenomena that are given us in experience. The reality lying behind experience – what Kant called the noumenal world of things in themselves – is unknowable. But he refused to accept Hume’s sceptical conclusion. According to Kant, I could not have the experience of choosing freely if I were only the empirical organism I seem to be. It is only because I belong in the noumenal world outside space and time that I can live my life according to moral principles.
Like most philosophers, Kant worked to shore up the conventional beliefs of his time. Schopenhauer did the opposite. Accepting the arguments of Hume and Kant that the world is unknowable, he concluded that both the world and the individual subject that imagines it knows it are maya, dreamlike constructions with no basis in reality. Morality is not a set of laws or principles. It is a feeling – the feeling of compassion for the suffering of others which is made possible by the fact that separate individuals are finally figments. Here Schopenhauer’s thought converges with the Vedanta and Buddhism, which despite their differences share the central insight that individual selfhood is an illusion.
Schopenhauer accepted the sceptical side of Kant’s philosophy and turned it against him. Kant demonstrated that we are trapped in the world of phenomena and cannot know things in themselves. Schopenhauer went one step further and observed that we ourselves belong in the world of appearances.
Unlike Kant, Schopenhauer was ready to follow his thoughts wherever they led. Kant argued that unless we accept that we are autonomous, freely choosing selves we cannot make sense of our moral experience. Schopenhauer responded that our actual experience is not of freely choosing the way we live but of being driven along by our bodily needs – by fear, hunger and, above all, sex. Sex, as Schopenhauer wrote in one of the many inimitably vivid passages that enliven his works, ‘is the ultimate goal of nearly all human effort.… It knows how to slip its love notes and ringlets into ministerial portfolios and philosophical manuscripts’. When we are in the grip of sexual love we tell ourselves we will be happy once it is satisfied; but this is only a mirage. Sexual passion enables the species to reproduce; it cares nothing for individual well-being or personal autonomy. It is not true that our experience compels us to think of ourselves as free agents. On the contrary, if we look at ourselves truthfully we know we are not.
Schopenhauer believed he had the definitive answer to the metaphysical questions that had plagued thinkers since philosophy began. Using his critique of Kant to batter down the ordinary view of time, space and cause and effect, he offered a different vision of the world – one in which there are no separate things at all, in which plurality and difference do not exist, and there is only the ceaseless striving he calls Will.
This is an arresting picture, but we need not take it as the ultimate truth about the nature of things. Instead we may take it as a metaphor for a truth about ourselves. We like to think reason guides our lives, but reason itself is only – as Schopenhauer puts it, echoing Hume – the hard-pressed servant of the will. Our intellects are not impartial observers of the world but active participants in it. They shape a view of it that helps us in our struggles. Among the imaginary constructions created by the intellect working in the service of the will, perhaps the most delusive is the view it gives us of ourselves – as continuing, unified individuals.
Kant tried to protect our most cherished notions – above all our ideas of personal identity, free will and moral autonomy – from the solvent of sceptical doubt. Putting them to the acid test of actual experience, Schopenhauer showed that they melt way. In doing so he destroyed Kant’s philosophy, and with it the idea of the human subject that underpins both Christianity and humanism.
GRAY, John, “Schopenhauer’s Crux”, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.