Saturday, July 24, 2010

Struggling with Schopenhauer 1

Struggling with Schopenhauer 1


And so we come to the hero, even villain of the piece, namely Arthur Schopenhauer. If anything at all is worthwhile in this world it involves great struggle. Now, this is no cheap trinket that I toss on the table of your attention for you to consider buying. Rather it is a deeply held conviction and indeed wisdom of the ages learned from much experience. In more metaphorical terms, it is a priceless gem I place reverently on the table of your attention for your perusal only, for no money can buy it. Who can become a brilliant athlete without the suffering that goes into training? Who can become a brilliant mathematician without the suffering that goes into all that problem solving? Who can become just himself or herself in all their own modestly accumulated and developed talents without much sacrifice? What woman would not forego the pangs of childbirth if it were possible? Each and every one marvellous woman will pay the painful price for the beauty of new life.

Next, I bring the reader’s attention to struggling with the meaning of that life. As I have put it many times in these posts – we are a meaning-searching and a meaning-making animal. We are, to use the existential terminology I have constantly used in these pages, literally “thrown into” an alien or hostile world and expected to come to terms with that, with the help of significant others of course like parents at the start of our lives, to make sense of the existence we have literally been handed out of nowhere. As Jean-Paul Sartre puts it, we must attempt to embrace whatever freedom we experience and shape our very own life project. We are, then, the shapers of our own life project; our own meaning-makers. To do so, and indeed to be so, is essential to the human condition. To live life to the full in this way is to deem it valuable beyond monetary price.

I owe much to my reading the wonderfully enlightening, self-affirming and soul-making (to pinch a felicitous phrase from a favourite poet John Keats) books of Professor Irvin Yalom, psychiatrist and psychotherapist. In his books I have re-discovered Arthur Schopenhauer whom we only cursorily glanced at in my college days as a footnote to the great Immanuel Kant. I propose in this short introductory note to say a little about his life before saying anything about his philosophy per se.

This Most Complex and Contrary Man

This heading is mine – for indeed, Arthur Schopenhauer was a most complex, a most difficult and a most contrary human being. Actually, I quite like this about him, and I hazard the opinion that this complexity of character has drawn many readers to his profound thought and large opus. Immanuel Kant was rather a boring man who lived rather a boring life, that is, if, unlike me, you subscribe to any life ever been boring. What I am getting at here is that Schopenhauer’s life was exceptionally interesting, colourful and complex, far more so than that of Kant’s. That’s all I’m saying here – nothing more, nothing less. It was such colourfulness of life that led me years ago to read as much of Coleridge as I could lay my hands on, while developing a less than lukewarm attitude to the poetic output of Wordsworth.

Schopenhauer’s dates are 1788 -1860. First of all, he is a complete pessimist. He also dislikes Christianity, hates Islam, and has a predilection for religions of the East like Hinduism and Buddhism. He has wide cultural interests that embrace the world of the arts. Another endearing factor is that he is free from nationalism. He was born in Danzig (modern Gdansk in Poland) and could speak, read and write German, English and French. His father was a leading merchant – of grains, timber and coffee - whose greatest hope and desire was that his son would follow his footsteps as a business man. However, his family left Danzig when it was annexed by the Russians. I would be unsurprised if he knew some Polish and Russian also, though this is not mentioned in the books I’ve read, though Yalom refers to the fact that he had a working knowledge of Italian and Spanish and that he went on to master dozen modern and ancient languages before his death. (See The Schopenhauer Cure, Harper Collins, 2005, p. 89) From 1793-1797 he lived in Hamburg, Germany and the following two years he spent in Le Havre, (though Bertrand Russell in his wonderful History of Western Philosophy gets this wrong and states that he spent these two years in Paris) at the home of one of his father’s business partners, Gregories de Blesimaire, and later in 1803 we find him at boarding school in England. What an interesting education this must have made for, being exposed at a young age to the best in education three major countries had to offer?

He is known to have had at least one good boyhood friend, namely Anthime, the Blesimaire son who was the same age as Arthur. They were close as youngsters, but the friendship did not endure. A friendship which had more of a profound effect upon Schopenhauer was that with a childhood playmate in Hamburg, Gottfried Janish who sadly died when Arthur was living in Le Havre. The shock of his first acquaintance with mortality left an indelible mark on the young Arthur, as all our first acquaintances with mortality tend to do in the lives of us human animals. And so death always loomed large in the oeuvre of Arthur Schopenhauer, and obviously coloured his attitude of pessimism towards life.

In those times also most marriages were by match-making, certainly those of the richer classes – be they merchant or nobility. Sometimes these matches were felicitous, but more often than not they were stormy mismatches. It would seem that Arthur’s parents’ marriage was one such disastrous mismatch. His mother Johanna, speaking of her marriage to Heinrich, Arthur’s father, recounts in her diary: “I no more pretended ardent love than he demanded it.” (Quoted The Schopenhauer Cure, Harper Collins, 2005, p. 42)

Arthur respected and honoured the memory of his father, but had a very stormy relationship with his mother, eventually ceasing all contact with her towards the end of her life. Perhaps they were too similar in some ways. She was to become, after her husband’s death, a well-known author of novels and the owner of a prestigious literary salon in Weimar. Her letters also reveal her to have been an extremely intelligent and talented woman. She was well loved on the contemporary social, literary and cultural scene and her novels sold widely.

At fifteen years of age Arthur’s father offered him the choice of accompanying him and his wife on a long tour, then called “the grand tour of Europe” or staying behind to pursue his intellectual pursuits and study. If he accompanied them he would have to settle down and become a professional merchant. If not he could do as he wished. What fifteen year old boy or girl would choose not to go? Arthur accompanied his parents and true to his word settled down to be an apprentice merchant for some two years. That grand tour ended in 1804.

Then some nine months after the end of this long rich man’s holiday a staggering event occurred which had a lasting effect on the life of Arthur Schopenhauer. His father ended his own life at the age of 65. Heinrich had been ill for some time, he appeared jaundiced, was fatigued, depressed and very often confused to such an extent that he often failed to recognise old acquaintances. I will let Yalom take up the story here:

On the twentieth of April, 1805, he managed, despite his infirmity, to travel to his Hamburg warehouse, slowly climb to the upper loft of the granary, and hurl himself out of the window into the Hamburg Canal. A few hours later his body was found floating in the icy water. (The Schopenhauer Cure, pp. 107-108)

Needless to say, such a tragic event could not but badly affect any young boy in his mid-teens, and would have a lasting effect on Arthur’s life. In respect for his father’s wishes the young lad persisted with his apprenticeship in the merchant world, even though he could easily have dropped this option. However, some little time after her husband’s demise Johanna sold up the business and went to Weimar to open her literary salon and write her novels. The young man could now, fortuitously, pursue his education as he willed, being more than adequately provided for in a legacy from his father’s will.

Above, a picture of an anchor I took at Badolato yesterday.  In a sense we are all searching for an anchor in our lives!

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