Saturday, July 24, 2010

Struggling with Schopenhauer 3

His Character Continued


That Arthur Schopenhauer was contrary and indeed querulous none can deny. He had many a contretemps and many an argument with other human beings. The most famous belligerent encounter is that between a seamstress called Caroline Marquet and him. One midday in 1823 they ran afoul of one another when he was 35 years old and she ten years his senior. Marquet was entertaining three friends in an adjoining flat and chanced to come out into the hall to bid them goodbye. Arthur, irritated by their noisy ebullient chattering flung open his door and accused them of violating his privacy, and sternly ordered them to leave. When Marquet refused, Arthur physically forced her from the hallway or anteroom down the stairs. To make a long story short Caroline Marquet sued Arthur Schopenhauer, claiming that she was pushed down the stairs and had suffered a grievous injury. The court case lasted some six years as Arthur fought it tooth and nail. In the end the court found against him and he had to pay Caroline 60 talers (three times the yearly wage of a cook or house servant at that time) a year for the rest of her life.

Also in his early life he had many sexual encounters with women, most of them prostitutes. He admits to being highly sexually active in his younger days, and Yalom opines that he was most likely highly sexually driven. Arthur also did not mind if the woman he was to have an affair or fling with was seeing other men as he felt that monogamy was somewhat unnatural. It is also likely that he sired an illegitimate son with a Berlin chorus girl named Caroline Richter - Medon, and he even added a codicil to his will leaving her 5000 talers.

The Sex drive

Unlike many philosophers, both before and after him, Schopenhauer openly discussed the sex drive in human beings, or human bipeds as he liked to call us and avers:

Next to the love of life, sex shows itself here as the strongest and most active of all motives, and incessantly lays claim to half the powers and thoughts of the younger portion of mankind... Sex is really the invisible point of all action and conduct, and peeps up everywhere in spite of all the veils thrown over it. It is the cause of war and the aim and object of peace... the inexhaustible source of wit, the key to all allusions, and the meaning of all mysterious hints.... the hourly thought of the unchaste and, even against their will, the constantly recurring imagination of the chaste. (Quoted The Schopenhauer Cure p. 188)

Yalom argues that Schopenhauer goes on to state that this overriding drive is not just a personal need, but the need of our species. In so claiming he prefigures much of what is found in Darwin and Freud. Indeed, Yalom argues that he claimed that while we can never know the Kantian “thing in itself” or the “Ding an sich” or noumenon, that we can get somewhat closer to it by listening to our own bodies. We can get knowledge from inside, knowledge stemming from our feelings. This knowledge does not come from our perceptual or conceptual apparatus, but from inside of us, from our deep inner feelings. The greater part of our inner lives is unknown to us. It is repressed and not permitted to break into consciousness because knowing our deeper natures (our cruelty, fear, envy, sexual lust, aggression, self-seeking) would cause us more disturbance than we could bear. However, Magee would not agree with Yalom’s rather easy equation of the “thing in itself” with the “unconscious.” A far too easy and facile an equation, Professor Yalom. I agree wholeheartedly with Magee here as our man Yalom reads far too much psychotherapy or psychoanalysis into Schopenhauer’s well-argued and very precise philosophy. I shall return to these concepts later when I discuss Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy in more detail. However, that the unconscious was prefigured in the overall drift of Schopenhauer’s thoughts and writings is beyond dispute, but certainly equating the above diverse categories with one another is far too loose and cavalier a conclusion.

Insight into Boredom

Schopenhauer gives us, I believe, an interesting insight into boredom, and why it is such a universal complaint among us humans. He argues that boredom is a distraction-free state which very soon reveals to us many underlying unpalatable truths about ourselves, and indeed about our very existence – our insignificance, our meaningless existence, our inexorable and inevitable deterioration and eventual death.

Sense of Tragedy

Our cheerful philosopher friend argued also that human life eternally revolves around an axle of need followed by satiation. We eat and drink when we are hungry and thirsty respectively. We sleep when we are tired; make love when we feel like it. And yet, how are we when these needs or desires or wants are satiated? Well, Schopenhauer would argue that we might then become bored. We are like Tantalus who was punished for his hubris by being eternally tempted but never satisfied. And finally? Well finally, we die. Life, consisting of an inevitable tragic downward slope, is not only brutal but capricious. As Bertrand Russell said, Schopenhauer had a wonderfully deep appreciation of the tragic in human life.

Yalom remarks that it is disquieting to discover such a great a thinker as Schopenhauer and yet “so socially challenged, so prescient yet so blinded.” (Ibid., p. 210) I will hazard an educated guess here, being a teacher of Autistic teenagers, that perhaps Arthur Schopenhauer was Asperger’s. That, I feel, is a distinct possibility.

Schopenhauer the Man

As a human being Arthur had no social circle, no close acquaintances and absolutely no sense of community. However, as a philosopher he was astonishingly personal in his writings and Bryan Magee cites this as one of the most endearing characteristics of his favourite philosopher, with whom he reminds us, he often disagrees. It is indeed odd to note this fact that this most personal of philosophers should have lived so impersonally. He had a rigid daily schedule in Frankfurt where he lived the last thirty years if his life. He began each day with three hours of writing, an hour or two playing the flute, a daily swim in the Main River all year round and took lunch at the same club. He also enjoyed shocking people by discussing inappopropriate topics, for instance, the fact that he was wont to dip his penis in a certain chemical solution after having sex to obvert the catching of any venerial diseases.. He also paid for the seat next to his at his club as he could not abide the company of inferiors in intellect. To the end he was an arrogant and conceited man. Yet he wrote beautiful and sublime prose which contained equally beautiful and sublime ideas.

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