Arthur Schopenhauer by Peter B. Lewis. London: Reaktion Books, 2012. 181 pages; 27 illustrations. Available from amazon.com.
It’s a surprise to find a life of the Sage of Frankfurt, a defiant product and defender of bourgeois and conservative social values, in Reaktion Books’ series of short biographies “Critical Lives.” Other volumes in the series include books on the likes of Bataille, Baudelaire, Burroughs, Chomsky, Foucault, Lenin, and Marx. A certain leaning to the radical left, this — a group of writers to whom Schopenhauer would likely not appeal, and they certainly wouldn’t appeal to him. When late in life he finally did receive a measure of success, it was not from the academic quarter, Peter B. Lewis writes:
While academic reviews … were dismissive, the few enthusiastic readers of Schopenhauer at this time came, for the most part, from the professional middle class outside the universities. Judges and lawyers, together with a private scholar, constituted the vanguard of admirers with whom he was in contact in the late 1830s and ’40s …
Schopenhauer was a stout bourgeois himself, the son of an upper-middle-class merchant of distinctly republican values, and his philosophy, unlike his arch-rival Hegel’s, was unlikely to attract the attention of the young rebels who arose in Europe in the wake of the French Revolution and the upheavals of 1848. Indeed, in that year, Schopenhauer admitted Austrian soldiers to his second-floor apartment in Frankfurt and allowed them to fire upon working-class protestors below.
He was a piece of work, as Lewis’s biography attests — any warts-and-all biography of the philosopher concentrating on the life rather than the work reveals far more warts than all. A misogynist, Schopenhauer never married but carried on a series of seedy dalliances with chorus-girls and actresses, fathering two children who died in infancy. Despite his expertise in the physical and empirical sciences and his natural skepticism if not cynicism, he was a sucker for things like mesmerism, “spirit-seeing,” and other Madame Blavatsky style fraudulence. He and Goethe spent several years developing a crackpot anti-Newtonian scheme of vision and colors. While charges of anti-Semitism and racism against Schopenhauer may be excessive, they arise from passages which justify those charges. And, finally, for all his celebration of abstract aesthetic experience as a release from the pain of the world, he most admired the novels of Walter Scott and the operas of Rossini, utterly failing to recognize the musical revolution launched by his acolyte Richard Wagner, who dutifully sent the philosopher scores of his Ring cycle and Tristan und Isolde, this latter perhaps the work which most remarkably reflects the Schopenhauer worldview. Despite his conception of personal ethics as based in compassion rather than duty, Schopenhauer treated most people abysmally. While he admitted that he was unable to practice what he preached and that his philosophy proved why this was so, the stink of rationalization rises like a heavy fog from this particular apologia.
But Schopenhauer’s work was radical in the progressive years following the 18th and 19th century revolutions, and is still so today. His 1818 The World as Will and Representation counsels, in a prose style which among German philosophers is radically clear itself, compassion and renunciation in the face of a world driven by a violent unconscious will. Progressive and amelioristic public projects are doomed because the evils they seek to eradicate will only emerge elsewhere in the culture and human behavior. Sexual desire, he was among the first modernists to say, was the most significant influence on human activity. Collective thought — whether we call it groupthink or the hivemind these days — is by its nature conformist, destructive to the individual consciousness. This life is, as he defined it, a “pensum,” the only peace to be found in ascetic self-denial, as Schopenhauer describes in a paragraph justly characterized by Lewis as one of “his most beautiful passages”:
Nothing can distress or alarm him any more; nothing can any longer move him; for he has cut all the thousand threads of willing which hold us bound to the world, and which as craving, fear, envy, and anger drag us here and there in constant pain. He now looks back calmly and with a smile on the phantasmagoria of this world which was once able to move and agonize his mind, but now stands before him as indifferently as chessmen at the end of a game, or as fancy dress cast off in the morning, the form and figure of which taunted and disquieted us on the carnival night. Life and its forms merely float before him as a fleeting phenomenon, as a light morning dream to one half-awake, through which reality already shines, and which can no longer deceive; and, like this morning dream, they too finally vanish without any violent transition.
It is no wonder that Schopenhauer’s writing appeals far more to artists than to academic philosophers. There’s not much to parse here, not much to string out. The lucid style lends authority to the thought, and the thought itself thereby begins to appeal to those of a certain mindset — including Samuel Beckett’s (another “Critical Lives” biographee), when he said that he wasn’t so much interested in the validity of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics than he was in his work as the greatest justification for pessimism ever attempted.
Lewis’ biography is an excellent introductory book to Schopenhauer’s life, if not his work, largely because it doesn’t adequately tease out the radical dimensions of his thought. The best introduction to that remains Bryan Magee’s magisterial treatise or David Cartwright’s biography published a few years ago, the length of which may be forbidding to the newcomer to Schopenhauer’s thought. But Lewis’ life is still a welcome introduction, as clear and well-structured as one could ask for. A longer reconsideration of Schopenhauer is due; fortunately a handsome new uniform edition of the philosopher’s work is under way from Cambridge University Press. In the end this reconsideration of Schopenhauer might find him even more radical than most of the writers in Reaktion Books’ series. But for that one needs to turn to the thought, and not the rather objectionable life.