A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.
Monday, January 27, 2014
An early advocate of the Great Books, Mark Van Doren, once said we should trust no philosopher who doesn’t relish his existence. Some readers may not trust Schopenhauer but we still have to take him seriously and take his philosophical questions seriously. He says “If we knocked on the graves and asked the dead whether they would like to rise again, they would shake their heads no.” Why should we trust a philosopher who doesn’t seem to relish his own existence? First of all, he read more and thought more and wrote more than most of us will ever hope to do. Secondly, we came to him; we read the Great Books hoping to learn something from them. And Schopenhauer was included in the Great Books for a reason. Let’s try to put him in context with some other authors of the Great Books series. In Chekhov’s story about Rothschild’s Fiddle the main character reflects on his own wasted life. So many things he could have done; so many things he left undone. It’s a melancholy story of an unhappy man. Schopenhauer would say I told you so. Life is a bitter experience. But according to Aristotle that’s not our natural state. Everyone wants to be happy. We just don’t agree on what it means to be happy. Schopenhauer would point out, and Aristotle would agree, that some factors are within our reach but many things are beyond our control and keep us from being happy. We can cultivate our minds and exercise our bodies, for example. But we don’t choose the brains or the bodies we’re born with. We don’t choose our parents or the society we’re born into. And Aristotle admits that we can’t really call a man happy until we know how his life ends. Ivan Ilych died a painful death. Would we call him happy? Schopenhauer thinks the world is too chancy and pain is too prevalent for any rational person to think we should celebrate life. Yet in the book of Genesis we read that God himself created the world and said it was good. Schopenhauer claims that’s not necessarily true. He says there are many things wrong with the world; maybe more things wrong than right with the world. So who are we supposed to believe, God or Schopenhauer? We must also note that Darwin presents a scenario where life can evolve without any help from God. Schopenhauer likes this idea. He thinks nature is careless about her creatures. Look how fragile life is and how many animals die or get killed every day. He thinks this shows and nature knows life will go on. One creature is killed and eaten by another creature so life can go on. And life will go on with or without us. For Schopenhauer it’s only our puny individual egos that keep us clinging to a life that, in his opinion, isn’t worth living anyway. But most of us want to keep our egos. We have our likes and dislikes and that’s what makes us who we are. Giving up the ego-ness of “me” is hard to do. Few people are comforted by the idea of becoming a blob of animate but un-self-conscious life. It’s hard for most of us to accept Schopenhauer’s verdict that “Death is the painful untying of the knot that generation with sensual pleasure had tied…At bottom we are something that ought not to be; therefore we cease to exist.” Even a character as unlikeable as Dostoevsky’s Underground Man wants to keep on living. Why bother? Because death would put an end to sensual pleasure and any other kind of pleasure too. It’s a very human reaction to want to live, whether it’s for pleasure or glory or whatever. None of the soldiers killed in Homer’s Iliad wanted to die. They wanted to live. Schopenhauer mentions “the strong arm that three thousand years ago bent the bow of Ulysses.” Are men any different now than the ancient Greek and Trojan warriors? The advantage of reading Great Books is to gain various perspectives on life. Schopenhauer’s perspective is very different from most Great Books authors. Each reader must decide which ones to trust.