Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, January 25, 2014

SCHOPENHAUER: Our Inner Nature and Ivan Ilych

In last week’s reading Ivan Ilych was afraid to die. Maybe Ivan should have read The Indestructibility of Our Inner Nature by Schopenhauer first. Schopenhauer has many things to say but for Ivan’s sake we’ll focus on the fear of death. Socrates defined philosophy as “preparation for death.” Schopenhauer expands on this theme and says “Indeed, without death there would hardly have been any philosophizing… All religions and philosophical systems are primarily the antidote to the certainty of death.” Another philosopher, Epicurus, said “Death does not concern us,” with the explanation that when we are, death is not, and when death is, we are not. So if you’re a philosopher that should be an end of the matter.
But Ivan wasn’t a philosopher and neither are most of us. That’s why Schopenhauer has to lay out his philosophy in a little more detail for the general reader. He says “If what makes death seem so terrible to us were the thought of not-being, we should think with equal horror of the time before we were born… A whole eternity ran its course before we were born, that doesn’t bother us. On the other hand, we find it hard, nay, unendurable, that after the momentary intermezzo of an ephemeral existence, a second eternity should follow in which we shall no longer be.” Ivan would say that’s ridiculous. Before I was born I didn’t know any better. Now I do. You may call it a “momentary intermezzo of an ephemeral existence” if you want to, but I call it my life. Schopenhauer would answer “Should, then, this thirst for existence have arisen because we have now tasted it and have found it so delightful? As was already briefly explained above, certainly not...” Ivan would then respond: look you German know it all, that’s your opinion, not mine. Buzz off. You’re not helping me learn to die well; you’re just depressing me.
Schopenhauer has another angle “…death from old age is a gradual vanishing and sinking out of existence in an imperceptible manner. Little by little in old age, the passions and desires, are extinguished; the emotions no longer find anything to excite them; the mind always becomes weaker, its images fainter; impressions no longer cleave to us, but pass over without leaving a trace, the days roll ever faster, events lose their significance, everything grows pale. The old man stricken in years totters about or rests in a corner now only a shadow, a ghost of his former self. What remains there for death to destroy?” Ivan would say I’m forty-five years old. I’ve still got some good years left. And even when I do get old and weak, I’ll still want to live; even if I’m only a shadow of what I once was a shadow is better than nothing. Something (existing) is always better than nothing (not existing). Life is better than death, even in old age. When we get past a certain age we just drink vodka to bring back those old passions and desires.
Schopenhauer will try once more: “…the strong arm which, three thousand years ago, bent the bow of Ulysses is no more. No reflective and well-regulated understanding will regard the force which once acted so energetically is now entirely annihilated. So upon further reflection, we should also not assume that the force which bends the bow to-day first began with this arm…the force which earlier actuated the life which now has vanished is the same force which is active in the life which now flourishes.” Ivan would just stare at him for a moment. Then Ivan would say: that’s it; you’re a nut case, that’s what it is. Too much thinking has addled your brains. Here I am dying and all this German philosophy doesn’t help a bit. I’m standing on the brink of eternity, already half scared to death, and you play word games. We’re talking about death Mr. Schopenhauer, d-e-a-t-h. Read less philosophy, drink more vodka; then maybe you’ll understand why I’m afraid to die. But if I had to live your life, I might not mind it so much.


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