Monday, June 30, 2008

Romantic Will At The End of Its Tether (3)

The World As Will And Idea, Bk. 4, continues. (If you are just tuning in, I should explain that Schopenhauer's term 'will' encompasses all the forces of nature; or more accurately, perhaps, it is Nature itself, the whatever-it-is that accounts for the fact that anything at all exists--that there is Something instead of Nothing. Though Schopenhauer uses Kant's terminology and claims to be the only one who truly understands him, he is actually much closer to Spinoza for whom, also, Nature is all there is. Spinoza identifies God and Nature; Schopenhauer eliminates God altogether--which makes him the first modern philosopher. But Schopenhauer adds something new. He was much influenced by Hindu philosophy and by Buddhism, as we shall see.)

Existence itself...comes from the will alone. The will is free; it is almighty. In everything the will appears just as it determines itself, in itself, and outside time. The world is only the mirror of this willing; and all the finitude, all the suffering, all the misery it contains, belong to the expression of what the will wills....and in all that happens to every creature, or indeed can happen to it, justice is always done. For the will belongs to it; and as the will is, so is the world. Only this world itself can bear responsibility for its own existence and nature--no one else bears that responsibility; for how could anyone else have assumed it? If we want to know what people are worth morally...we have only to consider their fate as a whole and in general. This is want, wretchedness, affliction, misery, and death. Eternal justice reigns; if they were not, as a whole, worthless, their fate, as a whole, would not be so sad. In this sense we may say that the world itself passes judgment on the world. If we could lay all the world's misery in one pan of the weighing-scales, and all the world's guilt in the other, the pointer would certainly indicate that they are equally heavy....

It is true however that world does not present itself to it finally reveals itself to the inquirer... The eye of the uncultured individual is clouded, as the Hindus say, by the veil of Maya...To him pleasure appears as one thing, and pain quite another...He sees one man live a life of joy, abundance and pleasure, while at his door another man dies miserably of want and cold...he asks 'Is there no justice? Is there no punishment, no reward? And he himself, under that compulsion of the will which is his origin and nature, seizes upon the pleasures and enjoyments of life...not knowing by this very act of his will he is grasping and holding close to him all those pains and sorrows which he shudders to see...for he is entangled in...and deluded by the veil of Maya....

We now wish to trace the meaning of the concept good, which can be done with very little trouble. This concept is essentially relative, and signifies the suitability of an object to some one of the will's endeavors
.... 'Absolute good' is therefore a contradiction in terms; 'highest good' means the same thing: a final gratification of the will, after which no new desire would arise...[which] is unthinkable.

You can see where all this is leading: The Will is the source of existence and therefore the root of all evil. The remedy? Denial of the will to live. Nirvana. From nothing we come and to nothing we should conscientiously return. Such is the deep wisdom of all the ascetic religions including monastic Christianity, but not Protestantism or Judaism which Schopenhauer considered comfortable adaptations of the will to live and the requirements of life in the world--with the notable exception of such unworldly sects as the Shakers, who willed their own eventual non-existence. Busy, cheerful, charitable, friends to all, enemies of none, they laughed and sang and danced as long as they were able. Life doesn't get any better than that. Would that world might end like that! The odds against it are, as one might say, astronomical.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Romantic Will At The End of Its Tether: Schopenhauer (2)

The previous selections from Schopenhauer's The World As Will And Idea (1819) were taken from Bk. 4, as are the following:

That all happiness is only of a negative, not a positive nature, that for this very reason happiness cannot be a lasting satisfaction and gratification, but always merely releases us from some pain or want which must be followed either by a new pain, or by languor, empty longing, and boredom: this is born out by art, that true mirror of the essence of the world and life; and it born out especially in literature. Every epic or dramatic poem can represent only a struggle, a striving and a fight for happiness, but can never present lasting and consummate happiness itself. It conducts its hero through a thousand difficulties and dangers to his destination; as soon as this is reached, poetry swiftly lets the curtain fall; for now there would be nothing left for but to show that the glittering goal in which the hero imagined he would find happiness had only teased him, too, and that after attaining it, he was no better off than before. Because true lasting happiness is not possible, it cannot be the subject of art....

Certainly human life, like all inferior merchandise, is embellished on the outside with a false lustre: suffering always hides itself away; on the other hand, everyone displays whatever pomp or splendour he can afford, and the less content he is in himself, the more he desires to appear fortunate in the opinion of others: to such lengths does folly go, and to gain the good opinion of others is a priority in everyone's endeavor, although the utter futility of this is expressed in the fact that in almost all languages vanity, vanitas,
originally means 'emptiness' and 'nothingness'....

Everyone looks upon his own death as upon the end of the world, while he accepts the death of his own acquaintances as a matter of comparative indifference, if he is not in some way personally concerned in it... La Rochefoucauld understood this better than anyone, and represented it in the the abstract. [La Rochefoucauld said, "Fortunately, we all have the courage to endure the misfortunes of others." My note.] We see it both in the history of the world and in our own experience. But it appears most distinctly of all when any crowd of people is released from all law and order; then we are shown at once the war of all against all which Hobbes has so well described... We see not only how everyone tries to seize from someone else what he wants himself, but how often one will destroy the whole happiness or life of another in pursuit of an insignificant increase in his own well-being.

(To be continued)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Romantic Will At The End of Its Tether: Schopenhauer (1)

I think it is fair to say that Schopenhauer uses Kant for his own purposes, which are very different if not entirely opposed to Kant's. Schopenhauer said that he alone properly understood Kant, but in The World As Will And Idea(1819) he has nothing to say about freedom or the Categorical Imperative. Instead he uses Kant's metaphysics to support a doctrine of rigid determinism. The romantic will (see my posts on "The Apotheosis of The Romantic Will) becomes, in Schopenhauers's hands, an amoral life force akin to gravitation or magnetism.

The will, considered purely in itself, is without knowledge and is merely a blind, irresistable impulse, as we see it in vegetable nature and their laws, and also in the vegetative part of our own life.... For it is not the individual, but only the species that nature cares about, and for the preservation of which she so earnestly strives, providing for it so extravagantly through the vast surplus of the seed and the great strength of the breeding impulse. The individual, on the contrary neither has, nor can have, any value for Nature, for her kingdom is infinite time and infinite space, and in these an infinite number of possible individuals. So she is always ready to let the individual fall, and hence it is not only exposed to destruction in a thousand ways by the most trivial chance, but destined for it from the start, and led to it by Nature herself from the moment it has served its end of maintaining the species....

....the inner being of a constant striving without purpose and without respite. And this becomes even clearer when we consider animal and man. Willing and striving is his whole being, which may be be compared to an unquenchable thirst. But the basis of all willing is need, deficiency--in short pain. Consequently, the nature of animals and of man is subject to pain from its origin and in its essence. If, on the other hand, it lacks objects of desire, because their gratification is immediate and too easy, a terrible emptiness and ennui comes over it, i.e., its nature and existence itself becomes an unbearable burden to it. Thus its life swings like a pendulum backwards and forwards between pain and ennui, which are the elements of which it is made. This is piquantly expressed in the observation that after man had consigned all pain and torment to hell, there was nothing left for heaven but ennui.

(To be continued)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Hobbes (again) & Schopenhauer

Let me remind you what "life, liberty and the [unregulated] pursuit of happiness" means, according to Hobbes:

The felicity of this life consists not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such final or highest good as is spoken of in the books of the old Morall Philsophers. Nor can a man any more live, whose desires are at an end, than he whose senses and imaginations are at a stand. Felicity is a continual progress of the desire from one object to another; the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter. The cause whereof is, that the object of mans desire is not to enjoy once only and for one instant of time; but to assure for ever the way of his future desire. And therefore the voluntary actions and inclinations of all men tend, not only to the procuring but also to the assuring of a contented life...
So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceases only in death. And the cause of this, is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight, than he has already attained to; or that he cannot be content with a moderate power, but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he has present, with out the acquisition of more.
Leviathan, Part One, Ch. 11

Absent the rule of law, "the general inclination of all mankind" as Hobbes has just defined it, can only lead to a war of all against all, and as Hobbes memorably says, "continual fear, and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, brutish, nasty and short."

For the mercantile and industrial tycoons of the 19th century, the rule of law was largely absent or ineffective and, and as Dickens, Marx, Engels and many others observed, the lives of their workers were poor, brutish, nasty and short.

Here is how Schopenhauer sought to make Hobbes relevant to 19th century modernity (in an essay entitled "On The Vanity of Existence", 1851):

Life presents itself first and foremost as a task: the task of maintaining itself, de gagner sa vie., if this task is accomplished, what has been gained is a burden, and there then appears a second task: that of doing something with it so as to ward off boredom, which hovers over every secure life like a bird of prey. Thus the first task is to gain something and the second to become unconscious of what has been gained, which is otherwise a burden.
That human life must be some sort of mistake is proved by the simple observation that man is a compound of needs which are hard to satisfy; that their satisfaction achieves nothing but a painless condition in which he is only given over to boredom; and that boredom that existence is in itself valueless, for boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence. For if life, in the desire for which our essence and existence consists, possessed in itself a positive value and real content, there would be no such thing as boredom: mere existence would fulfill and satisfy us. As things are, we take no pleasure in existence except when we are striving after something--in which case distance and difficulties make our goal look as if it would satisfy us (an illusion which fades when we reach it)--or when engaged in purely intellectual activity, in which case we are really stepping outside of life so as regard it from outside, like spectators at a play. Even sensual pleasure itself consists of a continual striving and ceases as soon as its goal is reached. Whenever we are not we are not involved in one or other of these things but directed back existence itself we are overtaken by its worthlessness and vanity and this is the sensation called boredom.

Schopenhauer is using a word here,'boredom',that Hobbes had never heard of. The abstraction 'boredom', like 'cynicism' in its modern sense, is an early 19th century invention. Before we had 'boredom,' there was the latinate 'tedium' and the French 'ennui' but nothing with the dark. satanic power of boredom.

For whatever it's worth. Byron is the first English poet to use this word in poetry. Emma Bovary, the heroine of the first modern novel, Madame Bovary (1857) by Flaubert, is the first literary character to be (literally) demoralized by boredom.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Merely a Bourgeois Revolution

When Washington turned down a third term as President of the new Republic, Napoleon said he must be the greatest man in the world. The U.S. did not otherwise get much respect in the early 19th century: the U.S. probably wouldn't stay united for long and in any case its power was negligible. The latter estimate had begun to change when the Civil War began. It had become clear by that time that the U.S. would soon present a real threat to European, and especially British interests. The Brits came as close as they could to openly supporting the South, which despite their own powerful anti-slavery lobby they tended to romanticize (soaking up the South's propaganda) as a chivalric aristocracy gallantly fending off the encroachments of the grubby, commercial, capitalistic North. According to one of the accounts I have read, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, was issued just in time to prevent the Prime Minister from recognizing the South and its right to secede.

Samuel Johnson despised the founding fathers and their revolution because they were slave-holders and he suspected that their real motive, for all their talk about inalienable rights (which he thought was merely a smoke-screen) was to make America safe for slavery. He was partly right.

Romantic intellectuals on the continent regarded our revolution with disdain because it was not sufficiently radical: it did not get the root of the problem, private property, which as anyone knew who had read their Rousseau or Proudhon, is the same as theft.The American Revolution was merely a bourgeois revolution and therefore bogus, beside the point. Karl Marx thought a lot about the French Revolution and where or how it went astray; he didn't bother much about American one which he considered to be all about class, as any right thinking revolution would be; it was just that the wrong classes came out on top, where they'd been along of course, and stayed there.

The failure of the French Revolution, and its successors in '32 and '48 drove Romanticism in on itself. In proclaiming the power of the Will over facts and circumstances, Fichte and his followers came pretty close to denying the legitimacy of all government and all law; the will, they thought makes its own laws. (See my Romantic Will postings.) But what happens when one tries that on?

Schopenhauer, who despised Fichte and thought politics, especially the revolutionary kind, stupid or irrelevant, gave romantic visionaries something new to think about.

A foot-note on the Emancipation Proclamation:

My brother, Finlay Lewis, writes
Just read your Monday blog noting the fortuitous timing of the emancipation proclamation. Antietam was crucial to that. Lincoln wrote the proclamation
in the summer of 1862 and then stuck it in a drawer, hoping to issue it on the heels of a North victory. Otherwise, he feared it would be viewed by the English (and others, of course) as an act of desperation.

As we all know, Antietam wasn't much of a victory. McClellan recoiled from attempting to deliver a mortal blow to the southern army even though he was privy to Lee's battle plan (thanks to a Union sergeant who had stumbled across a cigar wrapper containing Lee's orders to divide his forces.)

That raises an interesting question. Suppose McClellan had crushed Lee's army at that point. Would Lincoln then have had the political support in the North to end slavery or did that step require two and a half more years of bloodshed before that threshold could be crossed? The Democrats had not yet been discredited, and a smashing victory would almost certainly have so enhanced McClellan's stature that Lincoln might have had no choice but to acquiesce in his likely demand that the South be offered a deal short of emancipation.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Checks and Balances

Hamilton got this idea from a book by Montesquieu, De L'Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of The Laws)(1748). I haven't read this book, and won't discuss it until I have.

Why did Hamilton and Madison seize on Montesquieu's idea of 'separated powers' and build it into the constitution of the new republic? As close students of Machiavelli as well as Hobbes and Thucydides, they knew that good men in politics are hard to find and don't in any case last very long--virtually no one can remain unaffected if not corrupted by power. Rulers must learn not to trust anyone; people in general are a "wretched lot"--mean, ignorant, hypocritical, treacherous, easily corruptible. In a mordantly witty and telling phrase, Machiavelli says men will more easily forgive the murder of a father than the loss of a patrimony. How then could anyone hope to construct a government of, by and for such people? 'Checks and balances' is part of the answer. The idea is to build into the structure of government a system of self-regulating incentives and sanctions. It is in the self-interest of those in the different branches or arms of government--executive, legislative, judicial--to keep an eye on the doings of the others. If men were angels, says Hamilton in one of his Federalist essays, such machinery would not be necessary...

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Social Contract Theory in the French and American Revolutions

Have you got a pretty good idea now, having read my last post, what this 'social contract' business is all about? If not, say so.

The movers and shakers in both of these revolutions, which were almost contemporaneous, were intensely conscious of the writings of John Locke; both groups believed that they had been given a rare opportunity: to make a fresh start; to build a new kind of state constructed according to rational principles; new from the ground up, cleansed of barnacles and rot, the accumulation of centuries of corruption (our founding fathers were thinking, rather unfairly, it seems to me, of their British political and legal inheritance), this new state would provide liberty and justice for all instead of the few. (Some of this may remind you, relevantly, of Martin Luther's assault on the Church in the 16th century--there was at that time, of course, just the one.)

Why did the Americans succeed (more or less), while the French sacrificed hundreds of thousands of lives merely to set the stage (as Joseph de Maistre predicted) for Napoleon, and a century--and more--of bitter and debilitating political conflict?

The French revolutionaries took the metaphor of a fresh start and a clean slate literally. They literally cleared the ground of the feudal institutions and people that they blamed for the accumulated inequalities and injustices of the past. The Bastille, symbolic of all that they hated, was obliterated without a trace.

The Americans were all practical politicians as well as "men of substance" for the most part in their local communities. The feudal past was not thick on the ground as in France; it had mostly been left behind. These men were also very well educated; some were close students of history, especially Greek and Roman history. Many were lawyers, educated in the English Common Law. When they began to write their own social contract, or constitution, they had a functional system of parliamentary and ministerial governance to examine and learn from. These were immense advantages, none of which the French revolutionaries possessed--who were forced to fight a war while at the same time they were trying to design their new state.

The Americans also had Alexander Hamilton, the greatest practical philosopher of liberal government and politics in the world at that time (or since).