First, a sad story: on 4/27, we recorded a discussion of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia with Slate’s Stephen Metcalf. It went fairly well (Stephen was impressed, and gave us a nice traffic bump by promoting us on his Culture Gabfest podcast), but within the next couple of days, the hard drive on which my part and much of the guest’s part were recorded on went irretrievably kaput (yes, I’m upgrading our backup practices). So, we’re going to redo that discussion (I think we can do better anyway), but not until July given people’s availability.
Instead, Wes, Dylan, and I will be discussing on Tuesday 5/13 some essays from Arthur Schopenhauer, published in 1851 near the end of his career (he died in 1860; the Fourfold Root that we talked about last time was from 1813):
-In “On Authorship and Style,” he contrasts those that write because they have something to say and those that write for money. When is the best time to write? After you’ve already thought through the subject. Though most people are just interested in a book’s matter (what it’s about), what makes great writing is its form, which directly indicates the quality of the author’s thinking. However, thought is really only serious when it’s in our heads; putting it into words dries it up into a fossil. The best style is as natural, clear, and helpful to the reader as possible. It’s much harder for people to understand what was read than for the words to be written, so help them out!
-In “On Thinking for Oneself” we get the flip side of the communication equation: how to be a good reader. Since reading is a matter of passively letting someone else’s thoughts take you over, you don’t want to read too much, don’t want to drown out your own thought. If you just read a little (and only the best stuff), then you enter into dialogue with the work and don’t become its slave: you use it to develop your own thoughts further. Much more important is this hard contemplation, motivated by your own mind and not by what you’ve read. You want to be cognizing the world, not just reacting to someone else’s descriptions of it! Even if you want to be a scholar (and so have to read a lot), you need to be master of what you’re reading and not defer to it. This takes a good deal of arrogance, and a kind of selfishness, because real thinking is not done for the practical benefit of others, but is an end unto itself. Thinking also takes patience, because you can’t force it, unlike reading, which you can force yourself to do constantly, and so not actually think at all. You need to detach yourself from responsibility and find a quiet place for it to happen.
-In “On Genius,” we hear more about what really thinking as a way of life gets you. Most people use their minds only in service of their bellies, i.e. their own will, but a genius transcends his own will, and in giving some account of the world (whether through philosophy, literature, or in some other way) reproduces or reflects that world. So while detaching yourself sounds very selfish and individualistic, doing so actually puts you in touch with the universal in a way that ordinary people aren’t. Doing this actually obstructs our individual will that we typically use to live life, which is why real intellectuals (as opposed to the merely well-read or skillfully practical) are often awkward failures. However, such social failure and other sorts of tragedy, so long as they don’t disturb your thinking, wash over you: this detached stance makes you stoic. Even as you’re getting in touch with the universal, thinking makes you more of an individual as a thinker: the non-philosophical tend to think alike according to the fashion of the day laid over our brute humanity, but having an intellectual life distinguishes you from this. Of course, there’s a leap from merely trying to live such a life to actually being a genius, which Schopenhauer thinks is very rare. We ordinary intellectuals will no doubt not even recognize a living genius, who thinks so much faster and farther than we do, so a genius really has to write for posterity. He won’t receive accolades in his lifetime, but the enjoyment of his own thoughts will be enough.
A nice thing about these essays is that they’re not overtly connected with the rest of Schopenhauer’s system. Here’s some context, so that we don’t need to dwell on it on the episode:
For an example of the kind of philosophy produced by Schopenhauer’s recommended way of thinking, try reading his essay, “The Emptiness of Existence” (you can also listen to it on iTunes or YouTube), which succinctly lays out his famed pessimism and the ontology in which it’s based: The Will is the Kantian thing-in-itself, existing beyond our existence as individuals and acting through us (and everything else, like, say, gravity and chemical forces: everything is an activity of Will, though you shouldn’t interpret that as Will causing these things, as causality is something added by our minds, not in the thing-in-itself). If we’re unreflective, we just play our part, which is a pretty shitty one, as we’re filled with desire for things we won’t get, or will be unsatisfied with if we do get them.
According to the essays about thinking we’ll be discussing, a conclusion like the above is the result of acute observation of and contemplation of the world. He took a lot from Kant (as discussed in depth in our episode #30), and obviously from Buddhism, but if we take him at his word (and take the obvious hint that he considers himself a genius, in contrast to the fashionable Hegel and his followers, who according to Schopenhauer’s account should have been forgotten by now), then these sources were just tools used by Schopenhauer the original genius in formulating his profoundly original thoughts that grasped universal truths, which in turn would very likely be discovered (though not discussed in Schopenhauer’s style) by historically disparate sources with no direct intellectual line to or from Schopenhauer. … As opposed to his refusal to seriously consider points of view counter to his own, leading to his view being groundless and so easily dismissed by more serious thinkers, very obviously a product of his own temperament and his irritation at being ignored by his peers.
You can get some more of the metaphysical picture as it relates specifically to genius from “Genius and Virtue,” in his book The Art of Controversy. (Listen to the chapter here.) First, per Schopenhauer’s version of Kant, the mind creates the whole of experienced reality: space, time, causality, material objects, all of that. So being really, really smart is not (as for Nietzsche) a matter of just being a slightly less dumb and more pretentious animal, but almost of attaining godhood: becoming a conscious and innovative creator of reality instead of a dumb, programmed, passive one. Second, Schopenhauer thinks that the self (the mind) is not this unified, fundamental thing per Descartes, but that it has an individual will (which is finite and ultimately illusory, being but a tributary of Will as thing-in-itself) and intellect, which is (very similarly to Spinoza) universal. Acting for your desires is acting as an individual, finite subject, but intellectual contemplation is acting as the universal subject.
The previous three paragraphs outline the structure on which Schopenhauer’s views in the essays we’ll be discussing ultimately rest. But we needn’t buy into his neo-Kantian Buddhist metaphysics to take his advice about how to take ourselves as philosophers seriously. Schopenhauer was very much a proto-existentialist, seeing death as making our usual endeavors ultimately meaningless, urging us (like Kierkegaard) to seek spirituality away from the herd, to authentically and deliberately think as a way of getting in touch with Being (like Heidegger). His difference is in his emphasis on elitism, his esteem for the power of philosophy, and his embrace of authentic thinking (and consequently art) as perhaps the summum bonum for irredeemable creatures like us.
Is genius as described in “Genius and Virtue” for Schopenhauer a moral ideal? (Again, this is not an essay we’re discussing on this podcast but is just described here to give more context.) Well, he retains a (presumably Kantian) take on morality, and says that vice is the result of acting on the impulses of will (not that the will always commands vice, but that when we commit obvious vice, it’s definitely the will’s fault). Virtue is just restraint on the will, so of those that avoid vice, they’re the good natured, who are just too weak-willed to bother with vice, saints who vehemently stamp out vice through a rigorous application of the practical knowledge of good and evil, and the intellectual (geniuses, though in this work, he doesn’t emphasize the rarity aspect, so this may be something that anyone sufficiently thoughtful could perhaps attain) who is so absorbed in theoretical contemplation that he takes life, i.e. his own will, as a game that he sees through. Insofar as he is contemplating, he is beyond his own will, i.e. beyond good and evil, and so not prone to vice. When not contemplating, he may have strong desires, because genius is often paired with a strong will, so geniuses are actually prone to vices of the flesh and such. Geniuses have a stronger theoretical knowledge of good and evil than saints, but, being detached from practical necessities, don’t necessarily apply this knowledge to the complexities of life with any success (just as they fail at other practical matters). However, when contemplating any great crime, this theoretical knowledge clicks in and overcomes any will that would make one perform the crime. So geniuses are never great villains, but are probably not great saints either.