Philosophy was born the moment it was discovered that there is a critical difference between appearance and reality. The way things really are is not simply the way they appear to us. The surface of a table appears solid and static to us. Yet, according to physics, it is highly porous and charged with electrical particles. It has been said that philosophy begins in wonder. It may also be said that it begins in curiosity. To philosophize is to attempt opening the door that allows us to cross the threshold of appearance and enter into the kingdom of reality. In addition, philosophy requires courage, for we do not know what is on the other side of the door until we open it. We need courage to stand firm in the face of the unknown. Philosophy also demands candor so that we can report what we see as it is, with neither embellishment nor belittlement. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) opened that hallowed door, “the single narrow door to the truth,” as he called it, and saw something, apparently without flinching, that was more horrifying than what any previous philosopher had ever witnessed. He saw reality uncovered. It was Will – raging, blind, naked, suffocating, godless Will!
Schopenhauer had discovered the “thing-in-itself,” and described it as “a blind incessant impulse.” “Will is the thing-in-itself, the inner content, the essence of the world.” It has no goal outside of itself and its gratuitous action. It is found everywhere, in the pull of gravitation, the crystallization of rocks, the movements of the stars and planets, the appetites of brute animals, and the volitions of man. This unwieldy and pervasive force, for Schopenhauer, manifests itself as Nature. It is futile for an individual to fight against this force, since it has no regard for him and is bent on his ultimate destruction. Nature, the very embodiment of Will, is destined to destroy the very individuals it wills into existence.
We should “regard every man,” Schopenhauer advises us, “first and foremost as a being who exists only as a consequence of his culpability and whose life is an expiation of the crime of being born.” Only in death is there hope. Death is larger than life, which is merely the Will in its objectified form. Death releases us from the madness and suffering of life. At the same time, evil is more powerful and more real than good: “For evil is precisely that which is positive, that which makes itself palpable, and good, on the other hand, i. e. all happiness and gratification, is that which is negative, the mere abolition of a desire and extinction of a pain.” Evil endures whereas what fleeting measure of good we might enjoy, expires as soon as our appetite for it is satiated. Life itself, then, is inherently evil. It is also evil, Schopenhauer claims, because the higher the organism, the greater the suffering. He invites us to weigh the delights of existence against its pains by asking us to compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating another with those of the animal being eaten. A Culture of Death, for Schopenhauer, is merely the natural acting out of his Metaphysics of Death. A more virulent pessimism has never been penned. Schopenhauer sweeps the field. The distinguished historian, Will Durant, was not being intemperate or unfair when he said of the West’s foremost pessimist, “Given a diseased constitution and a neurotic mind, a life of empty leisure and gloomy ennui, and there emerges the proper physiology for Schopenhauer’s philosophy.”
René Descartes separated mind from matter and tried to re-connect them. Schopenhauer outlined a differed kind of dualism, one between mind and life, in which the latter dominated the former. He portrayed mind and life as antagonistic to each other, while despising life as the hapless instrument of an engulfing Will. Here is the re-introduction of a Manichaean spirit-a fear of the flesh-that Christianity, based as it is on the Incarnation of Christ, has always endeavored to eradicate. If life, which, for Schopenhauer, is synonymous with Nature, is evil in itself, then there can be no Mother of God who can bear a Savior. Motherhood, because it is profoundly imbedded in matter (materia), cannot refrain from doing the bidding of Will.
Schopenhauer’s extreme, antagonistic dualism leads directly to his degradation of women. He separates the sexes in the same way that he separates life from mind. Genius, he maintained, is best understood as “will-less knowledge”. Only men are capable of genius. Women are the passive servants of Will. In his “Essay on Women,” he scorns their beauty and contends that women “are incapable of taking a purely objective interest in anything . . . The most distinguished intellects among the whole sex have never managed to produce a single achievement in the fine arts that is really genuine and original; or given to the world any work of permanent value in any sphere.” He regards women as either shrews or sinners; he could envision no other type. He believes that deceit is inherent to women and doubts whether they should ever be put under oath. He accuses women of thinking that it is a man’s business to make money and theirs to spend it. He indicts them for their extravagance, complaining that “their chief out-door sport is shopping.” Rather caustically, he remarks that, “When the laws gave women equal rights, they ought also to have endowed them with masculine intellects.” Schopenhauer’s literary executors saw fit to suppress some of his remarks about the female sex. Those that were published, however, were more than enough to establish his reputation as a man who did not think very highly of women.
Schopenhauer’s philosophy may be conveniently summarized by a concatenation of three words: Will – Strife – Misery. Will exerts itself everywhere as a primordial urge to beget life. But since it proceeds without any principle of organization-what Medieval philosophers and theologians referred to as Providence-the stage is set for untold struggle and strife. As each individual living thing strives to continue in existence, the world becomes a vast field of conflict. This cruel, rapacious, and heartless conflict invariably breeds much misery. And it is the human being that experiences misery in its most acute form. It is a case of homo homini lupus est (man is a wolf to his fellow man). “The miseries in life can so increase,” he tells us, “that the death which hitherto has been feared above all things is eagerly seized upon.” Hence, it may very well be that “the brevity of life, which is so constantly lamented, may be the best quality it possesses.” The elderly, often wretched, desire death. Those who die young are blessed by life’s most singular virtue.
It is supremely ironic that radical feminism in the contemporary world, especially the variety that is repulsed by a woman’s biological nature, has philosophical and historical roots in the one thinker whose misogyny is without peer. It is equally ironic that the philosopher who identifies the metaphysical core of reality with Nature and Life, envisions life as a curse and death as a release from its misery.Perhaps Schopenhauer’s most pernicious influence is found among those who have misinterpreted his separation of the instinctive force of life from any rational structure as a welcomed blow for “freedom”. The force of life (including the sexual impulse) needs to be integrated, along with reason, into the fabric of the whole person, in order for freedom to have its proper meaning as “freedom of fulfillment”. A Culture of Life has meaning only when reason and freedom stand beside life and harmonize with it. “Freedom of separation” is but a false image a freedom. Dissociating reason from life impairs life and deprives it of its protection and proper direction. The Culture of Life, then, is a culture that celebrates the unification of life, freedom, and reason. The Culture of Life is really the culture of the unified person.