Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Arthur Schopenhauer - Philosophy's great pessimist

“The Schopenhauer Cure” - Schopenhauer’s advice on how to live

Schopenhauer thinks it would have been better if the world had never existed at all.

His particularly frosty view of relationships is conveyed by his fable comparing people to porcupines. He also has a dim view of sex and its effects on humanity. Sex is our driving force, yet sex and relationships offers nothing but sorrow.

However Schopenhauer does not think that that suicide is the logical answer to the human condition Instead he recommends two ways to alleviate the human condition: reducing one’ desires, and engaging in the arts

Asceticism, curbing your desires, is Schopenhauer’s first remedy. Since they are very likely to be thwarted, you should train yourself to desire as little as possible.

Contemplation of the sublime is also commended as a way of reducing the pernicious effects the Will

Of all the arts, music is the most sublime. “Music is the answer to the mystery of life. It is the most profound of all the arts; it expresses the deepest thoughts of life and being; a simple language which nonetheless cannot be translated.” Schopenhauer further believes that art gives us direct knowledge of Plato’s Forms .

As far as his moral philosophy goes, Schopenhauer believes we should feel compassion for our fellow sufferers; his ethics of compassion, rather than virtue or happiness or duty, is again reminiscent of Eastern philosophy.

By no mean everyone agrees with the Schopenhauer Cure. Even if Schopenhauer is right about the centrality of craving, is asceticism, (the removal of desires) the best attitude. Schopenhauer greatly influenced Nietzsche who agrees with the idea that the Will was more powerful than the intellect, but disagrees with his ‘No-saying’ attitude to life

Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics

Schopenhauer believes that our inner knowledge of ourselves provides a pointer to the nature of ultimate reality. When you touch, see, smell, hear or taste anything your experience is indirect – and so Kant’s arguments about not knowing what ultimate reality is like hold good. But – and this is Schopenhauer’s key insight – when you raise your arm, you not only see your arm raise, at the same time you will it to raise. These are two ways of looking at the same thing – hence Schopenhauer’s theory is called a dual aspect theory.

In willing your arm to raise, you are part of ultimate reality. Since your idea of plurality operates only at the phenomenal level, the other side of the ‘veil of deception’ is all the same - it’s all Will or, more specifically, the Will to Live. So Schopenhauer thinks that the whole universe is really a life force, or energy. It should be emphasised that this ‘Will’ is unconscious.

Schopenhauer suggests that even your own Will is usually hidden from you. In his view that a large part of your motivation is hidden from you, Schopenhauer anticipates Freud. Schopenhauer’s is also philosophy’s great pessimist partly by temperament and experience and partly because of the implications of the all-encompassing nature of the competitive and destructive Will.

Schopenhauer’s idea that reality is ‘one’ and the human condition one of craving is reminiscent of certain Eastern philosophies. Schopenhauer however claimed to have developed these ideas independently (though he subsequently read Eastern philosophy and learnt from it). Rather surprisingly, perhaps, twentieth-century physics has borne out Schopenhauer in its finding that matter is instantiated energy and that a material object is a space filled with force

The Influence of Immanuel Kant

Faced with the twin problems of reconciling traditional religious beliefs with scientific advance, and understanding the foundations of knowledge, both rationalism and empiricism seemed to have failed. Kant tries to provide a synthesis of empiricism and rationalism. Originally a rationalist, Hume famously woke him from his dogmatic slumbers. Yet empiricism, according to Kant, is only partly right in asserting that knowledge depends on observation. Empiricism makes the mind far too passive. Turning around the empiricist idea that knowledge depends on observation, (his ‘Copernican revolution’ ) Kant argues that observation also depends on knowledge. We do not perceive the world as it is, but through our senses and conceptual framework. Experience furnishes the materials of our knowledge, whereas the mind arranges these materials in a form made necessary by its own nature.

We experience the world in a certain way, and Kant thinks that this could tell us much about the world. Kant asks “Given that we have the experience we do, what must be true about the world?” This transcendental argument searches for presuppositions and preconditions of what we know to be the case. Kant argues that space, time, causation and plurality were necessary features of our experience.

However – and here’s the sting - we experience only phenomena - what our senses and concepts reveal - not the thing in itself (the noumena). There could well be a ‘veil of deception’ between us and ultimate reality. Whereas Kant thinks that we can know nothing about the thing in itself, Schopenhauer disagreed. Schopenhauer thinks that in knowing that we will we have a direct line to what we really are. For Schopenhauer, the act of willing is our one instance where we have knowledge of ultimate reality, and that ultimate reality is what Schopenhauer calls ‘Will’.

The sayings of Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer on relationships

“One cold winter’s day a number of porcupines huddled together quite closely in order, through their mutual warmth, to prevent themselves from being frozen. But they soon felt the effects of their quills on one another, which made them move apart. Now, when the need for warmth once again brought them together, the drawback of the quills was repeated so they were tossed between two evils, until they discovered the proper distance from which they could best tolerate one another. Thus the needs for society, which springs from the emptiness and monotony of men’s lives, drives them together but their many unpleasant and repulsive qualities once more drive them apart”

Schopenhauer on time

“The greatest wisdom is to make the enjoyment of the present object the supreme object of life because that is the only reality, all else being the play of thought. But we could just as well call it our greatest folly because that which exists only for a moment and vanishes as a dream can never be worth a serious effort”

Schopenhauer on death

“When, at the end of their lives, most men look back they will find that they had lived throughout ad interim. They will be surprised to see that the very thing they allowed to slip by unappreciated and unenjoyed was just their life. And so a man, having been duped by hope, dances into the arms of death”

Schopenhauer on suffering

“Great sufferings render lesser ones quite incapable of being felt, and conversely, in the absence of great sufferings even the smallest vexations and annoyances torment us”

Schopenhauer on the meaning of life

“Ecstasy in the act of copulation. That is it! That is the true essence and core of all things, the goal and purpose of all existence.”

Schopenhauer: Life and Works

Schopenhauer was born in Danzig in 1788. His father called him Arthur, partly because it was such a universal name, and his schooling included a spell as a fifteen year old in Wimbledon. During this stay young Schopenhauer perfected his English, attended public executions, visited asylums and walked through the London slums. His parents’ marriage was not a happy one; his father was tough, dour, repressed, unyielding and proud and died in mysterious circumstances (probably suicide) when Arthur was 16. His mother, much younger and romantic, and lovely, imaginative, vivacious and flirtatious, became a liberated woman-about-town and successful writer but fell out so badly with Arthur that they did not meet during the last 25 years of her life. His relationship with is mother, plus his own gloomy temperament, are usually cited as reasons for Schopenhauer’s dislike of women and people in general, and indeed of his philosophical pessimism.

Schopenhauer managed to avoid continuing the family business, as his father had wished, but, with a large enough inheritance to obviate the need to work, decided to study. He studied philosophy, and soon became a great admirer of Kant. but considered Kant’s successors, like Hegel and Fichte, to be charlatans. Plato and Eastern philosophy, especially the Upanishads and Buddhism, were other influences on Kant..

Schopenhauer wrote The World as Will and Representation in 1818 and chose a career as a lecturer in Berlin in 1820. Outrageously, Schopenhauer chose to lecture in Berlin at the very same hour as the esteemed Hegel; no one came to Schopenhauer’s lectures and he abandoned his career.

From the age of 45 until his death 27 years later Schopenhauer lived alone (except for, in later years, with his poodle), in ’rooms’ in Frankfurt. He always followed the same routine; he rose at 7, had a bath but no breakfast, had a strong cup of coffee and sat down to write until noon, He practised the flute, had lunch, and then read until 4. At 4 o’clock, no matter the weather, he walked for two hours. At 6 o’clock he read The Times and in the evening attended the theatre or a concert, after which he had dinner and went to bed between 9 and 10.

Read On

Schopenhauer, A Essays and Aphorisms

Schopenhauer, A The World as Will and Representation

Magee. B The Great Philosophers

Magee. B Confessions of a Philosopher

Magee. B The Philosophy of Schopenhauer

Tanner, M Schopenhauer

Yalom, I The Schopenhauer Cure (published January 2005)

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Buddha (563-483 BC)


All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.

buddhalantau The Buddha


The Buddha (Siddhārtha Gautama) is one of the most influential thinkers - especially of course in the East, but to a growing extent in the west also.  His attraction to many intelligent westerners is no doubt due to the Buddha's empiricism, lack of reliance on God or Gods, and the vindication of Buddhist practices by science.


Buddha quotations

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.

It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.

On life's journey faith is nourishment, virtuous deeds are a shelter, wisdom is the light by day and right mindfulness is the protection by night. If a man lives a pure life, nothing can destroy him.

What we think, we become.

Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.

To understand everything is to forgive everything

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.

Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.

The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly

There is nothing so disobedient as an undisciplined mind, and there is nothing so obedient as a disciplined mind

If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.

Be vigilant; guard your mind against negative thoughts

Fashion your life as a garland of beautiful deeds.

This Eightfold Path, that is to say: Right view, right aim, right speech, right action, right living, right effort, right mindfulness, right contemplation.

Meditation brings wisdom; lack of mediation leaves ignorance. Know well what leads you forward and what hold you back, and choose the path that leads to wisdom.

A good friend who points out mistakes and imperfections and rebukes evil is to be respected as if he reveals a secret of hidden treasure

Hatred is never ended by hatred but by love

Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.


Recommended reading

Carithers, M. The Buddha

Sharma, R. The Monk who sold his Ferrari

Revel J-F & Ricard,M The Monk and the Philosopher

Cutler. H. & Dalai Lama The Art of Happiness

Ricard, M Happiness

Batchelor, S. Buddhism without beliefs

Kornfield, J Meditation  for


External  Links

An Introduction to Buddhism

Big View on Buddhism - well-structured and accessible

BBC Guide to Buddhism

Buddhist Studies WWW Virtual Library

Mathieu Ricard on free video

Insight Meditation Online


What the Buddha said by Wanderling

Meditation and Therapy by Jack Kornfield

Daily words of the Buddha - an e-mail a day

Monday, October 30, 2006

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

" 'Tis  better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied"John Stuart MillJohn


John Stuart Mill was arguably the most important British philosopher of the 19th century. With an estimated IQ of 192, he was way ahead of his time in his advocacy of women's rights and his principle that we should be free to do what we like as long as it harms no-one else is still often quoted in many a modern debate.
For practical philosophy, he has 3 important ideas.
1) Consider the Consequences
Consequentialism is the idea that you base your decision-making on the consequences of your actions. Should you say the kind thing or the unkind thing? Should you give to charity or not? Should you continue to smoke or give up? If John Stuart Mill were here to advice you , he would say "consider the consequences". This is a very simple, forward-looking and helpful piece of advice- try it and see!
2) Value  happiness - both your own happiness and other people's happiness
Everyone wants happiness, and, Mill tells us, they are right to do so. Mill considered happiness to be the good, but his philosophy was more subtle than the old Epicurean ideal of just valuing pleasure. First, Mill and his fellow utilitarians thought that it is everyone's happiness that should be improved - not just your own. Try to make other people and yourself as happy as possible. Secondly, Mill did not think all pleasures equal - hence his famous "better Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied" adage, This brings us to his third idea.
3) Ask "What would a well-informed person say and do in this situation?"
Mill disagreed with his godfather, Jeremy Bentham, that "pushpin was as good as poetry". He thought that any competent judge - someone who had experienced both - would prefer certain "higher" pleasures to "lower" ones. You don't have to agree with Mill about poetry to find value in his general idea - that we can benefit by asking "what would a well-informed person say about this situation?".  Wondering whether to become a teacher or a lawyer? Mill's idea suggests you should speak to someone who has experienced both - or better still, try out both yourself, before deciding.

External Links

Full text of Utilitarianism and Autobiography at
Prospect article for Mill bicentenary by Richard Reeves
Wiki article on J.S. Mill
Article in The Times to celebrate Mill bicentenary
Radio 4 "In our Times" on John Stuart Mill