The philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, which we’ve been discussing for several weeks now, isn’t usually approached from the angle by which I’ve been approaching it—that is, as a way to talk about the gap between what we think we know about the world and what we actually know about it. The aspect of his work that usually gets all the publicity is the ethical dimension.
That’s understandable but it’s also unfortunate, because the ethical dimension of Schopenhauer’s philosophy is far and away the weakest part of it. It’s not going too far to say that once he started talking about ethics, Schopenhauer slipped on a banana peel dropped in his path by his own presuppositions, and fell flat on his nose. The banana peel in question is all the more embarrassing in that he spent much of the first half of The World as Will and Representation showing that you can’t make a certain kind of statement without spouting nonsense, and then turned around and based much of the second half on exactly that kind of statement.
Let’s review the basic elements of Schopenhauer’s thinking. First, the only things we can experience are our own representations. There’s probably a real world out there—certainly that hypothesis explains the consistency of our representations with one another, and with those reported by (representations of) other people, with less handwaving than any other theory—but all the data we get from the world out there amounts to a thin trickle of sensory data, which we then assemble into representations of things using a set of prefab templates provided partly by our species’ evolutionary history and partly by habits we picked up in early childhood. How much those representations have to do with what’s actually out there is a really good question that’s probably insoluble in principle.
Second, if we pay attention to our experience, we encounter one thing that isn’t a representation—the will. You don’t experience the will, you encounter its effects, but everything you experience is given its framing and context by the will. Is it “your” will? The thing you call “yourself” is a representation like any other; explore it using any of at least three toolkits—sustained introspection, logical analysis, and scientific experimentation—and you’ll find that what’s underneath the representation of a single self that chooses and wills is a bundle of blind forces, divergent and usually poorly coordinated, that get in each other’s way, interfere with each other’s actions, and produce the jumbled and self-defeating mess that by and large passes for ordinary human behavior.
Third, the point just made is difficult for us to accept because our culture prefers to think of the universe as consisting of mind and matter—more precisely, active, superior, personal mind and passive, inferior, impersonal matter. Schopenhauer pokes at both of these concepts and finds them wanting. What we call mind, from his perspective, is simply one of the more complex and less robust grades of will—it’s what happens when the will gets sufficiently tangled and bashed about that it picks up the habit of representing a world to itself, so that it can use that as a map to avoid the more obvious sources of pain. Matter is a phantom—an arbitrarily defined “stuff” we use to pretend that our representations really do exist out there in reality.
Fourth, since the only things we encounter when we examine the world are representations, on the one hand, and will in its various modes on the other, we really don’t have any justification for claiming that anything else actually exists. Maybe there are all kinds of other things out there in the cosmos, but if all we actually encounter are will and representations, and a description of the cosmos as representation and will makes sense of everything we meet with in the course of life, why pile up unnecessary hypotheses just because our cultural habits of thought beg for them?
Thus the world Schopenhauer presents to us is the world we encounter—provided that we do in fact pay attention to what we encounter, rather than insisting that our representations are realities and our culturally engrained habits of thought are more real than the things they’re supposed to explain. The difficulty, of course, is that imagining a universe of mind and matter allows us to pretend that our representations are objective realities and that thoughts about things are more real than the things themselves—and both of these dodges are essential to the claim, hammered into the cultural bedrock of contemporary industrial society, that we and we alone know the pure unvarnished truth about things.
From Schopenhauer’s perspective, that’s exactly what none of us can know. We can at best figure out that when this representation appears, that representation will usually follow, and work out formal models—we call these scientific theories—that allow us to predict, more or less, the sequence of representations that appear in certain contexts. We can’t even do that much reliably when things get complex enough; at that point we have to ditch the formal models and just go with narrative patterns, the way I’ve tried to do in discussing the ways that civilizations decline and fall.
Notice that this implies that the more general a statement is, the further removed it is from that thin trickle of sensory data on which the whole world of representations is based, and the more strictly subjective it is. That means, in turn, that any value judgment applied to existence as a whole must be utterly subjective, an expression of the point of view of the person making that judgment, rather than any kind of objective statement about existence itself.
There’s the banana peel on which Schopenhauer slipped, because having set up the vision of existence I’ve just described, he turned around and insisted that existence is objectively awful and the only valid response to it for anyone, anywhere, is to learn to nullify the will to live and, in due time, cease to be.
Is that one possible subjective response to the world in which we find ourselves? Of course, and some people seem to find it satisfying. Mind you, the number of them that actually go out of their way to cease existing is rather noticeably smaller than the number who find such notions pleasing in the abstract. Schopenhauer himself is a helpful example. Having insisted in print that all pleasure is simply a prelude to misery and an ascetic lifestyle ending in extinction is the only meaningful way to live, he proceeded to live to a ripe old age, indulging his taste for fine dining, music, theater, and the more than occasional harlot. I’m not sure how you’d translate “do what I say, not what I do” into classical Greek, but it would have made an appropriate epigraph for The World as Will and Representation.
Now of course a failure to walk one’s talk is far from rare among intellectuals, especially those of ascetic leanings, and the contrast between Schopenhauer’s ideals and his actions doesn’t disprove the value of the more strictly epistemological part of his work. It does, however, point up an obvious contradiction in his thinking. Accept the basic assumptions of his philosophy, after all, and it follows that the value judgments we apply to the representations we encounter are just as much a product of our own minds as the representations themselves; they’re not objective qualities of the things we judge, even though we’re used to treating them that way.
We treat them that way, in turn, because for the last two millennia or so it’s been standard for prophetic religious traditions to treat them that way. By “prophetic religious traditions” I mean those that were founded by individual persons—Gautama the Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth, Muhammad, and so on—or were reshaped in the image of such faiths, the way Judaism was reshaped in the image of the Zoroastrian religion after the Babylonian captivity. (As Raphael Patai pointed out in quite some detail a while back in his book The Hebrew Goddess, Judaism wasn’t monotheistic until the Jews picked up that habit from their Zoroastrian Persian liberators; quite a few other traits of post-Exilic Judaism, such as extensive dietary taboos, also have straightforward Zoroastrian origins.)
A range of contrasts separate the prophetic religions from the older polytheist folk religions that they supplanted over most of the world, but one of the crucial points of difference is in value judgments concerning human behavior—or, as we tend to call them these days, moral judgments. The gods and goddesses of folk religions are by and large no more moral, or interested in morality, than the forces of nature they command and represent; some expect human beings to maintain certain specific customs—Zeus, for example, was held by the ancient Greeks to punish those who violated traditional rules of hospitality—but that was about it. The deities central to most prophetic religions, by contrast, are all about moral judgment.
The scale of the shift can be measured easily enough from the words “morals” and “ethics” themselves. It’s become popular of late to try to make each of these mean something different, but the only actual difference between them is that “morals” comes from Latin and “ethics” comes from Greek. Back in classical times, though, they had a shared meaning that isn’t the one given to them today. The Latin word moralia derives from mores, the Greek word ethike derives from ethoi, and mores and ethoi both mean “customs” or “habits,” without the language of judgment associated with the modern words.
To grasp something of the difference, it’s enough to pick up a copy of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, by common consent the most important work of what we’d now call moral philosophy that came out of the ancient world. It’s not ethics or morals in any modern sense of the word; it’s a manual on how to achieve personal greatness, and it manages to discuss most of the territory now covered by ethics without ever stooping to the kind of moral denunciation that pervades ethical thought in our time.
Exactly why religion and morality got so thoroughly conflated in the prophetic religions is an interesting historical question, and one that deserves more space than a fraction of one blog post can provide. The point I want to address here is the very difficult fit between the sharp limits on human knowledge and the sweeping presuppositions of moral knowledge that modern societies have inherited from the age of prophetic religions. If we don’t actually know anything but our representations, and can draw only tentative conclusions from them, do we really know enough to make sweeping generalizations about good and evil?
The prophetic religions themselves actually have a workable response to that challenge. Most of them freely admit that human beings don’t have the capacity to judge rightly between good and evil without help, and go on to argue that this is why everyone needs to follow the rules set down in scripture as interpreted by the religious specialists of their creed. Grant the claim that their scriptures were actually handed down from a superhumanly wise source, and it logically follows that obeying the moral rules included in the scriptures is a reasonable action. It’s the basic claim, of course, that’s generally the sticking point; since every prophetic religion has roughly the same evidence backing its claim to divine inspiration as every other, and their scriptures all contradict one another over important moral issues, it’s not exactly easy to draw straightforward conclusions from them.
Their predicament is a good deal less complex, though, than that of people who’ve abandoned the prophetic religions of their immediate ancestors and still want to make sweeping pronouncements about moral goodness and evil. It’s here that the sly, wry, edgy voice of Friedrich Nietzsche becomes an unavoidable presence, because the heart of his philosophy was an exploration of what morality means once a society can no longer believe that its tribal taboos were handed down intact, and will be enforced via thunderbolt or eternal damnation, by the creator of the universe.
Nietzsche’s philosophical writings are easy to misunderstand, and he very likely meant that to be the case. Where Schopenhauer proceeded step by step through a single idea in all its ramifications, showing that the insight at the core of his vision makes sense of the entire world of our experience, Nietzsche wrote in brief essays and aphorisms, detached from one another, dancing from theme to theme. He was less interested in convincing people than in making them think; each of the short passages that makes up his major philosophical works is meant to be read, pondered, and digested on its own. All in all, his books make excellent bathroom reading—and I suspect that Nietzsche himself would have been amused by that approach to his writings..
The gravitational center around which Nietzsche’s various thought experiments orbited, though, was a challenge to the conventional habits of moral discourse in his time and ours. For those who believe in a single, omniscient divine lawgiver, it makes perfect sense to talk about morals in the way that most people in his time and ours do in fact talk about them—that is to say, as though there’s some set of moral rules that are clearly set out and incontrovertibly correct, and the task of the moral philosopher is to badger and bully his readers into doing what they know they ought to do anyway.
From any other perspective, on the other hand, that approach to talking about morals is frankly bizarre. It’s not just that every set of moral rules that claims to have been handed down by the creator of the universe contradicts every other such set, though of course this is true. It’s that every such set of rules has proven unsatisfactory when applied to human beings. The vast amount of unnecessary misery that’s resulted from historical Christianity’s stark terror of human sexuality is a case in point, though it’s far from the only example, and far from the worst.
Yet, of course, most of us do talk about moral judgments as though we know what we’re talking about, and that’s where Nietszche comes in. Here’s his inimitable voice, from the preface to Beyond Good and Evil, launching a discussion of the point at issue:
“Supposing truth to be a woman—what? Is the suspicion not well founded that all philosophers, when they have been dogmatists, have had little understanding of women? That the gruesome earnestness, the clumsy importunity with which they have hitherto been in the habit of approaching truth have been inept and improper means for winning a wench? Certainly she has not let herself be won—and today every kind of dogmatism stands sad and discouraged.”
Nietzsche elsewhere characterized moral philosophy as the use of bad logic to prop up inherited prejudices. The gibe’s a good one, and generally far more accurate than not, but again it’s easy to misunderstand. Nietzsche was not saying that morality is a waste of time and we all ought to run out and do whatever happens to come into our heads, from whatever source. He was saying that we don’t yet know the first thing about morality, because we’ve allowed bad logic and inherited prejudices to get in the way of asking the necessary questions—because we haven’t realized that we don’t yet have any clear idea of how to live.
To a very great extent, if I may insert a personal reflection here, this realization has been at the heart of this blog’s project since its beginning. The peak oil crisis that called The Archdruid Report into being came about because human beings have as yet no clear idea how to get along with the biosphere that supports all our lives; the broader theme that became the core of my essays here over the years, the decline and fall of industrial civilization, shows with painful clarity that human beings have as yet no clear idea how to deal with the normal and healthy cycles of historical change; the impending fall of the United States’ global empire demonstrates the same point on a more immediate and, to my American readers, more personal scale. Chase down any of the varied ramblings this blog has engaged in over the years, and you’ll find that most if not all of them have the same recognition at their heart: we don’t yet know how to live, and maybe we should get to work figuring that out.
I’d like to wind up this week’s post with three announcements. First of all, I’m delighted to report that the latest issue of the deindustrial-SF quarterly Into the Ruins is now available. Those of you who’ve read previous issues know that you’re in for a treat; those who haven’t—well, what are you waiting for? Those of my readers who bought a year’s subscription when Into the Ruins first launched last year should also keep in mind that it’s time to re-up, and help support one of the few venues for science fiction about the kind of futures we’re actually likely to get once the fantasy of perpetual progress drops out from under us and we have to start coping with the appalling mess that we’ve made of things.
Second, I’m equally delighted to announce that a book of mine that’s been out of print for some years is available again. The Academy of the Sword is the most elaborate manual of sword combat ever written; it was penned in the early seventeenth century by Gerard Thibault, one of the greatest European masters of the way of the sword, and published in 1630, and it bases its wickedly effective fencing techniques on Renaissance Pythagorean sacred geometry. I spent almost a decade translating it out of early modern French and finally got it into print in 2006, but the original publisher promptly sank under a flurry of problems that were partly financial and partly ethical. Now the publisher of my books Not the Future We Ordered and Twilight’s Last Gleaming has brought it back into print in an elegant new hardback edition. New editions of my first two published books, Paths of Wisdom and Circles of Power, are under preparation with the same publisher as I write this, so it’s shaping up to be a pleasant spring for me.
Finally, this will be the last post of The Archdruid Report for a while. I have a very full schedule in the weeks immediately ahead, and several significant changes afoot in my life, and won’t be able to keep up the weekly pace of blog posts while those are happening. I’m also busily sorting through alternative platforms for future blogging and social media—while I’m grateful to Blogger for providing a free platform for my blogging efforts over the past eleven years, each recent upgrade has made it more awkward to use, and it’s probably time to head elsewhere. When I resume blogging, it will thus likely be on a different platform, and quite possibly with a different name and theme. I’ll post something here and on the other blog once things get settled. In the meantime, have a great spring, and keep asking the hard questions even when the talking heads insist they have all the answers.