Durant 1926: The Age (Schopenhauer)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VII Section 1 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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I. The Age

Why did the first half of the nineteenth century lift up, as voices of the age, a group of pessimistic poets—Byron in England, De Musset in France, Heine in Germany, Leopardi in Italy, Pushkin and Lermontof in Russia; a group of pessimistic composers—Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, and even the later Beethoven (a pessimist trying to convince himself that he is an optimist); and above all, a profoundly pessimistic philosopher—Arthur Schopenhauer?

Schopenhauer represents an age of pessimism—the first half of the nineteenth century.

That great anthology of woe, The World as Will and Idea, appeared in 1818. It was the age of the “Holy” Alliance. Waterloo had been fought, the Revolution was dead, and the “Son of the Revolution” was rotting on a rock in a distant sea. Something of Schopenhauer’s apotheosis of Will was due to that magnificent and bloody apparition of the Will made flesh in the little Corsican; and something of his despair of life came from the pathetic distance of St. Helena—Will defeated at last, and dark Death the only victor of all the wars. The Bourbons were restored, the feudal barons were returning to claim their lands, and the pacific idealism of Alexander had unwittingly mothered a league for the suppression of progress everywhere. The great age was over. “I thank God,” said Goethe, “that I am not young in so thoroughly finished a world.” . 

The great Age of Reason was over with the French Revolution, and monarchy was being restored.

All Europe lay prostrate. Millions of strong men had perished; millions of acres of land had been neglected or laid waste; everywhere on the Continent life had to begin again at the bottom, to recover painfully and slowly the civilizing 

economic surplus that had been swallowed up in war. Schopenhauer, traveling through France and Austria in 1804, was struck by the chaos and uncleanliness of the villages, the wretched poverty of the farmers, the unrest and misery of the towns. The passage of the Napoleonic and counter-Napoleonic armies had left scars of ravage on the face of every country. Moscow was in ashes. In England, proud victor in the strife, the farmers were ruined by the fall in the price of wheat; and the industrial workers were tasting all the horrors of the nascent and uncontrolled factory-system. Demobilization added to unemployment. “I have heard my father say,” wrote Carlyle, “that in the years when oatmeal was as high as ten shillings a stone, he had noticed the laborers retire each separately to a brook, and there drink instead of dining, anxious only to hide their misery from one another.” Never had life seemed so meaningless, or so mean. 

The wars had left devastation and misery all around Europe and England.

Yes, the Revolution was dead; and with it the life seemed to have gone out of the soul of Europe. That new heaven; called Utopia, whose glamour had relieved the twilight of the gods, had receded into a dim future where only young eyes could see it; the older ones had followed that lure long enough, and turned away from it now as a mockery of men’s hopes. Only the young can live in the future, and only the old can live in the past; men were most of them forced to live in the present, and the present was a ruin. How many thousands of heroes and believers had fought for the Revolution! How the hearts of youth everywhere in Europe had turned towards the young republic, and had lived on the light and hope of it,—until Beethoven tore into shreds the dedication of his Heroic Symphony to the man who had ceased to be the Son of the Revolution and had become the son-in-law of reaction. How many had fought even then for the great hope, and had believed, with passionate uncertainty, to the very end? And now here was the very end: Waterloo, and St. Helena, and Vienna; and on the throne of prostrate France a Bourbon who had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. This was the glorious denouement of a generation of such hope and effort as human history had never known before. What a comedy this tragedy was—for those whose laughter was yet bitter with tears! 

The Revolution was dead; and with it the life seemed to have gone out of the soul of Europe. 

Many of the poor had, in these days of disillusionment and suffering, the consolation of religious hope; but a large proportion of the upper classes had lost their faith, and looked out upon a ruined world with no alleviating vision of a vaster life in whose final justice and beauty these ugly ills would be dissolved. And in truth it was hard enough to believe that such a sorry planet as men saw in 1818 was held up in the hand of an intelligent and benevolent God. Mephistopheles had triumphed, and every Faust was in despair. Voltaire had sown the whirlwind, and Schopenhauer was to reap the harvest. 

These were the days of disillusionment and suffering.

Seldom had the problem of evil been flung so vividly and insistently into the face of philosophy and religion. Every martial grave from Boulogne to Moscow and the PyramIds lifted a mute interrogation to the indifferent stars. How long, O Lord,. and Why? Was this almost universal calamity the vengeance of a just God on the Age of Reason and unbelief? Was it a call to the penitent intellect to bend before the ancient virtues of faith, hope and charity? So Schlegel thought, and Novalis, and Chateaubriand, and De Musset, and Southey, and Wordsworth, and Gogol; and they turned back to the old faith like wasted prodigals happy to be home again. But some others made harsher answer: that the chaos of Europe but reflected the chaos of the universe; that there was no divine order after all, nor any heavenly hope; that God, if God there was, was blind, and Evil brooded over the face of the earth. So Byron, and Heine, and Lermontof, and Leopardi, and our philosopher. 

Seldom had the problem of evil been flung so vividly and insistently into the face of philosophy and religion. Some thought that there was no divine order after all, nor any heavenly hope; that God, if God there was, was blind, and Evil brooded over the face of the earth.

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