Durant 1926: Criticism (Schopenhauer)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VII Section 8 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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VIII. Criticism 

The natural response to such a philosophy is a medical diagnosis, of the age and of the man. 

Let us realize again that we have here a phenomenon akin to that which, in the days after Alexander and after Caesar, brought first to Greece and then to Rome a flood of Oriental faiths and attitudes. It is characteristic of the East to see the external Will in nature as so much more powerful than the will in man, and to come readily to a doctrine of resignation and despair. As the decay of Greece brought the pallor of Stoicism and the hectic flush of Epicureanism upon the cheeks of Hellas, so the chaos of the Napoleonic wars brought into the soul of Europe that plaintive weariness which made Schopenhauer its philosophic voice. Europe had a terrible headache in 1815.*

*Compare the apathy and despondency of Europe today (1924), and the popularity of such books as Spengler’s Downfall of the Western World. 

It is characteristic of the East to see the external Will in nature as so much more powerful than the will in man, and to come readily to a doctrine of resignation and despair. The chaos of the Napoleonic wars brought into the soul of Europe that plaintive weariness which made Schopenhauer its philosophic voice. 

The personal diagnosis can take its lead from Schopenhauer’s admission that a man’s happiness depends on what he is, rather than on external circumstance. Pessimism is an indictment of the 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. One must have leisure to be a pessimist; an active life almost always brings good spirits in body and in mind. Schopenhauer admires the serenity that comes of modest aims and a steady life, but he could hardly speak of these from personal experience. Difficilis in otio quies [tranquility is difficult if one has leisure], truly; he had money enough for continuous leisure, and he found continuous leisure to be more intolerable than continuous work. Perhaps the tendency of philosophers toward melancholy is due to the unnaturalness of sedentary occupations; too often an attack upon life is merely a symptom of the lost art of excretion. 

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.

Nirvana is the ideal of a listless man, a Childe Harold or a Rene, who has begun by desiring too much, by staking all on one passion, and then, having lost, spends the remainder of his life in a passionless and petulant boredom. If intellect arises as the servant of will, it is quite likely that the particular product of the intellect which we know as the philosophy of Schopenhauer was the cover and apology of a diseased and indolent will. And no doubt his early experiences with women and with men developed an abnormal suspiciousness and sensitivity, as it did in Stendhal and Flaubert and Nietzsche. He became cynical and solitary. He writes: “A friend in need is not a friend indeed; he is merely a borrower”; and, “Do not tell a friend anything that you would conceal from an enemy.” He advises a quiet, monotonous, hermit life; he fears society, and has no sense of the values or joys of human association. But happiness dies when it is not shared. 

Nirvana is the ideal of a listless man, who has begun by desiring too much, by staking all on one passion, and then, having lost, spends the remainder of his life in a passionless and petulant boredom. This was Schopenhauer, whose early experiences with women and with men developed an abnormal suspiciousness and sensitivity.

There is, of course, a large element of egotism in pessimism: the world is not good enough for us, and we turn up our philosophic noses to it. But this is to forget Spinoza’s lesson, that our terms of moral censure and approbation are; merely human judgments, mostly irrelevant when applied to the cosmos as a whole. Perhaps our supercilious disgust with existence is a cover for a secret disgust with ourselves: we have botched and bungled our lives, and we cast the blame upon the “environment,” or the “world,” which have no tongues to utter a defense. The mature man accepts the natural limitations of life; he does not expect Providence to be prejudiced in his favor; he does not ask for loaded dice with which to play the game of life. He knows, with Carlyle, that there is no sense in vilifying the sun because it will not light our cigars. And perhaps, if we are clever enough to help it, the sun will do even that; and this vast neutral cosmos may turn out to be a pleasant place enough if we bring a little sunshine of our own to help it out. In truth the world is neither with us nor against us; it is but raw material in our hands, and can be heaven or hell according to what we are. 

There is, of course, a large element of egotism in pessimism: the world is not good enough for us, and we turn up our philosophic noses to it. In truth the world is neither with us nor against us; it is but raw material in our hands, and can be heaven or hell according to what we are. 

Part of the cause of pessimism, in Schopenhauer and his contemporaries, lay in their romantic attitudes and expectations. Youth expects too much of the world; pessimism is the morning after optimism, just as 1815 had to pay for 1789. The romantic exaltation and liberation of feeling, instinct and will, and the romantic contempt for intellect, restraint, and order, brought their natural penalties; for “the world,” as Horace Walpole said, “is a comedy for those who think, but a tragedy for those who feel.” “Perhaps no movement has been so prolific of melancholy as emotional romanticism. … When the romanticist discovers that his ideal of happiness works out into actual unhappiness, he does not blame his ideal. He simply assumes that the world is unworthy of a being so exquisitely organized as himself. How could a capricious universe ever satisfy a capricious soul?

Part of the cause of pessimism, in Schopenhauer and his contemporaries, lay in their romantic attitudes and expectations. The romantic exaltation and liberation of feeling, instinct and will, and the romantic contempt for intellect, restraint, and order, brought their natural penalties.

The spectacle of Napoleon’s rise to empire. Rousseau’s denunciation—and Kant’s critique—of the intellect, and his own passionate temperament and experiences, conspired to suggest to Schopenhauer the primacy and ultimacy of the will. Perhaps, too, Waterloo and St. Helena helped to develop a pessimism born, no doubt, of bitter personal contact with the stings and penalties of life. Here was the most dynamic individual will in all history, imperiously commanding continents; and yet its doom was as certain and ignominious as that of the insect to which the day of its birth brings in-enviable death. It never occurred to Schopenhauer that it was better to have fought and lost than never to have fought at all; he did not feel, like the more masculine and vigorous Hegel, the glory and desirability of strife; he longed for peace, and lived in the midst of war. Everywhere he saw strife; he could not see, behind the strife, the friendly aid of neighbors; the rollicking joy of children and young men, the dances of vivacious girls, the willing sacrifices of parents and lovers, the patient bounty of the soil, and the renaissance of spring.

It never occurred to Schopenhauer that, for Napoleon, it was better to have fought and lost than never to have fought at all. Everywhere he saw strife; he could not see, behind the strife, the friendly aid of neighbors; the rollicking joy of children and young men, and the dances of vivacious girls.

And what if desire, fulfilled, leads only to another desire? Perhaps it is better that we should never be content. Happiness, says an old lesson, lies rather in achievement than in possession or satiation. The healthy man asks not so much for happiness as for an opportunity to exercise his capacities; and if he must pay the penalty of pain for this freedom and this power he makes the forfeit cheerfully; it is not too great a price. We need resistance to raise us, as it raises the airplane or the bird; we need obstacles against which to sharpen our strength and stimulate our growth. Life without tragedy would be unworthy of a man.*

*Schopenhauer himself: “To have no regular work, no set sphere of activity,—what a miserable thing it is! … Effort, struggles with difficulties! that is as natural to a man as grubbing in the ground is to a mole. To have all his wants satisfied is something intolerable—the feeling of stagnation which comes from pleasures that last too long. To overcome difficulties is to experience the full delight of existence.” One would like to know more of what the maturer Schopenhauer thought of the brilliant philosophy of his youth. 

Life without tragedy would be unworthy of a man. We need resistance to raise us, as it raises the airplane or the bird; we need obstacles against which to sharpen our strength and stimulate our growth.


Is it true that “he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow,” and that it is the most highly organized beings that suffer most? Yes; but it is also true that the growth of knowledge increases joy as well as sorrow, and that the subtlest delights, as well as the keenest pains, are reserved for the developed soul. Voltaire rightly preferred the Brahmin’s ”unhappy” wisdom to the blissful ignorance of the peasant woman; we wish to experience life keenly and deeply, even at the cost of pain; we wish to venture into its innermost secrets, even at the cost of disillusionment.* Virgil, who had tasted every pleasure, and knew the luxuries of imperial favor, at last “tired of everything except the joys of understanding.” When the senses cease to satisfy, it is something to have won access, however arduously, to comradeship with those artists, poets and philosophers whom only the mature mind can comprehend. Wisdom is a bitter-sweet delight, deepened by the very discords that enter into its harmony. 

*Anatole France (Voltaire’s last avatar) has dedicated one of his masterpieces—The Human Tragedy—to the task of showing that though “the joy of understanding is a sad joy,” yet “those who have once tasted it would not exchange it for all the frivolous gaieties and empty hopes of the vulgar herd.” 

We wish to experience life keenly and deeply, even at the cost of pain; we wish to venture into its innermost secrets, even at the cost of disillusionment. Wisdom is a bitter-sweet delight, deepened by the very discords that enter into its harmony. 

Is pleasure negative? Only a sorely wounded soul, drawing itself in from contact with the world, could have uttered so fundamental a blasphemy against life. What is pleasure but the harmonious operation of our instincts?—and how can pleasure be negative except where the instinct at work makes for retreat rather than for approach? The pleasures of escape and rest, of submission and security, of solitude and quiet are no doubt negative, because the instincts that impel us to them are essentially negative—forms of flight and fear; but shall we say the same of the pleasures that come when positive instincts are in command—instincts of acquisition and possession, of pugnacity and mastery, of action and play, of association and love? Is the joy of laughter negative, or the romping of the child, or the song of the mating bird, or the crow of Chanticleer, or the creative ecstasy of art? Life itself is a positive force, and every normal function of it holds some delight. 

Is pleasure negative? Only a sorely wounded soul, drawing itself in from contact with the world, could have uttered so fundamental a blasphemy against life. Life itself is a positive force, and every normal function of it holds some delight. 

It remains true, no doubt, that death is terrible. Much of its terror disappears if one has lived a normal life; one must have lived well in order to die well. And would deathlessness delight us? Who envies the fate of Ahasuerus, to whom immortal life was sent as the heaviest punishment that could be inflicted upon man? And why is death terrible if not because life is sweet? We need not say with Napoleon that all who fear death are atheists at heart; but we may surely say that a man who lives to three-score years and ten has survived his pessimism. No man, said Goethe, is a pessimist after thirty. And hardly before twenty; pessimism is a luxury of self-conscious and self-important youth; youth that comes out of the warm: bosom of the communistic family into the cold atmosphere of individualistic competition and greed, and then yearns back to its mother’s breast; youth that hurls itself madly against the windmills and evils of the world, and sadly sheds utopias and ideals with every year. But before twenty is the joy of the body, and after thirty is the joy of the mind; before twenty is the pleasure of protection and security; and after thirty, the joy of parentage and home.

It remains true, no doubt, that death is terrible. Much of its terror disappears if one has lived a normal life; one must have lived well in order to die well.

How should a man avoid pessimism who has lived almost all his life in a boarding-house? And who abandoned his only child to illegitimate, anonymity? At the bottom of Schopenhauer’s unhappiness was his rejection of the normal life,—his rejection of women and marriage and children. He finds in parentage the greatest of evils, where a healthy man finds in it the greatest of life’s satisfactions. He thinks that the stealthiness of love is due to shame in continuing the race—could anything be more pedantically absurd? Hesees in love only the sacrifice of the individual to the race, and ignores the delights with which the instinct repays the sacrifice,—delights so great that they have inspired most of the poetry of the world.* He knows woman only as shrew and as sinner, and he imagines that there are no other types. He thinks that the man who undertakes to support a wife is a fool; but apparently such men are not much more unhappy than our passionate apostle of single infelicity; and (as Balzac said) it costs as much to support a vice as it does to support a family. He scorns the beauty of woman,—as if there were any forms of beauty that we could spare, and that we should not cherish as the color and fragrance of life. What hatred of women one mishap had generated in this unfortunate soul! 

*Again, Schopenhauer himself: “It is just this not seeking of one’s own things (which is everywhere the stamp of greatness) that gives to passionate love the touch of sublimity.”

At the bottom of Schopenhauer’s unhappiness was his rejection of the normal life,—his rejection of women and marriage and children. He knows woman only as shrew and as sinner, and he imagines that there are no other types.

There are other difficulties, more technical and less vital, in this remarkable and, stimulating philosophy. How can suicide ever occur in a world where the only real force is the will to live? How can the intellect, begotten and brought up as servant of the will, ever achieve independence and objectivity? Does genius lie in knowledge divorced from will, or does it contain, as its driving force, an immense power of will, even a large alloy of personal ambition and conceit? Is madness connected with genius in general, or rather with only the “romantic” type of genius (Byron, Shelley, Poe, Heine, ,Swinburne, Strindberg, Dostoievski, etc.) ; and is not the “classic” and profounder type of genius exceptionally sound (Socrates, Plato, Spinoza, Bacon, Newton, Voltaire, Goethe, Darwin, Whitman, etc.)? What if the proper function of intellect and philosophy is not the denial of the will but the coordination of desires into a united and harmonious will? What if “will” itself, except as the unified product of such coordination, is a mythical abstraction, as shadowy as “force”?

Schopenhauer is looking at only the reactive aspect of will, the will that is corrupted. Uncorrupted will is analytical and positive that is enjoying life to its utmost.

Nevertheless there is about this philosophy a blunt honesty by the side of which most optimistic creeds appear as soporific hypocrisies. It is all very well to say, with Spinoza, that good and bad are subjective terms, human prejudices; and yet we are compelled to judge this world not from any “impartial” view, but from the standpoint of actual human sufferings and needs. It was well that Schopenhauer should force philosophy to face the raw reality of evil, and should point the nose of thought to the human tasks of alleviation. It has been harder, since his day, for philosophy to live in the unreal atmosphere of a logic-chopping metaphysics; thinkers begin to realize that thought without action is a disease. 

But philosophy cannot ignore the human sufferings and needs, and it must face the evil that corrupts the human will. Schopenhauer’s contribution is to force philosophy to face this evil.

After all, Schopenhauer opened the eyes of psychologists to the subtle depth and omnipresent force of instinct. Intellectualism—the conception of man as above all a thinking animal, consciously adapting means to rationally chosen ends—fell sick with Rousseau, took to its bed with Kant, and died with Schopenhauer. After two centuries of introspective analysis philosophy found, behind thought, desire;· and behind the intellect; instinct;—just as, after a century of materialism, physics finds, behind matter, energy. We owe it to Schopenhauer that he revealed our secret hearts to us, showed us that our desires are the axioms of our philosophies, and cleared the way to an understanding of thought as no mere abstract calculation of impersonal events, but as a flexible instrument of action and desire. 

Neither intellect is subject to will nor will is subject to intellect. A corruption of one leads to the corruption of the other. There is nothing wrong with having desires. But the evil that corrupts human will, intellect and desire needs to be discovered and handled. 

Finally, and despite exaggerations, Schopenhauer taught us again the necessity of genius, and the value of art. He saw that the ultimate good is beauty, and that the ultimate joy lies in the creation or cherishing of the beautiful. He joined with Goethe and Carlyle in protest against the attempt of Hegel and Marx and Buckle to eliminate genius as a fundamental factor in human history; in an age when all the great seemed dead he preached once more the ennobling worship of heroes. And with all his faults he succeeded in adding another name to theirs.

Schopenhauer did make a major and fundamental contribution to philosophy, in spite of his eccentricities. The East should not outright condemn desire, but find and handle the source that corrupts desire.

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