Monday, July 28, 2008

On reading Schopenhauer in Berlin

I have spent much of this year trying to understand why natural selection shaped a capacity for low mood. The evolutionary perspective is new, but the core idea is ancient—despair comes from unsatisfied desires. Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was preoccupied with the connection between desires and despair. Like many aging philosophers, he wrote a late essay giving advice on how to live: The Wisdom of Life (1851, translation by T. Bailey Saunders, Echo Library, 2006). The essay has much to say about the goals humans pursue. 

Schopenhauer begins by citing Aristotle’s three blessings (from the body, the soul and from without) and proceeds by saying he will “keep nothing from the distinction but the number.” Instead his lists three remarkably modern categories:
  1. What a man is: health, personality, beauty and intelligence
  2. What a man has: property and possessions
  3. How a man stands in the estimation of others
His categories 1, 2, and 6 are the standard categories 1, 2 and 6, from behavioral ecology:

Somatic 1. Personal 2. Material
3. Mates 4. Offspring and kin
5. Allies 6. Status
Schopenhauer leaves out partners, children, and friends (3, 4 and 5). This is, I suspect, why he was so unhappy. Modern research finds that those who pursue money and status are less happy than those who invest in friends and family (see work by Jennifer Crocker on “contingencies of self-esteem”). As an evolutionist I think the main question is not whether some goals are better than others, but the data is nonetheless important.
Schopenhauer’s recommendations are an expanded commentary on a chapter title from Epictetus: “The happiness we receive from ourselves is greater than that which we obtain from our surroundings.” However, his larger framework is a thoroughly modern version of cognitive therapy: “Everything confirms the fact that the subjective element in life is incomparably more important for out happiness and pleasure than the objective.” He devotes a chapter to each of his three resources for life.
The chapter on Personal resources begins with the importance of health, and the eternal and valid advice—exercise. He then jumps to what he describes as the inevitable trade-off between pain and boredom. He panders shamelessly to academics. Or is he writing to assuage his own despair? The rich, he says, are bored, because external amusements can never satisfy. They are inferior, so intellectually dull they can never savor the deeper and more enduring pleasures of the mind. He also has contempt for extraverts: “As a rule, it will be found that a man is sociable just in the degree in which his is intellectually poor and generally vulgar.” The chapter goes on to disparage “ordinary men” further, especially the value they place on external things.
Only the genius, he says, can be truly happy. “The man of inner wealth wants nothing from outside but the negative gift of undisturbed leisure, to develop and mature his intellectual faculties, that is, to enjoy his wealth; in short, he wants permission to be himself, his whole life long, every day and every hour.” In support, he cites Socrates, Aristotle, and Goethe.
The next chapter, on Property, is only five pages. It emphasizes the trap of the majority, working to get their bread, and the trap of the rich, striving to have more than others. “For what everyone most aims at in ordinary contact with his fellows is to prove them inferior to himself.” (p28)
The final chapter, on Position, goes on for 37 pages, making careful distinctions among Reputation, Pride, Rank, Honor and Fame. Once again, Schopenhauer provides salve for the damaged self-esteem. “In all we do, almost he first thing we think about it, what will people say; and nearly half the troubles and bothers of life may be traced to our anxiety on this score.” (p32) His solution? “A retired form of life has an exceedingly beneficial influence on our peace of mind, and this is mainly because we thus escape having to life constantly in the sight of others, and pay everlasting regard to their casual opinions; in a word, we are able to return upon ourselves.” (p34) Predictably, he continues on to belittle worldly honors and social rank, and the tradition of settling matters of honor with a duel.
Towards the end, he tells us that true greatness can be identified because it is unappreciated in its time. Excellence, he says, is opposed strenuously by the “common lot” of mediocrity. (p61) Fame he values, but he quickly tries to convince us that contemporary fame is but “trumpeted forth by a clique of admiring undergraduates—the resounding echo of empty heads.” (p62) What counts is enduring fame, and that comes most often, he says, to those unappreciated in their time. “It is easy to see why contemporary fame so seldom develops into posthumous fame” (p65). “”The truest fame, the fame that comes after death, is never heard of by its recipient; and yet he is called a happy man.”
Some of these opinions echo an event in Schopenhauer’s life 30 years before. In 1820, shortly after the publication of his masterpiece, The World as Will and Idea, Schopenhauer challenged the dominant, already famous, and highly popular Hegel to a duel by student popularity. He scheduled his lectures at the University of Berlin at exactly the same time as Hegel's. Only five students came. Schopenhauer dropped out of academia, and never taught at a university again. He did, however, keep writing. Over 150 years later, many continue to read what he wrote.
Yesterday, I saw a plaque on a house in Berlin at Kupfergraben 5, near Museumsinsel, placed to honor Hegel by Berlin (now Humboldt) University. A quick Google search finds Hegel listed in the history of the University. But there is no plaque to remember Schopenhauer, and no mention of him on the University website.
Schopenhauer’s brilliant musings are an extraordinarily sophisticated set of intellectualized defenses that salved and salvaged the ego of a brilliant narcissist, eclipsed in his time by more popular figures. The defenses are as useful today as they were then to give hope and succor not only to unappreciated philosophers, but to anyone who feels unappreciated for pursuing a life of the mind. However, the obvious psychological functions of Schopenhauer’s writings should not undermine their truth and wisdom. His core point could have come from Ecclesiastes; all human endeavors are vanities. But Schopenhauer makes one exception, efforts to find out what is true.
This does not take us far towards understanding the evolutionary origins of depression, but it is a valiant and interesting attempt to understand the exigencies of human efforts in pursuit of universal goals.

1 comment:

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