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Schopenhauer explains it all
This dude gets it
Essays and Aphorisms
by Arthur Schopenhauer
Selected and translated by R. J. Hollingdale
Penguin Books 1970
In our early youth we sit before the life that lies ahead of us like children sitting before the curtain in a theatre, in happy and tense anticipation of whatever is going to appear. Luckily we do know what really will appear.
I am glad I did not read Arthur Schopenhauer in high school. I would’ve loved him.
Surprisingly, he fits right in with my teenage obsession—Soren Kierkegaard. Reading Kierkegaard as a teenager was a mistake. Probably an unavoidable one.
Kierkegaard fed into all my adolescent fervor. It was hard to tell the difference between the two at the time. I wanted to achieve something great with my life, to escape my self-consciousness, to live heroically. I was a 15-year-old boy.
Schopenhauer also reminds me a lot of another Christian philosopher—Blaise Pascal. Both Pascal and Schopenhauer fully absorbed the scientific understanding of their age and walked away shaken. For Pascal, it was the infinity of the microscope and the telescope that filled him with dread. For Schopenhauer, it was the inner drive of life, the life force or will—selfish, greedy, desirous—that was both repulsive and inescapable. I would’ve totally understood that feeling.
Schopenhauer, Pascal, and Kierkegaard all take aim at the comfortable religious rationalism that was common at their time. They all believed that the secular modern take was incompatible with Christianity. Like the philosopher John Gray in his book Straw Dogs, they were trying to shake their readers awake. They abhorred the “cultural Christians” of their times.
Christianity was everything or nothing. You had to pick a side. Either/Or. A leap of faith. A coin spinning at the far end of the universe. How will you wager?
Notably, both the Christian Pascal and atheist Schopenhauer see the heart of Christianity through Augustine. Pascal was a Jansenist—a sect heavily influenced by Augustine’s writings. Pascal writes:
If St. Augustine were to appear to today and enjoy as little authority as his modern defenders he would not accomplish anything. God has ruled his Church well by sending him earlier, and endowed with authority.
Schopenhauer says, “Augustinianism is actual Christianity.”
From Augustine we get the motto, credo ut intelligam. I believe in order to understand. Faith first, then reason. This fideism thread in Christianity runs through Kierkegaard’s Christian existentialism down to our present day in Christian evangelicalism. In the evangelical mind, the Christian worldview—which provides a position on every philosophical, moral, and social issue—flows forth from belief. Believe first, then use reason to figure out what the implications of your beliefs are.
Although Schopenhauer abandons Christianity, he still retains this sharp edge, which no doubt influenced modern non-religious existentialist movements.
The true soul of the New Testament is undoubtedly the spirit of asceticism.
Jesus made many commands in the New Testament, as preparation for the end of the world. He preached self-denial and surrender of the will. A preparation to receive the coming kingdom. Asceticism did not free you from this world or free you from suffering—that was yet to come. It was a holding pattern, a way of persisting in life, keeping time, as you await your final destination. This came in God’s time, not of your own doing.
Christianity carries in its innermost heart the truth that suffering (the Cross) is the true aim of life; that is why it repudiates suicide, which is opposed to this aim, while antiquity from a lower viewpoint approved of and indeed honoured it.
Schopenhauer did not believe in God. But he believed we are quite guilty, and that our suffering and death are punishments for our sin, which flows from our very life. And the only way to make peace with this state of affairs is to deny our will (our life force). We can renounce our wills, our individual selves. It is not a salvation of bliss but of detachment. It doesn’t get us anywhere but the sidelines of life, for a brief moment, contemplating our existence, until we reach the end of it.
Although he abandons Christianity, he seems to cut to the core of the Christian experience: Life as a long stretch of cycling between austerity and failure, wandering away and returning, indulging and purging, with no option to escape this cycle—and not to achieve something great, but to pass the time until the real transformation occurs instantaneously and effortlessly.
If you’re not going to hell, then this life is the worst it gets, and there’s no way to escape it or speed it up. Once you hear the song “I Can Only Imagine” for the hundredth time, you start to wonder why we are all sticking around for this interminable interlude. But that is not the plan. The point is to stay put. Or, as Schopenhauer might put it, the suffering is the point.
The New Testament must be of Indian origin.
Schopenhauer makes an additional leap, which I think is interesting—he connects Augustine to Buddhist and Hindu thought.
In all three, our life is the consequence of our sins. To escape this cycle of sin and punishment, we need renunciation and purification. According to Schopenhauer, the concept of Purgatory was created to fill a gap in Christianity that Eastern religions explained through reincarnation.
This made me think of the remarkable parallels between Americanized post-1960s Hindu spirituality and Praise & Worship evangelicalism that emerged and blossomed around the same time.
The guru path of spirituality (epitomized by figures like Ram Dass) uses heartfelt devotion as the method of spiritual purification, primarily accomplished through long singing sessions where devotees sing repetitive songs that circle endlessly, in devotion to Hindu gods. A modern Praise & Worship concert is far similar to a Krishna Das event than a Latin mass, no?
And, notably, there is no equivalent interest in evangelical Christianity for the long tradition of Christian devotional spirituality. No St. John of the Cross or Bonaventure, etc. which, you would think, should be closer to evangelicalism than New Age spirituality.
So where did this modern late-20th Century praise and worship movement come from? Hinduism (popularized by the Beatles and others) is a likely culprit.
This might go a long way to explain the curious shape of American evangelicalism—the centrality of repetitive mantra-like worship, the backgrounding of eucharist, the emphasis on purity, especially mental/psychological purity, which was hardly the standard for most of Christian history (think Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Virtues)—and really only attempted by the most extreme ascetics, like the Desert Fathers of Egypt.