Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), the grouch of Danzig, never minced words.
As a self-respecting philosopher, his allegiance was to truth. This is characteristic of genuine freethinkers throughout history, regardless of any unpleasant fruits that truth may bear. Intellectual integrity, however, is not hip enough for postmodern intellectuals to embrace in the first decades of the twenty-first century. The poignant heuristic truths that we encounter in Schopenhauer’s thought make us nervous.
Postmodern philosophy is the antithesis of philosophy. While genuine philosophical reflection seeks first principles and truth, understanding and knowledge, postmodern philosophy’s raison d’être is the destruction of thought itself. The virulent dogma of postmodern philosophy is anchored in radical skepticism and ideology, relativism, and the ridicule of reason. This means that postmodern thought is incapable of progressing from sensation and perception—the “skin” of reality, as Schopenhauer refers to it.
Schopenhauer’s grasp of enduring truth makes us uncomfortable, for much like children reacting to the presence of a discerning adult, even the idea of truth is too much for postmodern intellectuals to bear. There are several reasons for this. Suffice it to say that ours is not a metaphysical-existential age. On the contrary, we live in a positivist age that perpetuates the heinous crime of forcing all aspects of human existence to conform to sociopolitical categories. The latter consideration alone is a strong sign that ours is an insipid and unhealthy age. If Ortega y Gasset is correct in The Revolt of the Masses, where he asserts that man is demoralized, then it is useful to ask how this condition has come to pass, and where it will lead Western civilization.
Schopenhauer’sthought affords us a profound understanding of our postmodern predicament, for the German thinker devotes many pages to exposing intellectual hypocrisy and affectation. What are the consequences of postmodernity’s mania for ethics? We talk incessantly about ethics, as if we were the first historical period to think of such a thing. Sentient observers of this modish trend recognize that postmodernity embraces the efficacy of appearances over sincere regard for truth. Our infatuation with ethics is self-defeating, though, for the term has been inflated to mean almost anything.
We talk ad nauseam of professional, business, biomedical, and environmental ethics. Ethics qua ethics should not constitute a problem for us. The trouble begins when ethics is no longer an end in itself but rather a means to advance sociopolitical aims. Postmodernity’s alleged ethics, as applied to this-and-that popular cause, in effect incurs a pseudo-religious/scientific engagement with reality.
Diligent observers of the contemporary intellectual scene have little difficulty understanding how our assault on cosmic reality—by way of an all-encompassing ethics of everything—is merely meant for public consumption. Postmodern ethics is the illicit child of the argumentum ad populum rejection of gravitas—the destruction of what Unamuno calls a “sense for life.” In effect, we have successfully transformed ethics into a cottage industry.
Postmodernity’s hackneyed ethics is not informed by religious content, the nature and purpose of morality, the axiology of values, or man’s capacity to reflect on transcendence and the sublime. Instead, ethics has been gutted and defaced by its politicization. This is evidenced in our disregard for prudence, moderation, and conscience. Postmodernity’s rendition of ethics is curiously and conveniently geared to the demands of our hedonistic age.
The kind of ethics postmodernists uphold is in keeping with a positivistic, hedonistic worldview. A better way of saying this is that we have the customized ethical problems we deserve. Carpenters get splinters, athletes sore muscles, swimmers get wet, and our age has the ethical problems that go hand in hand with a positivistic conception of man in the cosmos. In other words, our contradictory, self-defeating notion of ethics creates its own roving, cafeteria-style ethical standards. The causes of our moral problems today are thus indistinguishable from pedestrian postmodern ethics.
Mankind finds itself in an unprecedented dilemma, one that has delivered us into moral bankruptcy. For Schopenhauer, ethics cannot exist outside the realm of sincerely felt virtue—“the road to salvation,” he calls it. Ethics is only possible when man confronts the blind will, which torments human passion. It is pretentious to promote abstract codes of ethics that have little grounding in the nature and limitations of real-time human beings.
What is the status quo of ethics and its alleged contribution to knowledge of human morality and behavior? On one hand, we encounter the game-playing theories of analytic philosophers. How one intends to speak about real people by repeatedly referring to them as “agents,” and encapsulating people in totally arbitrary hypothetical circumstances, has always puzzled me.
On the other hand, we find radical ideologues who insist in passing themselves off as professional ethicists and world-class moralists. This camp includes radical skeptics, deconstructionists, nihilists, dishonest cynics, and hip gurus of what used to be called situational ethics—another term for relativism. These people are no more effective in reflecting on human morality than the pedantic analytics. Yet they are vastly more vociferous. Imagine Marxists, and their slew of postmodern hybrid-clones, lecturing self-governing people on the virtues of democracy, personal responsibility, and obligation. Radical ethicists are usually as morally bankrupt as clowns are raucous in a circus act.
Schopenhauer on Conscience
Schopenhauer’s essays The Wisdom of Life and Counsels and Maxims cast the gloom of the German thinker’s other works on metaphysics, The World as Will and Representation and On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, in a surprising spirited light. These works are timeless philosophical gems on morals. Of course, Schopenhauer’s moral philosophy is dependent on his metaphysics of the will and the world, the noumenal and phenomenal. The great virtue of these prescriptive works on morality is their prescience as a storehouse of natural psychology. Schopenhauer’s perspicuity on matters of life and death, his knowledge of man’s inner, three-dimensional constitution, and his understanding of the effects of objectification on man and morality, put the pop psychology and ethics industry to shame.
These two acute treatises on morality, much like Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and Balthasar Grecian’s Art of Worldly Wisdom, brilliantly elucidate man’s nature. Schopenhauer’s depiction of man—the man in the cafes, on the street corner, the one we encounter at the workplace—is as complete and inexhaustible as one any modish psycho-babble can ever pretend to uncover.
The biting truths that Schopenhauer reminds us of about man’s nature—truths that can be traced back to man’s earliest history in struggling with human reality—are a testament to the centrality of wisdom in human thought. Contemporary ethics, as this is practiced by postmodern academics, rarely escapes the temptation to encapsulate morality in a cage of relativistic categories. Some reasons for this include the destruction of objective standards of reason, our refusal to respect the uncompromising contingencies of objective reality, and the collapse of axiology as a guide for living. Western culture has effectively destroyed man’s capacity to recognize the importance of thinking without falling prey to portentous sociopolitical categories. No longer can we tell the difference between truth and appearance.
It is the lazy custom of many academics today to present morality as arbitrary movable standards that are the result of historicity. Ethics, students are taught, is generated from our social environment. That is, social and political conditions determine what we believe is right and wrong, true or false, good or bad. Apparently, morality is just a matter of belief. How is this any different from religious belief? Ethics, we are informed, is a matter of belief that merely mirrors the differences of warring camps, in the postmodern all-is-political worldview. Ethics, Schopenhauer contends, is the outward manifestation of conscience, whose essence it is to counter man’s objectification by the objective world.
History demonstrates that it is differentiated people who are responsible for the creation of society. Man has experimented with many types of societies throughout human history. In every case, there always surfaces the same pesky problem: man. What we encounter in history, and even in prehistory as witnessed in settlements like Ҫatalhöyük, and which postmodernity ignores, is the fundamental moral constitution of differentiated human beings.
Ethics finds itself at a crossroads today. Man’s social-moral-political “evolution” might not be as infinite in make-up as postmodern intellectuals would have us believe. This entails having to curb our zest for moral experimentation, if Homo sapiens is to survive. The destruction of the moral principles that have enabled man to flourish dating back to prehistory is not a sign of progress. Schopenhauer marvels that there should be goodness at all in a sea of blind, evil will.
Perhaps postmodern humanity will soon arrive at the realization that mankind’s constructive moral principles are no more than a handful. Then we must ask the timely question: “What is next for man?” This is what William Butler Yeats has in mind in his seminal poem, “The Second Coming”:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The center has indeed vanished from man’s repertoire of sincere thought and genuine sentiment. What is left is the violence of a displaced reality. The realization of the former has led to paralyzing resentment; the need to cover up our self-loathing, to affectation. In the twentieth century, Western man embarked on a self-destructive path to annihilate objective values and standards. This has corroded the core of Western institutions.
Lacking a moral center to inspire and guide us, humanity wavers and vacillates in its zest to embrace contradictions. Without a lived-sense of conscience, man is left with a hollow conception of ethics. The elastic ethics that postmodern academics promote is reduced to the strong-arm of positive law; to state rule. This is the death knell of Western civilization. The ominous stench of this fashionable, movable legal-ethics is the precursor of anarchy, to be followed by not-so-chic totalitarianism.
Conscience and the Future of Man
Schopenhauer begins The Wisdom of Life by citing the differences between subject and object as described by Metrodorus, a disciple of Epicurus: “The happiness we receive from ourselves is greater than that which we obtain from our surroundings.” The important point that Schopenhauer makes in this passage is his insistence that given the differences between the dual poles of man’s existence—the objective world, or what are external events, and man’s subjective nature—all things human eventually boil down to the realization “That the principal element in a man’s well-being—indeed, in the whole tenor of his existence—is what he is made of, his inner constitution.”
Where, then, should ethics begin than by paying heed to man’s inner life? Schopenhauer’s thought addresses the importance of prudence and moderation in human existence. He views subjective, inner life as being in our control, especially through the creative act of aesthetic contemplation, the nemesis of blind will. Objective life, on the other hand, signals having-to-do, as Ortega y Gasset refers to our dealings with the world. The objective life—the world-at-large—Schopenhauer tells us, is essentially in the hands of fate.
The tragedy of postmodern moral theory is its naive insistence that man’s nature is determined by sociopolitical forces. Consider what Schopenhauer says about the force of personality and consciousness: “Further, the constitution of our consciousness is the ever present and lasting element in all we do or suffer; our individuality is persistently at work, more or less, at every moment of our life: all other influences are temporal, incidental, fleeting, and subject to every kind of chance and change. This is why Aristotle says: It is not wealth but character that lasts. And just for the same reason we can more easily bear a misfortune which comes to us entirely from without, than one which we have drawn upon ourselves; for fortune may always change, but not character.”
Consciousness meets with resistance in everything it intends. For this reason, I will suggest that a sincere, lived-conscience is the proper mechanism to resolve contradictions in the realm of personal existence. On the other hand, conscience should remain modest in its expectations regarding the clash between subjective existence and objective reality. Ironically, given the exacting demands of self-governance, Schopenhauer contends that a minimalist state is necessary to protect noble man from mob rule.
Counsels and Maxims is an examination of the resistance that man encounters in the world: “In both these cases what has met with resistance is the will; in the one case, as it is objectified in the organism, in the other, as it presents itself in the struggle for life; and in both, it is plain that the satisfaction of the will consists in nothing else than it meets with no resistance.”
The significance of this passage is that conscience and morality are intertwined in fundamental ways, which postmodernity vehemently attempts to deconstruct. Quite often, the postmodern elites who proclaim that man should be ethical, are the same boisterous forces promoting contradictory notions of moral emancipation. This hodge-podge of moral contradictions is what results when conscience is excised from postmodern ethics.
Schopenhauer contends that passion must be kept in check by the self-restraint of conscience: “It is, therefore, a satisfaction which is not directly felt; at most, we can become conscious of it only when we reflect upon our condition. But that which checks or arrests the will is something positive: it proclaims its own presence. All pleasure consists in merely removing this check—in other words, in freeing us from its action; and hence pleasure is a state which can never last very long.”
The German philosophical idealist suggests that happiness is only attained through reflection on the limitations and resistance imposed on us by the objective world. This idea makes little inroads in our conception of morality today. How uncool must Schopenhauer’s thought appear to postmodern hipsters? How can people who believe that life owes them something; people who promote the welfare state and sociopolitical organizations that are founded on entitlement, accept Schopenhauer’s idea of renunciation? Schopenhauer’s moral philosophy is anathema to postmodernity.
Postmodernity’s notion of happiness—of the pleasure principle—runs contrary to Schopenhauer’s, for we are heirs to that great crime of the latter half of the twentieth century: existential emancipation from what is viewed as the burden of free will. This self-professed liberation has razed our capacity to cultivate moral fortitude.
Postmodern man’s manifesto of relativism is founded on egotistic platitudes. Proponents of radical moral emancipation are held captive by an all-consuming and asphyxiating radical skepticism.
The embrace of popular platitudes has turned us into gutted entities that lack an inner dimension. Our gravest illusion—one which has become pathological—is the belief that man can be self-less, soul-less and center-less while simultaneously remaining ethical in our conduct. This has profoundly diminished the integrity of Western institutions.
Schopenhauer’s thought may not be making a splash on postmodern moral-cultural elites, yet the truths that he calls out will not go away. When conscience, whether this is understood as divine or rational in origin, no longer plays a decisive role in our conception of ethics, then we can say with certainty that we are a demoralized people.
The most notable problem with postmodern moral theories is that they over-intellectualize moral principles. This is paradoxical, somewhat akin to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. When we observe people engaged in everyday activities, we notice that for most, moral decisions are reached reflexively, that is, from rational and moral conviction. In turn, when we engage in ethical “debates” the core principles of morality become unnecessarily muddled and relativized to fit a predetermined sociopolitical agenda. This is the point of postmodernism to start with.
Because the center has been removed from human existence, we can no longer settle problems with permanent answers. Yeats’s poem is correct; those who should know better—the postmodern moralists who preach ethics as a secular religion—vacillate pointlessly, like a hapless hamster in a wheel.
As a final remark, consider the Polish philosopher and writer Czesław Miłosz, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature. Miłosz argues that we should strive to keep conscience and conviction visible in language. He references this to the collapse of communism in Europe. Czesław Miłosz writes: “What is surprising in the present moment are those beautiful and deeply moving words spoken in Prague and Warsaw, words which pertain to the old repertoire of honesty or the dignity of the person. I wonder at this phenomenon because underneath there is an abyss. After all, those ideas have their foundation in religion. And I am not over-optimistic about the survival of religion in a scientific-technological civilization. How long can such notions stay afloat if the bottom is taken out?”
Pedro Blas González is a professor of philosophy at Barry University.
González reminds us of the uncomfortable lessons that the grouch of Danzig could teach our age.