Schopenhauer and Judeo-Christian Life-Denial, part 1
by Thomas Dalton, Ph.D.
Vitam impendere vero (“Dedicate one’s life to truth.”)
— Juvenal, Satire IV, 91
EVERY MOVEMENT needs its icons, racial-nationalism no less than any other social-political ideology. Any icon — a term deriving from the Greek eikôn, meaning a likeness or image — serves to embody key elements or aspects of a particular outlook, or to encapsulate certain key values. Within Christianity, the image of a crucified Jesus serves this purpose, as does an empty cross, which signifies his alleged resurrection. Within racial-nationalism, we have our own secular heroes, often drawn from among the great philosophers and intellectual figures of Western history, among whom I would include Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; French thinkers like Rousseau, Diderot, and Voltaire; and leading German intellectuals like Kant, Goethe, and Nietzsche. All have contributed seminal and indispensable ideas to the Western project.
But special standing is reserved for Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), a man of exceptional insight and courage. At once a brilliant metaphysician and a visionary social critic, Schopenhauer combined both aspects of his persona in his two main works, The World as Will and Representation (1818) and Parerga and Paralipomena (1851). It is worthwhile examining his views on life and death, Christianity, and the Jews. There are valuable lessons here for us all.
Metaphysics of the Will
Let’s start with the big metaphysical picture. In its broad outline, Schopenhauer’s worldview consists of a universe of struggle, strife, and conflict — of tension and opposition which is only ever temporarily relieved, except to resume once more later on, in new and more potent forms. We see this clearly, he said, in the human realm, in the guise of war, oppression, and criminality. We see it in the mundane struggles of daily life, for money, friends, influence, power. We see it in countless minor actions and decisions that we all make, every day, aiming at something new, something better, something more. Every human action, even the most trivial, is a manifestation of a want, a desire, an urging, a striving — in short, of the will. As such, all social conflict reduces, ultimately, to a battle of wills.
But this situation is not limited to humans. We see a comparable picture in the animal kingdom, in the struggle for existence, for mates, for food, and for survival. We see it in plants, in their battle for sunlight and water, and for nutrients in the soil. And we see it even in inanimate nature, via such forces as gravitation, magnetism, and electrostatics. All the world, said Schopenhauer, is comprised, in its essence, of struggle, strife, frustration, and opposition; all the world is a manifestation of the will. The metaphysics here are fascinating and strikingly original, but I won’t elaborate for now. Here, we are most concerned with the social realm and the far-reaching implications of seeing “the world as will.”
For we humans, as mentioned, our daily life is a constant expression of our will. We want: want food, want drink, want material goods, want sex, want prestige, want power. Different people express their wills differently, but the essential nature of all people is the same: a constant striving or desiring for something. This has two important consequences. First, since we all are constantly striving — often for the same limited things — we are thereby engaged in an endless competition with others. As in any competition, there are (a few) winners and (many) losers. The losers become frustrated, disappointed, depressed, perhaps angry, perhaps aggressive. They either vow to try harder next time, or they give up altogether. Even the winners — and we all do win, from time to time — are not really satisfied. After a short-lived sense of relief or satisfaction, we immediately settle into a new sense of desiring and wanting. The sweetness of victory is fleeting. Soon we are either fending off jealous rivals, or we are constructing new, higher desires that we hope to fulfill. At best, we are simply bored.
Hence the second consequence: the basic reality of human life is a condition of unsatisfied want, endless craving, relentless competition, and unfulfilled desire — in other words, of suffering. Our lot in life is a constant striving for things that we can never really possess, least of all ‘happiness,’ and therefore the tangible reality of life is pain, suffering, and want. ‘Happiness’ or ‘satisfaction’ are merely temporary releases from such pain; therefore, happiness and pleasure are negative in their nature, and pain and suffering are the positive realities of the world.
Thus we arrive at Schopenhauer’s infamous pessimism. Life is a task, a chore, indeed, a punishment. We are all condemned to lives of greater or lesser suffering, sometimes physical, sometimes psychological, sometimes intense, sometimes mild — but ever-present and always looming greater in the future. The end of this life of suffering comes only with the ‘great suffering’ of physical death, which we all dread, and which therefore weighs upon our heads as yet more suffering. It would have been better, he concludes, if we had never been born.
What to do? Such a depressing picture almost inclines one to suicide. And yet Schopenhauer masterfully turns the picture around for us, finding a way through the morass of existence. First, he says, we are strangely fortunate that the world is as it is. Were it otherwise — if we somehow attained fulfillment and satisfaction on a regular basis, life would become truly pointless. We would either be driven insane by boredom, or would create artificial conflicts and struggles, wars and mass atrocities, simply to have a reason for being. Failing these, we might simply end our own lives — ironic, that the suicidal person is the one who has all his desires satisfied, not the one, like us, condemned to a life of struggle and pain. Suffering, said Schopenhauer, was like the ballast of a ship; it keeps us on the straight-and-narrow, keeps us focused, and drives us forward. Paradoxically, we ought to be grateful for our condition; if nothing else, it leads us to the ultimate metaphysical truths about the world.
Be that as it may, we still need to live our lives, preferably with a minimum of suffering. Hence we are faced with a profound dilemma: Life is desire, and desire leads to the very suffering that we seek to avoid. On the one hand, then, we ought logically to minimize or reduce (“deny”) our desires. But this is tantamount to denying life. This may be a theoretical possibility for a saint or a god, but it is an unworkable plan for the real world. At its worst, a ‘life of life-denial’ is an incoherent and self-annihilating concept, one appropriate only for a pathological individual.
Therefore, to live, we must accept the struggle and pain of life, keep our expectations low, press ahead, and hope for the best. This is the only practical conclusion. Yes, we ought to minimize our desires where possible: avoid a fixation on money, material things, status — all those things that Jews, for example, obsess about, and thus foist upon the public mind as the ultimate goals in life. We should not be too concerned about a nebulous and facile goal like ‘happiness,’ which in any case is virtually impossible in a world of perpetual strife. We ought not expect that things will necessarily turn out well, and therefore not be disappointed when they don’t. Life goes on, the struggle goes on — such it is.
It’s a striking moral picture that Schopenhauer paints for us, one that is hard to refute. I think we all can relate to such thinking in our everyday experience. Much of this rings true, and yet we rarely follow the logic out to the full implications.
If it all sounds vaguely Buddhist, that’s because it is. One of Schopenhauer’s great surprises, and greatest satisfactions, was his discovery of Buddhist philosophy in the 1830s, well after he had written volume one of his monumental work, World as Will and Representation. There are many obvious affinities, and Schopenhauer viewed himself as independently coming to the same eternal truths as the Buddha but from an entirely different route, and with a much firmer philosophical foundation. Their prescriptions were essentially the same: end suffering via an elimination of desire and attachment, which is the source of that suffering. But Buddhism was entangled in a mythological schema involving samsara or a cycle of endless reincarnation and rebirth, and of nirvana, conceived as an end to that cycle. Schopenhauer had no patience for such mythology but he respected the metaphysical insight, and placed it, in his mind, on a superior rational footing.
‘One True Christian’
But it wasn’t only Buddhism that Schopenhauer found affinity with; it was also there, to a surprising degree, in Christianity. In fact, his alignment with ‘original’ or ‘true’ Christianity was so strong that Schopenhauer considered himself the ‘one true Christian,’ and the only such person in all of modern history: “my teaching could be called Christian philosophy proper, paradoxical as this may seem to those who do not go to the root of the matter, but stick merely to the surface.” This astonishing conclusion demands some examination.
Consider, he says, the basic creation myths of the major religions. In Hinduism, the god Brahma is said to have created the world “through a kind of original sin” — a mistake or error, one in which Brahma himself must atone for. (Schopenhauer adds with emphasis: “This is quite a good idea!”) Buddhism, for its part, sees the world as coming into being “in consequence of an inexplicable disturbance in the crystal clearness of the blessed…state of Nirvana.” (“An excellent idea!”) The ancient Greeks saw the formation of the cosmos as an act of “unfathomable necessity,” that which simply had to be. This too was reasonable. All such views saw the act of cosmic creation as a negation, as a failing — an error, a mistake, or an unfortunate necessity.
But the Judaic view was altogether different. There, the Jewish god Jehovah creates this world “of misery and woe,” stands back on the seventh day, and declares it “all good” — what is this? Utter nonsense, declares Schopenhauer, and in fact “something intolerable.” Recall the key passage from Genesis 1:31: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” Schopenhauer repeatedly mocks this idea, drawing from and paraphrasing the Greek Septuagint version by use of the phrase πάντα καλὰ λίαν (pánta kalá lían), “all was very good.” This was pure nonsense, utterly disproven by common sense, philosophical insight, and even a modicum of a realist view of the world. Indeed, says Schopenhauer elsewhere, the world could hardly be any worse than it is. To proclaim the opposite is sheer stupidity.
As a putative religion, however, Judaism is even worse. There is a god in it, of course, but this deity is merely a brutal enforcer of the Law. He praises and cajoles his “chosen” and smites their enemies, nothing more. In this metaphysical system there is no immortal soul, no real afterlife, no heaven, no hell; all such things are utterly lacking in the Old Testament. Schopenhauer concludes,
And so in this respect, we see the religion of the Jews occupy the lowest place among the dogmas of the civilized world, which is wholly in keeping with the fact that it is also the only religion that has absolutely no doctrine of immortality, nor has it even any trace thereof.
Not that Schopenhauer endorsed the concept of an immortal soul; far from it. But he realized that any honest religion must include some such doctrine. Judaism, as we will see, evidently served a different purpose.
Nor did he accept anything like a moral, omnipotent, all-good god. “Such a view…is too flagrantly contradicted by the misery and wretchedness that fill the world, on the one hand, and by the obvious imperfection and even burlesque distortion of the most ‘perfect’ phenomenon…of man.” The evil inherent in worldly existence, and the many failings of humanity, decisively disprove the existence of any such god. In fact, the great suffering of the world is proof of the opposite, namely, that it came into being in “sin,” as the other religions have it. There remains a trace of this original sin, of course, in the Bible, in the myth of the Fall, of Adam and Eve— which stands as the only philosophically valid insight in Judaism: “it is only the story of the Fall of Man that reconciles me to the Old Testament. In fact, in my eyes, it is the only metaphysical truth that appears in the book.”
Schopenhauer next turns to a central issue: the view of earthly life in the various religions. For emphasis, he contrasts the ancient Greek view with that of Christianity. Consider first the distinction between Greek and Christian views of death, as seen in images engraved on ancient sarcophagi. For the Greeks, the dead man’s life is depicted in happy, optimistic terms: his birth, family, marriage, occupation, and so on. It is, says Schopenhauer, an essentially positive, life-affirming outlook; life is good, life is to be lived to its fullest, and people can indeed attain happiness. Then look at the Christian coffin: draped in black, and topped by the cross, the symbol of ultimate suffering and death. This, he said, is an essentially life-denying outlook. But it is fitting: for the Christian, this temporal life of sin and suffering is superseded by eternal life in heaven. What is life for a Christian, after all, but a test, a burden, indeed, a “cross to bear”?
From the perspective of a modern-day secular philosopher, one looks at this distinction and says: “Of course, the Greeks were right; you have one life, it can be good, so live it to the fullest. Those foolish Christians, with their mindless belief in an afterlife, disavow the value of earthly existence. They are always looking ahead, to heaven, never to the here and now.” But Schopenhauer again turns the tables on us:
Between the spirit of Graeco-Roman paganism and that of Christianity is the proper contrast of the affirmation and denial of the will-to-live, according to which, in the last resort, Christianity is fundamentally right.
(I note here parenthetically that he frequently clarified his concept of the will as, more specifically, the will-to-live [der Wille zum Leben].) Christianity is “right” in the sense that the world is suffering, it is ‘sin’ — not for Christian reasons, of course, but because that is the nature of a world of pure willing. Even more, the Christian ‘solution’ is nearly the same as Schopenhauer’s: deny the will, be life-denying. Will is will-to-live, and thus to deny the will is to deny life. Deny your material desires, deny bodily pleasures. Become an ascetic. “Take up your cross and follow me.” This is the path of redemption.
Hence Schopenhauer sees his philosophical worldview as aligned with the Christian New Testament and its ‘pessimism’ about the world, whereas other philosophers are inherently more consistent with the ‘optimistic’ view of Judaism and the Old Testament:
My ethics is related to all the ethical systems of European philosophy as the New Testament to the Old, according to the ecclesiastical conception of this relation. Thus the Old Testament puts man under the authority of the Law [of Moses] which, however, does not lead to salvation. The New Testament, on the other hand, declares the Law to be inadequate, in fact repudiates it. On the contrary, it preaches the kingdom of grace which is attained by faith, love of one’s neighbor, and complete denial of oneself; this is the path to salvation from evil and the world. For in spite of all protestant-rationalistic distortions and misrepresentations, the ascetic spirit is assuredly and quite properly the soul of the New Testament. But this is just the denial of the will-to-live…
He then places his own outlook in historical context:
Now all the philosophical systems of ethics prior to mine have kept to the spirit of the Old Testament, with their absolute moral law and all their moral commandments and prohibitions, to which the commanding Jehovah is secretly added in thought. … My ethics, on the other hand, … frankly and sincerely admits the abominable nature of the world, and points to the denial of the will as the path to redemption therefrom. It is, accordingly, actually in the spirit of the New Testament, whereas all the others are in that of the Old, and thus theoretically amount to mere Judaism (plain despotic theism). In this sense, my teaching could be called Christian philosophy proper, paradoxical as this may seem to those who do not go to the root of the matter, but stick merely to the surface.
Thus he arrives back at the quotation I cited above. Judaism, with its pánta kalá lían, an all-good God, and a promise of material prosperity, is a pathetic form of optimism, utterly at odds with the real world. (Of course, for the Jews themselves over the past century at least, and excepting a few years during World War II, the world has been exceptionally good; it’s good to be king. I will return to this shortly.) Christianity, with its sufferings of the world, its sin and misery and death, and its “you will be hated by all,” is realistic pessimism — albeit, as with Schopenhauer, with an escape route, namely, denial of the will and the consequent asceticism. The analogy is imperfect but sufficient to allow for an instructive comparison. It permitted Schopenhauer to draw out some fascinating implications but it also blinded him to a likely deeper truth about Christianity.
 Opening quotation in Schopenhauer’s Parerga and Paralipomena (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1851/1974; E. F. J. Payne, trans.). Original from Juvenal, circa 110 AD.
 World as Will and Representation (New York: Dover, 1969; E. F. J. Payne, trans.) The German title is also rendered in English as The World as Will and Idea, owing to the ambiguity of the word Vorstellung.
 A ‘parergon’ is a supplement or addition, and a ‘paralipomenon’ is something omitted or overlooked. Hence this book comprises a number of essays and aphorisms on a variety of topics that are supplemental to Schopenhauer’s main work. As an aside, I note that some of Schopenhauer’s other “books,” such as Essays and Aphorisms and On the Suffering of the World, are just extracts from Parerga and Paralipomena.
 Nietzsche recognized and acknowledged this very point: “For an ascetic, life is a self-contradiction. … [For such a man,] life somehow turns against itself, denies itself” (Genealogy of Morals III, sec. 11). And again: “Morality, as it has so far been understood—as it has in the end been formulated once more by Schopenhauer, as ‘negation of the will to live’—is the very instinct of decadence, which makes an imperative of itself. It says: ‘Perish!’” (Twilight of the Idols V, sec. 5).
 Putting an end to personal desires and attachment to material things was in fact the third of the Buddha’s “four noble truths”.
 Parerga and Paralipomena (hereafter, P&P), vol. 2, p. 315.
 P&P, vol. 2, p. 300.
 The full phrase in Genesis is: kaí eíden o theós tá pánta ósa epoíisen kaí idoú kalá lían kaí egéneto espéra kaí egéneto proí iméra ékti.
 “Now this world is arranged as it had to be, if it were to be capable of continuing with great difficulty to exist; if it were a little worse, it would no longer be capable of continuing to exist. Consequently, since a worse world could not continue to exist, it is absolutely impossible; and so this world itself is the worst of all possible worlds. … Consequently, the world is as bad as it can possibly be, if it is to exist at all.” (WWR, vol. 2, pp. 583-584).
 P&P, vol. 2, p. 301.
 P&P, vol. 2, p. 314.
 Mark 8:34; Matthew 16:24.
 P&P, vol. 2, p. 314.
 Matthew 10:22, Luke 6:22, John 15:19.
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