On Human Nature: Essays in Ethics and Politics

Author: Arthur Schopenhauer
Published: 1897
Website: Amazon Page

I’ve read little by Schopenhauer, but what I do know is that he is known in part for his pessimistic approach to philosophy. This was certainly on full display in several of the essays, in particular in the essay on government, in which he describes the vast majority of men as stupid, fit, despite the apparent injustice, only to be members of a lower class necessary to support the intellectual and artistic endeavors of the nobility. However, once the obligatory revulsion at such anti-liberalism passes, it becomes clear that Schopenhauer’s less than charitable understanding of what humans are capable of comes from a deeply moral core idea. It is the disappointment that comes from its nonexistence in practice that informs the philosopher’s understanding of the need for control of humans.

This idea, based on an expansive, metaphysical understanding of consciousness, is that there are two approaches that a self, a consciousness, can have in interacting or thinking about another consciousness. They can either recognize it as Other and Not Self or Self, a consciousness just like their own, part of the grand web of the Thing-in-Itself. The former approach, known well to all of us who prize our individual essence, in Schopenhauer’s mind incites envy at the good fortune of another or contempt at the bad. The latter, on the other hand, gives way to sympathy, a shared sentiment, happiness at the happiness of another and deep pity and contrition at the misfortune or bad deeds of another.

Such a philosophy could easily turn saccharine, but Schopenhauer manages to keep a hold, if a tenuous one, on rational argumentation. Because the book is a collection of his short essays, his thought processes are somewhat scattered and important questions (like what the Thing-in-Itself is) are left largely unanswered. However, it does seem to follow that if consciousness is not an individual attribute but a capacity to imagine and be an interactive part of the entire universe, thinking about Truth and Justice and Morality as only conscious creatures can, then recognizing this capacity in other people is the only rational attitude towards other people.

We share in this strange thing we call sentience, and the fortune of one is a positive outcome wrought from the possibilities of the conscious mind, and is thus cause for rejoicing, and the failures of others are failures we, too, are not only capable of but likely to commit, unless we are the noblest of souls.

For all the dour fatalism, it’s actually a lovely philosophy, and one I’ll be thinking about into the future.

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