April 2013

On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason

Written by Tom McGuire

The 200th anniversary of Arthur Schopenhauer’s first work, ‘On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason’ gives an opportunity to look back at this intriguing philosopher and see just why he has been so influential. This issue looks at his ideas from a variety of perspectives, and asks how relevant he is today. Schopenhauer is much more accessible than many of the classic German philosophers like Kant and Hegel, whose highly technical prose is impenetrable for many readers. Agree with him or not ( and I myself am in the ‘not’ camp, finding his philosophy very well-constructed but ultimately unconvincing), to read Schopenhauer is to encounter a symposium of diverse voices dating back to ancient human history – for Schopenhauer was very well read and one cannot help but learn something of the classics by engaging with his work.

It is hard to measure Schopenhauer’s influence on modern thought, but he seemed to stand at the cusp of a change in thinking about human civilization. The notion that we are basically ruled by irrational impulses sat uncomfortably with the Renaissance world of Schopenhauer’s time which hoped for the establishment of human progress by the light of reason, which would gradually overcome our base instincts. Schopenhauer turned this on its head, claiming reason to be a mere servant of Will: a blind, dissatisfied striving which he thought to be the ‘inner kernel’ of reality. For him, the evolution of intelligence in so called higher beings merely came about so that the will’s basic yearnings could be more effectively fulfilled. This way of thinking about human nature will be familiar to those who work in the fields of advertising and mass psychology. Freud the psychologist and Bernays the ‘father’ of public relations applied principles similar to those of Schopenhauer in their analyses of the human psyche, which would influence later generations of mass-manipulation experts. It is probably obvious to most readers that media messages tend to aim primarily at our subconscious animal tendencies rather than the higher, reasoning or intuitive parts of human nature. Fear, anger and lust are powerful forces that exert considerable influence on the behavior of individuals and groups. By grabbing hold of those emotions and directing them towards a certain end - products can be sold, elections won and nations conquered. The psychology of mass communication is well understood by successful advertising executives, PR consultants and spin doctors. Their techniques are based on assumptions about humanity that resonate with the views of Schopenhauer; views he put forth with immense detail and clarity.

Schopenhauer often indicated that he thought of his philosophy as expressing, in a better and more refined form, the core insights to be gleaned from all world religions. He didn’t believe in a personal creator God, thinking it to be incompatible with what he saw as the chaotic, blind and even brutal nature of the universe. However, this atheist also had great admiration for various saints and spiritual masters. Through their rejection of purely selfish interests (a process which he called ‘denial of the will’), they exemplified for Schopenhauer a rare kind of human being who could rise above the struggling, striving mess of competing urges for survival and help put an end to the suffering which flows from them. Like religious saints and mystics, Schopenhauer believed that the negative experiences of life could be transcended or at least greatly diminished. However, in order to reach a state of greater equanimity and inner peace we would have to fight against the very nature of the world - perhaps, even, the essence of who we are.

In Schopenhauer’s worldview the crucifixion of Jesus Christ symbolises the complete abolition of willing for oneself, while in the Buddha’s life compassion takes the place of suffering when the powerful desires in human nature are extinguished. Of all world religions, Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, I: p.412 (from the 1969 edition, E.F.J. Payne trans., Dover Publications Inc.) Buddhism is probably the most similar to Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Both advocate elimination of desire as the way to solve human problems, with no belief in a personal God required. Schopenhauer even used the term nirvana to speak of the state reached when the will is successfully conquered. Through his writings, Schopenhauer was partly responsible for hastening the spread of Eastern philosophy to the West. He referred to the Upanishads, India’s ancient scriptures, as the solace of his life, keeping them by his bedside for regular reading.

We may well disagree with Schopenhauer’s assessment of life, viewing it as cynical or pessimistic. His theory that the underlying essence of everything is senseless and irrational has an element of the ‘glass half empty’ viewpoint; it is inherently subjective. In building his case, Schopenhauer relies very much on concrete examples of cruelty from the natural world, such as baby turtles being devoured en masse by a ferocious predator. However, another person looking at the same world for clues to its inner nature could choose to focus on the many acts of kindness, goodness and bravery that make up everyday life as being more reflective of the nature of reality. The curious mix of circumstances on planet earth, ranging from horrendous suffering to ecstatic jubilation, make it easy to swing either way in terms of making judgments about what kind of universe we live in. These are fascinating questions to ponder, even if there are no easy answers.