January/February 2011

‘Schopenhauer is Always Topical’ An Interview with Rüdiger Safranski

Written by Thomas Koster

2010 marked the 150th anniversary of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s death. Thomas Köster spoke to Rüdiger Safranski about the timeless modernity of his thinking, about the joy of reading Schopenhauer’s work – and about Schopenhauer’s message that philosophy is not everything in life.

MR SAFRANSKI, YOU HAVE RECENTLY PUBLISHED A SCHOPENHAUER READER. WHY SHOULD ONE STILL READ THE PHILOSOPHER TODAY?

Because Schopenhauer had a model for thinking about life that was perfectly thought through. Schopenhauer paints an image of man in which the driving force of willpower plays the primary role, and reason a secondary one.

This fundamental school of thought never becomes outdated. It is not subject to specific requirements of topicality that change according to the season or fashion.

IN YOUR BIOGRAPHY OF SCHOPENHAUER, WHICH HAS JUST BEEN REPRINTED, YOU WRITE THAT ONE SHOULD “FALL BACK ON SCHOPENHAUER IN ORDER TO BE COMPLETELY UP-TO-DATE.” SO HE DOES REFLECT MODERNITY AFTER ALL?

Yes, for we still have a tendency to overestimate reason as the force that controls life and history, despite the fact that the crimes of the 20th century, some of which were committed in the name of reason or supposedly for the sake of science, have made a number of things clear to us that would not have surprised Schopenhauer.

Schopenhauer came to maturity at a time that I have described as the ‘wild years of philosophy;’ an intoxicating kaleidoscope of philosophy involving the discovery of the ego and logos that penetrates right through nature. Schopenhauer takes a stand against this high-flying idealism of Fichte, Hegel and the Romantics—reminding us right up to the present day not to overestimate reason.

For him, redemption can only be achieved by aesthetically distancing oneself from tumult; a mysticism of negation that follows on from Buddhist teachings. In this timeless sense Schopenhauer is still topical.

According to Schopenhauer, the state should place a muzzle on predators in order to make them as “harmless as a herbivorous animal.” Given the recent financial crisis and climate catastrophe we are currently facing, should politicians nowadays be reading Schopenhauer?

Definitely! Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the state operates on the basis of a sceptical view of mankind and the fact that we humans have a need for social disciplining. At the same time, however, his books make one immune to the romanticizing of the state as a higher level of being or morality a la Hegel. Schopenhauer wants a sober and matter of fact state that does not seek to grab the souls of its citizens.

And what advantage do Schopenhauer’s “Essays and Aphorisms” (1851) have over today’s plethora of guides to happiness, some of which are works of popular philosophy?

Once again, it is because they offer a down to earth clarity that extends to beauty. As a rule, today’s lifestyle guides overplay their hand, and have something of the swindler about them. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, thinks only about that which is possible. This does not constitute an absolute promise of happiness but modestly helps one to get through life sensibly. This makes him hugely attractive.

What role does Schopenhauer play in today’s philosophy?

Schopenhauer still has enormous influence in the general literary and artistic scene. The situation is rather different among professional philosophers. This has to do with the fact that Schopenhauer’s thought lies like a round ball in the 19th century. With Kant, one can carry on working indefinitely—so much is unclear. Schopenhauer’s view of mankind and the world is clear and calmly thought through to its conclusion. His philosophy is complete, in a pleasant and agreeable sense.

What fascinates you personally about Schopenhauer?

For me, one reason his philosophy is so alluring is that, in literary terms, it is so perfectly presented. Reading Schopenhauer is a great pleasure, an enormously enriching experience. In my view, the beginning part of the second volume of The World as Will and Representation is linguistically one of the best pieces of work ever produced by a western philosopher.

For another thing, Schopenhauer never leaves one in any doubt about the fact that for him philosophy is not all that life is about. The part that thinks will always be somewhat different to the part that lives. This is something that I find remarkable.

 

"First published on, http://www.goethe.de/ges/phi/eth/en6482864.htm (Re-published with their permission)