Schopenhauer: Altruism

Does Schopenhauer Show How Altruism Is Possible?

No. But why should he? He does attempt to, and succeeds to an extent, but only by adjusting the meaning in a radical fashion. I will show how Schopenhauer does this and how it matches with his overall system. The accommodation means that believers in altruism will not recognise the version supported by Schopenhauer. I will also examine why Schopenhauer might have been motivated to pursue such an argument at variance with the spirit of his philosophy.

Let us first examine the definition.

“al·tru·ism n.

1. Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.

2. Zoology Instinctive behaviour that is detrimental to the individual but favours the survival or spread of that individual’s genes, as by benefiting its relatives.”

Examples of definition one are not observed. Occasionally one comes across apparently altruistic behaviours; this is merely indicative of a lack of information in respect of motivation.

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All behaviour benefits the individual or may be expected to. Wealthy people pay for expensive equipment in hospitals in order to gain the approbation of society and fast track admittance for friends and family. Undergraduates attend demonstrations in order to indicate their political commitment and enhance their opportunities to engage with ‘like-minded’ and attractive others: in fact, “fitness enhancing group effects may become common in sexual populations”. Busy workers buy The Big Issue in order that they may carry it around the office all day to illustrate their fine conscience. Religious people perform charitable duties as the price of eternal admission to paradise. Even in the case of an anonymous donation, the individual may expect to benefit by way of an improvement in self-perception.

This is borne out by definition two, which appears to be in tension with definition one in a crucial way. Definition two admits that there is an expected reward, but shifts the benefit in an interesting way. From an evolutionary perspective, we would expect exactly this: that behaviours are observed which benefit primarily oneself but also to a reduced but significant extent those carrying the same genes. In fact, what is observed is that this cooperation is finely modulated to the extent of the consanguinity. So if we extend the sense of ‘individual’ to mean those (partially) sharing a particular genotype, we arrive at a good match with definition one.

All of this appears explicable and indeed unavoidable on Schopenhauer’s system. After all, Auguste Comte coined the very word altruism relatively recently, probably by way of opposition to egoism. This latter term is one that Schopenhauer sees as a central motivating factor: a man “is ready to annihilate the world, in order to maintain his own self […] This disposition is egoism, which is essential to everything in nature”.

Nevertheless, Schopenhauer also sees room for a variant of compassion. The word ‘altruism’ does not appear in The World as Will and Representation. “Mitleid” does, and may be translated literally as ‘with-pain’ or more idiomatically as compassion or perhaps pity. We may therefore investigate this compassion as a surrogate for altruism, since Schopenhauer’s definition is as follows: “Compassion; which desires the weal of others, and may rise to nobleness and magnanimity”. This has the additional benefit that we will be investigation a phenomenon that does exist as opposed to one which does not.

The way in which the scope shift in the second part of the dictionary entry harmonised the two parts suggests how he will account for compassion. If we write the opposed pair egoism and altruism in plain English, we have really ‘self-ism’ and ‘other-ism’. Schopenhauer’s radical approach will be to derive from his metaphysics a different and unusual delineation of what is self and what is other.

“But it is precisely through egoism that the will’s inner conflict with itself attains to such fearful revelation, for this egoism has its continuance and being in that opposition of the microcosm and macrocosm, or in the fact that the objectification of the will has for its form the principium individuationis, and thus the will manifests itself in innumerable individuals in the same way”.

Schopenhauer’s largely Kantian metaphysics involves transcendental idealism; we have the division between the phenomenal world we can perceive and the noumenal world we cannot. We apply time and space in the former realm, and since those are the only qualities that can provide separation, the noumenal realm has unity. This noumenal realm for Schopenhauer is the will, and it is our failure to perceive the oneness of the will and the illusory nature of individuality that leads to egoism and indeed makes it possible.

In referring to the conflict of the will with itself, Schopenhauer means the way apparently different individuals fight each other for all kinds of resources including at the very basic level material ones necessary to be embodied and continued. This happens at all grades of the will’s objectification including that of inanimate objects. This points to a difficulty with both Schopenhauer’s proposed route to salvation, the denial of the will, and also with his explanation of compassion.

For the former project appears to involve the will being in conflict with itself within an individual, to the extent that I am advised to will to cease willing. Perhaps Schopenhauer can respond by saying that this tension is just another feature of the illusory nature of individuals. We must also deny the will that seeks only the continuance of the individual to assist others; yet who are these others if there are no individuals? And “A theory of morals which does act as a motive can do so only by working on self-love”. If this is so, then does not weakening the idea of the self also decrease the effectiveness of the prescription? The answer is that “such virtue must spring from that intuitive knowledge which recognises in the individuality of others the same nature as in our own”.

How is this argued for? Schopenhauer first notes that virtue cannot be taught or communicated in words, because otherwise the many ethical theories produced since Aristotle would have changed the character of people. And knowledge or persuasion could not work, because reason and the intellect are subordinate to the will and merely its instruments. Moral slogans may act only as rationalisations of virtuous behaviour. And yet, “The principium individuationis, the form of the phenomenon, no longer holds him so tightly in its grasp, but the suffering which he sees in others touches him almost as closely as his own.”

This can now be motivated by suggesting that compassion is possible because it is beneficial: “through the diminished interest in our own self, the anxious care for the self is attacked at its very root and limited”. Thus we see compassion as a form of insurance contract, necessitated by the unavoidable shocks and dangers to which individuals are exposed, and rationally purchased by those expecting a continuation of the hostility of the world as it is. Once we have expanded the scope of the self to include multiple manifestations, then while one of them may suffer and indeed die, other manifestations may continue.

Whether this is true or false does not alter the fact that it is not altruism. It is risk sharing. It does have the explanatory benefit that it accounts for apparent examples of altruistic behaviour. Yet this is a double-edged sword. If “the same inner human nature ultimately bears all of the pain and all of the guilt” , then why may I not indulge myself in an enjoyable orgy of destruction and pleasure at the expense of others, since I am only borrowing money from myself, as it were, and further I will pay the price in terms of guilt and perhaps retribution in any case. And I will not worry about retribution; in fact I will welcome it as an opportunity to mortify my own will.

The previous mention of retribution leads us to the question of Schopenhauer’s difficult to understand motivation for constructing this argument and this will draw out a central paradox. The World as Will and Representation must be one of the most religious books ever written by an atheist. Retribution for wealthy unmarried philosophers is to be expected only from divine sources, surely, providing they avoid pushing noisy cleaning women downstairs. In the absence of such divine authority, Schopenhauer must have felt the need to found good behaviour on a stronger platform.

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It remains strange to see encouragement to negate the will because the person who does “is certain of all virtue and blessedness, and is on the direct road to salvation”. Although we should note that the Payne translation has ‘bliss’ for ‘blessedness’, these are all strongly religious terms. Who will give us this bliss and by whom will we be blessed or saved? Schopenhauer has been admirably outspoken as an atheist writing at times when this was still severely frowned upon and worse: “Cayetano Ripoll, a school teacher put to death in 1826 at Valencia, is the last person in Spanish history to be executed on charges of heresy.” Nevertheless, perhaps he lacked the full courage of his convictions. The solitude, suffering and futility that he saw clearly in all directions need some amelioration.

The lives of saints are held up for admiration; but not for the religious observance that is clearly pointless in the absence of a deity (or indeed either way). But this happens in the most extraordinary fashion: “Fanatics, martyrs, saints of every faith and name, have voluntarily and gladly endured every torture, because in them the will to live had suppressed itself.” These are the people we should emulate. In every case, their reasons for their action were false, but Schopenhauer nevertheless believes they were taking the right path.

Saints have a place because it is asceticism that is Schopenhauer’s final destination. The looked-for amelioration is to come via noting that the will is the source of all disquiet. It can never be satisfied. The lives of the great majority of people are filled with struggle to maintain the barest existence; this is as true today globally as when Schopenhauer was writing. For the fortunate and small minority who can escape hunger or drudgery, the terrible punishment of boredom beckons. “Solitary confinement and idleness” are the most terrible punishments imaginable.

We can escape this wheel of Ixion only by quieting the will and embracing asceticism. Schopenhauer knows he cannot persuade us to do this unless he first persuades us of the lack of significance of the individual. This brings out another major difficulty at the heart of Schopenhauer’s reasoning. He has two central ethical doctrines, and they are incompatible. The first, as we have seen, is that morality is based on compassion. Secondly, as we have seen, we are to renounce the will.

But Schopenhauer is a hard determinist like Kant. On that basis, how is any ethics possible? How should we understand his praise for certain actions and condemnation of others? But most importantly, how are we to renounce the will? And how are we to exercise compassion? There are no choices at all open to us, and so, a fortiori, none of these are choices that are open to us. Note how in the previous quotation the will was to suppress itself. Some of us will no doubt be fortunate enough to be the individual manifestations in which it chooses to do this.

Schopenhauer uses the same escape route as Kant here, placing the necessity of determinism in the phenomenal world and the freedom of the will in the noumenal world. Yet since the noumenal is untouched by the principium individuationis, how is my will free? Why am I to be praised or blamed for my actions, if it is not my will but everyone’s, and why counselled in any direction? In short, given Schopenhauer’s worldview, why does anything at all we do in the world matter? Of the man who has renounced the will, Schopenhauer writes “nothing can trouble him more, nothing can move him, for he has cut all the thousand cords of will”. In which case, what scope is there for the existence of compassion or even stirring oneself sufficiently to notice the suffering of others?

And what does compassion mean, should I somehow manage to embrace it? If I observe a family alternately starving or suffering from boredom while I am in possession of adequate means to supply plentiful bread and circuses, what should I do? Surely my best course of action is to assist them in renouncing their wills by taking no action. I will be helping them to welcome suffering by giving them practice.

Schopenhauer’s desire to lead us to asceticism misleads him. This is why he attempts to explain compassion when it would have been simpler and more in accord with his system to deny it. After all, a biographer will conceal the misfortunes that make up a life since “he knows that others can seldom feel sympathy or compassion, but almost always satisfaction at the sight of the woes from which they are themselves for the moment exempt”.

Likewise, compassion remains deeply mysterious yet fundamental for him, as he admits: “the sense of Compassion, however much its origin is shrouded in mystery, is the one and sole cause whereby the suffering I see in another, of itself, and as such, becomes directly my motive”.

Nietzsche is impatient with this entire analysis, which he considers mistaken historically and psychologically. He points out that not only are there other possible motives for apparently compassionate actions, but that we could not even be certain when we had pure motives, because we do not have sufficient insight into our own subconscious. “For all we know, Nietzsche suggests, it might be that honour, fear, self-defence, or revenge moved us to help the sufferer even though we believe that some desire solely for the other’s well-being moved us to help.” Nietzsche will also suggest plausibly that disrespect is a component of compassionate actions; this would disqualify it from playing the role Schopenhauer casts it in, and be much more consistent with Schopenhauer’s pessimistic outlook. Why should the endless suffering of the world not be compounded by Sartre’s hell that is other people in this way?

Schopenhauer has not shown how altruism is possible, he should not try because it does not happen, and in any case, he could not produce such a demonstration within his system.

See Also:

Are Sense Data The Primary Objects Of Perceptual Awareness?

Nietzsche’s Account Of Truth

Are There Useful Errors?

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”


The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, Copyright © 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Company
Joel R. Peck, Sex Causes Altruism. Altruism Causes Sex. Maybe, Proceedings: Biological Sciences, Vol. 271, No. 1543 (May 22, 2004), pp. 993-1000, Published by: The Royal Society
Origin: 1850–55; < F altruisme, equiv. to autru(i) others; popularized through trans. of A. Comte, who perh. coined it, on the model of égoisme egoism, Unabridged, Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2009.
A Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, vol. I, Trans. E Payne, Dover Publications Inc., 1969 (“WWR”), p. 332 (original emphasis)
A Schopenhauer, The basis of morality, Tr. A B Bullock, Macmillan Co., 1915, p. 172 (“TBM”)
WWR, p. 332 (original emphasis)
R Wicks, Arthur Schopenhauer, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
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D E Cartwright, Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche on the Morality of Pity, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1984), pp. 83-98, Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


Schopenhauer’s Ontology

Schopenhauer Claims Objects Are Representations — What Does This Mean And Can It Be Defended?

There are many ways to dismiss Schopenhauer’s ontology by misunderstanding it. A correct view of his actual claims is not only defensible, but compelling; further it is remarkably consistent with modern science. I will begin showing this by illustrating the intellectual background forming the context of Schopenhauer’s work. Then I will discuss his two senses in which objects are representations. Finally I will consider how Schopenhauer’s views appear from a scientific perspective.

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While the Kantian influence is obvious, Schopenhauer himself saw a wider set of influences: “I do not believe my doctrine could have come about before the Upanishads, Plato and Kant could cast their rays simultaneously into the mind of one man”.

Schopenhauer’s relationship with Kant is the most important and also the most complex. He saw Kant as the towering figure in philosophy, he frequently uses and accepts Kantian terminology, his major reason for despising Fichte, Schelling and Hegel is that he sees them as having betrayed the Kantian legacy; but most significantly, Schopenhauer is a transcendental idealist. Yet he frequently reaches very Kantian conclusions by alternate routes; a process necessitated for him by his belief that the Kantian proofs are often not valid: “Kant’s fourfold antinomy will be shown to be a groundless piece of jugglery”. Then again, his respect for Kant is shown by his devotion of a substantial appendix in WWR to Kantian criticism.

This may be perhaps rendered more comprehensible by remembering that Schopenhauer does not privilege different approaches to truth: “it is specially necessary to give up the prejudice that demonstrated truth has any superiority over truth known through perception or intuition”. There is perhaps an echo of the Eastern philosophy here, but again we should be careful to avoid traducing Schopenhauer by mischaracterising his claim as that we can ignore the proofs of Euclid if we perceive something different. He does not say this, but merely holds that logical demonstration reaches the truth in less satisfactory ways; we learn that x is the case without learning why. A drawing may show us a geometrical truth via perception far more directly and convincingly than a lengthy logical demonstration.

The first major opportunity to dismiss Schopenhauer arises in connection with the claims of transcendental idealism. Any crude characterisation of this as meaning that the world is in my head is radically implausible. Such a straw man would indeed be vulnerable to the infamous stone kicking and rebounding ‘refutation’ of Dr Johnson, who was responding to Berkeley. But experience is not being questioned; on the contrary, it is being insisted upon.

Kant’s development of transcendental idealism divides the world into phenomenon and noumenon. We can perceive only the former; the latter for Kant are unknowable. While Schopenhauer deprecates Kant’s usage of these terms as incorrect Greek, he accepts the result. Preconditions for experience and knowledge are the categories, including the notions of time, space and causality. We apply these to our sense data in order to understand them, to make them coherent and to make knowledge of the world possible. Therefore, our knowledge is only of the phenomenal world.

Yet Kant perhaps lacked the courage to pursue the implications of his pioneering work fully. He placed causation firmly in the phenomenal realm, and yet allowed the entities in the noumenal realm some role in causing our individual perceptions. Schopenhauer has no time for this: in his terms: “The principle of sufficient reason explains connections and combinations of phenomena, not the phenomena themselves”. This limits the application of the principle, which holds that “Nothing is without a reason for its being” in the formulation discussed by Schopenhauer. The principle can require that phenomena be appropriately related to one another causally, but can say nothing of the things-in-themselves or of the causation of the existence of the phenomena.

Objects exist entirely in the phenomenal realm. They are not things-in-themselves and cannot be because we can know the former and not the latter. Thus we see the first sense of Schopenhauer’s meaning in claiming that objects are representations. They are our representations only, the results of our application of space, time and causation to the world. Subject and object are inseparable – similarly the phenomenal and the noumenal are related as two sides of the same coin – and neither pair stand in causal relations to one another: “the demand for the existence of the object outside the representation of the subject, and also for a real being of the actual thing distinct from its action, has no meaning at all, and is a contradiction”.

Here we find a second echo of Eastern thought, in the suggestion that we cannot look for any illusory ‘real being’, and we would perhaps benefit from ceasing our strivings in this direction. This is also one of Schopenhauer’s central arguments for transcendental idealism, which asks what grounds we have for postulating a ‘second world’ behind the one we perceive, and notes that such a further postulation is both ineffective and dramatically inefficient.

A further argument of Schopenhauer’s for objects being representations can appear so powerful as to almost be analytic. “Every object always and eternally presupposes a subject, and thus remains representation.” This needs to be combined with the dismissal of the idea that the object is in any way like what it represents. We know that no objects are coloured; they merely have surface properties that preferentially absorb and scatter light of different wavelengths. This realisation is a potent confirmation that we are mistaken if we think that the world is in any way ‘what you see is what you get’. It must be true that representation is involved if the properties the subject perceives ‘in relation to’ an object is not the same as the ‘real properties’ of the object.

Schopenhauer goes further: “And yet the existence of the whole world remains for ever dependent on that first eye that opened”. We must again note that the highly modulated nature of the prima facie implausible claim that nothing existed before the first human, animal or insect eye evolved to survey the scene. Schopenhauer means that the world as representation perforce awaited that event; there remains the world as will, now apparent to us in the form of an incomprehensibly long and vast history of silently wheeling galaxies. We may not know it, and we may not ask questions about its origin in time or its pre-existence of life, for it stands outside of the phenomenal framework of space and time.

And again, if objects are not representations, then from whence issues their significance? They would float past us like so many images appearing briefly to a subject itself as insubstantial as a “winged cherub without a body”. Yet the importance we attach to the pictures and our interaction with them belies this.

Further, Schopenhauer notes the frequency with which identical expressions of the will appear in objects. Crystals of a certain type grow identically at all times and places, providing the relevant conditions are the same. The laws of magnetism do not alter their behaviour in relation to iron filings attracted to a magnet, providing again the same caveat. “The infallibility of the laws of nature contains something astonishing, indeed at time almost terrible, when we start from knowledge of the individual thing”. How could such objects, events and processes be made plausible if not representations of a single underlying principle?

In the second book of WWR, Schopenhauer turns to the non-representational aspect of the world, which in Kant’s terminology would be the noumenal. He notes that there is one object – one’s own body – which one knows under both aspects. If I move my hand, I can observe my hand as representation. But I also have internal experience in that case, which is denied to me in the case of other persons viewed as objects or representations, or any other objects at all. For this reason, Schopenhauer identifies the second aspect of the world as the will.

This terminology represents a second major opportunity to dismiss Schopenhauer, for he is claiming that the will is the organising principle of all objects, not just persons. We need to be very careful to note that he is using an expanded definition of the term. He is not saying that inanimate objects have motivations: “if I say that the force which attracts a stone to the earth is of its nature, in itself, and apart from all representation, will, then no one will attach to this proposition the absurd meaning that the stone moves itself according to a known motive”. So we are to understand this term as more akin to energy or a force of nature, that expresses itself in all objects as representations, that results in the “endless striving” of “the will’s objectivity”. This is justified because “if we refer this concept of force to that of will, we have in fact referred something more unknown to something infinitely better known”.

Schopenhauer identifies objects by his principium individuationis: this means that separate objects occupy discrete portions of space-time. So, since the noumenal is beyond time and space it is therefore one and undifferentiable; plurality cannot apply to it. This is why the Kantian term things-in-themselves is inappropriate: the noumenon or the will has unity. Here is the third suggestion of Eastern influences.

The influence of Plato on Schopenhauer derives from his identification of the will with the Forms: “these grades of objectivation of the will are nothing but Plato’s Ideas”. This has some superficial appeal at least, for the Forms are the unreachable perfect ideals of various qualities such as Justice and the Good. Objects in the world are imperfect representations of these noumenal qualities. People are trapped in the cave of Plato’s Republic , where they mistake the phenomenal representations that are the shadows of a fire for the Forms.

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Finally we may consider science. Prima facie, one might imagine that no field of endeavour could be more hostile to both Eastern thought and Schopenhauer’s suggestion that objects are representations, or represent the phenomenal extrusion of will or force or energy. Surely physics shows that real objects back our perceptions.

Yet this is just what it does not do. We are told in excellent and useful detail what an electron will do under various circumstances; this does not address what it is. Physicists indeed do not attempt this: they do not address the question of what it is beyond what it does. They would regard any attempt to do so as mysticism. The regularities that physicists observe, and the high pragmatic value of the theories they construct using the idea of an electron, are consistent with the suggestion that what we observe when we measure the properties of an electron is just how it behaves phenomenally.

Indeed, wave-particle duality, under which electrons and other subatomic particles behave as waves or as particles depending on what experimental mode is used, does not increase our confidence that we know there is something material there. As Magee points out, Schopenhauer, Kant and physics all endorse the view that “bodies are spaces filled with force”. There is even the possibility posited by physicists as serious as Richard Feynman in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that there is only one electron ; this underlying unity would surely appeal to Schopenhauer and is suggestive of the unity of the will.

Another idea associated with Feynman and widely accepted today, is that an electron moving forward in time is the same as its antiparticle, the positron, moving backwards in time. This is counter-intuitive to say the least, but can also be seen as suggesting that time is more related to the subject’s frame of reference and less related to the fundamental nature of the electron/positron.

Similarly, we see in post-Darwinian biology a highly Schopenhauerian view emerging. Organising principles are expressed through the behaviour of animals and we see evidence for the action of natural selection – though Schopenhauer might add that the most convincing proof of natural selection is our perception of the better or stronger animals destroying the weaker, rather than a lengthy discussion on changes in fossils from different dates. And how could it be otherwise?

We may illustrate this by considering a rather strange criticism of Dawkins by Midgley. Dawkins famously though ambiguously favours the idea of The Selfish Gene. Midgley retorts: “Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous” which misses the point in an illuminating way.

Dawkins does not mean that genes have personalities. He has two other meanings. First, genes can make animals and humans act selfishly. Second, genes can operate as if they wish to perpetuate themselves. This is because those that are still here have so operated. What clearer parallel could be found to Schopenhauer’s view that those objects that are animals are representations of the will? They are certainly striving for some purpose which, given the general suffering of the world, does not appear to be for their own benefit or even fully grasped by higher animals including humans.

There is another scientific example introduced by Schopenhauer from the field of medicine. The example appears difficult for him, but can be seen to be a result of inadequate information available to him at the time. He writes of persons who apparently can commit suicide by holding their breath, naming Diogenes as having done this. “We might have here a striking example of the influence of abstract motives, i.e., of the superior force of really rational over mere animal willing.” This could be an adverse example for Schopenhauer as he seeks to extend his concept of objects being representations of the will to the inanimate, mentioning “the keen desire with which iron flies to the magnet”.

We now have a better understanding of breathing which excludes the possibility of suicide by hypoxia, because automatic breathing is a separate mechanism which does not involve the conscious part of the brain or a choice: “The brainstem, spinal cord, motor neurons and respiratory muscles work in a feedback system that controls automatic breathing.” This is more supportive of Schopenhauer’s case that all objects are manifestations of the will with inanimate matter, plants, animals and humans all merely different grades of that manifestation. Given that he had no acquaintance with the work of Darwin at the time he wrote, or with modern physics, or with this particular development in physiology, it is remarkable that his system holds up so well across disparate fields and extended periods.

See Also:

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

Husserl’s Phenomenological Reduction: What Is It And Why Does Husserl Believe It To Be Necessary?

Does Heidegger Establish That The Ready-to-hand Enjoys ‘Priority’ Over The Present-at-hand?

Is Evans’s Axiom On Referents and Sense Useful?


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A Schopenhauer, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, Open Court Publishing Co., 1974
Plato, The republic, ed. G Ferrari, Tr. T Griffith, Cambridge University Press, 2000
B Magee, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 111
R Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, 1976
M Midgley, Gene-Juggling, Philosophy, Vol. 54, No. 210 (Oct., 1979), pp. 439-458
WWR, p. 116
WWR, p. 118
L Guion, Respiratory Management of ALS, Jones and Bartlett Publishers, LLC, 2010


Schopenhauer And Apocalypse Now

The link is Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. The movie is inspired by the book. Schopenhauer was born in Danzig, now Gdansk, Poland while Conrad was from a Polish family in Ukraine. The German philosopher was an influence, along with Nietzsche, on Conrad’s writing, with the inevitability and futility of struggle being prominent in the writings of all three.

Heart of Darkness

The story is told in flashback by Marlow, an English sea dog currently moored on the Thames. He is first shown to us in a Buddha-like pose. Schopenhauer cited his three major influences as being Plato, Kant and the Upanishads. The latter are Hindu scriptures which I understand have some common elements with Buddhism including the beliefs that the world is an illusion, and hence not particularly worth getting involved with, and a generally non-theistic approach.

Marlow retails the story of how he was dispatched to the Belgian Congo by an ivory trading company. His mission is to find an apparently rogue ivory agent, Mr Kurtz, who has ‘gone native’ and is no longer to be counted a member of civilized society. The irony of this maintenance of a moral hierarchy in a world in which slavery, death and exploitation are normal, is stark. Kurtz has become more effective than normal ivory agents, dispatching more than all the rest of them combined, but is doing so by using ‘unacceptable’ methods. This despite the Company, which is sinister and unnamed beyond that, engaging in random shelling of the bush.

A long, slow and extremely difficult journey up the river begins. More and more of the trappings of ‘civilisation’ are dispensed with as the journey progresses, with human activity being restricted to the essential. Marlow finally arrives to be greeted by a motley figure in harlequin patches. This is a Russian trader who has come completely under the spell of Kurtz.

Kurtz is some type of ‘universal genius’ with a talent for poetry. He is deeply charismatic and is worshiped as a god by the natives. Conrad describes this mostly through listing its effects and the deepening fascination of Marlow for the agent as he learns more both about his exploits and the complete moral bankruptcy and ineffectual nature of the Company’s operations. Everything about Kurtz is a lie – even his name. We are reminded that this is the German for ‘Short’, and yet the man himself is seven feet tall – not least in impact.

Apocalypse Now

The movie also takes place entirely in flashback, although this is less explicit here than in the book. The protagonist Capt. Willard has been dispatched upriver in Vietnam to ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’ the command of Col. Kurtz. The problem that senior officers and the CIA – known as ‘the Company’ – have with Kurtz is that he has become too effective by using unorthodox methods. He is no longer taking orders, because he has realized that this is not the most effective way forward.

Willard also spends an immense amount of time moving slowly up the river into the Heart of Darkness accompanied by a crew of lost souls and misfits. He finally reaches Col. Kurtz’s station and is greeted by Dennis Hopper, who is a photographer analogous to the Russian trader acolyte of Mr Kurtz the ivory agent. It is true of both characters that they are half crazed, obsessed by Kurtz and both talk much to much. This is because they have no one else to talk to – one doesn’t talk with Kurtz, one listens – and so they fill the silence with babble.

“He could have gone for General, but he went for himself instead.” Col. Kurtz has turned his back on the military hierarchy despite being a third generation graduate of West Point with possibilities of much greater further promotion. Kurtz has realized that the purity and futility of the struggle means that victory is meaningless but in any case will only be reached by those having the most pure accommodation with evil.
When Willard finally reaches Kurtz, the latter illustrates the point with the story of an inoculation trip into a Vietnamese village. They complete the mission but come back after the Vietcong have also been to the village, and they find a neat pile of severed five-year old right arms. This is the purity Kurtz means.

We learn from IMDB the following: “The photojournalist quotes two T.S. Eliot poems. In a late scene in the film, a slow pan over a table in Kurtz’s room shows a copy of “From Ritual to Romance”, a book by Jessie Weston that inspired Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland”. Indeed, Eliot’s epigraph to The Hollow Men begins “Mistah Kurtz – he dead”. And here is Kurtz reciting the poem. Kurtz is the archetypal hollow man, bereft of faith and morality. But can we judge that, without ourselves assuming a moral standpoint? Is it not true that Kurtz is just more clearly sighted than the rest of us?


The central theme of Schopenhauer, explored initially in his masterwork The World as Will and Representation, is that the world presents itself in two aspects, only one of which, The Will, is real. It is an endless pointless striving, with some comparability to the concept of energy. So a stone or a tree are both manifestations of The Will – but it is important to understand that Schopenhauer does not mean that the stone decides in some way to fly through the air or roll over in a stream.

The Will exists in the noumenal realm and is Schopenhauer’s characterization of the thing-in-itself of Kant. The extrusions of The Will into the phenomenal realm are the objects and persons to be seen there. The application of space and time to experience allow for individuation; in the noumenal realm The Will is undivided. Thus we ourselves create the individuation that makes conflict possible and inevitable. Different elements of The Will feed on each other without knowing that they attack different aspects of themselves. We are also therefore the source of evil. This must be true, because in the absence of moral facts, we create all values. The contact here with the film is with the story of the severed arms. Within one value system, that of the Americans, this is abhorrent. Within that of the Vietcong, the loss of the arms is a necessary sacrifice to the greater goal of expelling the Americans. While our sympathies may lie on one side or the other of this question, it is important to understand that no correct answer can be derived from logic or anywhere else. The struggle and the apparent evil cannot be avoided, but are without meaning. Col. Kurtz comes closest to realizing this.

The musician Wagner never met Schopenhauer, but idolized him. According to Bryan Magee, Wagner and Cosima would read Schopenhauer most nights. Some elements of Wagner’s librettos play on darkness in a Schopenhauerean sense which is confusing because it will be the opposite of the normal connotations of darkness as being related to ignorance and danger. The ‘enlightenment’ is a byword for increased knowledge. Whereas for Schopenhauer, following Plato and the Upanishads, studying the world of appearance is the opposite of enlightening because it is illusory. We are to seek redemption and truth and The Will in the darkness. Thus the doomed lovers in Tristan and Isolde seek to be united forever in the darkness, which makes little sense without noting the Schopenhauerean subtext. Wagner is a central motif in perhaps the most famous sequence of the film: The Ride of the Valkyries. Music was of the first importance for Schopenhauer. He believed that it represented a direct copy of The Will, but this is confusing since he adored music but saw The Will as the source of all the world’s suffering.

Schopenhauer’s advocated solution to the problems presented by the inevitable conflict brought about by the extrusion of The Will into the phenomenal realm is somewhat self-contradictory, in that he suggests a Zen-like suppression of desire. This seems to involve The Will deciding to will no more. What would this leave behind, if not an unmotivated Hollow Man?

See Also:

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

#Narcissism and #Unexpected Behaviour

Does Heidegger Establish That The Ready-to-hand Enjoys ‘Priority’ Over The Present-at-hand?

Spinoza’s Style Of Argument In Ethics I