Prison Perspectives on Schopenhauer
Randy Gometz was awarded Third Place in Essay in the 2015 Prison Writing Contest.
Lately my equanimity has been disturbed by Schopenhauer’s The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics, and for reasons that will soon become apparent, I haven’t been able to shake him off as easily as I’ve done in the past. I don’t know how many people have read this bitter old man in college, or how much was retained by those poor souls who did, but he did lay out some pretty challenging propositions that warrant our attention. Some of these were genuinely interesting, while others lay about my head as ominously as a hangman’s noose. Although I’ve read all of Schopenhauer’s work several times during the last four decades of my incarceration, this is the first time I’ve been plagued by the thought that he may be right about certain things.
I won’t burden you with his philosophy in detail because, frankly, it’s too cumbersome and non-germane for the points I want to discuss. To summarize, then, the gist of Schopenhauer’s thought is that the universe can be split into two parts: the Will (always capitalized), and everything else, which he calls “representations.” He posits that the Will preexists the minds and bodies that house it; that the intellect and body are just the means through which the Will manifests itself; that the same Will exists in everyone and everything; that because the Will is singular yet universal, all notions of plurality and separateness—i.e., the “I” and the “Not-I”—are illusory; and because of the ubiquitous nature of this Will, Schopenhauer concludes that the metaphysical foundation of all ethics, which was the reason for writing these two essays, could arise only from the fact that one individual recognizes nothing less than himself in the other individual, be it in the form of plant, animal, human, or inorganic matter. In short, it’s the one essence recognizing itself in another configuration and responding to the suffering it sees with compassion. This, believed Schopenhauer, was the only way moral or ethical conduct was even possible, because for authentic compassion to emerge, it had to come from an awareness that the “I” and “Not-I” are, in fact, of the same essence. Empathy alone couldn’t produce Schopenhauer’s idea of compassion because it was intellectual and not experiential. One had to be in the pain of the other and not a mere sympathizer or witness to it. While Schopenhauer said other behaviors may have the appearance of being morally based, if they were examined more closely, the motivations would disclose that these two acts were only egoistic, i.e. done with thoughts of reward, punishment, or vanity in mind. Actions done out of these inferior motives, no matter how seemingly good the effects, could never be mistaken for the true compassion in Schopenhauer’s opinion, because solipsism is incapable of extending itself beyond its own needs and interests. Now, if Schopenhauer had left it at that, I would have been able to walk away from this book without a backward glance, because even though this philosophical twist on Eastern mysticism is mildly intriguing to an aging acid-head, it still wouldn’t have amounted to more than a footnote in philosophy’s obsession with ethics going all the way back to the Presocratics. But in order to deduce that the Will’s compassion was the origin of all moral conduct, Schopenhauer had to connect a lot of dots between the premise and the proofs. This is where the rope drops squarely into view.
As a prelude to this thesis about compassion, however, Schopenhauer had to cover a lot of ground in getting there. One of the things he touched upon was “free-will”—i.e. whether a universal, eternal, immutable, and omnipotent Will can exist and still be free in the multitude of beings that give expression to it—and if so, why this “one” Will is evinced in such disparate and opposite ways? For consistency’s sake, then, Schopenhauer had to distance himself from Locke’s tabula rasa and deny the very possibility of free will. Otherwise, his theory of Will would be contingent on external forces, thereby making itself subservient to stimuli and not, in Kantian terms, a thing-in-itself. And for Schopenhauer, the Will was the über thing-in-itself, so he had to go the way of St. Augustine and John Calvin, which, it has to be admitted, is rather ironic. Still, if the Will is “one” in everyone and everything, why does one person become a criminal while his siblings do not? This is where the pinch of the rope makes itself known by settling around my neck.
By way of explication, Schopenhauer avers that all variance in human behavior is attributable to character, which he says is: A) individual B) empirically demonstrable C) constant and D) innate. The latter two assertions are what is problematic for social and moral cripples such as myself, because he claims the character is unchangeable; that as one has acted in the past (given the same set of facts and circumstances), so will one act again in the future; that determinism—be it religious or secular—mandates the absolute and unavoidable necessity of every action ever committed, and it’s absurd to think one could have acted otherwise because the character itself is innate. Schopenhauer states categorically that we are born with either a good or a bad character, and because of this, we can only Will according to what we already are. For a prisoner, of course, this is a pretty damning assessment. What’s worse, Schopenhauer cited a number of the world’s most acclaimed thinkers throughout history, who both deny the existence of free will and affirm the incontrovertible necessity of all actions.
The only exit that Schopenhauer proffers from this labyrinth of despair is the acquisition of knowledge, because unlike the Will or character, which can’t be altered for better or worse, he assures us that knowledge can at least correct our faulty thinking. Taking crime as an example, it’s merely a means to an end and therefore not compulsory. The means, then, are “how” the flawed character goes about trying to satisfy that which the Will desires, and the “what” is the object or end that the character and Will has in view. As such, Schopenhauer says it’s only a matter of learning that crime (i.e. the means) is not always the safest or most cost-effective way of securing the money, property, or comfort that’s desired (i.e. the end). But is that it? That knowledge can apparently lead to—what?—an internal conversation? Does Schopenhauer have nothing better to hang our hopes on? If not, then this philosophy is totally unsatisfying and contradictory. It’s unsatisfying because if the only barrier between me and committing another crime is an analysis of the potential losses and gains, it implies the answer is always going to be uncertain and subject to change depending wholly on the momentary force of the input that’s currently available to the intellect. It’s contradictory because if, as Schopenhauer insists, the character is indeed unchangeable and free will is a myth—i.e. that it’s impossible for the impaired character to act otherwise because everything is done out of an inviolable necessity—then how can knowledge “talk” this defective character into or out of anything? It’s either intractable or open to suggestion. Which is it?
According to Schopenhauer, the only certainty in my life is that I’m going to remain bad by nature and socially irredeemable, and that nothing can divert me from stealing or hurting someone other than the arguments of competing motivations that may hinge on nothing more solid than the mood I happen to be in at that particular moment. Schopenhauer’s epistemology, at least for criminals, seems to offer nothing but the roll of some already loaded dice. My idea of knowledge, however, isn’t too whimsical. If, for example, I learn today that 2+2=4, and that the sun rises in the east, I’m not suddenly going to convince myself tomorrow that a better answer is 137, or start looking under my shoe for a sunrise. Knowledge of math and the compass is going to be the cornerstone of all my calculations and directionality for the rest of my life. If knowledge doesn’t have the potential for practical applications or future consequences, can we really say it’s even true knowledge? If knowledge is as indeterminate as Schopenhauer makes it out to be in this case—i.e. that it’s only one factor among many others that serve as motivational therapy—where does that leave truth? This whole doctrine is nihilistic because while ostensibly offering knowledge as something salvific in reforming the “head” but not the “heart” (Schopenhauer’s words), it deracinates knowledge of all meaning, which almost constitutes a denial of what knowledge is or does. What kind of knowledge doesn’t purport to know anything or serve as a potential catalyst for changing what was previously known? Causes must produce effects. Of course Schopenhauer’s whole concept of the immutability of the character and the impossibility of free will is joined at the hip to what may be a false premise, i.e. the Will’s fixed and constant nature. Unfortunately for Schopenhauer, there’s no concrete proof that this Über Will even exists, much less that we know any of its supposed attributes. If the premise is uncertain, if not patently false, then we’re going to need different arguments to demonstrate that free will is imaginary and that human character is permanent. In truth, much of this philosophy goes against all common sense and experience. If the environment doesn’t affect our character, why do so many victims of child abuse wind up abusing their children? The fact that some victims haven’t repeated these cruelties doesn’t undercut the statistical significance of those who did. The exception doesn’t invalidate the rule, but rather confirms it (i.e. that the majority of victims of child abuse eventually abuse other children). Experience teaches that hitting invariably leads to more hitting, and nowhere is this more apparent than in these penal schools of lower learning.
There are, however, some points in Schopenhauer’s determinism that aren’t so easily dismissed. Namely, that there are aspects to our nature that are congenital. We see examples of this in a person’s sexual orientation, or in the differences in personality that twins exhibit almost immediately upon birth. Then, too, genes have been discovered that we know affect a person’s proclivity for violence and aggression. As anecdotal evidence, I can attest that while it’s true I haven’t thought of myself as a criminal or committed a crime in 20 years, I have to confess that I never lost the attraction I have toward robbing banks and using narcotics, nor did I undergo a spiritual metamorphosis where I’m now appalled by such thoughts in myself or seeing these actions in others. Shooting dope and storming banks was fun, and I’m not going to bow my head, feign remorse, and say it wasn’t. Even though I haven’t—and won’t—engage in these activities again, it doesn’t obviate the fact that I have fond memories of that life (much like I suspect married couples reminisce about the life they had when they were single). Although I’ve been able to reason my way into making behavioral changes, make no mistake about it, my personality is still clinically antisocial. And more than anything else, this induces me to give at least some credence to Schopenhauer’s determinism. There’s a part of my inner being that seems chronically compromised. With effort, I can change my actions but not the underlying attitude about them. I remain unmoved by the rationale of law. In a very scary way, then, I’m both socially and morally apathetic.
With all this as a backdrop, the question arises: how much is environmental, and how much is inherent? I’m compelled to avow there are some things in my character that seem inveterate, but what is their source? Nature or habit? Is the only tool in my toolbox one of exercising vigilant control over my predilections? Is a core change in the what that motivates me even possible? Is the Schopenhauerian “conversation” with myself the only advice to be found in this miserable excuse for a fortune cookie? Where did these desires come from? Surely I didn’t fall out of the womb with a gangster lean and James Cagney smirk. After reading Schopenhauer’s arguments on the character’s innate and unchanging qualities, which were comprehensive, I’m not as sure as I once was about the environment being the most influential causal agent in shaping who we turn out to be. But maybe this isn’t a Kierkegaardian “either-or” gauntlet that’s being dropped and Rorty had it right by saying that contentious systems of belief—like determinism and empiricism—can each contain parts of a workable truth. Be that as it may, and even if I’m correct in thinking both schools of thought have some validity, it’s still worrisome because it doesn’t resolve the issue of which factors will be the most dominant when put to a severe test: those we acquire from life experiences, or those that are infused into our nature and must inevitably recur?
So what are we to do with all this? Rely on a pseudo-knowledge that denies it can ever change anything? Believe that the word “change” is nonsensical and bereft of all meaning? Doesn’t everything change in degree if not in substance? Should I look for another philosopher who doesn’t threaten my peace of mind or parole prospects? Surely there must be more to ethics than its unavailability to those who need it most; that moral conduct is based on more than winning an internal debate about gains and losses where the decision can go either way on different days; that there’s more to our ideas of right and wrong than mental masturbation and semantics, because the only thing that language has produced in this field is the exhaustion that comes from endless disputations, speculations, and pontifications among the would-be intelligentsia. Can truth even come from wordsmiths? For those who think it can, then clearly they haven’t read or conversed with a positivist logician or analytic philosopher, who, led by Wittgenstein, can’t even agree on the factual reality of a chair. I know arguments come from words, but I know very little about truth or its genesis. Sadly, I don’t think Schopenhauer does either. The only thing dangling from his rope are reasons to commit suicide.