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Schopenhauer’s Compassionate Morality

Tim Madigan on the curmudgeon who preached compassion.

“Poor Schopenhauer had this secret guilt, too, in his heart, the guilt of cherishing his philosophy more than his fellow men.” So wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in his incisive essay from Thoughts Out Of Season, ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’ (1874). Nietzsche goes on to say: “He often chose falsely in his desire to find real trust and compassion in men, only to return with a heavy heart to his faithful dog again. He was absolutely alone, with no single friend of his own kind to comfort him...” (Nietzsche, p.38.)

Schopenhauer occupies an anomalous position in the history of philosophy. His writings are a peculiar mixture of rigorous analysis of concepts, idiosyncratic interpretations of previous systems, and biting attacks on his enemies. For much of his life he was ignored, and most of the copies of his 1844 masterwork The World as Will and Representation, in Nietzsche’s words “had to be turned into wastepaper ...” (Nietzsche, ibid.) No wonder his trust and love for his fellow humans was so low. And yet, surprisingly enough, Schopenhauer – along with his philosophical hero David Hume – was one of the first Western philosophers to emphasize compassion as the basis of morality.

It might seem strange that a man who demonstrated little fellow-feeling in his own encounters with others should place such a high value on compassion. But Schopenhauer was well aware of this seeming contradiction, commenting in The World as Will and Representation: “It is just as little necessary for the saint to be a philosopher as for the philosopher to be a saint; just as it is not necessary for a perfectly beautiful person to be a great sculptor, or for a great sculptor to be himself a beautiful person. In general, it is a strange demand on a moralist that he should commend no other virtue than that which he himself possesses.” (WWR, Vol. 1, p.383.) This is what is known in the military as a ‘pre-emptive strike’.

As a philosopher, Schopenhauer averred, his job was to describe and analyze compassion – there was no compulsion to actually practice it. Yet for all of his bombast, there is much that makes Schopenhauer a sympathetic character. There is, for instance, his concern for the suffering of animals. “The greatest benefit conferred by the railways,” he writes, “is that they spare millions of draught-horses their miserable existences.” (Essays and Aphorisms, p.171.)

It is compassion, or fellow-feeling, which Schopenhauer claims is the basis of ethics. Moral behavior consists of an intuitive recognition that we are all manifestations of the will to live. All the great religions, he holds, were attempts to express this metaphysical reality, although they usually botched the job by fomenting doctrinal disputes of their own making:

“The conviction that the world, and therefore man too, is something which really ought not to exist is in fact calculated to instill in us indulgence towards one another: for what can be expected of beings placed in such a situation as we are? ... this ... reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes.”
(Essays and Aphorisms, p.50)

Moving words, although somewhat inconsistent from a man who referred to his contemporary Hegel as an impudent scribbler of nonsense and the Caliban of philosophy and who was accused of pushing a landlady down a flight of stairs.

Schopenhauer’s most detailed examination of compassion is found in his 1839 essay On the Basis of Morality. It has a peculiar history. In that same year, at the age of fifty, he received his first public notice when his On the Freedom of the Human Will was awarded the prize for best essay in a contest sponsored by the Norwegian Scientific Society. Flushed with success, he submitted an essay to the Royal Danish Society of Scientific Studies, which had posed the following question: “Are the source and foundation of morals to be looked for in an idea of morality lying immediately in consciousness (or conscience) and in the analysis of the other fundamental moral concepts springing from that idea, or are they to be looked for in a different ground of knowledge?” Answering in the negative, Schopenhauer propounded the theory that the source and foundation of morals had nothing at all to do with knowledge, but rather in what he called “the great mystery of ethics” – compassion.

Fully expecting to win this second Scandinavian academic contest, Schopenhauer arranged for both essays to be published together in a work entitled The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics. He was outraged to discover that the Royal Danish Society did not award him the prize. To add insult to injury, the Society’s published rejection made it known that his had been the only entry. Schopenhauer had his two essays published together, in 1841, but the title page for the second essay proudly read: “On the Basis of Morality: not awarded a prize by the Royal Danish Society of Scientific Studies, at Copenhagen, on 30 January 1840.” The introduction consisted of a lengthy diatribe against the Society’s failure to understand or appreciate his argument, coupled with a scathing attack on the Society’s admiration for Hegel – Schopenhauer was not one to keep his feelings to himself!

On the Basis of Morality asks the question: What can motivate individuals to overcome their egoistic tendencies? Surely not adherence to theistic commandments or the categorical imperative. Morality does not originate in human rationality, which is merely instrumental, concerned with the means towards some end which one already has in mind. For Schopenhauer, all moral actions can be expressed by the Latin phrase Neminem laede, imo omnes quantum potes, juva (“Injure no one; on the contrary, help everyone as much as you can”). Empirical investigation, he argues, shows that there are only three fundamental incentives that motivate human actions:

a) Egoism: the desire for one’s own well-being.
b) Malice: the desire for another’s woe.
c) Compassion: the desire for another’s well-being.

“Man’s three fundamental ethical incentives, egoism, malice, and compassion,” according to Schopenhauer, “are present in everyone in different and incredibly unequal proportions. In accordance with them, motives will operate on man and actions will ensue.” (On the Basis of Morality, p.29.)

One can see the Platonic influence in this threefold categorization. It is interesting that he does not discuss a fourth possibility, malice toward one’s own self – the topic of suicide was one that he was particularly sensitive about, as his own father had died mysteriously, and was rumored to have ended his own life – a rumor which his son always vehemently denied. Schopenhauer held that people will be stirred to actions by the motives to which they are primarily susceptible. For instance, should you wish to induce an egoist to perform an act of loving-kindness, you must dupe him into believing the act will somehow benefit himself. But unlike the egoist, who tends to make a great distinction between himself and all other humans – and indeed all other living things – and who lives by the maxim pereat mundus, dum ego salvus sim (“may the world perish, provided I am safe”), a person of compassionate character makes no such sharp distinction. Instead, he sees himself as fundamentally a part of and involved with the suffering world.

For the egoist, Schopenhauer says, humanity is the non-ego, but to the compassionate man, it is “myself, once more”, a recognition of the fundamental connectedness of all life. It is no wonder, then, that Schopenhauer calls compassion “the great mystery” of ethics, nor is it puzzling that he was intrigued by the examples and the discussions of this found within the Christian, Hindu and Buddhist traditions. In his view, the only means of explaining ethics is through metaphysics. This is best understood, he felt, by Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

For all his bombast, Schopenhauer deserves credit for appreciating the insights of Eastern thought. He recognized that the philosophy of his own day was rapidly becoming desiccated and self-referential, with little to say about the issues most pertinent to people’s lives. Schopenhauer was one of the first philosophers to propose a true dialogue between traditions, and his own manner of living demonstrated this cosmopolitanism. His study contained a gilt-bronze Buddha on a marble stand, a bust of Kant, an oil portrait of Goethe, and – attesting to his love of animals – sixteen portraits of canines. Schopenhauer also owned a succession of poodles, naming his favorite ‘Atma’ and commenting upon its remarkable intelligence. Contemporary students of the role of compassion in ethics owe a debt of gratitude to this ill-natured curmudgeon, whose best friend truly was his dog.

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2005

Tim Madigan is a US Editor of Philosophy Now. He teaches Philosophy at St John Fisher College in Rochester, NY.

The books by Arthur Schopenhauer which are mentioned in this article are listed below, with their original dates of publication and the details of the translations used here.
On the Will in Nature (1836) translated by E.F.J. Payne (Berg Publishers, 1992)
The World as Will and Representation, Vol. I, (1818/1819) translated by E.F.J. Payne (Dover Publications, 1969)
Essays and Aphorisms, (1851) translated by R.J. Hollingdale (Penguin Books, 1970).
On the Basis of Morality, (1840) translated by E.F.J. Payne (Berghahn Books, 1995).

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