20 September 2010

Schopenhauer's fate

Schopenhauer had unusual views on mysticism which may be best revealed in an essay, from his book Parerga and Pralipomena, entitled "Transcendent Speculation on the Apparent Deliberateness in the Fate of the Individual" (starts on page 201 of my copy, Volume I, Oxford U. Press, reissued in 2000). It relies on aging and hindsight. It is not contradicted by my own experience.

To simplify, it goes something like this. In middle age we look back on choices we made in youth on which we deliberated very little: what girl to fall in love with, which profession to pursue, and so forth. These casual choices then turn out to have influences upon us for many years afterward. The people who we develop into are formed strongly as we grow into roles which began by the most remote chances. This can be described as fate, or fortune, or providence, for good or ill. Schopenhauer viewed this as the genesis of many of our religious impulses.

Perhaps a personal story could serve to illustrate. When I was a senior in college about to graduate, I had no idea what I wanted to do. During my freshman year, two thirds of the people I met informed me they planned to go to medical school and become doctors. I did know I did not want to be like two thirds of the people I met, so the one thing I did know was I did not want to be a doctor. Other than that I had no plan. I majored in Physics because I liked it the most and I considered it a flexible undergraduate base for whatever vague future notion I could ponder. Two months before graduation my future was nothing but vague notions and I watched my classmates appear wearing coats and ties and scheduling job interviews.

One day by chance I was walking by the campus placement center and decided to go in. I was wearing sandals and cutoffs, my hair was down to my shoulders, and I may not have shaven in two or three days. I introduced myself at the front desk and asked for information. It turned out there was an oil company recruiter looking for physics majors and he was sitting there in a room by himself. I had no resume or transcript or anything. The receptionist took me to meet him and we talked for a half-hour.

Later I did some coat-and-tie interviews with a few other corporate recruiters at the placement center with my paperwork and interview practice. And shortly after that I took the job with the oil company from the first accidental interview. I ended up working with them for over twenty-five years. This is precisely the type thing which Schopenhauer would describe as "apparent deliberateness in the fate of the individual". It was as if I had a guardian angel with me walking on the campus guiding me into the placement office at precisely the correct moment to be seized there, then.

This idea is not unique to Schopenhauer, although his treatment of it is the best I have read. There is an Internet podcast fellow, My Personal Rabbi (Rabbi Dubov), who illustrates a very similar point in an accessible manner. In his view, our personal struggles--whatever they may be: illness, relationship conflict, debt, overeating, drinking, smoking--are like an assignment from the Universe. We are here with the purpose of working to solve these problems on behalf of all of God's creatures. One time I described this to a physicist friend of mine and he rolled his eyes he was so incredulous at me raising this idea to his attention. It is a foundational idea in Kabbalah. Sorrow is a signal from the Cosmos that we have missed the mark and need to correct. The Stoics described this as temperance.

We can also find it Jungian Psychoanalysis. Carl Jung wrote in several places the proverb "our neurosis is our best friend". By which he simply meant that our subconscious should be attended to; down inside ourselves we have perfect knowledge of what we most need to work on. As Schopenhauer described it, this is all a speculation. At least it is speculation for all that we know so far.


bedlamist said...

You said "In his view, our personal struggles [...] are like an assignment from the Universe. We are here with the purpose of working to solve these problems on behalf of all of God's creatures."

I disagree:

bedlamist said...

[Gack, I have to get used to this interface. Anyway...]

In my view we're not here from any cause but dumb luck: there's no God, no task, no meaning except what we stick on ourselves.

While we're here we should be as ineffectual as possible, causing neither spectacular benefit or egregious harm to anyone; the highest praise one can give someone is "I never noticed he was here." This is because I don't think it's possible to help anyone without causing harm to someone, and of course it's always easier to cause harm anyway.

See, if I were Catholic I could get a priest to tell God to forgive me, but as an atheist I've got to figure out a way to forgive myself for whatever sins I've decided I've committed.


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About Craig

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Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.