- Dark Shadows
"This man can either do you a great deal of good—or a great deal of harm. He must be taken in small doses. Had I discovered Schopenhauer at twenty-one, I would either have lived a very beautiful and complete life by thirty—or been dead. That I should believe you'll take the good and leave the bad from these complexities almost proves how very dear you are to me."—Ted 4/19/35
How responsible are we for the potentially life-altering consequences of the books that we share with others for reading? Or does our obligation end after we place the book in their hands?
On April 19, 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, a man named Ted gave his young acquaintance a beautiful hardbound edition of the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer. He also warned this person of the potential consequences of reading Western philosophy's arch-pessimist.
Reading Schopenhauer "can either do you a great deal of good—or a great deal of harm" says Ted in his inscription. Interestingly, the name of the person to whom the book is inscribed is literally cut out from the page though the rest of the inscription remains.
What happened to this person? Were they dead by thirty or did they lead a "very beautiful and complete life"? And what role did reading Schopenhauer play in all of this? The inscription sets a portentous tone to the reading a philosopher who already is notorious for casting a dark shadow over the world.
The book was published by the Tudor Publishing Company of New York in 1933. Its editor, James Gibson Hume, similarly warns the reader about Schopenhauer stating that he stands "alone" among philosophers and "cannot be classified." Hume continues,
Schopenhauer explicitly announces that he is in open revolt against every so-called orthodox position. His work is throughout a protest. He naturally attracts to him every one who is dissatisfied. . . .
But so too does Friedrich Nietzsche. Together, these two philosophers form a perfect set of pessimistic bookends. All the better that the youthful Nietzsche idolized Schopenhauer only to distance himself later in life from the "cadaverous perfume" of his philosophy. For Nietzsche, Schopenhauer's philosophy is a life-denying approach to the world, whereas, in contrast, he sees his own approach as "life-affirming."
Be that as it may, not everyone is convinced of the need for pessimism. "Pessimism," writes Eugene Thacker in Cosmic Pessimism (2015), "is the philosophical form of disenchantment." It is also "the lowest form of philosophy, frequently disparaged and dismissed, merely the symptom of a bad attitude." "No one ever needs pessimism," continues Thacker, "in the way that one needs optimism to inspire one to great heights and to pick oneself up, in the way one needs constructive criticism, advice and feedback, inspirational books or a pat on the back."
But in a society where individuals are systemically subject to domination, exploitation, and fear, and where they do not have agency or enjoy democratic values, pessimism can give individual disenchantment with the world a philosophical outlet. Still, it needs to be tempered lest it lead to complete nihilism and despair.
The first of two editions of Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Idea was published in 1819 when he was thirty years old. The following year, Schopenhauer lectured at the University of Berlin but did not attract much of a following, in part because his lectures were held at the same hour that Hegel lectured.
Schopenhauer argues in this book that in life suffering is fundamental, universal, and unavoidable. Moreover, for him, real satisfaction in life is not obtainable. "The truth is," claims Schopenhauer, "we ought to be wretched, and we are so."
In contradistinction to the "palpably sophistical proofs of Leibniz that this is the best of all possible worlds," comments Schopenhauer, "we may honestly oppose the proof that it is the worst of all possible worlds." His "proof" is as follows:
Now this world is so arranged as to be able to maintain itself with great difficulty; but if it were a little worse, it could not...