On the illusion of infinite happiness
June 17, 2014 8:50 AM   Subscribe

For it is the future generation in its entire individual determination which forces itself into existence through the medium of all this strife and trouble...That growing affection of two lovers for each other is in reality the will to live of the new being, of which they shall become the parents...The lovers have a longing to be really united and made one being, and to live as such for the rest of their lives; and this longing is fulfilled in the children born to them, in whom the qualities inherited from both, but combined and united in one being, are perpetuated...Therefore Nature attains her ends by implanting in the individual a certain illusion by which something which is in reality advantageous to the species alone seems to be advantageous to himself... Arthur Schopenhauer on the Metaphysics of Love.
posted by shivohum (11 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

That is a very heteronormative view, very prettily stated.
posted by Nothing at 9:47 AM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Schopenhauer is one of the only philosophers who could write well. I love him, but he was probably not a very nice person.

One of his things was, he could not tolerate noise. He thought that anyone who could was unintelligent. So, once, when a cleaning lady was rattling buckets or something outside his room, while he was working, he burst out the door and basically pushed her down the stairs. In the ensuing court case, he was obliged to pay her a yearly restitution, for the rest of her life (it sounds like she may have been injured or even disabled). Eventually, she passed away. Schopenhauer commemorated this in his diary with the sentence "Obit annum, abit onus", iirc, which means "The old woman dies, the debt departs".
posted by thelonius at 10:37 AM on June 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

what is love?

Schopenhauer, don't hurt me. Don't hurt me. No more.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:42 AM on June 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

Ascribing intentionality to indifferent physical and natural processes used to be something you could get away with doing unchallenged, but we know better now. For us, there is no universal "ought," only the relative "oughts" that arise out of human social relations and the ethical principles we choose to value. There is no one single perfect ideal of things that the world is working toward, so these personifications of Nature as an anthropomorphic entity sound comical now. It's more accurate to say we unconsciously attain our own unconscious goals by implanting in ourselves these "certain illusions" Schopenhauer alludes to. Sure, we all have motives we don't understand consciously ourselves and that can express themselves through behaviors we don't understand the true purpose of.

But it's a mistake to imagine there's some conscious, intelligent entity we can call "Nature" that's doing the deception. We deceive ourselves. And there's no contradiction in that because we aren't really unified individuals but aggregates of different aspects and psychological components that often have conflicting interests with one another. We don't always know what we're doing or why, but it's not Nature making us do those things we don't understand, it's unconscious aspects of ourselves.

A simple argument for this claim: If a person suffers brain damage that leads to some unconscious function being damaged, the observable behavior changes. Nature didn't change. The individual did. It's just the coincidence of circumstances (terrestrial evolutionary processes) that accounts for why some unconscious motives seem to be more or less universal.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:49 AM on June 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Schopenhauer and I go WAY back...
Before 1980, my pursuit of a professional writing career included checking the Los Angeles Times classified ads under “W”. There I discovered an ad from “The People’s Almanac” (the series of pop reference books edited by Irving Wallace and his family) soliciting ideas for “The Book of Lists”. I ended up getting paid for two lists (one of “crown princes” and the other of “musicians famous for something else”) that never got published, and was definately on their “B” list of contributors when they sent me a letter asking if I’d be interested in writing for a new project of theirs: “The People’s Almanac Presents the Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People”.

The “Famous People” of the title were all deceased (avoiding various legal issues), and most were historically so. My first assignment was the pessimist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and the editors provided me with research material – two biographies, 50 to 75 years old at the time. Being written long before anyone thought of publishing “Intimate Sex Lives” books, both volumes required a lot of ‘reading between the lines’ to extract much of a sexual biography. And a couple weeks after I sent in my thousand words, I got back a tactfully worded request to rewrite it, in which the Assistant Editor (no relative of Irving Wallace) pointed out that I had failed to note that Schopenhauer had died of complications from syphillis.

Obviously, I hadn’t read nearly enough between the lines. I felt like I had just flunked History, Philosophy, Creative Writing and Sex Education on the same day.

posted by oneswellfoop at 12:01 PM on June 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Constantin Brunner, in his book Liebe, Ehe, Mann und Weib, amplifies and develops Schopenhauer’s ideas. Here is a short extract from the compilation Science, spirit, superstition:
Thus we recognize love in its first stages as a drive, as an a priori independent of any individual experience, in no way guided by any definite idea on the part of the individual nor by any consideration of the end result. This drive is the only one that does not serve the preservation of the individual; it serves the preservation of the genus, and does it so ruthlessly that it reduces the individual's drive for self- preservation. Some human beings become demented by love; their intellect, i.e. their egoistic consciousness, their practical capability, their sustenance of life, their very life itself is found to be more or less impaired.
posted by No Robots at 12:56 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

An awesome ditty (SLYT) by DJ Krush and Zap Mama, apropos to go with this missive.

Arthur: I will get to you, yes, I will. I'm sorry I spent so much time, all those years ago, on Frederik's rhapsodizing and Georg's entomology. In this case, however (these lovers are traitors secretly striving to perpetuate all this misery and turmoil) you are confusing love with desire. So it may still be a year or two - because parsing takes time.
posted by Twang at 4:05 PM on June 17, 2014

And a couple weeks after I sent in my thousand words, I got back a tactfully worded request to rewrite it, in which the Assistant Editor (no relative of Irving Wallace) pointed out that I had failed to note that Schopenhauer had died of complications from syphillis.

I think that it's possible that the editor might have gotten Schopenhauer mixed up with Nietzsche, who I think actually is mentioned in the Wallace book that is referred to. The exact cause of Nietzsche's death has not been definitively proven.
posted by ovvl at 6:42 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

@saulgoodman: "For us, there is no universal 'ought', only the relative 'oughts' that arise out of human social relations and the ethical principles we choose to value."

How could you possibly know this? Even if one grants that modern psychology tells us that humans are contradictory messes of impulses and evolutionary biology tells us something about how these impulses arose and why they persist, it doesn't follow that there are no categorical imperatives.
posted by koavf at 9:02 PM on June 18, 2014

I can't even imagine how anyone could claim, given everything we know now about how natural processes operate, that there's any evidence at all the universe as a whole is working toward a single perfect ideal of everything, which is basically the implicit claim here: that there's one and only one unifying intention behind all things and all human history called "Nature." But the universe is full of all sorts of things that conspicuously seem to have nothing to do with human existence at all. We've observed all sorts of natural processes that by all existing evidence are entirely unrelated to the affairs of humans and that definitely aren't consistent with the claim that everything is ultimately governed by some singular vision of how things ought to be. Hell, if that were the case, why do we observe so many cases of phenomena that seem to work at cross-purposes to one another in the world, why do people have conflicting desires and interests?

All I mean about what "ought" to be arising from human social relations is the obvious thing: Our ethics are centered on human concerns from a human perspective, as they should be. Even the kinds of ethical questions we consider only make sense from a human POV.

But there's absolutely no evidence everything in Nature is working toward some singular purpose and that humans have some special, unique role to play in that purpose. A role, sure. There might arguably be evidence for the possibility of a more limited or narrower kind of intention in nature--after all, humans have intentions, so it's possible for intentions to come into being through natural processes. But of course there's more than one way the world could work, and there's too much contrary evidence to accept the claim there's some ideal way "Nature" or any other singular entity wants the world to work and is trying to realize through natural law. If anything, natural law seems geared toward creating difference rather than uniformity.

But sure, I can't ultimately "know" any of this if you want to argue the point. But under any definition of "knowing" that strict, I can't even "know" my own name because I only ever learned it second-hand.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:55 AM on June 19, 2014

I mean, even if you posit that Nature is some intelligent agent that consciously chooses how it's laws work in order to achieve some particular end, why are there so many different species with different reproductive and adaptive patterns of behavior? If Nature has some preferred end state, why do we only find more and more variation in patterns of animal and human behavior the more we study? Even those tendencies we observe among humans that seem to be almost universal among different human cultures usually aren't 100% universal, and there are always counter-examples in nature of other living things that successfully take a different approach to solving the same problems.

Nature doesn't seem to care a whole lot how we solve the problems we're posed by our environment and other circumstances as long as we actually solve them somehow. I think there's a role for human values in the mix, to determine not only what solutions work (given whatever "Nature" might be throwing at us) but what solutions are most consistent with what we value in the world and want for our lives. Those latter considerations are strictly our business. Survival may come with some built-in conditions, but how we choose to live once we overcome that minimum threshold is our business and there's no outside authority we can all agree on to make all those choices about what our fundamental values should be, like it or not. Our best bet is to try to define our values by consensus and always with the idea that our values may not always lead to clear decision-making rules in some edge cases.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:05 AM on June 19, 2014

« Older contempt, they found, is the number one factor...   |   Neymar and the Disappearing Donkey Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments