Egotism in German Philosophy/Chapter XI

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Egotism in German Philosophy by George Santayana
Chapter XI. Nietzsche and Schopenhauer
nietzsche and schopenhauer

It is hardly fair to a writer like Nietzsche, so poetical, fragmentary, and immature, to judge him as a philosopher; yet he wished to be so judged, and planned a system which was to be an emendation of that of Schopenhauer. The will to live would become the will to dominate; pessimism founded on reflection would become optimism founded on courage; the suspense of the will in contemplation would yield to a more biological account of intelligence and taste; finally in the place of pity and asceticism (Schopenhauer’s two principles of morals) Nietzsche would set up the duty of asserting the will at all costs and being cruelly but beautifully strong.

These points of difference from Schopenhauer cover the whole philosophy of Nietzsche. I will consider them in order, leaving the last for the next chapter.

The change from “the will to live” to “the will to be powerful” is only a change of metaphors: both are used merely to indicate the general movement of nature. The choice of a psychological symbol for this purpose is indifferent scientifically, since the facts in any case remain the same and our knowledge of them is not enlarged; yet it is an interesting indication of the mind of the poet using it, because whatever a man knows and loves best, that he takes his metaphors from. Nietzsche had his reasons for liking to call the universal principle a lust for power. He believed he was the herald of two hundred years of war, he was in love with the vague image of a military aristocracy, and he was not without a certain biological acumen.

An acorn in the ground does not strive to persevere in the state it happens to be in, but expands, absorbs surrounding elements, and transforms them into its own substance, which itself changes its form. Here then is a will to grow, not simply a will to live or to preserve oneself; in fact, as Nietzsche eloquently said, here is a will to perish. It is true that when the oak is full grown it seems to pass to the defensive and no longer manifests the will either to perish or to grow. Even while the will to grow is operating, its scope is not indefinite. It would be grotesque to imagine that the acorn, like the ego of German philosophy, tended to annex the whole earth and the whole sky and to make a single oak of the universe. If we take a broad view, perhaps the ancient myth that nature tends to re-embody certain fixed types, though inaccurate, gives a better picture of the facts than the modern myth that she is striving to change in one predetermined direction. Nevertheless, the fact that Nietzsche’s attention was fascinated by the will to grow and to dominate shows that he was in sympathy with young things, that his heart was big with the future, and that his age believed in progress.

The change from pessimism to optimism, verbally so complete, did not imply any divergence between Nietzsche and Schopenhauer in their description of the facts; it was all a matter of a little more spirit in the younger thinker and a little more conscience in the elder. Romantic poets and their heroes are well known to oscillate between passionate despair and passionate enterprise. Schopenhauer affected passionate despair, Nietzsche recommended passionate enterprise, each being wedded exclusively to one of those moods which Faust or Byron could feel alternately and reduce to act with all the dashing tumult of anarchy. The value which the world has in the eyes of its inhabitants is necessarily mixed, so that a sweeping optimism or pessimism can be only a theoretic pose, false to the natural sentiment even of those who assume it. Both are impressionistic judgments passed on the world at large, not perhaps without some impertinence.

Yet it is these poses or attitudes, or, if you like, these impertinences, that give importance to transcendental philosophers; it is their representative and contagious side; their views of things would concern us little, if it was the things themselves that we wished to understand, but our whole study is a study in romanticism. The temper of the age ignored that man is a teachable animal living in a natural world. All that was a vulgar convention; in truth a disembodied Will was directed on any and every ideal at random, and when any of these fantastic objects seemed to be attained nothing was really accomplished, nothing was accumulated or learned. The wish for some other will-o’-the-wisp immediately succeeded, always equally passionate and equally foolish.

It is amazing that such a picture of human experience should have met with anything but general derision; but when people read books they compare them with other books, and when they turn to things they forget books altogether. Hence the most palpable falsehoods are held by general consent at certain moments, because they follow logically from what the books of the previous generation had maintained. This absurdity of Schopenhauer’s is a plausible variation of idealism; to see how absurd it is you must remember the facts of life, the existence of any degree of civilisation or progress. In these the travail of human nature appears; for human nature is not merely a name for a certain set of passions known to literature; in that sense Schopenhauer fully acknowledged it, and even thought it immutable; it is rather the constitution of an animal capable of training and development. What is more patent than that a man may learn something by experience and may be trained? But if he can be trained he is capable of adaptation and, therefore, of happiness, and the preposterous assertion that all desires are equally arbitrary and equally fruitless is blown to the winds.

The belief in a romantic chaos lends itself to pessimism, but it also lends itself to absolute self-assertion. Kant had boasted that he had removed knowledge in order to make room for faith; in other words, he had returned to chaos in order to find freedom. The great egotists, who detested the pressure of a world they had not posited or created, followed gladly in that path; but Schopenhauer was not an egotist. Like Goethe he was probably more selfish personally than those other philosophers whom their very egotism had made zealous and single-minded; but in imagination and feeling he was, like Goethe, genial and humane: the freedom and exuberance of nature impressed him more than his own. Had he been an egotist, as Fichte, Hegel, and Nietzsche were, he might have been an optimist like them. He was rather a happy man, hugely enjoying a great many things, among them food and music; and he taught that music was a direct transcript of the tormented will to live. How simple it would have been for him, if he had been an egotist, to enjoy the spectacle of that tormented will as much as the music which was its faithful image! But no; such aesthetic cruelty, which was Nietzsche’s delight, would have revolted Schopenhauer. He thought tragedy beautiful because it detached us from a troubled world and did not think a troubled world good, as those unspeakable optimists did, because it made such a fine tragedy. It is pleasant to find that among all these philosophers one at least was a gentleman.

If Will is the sole substance or force in the universe, it must be present in everything that exists, yet Schopenhauer affirmed that it was absent in aesthetic contemplation; and he looked to an ultimate denial of the Will, which if it was to be an act and not merely a void would evidently be impossible on his principles. The Will might well say to those who attempted to deny it: “They reckon ill who leave me out; when me they fly, I am the wings.” In perceiving and correcting this contradiction, Nietzsche certainly improved the technique of the system.

Yet that contradiction was not substantial; it was verbal merely, and due to the fond use of the term Will for what might more properly be called matter, energy, or movement. Will taken in the metaphorical sense can never be in abeyance, so long as anything is going on; but will taken in its proper sense is in abeyance often; and this is what Schopenhauer saw and meant to say. Actual and conscious will is a passing phenomenon; it is so little necessary to life that it always disappears when life is at its height. All pure pleasures, including those of seeing and thinking, are without it: they are ingenuous, and terminate in their present object. A philosopher should have learned from Aristotle, if not from his own experience, that at the acme of life we live in the eternal, and that then, as Schopenhauer said, we no longer pry but gaze, and are freed from willing.

This is not to say that Nietzsche was not very happy and witty in his description of the passions that dominate artists and philosophers, and in urging that the life of the spirit was an impassioned thing. To prove it, he might have quoted Schopenhauer himself, in those moving passages where he describes the ecstasy of thought and the spell of beauty. It is not the dead or the bloodless that have such feelings. Of course, if the operations of the brain, and the whole instinctive life of the soul, were interrupted neither these feelings nor any others would arise. This was at bottom Schopenhauer’s conviction. His great intuition, the corner-stone of his philosophy, was precisely the priority of automatism and instinct over the intellect. His only error came from having given to these underlying processes the name of Will, when properly the will is one expression of them only, as the intellect is.

Nietzsche, who adopted the same metaphor, was led by it into the very confusion which he criticised in Schopenhauer. Nietzsche had no great technical competence: he saw the inconsistency only when he disliked the result; when the result fell in with his first impressions he repeated the inconsistency. He often condemned other moralists for being enemies to life: he reproached the greater part of mankind for loving inglorious ease and resenting the sufferings inseparable from the will to be mighty and to perish. But this churlish attitude of the vulgar would be quite impossible if the heroic will to be powerful were the essence of everybody and even of material things. If I am nothing but the will to grow, how can I ever will to shrink?

But this inconsistency in Nietzsche, like that in Schopenhauer, was an honourable one that came of forgetting a false generalisation in the presence of a clear fact. That the will to be powerful is everywhere was a false generalisation; but it was a clear fact that some people are pious Christians or Epicurean philosophers, who do not care at all about conquering the world. They want to be let alone, and perhaps have a shrewd suspicion that no one lives under such dire compulsions as he who undertakes to tyrannise over others. This slave-morality of theirs might be called Will, though it is rather instinct and habit; but it is certainly not a will to be powerful: it is the opposite of that passion. Thus Nietzsche, by an honest self-contradiction, pointed to people who denied the will to be powerful, in order to abuse them, just as Schopenhauer had pointed to people who denied or suspended the will to live, in order to praise them.