On the Basis of Morality/Translator's Introduction

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IN 1837 the Danish Royal Society of Sciences propounded, as subject for a prize competition, the question with which this treatise opens ; and Schopenhauer, who was glad to seize the opportunity of becoming better known, prepared, and sent to Copenhagen, the earliest form of " The Basis of Morality." In January, 1840, the work was pronounced unsuccessful, though there was no other candidate. In September of the same year it was published by the author, with only a few unimportant additions, but preceded by a long introduction, which, cast in the form of an exceedingly caustic philippic, is, in its way, a masterpiece. In 1860, (only a month before Schopenhauer's death,) the second edition was printed with many enlargements and insertions, the short preface, dated August being one of the last things he wrote.[1]

The reason why the prize was withheld is not far to seek, and need not detain us. At that time the philosophical atmosphere was saturated with Hegel, and, to a certain extent, with Fichte ; hence it is easy to imagine with what ruffled, not to say, scandalised feelings the Academy must have risen from its perusal of the work. Moreover, putting Hegel and Fichte out of the question, the position advanced was in 1840 so new, indeed so paradoxical (as Schopenhauer himself admits) ; there is at times such an aggressiveness in the style ; the whole essay is so much more calculated to startle than to conciliate; that we cannot feel much surprise at the official decision.

In the Judgment published by the Society three reasons are given for its unfavourable attitude. The second is declared to be not only dissatisfaction with the mode of discussion (ipsa disserendi forma), but also inability to see that Schopenhauer proves his case. As the third is alleged the "unseemly" language employed in connection with certain "summi philosophi" (Hegel and Fichte). These two objections are of course in themselves perfectly legitimate, and how far the Academy was right or wrong may be left for the reader to determine.

But the first reason stated is of a different kind, and affords as neat an instance of self-stultification proceeding ex cathedra as can well be found. It is true that the question is worded vaguely enough, but if it means anything, it asks where the "philosophiae moralis Jons et fundamentum" the foundation of moral science is to be sought for, i.e., where it is to be found. Turning to the Judgment we read : " He " (Schopenhauer) " has omitted to deal with the essential part of the question, apparently thinking that he was required to establish some fundamental principle of Ethics " : which he was required to do, unless the Society's Latin is borrowed from Ne<a\o- KOKtcisyia. And then it goes on to declare that he treated as secondary, indeed as an opus supererogationis, the very thing which the Academy intended should occupy the first place, namely, the connection between Metaphysics and Ethics.[2] But the "metaphysicae et ethicae nexus," so far from being formulated in the question as the chief point to be considered, is not even mentioned! The Society thus denies having asked what it actually did ask, while the discussion, which it asserts was specially indicated, is not suggested by a single word. Its embarrassment is sufficiently shown by this unworthy shifting, to enlarge upon which would here be out of place.[3]

It is not intended to offer any criticism either on Schopenhauer's main position in this essay, or on the various side-issues involved. The reader is supposed to be accurately acquainted with the fundamentals of his philosophy, as contained in Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellurig, and is invited to be the critic himself. But perhaps a few remarks on the structure and general trend of the work may not be amiss.

After preliminary considerations, partly to show the difficulty of the subject, partly to clear the ground (Part I.), the treatise opens with a searching critique of Kant's Ethical Basis, of the Leading Principle of his system, and of its derived forms. (Part II., Chapters I. -VI.)[4] Schopenhauer's conclusion is that the Categorical Imperative is a very cleverly woven web, yet in reality nothing but the old theological basis in disguise, the latter being the indispensable, if invisible, clothes' peg for the former ; and that Kant's tour de main of deducing his Moral Theology from Ethics is like inverting a pyramid. The theory of Conscience is next discussed (Chapter VII.). The half-supernatural element which Kant introduced under the highly dramatic form of a court of justice holding ing secret session in the breast, is examined, and eliminated ; and Conscience is defined as the knowledge that we have of ourselves through our acts.

But if, so far, the result obtained is distinctly unfavourable to Kant, Schopenhauer is glad to agree with him on one point, namely, the theory of Freedom, to a brief notice of which he now passes (Chapter VIII.). He points out that the solution of this question is found in the doctrine of the coexistence of Liberty and Necessity : according to which the basis of our nature, the so-called Intelligible Character, that lies outside the forms attaching to phaenomena, namely, Time, Space, and Causality, is transcendentally free ; while the Empirical Character, together with the whole person, being, as a phaenomenon, the transient objectivation of the Intelligible Character, under the laws of the principium individuationis, is strictly determined.[5] Part II. closes with a sufficiently amusing examination of Fichte (Chapter IX.). His proper function is shown to be that of a magnifying glass for Kant. By means of this powerful human lens we can see the monstrous shapes into which the Kantian pet creations are capable of developing. Thus we find the Categorical Imperative become a Despotic Imperative, the " Absolute Ought " grown into a fathomless inscrutable Eifj,ap/jLwr), etc.

With Part III. we reach the positive part of the work. Schopenhauer begins (Chapter I.) by emphasising the necessity of finding a basis for Ethics that appeals, not to the intellect, but to the intuitive perception. Such (he says) can never be any artificial formula, which surely crumbles to powder beneath the rough touch of real life ; rather must it be something springing out of the heart of things, and therefore lying at the root of man's nature. But is there, he asks (Chapter II.), after all, such a thing as natural morality ? Is anything good ever done absolutely without an egoistic motive? The conclusion arrived at is that, although much may be, and has been, at all times, said in favour of the Sceptical View, and although this view is in fact true as regards the greater number of apparently unselfish acts, yet there can be no doubt that truly moral conduct does occur, that deeds of justice and loving-kindness are occasionally performed without the smallest hope of reward, or fear of punishment involved in their omission. The last paragraph of this chapter is important because it puts in the clearest light what, according to Schopenhauer, is the end of Ethics. Its aim, he says, is not to treat of that which people ought to do (for " ought " has no place except in theological Morals, whether explicit, or implicit) ; but l: to point out all the varied moral lines of human conduct ; to explain them ; and to trace them to their ultimate source." This definition, which assigns no educative function to Ethics, strictly agrees with the doctrine of the unchangeableness of character. (F. Chapter IX. of this Part.)

Our philosopher then proceeds to show (Chapter III.) that there are two fundamental " antimoral " incentives in man's nature : Egoism and Malice. Be it, however, here remarked that a still simpler classification would reduce these two to one. Malice may well be regarded as nothing but Egoism carried to its extreme, developed to gigantic proportions. It is a distinct source of gratification to certain natures to witness the suffering of another ; because a diminution of the latter' s capacity for action, whether effected by itself, or not, is regarded by an ego of this kind as an increase of its own power to do as it likes, as an enhancement of its own glorification.

In Chapter IV. the ultimate test of truly moral conduct is explained to be the absence of all egoistic motivation ; and in Chapters V.-VIL, by a process of careful reasoning, every human act is traced to one of three original springs, namely, (1) Egoism, (2) Malice, and (3) Compassion ; or to a combination of (1) and (3), or (1) and (2).[6] Of these the third is shown to be the only counter-motive to the first and second, and in fact the sole source of the two cardinal virtues, justice and loving-kindness, which are explained as the manifestation of Compassion in a lower, and a higher, degree, respectively. In the course of the demonstration the question as to how far a lie is legitimate comes incidentally under discussion ; as also the theory of Duty ; duties being defined as "actions, the simple omission of which constitutes a wrong." (Cf. Part II., Chapter III.)

The position now reached, namely, that Compassion is the one and only fount of true morality, because it is the sole non-egoistic source of action, is (says Schopenhauer) a strange paradox ; hence the testimony of experience and of universal human sentiment is appealed to, in confirmation of it, under nine different considerations (Chapter VIII.). They are as follows :

(1) An imaginary case.

(2) Cruelty, which means the maximum deficiency in Compassion, is the mark of the deepest moral depravity. Therefore the real moral incentive must "be Compassion.

(3) Compassion is the only thoroughly effective spring of moral conduct.

(4) Limitless Compassion for all living things is the surest and most certain token of a really good man.

(5) The evidence of separate matters of detail.

(6) Compassion is more easily discerned in its higher power ; it is more obviously the root of loving-kindness- than of justice.

(7) Compassion does not stop short with men ; it 'includes all living beings.

(8) Considered simply from the empirical point of view, Compassion is the best possible antidote to Egoism, no less than the most soothing balsam for the world's inevitable suffering.

(9) Rousseau's testimony is quoted, as well as. passages from the Paiiea-tantra, Pausanias, Lucian, Stobaeus, and Lessing ; and reference is made to Chinese Ethics and Hindu customs.

Part III. closes (Chapter IX.) with an inquiry into the Ethical Difference of Character. The theory that this difference is innate and immutable is supported by numerous extracts from various writers of all periods, and illustrated in many ways. But all the evidence accumulated hardly amounts to more than so many hints and indications, and the matter (says Schopenhauer) was only satisfactorily explained by Kant's doctrine of the Intelligible and Empirical Character. (Cf. Part II., Chapter VIII.) According to this, the ethical difference between man and man is an original and ultimate datum, caused by the transcendentally free act of the Intelligible Character, that is, the Will, as Thing in itself, outside phaeno- mena ; the Empirical Character being, so to say, the reflection of the Intelligible, mirrored through the functions of our perceptive faculty, namely, Time,. Space, and Causality. Hence the former, while manifested in plurality and difference of acts, yet necessarily always wears the same unchangeable features, inasmuch as it is but the appearance-form of the unity behind. If the reader asks why " the essential constitution of the Thing in itself under- lying the phaenomenon " is so enorrnousty different in different individuals, it can only be said that our intellect, conditioned, as it is, by the laws of Causality, Space, and Time, has no power to deal with noumena, its range being limited to phaeaomena ; and that therefore this question is one of those which have no conceivable answer. (Cf. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, vol. ii., chap. 50., Epiphilosophie.)[7]

The discussion now terminated points to the conclusion that nine-tenths, or perhaps nineteen- twentieths, of what we do is, more or less, due to Egoism, conscious or unconscious ; while acts of real morality, that is, of unselfish justice and pure loving-kindness (admitting that they occur) are to be attributed to Compassion, that is, the sense of suffering with another. Nor is the principle of Altruism new. It is as old as man himself. All the rare and sensitive natures in the world have given utterance to it, each in his own way. Like a golden thread it runs from the earliest Indian literature to George Eliot, to Tolstoi ; and every day, for un- numbered ages, " from youth to eld, from sire to son," in lowly dwellings and in princes' palaces, it has been unawares translated into action.

And if we may forecast the future from the past, it would appear that in all the stormy seas yet to be traversed by the human race, before its little day is spent, Compassion will ever be the surest guide to better things ; and that the light of knowledge illuminating the path, whereby the world may become relatively happier, will always vary directly as man's susceptibility to its promptings : for "Durch Mitleid wissend" is not truer of Parsifal than of all other saviours.

In the fourth Part of the treatise Schopenhauer attempts the metaphysical explanation of Compassion, which for those, who still think that Metaphysics is something more than a pseudo-science of the past--like Alchemy or Astrology--will have special interest.

It should be observed (as is pointed out in our author's Preface to the first edition) that the line of thought followed does not belong to any particular meta- physical school, but to many ; being in fact a principle at the root of the oldest systems in the world, and traceable in one form or another down to Kant. As in the dawn of history it was our own Aryan fore- fathers, who divined with subtle intuition the ideality of Time and Space ; so in the fulness of the ages it was reserved for another Aryan of Scotch descent to formulate the same in exact language. Now, by the vast majority of men the ideality of the principium individuationis is undoubtedly either not consciously realised at all, or else but dimly perceived under the form of allegories and mythologies. Yet, if this theory be true, if individuation be only a phaenomenon depending on the subjectivity of Time and Space, then Compassion, and its external expression, the ajaTTij that is greater than Faith and Hope, receive their final explanation. And every evdavaata ; every word that vibrates in harmony with the inspired rhapsody of 1 Corinthians xiii. ; every act of genuine justice, or of true loving-kindness, done by man to man, as well as the uplifting emotion which stirs our hearts at the sight of such conduct :--all these things become fraught with a new and luminous significance : the secret writing is interpreted, its deepest meaning disclosed.

Moreover, the " thou shalt," and the " thou shalt not," no less of the various theologies than of the Categorical Imperative, may from this point of view be accounted for, on the ground of the identity of man, so far as he is noumenal, with the transcendental Reality behind phaenomena. The crude threats of punishment and promises of reward, the stern Moral Law, poised in mid air, these hypotheses, and all their varieties (whose function is in reality nothing else but to check Egoism), are seen to be due to the intellect's imperfect comprehension of, or rather, its vague groping after, the transcendental unity of life, however individualised and differentiated as a phaenomenon in Time and Space.[8] It thus becomes apparent that the position developed by Schopenhauer in the third and fourth parts of the Essay is not so much destructive, as explanatory, of the usual theories, which, if once the former be fully grasped, lose themselves in it as stars and moon in the light of day. They are at once interpreted, and shown to be no longer of importance. Similarly, all the religions of the world, " which are the Metaphysics of the people," find their raison d'etre in the same doctrine. The theory of an external bjfuovprfa takes its place as the natural mode of denoting, in children's language, the internal metaphysical Entity, whose appearance-form, in terms of our consciousness, is called the Universe. The circle is completed ; the discords vanish, and an ultimate harmony is reached. And so over the thrice-tangled skein of phaenominal existence a simplifying and integrating light is shed, showing that the irav is but the reflection of the ev, under the forms of our faculty of perception, namely, Time, Space, and Causality forms, which necessarily imply plurality and change, on which, again, in the last resort the Welt-Schmerz depends.

"The One remains, the many change and pass;

Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments."

"What an unspeakable gain," says Richard Wagner,[9] "we should bring to those who are terrified by the threats of the Church, and, on the other hand, to those who are reduced to despair by our physicists, if we could quicken the noble edifice of 'Love, Faith, and Hope,' with a clear consciousness of the ideality of the world, conditioned by the laws of Space and Time, which form the sole basis of our perceptive capacity! In that case all anxious inquiries as to a 'Where' and 'When' of the 'other world' would be understood to be only answerable by a blissful smile. For, if there is a solution to these questions, which seem of such boundless importance, our philosopher has given it with incomparable precision and beauty in the following sentence, which, to a certain extent, is only a corollary to the definition of the ideality of Time and Space: 'Peace, Rest, and Bliss dwell only there where there is no where, and no when." (V. Schopenhauer : Parerga, and Paralipomena, vol. ii., chap. 3, 30 bis.)


  1. He died September 21st.
  2. It should be noticed that this "essential part of the question," a few lines before, is said to have been passed over altogether (omisso enim eo, quod potissimum postulabatur).
  3. Any one who cares to see how this Judgment, the Danish Royal Society of Sciences, Hegel, Fichte, and " Professors of Philosophy" in general, are all pulverised together under our sage's withering wrath and trenchant irony, should read his Introduction to each Edition.
  4. Incidentally (Chapter III.), duties towards ourselves, properly so called, are shown to be non-existent from the Schopenhauerian standpoint. Cf. the definition of Duty in Part III., Chapter VI.
  5. Schopenhauer treated this subject exhaustively in his Essay on " The Freedom of the Will," which, written immediately before, and more fortunate than, the present treatise, was awarded the prize by the Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences in January, 1839.
  6. If, as above suggested, Malice be taken as a form of Egoism, we may simplify as follows : Egoism. Compassion. (a) Lower power : seen in (a) Lower power : seen in selfishness, covetousness, etc. justice. (b) Higher power : seen in (b) Higher power : seen in malice, cruelty, etc. loving-kindness. Egoism (not in its higher power) may be simultaneously operative with Compassion in every possible proportion.
  7. V. Also the Neue Paralipomena, chap. vii. ; Zur JSthik, 248, where Schopenhauer calls this " the hardest of all problems. 1 ' On the one hand, we have the metaphysical unity of the Will, as Thing in itself, which, as the Intelligible Character, is present, whole and undivided, in all phaenomena, in every individual ; on the other hand, we find, as a fact of experience, the widest possible difference in the Empirical Character, no less of animals than of men. That is to say, "difference" must be predicated of the Thing in itself! It is obvious that we here touch a contradiction, which, for the rest, lies at the root of the Schopenhauerian doctrine of the Will.
  8. The reader will remember the fine poetic presentment of this view of things, which Goethe with intuitive perception gives in the Faust, Part I., where the Erdgeist says : " So schaff' ich am sausenden WEBSTUHL DEE ZEIT, Und wirke DEB. GOTTHEIT LEBENDIGES KLEID."
  9. V. Gesammelte Schriften und Dichtungen von Richard Wagner. Zweite Auflage, vol. x. " Was niitzt diese Erkenntnis ? " p. 361 : Welchen unsdglichen Gewinn wiirden wir aber den einerseits von den Drohungen der Kirche Erschreckten, andererseits den durch unsere Physiker zur Verzweiflung Gebrachten zufiihren, wenn wir dem erhabenen Gebdude von " Liebe, Glaube und Hoffnung " eine deutliche Erkenntniss der, durch die unserer Wahrnehmung einzig zu Grunde liegenden Gesetze des Raumes und der Zeit bedingten, Idealitdt der Welt einfugen konnten, durch welche dann alle die Fragen des bedngstigten Gemuthes nach einem " Wo " und " Wann " der " anderen Welt " cds nur durch ein seliges Lacheln beantwortbar erkannt werden mussten? Denn, giebt es auf diese, so grenzenlos wichtig diinkenden Fragen eine Antwort, so hat sie unser Philosoph, mit unubertrefflicher Prazision und Schonheit, mit diesem, gewissermaassen nur der Definition der Idealitdt von Zeit und Raum beigegebenen Aussjyruche ertheilt : " Frieda, Ruhe, und Gluckseligkeit wohnt allein da, wo es KEIN wo UND KEIN WANN giebt"