Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/December 1872/A New Phase of German Thought I

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search





IN an age like ours, when philosophical criticism, applied to all ideas, has dissipated most of the fictitious charms lent to existence by the imagination of mankind—when the advance of science leads us more and more to look on the world as it is—when, no longer able to find consolation in creeds and myths, we grow more closely and constantly familiar with inflexible reality, there is no reason for surprise if, in the moment of reaction from the illusions of the past, certain spirits, unable to keep the golden mean, permit themselves to be led captive by exaggerations of quite another kind, and, taking the leap over realism, fall into a pessimism which shows things to them, no longer such as they are, with the impress of facts, hard and brutal enough already, upon them, but even more sad and evil than the reality. But we may well think it strange that such exaggerations, heavy discouragements as they are to humanity, should win their growth and start into theories in the very country of Leibnitz, and of systematic optimism—the country seemingly destined, by the political events of our times, to lead all others in giving brightness and cheer to all judgments of the aspect of the world.

There has arisen in Germany a philosophic school built on the belief that, in existence taken as a whole, evil prevails over good—a school that sighs for the annihilation of being as the sole relief from its miseries. It is one of Cousin's most just remarks that the path of German metaphysics, opened by Kant, must find its logical issue in nihilism. Indeed, the romantic writers, relying on Schelling's half-mystical system, did not hesitate to preach a sort of quietist indolence as the highest aim given to man to reach. Thus Schlegel, with other critics of the same school, was led to envy for man "the divine idleness and happy life of plants and flowers;" and, in his famous work "On the Language and Wisdom of the Indians" (Heidelberg, 1808), to admire the calm and passionless life of Oriental ascetics. Homer, whom romanticism had already sacrificed to Ossian, saw himself ere long dethroned by Buddha. The political events of this lower world had no power to shake souls permeated by so lazy a wisdom. Yet it was the hour of storms raging everywhere—the hour for the crash and downfall of the old Germanic edifice, when Austria and Prussia trembled for their threatened successive overthrow under the blows of Napoleon; but all this mattered little to those mystic spirits who persisted in living in an ideal world, careless of French bayonets, or the embargo, or the Confederation of the Rhine. They averted their looks, especially from those low creatures who struggle on the earth's surface to win their bread, and proclaimed that the perfection of the science of life is to do nothing. It is true these fine theories were put forth in a highly-emphatic style, which provoked Richter's raillery, and gave a flat contradiction to the quietist doctrines they upheld.

In 1819, Schopenhauer's great work appeared, "The World regarded as a Manifestation and a Will." Though this philosopher was an independent thinker, disconnected with any school, he too had yielded to the influence of Eastern studies. "I have been fortunate enough," he said, "to be initiated into the Vedas, access to which was opened to me by the Upanishad's, a great enlargement of my mental vision, for I believe this age is destined to receive from Sanscrit literature as strong an impulse as the sixteenth century owed to the revival of the Greeks." Foucher de Careil, who had occasion to visit Schopenhauer, relates that "he had imported at great expense a Buddha, and showed it to his visitors with mischievous pride. He had no patience with English missionaries who undertake to convert their elders in religion." According to Schopenhauer, there is nothing but wretchedness in the world; evil alone is positive; pleasure is a mere negation of pain, and thus has no reality. As to happiness, it is an empty word—progress, a sheer Utopia; history, nothing more than the long-drawn-out torment of humanity's nightmare. What is life? A fabric that is not worth what it costs—an endless hunt in which, sometimes pursuing, sometimes pursued, men fight over the fragments of their slain victims—a war of all against all, bellum omnium contra omnes—death discounted, Parmenides called it and, to sum up all, a sort of natural history of misery, that may be thus rendered in brief: "To wish without a motive; always to suffer; always to strive; and then to die, and so over and over again 'in sæcula sæculorum,' till the crust of our planet scales away into little bits." What are the practical consequences of such teaching? That the mere fact of being born is a misfortune, and that to give life to a new being is a bad action. Hence, this strange analysis of modesty: "See these two beings whose glances seek each other. Why that mystery they shroud themselves in? Why their timid and shamefaced air? Because they are two traitors, who fly to the darkness to perpetuate in another all those tortures and sorrows that would reach a speedy end but for their treachery. And there will always be such criminals, who will ogle and caress after the same fashion, to perpetuate life, to live again in another being." And what is the moral principle of the system? Pity; nothing else than pity. The ascending series of living beings ends with man, because a being superior to man, and more intelligent, would not consent to live and keep up this wretched comedy a single day. The aim of philosophy is to enlighten man as to his deplorable condition—to inspire him with longing to be annihilated, and never again to live after death, under any form whatever, and to unfold to him at length the means of gaining this annihilation. Remark that in all these teachings there is not a trace of sportiveness, none of the ironic sallies of the humorist, the inspiration of a misanthropic fit; temperament has nothing to do in producing them. We are brought face to face with a profoundly and learnedly elaborated system, one that criticism must treat with all gravity. Is this the dawn of a Western Buddhism? Are the European offshoots of the Aryan race, like their brothers of the East, about to aspire to the supreme Nirvana, and petrify themselves in asceticism?

It is a fact that Schopenhauer did not remain an isolated phenomenon. The pessimist doctrine gathered a school, and we might name its distinguished disciples—the Frauenstadts, the Gwiners, the Ashers. The book before us is one full of vigorous discussion, first published in 1869, repeated in the fourth edition already, which has made a powerful impression in Germany, and would assuredly have been heard of in France if the deplorable events of later years had not distracted attention from speculative studies. The book we speak of is the "Philosophy of the Unconscious," by Edward de Hartmann.

Though Hartmann adopts a very different system of metaphysics from Schopenhauer's, he admits having borrowed from that philosopher the point of departure of his system; his moral views are similar, if not identical; he has the same fellow-feeling with Eastern philosophies, the same pessimist color in his view of the world and of existence in general. Besides, Hartmann announces himself as a disciple of Schelling, and thus links himself with the romantic school. Just as he has a strongly-marked leaning toward eclecticism, and fancies he can reconcile the two systems of Hegel and of Schopenhauer, so too he attempts to fuse together optimism and pessimism: but it is for the sake of maintaining that even in the best of possible worlds, which naturally is our own, evil still prevails immeasurably over good. For him, as for Plato, for the old religions, existence is a fall. The human race, like all beings in the universe, is the prey of many miseries while tasting but few joys, and the advance of philosophy consists in gaining an ever-clearer conviction of this sad truth. Meanwhile, man is deluded by instincts that make him cling to life, and urge him to cares for its preservation and reproduction. These instincts are a divine blessing, since they were necessary to keep life going, to make civilization possible, to give man time for climbing toward philosophic intelligence, and in a word to invest triumphant science with the power to unseal his eyes to the wretchedness of his state: man at the outset must needs be sustained by the delusive love of life, that he might some day win the power of willing, not merely his own non-existence, which Schopenhauer contented himself with, but the non-existence of the whole race too, and even, if we clearly take in Hartmann's doctrine, the annihilation of all real being. When sufficiently enlightened, man will acknowledge the vanity of his desires, and let himself die of disgust. If high intellects, great poets, thinkers of genius, are for the most part melancholy, it is because they draw nearer to the truth than the ignorant crowd, ruled wholly by its instincts. The discovery that life is unendurable is pregnant perhaps with awful catastrophes for the future; the masses will grow more and more restive in their misery; formerly they felt little of it except when their stomachs grumbled, but the older the world gets, the more threateningly the spectre of pauperism rises. The social question of our time rests, in the last analysis, only on the stronger sense of their sufferings that has seized the working-classes, although their situation is a golden one compared with what it was two centuries ago, when the social question had no existence. And yet the rich are even more to be pitied than the poor, the educated classes more than the ignorant, for the same reason that fools are generally happier than people of sense, and the savage happier than the civilized races. Happiness, in fact, is in an inverse ratio to the quantity of existence, and the more developed, the less coarse, a man's nervous system is, the more he suffers; now, the progress of humanity, wealth, culture of mind, multiply man's needs and refine his nervous sensibility. Wretchedness grows, then, with the consciousness of wretchedness. But, thanks to the sovereign wisdom of the unconscious principle that rules the universe, the world will at last arrive, through social cataclysms and by force of that very conviction of its misery, at annihilation, which will be the term of all its woes.

Hartmann seems, therefore, to concede the position to those who argue that religions and creeds in general are all that has made human life endurable and civilization possible. There will be more minds ready to accept his testimony in favor of the usefulness of illusions than there will be to adopt that Utopia of annihilation which in his view must take their place in the future. Three grand illusions have in turn sustained humanity, up to this day: The first, the illusion of childhood and the ancient world, consisted in the dream that happiness might be actually attained by the individual, and during the present life. The second illusion, which replaced this, was the fancy that the individual will attain happiness after his death, in a life transcending the present. The last is the grand modern illusion, that of progress, which teaches that happiness, as it cannot be the individual's aim, either in this life or in another, must be sought for the species in the future of humanity, in the evolution of the world. To all these illusions succeeds the deception of humanity's old age, reaching the term of its development of consciousness, and recognizing at last that happiness is nothing else than the absence of pain, and can only be realized by the annihilation of being.

Hartmann takes care to warn his readers that they deceive themselves if they look for consolation and hope in philosophy. For such objects, books of religion exist. But philosophy pursues truth exclusively, careless whether its acquirement sustains or contradicts the sentiments inspired by the illusions of instinct. Philosophy is hard, cold, insensible as stone. Floating in the ether of pure thought, it gravitates toward the icy knowledge of existence, its causes, and its nature. And if man fails in the moral strength to endure the overwhelming results of his thought, if his heart yields to the spasm of despair, if he gives himself up to desolation, what will philosophy do? Will it revive his courage? No! it will merely note down these facts of despair and desolation as a precious contribution to its materials for physiological observation. And when, on the other hand, meditation upon the truth fills stronger souls with sacred indignation and noble rage, a repressed wrath against this empty masquerade of existence or if that wrath breaks into bursts of Mephistophelian humor, or pours its disdainful pity, mingled with irony, upon the unfortunates cheated with the shows of happiness as upon those who yield to despair—when, at last, the soul, bracing its strength to fight this fatality, discerns a plain escape and issue from this hell—these again are but facts which philosophy, still calm and impassive, verifies and records, and its work is done.

We readily admit that there is a grandeur in these ideas of humanity and philosophy. But the critic's duty is, to ascertain whether they are correct, and do not merely create still a new illusion to add to those the world has hitherto been cradled in—one equally empty with the rest, and only perhaps differing from them by the disadvantage of being far less cheerful and helpful to humanity. As it relates to the world's progress, all these systems may be reduced to two classes: on the one side, those which hold up the universe as tending toward a designed aim, and guided by an intelligent principle toward a providential end, such as the realization of happiness for the individual, or a certain perfection of humanity, or, still more generally, some kind of cosmic condition: on the other side must be placed all those systems according to which the world is not moving toward a foreseen and chosen end, and is ruled only by the force of things, intelligence itself, wherever it is manifested, being nothing more than a resultant and a particular phenomenon. According to these latter systems, if humanity and our world were to come to an end, these results would only flow from the necessary relations between the facts of the universe; and these systems, if they are pantheistic ones, can find a very clear expression for their doctrine in the formula that the occurrences of the universe have as their principle not a divine will, but merely the eternal nature of God.

Hartmann, who belongs, at several points, to the traditioned spiritualistic philosophy, displays a strong attachment to the idea of an intelligence presiding over the destiny of the world. Although a pantheist, he continually reasons as a mere deist, a contradiction which seems to us to be the source of most of his errors. His God, who is supremely wise, omniscient, and prescient, but who is not omnipotent, for he had not the power to prevent the production of this evil world, ought a priori to govern every thing toward the best end. Now, this end cannot be individual happiness, for the individual dies, and Hartmann does not admit the survival of personality. It cannot be the perfection of the race, for humanity is doomed to perish whenever the burnt-out sun shall cease to furnish its conditions of existence. Must the end proposed by Providence be sought for in the destiny of our world itself? But modern science teaches us that the world also is doomed to inevitable destruction. Thus, from the necessity of rejecting all these positive ends, nothing remained but to seek the solution of the problem in a purely negative end, and this is what Hartmann, following Schopenhauer, has undertaken. The best possible end for the world is its annihilation, and it is toward this term of all evils that the supreme intelligence is leading us.

To establish the truth of this doctrine, Hartmann has elaborated his theory of the unconscious. Is it science? or is it really nothing else than a metaphysical romance? It is this that we propose in the next part to investigate.