Bodhi Sunday: Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

Our annual Bodhi Sunday service is about Buddhism, that Eastern religious tradition or philosophy which has shaped us so much. It has shaped us as individuals, and our Unitarian movement collectively, in ways we may not even be conscious of. Its influence runs deep. This morning then, I want to begin not in India, not with the historical Buddha of the 5th Century BCE as I have done in previous years, but rather begin in 19th Century Europe, as that is the point that Western thinkers began to consider for the first time the teachings of the Buddha.

In Europe at this time, across the landscape of ideas, there was a war taking place. On one side were all those who were proponents of Enlightenment-type thinking, concerned with reason, the scientific method, progress, and liberty. But in reaction against that, or in an attempt to modify the impulses of the enlightenment, there was a counter enlightenment movement, known as Romanticism, which critiqued Enlightenment-type thinking. If the heart of the Enlightenment was ‘reason’, the heart of Romanticism was a desire to view reason as but one tool in our efforts to understand things. One tool that has been overemphasized to the exclusion of other critical sources of authority, such as beauty, sentiment, intuition, Nature, and/or tradition. This intellectual and cultural fault-line is essentially the fertile soil out from which our own Unitarian movement has sprung. Negotiating that fault-line, as a liberal religion, is our perennial problem to bear.

So, it’s into this landscape of ideas in the early 19th Century that an interest in far-eastern spirituality, mainly in Buddhism, sprung up, and the principal forerunner here was the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer’s philosophy is essentially a Western recasting of Buddhism. So the central claims within Buddhism are the four-noble truths: (1) that life is suffering, (2) that we suffer because of our cravings, (3) that we can escape the cycle of suffering, if (4) we follow the way of the Buddha - his eightfold path to enlightenment, or nirvana (which is a transcendent state free from desire and suffering).

Schopenhauer wholly embraced the first of these principles, that life is suffering. His philosophy can come across as deeply pessimistic, as you can see from the quote I gave you, that “Life has no intrinsic worth, but is kept in motion merely by desire and illusion.” According to Schopenhauer, this is the nature of our world; we’re constantly trying satisfy base institutional needs, and the world resists us, and thus we suffer. This drive within us, Schopenhauer calls the will-to-life, those unconscious forces within which direct our course in this world. We are at the mercy of this Will, following it blindly. Perhaps for a time our cravings will be satisfied and we will experience happiness, or perhaps it will run against us, and we will experience misery. Either way, we are subjected to this aimless universal Will, and along the way we cannot help but fixate upon the negative. Schopenhauer puts it like this, ‘Just as we are conscious not of the healthiness of our whole body but only of the little place where the shoe pinches, so we think not of the totality of our successful activities but of some insignificant trifle or other which continues to vex us.’ Something in our nature causes us to be drawn, above all else, to the minutiae of our suffering, and as such we lose all perspective, and we become lost in that suffering.

Schopenhauer then is asking us to accept suffering as an innate reality, part of the human condition, and to be expected. The idea is that if we expect it, we reorder ourselves in line with the true nature of things, and if we ruminate upon the true nature of things, the universal reality of suffering, particularly in as far as that is reflected and encapsulate in the arts, through music, and poetry, we cannot help but inculcate within ourselves a universal compassion for others. And in sublime moments of heightened awareness, though but a glimpse, we can quieten our impulses (those drives bubbling up from beneath), and inhabit a stillness, a tolerance, a good-will, and a sympathetic eye towards the human race. So, like a stone hitting the still water, Buddhism, in large part by way of Schopenhauer, burst onto the European and Western scene. And these ideas sent ripples across the landscape of ideas, impacting a variety of different disciplines, artistic scenes, movements, and other strands of thought.

The list of people directly influenced by Schopenhauer is a long one, but the ripples of his influence beyond specific individuals is incalculable. You could follow these ripples down a multitude of avenues; no doubt his ideas have shaped schools of philosophy, literary and artistic trends, and even science. Einstein considered Schopenhauer a big influence on him for example. But I’m obviously biased, and so, I’m interested in particular with the way Schopenhauer has influenced my two passions, namely, psychoanalytic theory on one hand, and our own Unitarian movement on the other. In both cases, his influence had to do with the role of unconscious elements, what Schopenhauer termed the will-to-life. The idea of there being currents running deep within us, which we’re not even consciously aware of, influencing the way we live and act, and experience being in the world. Now what the nature of the unconscious is, at this time, is an evolving concept. For Schopenhauer, the will-to-life is an unconscious force which propels us chaotically and blindly in a bewildered state into the world. For Schopenhauer it's mainly a negative thing, forging within us these irrational cravings which surface as wants we cannot satisfy. Hence our perpetual suffering.

And what did Schopenhauer want us to do with our perpetual suffering? He wanted us to recognise the universal nature of it, that this universal Will within us, compelling us towards our suffering, is not just in me, it's in you as well. It’s in everyone and everything, and in contending with our universal suffering we can inculcate that compassion and love I mentioned. This process is not unlike what therapy sets out to achieve. Therapy does not teach you techniques to avoid or diminish your suffering; quite the opposite, its sets out to have you confront the reality of your suffering, by breaking that suffering down into smaller components, into the various ways that suffering manifests for you personally, and confronting it face to face. So that you can get a clearer picture of the nature of your own suffering, and by doing that, we build up our own character, our own good-will, and make ourselves more robust, increase our capacity to look upon ourselves with more compassion, and practice holding to our own suffering in a lighter way. As a side note – that is why a lot of this ‘we must avoid causing offence at all costs’ is quite problematic. We make people healthier by increasing their capacity to contend with suffering, not by magicking suffering away, or isolating ourselves from it. But there’s obviously a balance to be had there, as that point in isolation could be used rationalise and justify all manner of bigotry and stupidity.

Emerson (1803-1882)

Emerson (1803-1882)

Okay, so moving forward in time, the reality of the unconscious is of course taken up by Adler, Freud, and Jung, and psychoanalytic theory is born. And none of that was possible without Schopenhauer, which is to say none of that was possible without the influence of Buddhism creeping in. When it comes to Schopenhauer’s influence on Unitarianism, we’re starting with the impact his ideas had upon the American transcendentalist movement, the likes of Emerson and so on, and then of course, the transcendentalist perspective seeped into our Unitarian identity more broadly. I’ll say a little about transcendentalism: transcendentalism is an American literary, political, but mostly philosophical movement which arose in the early 19th Century, while Schopenhauer was alive and writing in Europe. It arose in reaction against the stuffiness of late 18th Century Unitarianism. It’s basically the cultural and religious manifestation of that cultural fault-line I mentioned earlier. The stuffy Unitarians were the overly rational, enlightenment-based brand of Unitarians, very reason orientated, whereas the Transcendentalists were the more open, Romanticism-shaped manifestation, the father of which was the Unitarian minister turned public intellectual Ralph Waldo Emerson, and all those who were subsequently within his sphere of influence.  

So, Emerson read Schopenhauer. It’s almost impossible to dissect, however, what ideas of Emerson came directly from Schopenhauer, or what ideas Emerson gleaned directly from his own engagement with the Buddhist tradition. Almost certainly a bit of both. But nonetheless Emerson found Schopenhauer’s ideas compelling, though Emerson never wholly bought into Schopenhauer’s philosophy, seeing it as excessive pessimistic, and Emerson being ever the optimist. Again, this comes back to the nature of the unconscious – Emerson believed this was an important component to understanding philosophy and our world in general, but didn’t buy into Schopenhauer’s atheistic and anarchic will-to-life understanding. One evening, in 1864, Emerson copied into his notebook a passage he read from Schopenhauer. To quote:  "My great discovery, is, to show how, at the bottom of all things, there is only one identical <law> force, always equal, & ever the same, which slumbers in plants, awakens in animals, but finds its consciousness only in man--the Will". This idea appealed to Emerson so much because he believed that there was a unitary force at work within our world, the One behind the Many, Emerson’s Over-soul. This force however differed from Schopenhauer’s will-to-life in one very critical way: it was not a blind, irrational force, flailing its way through us, but rather a moral, divine principle – in some sense directing things towards the good, with “plans to prosper you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Emerson and Schopenhauer both acknowledge the importance of suffering in human existence, and both agreed that experiences of the sublime, whether in Nature or in the arts, could momentarily alleviate such pain. But ultimately there was a gulf between their positions. For Schopenhauer, who was dubbed the “German Buddha”, his ideas were ultimately build upon pessimism, and a compassion arising out from a deep sense of a world which is “Meaningless! Meaningless!” whereas Emerson had ever a great hope in that Over-soul, that unconscious force behind all, and affirming life.

As to which of these I personally find the more compelling, Schopenhauer’s will-to-life, or Emerson’s Over-soul, I would struggle to say. At times of optimism I discern the reality of the latter, and in times of sorrow the former. I recognise both, here in the central symbol of our movement, here in our chalice. To me, this flame represents that unconscious unitary force. Is it a blind force, or a divine principle at work? Well the flame can be both, can it not? Fire can be a beacon which leads the way, and fire can be a blind, irrational force, with destructive power. Either way we respond in compassion and love, because our love gives meaning to a meaningless world, or because a meaningful world inculcates love within us. May it be so.


Lewis Connolly