Schopenhauer and solitude

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer is considered dry and cerebral, but given his era and his discovery of the import of eastern philosophy on western ideas, he was groping carefully along a tenuous cliff. That is why he is revealing of self and thought in his aphorisms. As in those under the label of “Familiarity and Interdependence,” “On the Wisdom of Life,” and “Genius and Virtue,” we see his professional — and certainly personal — isolation. He muses on the obligations of socialability and the inevitability of posturing and witholding and courtesies. Who could be trusted to be honest and insightful? That is why, he concludes, “monks and the like, who have given up the world and are strangers to it, are such good people to turn to for advice.”

In the second-named section of aphorisms, Schopenhauer acknowledges what Nietzsche discovered but which German philosophers in general especially experienced:

Men of great intellectual worth, or, still more, men of genius, can have only very few friends … On the heights we must expect to be solitary.

One can readily mark such statements as arrogant. Whether Schopenhauer was giving himself the label of genius or not, he certaily identified with what Nietzsche would call Overman. And Schopenhauer did have a difficult personality. But his experience is simply that of the sensitive person with an intellectual bent, without a social propensity or worldly personality. Such a one will discover the llife of the mind and creativity (even physical) to be more rewarding and more important than what goes on in society. It does not (necessarily) mean indifference or ignorance, but does require a certain knowledge to justify itself.

Such a propensity can lead the solitary to a philosophy of life that offers a profounder insight into the workings of society and the world. Those historical figures of genius, whether from a scietific or religious or intellectual point of view, are often judged by the socially-oriented arrogant, misanthropic or cold. Yet from the larger world view of those who use the mind to understand come views that shape the larger culture. Perhaps most of our insights into culture and ociety have been from such observers. One may think of the work of scientists, sages, and philosophers. It is not that their vision is too subjective or morose, but that the majority of people will simply not give up their narrow social interests long enough to see a larger picture.

Schopenhauer mingled the objects of contemplation, as in the next aphorism.

Men of no genius whatever cannot bear solitude: they take up pleasure in the contemplation of nature and the world.

Here the view of nature is unnecessarily restricted, but doubtless Schopenhauer meant those who live literally in the reworking of otherwise natural things: mining, industry, manufacturing. These hate solitude because they gather around true nature to exploit and destroy it. They cannot abide by solitude because their pleasure is in the consumption of things and people. To this activity Schopenhauer contrasts art, music, literature, philosophy — all that we may call cerebral but nevertheless creative. To him, those who could not use humankind’s greatest gift for good were destined to hate solitude, and therefore banish forever the opportunity to have insight into culture, society, and all that lies before us.