Part 3 of 3
Schopenhauer on Genius
In contrast with the mediocre majority of mankind, there is the rare genius. Schopenhauer’s ruminations on the tragic loneliness of the genius, no doubt in part autobiographical, are some of the most touching and the most consoling. There is reason to think Hitler sympathized with and perhaps attempted to live up to the model of the Schopenhauerian genius. For instance:
[A]ll men who think for themselves are fundamentally in agreement [. . .]. The characteristic mark of minds of the first rank is the immediacy of all their judgments. Everything they produce is the result of thinking for themselves and already in the way it is spoken everywhere announces itself as such. He who truly thinks for himself is like a monarch, in that he recognizes no one over him. His judgments, like the decisions of a monarch, arise directly form his own absolute power. (92)
People of very great ability will as a rule get on better with people of very limited ability than they will with people of ordinary ability, for the same reason as the despot and the plebeian, the grandparents and the grandchildren are natural allies. (178)
Schopenhauer and Hitler also expressed very similar lamentations on the tragic fate of geniuses during their lifetimes, often ignored, living in poverty, and dying in miserable obscurity. Schopenhauer urged the writing of a “Tragic History of Literature” documenting this (210), while Hitler repeatedly lamented that Mozart had been so under-appreciated by the Viennese that he was buried in an unmarked grave.
For Schopenhauer, the highest philosophy, that is the greatest awareness of the nature of the world, can by definition only be achieved by exceptional men of genius. Once conceived, such philosophy is necessarily incomprehensible to the dull majority and can only be presented to them as religion, as allegorical folk-philosophy:
There are no other revelations than the thoughts of the wise, even if these – subject to error, as are all things human – are often clothed in strange allegories and myths and are then called religions. [. . .] [I]f you bear in mind the enormous intellectual inequality between man and man, then the thoughts of one may very well count with another as a revelation. (181)
Schopenhauer’s Defense of Religion
In a dialogue, Schopenhauer has the character Demopheles defend religion. Concerning the masses, Demopheles famously says the truth “must appear before them heavily veiled” (104). And Demopheles goes on to highlight the social and political benefits of religion:
[A]greement on fundamental metaphysical views is the chief thing for man, because genuine and lasting social union is possible only among those who do agree on these. The social structure, the state, will stand quite firm only when it is founded on a universally recognized metaphysical system. Such a system can naturally be only one of folk-metaphysics, that is, religion; which is then fused with the state constitution and with every social manifestation of the people’s life, as it also is with every solemn act of private life. (109)
Schopenhauer writes (in his own voice): “religion in general constitutes the real masterpiece in the art of training, namely the training of the mental capacities – which, as is well known, cannot be started too early” (177). In humans, ideological or (civil-)religious education’s purpose is then as a powerful cultural programming, able to profoundly influence the behavior of the entire society. Human nature is most malleable, though obviously not infinitely so, through such education.
Schopenhauer was however aware of the superstitious and authoritarian aspects of traditional religion. He believed the latter would ultimately be destroyed by science in a “war of extermination” (bellum ad internecionem, 197). “Mankind is growing out of religion as out of its childhood clothes” (197). Hitler had much the same belief, particularly regarding Christianity. Indeed, whereas Schopenhauer notes that “[n]o science impresses the masses more than astronomy” (214), Hitler repeatedly asserted his ambition of having observatories and telescopes installed in German cities and villages, the better to undermine the people’s belief in Christianity by witnessing the glories of the cosmos with their own eyes.
The fundamental, secret, and primal piece of astuteness of all priests, everywhere and at all times, whether Brahmin or Buddhist or Christian, is as follows. They have recognized and grasped the enormous strength and the ineradicability of the metaphysical need of man: They then pretend to possess the means of satisfying it, in that the solution to the great enigma has, by extraordinary channels, been directly communicated to them. Once they have persuaded men of the truth of this, they can lead and dominate them to their heart’s content. The more prudent rulers enter into an alliance with them: The others are themselves ruled by them. If, however, as the rarest of all exceptions, a philosopher comes to the throne, the whole comedy is disrupted in the most unseemly fashion. (181)
Must not Hitler have considered himself a Schopenhauerian civil-religious revolutionary, inspired by philosophy and evolutionary science, to enlighten the German people with an inspired political ideology? Schopenhauer writes that humans hide their primordial, animalistic will, which is visible “only in outbursts of emotion and passion: And this is why when passions speaks it always, and rightly, inspires belief, no matter what passion it may be” (166).
Nowhere was Hitler a more Janus-faced personality than concerning compassion. Hitler had compassion, indeed he demanded it from all, but only concerning animals and Germanic/Nordic humanity. Concerning other nations, he was willing to be absolutely ruthless, motivated at times by vengeful rage at others by cold reason, in pursuing German interests and the genetic improvement of mankind (e.g. extermination of aliens, mass sterilization, etc.). Interestingly, Schopenhauer defines not being “triggered” as one of the highest qualities:
If he surrenders to such an emotion the greatest genius becomes equal to the commonest son of the earth. [. . .] He must, e.g., be able to take note of the odious opinion of another without feeling his own aroused by it: Indeed, there is no surer sign of greatness [. . .]. (175)
Schopenhauer cited Arthur de Gobineau and recognized racial differences in intelligence and temperament, believing that harsh winters in northern Europe had selected for foresight. Nonetheless, he was compassionate, being extremely critical of the cruelties of American Negro slavery, citing this as evidence of the congenital human savagery sleeping under the veneer and civilization. He defended the “innocent black brothers who force and injustice have delivered into their [the slavers’] devilish clutches” (138).
By this same compassion, Schopenhauer was an early animal welfare advocate, demanding that the “Jewish stench” (foetor judaicus) in this area be removed:
It is obviously high time that the Jewish conception of nature, at any rate in regards to animals, should come to an end in Europe, and that the eternal being which, as it lives in us, also lives in every animal should be recognized as such, and as such treated with care and consideration. (188-89)
He immediately adds: “The greatest benefit conferred by the railways is that they spare millions of draft horses their miserable existence.” Evidently, Schopenhauer was similarly disgusted that Negro slavery could be instituted for purely economic reasons (he even later suggests, in a monarchist argument, that slavery may be necessary to sustain “anti-natural” republics like the ancient Greek city-states or the United States of America, and is evidently unmoved by the argument that the institution of slavery might enable leisure time for the more gifted).
Did Schopenhauer’s compassion for animals inspire Hitler’s famous vegetarianism?
Schopenhauer was anti-Semitic and deeply contemptuous of Jewish values. Hitler quotes Schopenhauer only twice in his two books: once calling the Jew “the great master of lies,” once concerning French vanity: “Africa has its monkeys, Europe has its French.” I cannot comment on these. Alain Soral has claimed that Schopenhauer’s The Art of Always Being Right, a collection of logical fallacies, is an encyclopedic description of Talmudic sophistry.
Humanity learns slowly and we heretics must show patience and forbearance: “[I]f we see the individual obstinately clinging to his errors, with the mass of men it is even worse: once they have acquired an opinion, experience and instruction can labor for centuries against it and labor in vain” (125). De même:
To estimate a genius you should not take the mistakes in his productions, or his weaker works, but only those works in which he excels. For even in the realm of the intellect, weakness and absurdity cleave so firmly to human nature that even the most brilliant mind is not always free of them [. . .]. What distinguishes genius, on the other hand, and provides a measure for estimating it, is the height to which it was able to rise when time and mood were propitious and which remains for ever unachievable to ordinary talents. (224)
I was recently able to walk in the parking lot in Berlin which today is the unmarked location of the Führerbunker. In contemplating the calamity of the Second World War – the millions of Europeans who died in that fruitless conflict, the tragic fate of our Europe herself, enslaved and degraded – Schopenhauer’s folk-wisdom perhaps offers some consolation: “After your death, you will be what you were before your birth” (67).
1. Schopenhauer writes:
[The] degree of thought, or of clear consciousness of one’s own existence and of that of others, varies very greatly within the human race itself according to the measure of natural intellectual power, the extent to which this has been developed, and the amount of leisure time available for reflection. (172)
Furthermore, there are “intrinsic and inborn differences in intellectual power” and “it has to be admitted that many a man possesses at least a tenfold degree of existence than another – exists ten times as much” (172).
2. Demopheles also says:
Philosophers and founders of religions come into the world to shake him out of his stupefaction and to point to the lofty meaning of existence: philosophers for the few, the emancipated, founders of religions for the many, for mankind as a whole. Philosophy isn’t for everyone – as your friend Plato said and as you shouldn’t forget. Religion is the metaphysics of the people, which they absolutely must be allowed to keep: And that means you have to show an outward respect for it, since to discredit it is to take it away from them. Just as there is folk-poetry and, in the proverbs, folk-wisdom, so there has to be folk-metaphysics: For men have an absolute need for an interpretation of life, and it has to be one they are capable of understanding. That is why it is always clothed in allegory; and, as far as its practical effect as a guide to behavior and its effects on morale as a means of consolation and comfort in suffering and death are concerned, it does as much perhaps as truth itself would do if we possessed it. (96)
Even if a really true philosophy has taken the place of religion, nine-tenths of mankind at the very least would receive it on authority, so that it too would be a matter of belief. Authority, however, can be established only by time and circumstance: It cannot be bestowed upon that which has only reason in its favor. (105)
You have an inadequate idea of how limited the capacity of most people is. (106)
3. An example which recalls the Shoah world-religion: “What a bad conscience religion must have is to be judged by the fact that it is forbidden under pain of such severe punishment to mock it” (197).
4. One impassioned example among many, on November 11, 1941: “One may regret living at a period when it’s impossible to form an idea of the shape the world of the future will assume. But there’s one thing I can predict to eaters of meat, that the world of the future will be vegetarian!” Bormann, Table Talk, 53-54.