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Schopenhauer & Hitler

Arthur Schopenhauer [1]

Arthur Schopenhauer

2,373 words

Part 1 of 3

I recently came across a collection of Arthur Schopenhauer’s writings entitled Essays & Aphorisms.[1] It really is wonderful stuff, ruthlessly realistic, insightful, and often very droll. On topics as diverse as vanity, women, journalism, books, and much else, Schopenhauer provides an endless stream of wit and wisdom. A taster:

The art of not reading is a very important one. [. . .] [Y]ou should remember that he who writes for fools always find a large public. – A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: For life is short. (210)

Schopenhauer is considered one of the greatest German philosophers, but in contrast to most of the latter his writing has the merit of being (mostly) very approachable and clear.[2]

Schopenhauer did not write much on politics and there seems to be relatively little comment on his political views. Nonetheless, he was very obviously a man of the Right, if for no other reason than he was intimately convinced of the fundamental inequality between men. Schopenhauer repeatedly stresses, often very amusingly, the intellectual and cultural mediocrity of the average human being. One example: “judgment, a quality of which most people possess about as much as a castrate possesses of the power to beget children” (224).

While Schopenhauer rails against false pretensions of equality, he also urges indulgence and generosity for one’s lessers and indeed with all fellow creatures. Consequently, he is withering on democracy and even suspicious of press freedom. He argues very eloquently for what is today called Reaction and, in particular, government by a paternalistic national autocrat and an enlightened aristocracy. In this article, I would like to highlight quotes most relevant for the Right today.

Schopenhauer’s most influential student was without question Adolf Hitler. Conversely, Hitler cited Schopenhauer above all among his philosophical influences. This is no small thing if one bears in mind the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper’s assessment of Hitler as “the most philosophical . . . conqueror the world has ever known.”[3] Lance Corporal Hitler kept Schopenhauer’s enormous The World as Will and Representation in his knapsack throughout the First World War and later was able to quote the philosopher’s works from memory. As German Führer during the Second World War, Hitler would, whenever illustrating the quality of genius, repeatedly refer to the example of Schopenhauer.[4]

Indeed, I was personally struck by the uncanny similarity between parts of Hitler’s style and Weltanschauung, and that of Schopenhauer. There are some very marked apparent differences, as we shall see, but many of Schopenhauer’s views plainly provide at least some of the sturdier philosophical foundations for National Socialism. One cannot presume to think what Schopenhauer would have made of his self-appointed student, he may well have been appalled. Nonetheless, we can say that through Hitler Schopenhauer became, perhaps despite himself, one of the philosophers with the greatest world-historical impact.

This article will then present Schopenhauer’s political views and allude to Hitler’s political action, in a kind of dialogue between master and student. I emphasize: Schopenhauer provides powerful arguments for all men of the Right regardless of one’s take on German National Socialism.

Indeed, Schopenhauer is particularly relevant for  White Nationalists and the European Right insofar as he, unlike Hitler, had a self-consciously European rather than narrowly German identity.[5] Schopenhauer’s judgments are far more concerned with Europe rather than Germany: the positive and negative effects of Christianity in Europe, the ill of European feminism, the European balance of power as evidence of man’s savagery, and so on. He praises the use of the Latin language for creating “a universal European learned public” and for allowing Europeans to directly commune with “Roman antiquity [. . .] the entire Middle Ages of every European land and modern times down to the middle of the last century” (228). He laments the rise of national languages as “in all Europe the number of heads capable of thinking and forming judgments is moreover already so small that if their forum is broken up and kept asunder by language barriers their beneficial effect is infinitely weakened” (228). Schopenhauer was a Good European.

From Buddhism to Hitlerism: The Double-Edged “Will-to-Life”

The religion most in line with Schopenhauer’s philosophy is probably Buddhism, which he had studied. Schopenhauer’s basic philosophical method recalls Buddhist meditative techniques: Simply be, contemplate your own existence, the feeling of your bodily functions, your flickering thoughts, the chaotic vortex of your consciousness. From this, and his own philosophical readings and high-level dialectics, Schopenhauer produces, almost intuitively, astounding insights.[6] For your own self, which you know through your lived experience, is of the same stuff as the rest of the universe.

How strange that a man nourished by the Buddha could in turn inspire the Führer! Although perhaps Buddhism and Hitlerism have some similar assumptions, despite their radically different conclusions. Both seek to put the individual in harmony with the cosmos: Siddhārtha Gautama and Schopenhauer urge denial of the individual will and  thus realization of one’s unity with the universe, whereas Hitler demands the individual submit to Nature and her laws (including, where applicable, serving to a National Socialist state itself dedicated to the laws of Nature).

From his meditations, Schopenhauer came to believe that the world was in a sense made of “will,” the will-to-life or life-force, that is, the striving of every being to exist. The world can only exist, that is, be perceived, if there is a being to perceive it, and that being can only emerge and exist through a relentless will-to-life. While this may seem rather esoteric, the practical insight Schopenhauer drew from this astoundingly prefigured Darwin’s later theory of evolution. Schopenhauer believed that all beings were defined by their will-to-life, that is, had adapted themselves for the specific purpose of survival and reproduction, citing the sex drive as the most obvious example of this.

Where Schopenhauer and Hitler apparently most radically differ, is on the attitude one must take with regard to the will-to-life and the world. Schopenhauer, as in Buddhism, posited the will needed to be overcome, and only by emancipating oneself from it could one achieve ethics or philosophy, in a word: Enlightenment. The hope for a positive outcome in this world was futile and men should welcome their rejoining their original state as part of the universal will: When we die, we become what we were before having been born.

On these grounds, Schopenhauer opposed both Judaism (a truly wretchedly cruel and materialist religion in his eyes) and Greco-Roman Paganism (too practical, too naïve, too worldly). He therefore also considered the rise of Christianity, a world-rejecting and ascetic religion like Buddhism, to be salutary, even though he was also quite critical of that faith. These views also led Schopenhauer to make some of the most (in)famous arguments in defense of anti-natalism and suicide. Men are weak, wretched, unequal things, thus we should above all be indulgent with one another.

One is struck at how radically these views depart from those of Hitler’s, who shared Friedrich Nietzsche’s embrace of the will and of optimism, along with his contempt for Christianity and slave morality. Hitler, in a rare occurrence, said Nietzsche was superior to Schopenhauer specifically in this respect:

From him [Schopenhauer] I learned a great deal. Schopenhauer’s pessimism, which springs partly, I think, from his own line of philosophical thought and partly from subjective feeling and the experiences of his own personal life, has been far surpassed by Nietzsche.[7]

Did Hitler distort Schopenhauer’s thought or merely embrace one of its possible interpretations? I do not know what end Schopenhauer thought the world should have but, as a moralist, I doubt he would be content with all life, including human life, simply dying off. If one must give a goal to human life, Schopenhauer suggests achieving consciousness by denying the will.

From here, Hitler can easily take over: Consciousness can only be achieved by higher beings (chimps cannot philosophize, nor can the stupid and venal majority of mankind), therefore one must create a higher humanity by breeding and cultivating her best elements.

Parts of this kind of reasoning are evident in Schopenhauer’s assessment of women. In this age of censorship, even a powerful, well-connected Jew like Larry Summers has faced persecution for commenting on psychological differences between men and women, despite the fact that these have been amply documented by scientific research. Schopenhauer’s writings on women have his trademark ruthless realism. Putting things a little curtly, he believed that women were perfectly evolved to reproduce the species by instinctively exploiting their husband for protection resources. Women then have a very restricted mental universe compared to men (“mental myopic”). Women being more down-to-earth and intuitive, men should seek female advice. But, like Hitler, Schopenhauer argued that as a result of their character women should be politically and personally subordinate to men. Civil equality with men had led to “unhappy women, of which Europe is at present full” (89).

Schopenhauer however added that women’s propensity to deceive and manipulate their husbands was completely justified on evolutionary grounds:

To take care of the propagation of the human race nature has chosen the young, strong, and handsome men, so that the race shall not degenerate. This is the firm will of nature in this matter, and its expression is the passion of women. In antiquity and force this law precedes every other: So woe to him who sets his rights and interests in the path of this law: Whatever he says or does they will, at the first serious encounter, be mercilessly crushed. [. . .] Women [. . .] are usually less troubled by their conscience [when deceiving their husbands] than we suppose, because they are aware in the darkest recesses of their heart that in violating their duty to the individual they are all the better fulfilling their duty to the species, whose rights are incomparably greater. (84)

Did Hitler not preach submission and embrace of “the firm will of nature”? Did he not also assuage his conscience with the knowledge that his necessary cruelty towards others was “all the better fulfilling [his] duty to the species, whose rights are incomparably greater.” As such, all sacrifice was justified for the sake of the national community (Volksgemeinschaft). As the National Socialist slogan put it: “Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigennutz” (“The common good before the private interest”).

I must say I do have trouble disentangling the paradoxes posed by the Buddhist/Schopenhauerian doctrine of denial of the will (does one not will the denial itself?).[8] In any event, Schopenhauer recognized that as a practical matter the will must be embraced in everyday endeavors, including politics:

[I]n affairs of state, in war, in finance and business, in intrigues of every sort, and so on, the will must first of all, through the vehemence of its desire, compel the intellect to exert all its energies so as to track down all the reasons and consequences of the affair in question. Indeed, it is astonishing how far beyond the normal measure of its energies the spur of the will can drive a given intellect in such a case. (157)

Was not animating the will-to-life among his followers and his nation – invoking their patriotic and indeed spiritual feelings so as to endure effort and sacrifice to achieve great, almost superhuman deeds – Hitler’s fundamental gift and the foundation for all his work? Hitler told Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler and a Danish SS commander on February 22, 1942: “It’s an immense relief for a man whose business is to breathe life into a movement not to have to bother about affairs of administration.”[9] Hitler was notorious, both as Party leader during the Kampfzeit and as German Führer in peace and war, for demanding “the impossible” from his followers . . . and thus often actually achieving this.[10]

Schopenhauer defines poetry as “the art of setting the imagination into action by means of words” (159).

I believe Hitler then can safely be said to have been a follower of Schopenhauer. Hitler embraced rather than denied the will. Perhaps the closest thing to meditation which he undertook were his long stays in his beautiful Bavarian mountain retreat in Obersalzberg. It was there, Hitler claimed, that “[a]ll my great decisions were taken,” including the most momentous decisions of war and peace.[11] Hitler surrendered to rather than denied the will-to-life, but this was in keeping with his role as a statesman rather than a philosopher like Schopenhauer. And as a statesman, he was inspired not merely to contemplate Schopenhauer’s philosophy, but to actually spread and apply many of his doctrines throughout the world.

Notes 

1. Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms (London: Penguin, 2004).

2. “The true national characteristic of the Germans is ponderousness,” Schopenhauer notes (208).

3. Lest I seem misleading, here is Trevor-Roper’s full quote on Hitler: “the most formidable among the ‘terrible simplifiers’ of history, the most systematic, the most historical, the most philosophical, and yet the coarsest, cruelest, least magnanimous conqueror the world has ever known.” Hugh Trevor-Roper (ed.), Hitler’s Table Talk, 1941-1944: His Private Conversation (London: Enigma Books, 2000), xlii.

4. Citing from Martin Bormann (ed.), Hitler’s Table Talk (Ostara Publications, 2012), Schopenhauer is cited as the kind of genius (along with Kant and Nietzsche) the Jews would eliminate if they ruled Germany (38), as the only writer of the past generation with enough genius to perhaps be entitled to reform the German language (151), as among “the greatest of thinkers” (again with Kant and Nietzsche) honored with busts in the library of Linz  (310).

5. Hitler’s however was not a petty-bourgeois nationalism seeing the German state as an end in itself. Rather he saw German nationalism as legitimate only in the service of a higher “Idea,” namely, the building of a world power in order not only to defend Germany’s right-to-life but also to create a higher humanity, based on the latter’s highest Nordic/Germanic elements.

6. I am struck at a parallel between Schopenhauer’s technique and that of Alain Soral. Both, contra the false objectivity of scientific positivism, draw upon their lived experience to inform their world-view. But whereas Schopenhauer’s technique is meditative, Soral’s is combative (not withdrawing to contemplation, but learning from his struggles against the unjust masters of this world).

7. Conversation of May 16, 1944. Bormann, Table Talk, 310.

8. For instance, Schopenhauer recognized in nature deeper wisdom than the reason of men: “the intellect [. . .] is mere bungling compared with what proceeds directly from the will as thing in itself and is not communicated through an idea, of which the works of nature are an instance” (212).

9. Bormann, Table Talk, 139. Schopenhauer also comments on how unbearable mundane duties and interruptions are to a man of genius.

10. U.S. General George S. Patton similarly said: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

11. Bormann, Table Talk, 70.