A brief history of philosophy, part 11: the splintering of philosophy
Hegel represented the end of huge, speculative, metaphysical systems. After Hegel, philosophy started to splinter into many ideas vying for dominance – none of which could be said to represent the growing tip, only the branches. The central importance and authority of philosophy started to decline, apart from a flirtation with (and, it has to be said, perversion of) Marx’s political philosophy in the twentieth century.
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) brought Eastern philosophy to the West for the first time – the Vedic scriptures, the Upanishads, Buddhism. He was also a rare kind of philosopher – a pessimist. He believed that human life will always be awful, no matter how we organise it (some days I really empathise with that position). He said that the ‘Will’ is the true essence of the universe, but it is to be resisted, as it is the cause of our suffering, and unless we resist it, we will be slaves to it. In this his debt to Buddhism can be seen.
Forgive my speculation here, but his ‘Will’ sounds a lot like genes to modern ears. Until humans, all species had been slaves or puppets of their genes (regardless of whether the genes are the puppeteers or just the strings), but humans can choose to disobey them – and maybe we should. Philosophy is (possibly) the best tool for working out how.
Something else that Schopenhauer brought from the East was the concept of the oneness of everything, from which he concluded that it’s a bad idea to harm someone or something else, because you’d be harming yourself. However, this didn’t prevent him from pushing an old lady who was making a noise outside his door down some stairs. Philosophy doesn’t cure hypocrisy, evidently.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is a famously misunderstood philosopher. The only thing that many people know about him was that he was a precursor to Nazism – but he actually hated German culture, and was anti-state; he broke off his friendship with Wagner because of the latter’s anti-semitism; and he recommended racial mixing. His association with fascism was nothing to do with his ideas; it was more to do with his sister. First his ideas.
He is famous for saying ‘God is dead’. He meant that religion no longer gave Western society its values. So where do values come from? For Nietzsche, only great men (he was a misogynist) can create values. He celebrated the ‘will to power’ of the ‘übermensch‘ (super-man). Nietzsche’s sister invited Hitler to his shrine after his death, and of course Hitler was impressed with this concept. Nietzsche would have been horrified. By übermensch he didn’t mean dictators or the aristocracy, and he didn’t despise the weak. He believed that we all can and should, as individuals, make the best of ourselves – ignore rules and custom, forge the best life we can, and don’t be part of the herd. His elitism was an aristocracy of spirit rather than of birth or wealth. He idolised Shakespeare and Beethoven as superior to the herd – however, they were superior not because of power or birth, but because of talent, intelligence and creativity.
Nietzsche talked about the human mind resembling a monkey sitting on an elephant (Freud later said that he stopped reading Nietzsche for fear that he would find all his own ideas there). Perhaps Nietzsche’s übermensch is not an individual, but the next step in human evolution. After all, he said that an übermensch has never existed – it remains an ideal. This is Nietzsche: ‘I teach you the übermensch. Man is something that should be overcome.’ and ‘What is great in man is that he is a bridge not a goal.’ Nietzsche was well aware of Darwin and the theory of evolution.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882), with the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 certainly stirred things up in terms of how we see the universe and our place in it. We were no longer separate from the animal world (later we were to discover that we are made of elements forged in the centre of stars, and are not at all separate from the rest of existence). Everything is one, and we’re part of that one-ness. It had been said in the East since the dawn of time, but it hadn’t been heard in the West because it wasn’t rational. Now it was rational – all life comes from the same place, and later we were to find that all matter comes from the same place too. Everything is one. after Darwin, the universe (via humans, an integral part of it) had become conscious of itself unfolding. Hegel would have approved, and Nietzsche undoubtedly would have seen this as the vehicle to deliver his übermensch.
Existentialists were later to argue that humans don’t have an innate purpose – we have to create it ourselves. But maybe our innate purpose is to evolve. What was the ‘purpose’ of our fishy ancestors – or going further back, our wormy or bacterial ancestors? Might their ‘purpose’ (at least from our perspective) have been to eventually produce humans? But evolution hasn’t finished yet. We don’t know where evolution is going, but whatever evolves from us (if we manage to avoid extinction), will have capabilities and understanding far advanced from ours (and given enough time, as advanced from ours as ours are from bacteria), and will possibly look back and say that the purpose of humans was to be a stepping stone (or Nietzsche’s bridge) in the evolutionary path to themselves.
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