I haven’t read Schopenhauer directly yet, but have been circling around his ideas now for a few years. It is clear that he influenced quite a number of great thinkers, including a few who are philosophical influences of my own, so I have met his ideas indirectly already. I first encountered reference to Schopenhauer in “Love Can Open Prison Doors” by Starr Daily, which itself is a truly remarkable story, short enough you can get through it in a day or two. (This slim volume provides the best insight into the mechanics — the physics, the how-to-do-it — of love I have yet encountered. Daily was a former actual prisoner who one day began to realize how love could transform the life of a habitual liar, con, scoundrel, rioter, and escape-artist into a life of honest, productive, sublime, contemplative, joy, with that innocence of childhood we all miss, coupled with mature wisdom we all seek. Its allegory is one of my favorites ever, so I remember small details like its references to Schopenhauer even though I last read it years ago.)
The author Daily mentions how, after his near-death enlightment, early on his path out of misery, he took Schopenhauer’s great tome on pessimism and systematically transformed its “reasons to be miserable” into their opposite form: reasons to be happy. He took each sad sentence and inverted its reason for pessimism into a reason to be happy. This may be, I am beginning to see, the correct way to read Schopenhauer. We’ll talk about that more in a moment.
Years later, I encountered references to Schopenhauer from time to time, but in the last couple of years such references have become increasingly compelling. I decided to begin seeking into the penumbra of lightweight quotations from Schopenhauer, to begin understanding him. Thanks to Bernardo Kastrup‘s enthusiasm, I have already decided I want to read him directly, but who has the time to sit down with 700 pages of Will and Representation? So I’m warming up to the challenge by reading in a spiral around him. Sometimes such a spiral concludes by reading such a large book, and sometimes it concludes by finding some flaw or another which leaves me no longer interested, and moving on to other things.
Schopenhauer on genius
A while back, I came upon an intriguing reference to Schopenhauer’s ideas on genius. It was in reference to Wittgenstein, who apparently had defined his life by Schopenhauer’s idea of genius. I already had some context: A few years earlier, I stumbled across Wittgenstein as a side character in a biography of Kurt Gödel. They knew each other, though Gödel was a Platonist, and Wittgenstein was not, so they were inevitably at odds. Nevertheless, Wittgenstein’s unique presence and genius-like character were described in pieces as Gödel’s story unfolded, since they had a few notable interactions. My study-spiral around Wittgenstein left me intrigued, but I only read a few excerpts before moving on to other things in life. Until recently. I came upon a comment about how he had defined his life — his unique presence and genius-like character — by his teenage understanding of Schopenhauer’s ideas on genius. He was given as an example of someone who did philosophy the way I do it, by studying it and then applying it, except his application was on the subject of genius.
This drew me more toward Schopenhauer, and so this morning, in an idle moment, I hit the search engines for “Schopenhauer on genius.” I found a few small quotes at first, and wanted more. Thankfully, BrainPickings has a page on this. They do a great job of going a little deeper than a stone skipping across the surface, as their quotes come with a little context. Here is where I discovered rather quickly how happy I am that I came to know Schopenhauer’s insights into genius late in life. This is because I probably would have done what Wittgenstein did with it — and that would be the wrong thing, which I know because I already did something similar, just without being inspired by Schopenhauer.
As I contemplated Schopenhauer’s words on genius, I approached the contemplation with a longstanding loathing of genius. I had years ago come to the hard realization that one of the greater “mistakes” of my life happened when I was in my late teens and early twenties and began believing what other people were saying about me. I was in the honors program at the urban university of my hometown, so the forces weren’t too sophisticated, but I was surrounded by smart people, and all evidence was that I was one of them. A genius of sorts, and, sadly, I believed them. Consequently, I began doing what Wittgenstein did, which I only years later recognized was the wrong way to go about things.
Long story short, I eventually came to the realization that calling someone a genius places a terrible burden on them. Few survive and are able shake off this burden in the absolute manner which eventually became necessary for me to do. That process was quite painful and consumed several years, so, I now loathe the idea of genius, having suffered much in untangling from it. I actively teach my children a distinct skepticism for anyone’s claim of genius, in hopes of preventing them from going through the misery of getting free from it someday. My friends who are not yet free from its binding force sadden me equally as much as their genius inspires.
Years later now, I understand the importance of humility. Indeed, I am as fascinated with humility now as I was with genius then, although wisdom has also given me the desire to make internal changes, rather than external ones (which is generally what we’re doing in our early twenties when the freedom to define who we are is finally granted, ironically only after we have learned to make external changes rather than the deeper internal ones), and that internal direction changes the nature of the pursuit. But the pursuit reminds me of Descartes’ famous pursuit of Truth over Beauty, one of those eternal pursuits with no end:
The two men locked swords, and swung and parried for a few moments. Swiftly, Descartes brought his sword in one last time and delivered a final blow. His opponent’s sword flew up into the air. Descartes put the point of his sword to his challenger’s throat and, glancing at Mme. de Rosay, said to him: “The lady has beautiful eyes, and for that I will spare your life.” He let him go, and pulled back in disgust. The lady rushed over to Descarte’s side. One last time, Descartes stared into those beautiful eyes, and turning away from her, he said: “Your beauty is unmatched, but I love truth the most.” He left the two stunned figures by the roadside and in a minute gathered his valet, and in a whirl of dust they were off to Paris. (Descarte’s Secret Notebook)
Humility is another one of those eternal pursuits, like truth and beauty. With this in mind, as I read about Schopenhauer’s ideas on genius, I tossed the following quote around in my mind, like tasting a new wine, testing it and feeling its contours, pondering it. At first I liked it, but something was not quite right. More contemplation soon cracked the walnut open, with a realization about the relationship to humility which neither Wittgenstein nor Schopenhauer apparently knew (although, having read little of either, I may be wrong).
Both of them seem to have lost connection to a certain pure innocence of childhood, an uncondescending joy which is an essential ingredient in good genius. Good genius is genius governed by humility. Here is one of the quotes from Schopenhauer:
The common mortal, that manufacture of Nature which she produces by the thousand every day, is, as we have said, not capable, at least not continuously so, of observation that in every sense is wholly disinterested, as sensuous contemplation, strictly so called, is. He can turn his attention to things only so far as they have some relation to his will, however indirect it may be… The man of genius, on the other hand, whose excessive power of knowledge frees it at times from the service of will, dwells on the consideration of life itself, strives to comprehend the Idea of each thing, not its relations to other things; and in doing this he often forgets to consider his own path in life, and therefore for the most part pursues it awkwardly enough. While to the ordinary man his faculty of knowledge is a lamp to lighten his path, to the man of genius it is the sun which reveals the world… The man in whom genius lives and works is easily distinguished by his glance, which is both keen and steady, and bears the stamp of perception, of contemplation.
As I contemplated this quote, already knowing through the lens of Kurt Gödel’s biography that the way (early) Wittgenstein did genius was a little too outwardly excessive, and also knowing through that same lens that the way Gödel did it was too inwardly excessive, I soon saw in a momentary flash of insight where the proper place of humility comes in genius: it is within the very center, like this:
<---- introverted genius ---------- humble genius ---------- extroverted genius ----->
Genius must make a central home for humility — not the vapid submissive obedience form of outward humility which is popular in the world, but the true humility which comes with a proper understanding of one’s place in the world, which — as though we were grains of sand on a seashore against an ocean bay at the foot of great mountains, surrounded by greatness which reaches to infinity — is an abiding sense of smallness.
A sense of our native smallness must permeate our awareness in equal balance with any sense of greatness, or else genius goes too far.
A mistake I made in youth — though I have learned to live without regrets, so even as I call it a mistake I know it was not — was to approach genius in the unbounded way early Wittgenstein did. From what I can tell, he was trying to manifest genius by making outward changes, which comes at the expense of inward growth. This is forgiveable, for a teenager. This is what most people do with the self-awareness of above-average intelligence, and it requires a dedicated exertion NOT to do this. That exertion is one of methodically applying the principles which govern humility in order to check the principles which govern genius — kind of like the checks and balances within a good government.
I think genius is one of the places where heaven touches earth; it is given in consequence of suffering. The crucible that forges a genius is truly a painful one. Whether for the individual or someone in his lineage, suffering created the crucible in which genius is borne.
Genius is given by God to compensate for suffering. It is like a spot which is worn away through friction, and God has placed a patch of his love upon the spot, and there is where genius comes into being. I may not be saying it well, but this is a principle I well understand, rooted in solid things, like the belief that God is nearest to the broken heart. The contrite spirit is beloved and protected by God.
Now, what is gratitude for this touch of God if we then take the gift of genius which he has given in direct proportion to our suffering, and exalt ourselves instead of him with it? I do not mean that we must become priests or monks or anything like what the world perceives as a life dedicated to God — those are more outward manifestations than the inner dedication I mean. I mean that, as we in youth begin to realize that we are gifted intellectually, we should learn to see it for what it is: a gift. What do you do with a gift? Spend it foolishly, and arrive at the catastrophic collapse of ego which I experienced in my 30s? Or worse, find a way to keep that mad candle burning, instead of crashing, and thus never learn the lesson of life which is given to geniuses: who we are is as much a gift as it is our own making, and the gift portion is where the truer joy, the deeper one, that outlasts our lifetime, lives.
Where Schopenhauer talks about the genius being able to reach eternal things, he should have also said it was because it is Eternity, reaching into our miserable ternity, and comforting us by allowing us to see meaning in the seeming meaningless and misery. When we try to take ownership of it, as Wittgenstein did early in his journey, we diminish it and miss the point. (I understand Wittgenstein, like Malcolm X, changed so deeply he’s not easy to summarize like this, but it appears that he had a fascination with the wrong flavor of genius early on.)
In this way, humility sits at the center of genius and governs it, slowly transforming suffering back into joy, instead of diving into escapism of one form or another, using our view from the top of a mountain to steal from those who are still climbing, thereby adding to the suffering, in the way fools do before they become wise. The risk is that some geniuses never do become wise. Maybe even most.
I look forward to reading Schopenhauer, but I will be reading his words like Starr Daily did: quietly transforming his pessimism, his loss of joy, his loss of childhood innocence, into a gain of joy, a regaining of innocence (which is the best wisdom) and appreciating the structure of his words without paying much attention to their outer shell, which leaned too far toward misery.