Henri-Frédéric Amiel on Schopenhauer
August 16, 1869.
I have been thinking over Schopenhauer. It has struck me and almost terrified me to see how well I represent Schopenhauer’s typical man, for whom “happiness is a chimera and suffering a reality,” for whom “the negation of will and of desire is the only road to deliverance,” and “the individual life is a misfortune from which impersonal contemplation is the only enfranchisement,” etc. But the principle that life is an evil and annihilation a good lies at the root of the system, and this axiom I have never dared to enunciate in any general way, although I have admitted it here and there in individual cases.
What I still like in the misanthrope of Frankfort, is his antipathy to current prejudice, to European hobbies, to western hypocrisies, to the successes of the day. Schopenhauer is a man of powerful mind, who has put away from him all illusions, who professes Buddhism in the full flow of modern Germany, and absolute detachment of mind In the very midst of the nineteenth-century orgie. His great defects are barrenness of soul, a proud and perfect selfishness, an adoration of genius which is combined with complete indifference to the rest of the world, in spite of all his teaching of resignation and sacrifice. He has no sympathy, no humanity, no love. And here I recognize the unlikeness between us. Pure intelligence and solitary labor might easily lead me to his point of view; but once appeal to the heart, and I feel the contemplative attitude untenable. Pity, goodness, charity, and devotion reclaim their rights, and insist even upon the first place.
August 29, 1869.
Schopenhauer preaches impersonality, objectivity, pure contemplation, the negation of will, calmness, and disinterestedness, an aesthetic study of the world, detachment from life, the renunciation of all desire, solitary meditation, disdain of the crowd, and indifference to all that the vulgar covet. He approves all my defects, my childishness, my aversion to practical life, my antipathy to the utilitarians, my distrust of all desire. In a word, he flatters all my instincts; he caresses and justifies them. This pre-established harmony between the theory of Schopenhauer and my own natural man causes me pleasure mingled with terror. I might indulge myself in the pleasure, but that I fear to delude and stifle conscience. Besides, I feel that goodness has no tolerance for this contemplative indifference, and that virtue consists in self-conquest.
August 30, 1869.
Still some chapters of Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer believes in the unchangeableness of innate tendencies in the individual, and in the invariability of the primitive disposition. He refuses to believe in the new man, in any real progress toward perfection, or in any positive improvement in a human being. Only the appearances are refined; there is no change below the surface. Perhaps he confuses temperament, character, and individuality ? I incline to think that individuality is fatal and primitive, that temperament reaches far back, but is alternable, and that character is more recent and susceptible of voluntary or involuntary modifications. Individuality is a matter of psychology, temperament, a matter of sensation or aesthetics; character alone is a matter of morals.
Liberty and the use of it count for nothing in the first two elements of our being; character is a historical fruit, and the result of a man’s biography. For Schopenhauer, character is identified with temperament just as will with passion. In short, he simplifies too much, and looks at man from that more elementary point of view which is only sufficient in the case of the animal. That spontaneity which is vital or merely chemical he already calls will. Analogy is not equation; a comparison is not reason; similes and parables are not exact language. Many of Schopenhauer’s originalities evaporate when we come to translate them into a more close and precise terminology.
One has merely to turn over the “Lichtstrahlem” of Herder to feel the difference between him and Schopenhauer. The latter is full of marked features and of observations which stand out from the page and leave a clear and vivid impression. Herder is much less of a writer; his ideas are entangled in his style, and he has no brilliant condensations, no jewels, no crystals. While he proceeds by streams and sheets of thought which have no definite or individual outline, Schopenhauer breaks the current of his speculation with islands, striking, original, and picturesque, which engrave themselves in the memory.
It is the same difference as there is between Nicole and Pascal, between Bayle and Saint-Simon. What is the faculty which gives relief, brilliancy, and incisiveness to thought ? Imagination. Under its influence expression becomes concentrated, colored, and strengthened, and by the power it has of individualizing all it touches, it gives life and permanence to the material on which it works. A writer of genius changes sand into glass and glass into crystal, ore into iron and iron into steel; he marks with his own stamp every idea he gets hold of. He borrows much from the common stock, and gives back nothing; but even his robberies are willingly reckoned to him as private property. He has, as it were, "carte blanche", and public opinion allows him to take what he will.
August 31, 1869.
I have finished Schopenhauer. My mind has been a tumult of opposing systems--Stoicism, Quietism, Buddhism, Christianity. Shall I never be at peace with myself ? If impersonality is a good, why am I not consistent in the pursuit of it ? and if it is a temptation, why return to it, after having judged and conquered it ? Is happiness anything more than a conventional fiction ?
The deepest reason for my state of doubt is that the supreme end and aim of life seems to me a mere lure and deception. The individual is an eternal dupe, who never obtains what he seeks, and who is forever deceived by hope. My instinct is in harmony with the pessimism of Buddha and of Schopenhauer. It is a doubt which never leaves me even in my moments of religious fervor. Nature is indeed for me a Maïa; and I look at her, as it were, with the eyes of an artist. My intelligence remains skeptical.
What, then, do I believe in ? I do not know. And what is it I hope for ? It would be difficult to say. Folly ! I believe in goodness, and I hope that good will prevail. Deep within this ironical and disappointed being of mine there is a child hidden - a frank, sad, simple creature, who believes in the ideal, in love, in holiness, and all heavenly superstitions. A whole millennium of idylls sleeps in my heart; I am a pseudo-skeptic, a pseudo-scoffer.
“Borné dans sa nature, infini dans ses voeux,
L’homme est un dieu tombé qui se souvient des cieux.”