Skip to content

Schopenhauer and the Perception of the Real or Surreal Postmodernity (The Occidental Observer, October, 2010)

Tom Sunic

The text below is the expanded version of Tom Sunic’s speech, delivered at the New Right conference in London, on October 23, 2010.

There is a danger in interpreting the text of some long gone author, let alone of some heavyweight philosopher, such as Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860). The interpreter tends to look at parts of the author’s prose that may best suit his own conclusions, while avoiding parts that other critics may find more relevant, and which the interpreter may consider either incomprehensible or irrelevant. This is true for Schopenhauer in so far as he deals in his multilayered work with diverse subject matters, ranging from the theories of knowledge, to the role of women, sex, eugenics, religion, etc., while offering aphoristic formulas on how to live a more or less liveable life. Moreover, in his entire work Schopenhauer deals extensively with the perception of objective reality, our self-perception, and how our self-perception reflects itself in the perception of the Other, for instance in the mind of my political foe or friend. It’s no wonder that when Schopenhauer is read along with some postmodern authors, his work can retrospectively yield some groundbreaking insights, of which even he was not aware.

The devil is often in the details, but harping on the details alone may often overshadow the whole. Just because Schopenhauer was critical of Jewish monotheism, or made some critical remarks about women, should not lead us to the conclusion that he was a standard-bearer of anti-Semitism or a hater of women. The fact that Adolf Hitler was one of his avid readers should not overshadow the fact that the father of modern psychoanalysis, the Jewish-born Austrian Sigmund Freud, learned a get deal from him on the how irrational will is expressed in sexual drive.

An Apolitical Meta-politician

How relevant is Arthur Schopenhauer? At first sight Schopenhauer’s prose may be dated for our understanding of the world today. Schopenhauer can be catalogued as a thinker of the so-called intellectual conservative revolution in so far as many thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Vilfredo Pareto, Julius Evola and others, one hundred years later, were heavily influenced by his writings. Neither can these authors be properly understood unless the reader becomes familiar with Schopenhauer’s writings first. Secondly, Schopenhauer’s teachings about the primacy of the will spearheading our perception of reality can also be of help in grasping the political hyperreality of the modern liberal system.

Schopenhauer’s name is usually associated with cultural pessimism. Nevertheless, he is far from the caricature of a suicidal author harping ceaselessly on the culture of death, as was the case with many of his 20th-century successors, including the magisterial Emile Cioran. In his aphorisms Schopenhauer provides some handy recipes as to how to minimize a life of pain and sorrow and how to discard the dangerous illusion of happiness. As a fine connoisseur of human psychology, Schopenhauer justly remarks that where there is a violent outburst of joy, a disaster looms just around the corner. It is therefore with maximum efforts that we need to curb shifts in our mood: anxiety is just the other side of ecstasy. One must not give vent to great jubilation or to great sorrow as the changeability of all things can transfigure those at any moment. By contrast, one must enjoy the “here and now,” possibly in a cheerful manner — this is the wisdom of life. (Die Kunst glücklich zu sein. C.H. Beck 1999, p. 56).

Schopenhauer does not deal with political treatises in his work, nor does he discuss the political sociology of the rapidly industrializing Europe, or governmental institutions of his time. The political changes he witnessed, however dramatic they were, such as the Napoleonic wars in Europe, the rise to power of America, and the post-Napoleonic era, were of no interest to him. Quite consistent with his misanthropic views about human nature, he stayed above the political and historical fray to the point of total disinterestedness.

Schopenhauer refuses any formula for any ontological, political, or ethical system whatsoever. Instead, he demolishes all doctrines and all systems, be they religious or political. He resented politics and he can be justly depicted as an “anti–intellectual” in a modern sense of the word.

For Schopenhauer, the world is fundamentally absurd and no political philosophy can alter its absurdity. A French theoretician of postmodernity, the philosopher Clément Rosset, is probably one of the best authors who summarized the significance of Schopenhauer for our times.

“Man has forever been successful in passing off past events for new events. He has been thought to be able to act within free and regenerating time. In reality, though, he has been in the arms of the cadaver. A retrospective horror extends to his past, in which he has lived ever since, although, just like his future, that time had lapsed for good. This time-illness, a profound source of intuition about the absence of all finality, expresses itself in the obsessive theme of repetition.” (Clément Rosset, Schopenhauer, Philosophe de l’Absurde, 1967, p. 97).

In other words, however much we may yearn to affect the flow of time or assign it some goal or purpose, its merciless cyclical nature always bring us to further delusions and the inevitable status quo.

Nowhere is this absurd repetitive will of living visible as in man’s sexual desire — which Schopenhauer describes in his famous chapter and essay “The Metaphysics of Sex.” Once a sexual appetite is assuaged, the will continues to manifest itself again and again in ceaseless sameness of sexual desire.

It follows from this absurd repetitiveness that the entire history of the human species is the entanglement of re-enactments. World affairs and political decision-making are manifestations of a self-inflicted desire for something new. Based on such perceptions of repetitive reality, Schopenhauer shows no interest in history, noting that it is always the same people who take the world stage, with the same ideas, albeit framed in a different rhetoric. In short, his target of criticism is the philosophy of optimism and the idea of progress which lay embedded in the eighteenth century teaching of the Enlightenment.

For Schopenhauer there is nothing new under the sun, as with every fleeting second the new becomes the old and the old becomes the new; the wheel of time turns forever. Time for Schopenhauer is devoid of historicity. Therefore, a study of some historical event, or of some political drama, is totally irrelevant. Schopenhauer advocates the abandoning of the illusory will to create a better world. He was a willy-nilly supporter of monarchical government because that form of rule offered some semblance of authority and stability.

Despite his static philosophy that rejected human and political betterment, Schopenhauer ventures often in his lengthy work into interesting and well-founded analyses, such as his brief study on the importance of heredity. But one must be careful not to extrapolate his scattered comments on race and heredity and assume that they make up the bulk of his work. He believed in the hereditary improvement of mankind and some of his remarks about biological betterment are right on target. Irrespective of the fact that he does not delve much into the subject of heredity, one must agree that Schopenhauer could be easily used as a weapon by modern sociobiologists or race realists.

“If we could castrate all scoundrels, and shut up all stupid geese in monasteries and give persons of noble character a whole harem and provide men, and indeed complete men, for all maidens of mind and understanding, a generation would soon arise what would produce a better age than that of Pericles” (The World as Will and Idea, p. 331, “Heredity.”)

Schopenhauer’s remarks on heredity are perfectly compatible with his teachings on the independence of the will. Just as we can never change the predetermined nature of our genes and our genealogy, we cannot change the predetermined nature of the will:

“The only freedom that exists is of a metaphysical character. In the physical world freedom is an impossibility. .. [T]he will itself, as something that lies beyond time, and so long as it exists at all, never changes… Hence it is that every man achieves only that which is irrevocably established in his nature, or is born with him.(Free Will and Fatalism).

The Will vs. the Deceptive Reality

The main driving force of the entire university is the will. Ideas, concepts and images are merely the objectification of our will at different levels of perception. The will is a blind force; it is subject neither to time nor to space, neither does it obey the principles of causality, nor is it subject to accidents.

In this sense Schopenhauer represents a big break with the teachings of rationalists and idealists of his time, who were enamored with the principles of causality, and henceforth viewed necessity as a cornerstone of life on Earth. Schopenhauer stood out as an oddity in his times which were imbued with the heritage of the Enlightenment.

The will is more important than the thought. However, at the conceptual level, as some scholars pointed out, one must carefully distinguish between the will and the instinct, as his later critical admirer and commentator, the National-Socialist Minister, Alfred Rosenberg, noted in his chapter “Will and Instinct” in his now famous book, The Myth of the 20th Century. “Will is always the opposite of instinct (“Trieb”), and not identical with it, as Schopenhauer seemed to teach.”

In other words contrary to Schopenhauer, Rosenberg objects that Schopenhauer uses the term “will” in an overly general manner. Similar to Nietzsche and his followers, Rosenberg argues for the “implementation” of the free will for Promethean and political goals while contrasting it to the primeval biological impulses which he calls the “instinct.” (Trieb).

Man is originally not a being of knowledge but a creature of instinct and will — a will that comes alive in cyclical time and in a non-linear way. Will is the fundamental reality of the world, the thing-in-itself, and its objectification is what is visible in external phenomena, such as objects or political events that we witness daily. In practical life the antagonism between the will and reason arises from the fact that the will is a metaphysical substance, whereas the reason is something accidental and secondary: an “appendage” to the will. The will is an autonomous desire, that is to say, an irrational need to act or to do something. The will is free in every single thought process and action, but it need not and generally does not follow the precepts of reason.

Unlike the majority of philosophers of his time, including Hegel, Schopenhauer does not hold reason in high regard. Our illusions, based on self-serving perceptions, remain so entrenched despite the most sophisticated appeals to reason. Therefore, Schopenhauer can be justly labeled as the greatest anti-rationalist philosopher of all time. Only the genius has some capacity for objectivity in so far as he can harness his will and become the pure knowing subject.

The absurdity of Schopenhauer’s “free” will is that man is enslaved by it without ever knowing its origin and reason. Humans act but do not know why they act the way they do: apart from a few geniuses, their self perceptions are nothing more than illusions. This leads us to a dreadful life, full of anguish on the one hand and ecstatic expectations on the other. The absurdity of our will is not how to reach the river and quench our thirst: the absurdity consists in the will for being thirsty! The will has no cause and, given that it excludes causality, it does not have any necessity or purpose.

That the being is without any necessity is already a dreadful problem. But that this very being is in addition unhappy and miserable only emphasizes the absence of a raison d’être. (Rosset, p. 16)

Schopenhauer’s theories of representation and perception can easily rank him today in the category of the founding fathers of postmodern theory of the Double and the Hyperreal. Everything that we see is fleeting “representations” and not the actual physical phenomena. We dream even when we are awake. Well, how then tell the difference between the real political truth and the fabricated political truth?

Schopenhauer is a crucial source in understanding the psychopathological impact of religions, myths and the systems of beliefs. At times he labels them “allegories” whereas in other places he describes them as the “metaphysics of the masses” or “people’s metaphysics” (Volksmetaphysik). Just as people have popular poetry and the popular wisdoms or proverbs, they also need popular metaphysics. They need an interpretation of life; and this interpretation must be suited for their comprehension. The great majority of humans have at best a weak faculty for weighing reasons and discriminating between the fact and the fiction. Does this sound familiar?

No belief system, no ideology, no religion is immune from self-serving delusional tenets linked to false perceptions of reality, although, in due time, each of them will undergo the process of demythologization and eventually become a laughing stock for those who see the illusions underlying these delusional myths.

We can illustrate this changing masquerade of history repeating itself when observing the mindset of modern opinion makers. People have always wished, by means of different allegories, to transcend their cursed reality and make frequent excursions into the spheres of the hyperreal, the unreal, or the surreal — in order to offset the absurdity of their existence. It is natural that they resort to religious and ideological devices, however aberrant or criminal these allegorical devices may subsequently turn out to be.

Accordingly, the motor of religious mass mimicry, which Schopenhauer describes, is again our objectified will. Consequently, the whole course of human life is patterned along the principle of imitation, where even the smallest thing in our perception is borrowed from that role model who is viewed now as a path-breaking innovator or a new messiah. Mimicry is the powerful motor of the will, the theme which was later expanded by Schopenhauer’s disciples, such as Gustave Le Bon.

Intelligent individuals amidst our modern rootless masses realize that some beliefs are fraudulent and harmful, but for the sake of social conformity they accept them. They will rather listen to others than trust their own head. As Schopenhauer writes, the bad thing about all religions is that instead of being able to admit their allegorical nature, they conceal it. Absurdities form an essential part of popular beliefs.

Schopenhauer’s teaching on religions, including his denunciation of the will to political power, was borrowed from the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. He has good words for Catholicism though, which for him is a religion of pessimism (The World as Will and Idea, p. 372). But it would be a serious error, based on a fragmentary reading of his work, to conclude that he was rejecting one religion at the expense of the other. Although Schopenhauer may be described as an atheist or agnostic, his sense of spirituality was very strong. Of all religions Judaism is the worst religion, notes Schopenhauer in his famous book Parerga und Paralipomena.

“The genuine religion of the Jews … is the crudest of all religions (die roheste aller Religionen.) The ongoing contempt for Jews, amidst their contemporary peoples, may have been to a large degree due to the squalid (armsälig) qualities of their religion. … In any case the essence of any religion consists, as such, in its persuasion that it provides for us, namely that our actual existence is not only limited to our life, but that it remains timeless. The appalling (erbärmlich) Jewish region does not fulfil this; indeed, it does not even try to. … Therefore, this is the crudest and the worst of all religions consisting only in an absurd and outrageous (empörend) theism. … While all other religions endeavour to explain to the people by symbols and parables the metaphysical significance of life, the religion of the Jews is entirely immanent and furnishes nothing but a mere war-cry (Kriegsgeschrei) in the struggle with other nations” (pp. 136–137).

Some of Schopenhauer’s words about the power of the blind will can easily be applied to our postmodern times — for example, how the will to believe in something has been hijacked by liberal political elites.

The Hyperreal: The Denial and its Double

We can now jump over to the 20th and 21st century and observe how Schopenhauer’s ideas provide a good fit to the mass illusions accompanying the rising tide of the democratic mystique. How does the will objectify itself in the political arena today? As I wrote in my essay, Vilfredo Pareto and Political Irrationality, politicians are inclined to project their perception of the real world into its embellished Double. Example: None of us is entirely happy with his looks; no political theorist is happy with the world as it is. We all strive to be someone else; we all wish to project either our physique or the present political order into its loftier, distant, and more romantic substitute. As a result, the masses, but also our politicians, assess values and objective reality not as they are, but rather as they’d like to see them. Our passionate need for a change, as a rule, results in inevitable disappointments and feelings of betrayal.

Following Schopenhauer’s logic, it is a serious error to assume that some contemporary politician in the US, the UK, or in Croatia is a liar or a crook just because we feel or think that we are being cheated or oppressed by him. More likely, such wicked political leaders are themselves the victims of self-delusions. Their manic desire for world improvement is based on honest and self-proclaimed “scientific”, “reasonable,” and “truthful” wishful thinking, which they benevolently wish to share with us or with their subjects or constituents.

To illustrate the will for self-delusion, one may observe contemporary leftists and antifascist militants within Schopenhauer’s framework of analysis. What they say is already based on their prior self-persuasions, which are the reflections of the prevailing beliefs of their time. Pareto, as a valiant disciple of Schopenhauer’s methods, notes that ”many people are not socialists because they have been persuaded by reasoning. Quite the contrary; these people acquiesce to such reasoning because they are (already) socialists.” Their will, however aberrantly it may objectify itself in the ravings for some communistic mystique, defies any empirical argument.

Schopenhauer is of paramount importance in understanding our perception of postmodern reality, or our hyperreality, as some authors call it. The surreal world of the liberal dogma — that is, the world in which we live — fits perfectly Schopenhauer’s teaching on the flawed perception of the real. Moreover, Schopenhauer’s work is a useful tool for deciphering liberal mendacity, which has become today the cornerstone of the new world order. The postmodern West is enveloped in the virtual reality of the electronic age (the “videosphere”) and media make-believe, which incessantly turn every real political event into a virtual image.

How does the liberal mystique or, to use Schopenhauer’s word, ‘allegory’, operate today? The process that started with the abstraction of the objective, as a result of the mass media, has ended now in integral reality, as the postmodern author Jean Baudrillard writes. “The virtual itself is “negationist,” or denial-prone. The virtual takes away the substance of the real. “We are living in a society of historical denial by virtue of its virtuality.”

Disbelief reigns everywhere, even if there are solid and empirical proofs of the opposite. No longer is some historical or political event perceived as “real” or truthful. For instance the memory of the Holocaust functions today as the largest civic religion of the West. The Holocaust is a system of belief serving not only a commemorative goal; it is also a cognitive paradigm for interpreting all aspects of our contemporary society. The issue, however, is no longer the body count of people who died in the Holocaust; rather, the issue is the fact that the postmodern virtual world by definition minimizes or maximizes the hyperreal at the expense of the real.

This rule of the hyperreal or the double applies now to all grand narratives, especially those teeming with victimological themes. Even honest historians or social theorists can no longer be taken as real. Why? The big postmodern question will immediately start hovering over their heads: What if that guy is telling the lies? What if he does not tell the truth? Victimologies, and victimhoods no longer sound persuasive as they have found their media hyper-substitutes, which either re-enact, or deactivate the real past crime.

Therefore, the modern media and politicians must make post-prophylactic political decisions in a desperate attempt to dismantle the previous real, i.e., the previous bad decision, the previous inaction by making it up to the real victim with an overkill of repenting rhetoric and post-prophylactic decision making (massive security checks at airports, always new mass commemorations, etc.). If the lives of the masses of people who perished cannot be restored, let us restore their memory by the hyperreal media! Why resuscitate the living, when the resuscitation of the dead is a far better business?

One can analyze the postmodern wars, the so-called Gulf War in 1991 and the war in Bosnia in 1995 using the concepts of the hyperreal and the double. When these wars were televised and commented on by talking heads on TV screens, their real and horrible reality was cancelled out. Spectators were therefore much more likely to support these wars.

Neither can our history writing be a matter of academic discussion any more. Historical narratives about real or surreal fascist crimes or White man crimes or the current mantra on White man guilt have attained a grotesque level of psychological saturation, to the point that for politically conscious Whites they soon sink into oblivion — and laughter — as they are deconstructed. Even if some past mass crimes are empirically verifiable, the masses will start reconstructing its negative Double — after first deconstructing its Real antecedent.

The Age of Postmodernity is basically the age of deconstruction, where no single verity can hold sway for a long time. Here is the vicious circle of the hyperreal. If one is encouraged to deconstruct the real world and denounce political beliefs as a passing allegory, as Schopenhauer did, why not deconstruct new contemporary civic religions, such the monotheism of the capitalist market or the civic religion of victimhood?

Spectral Verities, Viral Lies

We all live the hyperreal, as the French philosopher Rosset writes; we all crave for the Double—be it in its negative or the positive form. We all wish to be something we are not; the duplicate of ourselves. “In place of the world as it is, we invent a ‘duplicate’ or a ‘double,’ a parallel universe which functions as a phantom rival to the existing world.”

The disadvantage of living in the real world is that life in it is drab, frightening, or boring; the advantage of the “doubled” life lies not only in the fact that such life does not exist, but that such life doesn’t even have to exist in order for us to believe it to be true and real! In other words, this desire for a spectral world is not so much a desire for something different, as it is a desire to get rid of the real world.

Who are the new paradigms or role models of our hyperreal postmodernity? Once upon a time the role model for Western man was a rugged individual, a Prometheus unbound, a war hero, a conqueror like Cortez, Columbus, or General Lee. Today the will for the hyperreal requires his double or his denial, or better yet the “doubled denial.” As a result, the new role models for the West are the degenerates, the retards, the non-Whites, the pederasts, the pathetic and the perverts. Baudrillard: “The Courtier was the most remarkable figure of the aristocratic order. The Militant was the most remarkable figure of the social and revolutionary order. The Penitent is the most remarkable figure of our advanced postmodern democratic politicians.”

But these degenerate role models are in turn subject to deconstruction, especially by proud, psychologically healthy White people who are being victimized by the legitimization of these role models.

Granted, we are witnessing the end of the big narratives, such as antifascist victimology. However, the unresolved work of mourning the real (or hyperreal) victims of fascism or racism is in full swing. In other words, the antifascist, antiracist war (with all its political, media and legal prohibition) continues unabated. Even if real racism and fascism are dead and gone, they need to be resurrected in a negative doubled manner in order to give the mourners an opportunity to repent for the failed duty to prevent it from happening. Never again, never again! — this is a new war cry of our hyperreal discourse.

This strategy of the hyperreal “never again”, is directed not only at preventing similar events from happening again in the future — as expressed in the forms of a myriad of memorial centers commemorating the Holocaust. It is also meant to be a tool of unraveling, in a vicarious and imaginary way, of the real past historical disaster that befell the Jews or the non-Whites. Likewise, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are waged today as the post- prophylactic double; indeed, they are not just the wars for stopping the terror; they are the wars for removing the past sins of the political class, which led to the real terror of the dreadful 9/11! The goal is now to retroactively cancel out the inflicted national disgrace and humiliation of the ruling elites. This is why the actual wars and our public discourse all over the West are “non-events”. Never again, never again!

And this is why the hyperreal or the double are pure illusions. They cannot last. The violent and the objective real is waiting in the wings and it will soon take the upper hand. Is it for real?