Monday, November 17, 2008

Schopenhauer on human solidarity in a world without God

A facile charge frequently leveled against atheism by religious apologists is that without God, human beings have no reason to care about one another.

This obviously says a lot about the person making the claim, for they are inadvertently admitting that without their belief in God, they would no longer feel the need to behave in a respectful and considerate way towards others, but would instead embrace radical selfishness, hatred, contempt, and destructiveness.

The claim itself is false for a number of important reasons that I won't be covering in any detail in the post. However, I would like to point to one interesting example of an atheist philosopher making a case for human solidarity based on the shared experience of the 'human condition'.

Arthur Schopenhauer is perhaps best known as a philosopher of 'pessimism', but in many respects a cold, rational evaluation of the nature of the world by necessity will result in a somewhat 'pessimistic' conclusion. Judaic monotheism in particular contains within it an awareness of the fundamentally flawed nature of existence, hence the tale of a 'fall', the endless attempts at creating theodicies to 'explain' (essentially justify) suffering, and some modern Christian theologians' focus on the Incarnation as God 'suffering alongside us'.

From the perspective of atheism, the attempts at reconciling a flawed world of suffering with a perfect God of love fall down as incoherent, fanciful, and a flight from reality.

In his essay '
On the Sufferings of the World', Schopenhauer looked honestly and without supernatural self-deception at the world and concluded:

[T]hat a God like Jehovah should have created this world of misery and woe, out of pure caprice, and because he enjoyed doing it, and should then have clapped his hands in praise of his own work, and declared everything to be very good — that will not do at all!

He continued:

Even though Leibnitz' contention, that this is the best of all possible worlds, were correct, that would not justify God in having created it. For he is the Creator not of the world only, but of possibility itself; and, therefore, he ought to have so ordered possibility as that it would admit of something better.

There are two things which make it impossible to believe that this world is the successful work of an all-wise, all-good, and, at the same time, all-powerful Being; firstly, the misery which abounds in it everywhere; and secondly, the obvious imperfection of its highest product, man, who is a burlesque of what he should be. These things cannot be reconciled with any such belief.

To view the world as, fundamentally, a world of 'misery and woe', and to accept this inevitability as the 'price' of existence is to be liberated from illusion and from the intellectual dishonesty involved in maintaining fantasies of a divine creator. Indeed, 'you will regulate your expectations accordingly, and cease to look upon all its disagreeable incidents, great and small, its sufferings, its worries, its misery, as anything unusual or irregular'. Obviously, Schopenhauer did not advocate a passive acceptance of suffering, for joy is the aspiration of all humans and

every state of welfare, every feeling of satisfaction, is negative in its character; that is to say, it consists in freedom from pain, which is the positive element of existence. It follows, therefore, that the happiness of any given life is to be measured, not by its joys and pleasures, but by the extent to which it has been free from suffering — from positive evil.

Now we come to Schopenhauer's basis for human solidarity:

In fact, the conviction that the world and man is something that had better not have been, is of a kind to fill us with indulgence towards one another. Nay, from this point of view, we might well consider the proper form of address to be, not Monsieur, Sir, mein Herr, but my fellow-sufferer, SocĂ® malorum, compagnon de miseres! This may perhaps sound strange, but it is in keeping with the facts; it puts others in a right light; and it reminds us of that which is after all the most necessary thing in life—the tolerance, patience, regard, and love of neighbour, of which everyone stands in need, and which, therefore, every man owes to his fellow.

When we see our fellow humans' suffering, we should, according to Schopenhauer, be able to see ourselves mirrored in them. There is no need to invoke invented notions such as humans all being 'children of God' or 'equal in God's eyes' to feel solidarity. If anything, a stronger bond is felt precisely through the fact that we are not 'children of God', but rather the products of nature, which does not favour us, does not concern itself with our suffering or our happiness, and which has no 'plan' or 'purpose'. We stand alone in a world that is not made 'for us' and we have evolved through pain, struggle, and hardship. The fact that most of us in developed nations feel little pain when compared with past generations is precisely because we have evolved societies which ever-increasingly protect and sustain human survival.

In the past, tolerance, patience, regard, and love of neighbour were presented variously as signs of virtue and also as compulsory actions, enforced by a God who will judge those who fail to help others. These supernatural injunctions were used to 'explain', justify, and enforce the need for human solidarity. However, there is absolutely no reason to suggest that these qualities are any less valid or any less necessary when the superstitious aspects surrounding them are removed.

As Schopenhauer argues, in order to survive, everyone stands in need of certain acts of human solidarity, and just as we need these acts of kindness from others, so also, in turn, we owe them to others. Human solidarity is in fact a rational response to the 'human condition', and mutual co-operation and ethical reciprocity require no 'God' at all. If anything, following Schopenhauer's line of reasoning, those who refuse the supernatural illusion and face the fact that we are all fellow-sufferers and that there is no heavenly escape outside 'this life' and no 'divine plan', are actually more likely to feel a fundamental need to show kindness to one another than those who think 'this world' is only the momentary antechamber to another world of eternal joy.

Republished from I Kid You Not

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