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Monday, March 05, 2012


Essays and Aphorisms
by Arthur Schopenhauer
translation/adaption by R. J. Hollingdale
Penguin Classics 2004 Edition

  Schopenhauer is the essential  unrecognized genius of the 19th century.  His biography reads like a romantic poem.  Schopenhauer's major work,  The World as Will and Representation, was published in 1818.  Basically ignored at the time, Schopenhauer would live for another 40 plus years, but only find widespread acceptance in the early 1850s.  Key to that acceptance was the publication, in two volumes, of Parerga and  Paralipomena- the source material for this book- called Essays and Aphorisms  in the English translation.

  Essays and Aphorisms is not a simple translation, much editing and rearranging has occurred.  In this way, Essays and Aphorisms is the functional equivalent of a "SCHOPENHAUER'S GREATEST HITS" LP- with material has been taken out of the original context and re arranged for the convenience of a modern audience.

  Schopenhauer is a key figure in the development of 20th century anti-modernism- his work pre-figured many of the concerns with boredom, the autonomy of Art and the deficiencies of reason that characterize much of 20th century anti-modernist thought.  He influenced the German Marxists of the Frankfurt School and French post-modern philosophers alike.

 He also was influential in the field of Aesthetics.   Here's what Essays and Aphorisms has to say about the importance of Music as an art form:

    Music is the true universal language which is understood everywhere, so that it is ceaselessly spoken in all countries and throughout all the centuries with great zeal and earnestness, and a significant melody which says a great deal soon makes its way round the entire earth while one poor in meaning which says nothing straighwaway fades and dies:  which proves the content of a melody is very well understandable.  Yet music speaks not of things but of pure weal and woe, which are the only realities for the will: this is why it speaks so much to the heart, while it has nothing to say directly to the head and it is a misuse of it to demand that it should do so.   (pg. 162) (1)

 Of course, Schopenhauer wrote about many things besides music- he was a big fan of despair and ennui, a critic of religion.  He also likes to write about the meaning of "genius" and it is hard not to see biographical details of failure steeping into his theoretically untrammeled philosophical speculation.

  One of the points that R. J. Hollingdale makes in this excellent introduction (which dates from 1970) is that Schopenhauer was a stylist and that much of his success stems from the fact that he had an accessible style that non-specialists were attracted to.  That's funny, because much of Essays and Aphorisms is literally devoted to castigating "ordinary" man as a half animal, unthinking brute- he criticizes the masses while writing in an aphoristic style that seems calculated to generate a wider audience for his ideas.

  You might say that is Schopenhauer would do such a thing, the Greatest Hits format is a proven market widener for a specific Artist or critic.

  His criticism of contemporary society is insightful and far reaching- his big example of how cruel and debasing life is derives from the state of slavery in the American south before the Civil War.  Touche, Schopenhauer.

  Schopenhauer's own life is as romantic as that of better appreciated contemporary thinkers, but notable mostly for the lack of appreciation that he experienced while alive, and his refusal to compromise belief in his own genius despite a corresponding lack of appreciation from the public.


(1)  An example of the pieced-together nature of this edition comes in the List of Correspondences that follows the main text- you can see parts have been removed.

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