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Alle Ereignisse im Leben eines Menschen standen demnach in zwei grundverschiedenen Arten des Zusammenhangs: erstlich, im objektiven, kausalen Zusammenhange des Naturlaufs; zweitens, in einem subjektiven Zusammenhange, der nur in Beziehung auf das sie erlebende Individuum vorhanden und so subjektiv wie dessen eigene Träume ist, in welchem jedoch ihre Succession und Inhalt ebenfalls nothwendig bestimmt ist, aber in der Art, wie die Succession der Scenen eines Drama‘s, durch den Plan des Dichters. Daß nun jene beiden Arten des Zusammenhangs zugleich bestehn und die nämliche Begebenheit, als ein Glied zweier ganz verschiedener Ketten, doch beiden sich genau einfügt, in Folge wovon jedes Mal das Schicksal des Einen zum Schicksal des Andern paßt und Jeder der Held seines eigenen, zugleich aber auch der Figurant im fremden Drama ist. Dies ist freilich etwas, das alle unsere Fassungskraft übersteigt und nur vermöge der wundersamsten harmonia præstabilita als möglich gedacht werden kann.
All developments in the life of a human being would accordingly stand in two fundamentally different types of connections: first, in the objective, causal connection of the course of nature; second, in a subjective connection which exists only in relationship to the individual who experiences it and which is thus just as subjective as his own dreams, in which however, the succession and content are just as necessarily determined and in the same manner as the succession of scenes of a drama cast by a poet. That both types of connections exist simultaneously and the same occurrence, as a link in two quite different chains, which nevertheless have aligned perfectly in the consequence of which each time the fate of one matches the fate of another, and each is made the hero of his own drama while simultaneously figuring in an alien drama. This is freely also something that exceeds our powers of comprehension and can only be conceived as possible through the most fabulous preordained harmony.
—Arthur Schopenhauer, Transscendente Spekulation über die anscheinende Absichtlichkeit im Schicksale des Einzelnen (1851) in Schopenhauers sämmtliche Schriften in fünf Bänden, vol. 4, pp. 264-65 (E. Grisebach ed. 1922)(S.H. transl.)
Schopenhauer seems at times sober, rational, and scientific, and at times strangely romantic and superstitious. In this curious essay, entitled “Transcendental Speculation on Apparent Design in the Fate of the Individual,” he helps us understand what drives these two aspects of his generally pessimistic philosophical personality. Our lives are like dreams, he says, invoking Shakespeare and Calderón. Their course is propelled in part by the directly observable phenomena of the natural world, and by principles of causality. On the other hand, a number of other forces influencing human life cannot be so easily explained, studied, and charted. These may also be forces of nature, but forces still beyond the grasp of human scientific achievement. Not understanding them, however, humankind scrambles for other explanations, for which the term “fate” may stand sentry. Later thinkers, such as Carl Gustav Jung, cited this precise passage in arguing that the other set of forces should be given a more neutral name: synchronicity.
Throughout this essay, which opens with a citation from Plotinus, Schopenhauer is taken with the example of the Greeks and their search for an explanation of the unseen forces that drive the lives of men. The Greeks turn to study of the stars and of music—studies which, in the Pythagorean tradition that so deeply influenced Schopenhauer, were tightly interwoven. Astrology, rather than astronomy, was an effort to chart the lives of humans through study of the stars. Wallenstein, the great general of the Thirty Years’ War, was famously guided by astrologers in his military and political plans. Johannes Kepler, perhaps the greatest man of science that the era produced (the greatest man north of the Alps, in any event), cast horoscopes for him. Was this a relic of medieval thought creeping into the age of scientific inquiry? Perhaps Kepler merely sought to humor a general upon whose favor so much turned. On the other hand, Kepler seemed to regard astrology as science, not pop-culture pseudo-science. And in the prior century, the astrologer Johannes Carion, a friend to a number of key figures of the Reformation, made a calling by forecasting human lives based on astral readings undertaken with far less precision or seriousness than Kepler. Carion’s contemporary men of the cloth had good fun with him, but he was hardly stigmatized for what he did; indeed, it seems to have been widely accepted as an element of science or at least scholarship.
Music, in contemplation of Greek philosophical tradition, had an almost inexplicable ability to influence humans and drive them to various acts, either promoting or discarding the process of reason. Schopenhauer the scientist would see in these explanations only attempts to chart phenomena still far beyond the satisfactory comprehension of humans. Schopenhauer the romantic would recognize that it will always be impossible for humankind to take the full measure of such phenomena, and would recognize the power of speculation about astrology and music, for instance, to help explain the influence of murky forces on human conduct. Tellingly, in a passage of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung that greatly influenced modern science-fiction writers, Schopenhauer conceived the origins of life in the universe in terms of a deep and grinding base note.
In “Transcendental Speculation on Apparent Design in the Fate of the Individual,” Schopenhauer also assumes the role of global cartographer. Principles of causality, he tells us, may measure the course of a single human life like a meridian described on a globe, but there are also lines of longitude that represent the interactions between lives of separate individuals. Hence he stresses the interaction of humans in terms beyond conventional causality. In the world of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, this force beyond the reach of conventional causality is, of course, the Will, the inner compulsion that directs an individual to the only path suitable for him. Schopenhauer wrote at a time when faith in science and an attendant optimism about humanity were gaining steadily in influence, and his writings must be understood as a powerful countercurrent probing the flaws of this belief, highlighting the limits of human knowledge, and stressing the forces within the human psyche that were—and remain—largely unappreciated.
Listen to Ludwig van Beethoven’s “große Fuge” movement in B flat major, op. 133, here in a performance by the Takács Quartet. Think of this as an exercise in the Schopenhauerian perspective—the fugue form is radicalized, turned elliptical and fractal. It assumes a relentlessness and pessimism well measured to Schopenhauer.
More from Scott Horton:
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