No Comment, Quotation — February 13, 2012, 10:18 am

Schopenhauer: Causality and Synchronicity


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.C.G. Jung, “Synchronizität als ein Prinzip akausaler Zusammenhänge,” Naturerklärung und Psyche (1952).

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.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



November 2018

The Tragedy of Ted Cruz

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Rebirth of a Nation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
Rebirth of a Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Donald Trump’s presidency signals a profound but inchoate realignment of American politics. On the one hand, his administration may represent the consolidation of minority control by a Republican-dominated Senate under the leadership of a president who came to office after losing the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots. Such an imbalance of power could lead to a second civil war—indeed, the nation’s first and only great fraternal conflagration was sparked off in part for precisely this reason. On the other hand, Trump’s reign may be merely an interregnum, in which the old white power structure of the Republican Party is dying and a new oppositional coalition struggles to be born.

Illustration by Taylor Callery (detail)
Blood Money·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Over the past three years, the city of South Tucson, Arizona, a largely Latino enclave nestled inside metropolitan Tucson, came close to abolishing its fire and police departments. It did sell off the library and cut back fire-truck crews from four to three people—whereupon two thirds of the fire department quit—and slashed the police force to just sixteen employees. “We’re a small city, just one square mile, surrounded by a larger city,” the finance director, Lourdes Aguirre, explained to me. “We have small-town dollars and big-city problems.”

Illustration by John Ritter (detail)
The Tragedy of Ted Cruz·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When I saw Ted Cruz speak, in early August, it was at Underwood’s Cafeteria in Brownwood. He was on a weeklong swing through rural central Texas, hitting small towns and military bases that ensured him friendly, if not always entirely enthusiastic, crowds. In Brownwood, some in the audience of two hundred were still nibbling on peach cobbler as Cruz began with an anecdote about his win in a charity basketball game against ABC’s late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. They rewarded him with smug chuckles when he pointed out that “Hollywood celebrities” would be hurting over the defeat “for the next fifty years.” His pitch for votes was still an off-the-rack Tea Party platform, complete with warnings about the menace of creeping progressivism, delivered at a slightly mechanical pace but with lots of punch. The woman next to me remarked, “This is the fire in the gut! Like he had the first time!” referring to Cruz’s successful long-shot run in the 2011 Texas Republican Senate primary. And it’s true—the speech was exactly like one Cruz would have delivered in 2011, right down to one specific detail: he never mentioned Donald Trump by name.

Cruz recited almost verbatim the same things Trump lists as the administration’s accomplishments: the new tax legislation, reduced African-American unemployment, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. But, in a mirror image of those in the #Resistance who refuse to ennoble Trump with the title “president,” Cruz only called him that.

Photograph of Ted Cruz © Ben Helton (detail)
Wrong Object·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.


e is a nondescript man.

I’d never used that adjective about a client. Not until this one. My seventeenth. He’d requested an evening time and came Tuesdays at six-thirty. For months he didn’t tell me what he did.

The first session I said what I often said to begin: How can I help you?

I still think of what I do as a helping profession. And I liked the way the phrase echoed down my years; in my first job I’d been a salesgirl at a department store counter.

I want to work on my marriage, he said. I’m the problem.

His complaint was familiar. But I preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer.

It’s me, he said. My wife is a thoroughly good person.

Yawn, I thought, but said, Tell me more.

I don’t feel what I should for her.

What do you feel?

Photograph © Joseph S. Giacalone (detail)

Chance that a homeless-shelter resident in a major U.S. city holds a full- or part-time job:

1 in 5

Turkey hunting was deemed most dangerous for hunters, though deer hunting is more deadly.

The unresolved midterms; Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III replaced; the debut of the world’s first AI television anchor

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today