Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Mill & Schopenhauer

A recent article got me thinking about Schopenhauer and John Stuart Mill.

Mill is notable, among other things, for his strong support of the rights of women while Schopenhauer is frequently called a misogynist.

Although I should say that not only did Schopenhauer declare late in life he had not said his last about women, but his contempt for women was not at all unusual for his time  - he just considered women important enough to discuss in his work, unlike most pre-20th century philosophers.

The article was in the New York Times this week, on a mental crisis experienced by John Stuart Mill and the author, Adam Etison, mentions Schopenhauer:
Or was Mill concerned that, in a perfect world, with nothing more to strive for, we might simply grow bored? As the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once upliftingly put it, “life swings back and forth like a pendulum between pain and boredom.” When we are not consumed by the desire to achieve something (food, shelter, companionship, wealth, career, status, social reform, etc.), we are tortured by boredom.
What I found most interesting about the article is that ultimately Mill and Schopenhauer came to the same conclusion about how to best get on with life. Again from the article:
 The answer, he discovered through reading Wordsworth, is to take refuge in a capacity to be moved by beauty — a capacity to take joy in the quiet contemplation of delicate thoughts, sights, sounds, and feelings, not just titanic struggles.
This discovery is convenient for a philosopher. Mill was trained, from a very young age, to think: to be a quiet contemplator. So, it’s no surprise that he was desperate to make sure he could still take joy in his allotted craft, once the hard labor of social reform was done. But, as Mill says, imaginative pleasures are available to “all human beings,” not just poets and philosophers.
This is pretty much exactly Schopenhauer's view - to lose oneself in contemplation of art is the best way to be relieved, if temporarily, of the constant desiring of the Will. Schopenhauer put a special emphasis on music, but the idea is the same.

Schopenhauer and Mill were contemporaries for awhile - Schopenhauer was eighteen when Mill was born and lived to be 72, while Mill died at age 66, but I've never heard what either thought of the other, or even if they ever mentioned each other in their work. Schopenhauer was fluent in English, having been to school in London so there's no reason to think he had never heard of or read Mill, and Schopenhauer was pretty famous by the time he died, so there's no reason to think Mill had no opinion on his work. I will have to keep a lookout for any possible commentary.

In any case, it is striking that two such different men - and not only different in opinions towards women - would both ultimately come to the same conclusion about dealing with existence.