Today for AfL, we turn to German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, whose main claim to fame was, in my opinion, that he was the son of Johanna Trosiener Schopenhauer, the first woman in Germany to publish books without a pseudonym. She was also quadrilingual before age 10. Arthur clearly had excellent parentage, even though he ended up severely estranged from Mom.
One of Schopenhauer’s most famous works, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The World as Will and Representation) presents his belief that all of existence arises from and is sustained by a certain restlessness he signified as “Will.” This Will infuses all things, all people, all matter, and drives us sentient beings to strive for satisfaction, which we can never achieve.
(In the title Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, “Vorstellung” is usually translated as “representation” or “idea.” As a fluent German speaker, I would translate it as “imagination.” The verb “vorstellen” is reflexive — “sich vorstellen” — and means “to set before oneself an image/picture/idea,” which is something we use imagination to accomplish.)
Our reflection for today is an except from Schopenhauer’s “Religion: A Dialogue.” In this dialogue, fictional characters Demopheles and Philalethes argue about the value of religion.
The names give a clue as to the position each individual takes: “Demopheles” means “people-loving”; “Philalethes” means “love of truth.” Demopheles is concerned with respecting and honoring the individual free-will choices of humans, who need religion to lift them out of the drudgery of everyday life and raise them to loftier heights of thought. Without religion, he says, people would never come to any sort of understanding of truth. Here, religion is the “metaphysics of the masses.”
But Philalethes argues that only truth deserves respect, wherever it might be found, and the lie of religion deserves no honor. Why should the “metaphysics of the masses” take precedence over the thoughts and studies of “the highest powers of the human mind” (which, I assume, are owned solely by nonreligious intellectuals)? Not to mention the hypocrisy of religions’ preaching love and compassion while violently quashing any objection or resistance from unbelievers.
Demopheles makes an interesting point that truth is like water: you can’t carry it around without a container, and religion is the container we use for imbibing truth. Philosophers, he says, just want to smash the container and have the water — the truth — by itself, which doesn’t make any sense. Truth without religion is like water running through your fingers. You can’t hold onto it, and you certainly can’t drink it. Philalethes retorts that this water-in-vessel metaphor is the equivalent of toting around truth inside a lie, and the people who do that are dangerous. The only way to make it safe would be to admit openly that religion is just an allegory — but then nobody would drink it. Instead, religious authorities claim that religion holds the truth and is truth, and they pour it into people — but the lies of the “vessel” pollute the truth so that what people ingest is actually more falsehood than truth.
Demo: But look at how much good religion has done!
Phil: Lots of things have tinges of good, but that doesn’t mean they don’t cause enormous damage!
Demo: All you’ve got is metaphysical structures. If you’re gonna take away religion, you have to give people something to replace it.
Phil: Freeing somebody from error isn’t taking something away, it’s giving something more than they had to start with! Stop using religion to say you have all the answers and just admit that you don’t know any more than anybody else does. Live and let live!
“While the two thinkers disagree about many things, they both agree that religion is for people who have neither the time, inclination or ability to do philosophy and that religion should primarily be judged in terms of how well it helps the masses connect with larger concerns regarding meaning and morality.”–Dr. Peter Rollins,
Atheism for Lent,
Schopenhauer didn’t really side with either Demo or Phil; according to Pete, Schopenhauer’s writings consistently contained elements of both. Apparently, Schopenhauer wasn’t as much interested in whether or not the entire mythology of religion is true, but what impact and practical use it has for our daily lives. Can we function well enough and gain deeper insights into the nature of self and ‘verse without religion? Or do we actually need that vessel in order to imbibe Reality in palatable and manageable portions?
I don’t know where I fall on this spectrum. Both sides kind of make sense? But both sides also seem a bit condescending and could use a dose of humility? There, I’ve said it: I don’t know.
At least Philalethes would be happy.