Schopenhauer believes in the Kantian division between the phenomenal and the noumenal, between appearance and the things-in-themselves. While Kant believes we have no access to the real, but must simply posit its existence for the sake of sanity and motivation in moral life, Schopenhauer believes we can have an approximate access to the the real in certain respects, the most immediate is the inwardly-originating movement of the human body. It is not reason or matter itself which for Schopenhauer constitutes the thing-in-itself. Rather, the thing-in-itself, per se, is the Will, a completely irrational and insatiable force which underlies and drives all life. History can have no direction, firstly because it is pure illusion, but secondly because history, if it did exist at all, would driven by wholly aimless destructive forces.
Schopenhauer’s intense hatred of all nationalism and patriotism derives directly from his belief, from having read Hegel (whom he despised), that countries are nothing more than grotesque superpowers, colossal manifestations of a thoroughly irrational collective Will. Rather than control the Will – which for Schopenhauer is quite a bit like the Tao, though with a voracious appetite and gnawing teeth – all we can hope to do is relinquish that aspiration and instead seek refuge in simplicity of living and art of the highest order. Interestingly, Schopenhauer is the philosopher most responsible for elevating classical music, which prior to him had always been understood as light diversion, to the exalted which it enjoyed through the 19th and up to the time of its death, in the 20th century. For it is music which for Schopenhauer most proximately expresses the motions and passions of the Will. And though Schopenhauer does not speak of dance, I would suggest that the rise of dance as art, as Dance, can with much justification be traced back to his writings.
Ludwig von Beethoven
Piano Concerto #5
The ideas you mention are common assumptions which first originate with Kant and especially Hegel. But Schopenhauer, as ferociously anti-Hegelian, believed none of them. For Hegel, history, did indeed look, at first glance, like nothing but a long series of disasters. Nevertheless, it could be read, if one adopted an appropriate ideal perspective, as leading, despite the ignorance and ineptitude of individual human actors, slowly and inexorably toward a greater good for Humanity in general. Ideally viewed, history became History. But Schopenhauer thoroughly rejected that there was any sort of higher ground from which to observe the wreckage of history in any way which would make sense of it. No matter how you observed it, history was nothing but ceaseless failure and meaningless destruction. This, as you can imagine, is not a popular view in our own day. But it carried great currency beginning around 1850 or so, when Hegelian idealism had really lost its steam. Various key thinkers after Schopenhauer have used his writings as a basis from which to develop their own philosophies. Nietzsche and Freud are only two examples.
One of the great substances, or things-in-themselves, which Kant says much remain forever out of our grasp, is Reason itself. He takes the reality of Reason – the active force of mind – for an undeniable fact. But what exactly it is in its essence, he believes we cannot know. Schopenhauer, an extremely astute reader of Kant, but one who has read him after and not before the disasters of the Napoleonic Wars, continues to believe in some undefinable power which drives world events. But in stark opposition to Kant, he no longer sees this force as Reason but rather Unreason, as the wholly Irrational Will. A good way to understand the conclusions and tone to which this insight leads Schopenhauer, it might be appropriate to have a look at the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya‘s powerful and horrifying series of engraving, The Disasters of War. They are disturbing, to say the very least. It’s hard to see life from this perspective and imagine that history is History, and that is has any positive lessons to teach us at all. Might be interesting to compare and contrast Goya and Schopenhauer’s understanding of war and that of Homer. If we want, however, to pursue these ideas from a strictly Hegelian perspective, the next obvious text for us to read would be Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, which I will teach in IT3.