TBM: Part 1, Chapter 1

by Arthur Schopenhauer

translated by Arthur Brodrick Bullock

Introduction: THE PROBLEM.

“Why do philosophers differ so widely as to the first principles of Morals, but agree respecting the conclusions and duties which they deduce from those principles?”

This is the question which was set as subject for a prize essay by the Royal Society of Holland at Harlem, 1810, and solved by J. C. F. Meister; and in comparison with the task before us, the inquiry presented no extraordinary difficulty. For:—

(1) The present question of the Royal Society has to do with nothing less important than the objectively true basis of morals, and consequently of morality. It is an Academy, be it observed, which invites this inquiry; and hence, from its position, it has no practical purpose in view; it asks for no discourse inculcating the exercise of uprightness and virtue, with arguments based on evidence, of which the plausibility is dwelt on, and the sophistry evaded, as is done in popular manuals. Rather, as its aim is not practical, but only theoretical, it desires nothing but the purely philosophical, that is, the objective, undisguised, and naked exposition of the ultimate basis of all good moral conduct, independent of every positive law, of every improved assumption, and hence free from all groundwork, whether metaphysical or mythical. This, however, is a problem whose bristling difficulties are attested by the circumstance that all philosophers in every age and land have blunted their wits on it, and still more by the fact that all gods, oriental and occidental, actually derive their existence therefrom. Should therefore this opportunity serve to solve it, assuredly the Royal Society will not have expended its money amiss.

(2) Apart from this, a peculiar disadvantage will be found to attach to any theoretical examination of the basis of morals, because such an investigation is suspiciously like an attempt to undermine, and occasion the collapse of, the structure itself. The fact is, that in this matter we are apt to so closely associate practical aims with theory, that the well-meant zeal of the former is with difficulty restrained from ill-timed intervention. Nor is it within the power of every one to clearly dissociate the purely theoretical search for objective truth, purged of all interest, even of that of morality as practised, from a shameless attack on the heart’s sacred convictions. Therefore he, who here puts his hand to the plough, must, for his encouragement, ever bear in mind that from the doings and affairs of the populace, from the turmoil and bustle of the market-place, nothing is further removed than the quiet retreat and sanctuary of the Academy, where no noise of the world may enter, and where the only god raised on a pedestal is Truth, in solitary, naked sublimity.

The conclusion from these two premises is that I must be allowed complete freedom of speech, as well as the right of questioning everything; and furthermore, that if I succeed in really contributing something, however small, to this subject, then that contribution will be of no little importance.

But there are still other difficulties obstructing my path. The Royal Society asks for a short monograph setting forth the basis of Ethics entirely by itself; which means to say, independent of its connection with the general system, i.e., the actual metaphysics of any philosophy. Such a demand must not only render the accomplishment of the task more difficult, but necessarily make it imperfect. Long ago Christian Wolff, in his Philosophia Practica (P. II., § 28) observed: “Tenebrae in philosophia practica non dispelluntur, nisi luce metaphysica effulgente” (Darkness in practical philosophy is only dispersed, when the light of metaphysics shines on it;) and Kant in the Preface to his Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten remarks: “Metaphysics must precede, and is in every case indispensable to, moral philosophy.” For, just as every religion on earth, so far as it prescribes morality, does not leave the latter to rest on itself, but backs it by a body of dogmas (the chief end of which is precisely to be the prop of the moral sense); so with philosophy, the ethical basis, whatever it be, must itself attach to, and find its support in, one system of metaphysics or another, that is to say, in a presupposed explanation of the world, and of existence in general. This is so, because the ultimate and true conclusion concerning the essential nature of the Universe must necessarily be closely connected with that touching the ethical significance of human action; and because, in any case, that which is presented as the foundation of morality, if it is not to be merely an abstract formula, floating in the clouds, and out of contact with the real world, must be some fact or other discoverable either in the objective kosmos, or else in man’s consciousness; but, as such, it can itself be only a phaenomenon; and consequently, like all other phaenomena, it requires a further explanation; and this explanation is supplied by Metaphysics. Philosophy indeed is such a connected whole that it is impossible to exhaustively discuss any one part without all the others being involved. Thus Plato says quite correctly: ψυχῆs oὗν ϕύσιν ἀξίως λόγου κατανοῆσαι oἴει δυνατὸν εἷναι, ἄνευ τῆς τοῡ ὅλον ϕυσεως; (Phaedr., p. 371, Ed. Bip.) (Do you think then it is possible to understand at all adequately the nature of the soul, without at the same time understanding the nature of the Whole, i.e., the totality of things?) The metaphysics of nature, the metaphysics of morals, and the metaphysics of the beautiful mutually presuppose each other, and only when taken as connected together do they complete the explanation of things as they really are, and of existence in general. So that whoever should exactly trace one of these three to its ultimate origin, would be found to have necessarily brought the others into his solution of the problem; just as an absolutely clear and exhaustive understanding of any single thing in the world would imply a perfect comprehension of everything else.

Now if we were to start from a given system of metaphysics, which is assumed to be true, we should reach synthetically a basis of morals, and this basis, being, so to say, built up from below, would provide the resulting ethical structure with a sure foundation. But in the present case, since the terms of the question enforce the separation of ethics from all metaphysics, there remains nothing but the analytic method, which proceeds from facts either of external experience, or of consciousness. It is true that thus the ultimate origin of the latter may be traced back to the human spirit, a source which then, however, must be taken as a fundamental fact, a primary phaenomenon, underivable from anything else, with the result that the whole explanation remains simply a psychological one. At best its connection with any general metaphysical standpoint can only be described as accessory. On the other hand, the fundamental datum, the primary phaenomenon of Ethics, so found in man’s nature, could itself in its turn be accounted for and explained, if we might first treat of metaphysics, and then by the synthetic method deduce Ethics from it. This would mean, however, nothing less than the construction of a complete system, of philosophy, whereby the limits of the given question would be far exceeded. I am, therefore, compelled to answer it within the lines which its own isolated narrowness has laid down.

And lastly, there is the following consideration. The basis on which it is here intended to place Ethics will prove to be a very small one; and the consequence is that of the many lawful, approvable, and praiseworthy actions of mankind, only the minority will be found to spring from purely moral motives, while the majority will have to be attributed to other sources. This gives less satisfaction, has not such a specious glitter as, let us say, a Categorical Imperative, which always stands ready for commands, only that itself in its turn may command what ought to be done, and what ought to be left undone; not to mention other foundations that are entirely material.

I can only, therefore, remind the reader of the saying in Ecclesiastes (iv. 6): “Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit.” In all knowledge the genuine, proof-resisting, indestructible coefficient is never large; just as in the earth’s metallic strata a hundredweight of stone hides but a few ounces of gold. But whether others will prefer—as I do—the assured to the bulky possession, the small quantity of gold which remains in the crucible to the big lump of matter that was brought along with it; or whether I shall rather be charged with having removed from Ethics its basis, instead of providing one, in so far as I prove that the lawful and commendable actions of mankind often do not contain a particle of pure moral worth, and in most cases only a very little, resting, as they do, otherwise on motives, the sufficiency of which must ultimately be referred to the egoism of the doer; all this I must leave undecided; and I do so, not without anxiety, nay, rather with resignation, because I have long since been of the same mind as Johann Georg von Zimmermann, when he said: “Rest assured until your dying day, that nothing in the world is so rare as a good judge.” (Ueber die Einsamkeit; Pt. I., Ch. iii., p. 93.)

For all true and voluntary righteousness, for all loving-kindness, for all nobleness, wherever these qualities may be found, my theory can only point to a very small foundation; whereas my opponents confidently construct broad bases for Morals, which are made strong enough for every possible burden, and are at the same time thrust upon every doubter’s conscience, accompanied with a threatening side-glance at his own morality. As contrasted with these, my own position is indeed in sore and sorry plight. It is like that of Cordelia before King Lear, with her weakly worded assurance of dutiful affection, compared with the effusive protestations of her more eloquent sisters. So that there seems to be need of a cordial that may be furnished by some maxim taken from intellectual hunting grounds, such as, Magna est vis veritatis, et praevalebit. (Great is the strength of truth, and it will prevail.) But to a man who has lived and laboured even this fails to give much encouragement. Meanwhile, I will for once make the venture with truth on my side; and what opposes me will at the same time oppose truth.

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