TBM: Part 1, Chapter 2

by Arthur Schopenhauer

translated by Arthur Brodrick Bullock


For the people morality comes through, and is founded on, theology, as the express will of God. On the other hand, we see philosophers, with few exceptions, taking special pains to entirely exclude this kind of foundation; indeed, so they may but avoid it, they prefer even to find a refuge in sophistry. Whence comes this antithesis? Assuredly no more efficient basis for Ethics can be imagined than the theological; for who would be so bold as to oppose the will of the Almighty and the Omniscient? Unquestionably, no one; if only this will were proclaimed in an authentic, official manner (if one may say so), whereby no possible room for doubt could be left. This, however, is precisely the condition which does not admit of being realised. It is rather the inverse process which is attempted. The law declared to be the will of God men try to accredit as such, by demonstrating its agreement with our own independent, and hence, natural moral views, and an appeal is consequently made to these as being more direct and certain. But this is not all. We perceive that an action performed solely through threat of punishment and promise of reward would be moral much more in appearance than in reality; since, after all, it would have its root in Egoism, and in the last resort the scale would be turned by the greater or less amount of credulity evinced in each case. Now it was none other than Kant who destroyed the foundations of Speculative Theology, which up to his time were accounted unshakable. Speculative Theology had hitherto sustained Ethics, and in order to procure for the former an existence of some sort, if only an imaginary one, his wish was to proceed inversely, and make Ethics sustain Speculative Theology. So that it is now more than ever impossible to think of basing Ethics on Theology; for no one knows any longer which of the two is to be the supporter, and which the supported, and the consequence is a circulus vitiosus.

It is precisely through the influence of Kant’s philosophy; through the contemporaneous effect of the unparalleled progress made in all the natural sciences, with regard to which every past age in comparison with our own appears childish; and lastly, through the knowledge of Sanskrit literature, and of those most ancient and widest spread faiths, Brahmanism and Buddhism, which, as far as time and space go, are the most important religions systems of mankind, and, as a matter of fact, are the original native religions of our own race, now well known to be of Asiatic descent—our race, to which in its new strange home they once more send a message across the centuries;—it is because of all this, I say, that the fundamental philosophical convictions of learned Europe have in the course of the last fifty years undergone a revolution, which perhaps many only reluctantly admit, but which cannot be denied. The result of this change is that the old supports of Ethics have been shown to be rotten, while the assurance remains that Ethics itself can never collapse; whence the conviction arises that for it there must exist a groundwork different from any hitherto provided, and adaptable to the advanced views of the age. The need of such is making itself felt more and more, and in it we undoubtedly find the reason that has induced the Royal Society to make the present important question the subject of a prize essay.

In every age much good morality has been preached; but the explanation of its raison d’être has always been encompassed with difficulties. On the whole we discern an endeavour to get at some objective truth, from which the ethical injunctions could-be logically deduced; and it has been sought for both in the nature of things, and in the nature of man; but in vain. The result was always the same. The will of each human unit was found to gravitate solely towards its own individual welfare, the idea of which in its entirety is designated by the term “blissfulness” (Glückseligkeit); and this striving after self-satisfaction leads mankind by a path very, different to the one morality would fain point out. The endeavour was next made now to identify “blissfulness” with virtue, now to represent it as virtue’s consequence and effect. Both attempts have always failed; and this for no want of sophistry. Then recourse was had to artificial formulas, purely objective and abstract, as well a posteriori as a priori, from which correct ethical conduct undoubtedly admitted of being deduced. But there was nothing found in man’s nature to afford these a footing, whereby they might have availed to guide the strivings of his volition, in face of its egoistic tendency. It appears to me superfluous to verify all this by describing and criticising every hitherto existing foundation of morality; not only because I share Augustine’s opinion, non est pro magno habendum quid homines senserint, sed quae sit rei veritas (It is the truth about a thing, not men’s opinions thereon, that is of importance); but also because it would be like γλαύκας εἰς ‘Aθήνας κομίζειν (i.e., carrying coals to Newcastle); for previous attempts to give a foundation to Ethics are sufficiently well-known to the Royal Society, and the very question proposed shows that it is also convinced of their inadequateness. Any reader less well-informed will find a careful, if not complete, presentment of the attempts hitherto made, in Garve’s Uebersicht der vornehmsten Principien der Sittenlehre, and again, in Stäudlin’s Geschichte der Moralphilosophie. It is of course very disheartening to reflect that Ethics, which so directly concerns life, has met with the same unhappy fate as the abstruse science of Metaphysics, and that its first principle, though perpetually sought for ever since the time of Socrates, has still to be found. Moreover, we must remember that in Ethics, much more than in any other science, what is essential is contained in its fundamental propositions; the deductions are so simple that they come of themselves. For all are capable of drawing a conclusion, but few of judging. And this is exactly the reason why lengthy text-books and dissertations on Morals are as superfluous as they are tedious. Meantime, if I may postulate an acquaintance with all the former foundations of Ethics, my task will be lightened. Whoever observes how ancient as well as modern philosophers (the Church creed sufficed for the middle ages) have had recourse to the most diverse and extraordinary arguments, in order to provide for the generally recognised requirements of morality a basis capable of proof, and how notwithstanding they admittedly failed; he will be able to measure the difficulty of the problem, and estimate my contribution accordingly. And he who has learned to know that none of the roads hitherto struck on lead to the goal, will be the more willing to tread with me a very different path from these—a path which up to now either has not been noticed, or else has been passed over with contempt; perhaps because it was the most natural one. As a matter of fact my solution of the question will remind many of Columbus’ egg.

It is solely to the latest attempt at giving, a basis to Ethics—I mean the Kantian—that a critical examination will be devoted. I shall make it all the more exhaustive, partly because the great ethical reform of Kant gave to this science a foundation having a real superiority to previous ones and partly because it still remains the last important pronouncement in this domain; for which reason it has obtained general acceptance up to the present day, and is universally taught, although differently garnished by certain changes in the demonstration and in the terminology. It is the ethical system of the last sixty years, which must be removed ere we enter on another path. Furthermore, my criticism of the Kantian basis will give me occasion to examine and discuss most of the fundamental conceptions of Ethics, and the outcome of this investigation I shall later on be able to postulate. Besides, inasmuch as opposites illustrate each other, it is exactly this course which will be the best preparation and guide, indeed the direct way, to my own position, which in its essential points is diametrically opposed to Kant’s. It would therefore be a very perverse beginning to skip the following criticism, and turn at once to the positive part of my exposition, which then would remain only half intelligible.

In any case the time has assuredly arrived for once to cite Ethics before the bar of a searching scrutiny. During more than half a century it has been lying comfortably on the restful cushion which Kant arranged for it—the cushion of the Categorical Imperative of Practical Reason. In our day this Imperative is mostly introduced to us under a name which, being smoother and less ostentatious, has obtained more currency. It is called “the Moral Law”; and thus entitled, with a passing bow to reason and experience, it slips through unobserved into the house. Once inside, there is no end to its orders and commands; nor can it ever afterwards be brought to account. It was proper, indeed inevitable, that Kant, as the inventor of the thing, should remain satisfied with his creation, particularly as he shelved by its means errors still more glaring. But to be obliged to look on and see asses disporting themselves on the comfortable cushion which he prepared, and which since his time has been more and more trampled on and flattened out—this truly is hard. I allude to the daily hackney compilers, who, with the ready confidence born of stupidity, imagine that they have given a foundation to Ethics, if they do but appeal to that “Moral Law” which Is alleged to be inherent in our reason; and then they complacently weave upon this such a confused and wide-reaching tissue of phrases that they succeed in rendering unintelligible the clearest and simplest relations of life: and all this, without ever once seriously asking themselves whether in point of fact there really does exist such a “Moral Law,” as a convenient code of morality, graven in our heads or hearts.

Hence I admit the especial pleasure I feel in proceeding to remove from Ethics its broad cushion of repose, and I unreservedly declare my intention of proving that Kant’s Practical Reason and Categorical Imperative are completely unwarrantable, baseless, and fabricated assumptions; and I shall further show that Kant’s whole system, like those of his predecessors, is in want of a solid foundation. Consequently Ethics will again be consigned to its former entirely helpless condition, there to remain, until I come to demonstrate the true moral principle of human nature—a principle which is incontestably efficient, and has its root in our very being. The latter, however, has no such broad basis to offer as the above-mentioned cushion; so that, doubtless, those who are accustomed to take things easily, will not abandon their comfortable old seat, before they are thoroughly aware how deeply the ground on which it stands is undermined.

Io dir non vi saprei per qual sventura,
O piuttosto per qual fatalità,
Da noi credito ottien più l’impostura,
Che la semplice e nuda verità.

[I cannot tell what mischief sly,
Or rather what fatality,
Leads man to credit more the lie
Than truth in naked purity.]

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