Sunday, August 11, 2013

Schopenhauer's Patience

Schopenhauer says a few things about patience with others in Chapter 3 of Counsels and Maxims. He begins the general discussion with the following remarks:
No one who has to live amongst men should absolutely discard any person who has his due place in the order of nature, even though he is very wicked or contemptible or ridiculous. He must accept him as an unalterable fact — unalterable, because the necessary outcome of an eternal, fundamental principle; and in bad cases he should remember the words of Mephistopheles: es muss auch solche Käuze geben — there must be fools and rogues in the world. If he acts otherwise, he will be committing an injustice, and giving a challenge of life and death to the man he discards. No one can alter his own peculiar individuality, his moral character, his intellectual capacity, his temperament or physique; and if we go so far as to condemn a man from every point of view, there will be nothing left him but to engage us in deadly conflict; for we are practically allowing him the right to exist only on condition that he becomes another man — which is impossible; his nature forbids it.
One question I have is about what sense it makes to be offering practical advice if our individual characters are as unalterable as Schopenhauer claims. (On a related note, Tommi comments here.) Of course, a determinist can say that such advice can cause others (readers) to act thus-and-such, and so perhaps there's not that big of a problem. If the advice works, it is because it works upon a pre-existing character that is receptive to such advice. (And perhaps those who are "beyond reach" would quickly lose interest with Schopenhauer's advice, or even despise it?) I've only glanced at Schopenhauer's discussion of freedom of the will and his endorsement of a Kantian conception of moral freedom as transcendental--but I've yet to read closely enough to make sense of this. (Help if you can!)

He goes on about patience thus:
The art of putting up with people may be learned by practicing patience on inanimate objects, which, in virtue of some mechanical or general physical necessity, oppose a stubborn resistance to our freedom of action — a form of patience which is required every day. The patience thus gained may be applied to our dealings with men, by accustoming ourselves to regard their opposition, wherever we encounter it, as the inevitable outcome of their nature, which sets itself up against us in virtue of the same rigid law of necessity as governs the resistance of inanimate objects. To become indignant at their conduct is as foolish as to be angry with a stone because it rolls into your path. And with many people the wisest thing you can do, is to resolve to make use of those whom you cannot alter.
Not surprisingly, this is similar to things said about patience by the Buddhist Shantideva, e.g. "22. I am not angered at bile and the like even though they cause great suffering. Why be angry at those who have minds? They too are impelled by conditions [causes]."

But later, Schopenhauer says:
He who criticises others, works at the reformation of himself. Those who form the secret habit of scrutinizing other people’s general behavior, and passing severe judgment upon what they do and leave undone, thereby improve themselves, and work out their own perfection: for they will have sufficient sense of justice, or at any rate enough pride and vanity, to avoid in their own case that which they condemn so harshly elsewhere. But tolerant people are just the opposite, and claim for themselves the same indulgence that they extend to others...
The patience of "live and let live" would seem to be inconsistent with this, especially if one thinks of the patience Schopenhauer recommends as a form of tolerance. But it seems important that Schopenhauer characterizes this criticism as a "secret habit" and thus not criticism that is offered to the offending party. (There are other places in Chapter 3 of Counsels and Maxims where he emphasizes the prudence of being silent, of not sharing thoughts and judgments that are bound to offend to no fruitful end, and so forth.)

So, on the one hand, we have the deterministic idea that we should be patient with others because impatience, anger, open condemnation, and the like will be unlikely to have any good effect on the "unalterable character" of the person who is testing our patience (as we say). Better, he suggests at one point, just to be polite (and, to the extent possible, to avoid the company of blockheads altogether). But, on the other hand, we should not, in our patience, fail to judge the characters of others as they are (to call the coward and the blockhead, etc., what they are). However, we should in general keep those judgments to ourselves. I wonder if that goes for the determinism and pessimism, too, since as I suggested when reflecting on Strawson, it might seem insulting (condescending) to express that position to the offending person. (Is the truth of determinism--whatever exactly it is--something we thus must pass over in silence--not because it cannot be expressed, but rather because it does not good in our personal interactions to express it?)

There's something to the idea that it is absurd to expect others to be something (or someone) that they aren't, and to the idea that patience should be distinguished from uncritical indulgence (though I would say the same of tolerance). But I think what puzzles me about what Schopenhauer is doing is that there must be some kind of wiggle room in our allegedly "unalterable character" in order for all of this to get off the ground as advice. Of course, one might reject "ought implies can," and hold that it's still good advice--or the right kind of advice--even if some are incapable of following it. And perhaps the advice is to serve as a kind of trigger for those who are capable of following it, i.e. those who have it in their character to act with greater patience if given the right kinds of reasons and reminders. Is that how this is supposed to work?

I'm just trying to think out loud, as it were, about all of this. Bear with me.


  1. i still have to make sense of the rationale S. floats at the end of WWR 1 book 4, for why he's going to talk about ethics as if there was anything that could be done about it. but i thought it might touch on what you're asking about here? as i recall two angles might be:

    - some idea of how an understanding of one's character feeds into the kind of life one ends up leading overall, which is to say, with hindsight, from the perspective of fate let's say - some people remain uncomfortable with how things go for them because they don't understand what it's in their character to do, while others know themselves and thus can even be unperturbed by not being particularly excellent or nice people, etc. so on that account, the giving of advice is to be understood in the same way that S. understands his developing an ethics at all (on the one hand, just another thing that we do, on the other, contributing to the intelligibility of human character as part of the pursuit of philosophical understanding), and the seeming ineffectiveness of advice gets folded into the overall view of the significance of character and knowledge of it.

    - S. is kind of wiggly, i think, on what the status of philosophical understanding is, relative to other forms of knowledge. may be that this permits him some room in which to do the maneuvering mentioned above?

  2. Thanks, j. It must be right that self-understanding (or lack thereof) "feeds into the kind of life one ends up leading." S ascribes a Kantian "moral freedom" to character (esse) as a whole even as individual acts are determined (character thrust into deterministic world). But yeah, I don't know what the significance of this knowledge is, or quite how it relates to giving advice (unless the answer is just the compatibilist answer about praise and blame, as well as reflection and criticism, serving as causes, too--but not, of course, as unmoved movers). Practically, maybe an important thing is to see that a given character can do better or worse in differing circumstances; maybe that's why he counsels avoiding certain kinds of people and situation. (As we might say, only someone with the patience of a saint could patiently endure some people and some situations.)

    1. i wonder if a text-critical approach will help here? does S say anything anywhere about the point of the counsels and maxims? of his writing them?

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. (Is the truth of determinism--whatever exactly it is--something we thus must pass over in silence--not because it cannot be expressed, but rather because it does not good in our personal interactions to express it?)

    This is one of the main themes in the very lively debate on determinism in contemporary analytic philosophy, and is associated especially with Saul Smilansky, whose 2000 Free Will and Illusion is one of the key texts in the debate (précis).

    I don't think there is a problem about wishing that people would adjust their judgemental behaviour in view of the truth of determinism. I don't even think there is a problem about expressing this wish aloud. The wish is itself one of the Strawsonian reactive attitudes. And wishes are not demands, and even demands are not yet expectations.

    But an "adjust them or be judged irrational/immoral" would be problematic, as it is not up to them to adjust or not to adjust, owing precisely to the truth of determinism. You can only demand (instead of wish) if you give up the same presupposition of determinism which you are giving as your ground for your demand.

    About the possibilities of advice under conditions of determinism, there is something in my notes toward a further revision of the paper to which I linked in my earlier comment:

    In the debate on determinism and moral responsibility, there is a tendency to view the participating philosophers as somehow excluded from the determinist world being discussed, at least for the duration of the discussion. It is almost as if they were disembodied deities who examine the world's foibles sub specie aeternitatis and debate how far they should be indulged; as if the causes of indulging them (or not) were not themselves ordinary determinist causes. But if determinism is true, the debate of course occurs in the very same determinist world which is the subject of the debate.

    Scenarios where the threat of moral responsibility hangs over deterministically driven agents are often presented quite analogously to other scenarios where the relevant absence of agent-causation does not follow from determinism at all, but from some different factor, such as the accidental nature of an event or the irrevocability of past actions. Indeed, it is often explicitly argued that some such scenario – of a natural disaster, say – is so similar to the determinist one that moral responsibility is precluded by parity of reasoning. The debate then becomes basically indistinguishable from any other debate on whether we should "take it philosophically" when something wrong cannot be put right. Accordingly, moral indignation over deterministic actions is often viewed by its opponents as merely a kind of crying over spilled milk.

    But this view forgets the way in which determinism is tacitly self-referential. A discussion of accidents is not itself an accident, and a discussion of the irreversibility of the past does not itself take place in the past. But determinism is different. If hard determinism is true, it follows deterministically from antecedent conditions that milk is spilled when and only when it is spilled. But it also follows deterministically who will cry over it and who not; who will be told to stop crying and who not; and who will be able to follow this advice and who not. The same goes for those who debate determinism philosophically. If hard determinism is true, it follows deterministically whether a given philosopher writes on determinism at all; what the philosopher's position and arguments are; who reads the philosopher's writings on determinism and who not; and who is convinced by them and who not.

  5. Tommi: Sure. But then one can ask what the status of the "must" is when Schopenhauer says, for example, (in Section 28 of Counsels and Maxims), "you must have patience." That seems like more than a wish. Perhaps we should read him as making a point about what kind of attitude makes life bearable (or speaking to someone for whom patience is a possibility that is compatible with their character, as long as the right causes--say, reading S's Counsels and Maxims--trigger the relevant chain of causes)?

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Perhaps we should read him as making a point about what kind of attitude makes life bearable (or speaking to someone for whom patience is a possibility that is compatible with their character, as long as the right causes--say, reading S's Counsels and Maxims--trigger the relevant chain of causes)?

    Or perhaps suggesting that they at least try to find out experimentally whether the possibility is compatible with their character, before they give in.

    But then one can ask what the status of the "must" is when Schopenhauer says, for example, (in Section 28 of Counsels and Maxims), "you must have patience." That seems like more than a wish.

    A very good question. There are at least three possible answers:

    1) Schopenhauer is simply impaled on the dilemma I have diagnosed. He is using a moral "must" in such a way that it, however inadvertently, fades into the background his own professed determinism and incompatibilism.

    2) The "must" is a hypothetical one. For instance, between the two paragraphs from Section 21 which you quote above, there is one which begins: "So if you have to live amongst men, you must allow ..." But not everyone has to, for as the same paragraph points out as it ends, "... he is a happy man who can once for all avoid having to do with a great many of his fellow creatures".

    3) The "must" is a hyperbolical one. It is really of a piece with the two "should's" that bookend it, and is perhaps even opted for by Schopenhauer to avoid using a third in such a short space.

    Of these answers, 2) is the one I would primarily throw in my lot with, although it's not incompatible with 3) either.

    And when Schopenhauer says "you must have patience" in Section 27 (not 28), the context suggests that this is - uncharacteristically for him - an encouragement to optimism. It is seemingly a temporary patience to wait that he speaks of there, instead of a counsel of despair.

  8. And just to be clear, 3) refers to the first quotation from Section 21.