Suppose that Schopenhauer reads the Hegel, Mill, and Kierkegaard selections (and perhaps sees those guest editorials) and gives a Philosophy Department Colloquium critically assessing them and defending his views against theirs.  Summarize it.

Hi, my name is Arthur Schopenhauer.  I lived from 1788 to 1860 of the Common Era, but now I’m back from the dead to debate three of my fellow philosophers—G.W.F. Hegel, John Stuart Mill, and S. Kierkegaard—at this Philosophy Department Colloquium.  My goal here for the next fifteen minutes—equivalent to approximately six pages of written text, I’d say—is to assess their views and defend my own views against theirs.

So, I shall start with our good friend Hegel.  His “project”, as he might have called it, was to make sense of religion, science, history, society, and ourselves.  He came upon the conclusion that one must “self-realize” oneself and free one’s spirit in order to lead a good life.  He even goes so far as to state that “the final goal of the world…is Spirit’s consciousness of it’s freedom, and hence also the actualization of that very freedom.” (Packet 140)

Hegel places particular importance on the concept of the “State”, or “the union of the universal essential will with the subjective will” (Packet 145).  He believes that our society epitomizes who we are as a people and all that we have accomplished—it is “the realization of freedom, i.e., of the absolute end-goal, and that it exists for its own sake.” (Packet 145)  He goes on to say that to lead an ethical (good) life is to participate in the life of a people or culture and its norms, values, and institution—what someone in present day America might call being a “productive member of society”.  Since the state is our realization of freedom, Hegel claims “only the will that is obedient to the law is free, for it obeys itself, and being self-sufficient, it is free” (Packet 146).

And now, to respond to all this poppycock.  The only purpose of life is to suffer.  I should think I can wave away all of Hegel’s meanderings in one sentence, which in fact I do in the very first sentence of one of my more well-known readings: “Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim.” (Packet 205)

Hegel is fascinated with the concept of turning our goals and ideas into reality as the path to self-realization and the freedom of the spirit.  But what if all of this was done already?  What if all this “work, worry, labor and trouble” we go through to improve ourselves was unnecessary, and “all wishes were fulfilled as soon as they arose”?  I’ll tell you what Hegel’s “perfect” little world would be like then: “Men would either die of boredom or hang themselves; or there would be wars, massacres, and murders; so that in the end mankind would inflict more suffering on itself than it has now to accept at the hands of Nature.” (Packet 206)  Another folly in Hegel’s little plan is it can never be completed!  “Every satisfaction man attains lays the seeds of some new desire,” and so we can never sit back and actually appreciate one’s supposedly self-realized state because we’re too preoccupied trying to “better” ourselves even further!  (Packet 211-212)

Onto Hegel’s concept of the State.  How many men actually fit into his warped definition of an “ethical” man?  Probably quite a few, as most do adhere to the laws of our society.  But how many actually do this in order to “realize their freedom”?  Hegel is probably the only one out there raising his hand.  When I think of all the “miserable wretches whose one aim in life is to fill their purses but never to put anything into their heads” (Packet 208) and compare this to Hegel’s idyllic fantasy of society, I just laugh.  Perhaps they do adhere to the laws and norms of their society, but more likely because they’re afraid of getting caught and imprisoned than because they want to self-realize themselves.  The conduct of men is dependent up on “the necessity of the State and legislation,” and rarely do we find those fabled “Good Samaritans” who act substantially less cruel than the State minimally requires. (Packet 216)

It is now time to move on to Mill.  Mill certainly believes that freedom is important (calling freedom of opinion a “necessity to the mental well-being of mankind”), as did Hegel, but he simplifies the definition somewhat, assessing freedom as acting upon one’s own opinions and carrying them out in one’s life.  (Packet 154-55)  Doing this allows one to have the “highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole” (Packet 156), which I suppose is Mill’s equivalent of Hegel’s “ethical” or “good” life.  Mill goes as far as to say that the amount of freedom one grasps determines their “comparative worth as a human being” (Packet 157).

Continuing Hegel’s optimistic theme of “making the world a better place”…Mill never speaks of a State per se to embody all of our best qualities and self-realizations.  The only time he even really mentions organized government is to say “No government by a democracy or a numerous aristocracy…ever did or could rise above mediocrity” (Packet 161).  He instead claims that by simply exercising our individualities “human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation…by the same process human life also becomes rich, diversified, and animating…making the human race infinitely better worth belonging to.” (Packet 159)  In other words, we enrich our society and race by enriching ourselves and acting upon our own freedoms.  The state itself is unimportant; the importance lies in how we influence the state according to our own beliefs and desires.

Utilitarianism itself…quite simply, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.  By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.”  (Packet 168)  The scheme is simple enough, but fatally flawed as I shall show shortly.

But first, I shall respond to Mill’s whole notion of freedom.  I’ll grant Mill that humans have a right to exercise their opinions and act on them.  But who cares?  Life is all suffering anyway, all that one is bound to do by acting on their opinions and desires is to choose their own particular method of suffering.  In the grand scope of things, does it really matter?  If we truly examine one’s life “in all its small details, as presented, say, in a comedy, how ridiculous it all seems!”  Mill puts us each under a microscope and wants us to examine all our wants, dreams, opinions, and our individuality…but “it is only in the microscope that our life looks so big.” (Packet 212)

As for utilitarianism…as I said, nothing is wrong with the idea of looking for the most happiness and the least pain—unfortunately, “everything in life shows that earthly happiness is destined to be frustrated or recognized as an illusion.” (Packet 213)  Most of those who seem to be able to find happiness do exactly that—only seem to find it.  The few remaining happy souls are there more to torture the rest of us than anything else, as we are “deluded now by hope,” making us suffer ever so more in the long run. (Packet 213)  So, one can certainly pursue happiness…but he or she shall almost certainly be disappointed with the fruits of their labor, for true happiness is largely a figment of our agonized imaginations.

Now, finally, we move on to Kierkegaard.  First, in his “The Unchangeableness of God” essay, he details just that—how he believes God to be a perfect, omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and unchanging Supreme Being.  He practically scoffs at atheists, likening them to a man stuck at an impassable mountain (roughly representing his atheism) for his entire life with all his “wishes, his longings, his desires, his very soul…already on the other side.” (Packet 187)  He makes fun of this man’s folly, standing at this mountain for his entire life and then dying.

In his second major work, “Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the ‘Philosophical Fragments’”, he details the need to “become subjective.”  Speaking of religion, he notes: “It is subjectivity that Christianity is concerned with, and it is only in subjectivity that its truth exists, if it exists at all; objectively, Christianity has absolutely no existence.” (Packet 195)  It might seem that this contradicts the hero’s treatment he gives God in the previous reading, but since he’s bashing objectivism and purporting subjectivism, it actually bolters his argument.  He states that “when Socrates believed that there was a god, he saw very well that where the way swings off there is also an objective way of approximation, for example, by the contemplation of nature and human history…his merit was precisely to shun this path.”  So, instead of actually analyzing nature and history to try to find some actual evidence of God, Kierkegaard believes that it’s futile to actually look for empirical evidence of a God, for one’s subjective faith is stronger than any proof you could find ever would be.

Just the thought of bashing Kierkegaard makes me salivate.  How can he possibly look around at this suffering and misery without thinking it “impossible to believe that this world is the successful work of an all-wise, all-good, and at the same time, all-powerful Being?” (Packet 209)  When I listen to Kierkegaard’s endless platitudes and honorifics towards God, actually thanking him for creating this torturous ball of wretchedness we occupy, it makes me want to cry.  In addition, it is preposterous to suppose that such an omnipotent and good being would create man, its “highest product, who is a burlesque of what he should be.” (Packet 210)  Given the power to create us with infinite happiness and no suffering, it is inconceivable that he would instead create the flawed, miserable, unhappy and pained that he did—“Human life must be some kind of mistake.” (Packet 212)

Hegel’s State is a crock; especially considering he believed the State he lived in to be the ideal one and that has since fallen.  Mill’s utilitarianism is philosophically sound, but ultimately fruitless since there is little, if any, happiness to be found in this life.  Kierkegaard’s all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing God is laughable; just look out the window at all the misery that abounds and tell me where all the beauty and happiness that should be there is.  Life is suffering, and then you die.


Philosophy 101 Note Packet (Schacht).  University of Illinois, Fall Semester 2000.

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