A Short History of Decay

Thomas Pavel writes:

What rules the behaviour of human beings? Our needs, as materialist and utilitarian thinkers believe? Our intellect and the dictates of reason, as Platonists and Hegelians hope? Or do we obey our proud, irritable vital spirit, sometimes generous but quite often vicious? Few people nowadays would give the third answer, but a century ago, the disciples of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche defended it in an appropriately proud and ferocious tone of voice. We live in a world in which, according to Schopenhauer, suffering is ‘the direct and immediate object of life’. The best way of considering our life is to accustom ourselves ‘to regarding this world as a place of atonement, a sort of penal colony’ and to think of ‘every man first and foremost as a being who exists only as a consequence of his culpability’. Because we all have proud, irritable hearts, the faults and vices we see in others are similar to our own. Forbearance is Schopenhauer’s solution.

(LRB 27 May 2010)