Biography  |  Bibliography  |  Articles  |  Quotes  |  Links  

Arthur Schopenhauer. The Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer; On Human Nature.


Language: English

Table of Contents:


An act done by instinct differs from every other kind of act in that
an understanding of its object does not precede it but follows upon
it. Instinct is therefore a rule of action given _à priori_. We may be
unaware of the object to which it is directed, as no understanding of
it is necessary to its attainment. On the other hand, if an act is
done by an exercise of reason or intelligence, it proceeds according
to a rule which the understanding has itself devised for the purpose
of carrying out a preconceived aim. Hence it is that action according
to rule may miss its aim, while instinct is infallible.

On the _à priori_ character of instinct we may compare what Plato says
in the _Philebus_. With Plato instinct is a reminiscence of something
which a man has never actually experienced in his lifetime; in the
same way as, in the _Phaedo_ and elsewhere, everything that a man
learns is regarded as a reminiscence. He has no other word to express
the _à priori_ element in all experience.

There are, then, three things that are _à priori_:

(1) Theoretical Reason, in other words, the conditions which make all
experience possible.

(2) Instinct, or the rule by which an object promoting the life of the
senses may, though unknown, be attained.

(3) The Moral Law, or the rule by which an action takes place without
any object.

Accordingly rational or intelligent action proceeds by a rule laid
down in accordance with the object as it is understood. Instinctive
action proceeds by a rule without an understanding of the object of
it. Moral action proceeds by a rule without any object at all.

_Theoretical Reason_ is the aggregate of rules in accordance
with which all my knowledge--that is to say, the whole world of
experience--necessarily proceeds. In the same manner _Instinct_ is the
aggregate of rules in accordance with which all my action necessarily
proceeds if it meets with no obstruction. Hence it seems to me that
Instinct may most appropriately be called _practical reason_, for like
theoretical reason it determines the _must_ of all experience.

The so-called moral law, on the other hand, is only one aspect of _the
better consciousness_, the aspect which it presents from the point of
view of instinct. This better consciousness is something lying beyond
all experience, that is, beyond all reason, whether of the theoretical
or the practical kind, and has nothing to do with it; whilst it is in
virtue of the mysterious union of it and reason in the same individual
that the better consciousness comes into conflict with reason, leaving
the individual to choose between the two.

In any conflict between the better consciousness and reason, if the
individual decides for reason, should it be theoretical reason, he
becomes a narrow, pedantic philistine; should it be practical, a

If he decides for the better consciousness, we can make no further
positive affirmation about him, for if we were to do so, we should
find ourselves in the realm of reason; and as it is only what takes
place within this realm that we can speak of at all it follows that we
cannot speak of the better consciousness except in negative terms.

This shows us how it is that reason is hindered and obstructed;
that _theoretical reason_ is suppressed in favour of _genius_, and
_practical reason_ in favour of _virtue_. Now the better consciousness
is neither theoretical nor practical; for these are distinctions that
only apply to reason. But if the individual is in the act of choosing,
the better consciousness appears to him in the aspect which it assumes
in vanquishing and overcoming the practical reason (or instinct, to
use the common word). It appears to him as an imperative command, an
_ought_. It so appears to him, I say; in other words, that is the
shape which it takes for the theoretical reason which renders
all things into objects and ideas. But in so far as the better
consciousness desires to vanquish and overcome the theoretical reason,
it takes no shape at all; on the simple ground that, as it comes
into play, the theoretical reason is suppressed and becomes the mere
servant of the better consciousness. That is why genius can never give
any account of its own works.

In the morality of action, the legal principle that both sides are to
be heard must not be allowed to apply; in other words, the claims of
self and the senses must not be urged. Nay, on the contrary, as soon
as the pure will has found expression, the case is closed; _nec
audienda altera pars_.

The lower animals are not endowed with moral freedom. Probably this is
not because they show no trace of the better consciousness which in us
is manifested as morality, or nothing analogous to it; for, if that
were so, the lower animals, which are in so many respects like
ourselves in outward appearance that we regard man as a species of
animal, would possess some _raison d'être_ entirely different from our
own, and actually be, in their essential and inmost nature, something
quite other than ourselves. This is a contention which is obviously
refuted by the thoroughly malignant and inherently vicious character
of certain animals, such as the crocodile, the hyaena, the scorpion,
the snake, and the gentle, affectionate and contented character of
others, such as the dog. Here, as in the case of men, the character,
as it is manifested, must rest upon something that is above and beyond
time. For, as Jacob Böhme says,[1] _there is a power in every animal
which is indestructible, and the spirit of the world draws it into
itself, against the final separation at the Last Judgment_. Therefore
we cannot call the lower animals free, and the reason why we cannot
do so is that they are wanting in a faculty which is profoundly
subordinate to the better consciousness in its highest phase, I mean
reason. Reason is the faculty of supreme comprehension, the idea of
totality. How reason manifests itself in the theoretical sphere Kant
has shown, and it does the same in the practical: it makes us capable
of observing and surveying the whole of our life, thought, and action,
in continual connection, and therefore of acting according to general
maxims, whether those maxims originate in the understanding as
prudential rules, or in the better consciousness as moral laws.

[Footnote 1: _Epistles_, 56.]

If any desire or passion is aroused in us, we, and in the same way the
lower animals, are for the moment filled with this desire; we are all
anger, all lust, all fear; and in such moments neither the better
consciousness can speak, nor the understanding consider the
consequences. But in our case reason allows us even at that moment
to see our actions and our life as an unbroken chain,--a chain
which connects our earlier resolutions, or, it may be, the future
consequences of our action, with the moment of passion which now fills
our whole consciousness. It shows us the identity of our person, even
when that person is exposed to influences of the most varied kind, and
thereby we are enabled to act according to maxims. The lower animal
is wanting in this faculty; the passion which seizes it completely
dominates it, and can be checked only by another passion--anger, for
instance, or lust, by fear; even though the vision that terrifies does
not appeal to the senses, but is present in the animal only as a dim
memory and imagination. Men, therefore, may be called irrational, if,
like the lower animals, they allow themselves to be determined by the

So far, however, is reason from being the source of morality that it
is reason alone which makes us capable of being rascals, which the
lower animals cannot be. It is reason which enables us to form an evil
resolution and to keep it when the provocation to evil is removed; it
enables us, for example, to nurse vengeance. Although at the moment
that we have an opportunity of fulfilling our resolution the better
consciousness may manifest itself as love or charity, it is by force
of reason, in pursuance of some evil maxim, that we act against it.
Thus Goethe says that a man may use his reason only for the purpose of
being more bestial than any beast:

_Er hat Vernunft, doch braucht er sie allein
Um theirischer als jedes Thier zu sein_.

For not only do we, like the beasts, satisfy the desires of the
moment, but we refine upon them and stimulate them in order to prepare
the desire for the satisfaction.

Whenever we think that we perceive a trace of reason in the lower
animals, it fills us with surprise. Now our surprise is not excited by
the good and affectionate disposition which some of them exhibit--we
recognise that as something other than reason--but by some action in
them which seems to be determined not by the impression of the moment,
but by a resolution previously made and kept. Elephants, for instance,
are reported to have taken premeditated revenge for insults long after
they were suffered; lions, to have requited benefits on an opportunity
tardily offered. The truth of such stories has, however, no bearing at
all on the question, What do we mean by reason? But they enable us to
decide whether in the lower animals there is any trace of anything
that we can call reason.

Kant not only declares that all our moral sentiments originate in
reason, but he lays down that reason, _in my sense of the word_, is
a condition of moral action; as he holds that for an action to be
virtuous and meritorious it must be done in accordance with maxims,
and not spring from a resolve taken under some momentary impression.
But in both contentions he is wrong. If I resolve to take vengeance on
some one, and when an opportunity offers, the better consciousness in
the form of love and humanity speaks its word, and I am influenced by
it rather than by my evil resolution, this is a virtuous act, for it
is a manifestation of the better consciousness. It is possible to
conceive of a very virtuous man in whom the better consciousness is
so continuously active that it is never silent, and never allows his
passions to get a complete hold of him. By such consciousness he is
subject to a direct control, instead of being guided indirectly,
through the medium of reason, by means of maxims and moral principles.
That is why a man may have weak reasoning powers and a weak
understanding and yet have a high sense of morality and be eminently
good; for the most important element in a man depends as little on
intellectual as it does on physical strength. Jesus says, _Blessed
are the poor in spirit_. And Jacob Böhme has the excellent and noble
observation: _Whoso lies quietly in his own will, like a child in the
womb, and lets himself be led and guided by that inner principle from
which he is sprung, is the noblest and richest on earth_.[1]

[Footnote 1: _Epistles_, 37.]