Clive Hamilton and the wisdom of Arthur Schopenhauer

When the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer threw his neighbour down a flight of stairs he said it was because she was making too much noise. He couldn’t stand noise and once wrote that "when a great mind is interrupted, disturbed and distracted it is capable of no more than a commonplace mind". He especially loathed the sound of cracking whips, and suggested that corporal punishment was an appropriate response:

A fellow who rides through the narrow alleys of a populous town with unemployed post-horses or cart-horses, and keeps on cracking a whip several yards long with all his might, deserves there and then to stand down and receive five really good blows with a stick.

Given this sensitivity, the sound of women chattering outside his rooms must have been intolerable. In his essay ‘On Women‘ he claimed that women were incapable of abstract reasoning, had no sense of justice and were habitual liars. The idea of such frivolous creatures interfering with serious intellectual work must have seemed an extreme provocation.

His neighbour, Caroline Luise Marguet sued him. She claimed that when the great mind interrupted her conversation by pushing her down the stairs, he injured her so badly that she could no longer work. The case dragged on for five years and was only settled when Schopenhauer’s goods and property were seized. In the end, the court demanded that he pay her 60 talers a year for the rest of her life. Although he resented the judgment, there is no evidence that he felt any regret about his actions. When the woman finally died in 1852, he wrote across the death certificate, ‘Obit anus, abit onus‘ (the old woman dies, the debt departs).

Given this, it might be surprising to discover that Schopenhauer’s moral philosophy is a philosophy of compassion. But experience with philosophers shows that there’s no necessary connection between studying philosophy and living a moral life.

Sometimes it seems as if Clive Hamilton shares Schopenhauer’s grim view of existence. Schopenhauer believed that there was no lasting happiness in life. Unsatisfied desire causes suffering and satisfaction succeeds only in bringing suffering to an end. But existence without desire is boredom and boredom can only be relieved by a new desire and new suffering. For Schopenhauer happiness is merely the "abolition of a desire and the extinction of a pain."

Hamilton cites Schopenhauer as a major influence on his new book: The Freedom Paradox: Towards a post-secular ethics . Drawing on Schopenhauer’s ethics and metaphysics, Hamilton claims that he has developed "an ethical position that repudiates moral relativism but avoids all theology". The major theme in Schopenhauer’s work that Hamilton draws on is the recognition that our essential being exists within all other living things. As Schopenhauer writes:

For the thing in itself, the will to live, is present whole and undivided in every single being, even the most insignificant, as completely as in all that have ever been, are or will be, taken together. And in truth, if every other being were to perish, the entire being in itself of the world would still exist unharmed and undiminished in this single one remaining and would laugh at the destruction of all the rest as an illusion.

Of course the idea that our separateness is an illusion, is far older than Schopenhauer. It is part of the ancient philosophy of the Veda and Vedanta. Drawing both on German metaphysics and Eastern mysticism, Hamilton argues that once we reach an awareness of the unity and timelessness of all things, we will at last discover our inner freedom. We will have found the secret path to the heart of the citadel, and will at last understand that the harm we do to others is, in reality, the harm we do to ourselves.

Hamilton contrasts his view with that of liberals like John Rawls. He attacks Rawls for creating an arid morality of reason that fails to motivate us to change:

The problem with Rawls’ theory of justice is its abstractness. For all its elegance and intellectual appeal, it cannot tell us what we most need to know: How can a society be made more just? To be sure, we can imagine a host of humans deliberating behind a veil of ignorance. Yet when they descend from the other world and assume their places in society, what will motivate them to pursue the form of social justice they were happy to agree to? Even the purest among us find intellectual constructs inadequate incentives when real positions must be taken (p 48).

This is odd because Hamilton’s philosophy seems to suffer from the same problem. Despite achieving the insight Hamilton insists is the foundation for a new ethics, Schopenhauer remained a curmudgeonly blight on the lives of those around him. While he accepted that the harm we do to other is really harm we inflict on ourselves, this didn’t transform him into a saint.

Something from nothing

At the core of Hamilton’s metaphysical argument for a new post-secular ethics is the idea of the ‘noumenon‘. The idea originates with the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant was perhaps the first philosopher to argue that knowing about the ‘external world’ was not a matter of mirroring it in the ‘internal world’ of consciousness. In perceiving our environment, we interpret it. Knowledge requires the structure cognition gives to the data that flows from our eyes, ears, tongue, nose and skin.

Giving Kant a pragmatic and linguistic twist, the 20th century American philosopher Hilary Putnam argues that all descriptions of the world are shaped by our conceptual choices. But as he explains:

Kant was himself subject to a confusion. The confusion was to suppose that a description which is shaped by our conceptual choices is somehow, for that very reason, not a description of its object "as it really is". As soon as we make that mistake, we open the door to the question, "Well, if our descriptions are only our descriptions, descriptions shaped by our interests and nature, then what is the description of the things as they are in themselves?" But this "in themselves" is, in effect, to ask how the world is to be described in the world’s own language, and there is no such thing as the world’s own language, there are only the languages that we language users invent for our various purposes …

The world of ‘things in themselves’ or ‘things as they really are’ is the noumenal world while the world of things as they appear to us is the phenomenal world. The noumenal world shorn of any of the concepts or categories that human cognition imposes. It is like a story without a beginning or end, without characters or action — a tale told without words, sounds or pictures.

But still, we can’t help but say that there is a single undescribed something that lies underneath all of our imperfect representations. Even Putnam concedes that "perhaps Kant is right: perhaps we can’t help thinking that there is somehow a mind-independent ‘ground’ for our experience even if attempts to talk about it lead at once to nonsense."

This worry about talking nonsense may have been what Wittgenstein had in mind when he wrote the final sentence of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

Noumenal Nonsense

Hamilton’s problem is that he hasn’t let go of the idea that knowledge is about mirroring. The idea that reality is reflected in mind has lead to a series of philosophical dead ends. For example, if our most certain knowledge is about the objects of geometry then the real world is an unchanging realm populated with numbers and shapes. If we think of knowledge in terms of logical propositions, then the real world is made up of facts in logical space. For philosophers, the noumenal world somehow always turns out to be a reflection of their preferred exemplar of knowledge.

For Hamilton the truest form of knowledge is mystical experience– a kind of awareness without thinking where the self dissolves along with time and space. In this state, all things become one. At this point it might have been wise to take Wittgenstein’s advice. Hamilton doesn’t.

Instead, he uses the noumenon as a kind of magicians hat — a metaphysical device which he uses to produce a seemingly endless stream of ethical rabbits. For example, Hamilton argues that many of the world’s greatest philosophers have struggled unsuccessfully with the problem of bestiality. Why is it wrong for a human being to have sex with an animal? According to Hamilton, the answer lies in the noumenon:

Considering the functions of sex, it seems that the source of the problem must lie in the idea of metaphysical union, the joining of Selves. It is reasonable to hypothesize that there is something intrinsically different between the universal Self of each species and that the attempted merger of two differing Selves in the sexual act is an offence against what might be called ‘the noumenal order.’ Schopenhauer argued that each species can be considered the representation of a Platonic Idea. If the world is the expression in phenomenal form of the noumenon, it is expressed in many grades or forms. Thus while two rocks of a specific type scarcely differ, higher animals are differentiated into individual forms, yet each species of animal reflects a Platonic Idea that captures all that is universal to the species and not changed in its individual forms. These ‘species ideas’ are unique manifestations of the noumenon before they appear in the phenomenon. This is what lies behind Schopenhauer’s conclusion that bestiality is ‘really an offense against the species as such and in the abstract, not against human individuals.’ As a result, each of us has a moral interest in any act of bestiality (p 207-208).

But read in context, Schopenhauer is actually saying that bestiality isn’t really an ethical problem as such. He argued that most people find the practice so revolting that there is little need to dream up rational arguments against it. And when he says that bestiality is really an offence against species, it’s worth recalling that one of his complaints against women was that they lived "more for the species than for the individual". It’s Hamilton rather than Schopenhauer who conjures up the idea of offences against ‘the noumenal order.’

Curiously, after contemplating the mysteries of the noumenon, Schopenhauer decided that monogamy — rather than casual sex — was European civilization’s great offence against nature:

We all live, at any rate, for a time, and most of us, always, in polygamy. And so, since every man needs many women, there is nothing fairer than to allow him, nay, to make it incumbent upon him, to provide for many women. This will reduce woman to her true and natural position as a subordinate being; and the lady — that monster of European civilization and Teutonico-Christian stupidity — will disappear from the world, leaving only women, but no more unhappy women, of whom Europe is now full.

I doubt that Hamilton would endorse Schopenhauer’s misogyny or his extreme pessimism. But at the same time, there’s so little sense of joy or playfulness in Hamilton’s writing. The pursuit of happiness is a grim business of self-denial and restraint. And the only reward he offers is a mystical sense of oneness with the universe. But yet he criticizes Rawls for being abstract and impractical.

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Ken Nielsen
Ken Nielsen
15 years ago

Hamilton’s thesis, repeated in various formulations in most of his writings is that we are unhappy because we are materialistic. Too many things, too much affluence. Affluence has only brought us unhappiness.
As Arthur points out, no-where in Hamilton’s writing is there any hint of joy. He seems much unhappier than me or anyone I know.
His philosophy does not seem to be a remedy for affluenza.
Perhaps the influence Schopenhauer has had on him explains all this.

15 years ago

Once more with feeling Ken?

Tom N.
Tom N.
15 years ago

Very interesting and well written post, Don – thanks.

15 years ago

I picked up this book the other day, but haven’t had the time to read it yet. The thing though that stood out to me just from flicking through it, is how a book titled “the freedom paradox” can ignore existentialist philosophers almost entirely. Surely they deserved some attention in such a book.

It made me wonder what Hamilton has against Sartre, and existentialists more broadly?

Nicholas Gruen
15 years ago

Well, that is a brilliant post Don. Really marvellous.

15 years ago

What Ken said.

15 years ago

What N Gruen said.

John Humphreys
15 years ago

Great post.

And another daft set of ideas from Hamilton. He has failed to be a “new John Galbraith” and now he is failing in becoming a “new Peter Singer”. Both Galbraith & Singer were (in my opinion) often wrong… but they were both much more formidable than Hamilton as intellectual powers.

His argument against beastiality was, as Don suggests, simply a rabbit out of a hat. He simply asserts that the uber-spirits in his religion are offended and he accidently mistakes this for an argument.

tim watson
tim watson
15 years ago

Just finished reading the book. It seems a very strange attempt to tie up all of Hamilton’s political and ethical preferences into a grand philosophical statement based on the noumenon. Hamilton says he is constructing a ‘post-secular ethics’ but he ends up constructing a personal mysticism. Whatever offends Hamilton personally is an affront to the noumenon, and therefore bad. Whatever Hamilton views as positive, i.e. downshifting, is a triumph of the noumenon over the world of appearances.

I am also disinclined to Hamiltons view that the existentialists are in some way responsible for consumer culture as he suggests in the book. The existentialists diagnosed the problem of meaningless and issued the challenge for people to create meaning in their own lives, largely through creative activity. It was not a philosophy that urged people to go forth and consume as Hamilton seemingly suggests.

If you have read Hamilton’s other books you will probably understand where he is coming from on this one. It could have been titled ‘all the usual hang-ups’: Corporate paedophilia, consumer culture, growth fetishing, affluenza, downshifting, bestiality etc, etc. At the end of the day it wasnt a bad read, but I dont think his concept of the post-secular ethic will be wildly popular!