Saturday, May 26, 2012

Schopenhauer on Reading

The quotation from Schopenhauer on reading reminded me of his essay, "Books and Reading," a portion of which, taken from the translation by Bax and Saunders, follows:

" When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process. In learning to write, the pupil goes over with his pen what the teacher has outlined in pencil: so in reading; the greater part of the work of thought is already done for us. This is why it relieves us to take up a book after being occupied with our own thoughts. And in reading, the mind is, in fact, only the playground of another's thoughts. So it comes about that if anyone spends almost the whole day in reading, and by way of relaxation devotes the intervals to some thoughtless pastime, he gradually loses the capacity for thinking; just as the man who always rides, at last forgets how to walk. This is the case with many learned persons: they have read themselves stupid. . . . "
When Schopenhauer considers how one should read, his advice is similar to that of Emerson.  Like Emerson, he warns against spending time reading only that which is currently popular.  We should read only those books which have proven themselves to have merit.   Schopenhauer cites the massive bibliographic output, which in German-speaking lands was already running close to an annual total of 10,000 new titles per year in the decade before 1850.  Emerson, similarly, notes that, when he writes in 1870, there are already more than 800,000 titles in the French national library.  (Today, there are more than ten times as many in the U.S. Library of Congress.)  As does Emerson, Schopenhauer emphasizes the need to bring our own critical intelligence to our reading. We must use our own heads in our reading.
Hitler's remarks on reading in his Mein Kampf seem almost to be derivative from Schopenhauer.  He does quote Schopenhauer approvingly in one place, citing Schopenhauer as having referred to the Jews as the great masters of the lie.  The essays of Schopenhauer were very popular in Germany in the latter part of the 19th century.  In the following paragraph, taken from the Manheim translation, Hitler warns against reading too much, tells us how we should read, and ends with a sneer against parliamentary representatives:
" I know people who read interminably, book after book, from page to page, and yet I should not call them well-read people. Of course they know an immense amount; but their brain seems incapable of assorting and classifying the material which they have gathered from books. They have not the faculty of distinguishing between what is useful and useless in a book; so that they may retain the former in their minds and if possible skip over the latter while reading it, if that be not possible, then when once read throw it overboard as useless ballast. Reading is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. Its chief purpose is to help towards filling in the framework which is made up of the talents and capabilities that each individual possesses. Thus each one procures for himself the implements and materials necessary for the fulfilment of his calling in life, no matter whether this be the elementary task of earning ones daily bread or a calling that responds to higher human aspirations. Such is the first purpose of reading. And the second purpose is to give a general knowledge of the world in which we live. In both cases, however, the material which one has acquired through reading must not be stored up in the memory on a plan that corresponds to the successive chapters of the book; but each little piece of knowledge thus gained must be treated as if it were a little stone to be inserted into a mosaic, so that it finds its proper place among all the other pieces and particles that help to form a general world-picture in the brain of the reader. Otherwise only a confused jumble of chaotic notions will result from all this reading. That jumble is not merely useless, but it also tends to make the unfortunate possessor of it conceited. For he seriously considers himself a well-educated person and thinks that he understands something of life. He believes that he has acquired knowledge, whereas the truth is that every increase in such knowledge draws him more and more away from real life, until he finally ends up in some sanatorium or takes to politics and becomes a parliamentary deputy. "
Was Hitler a Schopenhauerian?  Since Schopenhauer's beau ideals were the artist, the saint, and the philosopher, one might conclude that Hitler was not deeply influenced by Schopenhauer.  Schopenhauer was certainly not an affirmer of the will, as was Nietzsche, not a celebrant of the warrior, as was Hitler.  Yet, again, it can be argued that Hitler saw in himself a great artist, as did Nero.  Certainly, Hitler was making an aesthetic judgment when he placed at the head of humanity the blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryan. 
For Hitler, reading must be useful for our purposes.  We are to extract from our reading that which sustains our efforts, that which supports our point of view, and leave the rest.  Charles Darwin, on the contrary, stated that he always made sure that he made a note of any fact which he encountered in his reading that would seem to be contradictory to his theory.  He found that he was most prone to forget precisely those facts which did not sustain his point of view.
Darwin was, of course, a master of the scientific method, while Hitler was perhaps always more of an artist, ever on the prowl to find materials for his own great Gesamtkunstwerk (to borrow a term from Wagner).  Ironically, however, the one chapter in Mein Kampf which is worthy of being read again, "Nation and Race," demonstrates in its opening paragraphs that Hitler was indeed a Darwinist, a believer that all life is shaped by the struggle for existence and that those who would survive must affirm that struggle. It is from this world that Schopenhauer counsels us to maintain detachment.   


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