Schopenhauer and the Chained Dog

There’s a good web-site at which presents the whole case against keeping dogs tied up, with many wretched photographs, plus statistics and instances of the neurotic aggression which the practice trains into the unhappy dog. Seeing it reminds me of one such instance noted by the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in 1851, in his essay ‘On the Suffering of the World’:     dog03

Never do I see such a dog without feelings of the deepest sympathy for him and of profound indignation against his master. I think with satisfaction of a case, reported some years ago in the Times, where a lord kept a large dog on a chain. One day as he was walking through the yard, he took it into his head to go and pat the dog, whereupon the animal tore his arm open from top to bottom, and quite right too! What he meant was this: ‘You are not my master, but my devil, who makes a hell of my brief existence!’ May this happen to all who chain up dogs.

The strength of feeling in this passage of writing is perhaps not adequately explained by saying that Schopenhauer was fond of dogs, but certainly he was fond of them. He especially liked poodles, and he seems to have kept a sequence of them as companions during his later years – walking them every day, of course (he was a man of strict routines). But in fact he had this same sympathy for all suffering animals. Caged birds, work-horses, farm-animals, the victims of vivisection: for all these, the chained dog was really a type or representative, and accordingly Schopenhauer uses, in another of his essays, that same image for their relation to humanity as a whole, which he uses for the dog’s to its one master: “It can truly be said: Men are the devils of the earth, and the animals are the tormented souls.”

The editor of the otherwise excellent Penguin Classics selection from Schopenhauer’s essays speaks of vivisection as one of his author’s “hobby horses” which, as editor, he has “not hesitated to curb”, i.e. to cut. He at least acknowledges that the theme was a preoccupation of Schopenhauer’s, but he implies that it was an eccentricity or whim separate from Schopenhauer’s main philosophical concerns, which is quite wrong. True, it did have some special biographical, and to that extent non-philosophical, import for him. His first choice of subject at university (in 1809) had been medicine, and in later years he was shocked to see how vivisection, which had been spoken of in his student days as something “cruel and terrible”, resorted to only with reluctance, had become so routine at the time of writing (1850s) that “every little medicine-man thinks he has the right to torment animals in the cruellest fashion in his torture chamber”. In this vehemence Schopenhauer may have been unusual, at least in Germany at that time, but it was no stray caprice. He saw vivisection as part of a systematic abuse of animals in general, and he plainly recognised this abuse as founded on the ethical nonsense that we now (thanks to Richard Ryder’s 1970s coinage) term ‘speciesism’: “This is a morality which knows and values only the precious species that gave it birth; whose special characteristic – reason – it makes the condition under which a being may be an object of moral regard.”

The blame for this species-chauvinism Schopenhauer puts, with a candid atheism most unusual (again) for his time, upon Christianity. In particular he deplores what he calls “that installation scene in the Garden of Eden”, when God “takes all the animals just as if they were things, and without so much as the recommendation to kind treatment which even a dog-seller usually adds when he parts with his dogs, hands them over to man for man to rule, that is to do with them what he likes.” So when Schopenhauer angrily dismisses the “odious and revolting” ethic put forward by the philosopher Emmanuel Kant, namely that we ought to treat non-human animals well, not for their own good, but because we thereby cultivate the like habit towards our fellow-humans, it isn’t Kant himself that he rebukes. The notion is after all in no way essential to Kant’s own philosophy, as Schopenhauer’s thinking about animals is to his. Rather, he puts the blame on “European priestcraft, which, in its profanity, knows no limit to its disavowal of, and blasphemy against, the Eternal Reality that lives in every animal.” Kant, he felt, had lazily allowed the Bible and the Church’s traditions to impose on him in this matter.

So how is Schopenhauer’s valuation of animals essential to his larger philosophy? And what, in particular, is that “Eternal Reality” against which – an astonishing charge – Christianity blasphemes? I shall now have to insult Schopenhauer’s philosophy by attempting a summary of it in three paragraphs. Skip them if you can’t face the mayhem; the remainder should still make reasonably good sense.

In his own main philosophy, Kant had made a crucial distinction, which Schopenhauer willingly inherits, between reality as it appears to us through our limited capacities of perception (i.e. the phenomenal world), and reality as it is in itself (which he called the noumenal), independent of our mind-conditioned categories of time and space, and therefore invisible to us. This second and fundamental reality, of which ours must be some sort of local manifestation, Kant did not attempt to explore. Among other reasons, it would have been impossible to do so without straying into theology or subverting it. Schopenhauer, however, was quite willing to do that, the second part of it anyway, and he expressly set out to complete Kant’s picture.

Although he agreed with Kant that the noumenal world couldn’t be directly known, he believed that we could trace, with a certainty amounting to fact, its essential nature through its manifestations in our world, and mainly through our experience of its animating presence in our own bodies. And what he found that essential nature to be, or at least to be best understood as, was ‘will’: not divine or purposeful or even rational will, but a mere blind striving. Hence the title of his great work of philosophy, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1818), usually translated as ‘The World as Will and Representation’. All “representations” – that is, all the phenomena of the world which we can perceive around and within ourselves, including plants, natural objects and forces, and of course all the other animals – share this noumenal inner nature, the will. It urges itself through them – dresses itself in them, one might say – but also recklessly breeds from and then discards them. Sometimes Schopenhauer speaks of it as the “will-to-live”, and in that character it readily accommodates, in its restless and purposeless push, the Darwinian machinery of evolution, which indeed Schopenhauer partly anticipates, as he does also, for obvious reasons, the Freudian notion of the unconscious. He was a most prescient thinker.

However, he viewed this reality, which he had thus glimpsed, with horror. He calls it “the worst of all possible worlds.” For, as active in our phenomenal world, the will is patently and destructively at odds with itself. All its various avatars (all the contents  DSC04795.JPGof the world which represent the will here) both directly and indirectly struggle against each other for the space and the means to live. And in the case of its most recent ones (recent, that is, in our time-bound understanding), the conscious beings like ourselves, there is a special doom of unhappiness, so he believed. For the urgings of the will within us can only be satisfied momentarily, if at all, and such brief escapes from its pressure prove, for humans at least, to be escapes only into vacancy and ennui. Non-human animals, Schopenhauer believed, have the better chance of happiness, living as they do in the moment, without the stored pains of past and future to distress them: in fact he says that their “obvious composure often puts to shame our own frequently restless and discontented condition.”

Or rather they would have the better chance of happiness, if humans only allowed it: but it’s just at this point that he comes to the story of the chained dog, and I hope it’s now easier to see why that story has such emblematic power for Schopenhauer. He knew something of Eastern spirituality (again, most unusually for a philosopher of his time and place), and was fond of quoting, from the Upanishads, what he called “the mystical formula tat twam asi (This art Thou), by which is meant every living thing, whether man or animal”. That “deepest sympathy” which he feels for chained dogs is therefore intended literally: “This art Thou”, and therefore this suffering also is yours. (Schopenhauer’s own word, Mitleid, is much more direct and expressive than the rather abstract terms ‘sympathy’ or ‘compassion’, which seem to be the best that English can do by way of translation.) Schopenhauer suffers with such dogs, then, not because he is a dog-lover (though he was) or an unusually sympathetic character, still less because animal suffering is a ‘hobby horse’ of his, but because he and the dogs are of the same life, driven through the world by the same indifferent will, ephemeral vessels for the Eternal Reality which animates them all. And this Mitleid, he argues, is indeed the only authentic basis for morality, because Mitleid itself is founded, not on ethical speculation or arguable principles like Kant’s, but on fact – the fact of our existential oneness with all sentient life.

In one of his essays, Schopenhauer characteristically suggests that instead of addressing each other as ‘Sir’, ‘mein Herr’, and so on, we should say “Leidensgefährte … my fellow sufferer.” I dare say that he sometimes addressed his poodles in that way, though no doubt he did his best to protect them from suffering. At any rate, his feeling about the world and its denizens, and his cast of mind in general, are very well summarised in something he says in his essay On the Basis of Morality:

The old Indian dramas close with these words: ‘May all living things be delivered from pain.’ Tastes may differ, but in my opinion there is no more beautiful prayer than this.


[Quotations are taken from The Essential Schopenhauer, ed. Wolfgang Schirmacher, HarperCollins 2010 (pp.7-8, 35, 14); Essays and Aphorisms, ed. R.J.Hollingdale, Penguin Classics 2014 (pp.218, 219, 149); and The Basis of Morality (1840), transl. A.B.Bullock, Swan Sonnenschein and Co. 1903, available online (pp.95, 220, 214).]