Saturday, November 03, 2007

Warning: Don't Think Too Much

The favourite food of philosophers.

Thinking Is Bad For You

The common image of a philosopher is probably that of some wise and gentle greybeard, calmly sorting out the world's problems. Yet the truth is often the opposite. Whether it's the pressure of cogitating so much, or the weirdness of spending your time wondering whether you really exist, the world's greatest philosophers have had some of the wackiest lives in history.

Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1778

A towering figure of western Philosophy, Rousseau invented the phrase: 'Man was born free and everywhere he is chains' - a slogan employed by revolutionaries ever since. Rousseau also formulated the notion of the noble savage, the idea that man is an intrinsically virtuous creature, at his best when living in a state of primitive harmony with the natural world.

Yet Rousseau himself exhibited little harmony. Born in Geneva to a mother who died soon afterwards, and a father who supplemented his watch-making salary by giving dancing lessons, Rousseau was brought up by a neighbourhood clergyman, Pastor Lambercier. It was in this household that the infant Rousseau was vigorously spanked, time and again, by the pastor's alluring, 30 year old sister. For the rest of his life the great philosopher would revel in the notion of being spanked by a beautiful older woman.

Eventually, despite the glorious spankathons, Rousseau fled Geneva. For years he wandered around the Alpine countryside as a teenage tramp. In Turin he got a job as a nobleman's gofer, but was sacked when he pilfered a ribbon. After this he considered becoming a priest, and toiled for a while as a gigolo to an aristocratic Scotswoman.

True peace was found in the house of Madame de Warens, a plump older woman who took on Rousseau as tutor and toyboy. Rousseau called Madame de Waren maman, and shared her bed when he reached twenty-one. During the same period the matron was also being pleasured by an elderly odd job man - when this geriatric love-rival fixed his last toaster, Rousseau literally took the man's clothes.

The rest of Rousseau's life was less happy. He became a famous writer, yet he also fathered five children by an ugly laundry girl, and abandoned every single one of them to an orphanage. He got memorably upset when a whore in Venice revealed to him that she only had one nipple. When he retired to his estate in Switzerland Rousseau would have furtive affairs with young ladies, masturbating as he strolled to his assignations in the pinewoods. His later years were clouded by a strange urinary problem which prevented him receiving honours in public.

Arthur Schopenhauer 1788-1860

Relatively unknown to many, Schopenhauer is regarded by his fellow philosophers as a major thinker, a man who single-handedly created the philosophy of pessimism: the idea that there is no personal God, and that man must stand alone in a hostile universe. This idea has influenced writers like Hardy, Mann, Tolstoy and Beckett. Schopenhauer also recognised the essential importance of sexuality in human culture and self-image.

Nonetheless he was a total loser when it came the ladies. He was a lifelong misogynist, regarding women as inferiors. Schopenhauer actually believed the larger bottoms of women meant that they were designed by Nature to spend their time sitting down: sewing. He never married.

In the latter half of his life Schopenhauer became eccentrically rigid in his doings. Every day he rose at seven, bathed, eschewed breakfast, then wrote his unread books until noon; work was followed by flute-practise for an hour (he was never any good), then he took lunch alone in a Frankfurt hotel, before retiring on his own to the public library, where he read the Times of London. Then he walked his miniature poodle called Atman, before attending a concert alone, dining alone, and retiring alone.

Why was he so lonesome? His mother and father were wealthy but cold individuals; the family atmosphere got worse when Schopenhauer's father jumped to his death from a warehouse window. Bizarrely, his mother then became a famous poet and socialite, who rarely saw her irritable son.

Schopenhauer was highly sexed. Between bouts of extreme solitariness he took several lovers, and fathered an illegitimate child. But his irascible character usually got the better of him: in 1821, he was convicted of throwing a woman down some stairs, following a dispute over the noise she was making outside his rooms. After a lengthy court case, Schopenhauer was obliged to pay the crippled woman 60 thalers a year, for the rest of her days. When the woman finally died, Schopenhauer mordantly wrote in his diary: 'Obit anus, abit onus' (‘the old woman dies, the debt departs').

After decades of anonymity and isolation, Schopenhauer was belatedly recognised as a great philosopher, and achieved a measure of wealth and fame. Frankfurt's citizens noted that, in those final months, as the aged philosopher walked to his lonely hotel lunch, dragging his miniature poodle, he was, on occasion, seen to smile.

Friedrich Nietzsche 1844-1900

Most famous philosophers are lauded for their ideas, not their prose. Unique amongst the great thinkers, Friedrich Nietzsche was famous for both. In works like Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Twilight of the Gods, and Beyond Good and Evil, he perfected a writing style that was at once lucid, lyrical and hypnotic.

His ideas were also immensely influential. Nietzsche openly despised Christianity - as a 'slave' religion; he also coined the phrase 'God is dead'. Instead, Nietzsche cultivated the concept of the Superman, a nobly self sufficient human being, able to impose his superior personality on the world through sheer willpower. Unsurprisingly, the Nazis were later drawn to this philosophy; Nietzsche himself was no Nazi.

What he was, was a deeply troubled man. Like Rousseau, Nietzsche had a passion for dominant women - he was photographed with women bearing whips. Yet he seldom if ever consummated these “affairs“. The one single certifiable sexual encounter in the philosopher's entire life - with a cheap prostitute in Cologne - infected him with syphilis which eventually drove him mad and killed him.

For many years the young Nietzsche hero-worshipped the world's most famous composer, Wagner; the two became firm if unequal friends, to the extent that Nietzsche regularly bought Wagner silk underwear. But then they fell out, and Nietzsche violently accused the musician of being a compulsive masturbator.

Despite his personal oddities, Nietzsche was recognised as a brilliant thinker, and rose quickly through academic circles. However his career was interrupted by service in the Prussian army, where he was badly wounded in the chest.

Soon afterwards the syphilis started to kick in, sending the philosopher half blind. He suffered vomiting attacks, and terrible headaches; he tried living only on cocoa and dry bread, but this was ineffective. In the middle of this chaos he fell in love with Lou Salome, a posh Russian girl seventeen years younger than him. But she drove him to tears with her inconstancy, and eventually she ran off to work with Freud, with whom she developed a theory of anal sexuality.

Heartbroken, Nietzsche turned to his long-supportive sister Elizabeth for succour, but she had fallen in love with an anti-Semitic politician, Bernhard Forster, who then migrated to Paraguay to start an Aryan colony; after a year Forster committed suicide when he was revealed as an embezzler, and Elizabeth returned to Germany and her brother.

She was just in time. Nietzsche was churning out ideas but his mind was teetering on the edge, a situation not helped by the enormous draughts of chloral hydrate - a sleeping potion - that he imbibed every day. His letters now bore ominous signs of incipient madness; one to August Strindberg in Christmas 1888 had the sentence: 'I have ordered a convocation of princes in Rome. I want to have Kaiser Wilhelm shot'.

On the 3rd January, 1889, Nietzsche was wandering the streets of Turin when he saw a horse being whipped. Always an animal lover, he rushed to save the beast but then collapsed. When he "recovered", he was gibberingly insane.

He lived for ten more years, “looked after” by his sister. His increasing fame - and infamy - made him an object of rich curiosity. Nietzsche sister capitalised on this by exhibiting her brother to paying visitors. When the tourists entered the great prophet's room, they would find him decked in a white sheet like a priest, staring silently into space, lost in his world of high-flown insanity. In his own words, he was finally 'living above the snowline'.

Ludwig Wittgenstein 1889-1951

Such was the reputation of this Austrian-Jewish philosopher, when he first came to England in the 1920s, the famous Cambridge economist J M Keynes wrote in his diary 'God has arrived: he came by the 5.15 train'.

Yet explaining the vital importance of Wittgenstein to non-experts (i.e. the rest of us) is difficult. Wittgenstein's philosophy was abstruse, and often concerned with the proper use and meaning of language. His most "popular" work had the catchy title Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Perhaps Wittgenstein's philosophy is best explained by his most famous phrase: 'whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent'. That is to say: language and logic can only take us so far. With the big questions like God, death and the purpose of life, silent intuition is as good as anything.

Wittgenstein's background was remarkable. He was born into one of the richest families in the world. The fortune had been made by his Jewish father, who founded the Prague steelworks and went on to monopolise steel production in the Austro-Hungarian empire. The father cleverly shifted his riches into foreign assets before the German hyperinflation of the 20s and the Great Depression of the 30s. Between the wars the Wittgenstein dynasty was worth eighty billion dollars by today's prices.

However the ascetic young Wittgenstein, despite his siblings' protestations, gave all his billions back to his family. For the rest of his life he would have to endure penury and debt, something which utterly confounded his friends, who know how much he was once worth.

Wittgenstein didn’t care. He relished simplicity, even austerity. He also liked total isolation. For years he lived along in a hut in northern Norway. When he returned to civilisation he got a job as a teacher in the poorest parts of the Austrian Alps, where he lived mainly off cocoa, sleeping in a tiny kitchen, even though he was qualified to teach in universities.

In these schools he was famous for lavishing attention on certain pupils; he would go on ten hour walks into the valleys just to bring back bananas for his favourite students. Yet less bright pupils were subject to Wittgenstein's famous temper - he lashed out at them with fists and sticks, and once nearly beat a dull schoolboy to death.

Even by the brutal standards of the times, nearly killing a pupil was a no-no. The resultant scandal was hushed up, but Wittgenstein was obliged to emigrate to England, where he taught adoring students at Cambridge University.

Not everyone liked him, even in Cambridge. Wittgenstein had a thuggish conversational style: hectoring opponents, belittling their arguments. He once got so enraged in a debate he picked up a poker and threatened the great logician Karl Popper. Other times he would spend entire seminars in cryptic silence, waiting for the thoughts to emerge. He was quite odd in person, with his piercing eyes and his strangely ageless face. He always wore a tweed jacket, loose trousers, and laceless plimsolls. His disciples copied him. When he lectured an audience in Vienna and found the crowd inattentive, he turned his face to the wall and began reciting mystical Indian poetry.

Wittgenstein harboured a deathwish. He volunteered for strenuous frontline service in the First World War when a hernia could have excused him. All his life he toyed with the idea of suicide. Perhaps this was genetic - three of his brilliant brothers did commit suicide.

The end of Wittgenstein's life saw the onetime billionaire and world famous thinker subsisting, once again, in a dingy hut, this time on the west coast of Ireland. To the end of his days he was tortured by his repressed homosexuality and his love for submissive younger men. On his deathbed he said: 'Tell them I've had a wonderful life'.

Five more bizarre philosophers

Englishman Jeremy Bentham devised the important philosophy of Utilitarianism in the 19th century. When he died he had his own body stuffed and pickled; it is preserved in University College London, where it can be seen today, in its own special box. The head, however, is a waxwork: the real one rotted and fell off.

Bertrand Russell was the greatest British philosopher of the 20th century. He also slept with his son's wives and founded a school without discipline, where children bathed nude; he believed the America should pre-emptively attack the Soviet Union with nukes.

Simone Weil was a French-Jewish intellectual who published thought-provoking works about man's path to God. During the second world war she fell seriously ill. Yet she refused extra rations, in “solidarity with the workers“. She thereby starved herself to death.

Martin Heidegger is one of the most revered German thinkers of modern times. In the 1930s he became a passionate Nazi, concluding his lectures with a ‘Heil Hitler!’; yet he conducted a spirited affair with a much younger Jewess. All his life he wore knickerbockers.

Jean Paul Sartre was the founder of the post-war French philosophy of existentialism. He was also five foot tall, half blind, and seldom bathed; he hated animals, had deeply incestuous desires for his mother, spent much of his life in a menage a trois, and wore oddly oversized clothes.

1 comment:

Joanie said...

Sorry, but your list is incomplete. How can you have a list of crazy philosophers, and not include Foucault, who had the most um, interesting private life of your list?