Sex and Schopenhauer


Sex and Schopenhauer

It is with trifles, and when he is off guard, that a man best reveals his character.

- Arthur Schopenhauer


Schopenhauer  Source:

According to the German philosopher, we are biologically driven to seek out unsuitable partners.  So if you are unlucky in love, says Alain de Botton in this extract from his new book, don't take it to heart - happiness was never part of the plan.

It is a warm spring day.  A man is attempting to work on a train between Edinburgh and London.  But the man has been unable to hold a coherent thought since a woman entered the carriage and seated herself across the aisle.  She reminds the man of a portrait by Christen Kobke of Mrs Hoegh-Guldberg (though he cannot recall either of these names), which he saw, and felt strangely moved and saddened by, in a museum in Denmark a few years before.  But unlike Mrs Hoegh-Guldberg, this woman has short brown hair and wears jeans, trainers and a canary-yellow sweater.  He notices a large sports-watch on her pale wrist.  He imagines caressing the back of her neck, sliding his hand inside the sleeve of her pullover, watching her fall asleep beside him...

He speculates that she may be a cellist or a graphic designer, or a doctor specialising in genetic research.  He considers asking her for the time, for directions to the loo...  He longs for a train crash - he would guide her safely outside, where they would be given lukewarm tea and stare into each other's eyes.  But because the train seems disinclined to derail, the man cannot help leaning over to ask the angel if she might have a spare ballpoint.  It feels like jumping off a very high bridge.

Philosophers have not traditionally been impressed by the tribulations of love.  Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), was puzzled by this indifference:

"We should be surprised that a matter that generally plays such an important part in the life of man has hitherto been almost entirely disregarded by philosophers, and lies before us as raw and untreated material."

The neglect seemed the result of a pompous self-denial.  Schopenhauer insisted on the awkward reality:

"Love... interrupts at every hour the most serious occupations, and sometimes perplexes for a while even the greatest minds... It knows how to slip its love-notes and ringlets even into ministerial portfolios and philosophical manuscripts..."

Like Montaigne, Schopenhauer was concerned with what made man less than reasonable.  He concurred that our minds were subservient to our bodies, despite our arrogant faith to the contrary.

But Schopenhauer went further.  He gave a name to a force within us which he felt invariably had precedence over reason: the will-to-life (Wille zum Leben) - defined as an inherent drive within human beings to stay alive and reproduce.  It ensured that the most cerebral, career-minded individuals would be seduced by the sight of gurgling infants, or if they remained unmoved, that they were likely to conceive a child anyway, and love it fiercely on arrival.  And it was this will-to-life that drove people to lose their reason over comely passengers on long-distance trains.

Schopenhauer refused to conceive of love as either disproportionate or accidental:

"It is no trifle that is in question here...  The ultimate aim of all love affairs more important than all other aims in man's life; and therefore it is quite worthy of the profound seriousness with which everyone pursues it.'

And what is the aim?  Neither communion nor sexual release, understanding nor entertainment.  The romantic dominates life because:

"What is decided by it is nothing less than the composition of the next generation..."

The fact that the continuation of the species is seldom in our minds when we ask for a phone number is no objection to the theory.  We are, suggested Schopenhauer, split into conscious and unconscious selves:

"[The intellect] does not penetrate into the secret workshop of the will's decisions.  It is, of course, a confidant of the will, yet a confidant that does not get to know everything."

The intellect understands only so much as is necessary to promote reproduction - which may mean understanding very little: an exclusion, which explains how we may consciously feel nothing more than an intense desire to see someone again.

Why should such deception even be necessary?  Because, for Schopenhauer, we would not reliably assent to reproduce unless we first had lost our minds.

The analysis surely violates a rational self-image, but at least it counters suggestions that romantic love is avoidable.  By conceiving of love as a biological inevitability, Schopenhauer's theory invites us to adopt a more forgiving stance towards the eccentric behaviour of a lover.

The man and woman are seated at a window-table in a Greek restaurant in north London.  A bowl of olives lies between them, but neither can think of a way to remove the stones with dignity and so they are left untouched.

She had not been carrying a ballpoint, but had offered him a pencil.  She was not a cellist, but a lawyer specializing in corporate finance.  By the time the train pulled into Euston, he had obtained a phone number and an assent to a suggestion of dinner.

A waiter takes their order.  She asks for a salad and the swordfish.  She is wearing a light-grey suit and the same watch as before.

They begin to talk.  She explains that at weekends, her favourite activity is rock-climbing.  Her dinner companion feels dizzy on the second floor of apartment buildings.  Her other passion is dancing; when she can, she stays up all night.  He favours proximity to a bed by 11.30pm.  They talk of work.  She has been involved in a patent case.  He does not follow the lengthy account, but is convinced of her intelligence and their superlative compatibility.

bulletOne of the most profound mysteries of love is "Why him?" and "Why her?"  And why, despite good intentions, were we unable to develop a sexual interest in certain others, who were as attractive and might have been more convenient to live with?
bulletThis choosiness did not surprise Schopenhauer.  Our will-to-life drives us towards people who will raise our chances of producing beautiful and intelligent offspring, and repels us from those who lower these same chances.
bulletSince our parents inevitably made errors in their courtships, we are unlikely to be ideally balanced ourselves.  We have typically come out too tall, too masculine, too feminine; our noses are large, our chins small.  The will-to-life must therefore push us towards people who can, on account of their imperfections, cancel out our own (a large nose combined with a button nose promises a perfect nose).  Schopenhauer liked predicting pathways of attraction.  Short women will fall in love with tall men, but rarely tall men with tall women (they unconsciously fear the production of giants).  Feminine men will often be drawn to boyish women with short hair:

"The neutralisation of the two individualities... requires that the particular degree of his manliness shall correspond exactly to the particular degree of her womanliness, so that the one-sidedness of each exactly cancels that of the other."

Unfortunately, the theory of attraction led Schopenhauer to a conclusion so bleak, perhaps readers about to be married should leave the next few paragraphs unread; namely, that a person who is highly suitable for our future child is almost never (though we cannot realise it at the time because we have been blindfolded by the will-to-life) very suitable for us.  Happiness and the production of healthy children are two radically contrasting projects, which love maliciously confuses us into thinking of as one for a requisite number of years:

"Love... casts itself on persons who, apart from the sexual relation, would be hateful, contemptible and even abhorrent to the lover.  But the will of the species is so much more powerful than that of the individual, that the lover shuts his eyes to all the qualities repugnant to him...  Only from this is it possible to explain why we often see very rational, and even eminent, men tied to termagants and matrimonial fiends..."

So one day, a boyish woman and a girlish man will approach the altar with motives neither they, nor anyone (save a smattering of Schopenhauerians at the reception), will have fathomed.  Only later, when the will's demands are assuaged and a robust boy is kicking a ball around a suburban garden, will the ruse be discovered.  The couple will part or pass dinners in hostile silence.

The man pays for dinner and asks, with studied casualness, if it might be an idea to repair to his flat for a drink.  She smiles and stares at the floor.  "That would be lovely, it really would," she says, "but I have to get up early to catch a flight to Frankfurt.  Maybe another time though."  Another smile.

Despair is alleviated by a promise that she will call from Germany, perhaps on the very day of her return.  But there is no call until late on the appointed day.  She says that the flight has been delayed, that he shouldn't wait.  There follows a pause before the worst is confirmed.  Things are a little complicated in her life right now; she will phone him again once her head is clearer.

The philosopher offers consolation for rejection: our pain is normal.  A force powerful enough to push us towards child-rearing could not vanish without devastation.  What is more, we are not inherently unlovable.  Our characters are not repellent, nor our faces abhorrent.  The union collapsed because we were unfit to produce a balanced child with that particular person. One day we will meet someone who will find us wonderful (because our chin and their chin make a desirable combination).

We should in time learn to forgive our rejectors.  They may have appreciated our qualities; but their will-to-life did not.  We should respect the edict from nature against procreation that every rejection contains.  We should draw consolation from the thought that a lack of love might only produce:

"a badly organised, unhappy being, wanting in harmony in itself."

For a time, the man is beset by melancholy.  At the weekend, he takes a walk in Battersea Park, and sits on a bench overlooking the Thames.  He has with him a paperback edition of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther.

There are couples pushing prams and leading young children by the hand.  A little girl in a blue dress covered in chocolate points up to a plane descendingtowards Heathrow.  "Daddy, is God in there?" she asks, but Daddy is in a hurry and says he doesn't know.  A 4-year-old boy drives his tricycle into a shrub and wails for his mother, who has just shut her eyes on a rug spread on a patch of grass.  She requests that her husband assist the child.  He gruffly replies that it is her turn.  An elderly couple on an adjacent bench silently share an egg sandwich.

Schopenhauer asks us not to be surprised by the misery.  We should not, as part of a couple or a parent, ask ourselves what is the point of being alive.

There were many works of natural science in Schopenhauer's library.  He felt particular sympathy for the mole, a stunted monstrosity dwelling in damp narrow corridors, but doing everything in its power to perpetuate itself.

The philosopher did not have to spell out the parallels.  We pursue love affairs, chat in cafés with prospective partners and have children, with as much choice in the matter as moles or ants - and are rarely any happier.

He did not mean to depress us, rather to free us from expectations which inspire bitterness.  It is consoling, when love has let us down, to hear that happiness was never part of the plan.

"Much would have been gained if through timely advice young people could have had eradicated from their minds the erroneous notion that the world has a great deal to offer them."

We do have one advantage over moles.  We can go to the theatre, the opera and the concert hall, and we can read novels and philosophy - here is a supreme source of relief from the demands of the will-to-life.

Schopenhauer admired Goethe because he had turned so many of the pains of love into knowledge, most famously in The Sorrows of Young Werther, a story of unrequited love suffered by a young man.  It simultaneously described the love affairs of 1000s of its readers (Napoleon was said to have read the novel 9 times).

There is consolation in realising that our case is only one of thousands.  Of a person who can achieve such objectivity, Schopenhauer remarks:

"[He] accordingly will conduct himself... more as a knower than as a sufferer."

We must, between periods of digging in the dark, endeavour always to transform our tears into knowledge.

The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton (Hamish Hamilton £14.99rrp) is available from Amazon.

Source: Issue 1765 Saturday 25 March 2000 © Telegraph Group Limited 2000

See also:

bulletFrom Love and Limerence - "...Once you are in its grips your emotions are directed by the external situation, and the only effective action open to you is destruction of any opportunity for reciprocation to occur..."

Too High for Love?

Lost Your Drive? Antidepressants May Tinker with Mating Instincts...

by Erik Baard

When the physicians come to me,
My heart rejects their remedies;
The magicians are quite helpless,
My sickness is not discerned.
To tell me She is here would revive me!

If this Ancient Egyptian poem is any guide, lovesickness has been with us for more than 3,000 years.  But psychiatrists may be unintentionally "curing" us of that experience and other aspects of romantic love with modern antidepressant medications.  So argue the anthropologist Helen Fisher, and the psychiatrist James Thomson Jr.  Their case, sketched out in Fisher’s recent book, Why We Love (Henry Holt, £13.22), centres on how certain antidepressants could be blocking chemical pathways in the brain that were paved by evolution to help us meet and keep mates.

The drugs, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which include Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft, already come with warnings that they can suppress the libido and interfere with sexual functioning.  But Fisher and Thomson argue that the problem may cut deeper into romantic bonds.  "People in the medical community have known about the sexual side effects of these antidepressants but they have treated these as almost a secondary, minor issue - an annoyance.  What I’m suggesting is that SSRIs have a major impact on three distinct but related brain systems we have evolved for the sex drive, romantic love and attachment," Fisher says.  "People need to be aware that these three brain systems interact in biological ways.  You can jeopardise your ability to choose a mate appropriately, you can jeopardise your ability to fall in love and you can jeopardise your ability to feel attachment."

As Thomson, a staff psychiatrist at the University of Virginia, explains: "The central nervous system is conservative, using the same neurotransmitters for multiple functions.  That is why it is impossible not to have drugs without side effects.  You correct one system, you imbalance the other - but that imbalance may not necessarily be conscious.  Just because you have no consciously experienced sexual side effect does not mean that there aren’t any."

SSRIs raise serotonin levels in the brain by slowing their removal.  Fisher and Thomson assert that the love and lust of romance are centred on the neurotransmitter dopamine, and possibly norepinephrine, which have a negative relationship with serotonin.  Dopamine, Fisher also notes, is associated with many qualities shared by both clinically diagnosed compulsions and anxiety disorders and with the heights of romantic love - hyper focusing, obsession, extreme motivation and a quest for novelty.  Fisher and other researchers conducted an experiment in which the brains of people in the throes of early romantic love were scanned while they viewed photographs of their beloved and a more neutral acquaintance.  By tracking blood flows within the brain, the MRI scanner showed pronounced activity in two areas of the brain when the lover’s photograph was viewed.  Both of these brain regions are associated with dopamine and powerful primitive reward systems.

If by raising serotonin levels dopamine and norepinephrine levels get hammered, romantic love would logically be threatened, they say.  Indeed, often people are put on therapies in the aftermath of failed marriages and relationships.  This is a positive response to what can be the dangerous effects of romantic depression: stalking, harbouring suicidal urges and withdrawing.  But these regimens often linger long past the critical initial period, Fisher says.  When people should be seeking new lovers, they may be unknowingly hindered by their elevated serotonin levels.  Maryanne Fisher, a psychologist at York University in Toronto (no relation to Helen), reports the first evidence of "courtship blunting".  In a small study she conducted, women taking the drugs were asked to rate the attractiveness of men’s faces in photos.  The women on this class of antidepressants rated the men more negatively and glanced over the photos at a quicker rate.

Serotonin enhancers can also dampen the sex drive of men and even their ability to ejaculate.  These men naturally shy away from bedding women, leading to increased loneliness, setting up a vicious cycle of depression.  Also, without frequent orgasms, men and women don’t have the flood of oxytocin and vasopressin that promote relationship bonding.  Men might enjoy a woman’s company, but never fall head over heels for her.  Semen may also be critical in retaining a woman’s interest, as recent studies indicate that men may alter women’s emotional states through chemicals transmitted through semen.

Helen Fisher, now at the anthropology department at Rutgers University, in New Jersey, but formerly of the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, writes that female orgasms might exist in part to test the time and effort partners are willing to devote to pleasing them, an important assessment for a mate during pregnancy and the critical child-rearing years.  But women who are drugged are less sexual and thus "jeopardise their ability to assess the emotional commitment of a partner".  And besides not listening for important signals, people on the drugs - by being less sexual - are not sending out the right ones either: their seeming lack of desire signals a lack of love.  They might even think their partner isn’t inspiring them and that they should look elsewhere, Fisher notes.

Thomson has seen these effects in his private practice and work at the University of Virginia.  "People have been telling us this for years but we haven’t been paying attention," he says.  "I know I wasn’t.  Now I think we need to be worried that we are not caring for patients at a deeper level, for their romantic relationships and potential romantic relationships.  "One guy on SSRIs would look at a beautiful woman and recognise that intellectually, but he said there was ‘no oomph’.  He described being on the drugs as if the lenses in his glasses somehow had been changed.  He wanted off the drugs.  Even if he couldn’t chase women because he was a married man, he still wanted to enjoy looking."  His sex life with his wife was also adversely affected, Thomson says.  The patient, in his early 50s, had a good and stable marriage, several kids but had a very stressful job, a physical illness, and recurrent depressions "probably precipitated by his job and old family conflicts," Thomson says.

Thomson also worries that some women could suffer a "double whammy" where antidepressants hinder their natural judgment to leave a bad relationship and also blunt their ability to spot healthy, desirable new mates.  Indeed, he recalls that one patient wasn’t healthily distressed when an abusive ex-boyfriend with a history of stalking showed up at her door.

But it wasn’t individual case histories that brought Thomson’s worries into the mainstream.  He and Helen Fisher connected through meetings of the Human Behaviour and Evolution Society, which Maryanne Fisher also attended.  For several years Thomson buttonholed researchers to warn them that the growing popularity of SSRIs could be skewing their data, because the drugs could be altering the evolutionary behavioural adaptations in mating.  "The brain is like any other piece of tissue shaped by Darwinian natural and sexual selection.  It was made and honed to solve reproductive problems faced by our ancestors over aeons of evolutionary history," Thomson says.  "And natural selection operates particularly fiercely in mating and mate selection.  It’s an extraordinary system and we’re tinkering with it more than we know."

Several academic researchers now say that they are taking Thomson and Fisher’s warnings seriously enough to begin screening volunteer subjects for SSRI use.  How, or if, the Fisher-Thomson theory will affect clinical practice remains to be seen.  Experts, however, advocate caution in factoring the Fisher-Thomson theory into the decision to prescribe SSRIs.  "I would not be in favour of scaring people away from taking SSRIs on the basis of these speculations.  The vast majority of people for whom these drugs are prescribed are suffering substantially from their mental disorders and have markedly reduced quality of life," says Lorrin Koran, Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University, who specialises in compulsive behaviours.

Nick Kosky, consultant psychiatrist and clinical director at North Dorset Primary Care Trust, says that since most patients are on antidepressants for relatively brief periods, the Fisher-Thomson warnings about reproductive and relationship risks might be "a little histrionic".  "How long do people stay on antidepressants?  Actually not that long as a fraction of their reproductive lifespan," he notes.  "There’s no evidence that once the SSRIs are withdrawn that sexual dysfunction persists in the long term."

Fisher says she is by no means suggesting that SSRIs be done away with.  "I’m not a psychiatrist or a medical doctor.  I’m just telling people to be aware of what they could be jeopardising," she says.  Thomson agrees.  He says that programmes can be altered or other medications can be used to mitigate against some negative side effects of SSRIs, so avoiding them entirely would be too extreme in most cases.  "They’re crucial drugs.  They’re very important and I have my patients use them.  I don’t want to be misunderstood here," he says.  "I think that they save lives."

Making Us Feel Good

bulletSSRIs were introduced to the UK in 1988 to treat moderate to severe depressive illness.
bulletMore than 22 million prescriptions for antidepressants are handed out in England every year, most of them for SSRIs.
bulletProzac is the most commonly prescribed SSRI, accounting for around half of the £130 million prescription costs of SSRIs.
bulletLast year, the Department of Health advised that SSRIs (with the exception of Prozac) should not be prescribed to people under the age of 18.
bulletSSRIs work by making more serotonin available in the brain.  This chemical enables brain cells to transmit messages.

Source: 6 March 2004

For It to Work, You Have to Be Off...

You Turn Me on with the Size of Your... um... Words

London - When it comes to being attractive to the opposite sex, size really is important - the size of your vocabulary.  An experiment conducted on the science page of the Daily Telegraph revealed that men change their opinion of women according to the words they use.

Photographs of two attractive women were accompanied by dating adverts and male readers were asked to vote for the woman they felt most attracted to have a serious relationship with.  One woman was selected beforehand to be slightly more attractive than the other and in edition A, both women described more or less the same holiday in the same language.  In edition B, however, the slightly less attractive woman was given a wider vocabulary.

Readers of edition A favoured the more attractive woman by 63% to 37%.  But in edition B the less attractive woman gained in popularity, shifting the voting balance to 57% against 43%.  1800 readers phoned in their opinions in the survey.

Raj Persaud, of the Maudsley Hospital, London, who devised the experiment, said the 6 percentage point shift was enough to be of statistical significance.  "This is the first time that an experiment like this has been conducted and the first test of this controversial theory," he said.  "It is a very interesting and counter-intuitive result because it suggests that men are influenced by issues beyond appearance. They are making an assessment of a person's mind.

"A lot of women spend a lot of time on their appearance before a date.  This suggests that brushing up on their word power may also be helpful.  Men are not as predictable as women think they are."

Dr Persaud designed the experiment to follow up the findings of a study published by psychologists Geoffrey Miller, of University College London, and Robin Dunbar, of Liverpool University, who suggested that sophisticated conversation is a sexual display of brain power, rather like a peacock's tail.  Their theory may shed light on why it is that we can express almost anything with 850 words, yet the average person has a vocabulary of 60,000 words.

"The chat-up theory of why we have the incredibly complex language we do is that we use all these extra words to impress, seduce and assess our possible mates," Dr Persaud said.  Humans did this because assessing someone's mind like this could help determine how well you can pass on your genes through them.  If, in prehistoric times, brain power was a vital factor to survival - and the survival of genes - it followed that we should today find brain power in others sexually attractive. - Daily Telegraph

Source: The Dominion 28 March 2000

See also:

bulletThank Mom for Brains, Dad for Drive - studies in mice are revealing that the mother's genes contribute more to the development of the "thinking" or "executive" centres of the brain, while paternal genes have a greater impact on the development of the "emotional" limbic brain...

For articles on poverty, social markets, superfluous children, isolation, modern mating difficulties, status, boasting, gender differences, patriarchy, capitalists, civility, groups, racism, virtue, ethics, art, music, religion and crewing click the "Up" button below to take you to the Index page for this Social/Cultural section.

Back Home Up Next