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Interview Wilhelm Schmid

ĎWhat is your book about?í
ĎAbout the relationship of the individual with himself.í
ĎAha! So itís about egoism.í
ĎIs having a relationship with yourself egotistical?í

- from Being Your Own Friend

Wilhelm Schmid
Stacey Knecht

Handboek voor de levenskunst

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SK — Itís unusual for me to interview a philosopher. Up until now itís always been fiction writers, poets, a critic or two...

WS — But philosophers are always fiction writers! Philosophy is not only the analysis of what exists, but also the conception of what does not exist. This is the big difference between philosophy and science. Philosophy is partly science, insofar as it is the analysis of what is, what is being, and what exists. But partly Ė and I think this a little bit more important Ė partly it is the conception, the dreaming, of what does not exist, but what should exist, what could exist.

SK — But scientists create imaginary rules in order to reach the truth. They start out by eliminating whatís not there.

WS — Yes. But what scientists want to reach with their truth is the existing world. Maybe the hidden world, but the existing world. And philosophers can conceptualize a world which does not yet exist, but which will exist because of the will of a human being, or because of the work, the real work of one human being, or all human beings.

SK — Perhaps another link between this book, Being Your Own Friend, and a work of fiction is that fictional characters, throughout world literature, are involved in processes similar to those you describe. For instance, the idea of Ďthe journeyí, the search for some kind of happiness, or maturity, fighting the odds...

WS — Yes, I do deal with these topics, but from a slightly different perspective. Take a subject like happiness: I never tell the reader that he or she must be happy. Instead, I ask the reader to consider carefully whether happiness is a realistic goal for him or for her. We live in a world, the modern world, which tells people that they must be happy. This is a kind of new norm. And I see a lot of people very unhappy, because theyíre supposed to be happy, and they cannot be. And they believe that they are not really living because theyíre not happy. But maybe real life means not to be happy. I do not know, but I ask my reader: are you sure you should be happy, or is happiness perhaps not a realistic target for you? And what do you mean by happiness? Because this is not clear, this is only clear in modern life, but not in all of life, and modern life is only a small part of human life Ė another understanding of happiness is perhaps the understanding of Epicurus or Aristotle, and we can use these different understandings, these notions of happiness, to clarify what we mean, the reader and I, what we mean by happiness, and perhaps then weíll choose a different definition of happiness than that of the modern world.

SK — Do you yourself have a definition of happiness? Iím sure itís a very broad one!

WS — No definition at all. But one other definition than the modern definition is: happiness is to be happy, and not to be happy.

SK — To get it in balance.

WS — Right. This is a more fulfilled notion of happiness, and maybe it is the only notion of happiness with which you can live your whole life, because you can be sad and happy at the same time. Because sadness is part of life, and all parts of life lead to this happiness of fulfillment.

SK — Maybe the other way around: do you have a definition for unhappiness?

WS — At the center of this notion of happiness, which is fulfillment, there is a part of happiness which you regard as positive and a part which you regard as negative, and you call it, perhaps, Ďunhappiness.í So this unhappiness is part of a greater happiness.

SK — I understand. I think it might be interesting for people who have never read your work to know what you mean by the concept of Lebenskunst, Ďthe art of livingí. Being Your Own Friend is primarily concerned with how to master this art. Did you yourself invent the term?

WS — Oh, no... Lebenskunst is one of the oldest targets of philosophy. So I am part of a very long history, and maybe Iím one of the only philosophers today reminding us that this is the goal of philosophy. Most modern philosophers have forgotten that. They believe that philosophy is only analysis, pure science, pure logic. Only analysis of speech and so on. All this is true, of course, but there is another goal Ė Lebenskunst Ė to think about what we need in order to live, and what we need to live in a beautiful way. That means to live in a way that we can say yes to this life. To the life we lead with ourselves, and with others. Because others are, most of the time, part of a life. Not all the time, but most of the time. This we find in Socrates, this we find in Aristotle, in Epicurus and Seneca, and so on, and one can say that all the disciplines of philosophy, such as analysis and science and logic, were originally a medium for the leading of life. It was not an art in itself, a discipline by itself, because this makes no sense, logic only for logicís sake. Why would I want to understand logic? (smiles) To understand in what way life is not logical. That is useful.

SK — And that was a long time ago. A very long time ago. And now here you are. What happened in between? What got you involved in this, what spurred you on to write this book?

WS — Thatís very simple: I had problems with my own life. And I thought, very naively perhaps, that philosophy would help me to be more conscious of my life and to get some ideas of how to lead life in different way. Thatís why I studied philosophy. And I think most students study philosophy for exactly that reason. There is a little problem, even for students of philosophy today, because there is almost nothing in modern philosophy that can help you, or which is conceived of to help people lead their lives. But I didnít change my discipline Ė I became a philosopher, but I kept asking myself, are there philosophies or philosophers dealing with questions nearer to life? I went into a bookstore Ė which is a good idea, I think, for all people looking for an idea for their lives: go into a bookstore, youíll find everything! I found a book dealing with the question of power, of sex, of erotics and so on, and I read that the author was a philosopher teaching in Paris, and his name was Michel Foucault. A wonderful discovery! I wasnít lost after all. I was supposed to go study in Paris, but at that time, the summer of 1984, Michel Foucault had just died. I went back to Paris, and again, I went into the bookstores (laughs) and I found two new books by Michel Foucault, published after his death, dealing with ancient philosophy, telling that ancient philosophy was the philosophy of the art of living and that today we again need a philosophy of the art of living. I was very sure that he intended for me to deal with that question, to work on it, and it took a lot of energy and time and years and study of works and books, and here I am.
But not to be misunderstood: what I realized at that time, after I had done some studies of the history of the art of living, was that it is only lost in modern philosophy Ė not since the times of ancient philosophy, but since the times of Kant. This is very different. Up until then it was part of philosophy, nearly all that time, and even in Christian philosophy, which for centuries was very, very strong. Even Kant himself dealt with this kind of philosophy. But after Kant it was found only in universitarian philosophy, with a few exceptions outside the university, like Schopenhauer for example, and especially Nietzsche Ė all of Nietzsche reflects the philosophical art of living. He also made use of the concept Lebenskunst.

SK — So you were searching, and you found something you could begin with. Do you think that people, other people, need this book? Why do they need it, and who are you trying to reach? Who are your readers?

WS — What I know is that a lot of people read it. There have been many copies sold Ė for a philosophical book itís unbelievable.

SK — Here in Germany?

WS — In Germany, also in Holland and elsewhere. And since I give a lot of public lectures and seminars, I know some of my readers. And Iím astonished that they read these books! It may not be simple for everyone to read a book like this, but Iíve also published another book, Die Kunst der Balance, which can be read by practically everybody. I regard it as a personal goal, because I think itís really important for people in modern times. In non-modern times, people knew how to live, because they had traditions, they had conventions, and they had religion. But in modern times, many people have no traditions, no conventions, and no religion. And often, no idea of how to live their lives.

SK — Are we talking now about the Western world?

WS — The modern world. And the modern world is the Western World. In a hundred years, that will have changed. This is the situation. Iíve spoken to many people... I occasionally work as a philosopher in a hospital Ė not too often, because itís a difficult job, but from time to time Ė and I speak to people, not only for a few minutes, but for hours and hours. And so, I learn about the lives of others.

SK — In a very critical situation.

WS — In a critical situation. And for this, I know what is needed, and what actually no therapy and no theology and no other philosophy can offer in that situation. I hope to take part in a project to reflect on our lives, and to offer possibilities of how to lead our lives. Not norms: I never say, in my books, or in speaking with somebody, what you have to do. Because itís not my life: Iím not responsible for the life of another. Everybody is responsible for his own life. And so itís important that one make a choice, a responsible choice, for oneís own life.

SK — Thatís the only way that I myself would be able to accept something like this. But I think there are many people who want norms, theyíre used to having rules.

WS — They wonít get them from me. But I can make a suggestion: the Pope is always very happy to give norms. So they can believe the Pope! No problem. This is the alternative: the philosopher or the Pope.

SK — You mentioned your hospital work. One of the crucial elements of Lebenkunst is the fact that sooner or later, weíre all going to die. People in a hospital: many of them are going to die sooner than they would like to. Do you talk to their families, too? Or just to the patients themselves?

WS — It depends. There are some situations when itís important to know the surroundings of the patients.

SK — Can you tell me more about that? Because I think, obviously, oneís mortality gives weight to the time that we have.

WS — In a hospital, people are more aware that there is a borderline to our life. Outside, people are often not very aware of this fact. I donít want to be the kind of philosopher who tells you that death is the borderline of all life Ė we do not know anything about that, maybe itís only a line of transgression. But in fact, whether I believe the first case or the second makes a difference to our lives. I ask people to reflect on what they can believe and how they can live with their belief Ė some people suffer because they are convinced that life ends with death. But I ask them, what is the reason to be convinced of death? And theyíve never reflected on that. They are convinced because our culture is convinced. But that is not a very good reason. Lebenskunst, as I mean it, is: I reflect on things. I look for reasons, for and against, and I want to find a position to lead my life in a well-reflected way, with well-reflected reasons, because well-reflected reasons allow me to have a kind of continuity in my life, and not to change my life every day. Itís no problem if somebody really wants to change his or her life every day, but I donít know anybody who is happy living in that way.

SK — If you allow yourself to re-examine the habits youíve learned, or the assumptions, you also give yourself more space.

WS — Of course. I have more space, more freedom, I can change, I can choose, but I can also choose not to change. Or not to choose. In fact, I can say to my wife: from now on Iíd like you to lead my life. I will not choose anything, you choose for me, I love you, Iím sure that you will lead me in the right way. I can. I do not, but I can.

SK — I wonder what sheíd say to that! (both laugh)
Letís go back a bit. Thereís something else that I found very interesting: the idea that a person exploring Lebenskunst can be fearful, the angst the comes at the beginning of that process. How can one get past that fear? The fear itself might be powerful enough to make you stop exploring.

WS — The title of this book is: Being Your Own Friend. Iím convinced that a lot of people wouldnít need therapy if they got to be friends with themselves, and this book is about how to become friends with yourself. This is maybe the most important thing of all: we all have fears, fear of what will happen to us, fear of what will happen with our lives, fear of what will happen with our loved ones, and people go to therapy to lose their fear. And I begin this book with fear, with my own fear, to show that even philosophers have fear, but that perhaps one can react in a different way to this fear, telling oneself that I must not lose my fear, because maybe my fear is important! Why is it important? Because it shows me what life is. I learn what life is, if I can have fear. People who have no fear do not know what life is. Itís very simple, but itís a fact. When people shut out their fear, perhaps through medication Ė that is the most effective way Ė two things happen. First: they donít really lose their fear, because it comes back. And second: they do not learn what life is, because they want to rid themselves of the fear. So I ask myself and I ask my reader: could you accept this fear? Maybe not in this particular measure, because it might really be too much of a good thing. So the question is not to get rid of the fear, but to reduce it. This is all we can do. With therapy, with philosophy, even with medication: to reduce, to measure the fear. Iím very sure that there is a certain measure of fear that we do need for life. I call this the existential measure of fear. We cannot reduce this measure. If we reduce this measure, we must have some techniques to get more fear. Is that realistic? Of course! All you have to do is watch television Ė there are plenty of films creating fear in people. And people watch those films to become afraid, to gain more fear. And if you have fear in an existential measure, you always have the question the fear poses: what is your life? Do you reflect on your life? What is the orientation for your life?

SK — I know many people in the arts who say they need their fears in order to create their art, whether it be writing, painting, whatever. Does that sound familiar?

WS — Of course. I know a lot of artists! (laughs) But seriously: what an artist looks for in his art is the art of living. In every case. That is not only my interpretation. If you read the notebooks of Paul Klee, he has a lot of notes on this subject. I know many artists personally and they tell me the same.

SK — Wilhelm, as you may have guessed, Iím very involved with Internet. There is a section in your book called ĎThe Electronic Subjectí, which discusses cyberspace. Can you explain how this relates to Lebenskunst?

WS — In order to lead life today, in modern times, one definitely needs to ponder that question. Everybody who uses these techniques knows, or feels, that this is a space without precedence in our history. Because itís a space without a room. Perhaps we can define it in this paradoxical way. In fact, we have no sense of this kind of space. We do have a sense of real space, because to cross any distance in real space we use our feet, or maybe something technological, like a car, so that we get an impression of the distance. We know very well what 10 kilometers means. But to go on Internet Ė we have no sense of it. We can go immeasurable distances, and yet we have no sense of it. This means we also cannot find an end. And this means we can go crazy. In order not to go crazy, we need measures, borders. In real space there are natural borders, and natural measures, like our feet. Our feet tell us: itís enough, rest a while, and then you can go on. There is nothing like that on Internet, in electronic space, and this is the danger of that space. We must construct a measure, a personal measure Ė because itís different from person to person Ė a personal measure for this space, for the distances within this space, and also a personal measure for how to communicate with other people in this space. If we meet in a real way, there is no question. We see each otherís face. But if I do not see the face of the other, I think I can communicate any way I want. This is the danger. Iím very sure we can solve this question: not from one day to the next, but maybe in 10, 20, 30 years. It takes a lot of time to learn how to behave in a room without borders, a space without measure.

SK — But what about the advantages? Being able to communicate with someone on the other side of the world...

WS — Oh, yes, you can communicate with many people around the world, but donít forget, a day on Internet has 24 hours, too.

SK — Does it really?

WS — It does.

SK — But my morning here is different than morning in Japan.

WS — Thatís true, but even in Japan there will be night, the year has 365 days, and life, as we know it, ends after 80 or 90 years, and you cannot, in one minute, communicate with one million human beings in this world. But maybe with one. And if you want to communicate with thousands every day, you will never know what the sun is, you will never have fresh air, you will never see anyone in the cafe, and so on. So here, too, you must make a choice: maybe ten people today, ten people tomorrow, and this means in the end, not millions of people around the world, but a smaller group of people.

SK — What does the expression Ďfollow your heartí mean to you?

WS — That is one of lifeís options: to follow your heart. Another option is not to follow your heart (laughs). The difficult question is: in what situation should I follow my heart, and in what situation should I not? Because to follow oneís heart is not always the best option.
I think we need yet another option. Human beings have a possibility to act which we do not use adequately. In German itís called GespŁr. Itís not quite intuition.... maybe sensibility is a better translation. Itís something between heart and rationality.

SK — I didnít know there was anything between heart and rationality! (both laugh)

WS — There is! Since ancient philosophy it was phronesis, from the Greek word phren, which means a part of our brain Ė Ďprefrontal cortexí is the scientific term Ė and thereís another part in the middle of our brain called the amygdala, and scientists have seen that there is a lot of information between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is our rationality and the amygdala is one of our centers for feelings. So these two centers are in constant communication. And the communication between them is what we call GespŁr. Itís not only feeling and not only rationality Ė itís a combination of both. I think itís good advice for us to build up this communication, between amygdala and prefrontal cortex, between our feelings and our thoughts. And how do we do that? Through our experience. Itís the number of experiences to build it, and also the reflections on experience. Thatís how we build this GespŁr, this rational-emotional sensibility.

SK — Weíre often told that following your heart is bad and being rational is good.

WS — You canít be rational all the time. It takes too much concentration. Maybe one hour a day, but no more. Philosophers, maybe two hours. (both laugh)

SK — The art of living: can we teach this to our children?

WS — We can teach our children Ė we have to teach our children Ė because they live in a modern world that gives them no orientation. We can give them orientation with the orientation of our own life. That can be an example to them, of how to lead their lives. Our way, or not our way. Either way it gives them an orientation. What they cannot use is no orientation at all, positive or negative. This is too difficult for them. We can also teach them what it means to choose, and that this is much more important in modern life than in non-modern culture. And how to reach a choice. How to handle the process of making a choice. I have four children. And I have to teach them. Even the youngest: only nine years old, and he has a lot of trouble making choices. He always asks me to choose for him, and I do, but I also try to show him how to handle it, to look at the alternatives, to reflect on what is the best alternative, what is the argument for or against the other alternatives, to speak about them with other people, what they think, especially with people who have more experience in this field of choice, to ask them for their arguments, and so, to prepare a choice. You can also teach children that life consists not only of pleasure, but also of pain, because they have difficulty with that: they like to have pleasure, but they donít like to have pain. And modern life offers many ways to avoid pain, yet it cannot avoid all pain. So young people cannot understand life, because they were never taught that life consists of pleasure and pain. And you can teach your children. They will ask you, what is death? Every child will do so. The difference is how you react: if you say, I donít want to speak about death, children will think death has nothing to do with life, that it cannot happen. But it does happen! And they want to speak about it, they are preoccupied with thoughts of death, because itĎs the big secret in life, and it will always be the big secret: you cannot know what death is. Definitely not. But you can teach your children that this is part of life, to think about death, and death itself is part of life, and it is a real question, what it means to be dead, and what it means to have a belief that there will be life after death. As a possibility, not as a fact. Maybe it is a reality, but we cannot answer the question in a scientific way.

SK — And your oldest child Ė how old is the oldest?

WS — Thirty.

SK — Thatís a big child! A boy or a girl?

WS — A boy. Three boys, one girl.

SK — And does your oldest child, now a man, know how to make choices?

WS — My oldest child has never really been interested in philosophical questions! (laughs). No problem, because you donít need to be philosophical. Maybe he answers his own questions of life in a very pragmatic way. And if that works: no problem. We have a good relationship: we telephoned just yesterday evening. This is one of the possibilities, to lead life in a very pragmatic way. Only if this does not answer all your questions Ė then you need a bit of philosophy.

The Ledge
Redactie: Stacey Knecht,
Dank aan: De digitale pioniers en
Het Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds
Ontwerp: Maurits de Bruijn

Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
Reproduktie en/of hergebruik uitsluitend in overeenstemming met de auteurs.