Thus spake Schopenhauer:
If you want to know how you really feel about someone take note of the impression an unexpected letter from him makes on you when you first see it on the doormat.¹
Why does Schopenhauer imagine that these kinds of reactions of ours would be particularly revealing of our ‘true’ feelings towards our acquaintances? One can hazard some educated guesses.
First, Schopenhauer suggests that on hearing from someone unexpectedly, we are caught off-guard, unprepared by social conditioning and convention, unable to fall back on safe, canned responses. Thus, our first reaction is very likely to be an instinctive one, a ‘true’ indicator of our visceral, deeply rooted feelings. (There is also the small matter of the fact that more often than not, we will be alone when we pick up the mail and thus, unlikely to be putting on a performance for anyone else.) Schopenhauer deliberately does not suggest that our true feelings would be revealed during a chance personal encounter with an old acquaintance; for then our reactions would be affected by his presence, his eyes upon us. We might then ‘perform’ for him. Rather, we must be made conscious of our acquaintance without feeling we need to ‘perform’ for him and conform to his expectations of how we would respond to his presence, his station in life, his role in ours. (Presumably, Schopenhauer might think we would have a similarly authentic reaction were we to unexpectedly encounter someone’s letter or photograph in a personal collection of ours; there again, we would be alone and able to respond unguardedly and unselfconsciously.)
Second, Schopenhauer suggests that most social encounters are well-defined and circumscribed ones, their parameters of acceptable behavioral responses quite clearly delineated by all manners of social norms, conventions and niceties; in these settings, we are not being ourselves but are rather, playing very particular roles. As he notes elsewhere in his essays:
There is an unconscious appositeness in the use of the word person to designate the human individual, as it is done in all European languages: for persona means an actor’s mask, and it is true that no one reveals himself as he is; we all wear a mask and play a role.
Here Schopenhauer takes refuge in the unnecessary essentialism of ‘himself as he is’. While this is perhaps unsurprising for someone so fond of the otherwise incomprehensible notion of ‘thing-in-itself‘, he could well have rested content with noting that what we consider someone’s personality is merely the sum total of these roles. There is nothing left over once these roles are accounted for. As the first aphorism suggests, Schopenhauer does think there is a ‘genuine core’ left over. But perhaps even our reaction to the unexpected letter might be a kind of role-playing, one performed for the ever-present witness of our selves. Certainly, in the conversations–sometimes silent, sometimes not–we have with ourselves all day long, we constantly acknowledge the presence of this other.
1. Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, ‘On Psychology’, R. J. Hollingdale, Penguin, New York, p. 171.