Roger Caldwell looks at the most pessimistic of philosophers.

If Leibniz, that great German figure of the Enlightenment, proclaimed that we live in the best of all possible worlds, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) held that we live in one of the worst – one permeated through and through by suffering and death. He became an atheist in his teens, convinced that such a world as this could not have been created by an all-good being. “Life,” he was to declare, “is a wretched business. I’ve decided to spend my life trying to understand it.”

Not surprisingly, Schopenhauer had little regard for Leibniz – “a miserable little candlelight” he called him. He regarded optimism as “not merely absurd, but also as a really wicked way of thinking, and as a bitter mockery of the unspeakable suffering of humanity.” (The World as Will and Idea, 1819). Not only of humanity, one might add, but also of animals. If Kant restricted the domain of ethics to rational creatures, Schopenhauer, for whom rationality was only a thin veneer over an essentially animal nature, stressed our mutual capacity for suffering, and in his ethics of compassion gave animals what he thought their due.

Schopenhauer, famous as the arch-pessimist of philosophers, has never been forgotten, but it could be said that his main influence has been outside of philosophy – on composers such as Richard Wagner; and on novelists and poets too numerous to mention. This is not only because he had a high regard for art as offering us temporary relief from the “miserable pressure” of life (of the Will), but also because he offers a philosophy of life, rather than technical treatises, seeing one of the tasks of philosophy as to provide consolation in the face of death, although without what he saw as the falsities of Christianity. It also helps that he is one of the most readable of philosophers. His style is polished and admirably clear – even though he was writing in a period when his fellow German philosophers were producing prose of often impenetrable obscurity (Hegel, for example).

Schopenhauer is a figure who rather evades categories. He was writing in the period of German idealism [idealism is the doctrine that everything exists in or to minds – Ed], but although he is indeed an idealist of sorts, it is very much on his own terms, and in many ways he is much more empirically-minded than his contemporaries. Though he offers a ‘philosophy of life’, he can scarcely be seen as a forerunner of existentialism, if only because for him a grim determinism rules: we have no space to choose what we are to become. Instead, he tells us that our “virtues and vices are inborn” and that it is through what we do that we discover what we are. And what we are, like all living beings, are so many unwitting expressions of the will that rules us (see panel). Freedom of the human will is an illusion brought about by the emergence of self-consciousness. Thus we are not free to choose ourselves, as Sartre would require: we are already what we are. Indeed, for Schopenhauer, Sartre would have been as mistaken in his psychology as was the arch-rationalist Kant.

Philosophy Through Personal History

Because of its abstract nature, the work of philosophers rarely reflects their life-experience any more than that of scientists. This is not the case with artist-philosophers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, where there is an intrinsic connection between their life and work. Schopenhauer too belongs to this select group, and David Cartwright’s new biography of Schopenhauer enables us to better understand his philosophy by better understanding the man. Of course, like any philosophy, Schopenhauer’s must in the end stand before the tribunal of truth or falsity – but in the case of Schopenhauer it is also the expression of a particular, individual view of the world, and is throughout impregnated with the difficult, sometimes irascible personality of its author.

Schopenhauer’s father was a wealthy Danzig merchant, and young Arthur was brought up to follow in his father’s footsteps. To prepare him for a mercantile future he was taught modern languages, and he grew up speaking excellent English and French along with his native German. The result was to make him an admirably cosmopolitan figure – he was at heart a European: there was nothing of the German nationalist about him.

The downside was that his father was a depressive neurotic from a family with mental health problems, married to a woman much younger than him, and of a very different, livelier, disposition. When his father committed suicide, his mother skipped away to Weimar and re-invented herself as a hostess – the elderly Goethe came to her salons – and as a highly successful writer of sentimental novels. Indeed, her fame as a writer during her life-time greatly exceeded that of her son: when his masterpiece The World as Will and Idea (or Representation) first appeared it met with silence – a silence that was to last decades.

When his father drowned himself in a Hamburg canal, Schopenhauer, by now a surly seventeen-year-old, initially kept up his promise to follow a mercantile career, much against his own inclinations though it was. However, the legacy from his father’s death had made him financially independent, and enabled him to give up on business and give himself up to philosophy, which he eventually did. He quarrelled with his mother, whom he thought (no doubt correctly) to have insufficiently honoured his father’s memory. She in turn tended to shun her moody, difficult and argumentative son, preferring to keep him at a distance: “It is necessary for my happiness to know that you are happy,” she wrote to him, “but not to be a witness of it.”

Schopenhauer’s most satisfactory relationships were with animals (a succession of poodles) rather than with human beings. Physically unattractive and socially maladroit, he could never succeed in inducing a woman he loved to also love him. His frank acknowledgement of the primacy of the sexual instinct, together with his emphasis on unconscious motivations, makes him a clear precursor of Freud (who took more from him than he was prepared to admit). However, his love-life brought him no long-lasting satisfaction – only two short-lived illegitimate children. He never married. In an essay ‘On Women’ (1851) he states the truism that women are attracted to young, strong, handsome men (no doubt an insight drawn from experience); but the reason he gives is central to his philosophy: that this is “an unconscious expression of the will of the species” which ensures “the healthy propagation of mankind.”

After a false start at Göttingen studying medicine – though the physical sciences were to remain dear to him – he decamped to Berlin, with his cigars, pistols, flute, and the inevitable poodle, to attend the lectures of the famous idealist philosopher Fichte, self-styled follower of Kant. In the biography Cartwright records the various stages of Schopenhauer’s response to Fichte – initially bemusement, then the feeling that he was failing to comprehend him, and finally his conviction that the man was mouthing pretentious twaddle. At 25 he successfully presented a doctoral thesis, subsequently published as On the Fourfold Roots of Sufficient Reason, which, although readable, gives little hint of the great prose stylist to come. Having retired to Dresden, and after a deep meditation on, among others, Plato, Kant, and Eastern thought in the shape of the Upanishads, he produced the first edition of his central work, The World as Will and Idea in 1819, although to no acclaim.

It may seem strange that such a compelling and brilliantly-written work should have been so neglected. One of the reasons was that the philosophical scene was now dominated by Hegel, who was to become Schopenhauer’s bête noire. Schopenhauer made several attempts to lecture on his own philosophy at Berlin, setting his lectures with stubborn and self-defeating insistence at the same times as those of Hegel – with the inevitable and humiliating result, that all flocked to hear Hegel, and none but a few eccentrics bothered to attend his. He sometimes lectured to an empty room. In Schopenhauer’s subsequent denunciations of Hegel – “a clumsy and senescent charlatan” is one of the milder insults – he did himself few favours. Having won a prize from the Norwegian Scientific Society in 1839 with his Essay on the Freedom of the Will, he entered for a prize offered by Royal Danish Society of Scientific Studies on the foundations of morality the following year with his essay On the Basis of Morality, only for it to be rejected, despite the fact that it was the only entry. Clearly, one of the reasons for the rejection was its abusive attacks on the most prominent philosopher of the time. Characteristically, Schopenhauer published the essay anyway, advertising it as ‘Not awarded a prize by the Royal Danish Society of Scientific Studies’, and adding a preface containing further abusive comments about Hegel – and about the Danes.

Conflict of Wills

Schopenhauer’s condemnations of Hegel have also had little resonance in modern times – Karl Popper was one of the few prominent philosophers to concur. Hegel is still central in the modern philosophical syllabus, whereas Schopenhauer remains relatively marginal; and there is little doubt that Hegel’s influence within philosophy has been incomparably greater. But that is by no means the end of the matter. Whereas Hegel, like most philosophers, is ultimately an optimist – in the end history will deliver the goods of freedom, understanding and reason – Schopenhauer, that rarity among philosophers, a pessimist, offers no salvation in history: man’s lot is doomed to be an unhappy one whatever the political arrangements under which he lives or will come to live.

Hegel is strong in those areas where Schopenhauer is weak: his social and political philosophy are now seen as of central importance, whereas Schopenhauer has little to say in these areas which is of interest to us now. There is one realm, however, in which Schopenhauer is strikingly more modern in tone than is his arch-rival. Somewhat surprisingly, this is in science. Surprisingly, because as an idealist influenced by Indian philosophy, he holds that the world we live in is ultimately an illusion, and this idea is rather difficult to reconcile with what we normally regard as a scientific attitude. The opening words of his masterpiece are “The world is my representation.” The closing words are “To those in whom the will has turned and denied itself, this very world of ours with all its suns and galaxies – is nothing.” Surely, we are here remote from the present-day scientific worldview? It is, however, in the nature of the will – that concept so central to Schopenhauer’s philosophy – that he can be seen to be strikingly prescient, although few contemporary commentators (Christopher Janaway is an exception) seem to acknowledge this.

Schopenhauer’s comments on Hegel are for the most part ad hominem in nature [against the man], and do not refer to particular works. Indeed, one begins to wonder how much of Hegel he had actually read. However, when, as in a late work, The Will in Nature (1836), he does refer to specific passages, it is to a Hegel that is now marginal to us. Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature (Part Two of Hegel’s Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, 1830) is now the least-read and least-studied part of Hegel’s philosophy, not only because so much of the science in it is outmoded, but also because it belongs in a tradition of German philosophy (Naturphilosophie) which now requires special pleading. Schopenhauer makes merry over its absurdities and failures of logic, and sometimes with good reason – it is hard to take seriously such Hegelian pronouncements as “In life, light completely masters gravity” or to sympathize with such observations as that the phenomenon of magnetism is evidence of thought in nature. We (or most of us) no longer believe that there is purposeful motivation in nature. Neither did Schopenhauer, for whom the will is ‘blind’ (just as is natural selection). Unlike Hegel, neither do we any longer believe that nature is the product of spirit (‘Geist’) or that its purpose is to allow the spirit to become conscious of its own freedom. Neither did Schopenhauer. He states bluntly what would be heresy to Hegel and Schelling, but in a post-Darwinian age is almost a platitude: “It is not an intellect that has produced nature, but nature that has produced the intellect” (ibid).

Furthermore, for Schopenhauer, nature involves conflict: “every grade of the will’s objectivation [i.e., every phenomenon] fights for the matter, the space, and the time of another.” In contrast to most philosophers, he doesn’t see human beings as pre-eminently rational creatures; rather, like Nietzsche after him, he stresses how superficial our consciousness is: “the mere surface of our minds.” Like Freud he stresses the unconscious motivations of actions: “We are often entirely mistaken as to the real motive from which we do or omit to do something, till finally some accident reveals the secret to us.” Rather than pre-eminently rational beings, we are the unwitting servants of the universal will that works through us, often promoting self-deception: “The real self is the will to live – the blind striving for existence and reproduction.” Here he is not only a precursor of Darwin and Freud but, more particularly, of Dawkins. Schopenhauer’s blind will and Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’ tell a parallel story. And the moral too is much the same: what’s good for the will, or good for the genes, is not necessarily what’s good for us as individuals. The will, Schopenhauer tells us, is “ready to let the individual fall… maintaining the species.” For Schopenhauer (and for Dawkins) our best hope is not to go with nature but to go against it – to the extent that we are able to escape what appear as our biological imperatives. Johann Herbart, a contemporary of Schopenhauer’s, pointed to what he saw as a central contradiction in his philosophy: if we are determined by the will, how can we deny it, as Schopenhauer recommends we do? If we are, indeed, able to turn against, and deny, the will, then it must be that the will is not as all-powerful as he tells us it is. This is scarcely an academic question, as it concerns the future of mankind. In contemporary terms it could be posed as the question whether reason, that accidental waif of evolution, can prevail against the instincts which also are the product of evolution.

Compassion & Cantankerousness

There have been previous biographies of Schopenhauer, but the new one by David Cartwright is the most thoroughly researched, and is unlikely to be superseded (albeit that some sentences make no sense, and there are bizarre locutions such as “rifled with contradictions”). Cartwright also offers a clear, brief summary of The World as Will and Idea in Chapter Seven, which would make a good starting-point for any reader who is a Schopenhauer neophyte. For those who have already started to explore this terrain, they will find it enlightening to make acquaintance with its cantankerous, obstinate, sometimes comical creator. For all that it is supposedly “the expression of a single thought” as Schopenhauer himself stated, one may doubt at times how well his philosophy hangs together, being a curious amalgam of Plato, Kant and theUpanishads, which for Schopenhauer were “the primeval thought-base of wisdom and truth”. One may deplore his misogyny – he saw women as the inferior sex, and incapable of genius – and his self-serving defence of polygamy on the basis that a man needs many women and cannot be content with one. Given that there was so little that was mystical, saintly or ascetic about Schopenhauer himself or his behaviour, there is also a certain mismatch between his life-style and his ethics of compassion, which praises the good person who sees another as he sees himself, and sides with mystics, saints, and ascetics.

At one point Schopenhauer muses that “the shortness of life, so often lamented, may perhaps be the very best thing about it.” Yet he could hardly have bemoaned his survival into old age, given that it was only in his final years that his celebrity began, the hegemony of his hated rival, Hegel, having at last come to an end. If his hopes that Hegel would be forgotten haven’t come to pass, he would no doubt be glad that his work is taken more seriously in an era when we have little reason to be historical optimists and a muted pessimism is more the order of the day.

© Roger Caldwell 2011

Roger Caldwell is a writer living in Essex. He writes for numerous journals on philosophy and literature. His latest collection of poetry, Waiting for World 93, has recently appeared from Shoestring Press.

• David E. Cartwright’s Schopenhauer – A Biography is published by Cambridge University Press at £27.99/$45.00.

The World As Will & Representation (Idea)

In The World As Will & Representation (Idea) (1819), Arthur Schopenhauer presents a two-sided metaphysics. Although sharing many of Kant’s ideas, Schopenhauer rejects the notion of an unknowable world, the ‘thing in itself’, which is responsible for informing all our sensory experience, and which our experienced representation of the world is about. As beings in the Universe, we can conceive of ourselves in two ways. The first, corresponding to ‘Will’, is in consciousness of our mental states and intentions. The second, corresponding to ‘Representation’, is when we experience ourselves as physical objects subject to deterministic natural laws. Schopenhauer infers that not only ourselves but everything in the Universe has these dual aspects, which are really two sides of the same coin, since Representation is just the ‘objectification’ of the Will. Will is the nature of the universe as it is in itself. Introspection therefore offers direct experience of the ultimate principle, when we experience our own wills in operation. For Schopenhauer, ‘Will’ is the fundamental driving force of the Universe: in galaxies, rocks (through gravity), in plants, animals and humans alike. Taken as a whole, the ‘World as Will’ is endless, utterly meaningless, and blindly striving towards nowhere in particular.

“Great minds are related to the brief span of time during which they live as great buildings are to a little square in which they stand: you cannot see them in all their magnitude because you are standing too close to them.”
Arthur Schopenhauer


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