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Arthur Schopenhauer

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Arthur Schopenhauer
Arthur Schopenhauer
(Portrait, c. 1850)

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 - 1860) was a German philosopher, and an important figure in the German Idealism and Romanticism movements in the early 19th Century.

Often considered a gloomy and thoroughgoing pessimist, Schopenhauer was actually concerned with advocating ways (via artistic, moral and ascetic forms of awareness) to overcome a frustration-filled and fundamentally painful human condition. He believed that the "will-to-life" (the force driving man to survive and to reproduce) was the driving force of the world, and that the pursuit of happiness, love and intellectual satisfaction was essentially futile and anyway secondary to the innate imperative of procreation.

His vision of Aesthetics and his doctrine of Voluntarism (as well as his aphoristic writing style) influenced many later philosophers as well as the Romantics of his own time. Perhaps more than any other major philosopher, Schopenhauer has been subject to trends and fashions in popularity, sinking from celebrity and renown to almost complete obscurity, before rebounding again in recent years (not least because of his perceived influence on the young Wittgenstein and Nietzsche).


Schopenhauer (pronounced SHO-pun-how-er) was born on 22 February 1788 in Danzig (modern day Gdansk, Poland). His father was Heinrich Floris Schopenhauer, a successful merchant; his mother was the talented author Johanna Trosiener; both were descendants of wealthy German families. When Danzig was annexed by Prussia in 1793, the family moved to Hamburg. Schopenhauer traveled widely with his father as a youth, living for periods in both France and England.

In 1805, when he was 17, his father died (possibly a suicide), and Schopenhauer took over the family business in Hamburg for a time, making him a rich man overnight. His mother, however, moved to Weimar, then the center of German literature, to pursue her writing career, becoming a friend and favorite of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832). A year later, Schopenhauer and his sister joined her there. Schopenhauer himself, although on the short side, was tolerably good looking and attractive to women, but was never comfortable in romantic endeavors.

Little interested in a life of business and commerce, Schopenhauer used his private means to finance his studies. He entered the University of Göttingen in 1809 to study Metaphysics and Psychology under Gottlob Ernst Schulze (1761 - 1833), who advised him to concentrate on Plato and Kant. From 1811 to 1812, he attended lectures at the University of Berlin given by the prominent post-Kantian Johann Gottlieb Fichte and the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768 - 1834), although he reacted both against what he saw as Fichte's extreme Idealism, and against Schleiermacher's assertion that the purpose of philosophy is to gain knowledge of God.

He submitted his doctoral dissertation, "Über die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde" ("On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason"), to the University of Jena and was awarded a Ph.D. in absentia in 1813. From 1814 until 1818, he worked on his seminal work "Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung" ("The World as Will and Representation") and published it the following year (1819). In 1820, Schopenhauer became a lecturer at the University of Berlin and began his lengthy opposition to fellow lecturer G. W. F. Hegel, whom he accused of (among other things) using deliberately impressive, but ultimately meaningless, language. He devised an ill-fated plan to schedule his own lectures to coincide with Hegel's in an unsuccessful attempt to attract student support away from Hegel. After the failure of this plan (and an equally unsuccessful attempt a year or so later), he dropped out of academia and never taught at a university again.

In 1821, he fell in love with a 19-year old opera singer, Caroline Richter (known as "Medon"), and had a relationship with her for several years (including an illegitimate child, although the child died the same year). Despite Caroline's urging, though, he never planned to marry, claiming that "marrying means to halve one's rights and double one's duties". He lived for a time in Mannheim and Dresden, and visited Italy briefly on a couple of occasions, but eventually gravitated back to Berlin. In 1831, at the age of 43, he again took interest in a younger woman, the 17-year old Flora Weiss, who roundly rejected him.

After the outbreak of a cholera epidemic in Berlin in 1831, both Schopenhauer and Hegel moved away. Hegel returned prematurely to Berlin, caught the infection, and died, but Schopenhauer settled permanently in Frankfurt in 1833. He remained there for the next twenty-seven years until his death, living alone except for a succession of pet poodles, observing a strict daily routine and taking an active interest in animal welfare. He continued to write and publish, including "Über den Willen in der Natur" ("On the Will in Nature") in 1836, "Über die Freiheit des menschlichen Willens" ("On the Freedom of the Will") in 1839, "Über die Grundlage der Moral" ("On the Basis of Morality") in 1840, and a set of philosophical reflections called "Parerga und Paralipomena" in 1851. He finally received some long-awaited recognition for his early works later in the 1850s, and his last book of somber essays and aphorisms became an unlikely best seller.

As he aged, though, his pessimism and bleak outlook on life grew almost comically excessive: at one point, he advised people to swallow a toad every morning so that they would not meet with anything more disgusting in the day ahead. It was only in his late years that Schopenhauer finally enjoyed a contentment of sorts, through his relationship with the attractive sculptress and admirer of his philosophy, Elisabet Ney (1833 - 1907). In 1860, his health (which had always been robust) began to deteriorate, and he died peacefully of heart failure on 21 September 1860, aged 72.

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Schopenhauer was very much an atypical philosopher. He was genuinely interested and knowledgeable about Hinduism and Buddhism, and the only major Western philosopher to draw serious parallels between Western and Eastern Philosophy. He was the first major philosopher to be openly atheist, and was unusual in placing the arts and Aesthetics so highly. He is also considered among the supreme writers of German prose, and his elegant and aphoristic writing style has even led to the publication of standalone books of aphorisms and witticisms.

The 25-year-old Schopenhauer's doctoral dissertation, "Über die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde" ("On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason") already contained many of the arguments he would continue to use against the prevailing German Idealist philosophers of the time (Fichte, Schelling and Hegel). In some ways, he can be considered the absolute antithesis of the whole German Idealist movement: he hated great systems, preferring to pursue single thoughts, and he opposed their religious stance and their German Nationalism.

His most important work is usually considered to be "Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung" ("The World as Will and Representation") of 1819, in which he expounded his doctrine of Pessimism (the evaluation and perception of life in a generally negative light). In dramatic and powerful prose, he described the world as a truly terrible place, full of injustice, disease, repression, suffering and cruelty. Contrary to Leibniz's view that this is the best of all possible worlds, Schopenhauer sought to prove that this is in fact the worst of all possible worlds and indeed that, if it were only a little worse, it would be no longer capable of continuing to exist. In contrast to wide-ranging optimism of most his Romantic contemporaries in 19th Century Germany, he felt that all existence was ultimately futile since it can be fundamentally characterized by a want of satisfaction that can never be attained.

Schopenhauer called himself a Kantian, and his starting point was certainly Kant's division of the universe into the phenomenal (things as they appear, and which can be perceived using our senses) and the noumenal (the "thing-in-itself", which is independent of us and which can only be thought or imagined by humans). Schopenhauer took an extra step beyond Kant, though, by suggesting that, because multiplicity was part of the phenomenal experience, noumenal reality must be singular, a single, undifferentiated, indistinguishable thing. He concluded that the noumenon was the same as that in us which we call Will (or at least that Will was the most immediate manifestation of the "thing-in-itself" that we can experience). The use of the label "Will" is perhaps not important: he could equally have used "Force" or "Energy" (in fact, he did describe the physical universe as being made up of underlying energy, of which objects and matter are just instances, an idea strikingly similar to the 20th Century post-Einstein conception of matter).

Schopenhauer then expanded on what this Will actually was, deriving his arguments from the main traditions of Western Philosophy, but arriving at a kind of Voluntarism almost entirely consistent with the Hindu Vedanta traditions in the Upanishads, which he knew well. He believed that the "will-to-life" (the force driving man to remain alive and to reproduce) was the inner content and the driving force of the world, and that Will and desire were ontologically prior to thought and the intellect (and even to being). He saw even falling in love as just an unconscious element of this drive to reproduce, and enumerated some rather suspect (to modern tastes) laws of attraction (e.g. tall people are attracted to short people, so that their offspring are more likely to be well-proportioned; those will large chins are attracted those with small chins, for the same reason; etc).

He argued that the pursuit of happiness and the production of children are two radically separate ideas that love maliciously confuses us into thinking of as one in the interests of the propagation of the species. In partial defense of love, though, he reasoned that only a force as strong as love could force us into this role, and that we actually have no choice but to fall in love, as biology is stronger than reason. He held that this wild and powerful drive to survive and reproduce is essentially what causes suffering and pain in the world, and that the only way to escape the suffering inherent in a world of Will was through art. He concluded that discursive thought (such as philosophy and Logic) could neither touch nor transcend the nature of desire or Will, and he certainly considered philosophy and Logic as less important than art, loving kindness and certain forms of religious discipline.

In Schopenhauer's Aesthetics, the aesthetic viewpoint is more objective than the scientific viewpoint precisely because it separates the intellect from the Will in the form of art. He held that the body is merely an extension of the Will, while art is a spontaneous act or pre-determined idea which the artist has in mind before any attempts at creation, and therefore cannot be linked to either the body or the intellect. Unlike science, then, art effectively goes beyond the realm of sufficient reason. Schopenhauer's idea of genius was an artist so fixed on his art that he neglected the "business of life" (which, for Schopenhauer, meant only the domination of the evil and painful Will).

Schopenhauer's Ethics were mainly expressed his "Über die Freiheit des menschlichen Willens" ("On the Freedom of the Will") of 1839 and "Über die Grundlage der Moral" ("On the Basis of Morality") of 1840. His identification of three primary moral incentives was a central aspect of his mission: compassion (the genuine motivator to moral expression), and malice and egoism (the corruptors of moral incentives). He saw love (as in the Ancient Greek concept of "agape", rather than erotic love) as an immensely powerful force lying unseen within man's psyche and dramatically shaping the world. Several of his ideas show the influence of Buddhism and its Four Noble Truths.

By his own admission, he did not give much thought to politics, but in general he was in favor of limited government, which would leave men free to work out their own salvation. He also subscribed to the Contractarianism of Thomas Hobbes, and deemed the state (and state violence) necessary to check the destructive tendencies innate to our species.

He had a distinctly hierarchical conception of the races, attributing civilizational primacy to the northern white races due to what he saw as their sensitivity and creativity. Having said that, he was also adamantly against differing treatment of races, and was fervently anti-slavery. He also held anti-Semitic views (arguing that Christianity constituted a revolt against the materialistic basis of Judaism), a chauvinistic attitude to women (claiming that "woman is by nature meant to obey"), and a partiality for the possibilities of eugenics. However, he had generally liberal views on many other social issues, and was strongly against taboos on issues like suicide and homosexuality. He was very concerned about the rights of animal, which he saw as phenomenal manifestations of Will, just as were humans.

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