The Dark Philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer was a German Philosopher born in 1788 who is known as the philosopher of pessimism. He is among the first thinkers to bring eastern philosophical ideas into western philosophy.

Schopenhauer’s father was a wealthy merchant and his mother was a popular author and is among the first German women to publish books without a pseudonym.

As a youth, Schopenhauer was destined to follow his father’s footsteps as a merchant. His father, however, had been through a period of depression before he was found drowned in a canal in 1805. It is suspected that it may have been suicide. Schopenhauer acknowledged to have inherited his father’s melancholy. He was fond of his father, but had a horrible relationship with his mother, admitting that the happiest years of his childhood were those spent away from her.

Schopenhauer developed a distrust of people in general, a depressed view of the world, an inability to maintain close relationships with anyone and a sense of personal insecurity, whether in the form of anxiety attacks, phobias or hypochondria.

The death of his father, however, liberated him from the worldly life of business, and Schopenhauer hurled himself almost ferociously into study, taking private lessons and attending lectures on Medicine, Philosophy, Mathematics, History, Physics, and Astronomy, among others. He treated each subject with the utmost concentration, and taken as far as one could reasonably expect it to be by a student of his age. His progress was so remarkable that his tutors began to predict a distinguished future for him as a classical scholar. As a polyglot, he knew German, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin and ancient Greek.

In 1813, Schopenhauer took himself off to a quiet country to work on his doctorate thesis, entitled, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, where he stipulates the philosophical principle that nothing is without a reason for why it is, it conditions how we perceive the “world of representation”, a central theme to his later work.

Schopenhauer, however, became increasingly disillusioned by academic philosophers, because of their emphasis on abstractions and generalisations, instead of experience. Academic philosophers, he felt, acquired their philosophical problems conceptually, while the real philosophers acquire them existentially, by an involuntary reflection on their own existence and experience. The work of Schopenhauer’s life was to be distinguished by lived experience. Above all, there is a man speaking: a whole man, a whole life, a whole way of seeing the world are embodied before us on those pages.

Schopenhauer’s writing is far from the sterile and academic German of the time, his work is straight-forward, colloquial, concrete, full of metaphors and anecdotes.

During this time, Schopenhauer was introduced to Hinduism and Buddhism, opening up a whole new world of thought. He fell in love with the Latin translation of the Upanishads and for the most of his life he read a few pages of it every night before going to sleep. He wrote:

“It is the most rewarding and elevating reading (with the exception of the original text)  possible in the whole world; it has been the consolation of my life and will be that of my death.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena

In 1821, Schopenhauer had an incident with his neighbour. It is said that the woman knew that he was wealthy and feigned falling from the stairs, accusing Schopenhauer for it. She sued him and won the case. Schopenhauer had to pay her a pension for the remaining 20 years of her life. When she died, Schopenhauer wrote victoriously in his journals: “The old woman dies, the burden is lifted.”

His magnum opus is The World as Will and Representation published at the end of 1818, when he was 30 years old. The second edition was published in 1844 which includes an edited version of the first edition as well as additional commentary on his ideas, it was revised a year before his death. Much of his later writings is a reflection or enrichment of this work written in his 20s, and from which he never departed. The work of his life is unitary in a way that makes it best understood as a single, organic whole.

This masterwork contains Schopenhauer’s entire philosophy: epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics and ethics. The presentation and structure of the book is clear and separated into four parts. He asserted that his work was meant to convey a single thought and suggested a careful study of the book, in order to clarify the connection of each part to the other.

Schopenhauer was convinced that in his masterpiece he had finally solved the fundamental problems of philosophy. However, his work went very nearly unsold, unreviewed and unread. This neglect continued until his old age, and was thus the dominating feature of his experience of life. It needs to be considered along with maternal rejection in explaining his profound pessimism. 

Hegel was a contemporary of Schopenhauer, and was at the height of his celebrity drawing large crowds in the University of Berlin. For Hegel the world is active and develops through the world’s geist or spirit as time progresses. At every moment in the history of the world’s spirit, there are internal contradictions to the zeitgeist, which must be overcome through a dialogue between opposing ideas, moving towards a final perfection which is the full realisation of the spirit in history. 

Schopenhauer, however, believed that Hegel was a charlatan. The heavy terminology and obscurity was a smokescreen for some rather empty thought. He disagreed that we could achieve knowledge of the absolute by reason and that we are heading towards perfection as time passes.

Schopenhauer attempted to teach at the University of Berlin to propagate his ideas at the same time Hegel was giving his lectures. The result was disastrous. Almost nobody came. In frustration, he left his position as a university teacher soon after.

In 1851, Schopenhauer published Parerga and Paralipomena in two volumes (Greek for appendices and omissions), supplementary essays to his main work, which he considered the birth of his last child, completing his mission in the world. He felt as if a load, that he had borne since his 24th year, that weighed heavily upon him, had been lifted from his shoulders.

Schopenhauer’s odd book titles certainly must have played a role in his lack of popular reception. Nevertheless, it was his first successful, widely read book, partly due to the work of his disciples who wrote praising reviews. Though he started to gain popularity, he preferred to live in solitude. He’d wake up early, read until noon, play his flute, have lunch at the same place as always, and take long walks with his poodles. He called them all Ātman reflecting the Sanskrit word for “true self”. He adored them above any person. He’d finish the day by reading a few lines of the Upanishads before bed.

Schopenhauer’s life can be described as a dark, sad, long and lonely life. In 1860, at the age of 72, Schopenhauer had his breakfast, and was apparently well. Shortly after, he was found dead while still seated at the table.

The World as Will and Representation

“ ‘The world is my idea:’—this is a truth which holds good for everything that lives and knows, though man alone can bring it into reflective and abstract consciousness.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

This is how Schopenhauer starts his book. He wanted to understand the world in which he found himself, and his role as an agent in the world. He tried to form a coherent and unified interpretation of human experience and sought to identify the underlying force of reality. He called it the Will (also called will to live or will to life), which is the essence of existence.

Schopenhauer was influenced by Kant, and like him he believed that the world around us, with all its objects, are only representations, any reality that we perceive has been put there by our own minds which form ideas. This was Kant’s idea of Idealism, as he called it. The only thing we think about is what is in our minds. The sense perception we have of the world is not the world, we have no access to the world, because we are always in our own head, “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes’ mind-body split.

However, for Schopenhauer, there must be something else than just pure thinking, something more than just a brain in a jar. In fact, there is only one aspect of the world that is not given to us merely as representation, one “object” that we embody in space and time, and with which we have a direct relationship with, our body.

Schopenhauer calls this the principle of individuation, our mode of cognition of the phenomenal world. It designates the “uniqueness” of each individual. But, this is a barrier to us – because the individual is an illusion, it is the outward manifestation of our true and inmost being, the will – which connects us with the entire world.

Schopenhauer uses Plato’s allegory of the cave to remind us that unless we acknowledge this:

“[We] are like men who sit in a dark cave, bound so fast that they cannot turn their heads, and who see nothing but the shadows of real things which pass between them and a fire burning behind them, the light of which casts shadows on the wall opposite them; and even of themselves and of each other they see only the shadows on the wall. Their wisdom would thus consist in predicting the order of the shadows learned from experience. The real archetypes, on the other hand, to which these shadows correspond, the eternal Ideas, the original forms of all things, can alone be said to have true being, because they always are, but never become nor pass away.”

Arthur, Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

For Schopenhauer, those for whom people and all things have not at times appeared as mere phantoms or illusions have no capacity for philosophy. There is only the self-same unchangeable being that is before us, which today pursues the same ends as it did yesterday and ever will. The true symbol of nature is the circle.

From this insight, Schopenhauer concludes that the underlying force of every representation and also of the world as a whole, is the will. This, however, may lead to some confusion as will connotes a sort of personality with a certain aim. It is  not just our individual will, it also includes animals, trees, stones and the entire cosmos. Schopenhauer’s will can be seen as a force or energy, it is the thing-in-itself. While Kant believed that the thing-in-itself was a world beyond human reach, Schopenhauer believed that it is at the core of existence.

The will is not rational, conscious nor intentional, but rather an irrational, unconscious and blind desire that restlessly strives for more activity. This is Schopenhauer’s great insight, that breaks away from all of his predecessors. The will is the tornado that swirls inside of us and throws us from one place to the other, it is the source of our insatiable appetite that results in strife and misery.

“From desire I rush to satisfaction; from satisfaction I leap to desire.”

Goethe, Faust

Existence is typified by unrest. The will is a war of all against all, a proto-Darwinian thought.

Long before Freud’s psychoanalysis, Schopenhauer argued that most of our inner life is unknown to us, our actions, decisions and speech are for the most part unconsciously motivated by our drives, so that we do not even know our full inner selves.

In summary, for Schopenhauer the world has two aspects related to each other as two sides of the same coin: a world of representation, which is constituted by our minds, and a will, as the irrational blind force, which is at the core of existence and is undifferentiated and beyond space, time and causality. The world is will and representation.

It is impossible to discover the secret of reality by examining matter first, and then proceeding to examine thought: we must begin with that which we know directly and intimately – ourselves.

“Thus we see already that we can never arrive at the real nature of things from without. However much we investigate, we can never reach anything but images and names. We are like a man who goes round a castle seeking in vain for an entrance, and sometimes sketching the façades. And yet this is the method that has been followed by all philosophers before me.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

If we look at the outside world, the common life is to study, graduate, get a job, marry, have kids, work, and live happily ever after. Except that one doesn’t live happily ever after. At best, a desire is satisfied for a short time, but immediately after another desire will emerge, there’s no endpoint of satisfaction, it is an infinite striving. We live as objects in the great stream of desire, the will carries us along like a leaf in a raging river.

To describe the restless will, Schopenhauer uses the Greek myth of Ixion, who went against the Gods and was bound to an ever-spinning winged fiery wheel for eternity.

We think that we are led on by what we see, when in truth we are driven on by what we feel, by our unconscious will.

“Men are only apparently drawn from in front; in reality they are pushed from behind. It is not life that tempts them on, but necessity that drives them forward.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

If we are to understand reality, we must go beyond man as a rational animal, beyond the intellect, to the unconscious will, who is:

“[T]he strong blind man who carries on his shoulders the lame man who can see.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

The will is superior to the intellect. An elephant which had been led through Europe, and had crossed hundreds of bridges, refused to advance upon a weak bridge, though it had seen many horses and men crossing it. This is the instinctual impulse. The will is a will to live, and a will to maximum life, its worst enemy is death. But can it perhaps defeat death?

The Will to Reproduce

For Schopenhauer, the most powerful form of the will to live is the will to reproduce. Schopenhauer doesn’t believe that we marry and have kids to be happy, but rather that the will to live is unconsciously moving us to fulfil our will to reproduce, for the sake of the propagation of the species. Falling in love is an unconscious manipulation by the will which seeks to create “balanced children”. He writes:

“Each seeks a mate that will neutralise his defects, lest they be inherited… a physically weak man will seek a strong woman…. Each one will regard as beautiful in another individual those perfections which he himself lacks, nay, even those imperfections which are the opposite of his own.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

The sexual impulse is the inner life of the tree (the species) upon which the life of the individual grows. Schopenhauer wrote about this long before Freud’s theory of sexuality. And Freud was certainly astonished upon discovering his writings.

For Schopenhauer, procreation is the highest point; and after attaining to it, the life of the individual slowly sinks, while a new life ensures to nature the endurance of the species, and repeats the same phenomena.

“[T]hus the alteration of death and reproduction is as the pulsebeat of the species… death is for the species what sleep is for the individual… this is nature’s great doctrine of immortality.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

The World as Evil

But if the world is will, it must be a world of suffering. For every wish that is satisfied there remain ten that are denied. Desire is infinite, fulfilment is limited. Each individual bears within himself a disruptive contradiction; the realised desire develops a new desire, and so on endlessly. For Schopenhauer, life is evil because pain is its basic stimulus and reality. Pleasure is merely a negative cessation of pain.

“All satisfaction, or what is commonly called happiness, is, in reality and essence, negative only… We are not properly conscious of the blessings and advantages we actually possess, nor do we prize them, but think of them merely as a matter of course, for they gratify us only negatively, by restraining suffering.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

As soon as suffering ceases, we are overcome by boredom, in other words, more suffering. Boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence. Suffering is not the cry of the individual. That is an illusion. Suffering is the cry of existence itself.

Schopenhauer writes:

“Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and ennui… After man had transformed all pains and torments into the conception of hell, there remained nothing for heaven except ennui.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

Most of our suffering lies in retrospect or anticipation; pain itself is brief. How much more suffering is caused by the thought of death than by death itself! Finally, everywhere in nature we see strife, competition, conflict, and a suicidal alteration of victory and defeat.

“[There was] a plain, as far as the eye could reach, entirely covered with skeletons… they were, however, merely the skeletons of large turtles… which come this way out of the sea to lay their eggs, and are then attacked by wild dogs… who with their united strength lay them on their backs, strip off the small shell from the stomach, and devour them alive. But often then a tiger pounces upon the dogs… Now all this misery repeats itself thousands and thousands of times, year out, year in. For this, then, these turtles are born.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

For Schopenhauer, this fundamental character remains unaltered in the human race. We find that man is a wolf to man. The total picture of life is almost too painful for contemplation; life depends on our not knowing it too well.

“For whence did Dante take the materials of his hell but from our actual world? And yet he made a very proper hell out of it. But when, on the other hand, he came to describe heaven and its delights, he had an insurmountable difficulty before him, for our world affords no materials at all for this… Every epic and dramatic poem can only represent a struggle, an effort, a fight for happiness; never enduring and complete happiness itself. It conducts its heroes through a thousand dangers and difficulties to the goal: as soon as this is reached it hastens to let the curtain fall; for now there would remain nothing for it to do but to show that the glittering goal in which the hero expected to find happiness had only disappointed him, and that after its attainment he was no better off than before.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

Schopenhauer describes us as hedgehogs clustering together for warmth in winter, uncomfortable when too closely packed, as we are stung by our spikes, and yet miserable when kept apart as we freeze. The life of every individual, if we survey it as a whole, is really a tragedy; but gone through in detail it has the character of comedy. Optimism is a bitter mockery of our woes.

“A man finds himself, to his great astonishment, suddenly existing, after thousands and thousands of years of non-existence: he lives for a little while; and then, again, comes an equally long period when he must exist no more. The heart rebels against this, and feels that it cannot be true.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena

For Schopenhauer, death is the mirror image of the prior abyss. Life smiles at death, and laughs at suicide; for every deliberate death there are thousands of indeliberate births. As a rule, it will be found that as soon as the terrors of life outweigh the terrors of death a man will put an end to his life.

“When in heavy, terrifying dreams anxiety reaches its highest point, then by itself it will awaken us, causing all those nocturnal monsters to disappear. The same happens in the dream of life when the highest degree of anxiety compels us to break it off.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena

Schopenhauer saw life as a nightmare which we cannot awake from. He saw that suicide should be regarded with compassion:

“Who has not had acquaintances, friends, relatives who have voluntarily departed this world? And everyone is supposed to think of them with revulsion, as criminals? I say no and no again!”

Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena

However, he did not himself approve of suicide, as one denies life’s pains, different from the ascetic’s renunciation of the will, which denies life’s pleasures. The only manner of self-destruction he finds acceptable is the ascetic’s death by starvation, where the individual will to live is mastered.

“Suicide, the wilful destruction of the single phenomenal existence, is a vain and foolish act, for the thing-in-itself remains unaffected by it, even as the rainbow endures however fast the drops which support it for the moment may change.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

Schopenhauer’s pessimistic philosophy is indeed very bleak, but that also sent him on a quest for tranquillity and peace of mind. He offers several alternatives: The denial of the will through asceticism, or through the wisdom of life, aesthetics and ethics.

The Denial of the Will

Schopenhauer quotes French writer Chamfort, who states, “it is difficult to find happiness within oneself, but it is impossible to find it anywhere else.” To know thyself is a perennial philosophical reflection, where one will discover not only one’s own essence, but also the essence of the universe.

In his youth, Schopenhauer despised theologians and called religion the metaphysics of the masses, he saw how the church indoctrinated the minds of young children. But in later years he began to see a profound significance in certain religious practices. He believes that Christianity is a profound philosophy of pessimism:

“[T]he doctrine of original sin (assertion of the will) and of salvation (denial of the will) is the great truth which constitutes the essence of Christianity.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

However, Schopenhauer believes that Buddhism and Hinduism are more profound than Christianity. The Buddhists make the destruction of the will the entirety of religion, our true nature is nothingness, the realisation of śūnyatā. The Hindus saw that the ego was an illusion, blinded by Maya. The ego is the hallmark of self-ignorance. To transcend the ego gives way to the Ātman, the true self, whose goal is to merge with Brahman (the ultimate reality of existence), this is the source of the profoundest self-knowledge.

This resonated deeply with Schopenhauer’s philosophy, which he developed by arguing against his predecessors in western philosophy, and then discovered to his amazement, that he had reached a conclusion similar to that of the Buddhists and Hindus.

One of the ways to escape suffering is to wage an inner war against the will to live, to cease to desire. The denial of the will ultimately leads to death, there is no salvation, enlightenment or other meaningless words, but simply nothing.

Nevertheless, Schopenhauer knew how difficult it was to live an ascetic life, as only a few people could ever endure such a life. While the possession of material goods can never fully satisfy one’s desire, wisdom can. And this leads to the wisdom of life, philosophy.

Philosophy: The Wisdom of Life

Philosophy is to be understood as experience, it has to be felt rather than thought. Life before books, and when one reads, one should go to the authors themselves, rather than commentaries. Schopenhauer writes:

“When we read, another person thinks for us; we merely repeat his mental process… So it comes about that if anyone spends almost the whole day in reading… he gradually loses the capacity for thinking…such is the case with very many scholars; they have read themselves stupid… Experience of the world may be looked upon as a kind of text, to which reflection and knowledge form the commentary. When there is a great deal of reflection and intellectual knowledge, and very little experience, the result is like those books which have on each page two lines of text to forty lines of commentary.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena

One of the ways out of the endless striving of the will is the intelligent contemplation of life through philosophy. Schopenhauer tells us that genius is the power to leave one’s own interest, wishes and aims entirely out of sight. The secret of genius lies in the clear and impartial perception of the objective, the essential, and the universal. While the intellect exists only to serve the will, in certain cases the intellect is so disproportionately large, that it far exceeds the amount needed to serve the will.  In such individuals, the intellect can break free of the will and act independently, though only briefly. This will-less activity is aesthetic contemplation or creation, which Schopenhauer believes is the hallmark of the genius.

However, the genius cannot socialise with others who think of the temporary, the specific and the immediate. He writes:

“[P]eople are sociable to the degree that they are intellectually poor and generally vulgar.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena

What makes people sociable is their inner poverty, which leads to an external poverty. Human beings are unable to bear solitude because the inner emptiness drives them to society. The genius is forced into isolation, and sometimes into madness. The more intelligent one is, the more pain one has. The person who is gifted with genius suffers most of all.

Aesthetics

In Schopenhauer’s aesthetics, there is a subjective and objective experience.

The subjective experience of aesthetics is the will-less perception of the world, we free ourselves temporarily from the individual will. Schopenhauer writes:

“It is the painless state which Epicurus prized as the highest good and as the state of the gods; for we are for the moment set free from the miserable striving of the will; we keep the Sabbath of the penal servitude of willing; the wheel of Ixion stands still.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

On the other hand, the objective side of aesthetic experience is to communicate Platonic ideas, which represent the quintessential forms of perfection and beauty. They reveal some essential or universal quality of man and the world. These are experienced when our attention is focused entirely on the phenomena. The Ideas are “abstract objects” that are not part of our creation, and are beyond space, time and causality.

Arts such as sculpture, painting, poetry, and theatre, alleviate the suffering and ills of life by showing us the eternal and universal behind the transitory and the individual, allowing us to participate in eternity. We transport our gaze away from the particular objects of desire of the individual and feel ourselves as part of something universal. Art allows us to forget ourselves, and become will-less. Our modern forms of art such as movies and video games also help us transcend our default state.

The most powerful experience of art is the feeling of the sublime. For Schopenhauer, this is present in works of art that overwhelms us or reduces our existence on this planet to a mere speck, they stand in a hostile relationship with the human world in general. However, one may consciously tear away from one’s world, and with both a loss of our self and a liberation from the will,  we experience a “state of elevation”, this is the feeling of the sublime, which is present above all in tragic drama.

For Schopenhauer, the power of the arts to elevate us above the strife of wills is possessed above all by music, which is in an entirely different realm than all other arts. It affords a profound pleasure with which we see the deepest recesses of our nature find expression, calming our inner tornado. He would undoubtedly agree with Nietzsche’s quote that, “without music life would be a mistake.”

“Music is as direct an objectification and copy of the whole will as the world itself, nay, even as the Ideas, whose multiplied manifestation constitutes the world of individual things. Music is thus by no means like the other arts, the copy of the Ideas, but the copy of the will itself, whose objectivity the Ideas are. This is why the effect of music is so much more powerful and penetrating than that of the other arts, for they speak only of shadows, but it speaks of the thing itself.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

Ethics

The non-egoistic attitude one obtains from aesthetics, finally leads to Schopenhauer’s ethics. His ethics derives from the awareness of the suffering of another person’s aimless striving of the will. Our ultimate oneness with each other is the basis of morality, compassion and empathy. Harming others is to harm oneself, and one must treat others as kindly as one treats oneself, with the aim to reduce suffering in the world.

In this kind of selfless love, one feels the life of another person in an almost magical way. In this intimate experience of the suffering of others, we connect with ourselves, with others and with nature in the deepest possible way, leading to a great serenity.


The Philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer was a German Philosopher born in 1788 known for his deep philosophical reflections.

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