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Brief Lives

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

Alistair MacFarlane reviews the phenomenal life of a wilful mind.

Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation (1818) is one of the most famous books in philosophy. In it Schopenhauer anticipated the Freudian and Jungian ideas of the unconscious, and it has had a deep influence on many artists, most notably Wagner. Nowadays it is seldom read, and its message is notoriously difficult to accept. But it remains important because it presents a unique vision of the world, repellent to many, enthralling to some. In this book Schopenhauer gives us an uncompromising idea of Will as a primitive, elemental driver of our destiny, and so presents us with a harrowingly bleak vision of the human condition that uncomfortably anticipates many of the horrors of the Twentieth Century. Owing more to imagination than to logic, it is a masterpiece of metaphysics. Schopenhauer’s masterpiece is hard to accept not because it is full of dense and convoluted arguments like the writings of his contemporary Hegel (detested and ridiculed by Schopenhauer) but for the opposite reason: the central thrust of its argument is so breathtakingly simple, and is made with such unforgettable force, that one must wholly accept it or completely reject it.

Early Life

Arthur Schopenhauer was born on 22 February 1788, into a rich Hanseatic merchant family in Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland). The family, originally of Dutch origin, had been socially and financially prominent for many generations. Their motto, Point de Bonheur sans Liberté (‘Without freedom there is no happiness’) seems richly ironic in the light of Arthur’s later life. He had a sister, Louise Adelaide (‘Adele’), born on 12 June 1797, but Arthur grew up to be solitary, withdrawn, and intolerant, and developed a terrifyingly dark view of the human predicament.

Arthur’s father, (Heinrich) Floris Schopenhauer, was a wealthy merchant and ship-owner. While a young man he spent many years living in England and France. As a result, Floris developed a lasting enthusiasm for the English way of life, reading The Times every day (a habit followed by his son). He planned out his son’s life in detail: Arthur was to be a merchant. The name Arthur was chosen because it had the same spelling in German, English and French. Arrangements were made for the child to be born in England, thus gaining the rights of a British citizen. This plan did not succeed because his mother became ill during pregnancy, so Arthur was born in Danzig. Arthur’s mother Johanna Henrietta (née Trosiener) came from another wealthy and influential Danzig family. She was well-educated, cosmopolitan, selfish, and ambitious, and became a famous and successful novelist, achieving prominence in German literary and artistic society. She was both hard and complacent, and described by one contemporary as devoid of heart and soul. Schopenhauer had a difficult relationship with his father during his early life, and an even more difficult one with his mother in later life. Eventually he broke off all relations with her, and did not attend her funeral.

When Arthur was five the family moved to Hamburg after Danzig was annexed by Prussia. He toured Europe several times with his family as a youngster and teenager, spending some of his teenage years as a boarder at a school in Wimbledon. He became fluent in English and French, enjoying France but detesting school in England. His very unhappy childhood and adolescence explains his later acute misanthropy.

In his late teens, Arthur was forced to enter the family business as an apprentice, despite wishing to go to university. But in April 1805, Floris Schopenhauer died suddenly, almost certainly by suicide. This tragedy gave mother and son freedom and financial independence, and they went increasingly separate ways. Johanna moved with her daughter to Weimar, becoming a hugely successful author, and established a fashionable literary salon over which she presided, frequently attended by Goethe. During most of his life Arthur Schopenhauer remained virtually unknown other than as the son of a famous novelist.

In 1809 Arthur entered the University of Göttingen to study medicine, but soon switched to philosophy and moved to the University of Berlin. He studied widely in philosophy, psychology, astronomy, zoology, archaeology, physiology, history and literature. By the age of twenty-five he was ready to write his doctoral dissertation, The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Reason. He was awarded a doctorate from the University of Jena, and he devoted the rest of his life to developing and refining his unique approach to philosophy.

Arthur Schopenhauer portrait by Gail Campbell, 2016


After Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), metaphysics had become an indispensable part of any fully developed system of philosophy. Kant’s metaphysical problem can be stated as: How can our minds characterise reality, given that reality is only indirectly available to our minds through perception? Kant’s approach was to reconcile our subjective and objective descriptions of the world, or in his words: “Without sensibility no object would be given to us, without understanding no object would be thought. Thoughts without content are empty; intuition without concepts is blind.” In other words, to understand the world we need both the experiences gained through our senses (‘intuitions’ in Kant’s jargon), and the intellectual ability to think about these experiences (using concepts).

Kant calls his metaphysics transcendental idealism – a forbidding name that disguises its simplicity and power. Transcendental refers to experience that is not only sensory, and idealism refers to the idea that thought is primary in reality. Kant’s philosophy splits the world into two parts. The noumenal world is reality as it is in itself independent of our sensing it. We can never gain direct access to that world, as our evidence for it is filtered through our senses and interpreted by our mental apparatus – by sets of concepts that we need in order to experience anything at all. The phenomenal world is the world as it appears to us. Kant distinguished between the two parts by referring to things (experienced by our senses), and things-in-themselves (conjectured as the cause or ground of our experience of the corresponding phenomena).

Schopenhauer claimed that he had built on and improved Kant’s metaphysics. This is misleading, because Schopenhauer introduced a fundamentally different aspect to the noumena. In Kantian metaphysics, reference to a thing-in-itself implies a detailed correspondence between phenomenon and noumenon (which cannot be comprehended because the noumenon is beyond our knowing). Schopenhauer’s postulated noumenal world is quite different: reality in itself, independent of our sense perceptions, is a single undifferentiated entity that we can know about. He called this entity the Will.

Schopenhauer’s Will was something new, and very strange. He conceived it as a striving, or perhaps a force for self-expression or existence. Every phenomenon, he claimed, is a manifestation of it. The Will is blind in every way: behind the phenomena, Schopenhauer’s reality is without purpose. This is a unique vision, repugnant to many. Schopenhauer saw the world as a frenzied, purposeless striving – perhaps the bleakest view developed by any philosopher.

Will is not a religious concept: Schopenhauer was an unrelenting atheist. Nor is it a form of conscious awareness, either personal or in the Jungian collective sense. Indeed, Schopenhauer sees the human psyche as split between rational thought and its universal, deep, directionless striving for reproduction and survival (compare Freud’s division of the superego, ego, and id). He also said that we can directly perceive the inner reality of Will whenever we experience our own wills in operation.

The World as Will and Representation

Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung was published in 1818 and went through extensive revisions and expansions, at Schopenhauer’s expense. The best English translation is The World as Will and Representation by E.J.F. Payne, published in 1958. It aroused little interest either in Germany or in England until the latter stages of Schopenhauer’s life – a fact that, despite his expressed belief in the heartless and purposeless nature of the world, caused him great unhappiness.

But even Schopenhauer’s clouds have silver linings. After completing his masterpiece, Schopenhauer sought ways of ameliorating the effects of an uncaring Will and of achieving mental distance from its pervasive influence. One way of doing this lay in aesthetic experience. He had a lifelong love of music, played the flute almost every day, and regularly attended concerts, operas, and the theatre. In this way he felt that we could temporarily disengage from the heartlessness of the world.

Schopenhauer’s wide and eclectic reading brought him into contact with Eastern philosophy and religion. After discovering a translation of the Upanishads (the last part of the Hindu scripture the Veda, dating from between 800 and 400 BCE), he read parts of it almost every day for the rest of his life. He was the first Western philosopher to study them carefully, and he came to realise that they incorporated some aspects of his concept of the Will. He concluded that the only lasting escape from the cosmic Will lay in eschewing all wishes for earthly gratification by losing oneself in mystical contemplation, like a Western saint or an Eastern holy man.

On a less exalted level, in his view of ethics one should exhibit a universal compassion: “Injure no one… and help everyone as much as you can.” In his own life, however, he gave no indication of abstaining from earthly pleasure, seeking sainthood, or even helping his neighbours. Indeed, a court once ordered him to pay compensation and maintenance to an elderly neighbour who alleged that an irate Schopenhauer had assaulted her during an argument.

Later Life

After the publication of his last work Parerga and Paralipomena in 1851 (the title means Subordinate Work and Omissions), Schopenhauer’s stature as a major philosopher at last began to be recognised. Discussions of his work started to appear in Germany, England and America, and favourable reviews emerged. This belated recognition gave him some gratification, and made his last days more bearable.

Despite his bleak philosophy and his festering resentment of the indifference with which his work had long been received, Schopenhauer’s life was not without its compensations. He was sufficiently wealthy to enjoy travel, to eat and drink well, and to read widely. With a few favoured companions he could be a sympathetic and entertaining conversationalist, although caustic and satirical. As he became more widely known in the years immediately preceding his death, an increasing number of visitors from abroad were surprised to find him much more approachable than they had feared. He had achieved his own form of compromise with the exigencies of the Will.

For most of his life Schopenhauer enjoyed good health, which he attributed to taking daily walks despite the weather. Although always able to read without spectacles, he suffered increasingly from deafness. On 9 September 1860 he suddenly became extremely ill. He confided to his close friend and future biographer Wilhelm Gwinner his fear, not of death, but of being buried alive, and asked him to ensure that his burial would be suitably delayed. On 21 September 1860, his maid summoned a doctor, who found him dead on a sofa. It was apparently a peaceful death by heart failure. He had lived in Frankfurt am Main for twenty-seven years, alone with only a succession of pet poodles for company. Following his expressed wishes, his body was kept under observation in a mortuary for five days. Following a simple service arranged by Gwinner and attended by his few friends, Arthur Schopenhauer was buried on 26 September under a flat dark marble slab bearing only his name.


All subsequent philosophy, said A.N. Whitehead, is a series of footnotes to Kant. A less contentious way of making the same point is to say that no system of philosophy can now be considered complete without a metaphysics. Schopenhauer’s metaphysics is as simple as possible: All thought has to contend with and comprehend is Will, the primitive elemental driver of our lives. This extreme simplification is too much for most modern philosophers, but it has had an irresistible appeal to some artists. Schopenhauer was a deep but not a rigorous thinker – mercifully, some would say. After reading him one longs for someone to do for happiness what he did for gloom. Rorty tried, but no operas ensued. Perhaps the fairest epitaph for Schopenhauer is one of Voltaire’s epigrams: Great faults in true genius should be forgiven.

© Sir Alistair MacFarlane 2016

Sir Alistair MacFarlane is a former Vice-President of the Royal Society and a retired university Vice-Chancellor.

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