home | 18-19th centuries index


previous | next

Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer was born in the city of Danzig (now Gdansk) into a wealthy and literate bourgeois family. His father admired Voltaire's writing and like Voltaire regarded England as a land of freedom. He committed suicide when Arthur was seventeen. His mother moved to Weimar, wrote books and kept a literary salon. Bertrand Russell writes that Arthur "was annoyed by her philanderings" and maintained "an affectionate memory of his father." Arthur thought himself as gifted as his mother and perhaps morally superior, and according to Russell his mother "warned him against bombast and empty pathos."

The young Schopenhauer loathed the idea of a career in business and longed for a career in literature. With the inheritance he received he was able devote himself entirely to intellectual pursuits. In 1809 he entered the University of Göttingen as a student in medicine. In 1813, at 25, he graduated as a doctor of philosophy from the University of Jena. In 1814, following a quarrel with his mother, he never saw her again.

In 1818 he finished his book, The World as Will and Idea. It was the same year that a Heidelberg University lecturer, GWH Hegel, acquired a position at the prestigious University of Berlin. Hegel was eighteen years older than Schopenhauer and had been struggling as a lecturer for years. Schopenhauer won a position at the University of Berlin in 1820, and he scheduled his class to coincide with Hegel's. Hegel was popular. Only five students showed up for Schopenhauer's class, and rather than stay and fight for his point of view he left the university. He would fight for his point of view outside of academia. He would express resentment toward university philosophy and toward Hegel. Late in life (after 1837) he was to describe Hegel as "‘that clumsy and nauseating charlatan, that pernicious person, who completely disorganized and ruined the minds of a whole generation," and he wrote of Hegel's "maddening webs of words, such as had previously been heard only in madhouses."

Hegel had created a world view that put human endeavor and ideas into historical development that he thought was rational and progressive. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, saw humanity as guided by something other than reason. He recognized that people were driven by biological urges, including sexual urges, and that humanity was driven by a capacity for rationalization – excuses rather than pure or detached logic applied to some kind of absolute. To described humanity's strivings outside of some kind of pure reason, Schopenhauer used the word "will." This was the "will" in the aforementioned title of his book published back in 1818, to be his best known work: The World as Will and Idea. "A man can do what he wants," wrote Schopenhauer, "but not want what he wants."

Schopenhauer would have none of Hegel's rational optimism nor Marx's optimism. Schopenhauer was not a supporter of the working class movement.

He wrote:

...if you want Utopian plans, I would say: the only solution to the problem is the despotism of the wise and noble members of a genuine aristocracy, a genuine nobility, achieved by mating the most magnanimous men with the cleverest and most gifted women. This proposal constitutes my Utopia and my Platonic Republic.

Schopenhauer was a reader of Asian intellectuality and his disposition led him to accept the Buddhist point of view that life was essentially suffering composed of illusions. He wrote of life as like blowing on a soap bubble. In the middle of the bubble are not the good things that the philosopher Epicurus wrote about: friendships, beauty, smelling the roses. A soap bubble is empty. Schopenhauer focuses on his empty bubble bursting. Everything for Schopenhauer is a cycle of frustration: trying to satisfy wants produces only satiety, not genuine happiness. Schopenhauer, some people would believe, had an irritation disorder that prevented him from enjoying life.

He put into a philosophical rationalization his belief in pursuing literary accomplishment. Although he believed that striving led only to frustration, he advocated striving for tranquility through asceticism. He advocated artistic awareness including the pleasures of music as a remedy for meaninglessness – despite it being contrary to his soap bubble view of life. It was grist for alienated young people from bourgeois or elite families who enjoyed talking philosophy, art and the meaninglessness of life in coffee houses – while others were working themselves to exhaustion trying to help their families survive.

Long after his death, Schopenhauer would be thought of as a precursor to Freud. Thomas Mann, the 1929 Nobel Prize winner in literature, would compare Shopenhauer's will and view of humanity's sexual drive with Freud's id and view of sexuality. Mann would refer to Schopenhauer as the father of modern psychology.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.