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Arthur Schopenhauer: Philosopher of Heroic Pessimism

Great men are like eagles, and build their nest on some lofty solitude.
Arthur Schopenhauer


Portrait of Arthur Schopenhauer by Ludwig Sigismund Ruhl

Arthur Schopenhauer, (born February 22, 1788, Danzig, Prussia [now Gdańsk, Poland] – died September 21, 1860, Frankfurt am Main [Germany]), German philosopher, often called the “philosopher of pessimism,” who was primarily important as the exponent of a metaphysical doctrine of the will in immediate reaction against Hegelian idealism. His writings influenced later existential philosophy and Freudian psychology.

Schopenhauer was the son of a wealthy merchant, Heinrich Floris Schopenhauer, and his wife, Johanna, who later became famous for her novels, essays, and travelogues. In 1793, when Danzig came under Prussian sovereignty, they moved to the free city of Hamburg. Arthur enjoyed a gentlemanly private education. He then attended a private business school, where he became acquainted with the spirit of the Enlightenment and was exposed to a Pietistic attitude sensitive to the plight of man. In 1803 he accompanied his parents for a year on an extensive journey through Belgium, England, France, Switzerland, and Austria.

The sudden death of his father in April 1805 precipitated a decisive change in his life. His mother and his young sister Adele moved to Weimar, where his mother succeeded in joining the social circle of the poets J.W. von Goethe and Christoph Martin Wieland (often called the German Voltaire). Arthur himself had to remain in Hamburg for more than a year, yet with more freedom to engage in the arts and sciences. In May 1807 he was finally able to leave Hamburg. During the next two years, spent in Gotha and Weimar, he acquired the necessary academic preparation for attendance at a university.

Each day is a little life: every waking and rising a little birth, every fresh morning a little youth, every going to rest and sleep a little death.
Arthur Schopenhauer

In the fall of 1809 he matriculated as a student of medicine at the University of Göttingen and mainly attended lectures on the natural sciences. As early as his second semester, however, he transferred to the humanities, concentrating first on the study of Plato and Immanuel Kant. From 1811 to 1813 he attended the University of Berlin (where he heard such philosophers as J.G. Fichte and Friedrich Schleiermacher, with little appreciation); and in Rudolstadt, during the summer of 1813, he finished his dissertation, Über die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde (On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason), which earned him the doctor of philosophy degree from the University of Jena.

The following winter (1813–14) he spent in Weimar, in intimate association with Goethe, with whom he discussed various philosophical topics. In that same winter the Orientalist Friedrich Majer, a disciple of Johann Gottfried Herder, introduced him to the teachings of Indian antiquity – the philosophy of Vedānta and the mysticism of the Vedas (Hindu scriptures). Later, Schopenhauer considered that the Upaniṣads (philosophic Vedas), together with Plato and Kant, constituted the foundation on which he erected his own philosophical system.

In May 1814 he left his beloved Weimar after a quarrel with his mother over her frivolous way of life, of which he disapproved. He then lived in Dresden until 1818, associating occasionally with a group of writers for the Dresdener Abendzeitung (“Dresden Evening Newspaper”). Schopenhauer finished his treatise Über das Sehn und die Farben (1816; “On Vision and Colours”), supporting Goethe against Isaac Newton.

His next three years were dedicated exclusively to the preparation and composition of his main work, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1819; The World as Will and Idea). The fundamental idea of this work – which is condensed into a short formula in the title itself – is developed in four books composed of two comprehensive series of reflections that include successively the theory of knowledge and the philosophy of nature, aesthetics, and ethics.

Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.
Arthur Schopenhauer

The first book begins with Kant. The world is my representation, says Schopenhauer. It is only comprehensible with the aid of the constructs of man’s intellect – space, time, and causality. But these constructs show the world only as appearance, as a multiplicity of things next to and following one another – not as the thing in itself, which Kant considered to be unknowable. The second book advances to a consideration of the essences of the concepts presented. Of all the things in the world, only one is presented to a person in two ways: he knows himself externally as body or as appearance, and he knows himself internally as part of the primary essence of all things, as will. The will is the thing in itself; it is unitary, unfathomable, unchangeable, beyond space and time, without causes and purposes. In the world of appearances, it is reflected in an ascending series of realizations. From the blind impulses in the forces of inorganic nature, through organic nature (plants and animals) to the rationally guided actions of men, an enormous chain of restless desires, agitations, and drives stretch forth – a continual struggle of the higher forms against the lower, an eternally aimless and insatiable striving, inseparably united with misery and misfortune. At the end, however, stands death, the great reproof that the will-to-live receives, posing the question to each single person: Have you had enough?

Whereas the first two books present the will in an affirmative mode, the last two, dealing with aesthetics and ethics, surpass them by pointing to the negation of the will as a possible liberation. Evoking as their leading figures the genius and the saint, who illustrate this negation, these books present the “pessimistic” world view that values nonbeing more highly than being. The arts summon man to a will-less way of viewing things, in which the play of the passions ceases. To the succession of levels achieved by the realizations of the will corresponds a gradation of levels in the arts, from the lowest – the art of building (architecture) – through the art of poetry to the highest of arts – music. But the arts liberate a person only momentarily from the service of the will. A genuine liberation results only from breaking through the bounds of individuality imposed by the ego. Whoever feels acts of compassion, selflessness, and human kindness and feels the suffering of other beings as his own is on the way to the abnegation of the will to life, achieved by the saints of all peoples and times in asceticism. Schopenhauer’s anthropology and sociology do not, in the manner of Hegel, commence with the state or with the community; they focus upon man – patient, suffering man who toils by himself – and show him certain possibilities of standing his ground and of living together with others.

The book marked the summit of Schopenhauer’s thought. In the many years thereafter, no further development of his philosophy occurred, no inner struggles or changes, no critical reorganization of basic thoughts. From then onward, his work consisted merely of more detailed exposition, clarification, and affirmation.

The greatest achievements of the human mind are generally received with distrust.
Arthur Schopenhauer

In March 1820, after a lengthy first tour of Italy and a triumphant dispute with Hegel, he qualified to lecture at the University of Berlin. Though he remained a member of the university for 24 semesters, only his first lecture was actually held; for he had scheduled (and continued to schedule) his lectures at the same hour when Hegel lectured to a large and ever-growing audience. Clearly, he could not successfully challenge a persistently advancing philosophy. Even his book received scant attention. For a second time Schopenhauer went on a year-long trip to Italy, and this was followed by a year of illness in Munich. In May 1825 he made one last attempt in Berlin, but in vain. He now occupied himself with secondary works, primarily translations.

During his remaining 28 years, he lived in Frankfurt, which he felt to be free from the threat of cholera, and left the city only for brief interludes. He had finally renounced his career as a university professor and lived henceforth as a recluse, totally absorbed in his studies (especially in the natural sciences) and his writings. His life now took on the shape that posterity first came to know: the measured uniformity of the days; the strict, ascetic lifestyle modeled after Kant; the old-fashioned attire; the tendency to gesticulative soliloquy.

His leisure, though, was not idle. In 1836, after 19 years of “silent indignation,” he published his short treatise Über den Willen in der Natur (On the Will in Nature), which skillfully employed the queries and findings of the rapidly expanding natural sciences in support of his theory of the will. The preface for the first time openly expressed his devastating verdict on the “charlatan” Hegel and his clique. He also published essays.

The second edition of The World as Will and Idea (1844) included an additional volume but failed to break what he called “the resistance of a dull world.” The little weight that Schopenhauer’s name carried became evident when three publishers rejected his latest work. Finally, a rather obscure Berlin bookseller accepted the manuscript without remuneration. In this book, which brought the beginning of worldwide recognition, Schopenhauer turned to significant topics hitherto not treated individually within the framework of his writings: the work of six years yielded the essays and comments compiled in two volumes under the title Parerga und Paralipomena (1851). The Parerga (“Minor Works”) include fragments concerning the history of philosophy; the famous treatise “Über die Universitäts-Philosophie”; the enigmatically profound “Transzendente Spekulation über die anscheinende Absichtlichkeit im Schicksale des Einzelnen” (“Transcendent Speculation on the Apparent Premeditation in Personal Fate”); the “Versuch über das Geistersehn und was damit zusammenhängt” (“Essay on Ghost-seeing and Its Related Aspects”) – the first investigation, classification, and critical reflection concerning parapsychology; and the “Aphorismen zur Lebensweisheit” (“Aphorisms on Practical Wisdom”), a serene and brilliant account garnered from his long life. The Paralipomena (“Remnants”), or as Schopenhauer called them “separate, yet systematically ordered thoughts on various subjects,” included essays on writing and style, on women, on education, on noise and sound, and on numerous other topics.

During the last years of his life, he added the finishing touches to most of his works. Even a third edition of The World as Will and Idea, containing an exultant preface, appeared in 1859 and, in 1860, a second edition of his Ethics. Soon after Schopenhauer’s sudden and painless death, Julius Frauenstädt published new and enlarged editions, with many handwritten additions, of the Parerga and Paralipomena (1862), On the Fourfold Root (1864), the essay On the Will in Nature (1867), the treatise on colours (1870), and finally even a fourth edition of his main work (1873). Later that same year Frauenstädt published the first complete edition of his works in six volumes.

To live alone is the fate of all great souls.
Arthur Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer read the Latin translation of the ancient Hindu texts, the Upanishads, which French writer Anquetil du Perron had translated from the Persian translation of Prince Dara Shukoh entitled Sirre-Akbar (“The Great Secret”). He was so impressed by their philosophy that he called them “the production of the highest human wisdom”, and believed they contained superhuman concepts. The Upanishads was a great source of inspiration to Schopenhauer. Writing about them, he said:

It is the most satisfying and elevating reading (with the exception of the original text) which is possible in the world; it has been the solace of my life and will be the solace of my death.

It is well known that the book Oupnekhat (Upanishad) always lay open on his table, and he invariably studied it before sleeping at night. He called the opening up of Sanskrit literature “the greatest gift of our century” and predicted that the philosophy and knowledge of the Upanishads would become the cherished faith of the West.

Schopenhauer was first introduced to the 1802 Latin Upanishad translation through Friedrich Majer. They met during the winter of 1813–1814 in Weimar at the home of Schopenhauer's mother according to the biographer Safranski. Majer was a follower of Herder, and an early Indologist. Schopenhauer did not begin a serious study of the Indic texts, however, until the summer of 1814. Sansfranski maintains that between 1815 and 1817, Schopenhauer had another important cross-pollination with Indian thought in Dresden. This was through his neighbor of two years, Karl Christian Friedrich Krause. Krause was then a minor and rather unorthodox philosopher who attempted to mix his own ideas with that of ancient Indian wisdom. Krause had also mastered Sanskrit, unlike Schopenhauer, and the two developed a professional relationship. It was from Krause that Schopenhauer learned meditation and received the closest thing to expert advice concerning Indian thought.

Most noticeable, in the case of Schopenhauer’s work, was the significance of the Chandogya Upanishad, whose Mahāvākya, Tat Tvam Asi, is mentioned throughout The World as Will and Representation.

Schopenhauer noted a correspondence between his doctrines and the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Similarities centered on the principles that life involves suffering, that suffering is caused by desire (tanhā), and that the extinction of desire leads to liberation. Thus three of the four “truths of the Buddha” correspond to Schopenhauer's doctrine of the will. In Buddhism, however, while greed and lust are always unskillful, desire is ethically variable – it can be skillful, unskillful, or neutral.

For Schopenhauer, Will had ontological primacy over the intellect; in other words, desire is understood to be prior to thought. Schopenhauer felt this was similar to notions of purusārtha or goals of life in Vedānta Hinduism.

In Schopenhauer's philosophy, denial of the will is attained by either:

– personal experience of an extremely great suffering that leads to loss of the will to live; or
– knowledge of the essential nature of life in the world through observation of the suffering of other people.
However, Buddhist nirvāna is not equivalent to the condition that Schopenhauer described as denial of the will. Nirvāna is not the extinguishing of the person as some Western scholars have thought, but only the “extinguishing” (the literal meaning of nirvana) of the flames of greed, hatred, and delusion that assail a person's character. Occult historian Joscelyn Godwin (born 1945) stated, “It was Buddhism that inspired the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, and, through him, attracted Richard Wagner.” This Orientalism reflected the struggle of the German Romantics, in the words of Leon Poliakov, to “free themselves from Judeo-Christian fetters”. In contradistinction to Godwin's claim that Buddhism inspired Schopenhauer, the philosopher himself made the following statement in his discussion of religions:

If I wished to take the results of my philosophy as the standard of truth, I should have to concede to Buddhism pre-eminence over the others. In any case, it must be a pleasure to me to see my doctrine in such close agreement with a religion that the majority of men on earth hold as their own, for this numbers far more followers than any other. And this agreement must be yet the more pleasing to me, inasmuch as in my philosophizing I have certainly not been under its influence [emphasis added]. For up till 1818, when my work appeared, there was to be found in Europe only a very few accounts of Buddhism.

Buddhist philosopher Nishitani Keiji, however, sought to distance Buddhism from Schopenhauer. While Schopenhauer's philosophy may sound rather mystical in such a summary, his methodology was resolutely empirical, rather than speculative or transcendental:

Philosophy ... is a science, and as such has no articles of faith; accordingly, in it nothing can be assumed as existing except what is either positively given empirically, or demonstrated through indubitable conclusions.

Also note:

This actual world of what is knowable, in which we are and which is in us, remains both the material and the limit of our consideration.

The argument that Buddhism affected Schopenhauer's philosophy more than any other Dharmic faith loses more credence when viewed in light of the fact that Schopenhauer did not begin a serious study of Buddhism until after the publication of The World as Will and Representation in 1818. Scholars have started to revise earlier views about Schopenhauer's discovery of Buddhism. Proof of early interest and influence, however, appears in Schopenhauer's 1815/16 notes (transcribed and translated by Urs App) about Buddhism. They are included in a recent case study that traces Schopenhauer's interest in Buddhism and documents its influence. Other scholarly work questions how similar Schopenhauer's philosophy actually is to Buddhism.

Schopenhauer had a wide range of interests, from science and opera to occultism and literature.

In his student years Schopenhauer went more often to lectures in the sciences than philosophy. He kept a strong interest as his personal library contained near to 200 books of scientific literature at his death, and his works refer to scientific titles not found in the library.

Many evenings were spent in the theatre, opera and ballet; the operas of Mozart, Rossini and Bellini were especially esteemed. Schopenhauer considered music to be the highest art and played the flute during his whole life.

As a polyglot, the philosopher knew German, Italian, Spanish, French, English, Latin and ancient Greek, and he was an avid reader of poetry and literature. He particularly revered Goethe, Petrarch, Calderón and Shakespeare.

If Goethe had not been sent into the world simultaneously with Kant in order to counterbalance him, so to speak, in the spirit of the age, the latter would have been haunted like a nightmare many an aspiring mind and would have oppressed it with great affliction. But now the two have an infinitely wholesome effect from opposite directions and will probably raise the German spirit to a height surpassing even that of antiquity.

In philosophy, his most important influences were, according to himself, Kant, Plato and the Upanishads. Concerning the Upanishads and Vedas, he writes in The World as Will and Representation:

If the reader has also received the benefit of the Vedas, the access to which by means of the Upanishads is in my eyes the greatest privilege which this still young century (1818) may claim before all previous centuries, if then the reader, I say, has received his initiation in primeval Indian wisdom, and received it with an open heart, he will be prepared in the very best way for hearing what I have to tell him. It will not sound to him strange, as to many others, much less disagreeable; for I might, if it did not sound conceited, contend that every one of the detached statements which constitute the Upanishads, may be deduced as a necessary result from the fundamental thoughts which I have to enunciate, though those deductions themselves are by no means to be found there.

During this time, the actual impact and influence of Schopenhauer began to spread. By turning away from spirit and reason to the powers of intuition, creativity, and the irrational, his thought has affected – partly via Nietzsche – the ideas and methods of vitalism, of life philosophy, of existential philosophy, and of anthropology. Through his disciple Julius Bahnsen and through Eduard von Hartmann’s philosophy of the unconscious, the connection to modern psychology and to Sigmund Freud and his school can be established. The philosophy of history of Jacob Burckhardt, a Swiss cultural historian, also proceeds from Schopenhauer. Within the German cultural realm, Schopenhauer’s influence on music and literature brings to mind such diverse names as Richard Wagner, Hans Pfitzner, Wilhelm Busch, Gerhart Hauptmann, Frank Wedekind, and Thomas Mann. Since 1911 the Schopenhauer Society in Frankfurt am Main has been dedicated to the study, exposition, and dissemination of Schopenhauer’s philosophy.


Collage by Papa Osmubal

A man can be himself only so long as he is alone, and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom, for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.
Arthur Schopenhauer

 

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Schopenhauer
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/schopenhauer/
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Arthur-Schopenhauer
https://www.iep.utm.edu/schopenh/

 

 




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