Arthur Schopenhauer presented in his major philosophical work, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1819; The World as Will and Representation), a consistent, rationally defended pessimism unique in the history of Western thought. Published when he was 30, The World as Will and Representation is the centerpiece and point of reference of all his other writings. Written in a nonacademic style that is lucid, direct, and immediate, it is a philosophical book that hardly needs explication. Because of his focus on “the problem of existence” Schopenhauer has been linked to existential philosophy. His Olympian, ironic, and spiritually aristocratic tone presents the message that existence is the expression of an insatiable, pervasive will generating a terrible world of conflict and suffering, senselessness, and futility. The “will to live” perpetuates this dreadful cosmic spectacle, and the goal of one who sees through the deceptive illusions of life is the denial of this powerful will to live.
Schopenhauer wrote a number of purely philosophical essays which, in effect, were supplements to The World as Will and Representation. In his essay Über den Willen in der Natur (1836; “On the Will in Nature”), he presents a dark portrait of the brutality and cruelty in the natural world based on the studies of naturalists, a theme replicated in film and television in recognizable Schopenhauerian tones. Another philosophical essay, “Über die Freiheit des menschlichen Willens” (Essay on the Freedom of the Will) was awarded a prize in 1839 by the Scientific Society of Trondheim in Norway. In 1841 he combined this essay with another entitled “Über das Fundament der Moral” (The Basis of Morality) and had the two published in a single volume under the title Die beiden Grundprobleme der Ethik (The two fundamental problems in ethics).
Schopenhauer’s influence can be traced to some of the themes of the music dramas of one of his earliest admirers, the composer Richard Wagner, to the development of the theory of the unconscious in Eduard von Hartmann’s Philosophie des Unbewussten (1869; The Philosophy of the Unconscious), and (both positively and negatively) to the philosophy of Nietzsche. Given the depiction of humankind as under the sway of an unconsciously operative irrational will, which is manifested in a primal “will to live” and in the “sexual impulse,” as well as related features of his thought, it has often been said that Freud’s dynamic theory of the individual owes much to Schopenhauer’s writings.
Toward the end of his life Schopenhauer produced a remarkable collection of work, Parerga und Paralipomena: Kleine philosophische Schriften (1851; Parerga and Paralipomena: Short Philosophical Essays). The Greek terms in his ill-chosen title for “popular” essays suggest surplus, supplementary writings, matters left over. In these essays on a variety of topics Schopenhauer reveals himself as the Romantic ironist, the moral idealist, who repeatedly reminds humankind of its selfishness, egotism, hypocrisy, and malice. His cynicism toward humanity is expressed sharply, economically, and with sardonic wit. Always, he seeks to look beneath the civil, social “mask” or persona in order to reveal the often unattractive inner, willful ego. In “Psychologische Bermerkungen” (1851; “Psychological Observations”) he remarks that “Our temperament is so despotic that we are not satisfied unless we draw everything into our own life, and force all the world to agree with us.” In the same spirit, in one of his better essays, “Unser Verhalten gegen Andere betreffend” (1851; “Our Relations to Others”) Schopenhauer proclaims that “Most men are so thoroughly subjective that nothing really interests them but themselves.” With characteristic directness he accepts as given that “In savage countries they eat one another, in civilized they deceive one another.” Seeing himself as a wise and shrewd observer of his species, as a “man of the world,” Schopenhauer issues sangfroid critical judgments throughout his lucid and cutting essays. In “Über die Menschlichkeit” (1851; “Human Nature”) he judges what Freud will later merely describe: “…it is Schadenfreude, a mischievous delight in the misfortunes of others, which remains the worst trait in human nature.”
In his notorious essay, “Über die Weiber” (1851; “Of Women”), Schopenhauer both reveals cultural attitudes toward women in his time and adds his own bitter misogyny.
Here his vaunted “objectivity” fails him, no doubt due to the lifelong bitter hostility between himself and his mother, a woman who was totally unresponsive to him and coldly rejecting. Aside from occasional lapses of crankiness and blunt prejudices, most of Schopenhauer’s essays have persuasive power, caustic humor, and depth of insight. His “Über den Selbstmord” (1851; “On Suicide”) reveals his compassionate side and the essays in the section Aphorismen zur Lebensweisheit (The Wisdom of Life) in Parerga and Paralipomena advise the development of the inner world, the cultivation of personal qualities that fuel spiritual growth or what he sometimes calls “the higher self.” When he is truly objective and calm, Schopenhauer does attain an austere, impressive wisdom.
In the long essay “Die Ehre” (1851; “Honor”), Schopenhauer’s social criticism satirically demolishes the then reigning “code of honor” or modern version of “knightly honor,” characterizing it as “the child of pride and folly.” He brings to this essay, as he does to all his writings, an extensive breadth of cultural knowledge. His familiarity with French, Spanish, and English (a language which he spoke fluently and wrote fairly well) gave Schopenhauer an unusual cosmopolitan perspective which informs his accessible essays.
Although it is included in the second volume of The World as Will and Representation, “Metaphysik der Geschlechtsliebe” (“The Metaphysics of the Love of the Sexes”) has often been extracted as a separate essay. In it love is ultimately reduced to the physical satisfaction of the “sexual impulse” and romantic, erotic attachments are described as being in the service of nature, the “will to live,” and the reproductive interest of the species. For Schopenhauer, apart from the basic desire for existence, “the love of life,” the “sexual impulse” is the most powerful, most pervasive, motive in human existence.
Nature is said to attain its goal, procreation, by implanting the illusion in individuals that they are satisfying their own desires while it is the aim of the species that is served.
In an appendix to the discussion on the metaphysical understanding of sexuality added to the third edition of The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer, at the age of 71, added a discussion about the then volatile subject of male homosexuality. Despite disapprobation of the practice, he points to its prevalence and discusses it with the coolness and objectivity of the student of human nature. He even speculates, like some recent sociobiologists, that homosexuality may have a natural developmental purpose: diverting adolescents and the elderly away from reproductive activity. In this instance, as in many others, we see a daring thinker who already anticipates not only Freud’s idea of the “life-instinct” (eros) and the centrality of libido in human life, but who also presents the rudiments of a Darwin-like evolutionary theory in his conceptions of the perpetual struggle for existence in nature, attraction in sexual selection, the intellect as a “tool” of the will to live, and much more.
Throughout the essays comprising Parerga and Paralipomena Schopenhauer typically illustrates many of his pointed judgments by citations from dramas, novels, from Baltasar Gracián’s The Oracle (which he translated into German), Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Plato, Seneca, and numerous other figures in world literature and philosophy. He was an intellectual internationalist who had great appreciation for languages and cultures other than his own.
Although his writings were generally ignored (Schopenhauer claimed they were subject to “a conspiracy of silence”) during most of his lifetime, in the last decade of his life he began to receive recognition internationally and, in Germany, despite the powerful negations of his metaphysics, he was surprisingly popular for a time.
Schopenhauer expresses his literary-philosophical knowledge in a clear, appealing, unpedantic way that invites the reader into a realm of cultivated, civilized, though often
harsh and opinionated, discourse. Because of his honesty, his penetration of the veils that conceal the tragic aspect of existence, and his psychological insights Schopenhauer’s essays still have the power to startle, sting, and charm. In his writings a polyphonic rhythm of ideas expresses the ultimate symphony of a cosmic Romantic-ironic pessimism.
Born 22 February 1788 in Danzig (now Gdańsk). Apprenticed to merchants in Danzig, 1804, and Hamburg, 1805–07, with the expectation that he would take over his father’s business; however, after father’s death, terminated apprenticeship and enrolled in a gymnasium in Gotha, 1807; studied science and philosophy at the University of Göttingen, 1809–11; philosophy at the University of Berlin, 1811–13. Lived in Dresden, 1814–18. Lectured at the University of Berlin, 1820. Lived in Frankfurt, 1833–60.
Awards: Trondheim Scientific Society Prize (Norway), 1839. Died (of a heart attack) in Frankfurt-on-Main, 21 September 1860.
Essays and Related Prose
Über die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde, 1813; revised, enlarged edition, 1847; edited by Julius Frauenstädt, 1864, and Michael Landmann and Elfriede Tielsch, 1957; as “On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason,” translated by Mrs. Karl Hillebrand, in Two Essays, 1889, and by E.F.J.Payne, 1974
Über das Sehn und die Farben (treatise), 1816; enlarged edition, 1854; edited by Julius Frauenstädt, 1870; chapter 1 as “On Vision,” translated by E.F.J.Payne, in The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, 1974
Über den Willen in der Natur, 1836; revised, enlarged edition, edited by Julius Frauenstädt, 1867; asThe Will in Nature, translated anonymously, 1877, reprinted
1982; as “On the Will in Nature,” translated by Mrs. Karl Hillebrand, in Two Essays, 1889
Die beiden Grundprobleme der Ethik (includes “Über die Freiheit des menschlichen
Willens”; “Über das Fundament der Moral”), 1841; revised, enlarged edition, 1860;
first essay as Essay on the Freedom of the Will, translated by Konstantin Kolenda, 1960; second essay as The Basis of Morality, translated by Arthur Brodrick Bullock, 1903, and as On the Basis of Morality by E.F. J.Payne, 1965
Parerga und Paralipomena: Kleine philosophische Schriften, 2 vols., 1851; as Parerga and Paralipomena: Short Philosophical Essays, translated by E.F.J.Payne, 2 vols., 1974; selections translated by T.Bailey Saunders in various collections, including Studies in Pessimism, 1890 (also translated by William M.Thomson, 1896), The Art of Literature, 1890, Religion: A Dialogue, and Other Essays, 1899, and Essays from the Parerga and Paralipomena, 1951; selection as Essays and Aphorisms, edited and translated by R.J.Hollingdale, 1970
Select Essaysy, translated by Garritt Droppers and C.A.P.Dachsel, 1881
Aphorismen zur Lebensweisheit (from Parerga und Paralipotnena), 1886; edited by L.W.Winter, 1966, and Rudolf Marx, 1968; selections as The Wisdom of Life and Counsels and Maxims, translated by T.Bailey Saunders, 1890
Two Essays (includes “On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason”; “On the Will in Nature”), translated by Mrs. Karl Hillebrand, 1889
Selected Essays, translated by Ernest Belfort Bax, 1891
The Art of Controversy, and Other Posthumous Papers, edited and translated by T.Bailey Saunders, 1896
On Human Nature: Essays (Partly Posthumous) in Ethics and Politics, edited and translated by T.Bailey Saunders, 1897
Essays, translated by Mrs. Rudolf Dircks, 1897
Complete Essays, translated by T.Bailey Saunders, 1942
Philosophical Writings, edited by Wolfgang Schirmacher, 1994
Other writings: the philosophical treatise Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1819;
The World as Will and Representation) and several volumes of manuscript fragments. Collected works editions: Sämtliche Werke, edited by Julius Frauenstädt, 6 vols., 1873–74, revised and enlarged by Arthur Hübscher, 7 vols., 1937–41.
Cartwright, David, “An English-Language Bibliography of Works on Schopenhauer,” Schopenhauer-Jahrbuch 68 (1987):257–66
Hübscher, Arthur, Schopenhauer-Bibliographie, Stuttgart and Bad Cannstatt: Fromann- Holzboog, 1981
Copleston, Frederick C., Schopenhauer, Philosopher of Pessimism, London: Burns Oates and Washbourne, 1946
Fox, Michael, editor, Schopenhauer: His Philosophical Achievement, Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980
Gardiner, Patrick, Schopenhauer, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971 (original edition, 1963)
Hamlyn, David W., Schopenhauer: The Arguments of the Philosophers, London: Routledge, 1980
Hamlyn, David W., “Schopenhauer and Freud,” Revue Internationale Philosophique 42 (1988):5–17
Hübscher, Arthur, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer in Its Intellectual Context: Thinker Against the Tide, Lampeter, Dyfed: Mellen Press, 1989 (original German edition, 1982)
Janaway, Christopher, Schopenhauer, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994
Magee, Bryan, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983
Safranski, Rudiger, Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989; Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1990 (original German edition, 1987)
Snow, James, “Schopenhauer’s Style,” International Philosophical Quarterly 33, no. 4 (December 1993):401–12
Taylor, Richard, “Schopenhauer,” in A Critical History of Western Philosophy, edited by D.J.O’Connor, New York and London: Collier-Macmillan, 1964
Zimmern, Helen, Arthur Schopenhauer: His Life and Philosophy, London: Allen and Unwin 1932 (original edition, 1876)
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