Article abstract: In the tradition of Immanuel Kant, Schopenhauer developed a pessimistic system of philosophy based upon the primacy of will.
Arthur Schopenhauer was born on February 22, 1788, in the Hanseatic city of Danzig, then under nominal control of Poland. His father, Heinrich, was an affluent merchant of Dutch aristocratic lineage, cosmopolitan in outlook and republican in politics. After Danzig lost its freedom to Prussia in 1793, he moved his family and business to Hamburg. Schopenhauer’s mother, Johanna, also of Dutch descent, later became a successful Romantic novelist.
Because Heinrich Schopenhauer planned a mercantile career for his son, Arthur’s education emphasized modern languages, which came easily to him. At age nine, he was sent to Le Havre to learn French, the first of six foreign languages he mastered. In return for agreeing to enter a merchant firm as an apprentice, his father rewarded him with an extended tour—lasting nearly a year and a half—of England, Scotland, France, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany, an experience that strengthened his own cosmopolitan perspective and further developed his facility with languages.
As an apprentice and later a clerk, Schopenhauer found the work tedious and boring, and after the death of his father by drowning, presumed a suicide, in 1805, he altered his life’s goals. With an inheritance adequate to assure independence and with encouragement from his mother, he entered grammar school at Gotha and then studied under tutors in Weimar, mastering Latin and Greek. At age twenty-one, he enrolled as a medical student in the University of Göttingen, changing to philosophy in his second year. His first influential teacher, G. E. Schulze, advised him to concentrate on Plato and Immanuel Kant, the two thinkers who would exert the strongest impact on his philosophy.
In 1811, Schopenhauer attended lectures at the University of Berlin by Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Friedrich Schleiermacher; scathing responses in his notes set the tone of his lifelong contempt for German academic philosophy. When revolution against Napoleonic rule flared in Berlin, Schopenhauer fled to the village of Rudolstadt, where he wrote his dissertation for a doctorate from the University of Jena. In On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, he explores types of causation: physical, logical, mathematical, and moral.
After receiving his doctorate, Schopenhauer returned to Weimar to live in his mother’s house, but the two could not agree. She found him moody, surly, and sarcastic; he found her vain and shallow. Disagreements and quarrels led her to dismiss him, and he left to establish his residence in Dresden in 1814, there to begin his major philosophical work. For the remaining twenty-four years of Johanna Schopenhauer’s life, mother and son did not meet.
In Dresden, after completing a brief treatise on the nature of color, Schopenhauer was ready to begin serious preparation of his greatest philosophical work, The World as Will and Idea. Its three books, with an appendix on Kantian philosophy, include the conceptual ideas that Schopenhauer developed and elaborated throughout his career as an independent philosopher. Book 1 explains the world, everything that the mind perceives, as representation, a mental construct of the subject. Through perception, reasoning, and reflection and by placing external reality within the mental categories of time, space, and causality, one understands how the world operates. Yet one never understands reality as it exists, for the subjective remains an essential element of all perception.
The fundamental reality that eludes understanding is, as book 2 makes plain, the will, that Kantian thing-in-itself. Understood in its broadest sense, will exists in everything—as a life force and much more. In plants, it drives growth, change, and reproduction. In animals, it includes all of these as well as sensation, instinct, and limited intelligence. Only in humans does the will become self-conscious, through reflection and analysis, though the will is by no means free in the usual sense. Every action is determined by motives—to Schopenhauer another name for causes—that predetermine one’s choices. Thus, one may will to choose but not will to will. With its conscious and unconscious drives, will presses each person toward egoistic individualism; yet demands of the will, far from bringing peace, well-being, and gratification, lead only to additional struggle and exertion. As a consequence, unhappiness in life inevitably exceeds happiness.
As a respite from the imperious demands of the will, people find solace in the beauty that exists in nature and art, and the awakening of the aesthetic sense serves to tame the will by leading it toward disinterested contemplation. To enter a room and discover a table filled with food is to anticipate involvement, consumption, and interaction with others. To look at a painting of the same scene invites simply reflection and appreciation, removing any practical considerations from the will, thereby suspending its feverish activity.
Yet the solace afforded by beauty is only temporary. In book 4, Schopenhauer explores saintliness, which implies denial and permanent taming of the will. By recognizing that others experience the same unrelenting strife that the will creates in oneself, one can develop compassion. Through the power of reflection, one can recognize one’s own motives and,...