Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy Summary

Rüdiger Safranski


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher of pessimism, published the first edition of his magnum opus, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, in 1818, though it was not until the 1850’s that he achieved widespread recognition. Several generations of readers have known that work in English translation as The World as Will and Idea (1883-1886). In 1958, however, E. E. I. Payne published a superior modern translation under the title The World as Will and Representation; Payne has also translated Parerga und Paralipomena (1851; Parerga and Paralipomena, 1974), the collection of miscellaneous essays that first brought Schopenhauer fame.

Payne’s translations have contributed significantly to a revival of scholarly interest in Schopenhauer in Great Britain and the United States. Scholars in Germany, Schopenhauer’s native land, have produced an almost constant stream of monographs since his death, but to English readers the renewed scholarly interest is best reflected in several important analyses. Among these are Christopher Janaway’s Seff and World in Schopenhauer’s Philosophy (1989) and Brian Magee’s more general survey, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (1983). Rüdiger Safranski’s clearly written biography represents a welcome addition to the scholarly titles available in English that attempt to explain Schopenhauer’s somewhat loosely constructed system.

The causes for Schopenhauer’s revival are perhaps related to those that initially brought him attention following long neglect during most of his lifetime. First, unlike other German followers of Immanuel Kant, he writes in a pellucid, fluent style, with clarity and grace, qualities that survive translation. Second, he stands in stark opposition to the historical and rational optimism of G. W. F. Hegel; in times like the present, when the Hegelian tradition appears on the decline, Schopenhauer might well be expected to be revived. Third, his philosophy of the will, as Safranski points out, bears a close resemblance to the existential movement prominent since World War II. Finally, more than any other modern philosopher, his system has appealed to creative artists, notably in literature and music, beginning with Richard Wagner and extending through Thomas Mann. One can name many writers beyond the borders of Germany who arc heavily in his debt: Guy de Maupassant and Marcel Proust in France, Leo Tolstoy in Russia, and Joseph Conrad and W. Somerset Maugham in England, to list a few. Since critical interest in these creative artists has been intense, Schopenhauer’s name and system have often been cited as contributing sources of their work.

Drawing on numerous contemporary accounts, Safranski has produced the most comprehensive biography of Schopenhauer available in English. To be sure, the known facts about the philosopher’s life are somewhat limited, largely because of his manner of living. Essentially a loner following a careful daily routine, he lived in boardinghouses for most of his adult life. Because of his father’s early death, probably by his own hand, Schopenhauer possessed a legacy that enabled him to live comfortably without working and to devote all of his energy to study and writing. Yet from his father he also inherited a tendency toward depression that afflicted him periodically. He had a deep aversion to noise, and any prospect of civil violence and disorder terrified him. He suffered from a morbid fear of disease that caused him to break off courtship of two of the three women he might have married, fearing they had tuberculosis. A third marriage prospect, a girl of seventeen, found him quite unappealing. He found it difficult to maintain any harmonious human relationships, largely because he did not restrain his tongue or pen and seemed to delight in disconcerting the company at the Englisher Hof Hotel in Frankfurt, where he dined regularly during his later years. His caustic comments about contemporary philosophers had the effect of limiting dissemination of his own works, for he was fond of applying terms such as “charlatan,” “quack,” “windbag,” and “monkey” to prominent contemporaries such as Hegel and I G. Fichte.

With a financial independence that enabled him to sponsor private publication of his own works, Schopenhauer felt no need to curb his truculent nature, though, as Safranski demonstrates, age mellowed him somewhat, particularly his misogyny. From the welter of largely unpleasant biographical detail, however, Safranski identifies the factors that account for Schopcnhauer’s development. In addition to his depression, he was influenced by a lack of love as a child; his mother, highly romantic by nature, had entered into a loveless marriage with an affluent older merchant. From numerous letters it is obvious that both parents took the welfare of their children seriously and provided for them. Yet it remains true that the...

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