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Happy Birthday Arthur Schopenhauer

On this day in history, February 22, 1788, Arthur Schopenhauer 9780198158967was born.  In order to celebrate this famed philosopher I went to Oxford Reference Online which led me to The Oxford Companion to German Literature. In the excerpt below we learn about the work of Schopenhauer.

Schopenhauer, Arthur (Danzig, 1788–1860, Frankfurt/Main), the radical philosopher of pessimism, who described himself as the only worthy successor to Kant, assimilated all the negative trends of a disillusioned age. Like Voltaire, he mocked at the optimism of Leibniz, writing in a highly readable style, which enabled him to draw a Dantesque vision of suffering, demonstrating ‘welcher Art dieser meilleur des mondes possibles ist’. He had other rare gifts which made him conscious, when speaking about the few men endowed with genius, that he was one of them. This explains his reference to the average product of the human species as ‘Fabrikware der Natur’. He became known as a misanthropist (Menschenverächter), and as such is second only to Nietzsche. Schopenhauer was a highly complex individualist. His personal background counted with him more than with most philosophers and encouraged a stubbornly introspective nature. He had a wealthy and cultured father, whose financial acumen led him, as bank director, to spend much time abroad, including a few months in England, which Schopenhauer used with such profit that he read The Times daily for the rest of his life. In 1805 his father committed suicide. His mother, Johanna Schopenhauer, moved to Weimar. After studying science and philosophy at Göttingen and Berlin universities, Schopenhauer graduated in 1813 at Jena with his dissertation Über die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde. A brief experience of the Wars of Liberation (see Napoleonic Wars) left him still more disillusioned with human nature. His mother, of whose social excesses Schopenhauer already disapproved, provoked a final rift, which contributed to his lifelong dislike of women.

Contact with Goethe, and in particular the reading of Goethe’s Farbenlehre, stimulated Schopenhauer’s treatise Über das Sehen und die Farben (1816), which he wrote in Dresden before he produced his principal work Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1819). Years later it was followed by Über den Willen der Natur (1836), which was extended by further variants appearing in 1841 as Die beiden Grundprobleme der Ethik, containing two tracts, Über die Freiheit des Willens and Über das Fundament der Moral. Meanwhile he had qualified to lecture in Berlin (1820), where he hoped, by the force of his contrasting convictions, to deprive Hegel of his followers, an attempt which failed. He compensated himself by a ten-year stay in Italy before returning to Dresden and Berlin, which he left in haste for Frankfurt at the onset of the cholera epidemic which caused Hegel’s death (1831). Thus he survived a great rival, but lived unnoticed and lonely, until the mid-century brought him recognition. His Parerga und Paralipomena of 1851 proved particularly popular, and contained the well-known Aphorismen zur Lebensweisheit. In the early Frankfurt period his considerable artistic and linguistic talents enabled him to translate, from the Spanish, a work of his favourite writer, Balthasar Gracian’s Hand-Orakel und Kunst der Weltklugheit. It was published posthumously.

Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung does not present a comprehensive philosophical system, but a view of life inspired by Kant and other unacknowledged influences, among them Fichte and Schelling, as well as by personal frustration. The work opens with the statement that the world is ‘meine Vorstellung’, Vorstellung being primarily conceived as sense perception. In defining the world (in analogy to Kant’s thing-in-itself, Ding-an-sich) as Will (‘als Wille’), he challenges the concept of the individual free will as found in Schiller’s adaptation of Kant, but sees it as a blind will, which makes man slave to his nature, his emotions, and sexual drives; in stressing their superior function over the human intellect he anticipates the psychology of the subconscious. The will is the master, the intellect the servant. In another analogy Schopenhauer illustrates the will as the blind man who carries everything, including the intellect, the lame man, on his shoulders. He conceives the will as an absolute and irrational concept asserting itself independently of time and space over and above inorganic and organic phenomena; it includes everything ‘was das Sein an sich jedes Dinges in der Welt und der alleinige Kern jeder Erscheinung ist’. Schopenhauer views happiness as an illusion and concedes that the most one can expect is boredom. The will thus constantly deceives and tricks humanity. Schopenhauer sees the most effective relief in art. But art can afford only temporary solace. The one fully effective means of coming to terms with life and the nothingness beyond death is to be found in the comprehension of the will. Schopenhauer was not the first to introduce Indian religious thought into German philosophy and literature, but he was the strongest advocate of the Buddhist principle of negation by contemplation. Self-denial and ascetic withdrawal effect the dissolution and extinction of the individual will, which in return instils into the mind a sense of perfect peace and serene happiness (Nirvāna). In German fiction H. Hesse’s Siddhartha offers a concise example. Schopenhauer was convinced that humanity will go on exploiting life and accepting suffering until death puts an end to the painful process of living.

The appeal of Schopenhauer’s work was mainly to sensitive, intelligent human beings seeking some explanation of the evil in life. Its considerable influence since the latter part of the 19th c. is particularly evident in the work of R. Wagner and Th. Mann. Schopenhauer’s accent on Indian thought, moreover, harmonized with the advance of German Oriental studies. Perhaps the widest appeal emanated from his thesis that life was suffering and that the only consolation lay in compassion (Mitleid). But the subjective and introspective element prevails, reflected in a singularly lonely man who was at one neither with himself nor with the world. He bequeathed what material wealth he had to the relief of suffering.

Recent Comments

  1. Ed Nixon

    Is it the case the the Oxford Companion to German Literature, with text in English, does not contain bracketed English translations of the titles of the works it cites? I might call that an eccentric editorial decision, but then I’m Canadian.

  2. Fred

    I found the essay rather excellent myself. But then Schopenhauer has always been one of my favorites. Fred

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