The World according to Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

On February 22, 1788, famous and most influential German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was born. He is best known for his book, The World as Will and Representation, in which he claimed that our world is driven by a continually dissatisfied will, continually seeking satisfaction.

Arthur Schopenhauer was born in Danzig (now Gdansk) on the 22nd of February 1788, as son of the merchant Heinrich Floris Schopenhauer, and Johanna Troisner. At age 17, his father placed him in a business school in Hamburg. Being apprenticed to merchants in Danzig in 1804 and afterwards in Hamburg, the expectation of his father was that Arthur should take over the family’s business. But Arthur Schopenhauer had different plans for his life. After his father’s death, he enrolled in a gymnasium in Gotha. He was a very gifted student and made so much progress that in two years he was able to read Greek and Latin with fluency. In October 1809 he entered the University of Göttingen as a student of medicine He later received the degree of doctor of philosophy from the University of Jena in 1813 in absentia, and in the same year the press at Rudolstadt published his first book, Über die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde (On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason). In 1818 as lecturer at the University of Berlin Schopenhauer had the opportunity to visit Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s famous philosophy lectures for two years, which he attended with a spirit of opposition.

Leaving Berlin in 1831 in light of a cholera epidemic that was entering Germany from Russia, Schopenhauer moved south and in June of 1833, he settled permanently in Frankfurt am Main, where he remained for the next twenty-seven years. There he entered on the life for which he has become famous: almost in a parody of Kant (who never got out of Königsberg), he dressed in an old-fashioned way and his daily life was defined by a deliberate routine: Schopenhauer would awake, wash, read and study during the morning hours, play his flute, lunch at the Englisher Hof, near city center Frankfurt, rest afterwards, read, take an afternoon walk in the company of his much-loved poodle Atma, check the world events as reported in The London Times, sometimes attend concerts in the evenings, and frequently read inspirational texts such as the Upanishads before going to sleep.

Schopenhauer’s system of philosophy was based on that of Kant’s. He did not believe that people had individual wills but were rather simply part of a vast and single will that pervades the universe: that the feeling of separateness that each of has is but an illusion. So far this sounds much like Baruch Spinoza’s point of view or the Naturalistic School of philosophy’s view. The problem with Schopenhauer, and certainly unlike Spinoza, is that, in his view, “the cosmic will is wicked … and the source of all endless suffering.” Schopenhauer saw the worst in life and as a result he was dour and glum. Believing that he had no individual will, man was therefore at the complete mercy of all that which is about him. His theories on aesthetics and ethics, pointing to the negation of the will as liberation, his “pessimistic” world-view that regarded nonbeing more highly than being, and his conception of music as the highest of the arts all exercised a powerful influence on both Wagner and Nietzsche.

In the intervening years he had written several works including On the Will in Nature (1836), The Freedom of the Will (1841), and On the Basis of Morality (1841). Although an Essay on the Freedom of the Will had been recognized through the awardance of a cultural prize in Norway in 1839 he was into his sixties when the publication of his collection of essays Parerga and Paralipomena (i.e. Additions and Omissions, in 1851) really brought public attention to his life’s work. Schopenhauer had a robust constitution, but in 1860 his health began to deteriorate. On 21st September 1860,  Schopenhauer rose in the morning and sat down alone to breakfast; shortly afterwards his doctor called and found him dead in his chair.

At yovisto you can learn more about Arthur Schopenhauer and his work in the discussion between Bryan Magee (The Philosophy of Schopenhauer) and historian of philosophy Frederick Copleston, S.J.

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