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Schopenhauer, Arthur

Category: Philosopher

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 –1860) was a German philosopher.  He was born in the city of Gdansk in Poland to a wealthy German patrician family.  When the Kingdom of Prussia annexed Gdansk in 1793, Schopenhauer's family moved to Hamburg.

His private life was somewhat unconventional and he never married, writing, "Marrying means to halve one's rights and double one's duties," This did not stop him having a series of love affairs, mostly with young girls.

In Dresden in 1819 [aged 31], Schopenhauer fathered, with a servant, an illegitimate daughter who was born and died the same year.  In 1821 [aged 34], he fell in love with nineteen-year old opera singer, Caroline Richter (called Medon), and had a relationship with her for several years. When he was 43 years old, he also had a relationship with seventeen-year old Flora Weiss who rejected him.  After this rebuff, Schopenhauer settled permanently in Frankfurt in 1833 [aged 45], where he remained for the next twenty-seven years, living alone except for a succession of pet poodles.  Thus his views on marriage might have been somewhat clouded by these experiences.  "Marrying means to grasp blindfolded into a sack hoping to find an eel amongst an assembly of snakes." 

 

Schopenhauer also had a notably strained relationship with his mother Johanna Schopenhauer. When he wrote his first book, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, his mother informed him that the book was incomprehensible and it was unlikely that anyone would ever buy a copy.

Schopenhauer was not a mystic, his writing is not spiritual in nature and he appears not to have been gifted with great flashes of inspiration, but his contributions to philosophy are useful – worked out in the logical way one would expect of an intellectual.

Philosophy ... is a science, and as such has no articles of faith; accordingly, in it nothing can be assumed as existing except what is either positively given empirically, or demonstrated through indubitable conclusions”.

 

He studied metaphysics and psychology at university, where he concentrated on Plato and Immanuel Kant. In 1814, aged only 26, Schopenhauer began his seminal work The World as Will and Representation (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung) and it is from this book that I have taken a number of ideas.

His philosophy is somewhat stark in comparison with, for example, Hegel or Kant, but it is softened and greatly influenced by Eastern thought, particularly Buddhism. The Upanishads were a great source of inspiration to Schopenhauer, and writing about them he said:

“It is the most satisfying and elevating reading which is possible in the world; it has been the solace of my life and will be the solace of my death”.

Furthermore, his neighbour Karl Krause had mastered Sanskrit, and it was from Krause that Schopenhauer learned meditation and received the closest thing to expert advice concerning Indian thought.  The influence of this in his works is unmistakeable.

 

Schopenhauer believed in the existence of the spiritual world.  He accepted, for example, the ideas of Plato, and those of  Kant with its  phenomenal physical world of form and what Kant called the noumenal world of spirit.

From the point of view of this website the main ideas of his that have been particularly useful are the existence of the Will as a separate and controlling function and the problems of desire

His views were a dash bleak - for Schopenhauer, human desire was futile, illogical, directionless, and, by extension, so was all human action in the world – but he presented a good argument on why desire got us into trouble.

He also proposed that one way to forget our desires and the consequent pain they caused was to appreciate and pursue beauty, art and music.  So this idea has been used too, an idea supported by many subsequent people Nietzsche , Crowley and so on.  Music, for Schopenhauer, was the purest form of art because he thought that it was the only art that did not merely copy ideas, but actually embodied the ‘will’ itself.  And here again, we have an indication that Schopenhauer did have an understanding of the spiritual, in that music is the external representation of a spiritual truth.

 

Another idea used for the site, is that of the role of reason.  According to Schopenhauer, whenever we make a choice, "we assume as necessary that that decision was preceded by something from which it ensued, and which we call the ground or reason, … of the resultant action."   This is why reason is shown in the Model preceding the Will.

Another key proposal of his was that Personality had a key role in decision making.  In the model,  every decision of the Will  is shown to be affected by the Personality, not just reason, and desires or obligations and perceptions.  And this was the way Schopenhauer also saw things.

"every human being, even every animal, after the motive has appeared, must carry out the action which alone is in accordance with his inborn and immutable character."

Another area on which he touched which has been found immensely useful is his views on sex, which he saw as a life force which completely subsumed reason.  Both the will to survive and the will to reproduce [the autonomic system] were present in every human being and were immensely powerful forces.  In effect, one cannot suppress sexual or survival urges, they are stronger than reason, and as we saw he was talking from personal experience.

 

He was also in a roundabout sort of way, a believer in the effectiveness of hardship, misery and pain as drivers to creativity rather than comfort and pleasure, a feature we see born out in the observations on this website – nearly all the great moments of creativity, wisdom and inspiration were the result of pain not pleasure.

He was not a great supporter of womens’ rights [hardly surprising given his problems with his mother] but he did concede that "women are decidedly more sober in their judgment than [men] " and " I believe that if a woman succeeds in withdrawing from the mass, or rather raising herself above the mass, she grows ceaselessly and more than a man."

 

He was adamantly against differing treatment of races, was deeply concerned about the welfare of animals, was fervently anti-slavery, and supported the abolitionist movement in the United States.

Schopenhauer had a robust constitution, but in 1860 his health began to deteriorate. He died of heart failure on 21 September 1860, while sitting on his couch with his cat at home. He was 72.

 

Observations

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