Who’s afraid of Arthur Schopenhauer? The most favored retort upon mention of the German pessimist’s name, is by way of another interrogative, namely: “just who is Arthur Schopenhauer?” Such is the level of obscurity in which he now languishes. However, if one were to ask the same question around a hundred years ago, the level of awareness of who Schopenhauer was and the recognition of the importance of his work, would have been much the same as that reserved for Freud or Jung today.
Reading Schopenhauer for the first time can be a uniquely enlightening experience for those of a certain type of world-view, nominally one which is constructed from a mixture of pessimism and hope. One can feel a distant unconscious knowledge being coherently articulated for the first time. A mosaic of fractured thoughts, empirical observations, and half-buried truths suddenly begin to gleam like a newly restored artifact: a jigsaw of disparate components becomes a lucid edifying whole. Schopenhauer’s philosophy encompasses aspects of life that metaphysical philosophy usually avoids. This is explained in what is generally regarded as (even in translation) the clearest prose of all the metaphysicists. It is this accessibility that helped his popularity increase at the end of the 19th century to achieve a level of public awareness and engagement that is frankly unimaginable today.
Sometimes, circumstantial evidence can enlighten a subject to a greater degree than direct observation. A short descriptive clause, there to add detail to an article in the New York Times of 20th July 1919, that is a commentary on the new levels of probity extant in Atlantic City prior to the prohibition laws coming into effect, speaks volumes about who were considered the “thinking readers” writers of this era: ‘The Boardwalk bookstores are crowded, and in their windows one reads the name of Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, Galsworthy, Conrad, Freud and Schopenhauer. And these books are bought, read, and discussed on the pavilions and in the hotels’ (De Casseres, 1919). This is a list that does not surprise, till one sees Schopenhauer’s name completing it. That surprise is quickly ameliorated if one researches Schopenhauer’s presence in the relatively new online resources that allow access to collections of archived Victorian journals.
A search of the online database British Periodicals for articles about Schopenhauer between the years of 1890 to 1923 results in 1430 articles being identified, and goes some way to explaining the ubiquity of Schopenhauer’s thought in the intellectual of the fin de siècle. The range of journals include The Westminster Review, known for publishing the first ever article on Schopenhauer, the one that is ironically accepted as leading to his ‘fame’ in Germany. Other journals that regularly feature Schopenhauer include: The Musical Standard, Academy, Speaker, Westminster Review, Fortnightly review, Bookman, Review of Reviews, and The National Observer, to name just a selection.
In a Westminster Review article of 1895, Todhunter tells us that Schopenhauer’s works ‘sell by the thousand’ (Todhunter 1895, 360) and describes the sales of the recent popular edition as ‘astonishing’ (1895, 360) before acclaiming Schopenhauer’s writing as: ‘the high water mark of German prose, they possess a clearness, a simplicity and a force which other German writers are often disposed to bury under academic trammels’ (1895, 364). While the other online databases do not have the volume of ‘hits’ as British periodicals, they all show a significant presence, and show up quirks, like the Punch series of Schopenhauer Ballads from 1893, which do little to add insight into his philosophy, but can be said to be indicative of his popularity. Goodale defines Schopenhauer’s public popularity in this chronological assessment:
In general, therefore, an English author could hardly have known of Schopenhauer’s teachings before 1853; he would probably not have heard of the philosopher before 1872, nor have thought seriously of him until 1876, unless he had a special interest in Germany. By 1879, however, every person alive to the developments of the day must have heard of him, and by 1883 an educated man could not think of pessimism without also thinking of Schopenhauer (Goodale1932, 243).
Cartwright and Luft’s bibliography of every edition of every work by Schopenhauer ever published in any language, found in the volume of essay’s Schopenhauer, New Essays in Honor of his 200th Birthday, reveals the following information regarding the availability and popularity (if one allows that publication frequency is aligned with popularity) of Schopenhauer in the twenty years between 1885 and 1905, when the research into periodical articles shows he was at the peak of his popularity. The two volume: The World as Will, acknowledged as the key work, was printed five times in France and Germany, three times in England. The other work, various combinations of essays, including On the Freedom of the Will and differing selections from the double volume of essays Parerga and Paralipomena were published the following number of times: 46 in England, 44 in Germany, 16 in France and nine in America.
The following overview is intended to look at Schopenhauer’s philosophy as it might inform the worldview of an educated reader. As space is limited, and the boredom threshold of the on line reader low, the following is necessarily a reductive reading; it is also a subjective reading. As Schopenhauer was, by consensus, a curmudgeonly misanthrope, and a self-confessed, thoroughgoing misogynist, there is no better approach to reading him that that of Roland Barthes, who sees the involvement of the author, and the interpretation of authorial intention in the reading of a text as limiting the potential of the text.
There is no shortage of books that detail and explain Schopenhauer’s philosophy, though, to this writer, most fall short of the acknowledged clarity of the original work. The mass popularity that was enjoyed by Schopenhauer is arguably due as much to its readability as to its insight. Many would not only have read Schopenhauer directly for the philosophy, but for the joy of reading the prose for its inherent erudite artistry and the didactic potential to be found in Schopenhauer’s exemplary sentence construction. With previously mentioned caveats, there now follows a short overview of Schopenhauer’s philosophy. He approaches the human concept of the world by dividing it into two components: understanding which is a faculty we share with other sentient creatures, and reason, which is unique to humans. Understanding is seen as the ability to conceive time, space and causality. Reason is a higher level of cognition and awareness that allows us to view those concepts as complex objects of thought. Schopenhauer’s philosophy is founded on a synthesis of Kant, Plato and Eastern thought. He uses the concept of the ‘veil of Maya’ to describe the cloak that hides the deep reality from our empirical construction of reality.
If true reality is hidden from us, the empirical world we do perceive is nothing but a backdrop for individual suffering, the unavoidable product of humanity’s intrinsic longing, perhaps best quantified as desire: that insatiable, remorselessly needy, feral child born from the inevitable coupling of want and need to all humanity, whose essence is so captured here in this passage demonstrating the expressive, cohesive fluency of Schopenhauer’s articulation. An apology is made for the length of the quote, but it is hoped justification will be found in the degree to which it exemplifies the ‘readability’ of Schopenhauer:
Awakened to life out of the night of unconsciousness, the will finds itself as an individual in an endless and boundless world, among innumerable individuals, all striving, suffering, and erring; and, as if through a troubled dream, it hurries back to the old unconsciousness. Yet till then its desires are unlimited, its claims inexhaustible, and every satisfied desire gives birth to a new one. No possible satisfaction in the world could suffice to still its craving, set a final goal to its demands, and fill the bottomless pit of its heart… Everything in life proclaims that earthly happiness is destined to be frustrated, or recognized as an illusion. Life presents itself as a continual deception in small matters as well as great. The grounds for this lie deep in the very nature of things. Accordingly, happiness lies always in the future, or else in the past, and the present may be compared to a small dark cloud driven by the wind over a sunny plain; in front of and behind the cloud everything is bright, only it itself always casts a shadow. (Schopenhauer 1969, 576)
Schopenhauer argued that egoism was responsible for morally indifferent actions: malice responsible for morally reprehensible actions, and compassion responsible for actions possessing moral worth. He saw compassion as the root of justice and philanthropy, which he saw all other virtues deriving from. How a person was motivated by these incentives was the key to their moral character. His defining moral principal was quite simple: injure no one, help everyone as much as you can. He regarded egoism as the natural standpoint for sentient beings, since their overwhelming driving force was to secure their own survival and wellbeing. He saw self-interest as the definitive human behavior: as only humans possess reason, consequentially, they make a conscious decision to pursue their own wellbeing. Compassion, he argued had to be enabled by treating another’s suffering as ones own, with the distress located in another’s body. He explained the actions of what he termed ‘evil’ people, as totally driven by extreme egoism and malice: seeing others as non-egos, their life is one of delusion. Compassionate people are therefore able to recognise the unity of being
Schopenhauer had, what is still today, a progressive attitude to justice, seeing the retributivism thus: ‘All retaliation for wrong by inflicting pain without any object for future is revenge, and can have no other purpose than consolation for the suffering one had endured by the sight of the suffering one has caused in another. Such a thing is wickedness and cruelty and cannot be ethically justified’ (Schopenhauer 1969I, 348). To alleviate the suffering of existence, albeit for a temporary respite, Schopenhauer argues that we can find temporary salvation by the aesthetic appreciation of art (the flower of existence), as this allows us to go beyond the realm of our empirical awareness, and experience the universal will-less consciousness. Music, he argues at great length, is the zenith of this experience; his explanation of this metaphysical transcendence possible when listening to music is considered by such great composers as Wagner and Mahler as the most profound writings on music ever authored.
To achieve a more lasting salvation is a far more difficult task. It is one that is arguably paralleled in Eastern philosophy, with similarities to Buddhist and Hindu thought. Schopenhauer saw the way to salvation as through a combination of extreme asceticism, dedicating ones life to acts of compassion for others, coupled with a total disregard for the self. This he assured his readers is the only way to a pure nirvana-like state. Schopenhauer describes this so:
How blessed must be the life of a man whose will is silenced not for a few moments, as in the enjoyment of the beautiful, but for ever, indeed completely extinguished, except for the last glimmering spark that maintained the body and is extinguished with it… He now looks back calmly and with a smile on the phantasmagoria of this world that now stands before him indifferent. (I 390)
Although he appreciated Buddhist and Hindu thought, he rejected the idea of (a) God. He argued that the idea God created the world out of nothing as absurd, since it is logically impossible for something to come out of nothing. He also thought that the awful nature of the world contradicts the idea that the world is a product of an all – benevolent being. He dismissed Spinoza’s view as the world and God being synonymous with this caustic comment: ‘To call the world “God”, is not to explain it, but only to enrich the language with a superfluous synonym for the word “world”‘ (Schopenhauer 1974 II, 99). He saw the very concept of religion as a man-made invention to nullify the anxiety of death, and termed it ‘the metaphysics of the people’(102).
Schopenhauer argued a man can do what he wills, but not will what he wills. Schopenhauer saw most people as self-serving rapacious egotistical individuals. Schopenhauer’s view of the world as one of constant suffering still resonates deeply with the modern life experience on a multiplicity of levels. Schopenhauer saw kindness and compassion towards others as the road to salvation. Schopenhauer had a huge respect for Eastern philosophy. Guy de Maupassant wrote a short story called Besides Schopenhauer’s Corpse a short humorous tale that says of Schopenhauer ‘those startling maxims which are like jets of flame flung, in a few words, into the darkness of the Unknown Life.’(Maupassant 193-?, 789) Maupassant is among a long list of authors, artists and composers who cite Schopenhauer as an influence: Wagner, Tolstoy, Proust, Hardy, Flaubert and obviously Maupassant are among many card carrying ‘Schopenhauerians’. However, there is one author who both men held in the greatest esteem: unsurprisingly Shakespeare. Who was highly influential upon both men. Schopenhauer quotes or mentions his work, some seventy three times, more than any other non-philosophical figure and cites one of Prospero’s speeches in The Tempest, as the essence of his philosophy, perfectly expressed:
These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air: And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.
Perhaps this final quote against the perpetrators of slavery is a fine a way as there is to think about the great German pessimist:
In On Ethics, in which Schopenhauer castigates those followers of faith that perpetrated the slave trade:
At bottom man is a hideous wild beast, we know him only as bridled and tamed, a state that is called civilisation, but when and where the padlock of law and order are once removed and anarchy occurs, he then shows himself to be what he is. An important instance is furnished by the British Anti-slavery Society report. This book constitutes one of the gravest indictments against human nature. None will lay it aside without horror, and a few without tears…When he reads how those devils in human form, those bigoted church-going, strict Sabbath adhering scoundrels, especially the Anglican parsons among them, treat their innocent black brothers who through violence and injustice have fallen to their devils claws. This book…inflames to such a degree all human feeling that, with it in our hands we could preach a crusade for the subjugation and punishment of the slave holding states of North America. For they are a disgrace to the whole of humanity. (Schopenhauer 1974, 211-212)