Arthur Schopenhauer

(1788-1860)

“If we see light at the end of the tunnel, It’s the light of the oncoming train,” said the poet Robert Lowell[1], and whenever Schopenhauer saw happiness in the tunnel of life, he saw it as the oncoming train of pain. Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, is well known for his philosophy of pessimism, and in this respect, he is rather peculiar because nearly all other great philosophers are more or less optimistic. He was anti-Hegel, and did his best to stem the tide of Hegel’s popularity. When he was invited to deliver lectures in Berlin, he deliberately scheduled them at the same hours as Hegel was programmed to teach. However, he failed to lure the students and found himself lecturing to empty seats! He was greatly inspired by the mysticism of the Buddhist and Hindu philosophies, and he openly admired the Upanishads in his works. He was always hostile to idealism and Hegelianism, and called himself the true successor of Kant. His philosophical masterpiece is The World as Will and Idea (also translated as The World as Will and Representation), in which his philosophy has been outlined.

Schopenhauer begins from Kant’s division of the reality into phenomenon and noumenon. Kant had restricted himself to experience and maintained that the thing-in-itself was unknowable, but Schopenhauer believed that it was possible to transcend experience and know the thing-in-itself. He claimed that the noumenon was same as what we call Will. Will is our reality; what appears in perception to us, as our body is really our will. He sees the world in double-aspect, as Will and Idea. The world as an object in relation to a subject, as perception of a perceiver is Idea. Schopenhauer does not believe that will causes the idea. For him will and idea are one and same reality, seen from different perspectives. Their relationship is like two sides of coin, not that of cause and effect. Schopenhauer writes, “The act of will and the action of the body are not two different states objectively known, connected by a bond of causality; they do not stand in relation of cause and effect, but are one and the same thing… The action of the will is nothing but the act of will objectified i.e. translated into perception.”[2]

But the will, which is thing-in-itself, cannot consist of a number of wills. Schopenhauer, like Kant, believes space and time to be only modes of perception and not applicable to the noumena. So, the will is neither in space, nor in time. Space is the cause of plurality, without space there is only unity. The will is, therefore, one and timeless. This belief in a single cosmic will reveals the influence of mysticism on Schopenhauer. There is no separate individual will; it is just an illusion. In reality, there is just one will.

Schopenhauer, being pessimistic, believes the will to be a mindless, aimless and non-rational urge. It is utterly devoid of all rationality. The will is wicked and evil, the cause of endless suffering. It is a blind, unreasoning impulse of self-preservation. It is a will to live. It is an endless striving and blind impulse, with no purpose or aim. It has no knowledge, is bound by no laws, and is absolutely free and self-determining. There is no meaning, no reason, no God; it is an eternal, frustrated will; a purposeless incessant impulse. Here, Schopenhauer stands in contrast to Hegel who believed in an Absolute of reason.

The will appears in nature in the form of mechanical forces, in plants as vegetative life and in animals as instinct. And finally in man, it acquires consciousness. And with consciousness comes suffering. The will indicates want, an unfulfilled desire. Desire is infinite; fulfillment is not, and hence, is it is never satisfied and always remains hungry. There is no such thing as happiness. An unfulfilled desire causes pain, and if fulfilled causes satisfaction. It is satisfaction what others call happiness, which is basically negative, since it represents nothing but a cessation of pain. A desire fulfilled leads to ennui and annoyance, resulting in many more desires; it is an endless process. Life is evil, and there is nothing but a continuous strife and war. The pain increases as the organisms go higher and higher in evolution. Knowledge affords no solution, as it makes one more conscious of the evil will and the pain of life. The genius suffers most of all. Life is nothing but a painful misery.

The will is hungry, yet strives to live. It finds thousands of pretexts to continue this state of endless misery. Love, too, is such a pretext. It leads men to procreation, which brings new life, and hence a new victim of suffering and death. Suicide is useless because although the individual will perish, the will continues in the species. It is vain and foolish because the thing-in-itself remains unaffected by it.

The reality is blind, irrational and evil. Love, progress and history are nothing but deceits and illusions because the will is never satisfied of suffering and life. The only way to reduce this misery is to suppress the will. The less we exercise the will, the less we will suffer. The lesser we desire, the lesser will be our misery. The root of all evils is the will to live. To repress and quench it is our only means of escape. The only way to reduce the suffering and unavoidable frustration is to minimize our desires. The only solution is a denial of the will to live. Here, Schopenhauer shows his agreement with the ascetic mysticism of the oriental religions.

Schopenhauer gives a great importance to art and aesthetics. When a person contemplates over and appreciates a work of art, he is free of any desire and evil. A man absorbed in the meditation of beauty is a no longer a slave of the will. In the will-less contemplation of truth, a man forgets his individual self and material interests. Schopenhauer especially praises music by declaring that unlike other arts, which merely copy ideas, music copies the will itself, and this is why it is more effective and powerful.

Schopenhauer makes no attempt to hide his contempt for women. Women are suitable for being teachers and nurses of children because they themselves are childish, silly and foolish. They are ‘big children’, and represent an intermediate stage between child and man. Nature gives a woman superabundant beauty and charm for a few years so that she might capture the heart of man and use him as a means of survival for the rest of life. Just as the female ant loses its wings after mating, a woman loses her beauty after childbirth. They have the weapons of cunning and subtlety, and they are unfaithful, liars and ungrateful. Then Schopenhauer denies their very beauty and states, “Only a male intellect clouded by the sexual drive could call the stunted, narrow-shouldered, broad-hipped and short-legged sex the fair sex.”[3] They are the unaesthetic sex because they are incapable of taking a purely objective interest in anything. Women lack genius and have been unable to produce a single magnum opus in science or art. They are the inferior second sex in every respect. Of course, the feminists of today wouldn’t be pleased at these outrageous comments by Schopenhauer.

The whole philosophy of Schopenhauer culminates in such a horrible picture of life because he is bent upon seeing only the evil and misery in the world. He fails to notice the good things which life has to offer, and that happiness is quite possible in this life. We have seen the unjustified optimism of Leibniz, and here we view the gloomy pessimism of Schopenhauer. The fact is that the world is neither for nor against us; it doesn’t care for our pleasure or misery; it is indifferent. From a philosophical point of view, both optimism and pessimism are groundless and unjustified.

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Footnotes:

[1] Since 1939
[2] Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans E. F. J. Payne, Dover Publications, New York, 1966, Vol 1, page 100
[3] Parerga and Paralipomena