Arthur Schopenhauer was born in Danzig (now the city of Gdansk in Poland) into a wealthy family. His father admired Voltaire's writing, like Voltaire, regarded England as a land of freedom, and he committed suicide when Arthur was seventeen. His mother moved to Weimar (Germany), wrote books and kept a literary salon.
Bertrand Russell writes that Arthur "was annoyed by her philanderings" and maintained "an affectionate memory of his father." He considered himself as gifted as his mother and superior to her morally, and according to Russell his mother "warned him against bombast and empty pathos."
Schopenhauer loathed the idea of a career in business and longed for a career in literature. With his inheritance he was able to devote himself entirely to intellectual pursuits. In 1809 he entered the University of Göttingen as a student in medicine. In 1813, at 25, he graduated as a doctor of philosophy from the University of Jena. In 1814, following a quarrel with his mother, he never saw her again.
In 1818 he finished his book, The World as Will and Idea. That was the year that a Heidelberg University lecturer, GWH Hegel, acquired a position at the prestigious University of Berlin. Hegel, eighteen years older than Schopenhauer, had been struggling as a lecturer for years. Schopenhauer won a position at the University of Berlin in 1820, and he scheduled his class to coincide with Hegel's. Hegel class was popular, but only five students showed up for Schopenhauer's class. Rather than stay and fight for his point of view he left the university. He would fight for his point of view outside of academia. He expressed resentment toward university philosophy and toward Hegel. Late in life (after 1837) he was to describe Hegel as "‘that clumsy and nauseating charlatan, that pernicious person, who completely disorganized and ruined the minds of a whole generation," and he wrote of Hegel's "maddening webs of words, such as had previously been heard only in madhouses."
Hegel's world view put human endeavor and ideas into a context of historical development that he thought was rational and progressive. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, saw humanity as guided by something other than reason. He recognized that people were driven by biological urges, including sexual urges and that humanity was driven by a capacity for rationalization – excuses rather than pure or detached logic applied to some kind of absolute. To described humanity's strivings outside of some kind of pure reason, Schopenhauer used the word "will." This was the "will" in the aforementioned title of his book published back in 1818, to be his best-known work: The World as Will and Idea. "A man can do what he wants," wrote Schopenhauer, "but not want what he wants."
Schopenhauer would have none of Hegel's rational optimism — nor Marx's optimism). Schopenhauer was not a supporter of the working class movement. He wrote:
...if you want Utopian plans, I would say: the only solution to the problem is the despotism of the wise and noble members of a genuine aristocracy, a genuine nobility, achieved by mating the most magnanimous men with the cleverest and most gifted women. This proposal constitutes my Utopia and my Platonic Republic.
Schopenhauer was a reader of Asian intellectuality and accepted the Buddhist point of view of life as essentially suffering composed of illusions. He wrote of life as like blowing on a soap bubble. In the middle of the bubble are not the good things that the philosopher Epicurus wrote about: friendships, beauty, smelling the roses. A soap bubble is empty. Schopenhauer focused on the empty bubble bursting. Everything for Schopenhauer is a cycle of frustration: trying to satisfy wants produces only satiety, not genuine happiness.
Schopenhauer, some believed, had an irritation disorder that prevented him from enjoying life. But while believing that striving led only to frustration he made an exception regarding striving for tranquility through asceticism. He advocated artistic awareness including the pleasures of music as a remedy for meaninglessness. It became grist for alienated young people from bourgeois or elite families who enjoyed talking philosophy, art and the meaninglessness of life in coffee houses (while others were working trying to help their families survive).
Long after his death, Schopenhauer would be thought of as a precursor to Freud. Thomas Mann, the 1929 Nobel Prize winner in literature, would compare Schopenhauer's "will" and his view of humanity's sexual drive with Freud's id and view of sexuality. Mann would refer to Schopenhauer as the father of modern psychology.
Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.