Schopenhauer (1788–1860) is in many ways peculiar among philosophers. He is a pessimist, whereas almost all the others are in some sense optimists. He is not fully academic, like Kant and Hegel, nor yet completely outside the academic tradition. He dislikes Christianity, preferring the religions of India, both Hinduism and Buddhism. He is a man of wide culture, quite as much interested in art as in ethics. He is unusually free from nationalism, and as much at home with English and French writers as with those of his own country. His appeal has always been less to professional philosophers than to artistic and literary people in search of philosophy that they could believe. He began the emphasis on Will which is characteristic of much nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophy; but for him Will, though metaphysically fundamental, is ethically evil—an opposition only possible for a pessimist. He acknowledges three sources of his philosophy, Kant, Plato, and the Upanishads, but I do not think he owes as much to Plato as he thinks he does. His outlook has a certain temperamental affinity with that of the Hellenistic age; it is tired and valetudinarian, valuing peace more than victory, and quietism more than attempts at reform, which he regards as inevitably futile.
Both his parents belonged to prominent commercial families in Danzig, where he was born. His father was a Voltairian, who regarded England as the land of liberty and intelligence. In common with most of the leading citizens of Danzig, he hated the encroachments of Prussia on the independence of the free city, and was indignant when it was annexed to Prussia in 1793—so indignant that he removed to Hamburg, at considerable pecuniary loss. Schopenhauer lived there with his father from 1793 to 1797; then he spent two years in Paris, at the end of which his father was pleased to find that the boy had nearly forgotten German. In 1803 he was put in a boarding-school in England, where he hated the cant and hypocrisy. Two years later, to please his father, he became a clerk in a commercial house in Hamburg, but he loathed the prospect of a business career, and longed for a literary and academic life. This was made possible by his father's death, probably by suicide; his mother was willing that he should abandon commerce for school and university. It might be supposed that he would, in consequence, have preferred her to his father, but the exact opposite happened: he disliked his mother, and retained an affectionate memory of his father.
Schopenhauer's mother was a lady of literary aspirations, who settled in Weimar two weeks before the battle of Jena. There she kept a literary salon, wrote books, and enjoyed friendships with men of culture. She had little affection for her son, and a keen eye for his faults. She warned him against bombast and empty pathos; he was annoyed by her philanderings. When he came of age he inherited a modest competence; after this, he and his mother gradually found each other more and more intolerable. His low opinion of women is no doubt due, at least in part, to his quarrels with his mother.
Already at Hamburg he had come under the influence of the romantics, especially Tieck, Novalis, and Hoffmann, from whom he learnt to admire Greece and to think ill of the Hebraic elements in Christianity. Another romantic, Friedrich Schlegel, confirmed him in his admiration of Indian philosophy. In the year in which he came of age (1809), he went to the university of Göttingen, where he learnt to admire Kant. Two years later he went to Berlin, where he studied mainly science; he heard Fichte lecture, but despised him. He remained indifferent throughout the excitement of the war of liberation. In 1819 he became a Privatdozent at Berlin, and had the conceit to put his lectures at the same hour as Hegel's; having failed to lure away Hegel's hearers, he soon ceased to lecture. In the end he settled down to the life of an old bachelor in Frankfurt. He kept a poodle named Atma (the world-soul) walked two hours every day, smoked a long pipe, read the London Times, and employed correspondents to hunt up evidences of his fame. He was anti-democratic, and hated the revolution of 1848; he believed in spiritualism and magic; in his study he had a bust of Kant and a bronze of Buddha. In his manner of life he tried to imitate Kant except as regards early rising.
His principal work, The World as Will and Idea, was published at the end of 1818. He believed it to be of great importance, and went so far as to say that some paragraphs in it had been dictated by the Holy Ghost. To his great mortification it fell completely flat. In 1844 he persuaded the publisher to bring out a second edition; but it was not till some years later that he began to receive some of the recognition for which he longed.
Schopenhauer's system is an adaptation of Kant's, but one that emphasizes quite different aspects of the Critique from those emphasized by Fichte or Hegel. They got rid of the thing-in-itself, and thus made knowledge metaphysically fundamental. Schopenhauer retained the thing-in-itself, but identified it with will. He held that what appears to perception as my body is really my will. There was more to be said for this view as a development of Kant than most Kantians were willing to recognize. Kant had maintained that a study of the moral law can take us behind phenomena, and give us knowledge which sense-perception cannot give; he also maintained that the moral law is essentially concerned with the will. The difference between a good man and a bad man is, for Kant, a difference in the world of things-in-themselves, and is also a difference as to volitions. It follows that, for Kant, volitions must belong to the real world, not to the world of phenomena. The phenomenon corresponding to a volition is a bodily movement; that is why, according to Schopenhauer, the body is the appearance of which will is the reality.
But the will which is behind phenomena cannot consist of a number of different volitions. Both time and space, according to Kant—and in this Schopenhauer agrees with him—belong only to phenomena; the thing-in-itself is not in space or time. My will, therefore, in the sense in which it is real, cannot be dated, nor can it be composed of separate acts of will, because it is space and time that are the source of plurality—the 'principle of individuation', to use the scholastic phrase which Schopenhauer prefers. My will, therefore, is one and timeless. Nay, more, it is to be identified with the will of the whole universe; my separateness is an illusion, resulting from my subjective apparatus of spatio-temporal perception. What is real is one vast will, appearing in the whole course of nature, animate and inanimate alike.
So far, we might expect Schopenhauer to identify his cosmic will with God, and teach a pantheistic doctrine not unlike Spinoza's, in which virtue would consist in conformity to the divine will. But at this point his pessimism leads to a different development. The cosmic will is wicked; will, altogether, is wicked, or at any rate is the source of all our endless suffering. Suffering is essential to all life, and is increased by every increase of knowledge. Will has no fixed end, which if achieved would bring contentment. Although death must conquer in the end, we pursue our futile purposes, 'as we blow out a soap-bubble as long and as large as possible, although we know perfectly well that it will burst'. There is no such thing as happiness, for an unfulfilled wish causes pain, and attainment brings only satiety. Instinct urges men to procreation, which brings into existence a new occasion for suffering and death; that is why shame is associated with the sexual act. Suicide is useless; the doctrine of transmigration, even if not literally true, conveys truth in the form of a myth.
All this is very sad, but there is a way out, and it was discovered in India.
The best of myths is that of Nirvana (which Schopenhauer interprets as extinction). This, he agrees, is contrary to Christian doctrine, but 'the ancient wisdom of the human race will not be displaced by what happened in Galilee'. The cause of suffering is intensity of will; the less we exercise will, the less we shall suffer. And here knowledge turns out to be useful after all, provided it is knowledge of a certain sort. The distinction between one man and another is part of the phenomenal world, and disappears when the world is seen truly. To the good man, the veil of Maya (illusion) has become transparent; he sees that all things are one, and that the distinction between himself and another is only apparent. He reaches this insight by love, which is always sympathy, and has to do with the pain of others. When the veil of Maya is lifted, a man takes on the suffering of the whole world. In the good man, knowledge of the whole quiets all volition; his will turns away from life and denies his own nature. 'There arises within him a horror of the nature of which his own phenomenal existence is an expression, the kernel and inner nature of that world which is recognized as full of misery.'
Hence Schopenhauer is led to complete agreement, at least as regards practice, with ascetic mysticism. Eckhart and Angelus Silesius are better than the New Testament. There are some good things in orthodox Christianity, notably the doctrine of original sin as preached, against 'the vulgar Pelagianism', by St Augustine and Luther; but the Gospels are sadly deficient in metaphysics. Buddhism, he says, is the highest religion; and his ethical doctrines are orthodox throughout Asia, except where the 'detestable doctrine of Islam' prevails.
The good man will practise complete chastity, voluntary poverty, fasting, and self-torture. In all things he will aim at breaking down his individual will. But he does not do this, as do the Western mystics, to achieve harmony with God; no such positive good is sought. The good that is sought is wholly and entirely negative:
'We must banish the dark impression of that nothingness which we discern behind all virtue and holiness as their final goal, and which we fear as children fear the dark; we must not even evade it like the Indians, through myths and meaningless words, such as reabsorption in Brahma or the Nirvana of the Buddhists. Rather do we freely acknowledge that what remains after the entire abolition of will is for all those who are still full of will certainly nothing; but, conversely, to those in whom the will has turned and has denied itself, this our world, which is so real, with all its suns and milky ways—is nothing.'
There is a vague suggestion here that the saint sees something positive which other men do not see, but there is nowhere a hint as to what this is, and I think the suggestion is only rhetorical. The world and all its phenomena, Schopenhauer says, are only the objectification of will. With the surrender of the will,
'all those phenomena are also abolished; that constant strain and effort without end and without rest at all the grades of objectivity in which and through which the world consists; the multifarious forms succeeding each other in gradation; the whole manifestation of the will; and, finally, also the universal forms of this manifestation, time and space, and also its last fundamental form, subject and object; all are abolished. No will: no idea, no world. Before us there is certainly only nothingness'.
We cannot interpret this except as meaning that the saint's purpose is to come as near as possible to non-existence, which, for some reason never clearly explained, he cannot achieve by suicide. Why the saint is to be preferred to a man who is always drunk is not very easy to see; perhaps Schopenhauer thought the sober moments were bound to be sadly frequent.
Schopenhauer's gospel of resignation is not very consistent and not very sincere. The mystics to whom he appeals believed in contemplation; in the Beatific Vision the most profound kind of knowledge was to be achieved, and this kind of knowledge was the supreme good. Ever since Parmenides, the delusive knowledge of appearance was contrasted with another kind of knowledge, not with something of a wholly different kind. Christianity teaches that in knowledge of God standeth our eternal life. But Schopenhauer will have none of this. He agreed that what commonly passes for knowledge belongs to the realm of Maya, but when we pierce the veil, we behold not God, but Satan, the wicked omnipotent will, perpetually busied in weaving a web of suffering for the torture of its creatures. Terrified by the Diabolic Vision, the sage cries 'Avaunt!' and seeks refuge in non-existence. It is an insult to the mystics to claim them as believers in this mythology. And the suggestion that, without achieving complete non-existence, the sage may yet live a life having some value, is not possible to reconcile with Schopenhauer's pessimism. So long as the sage exists, he exists because he retains will, which is evil. He may diminish the quantity of evil by weakening his will, but he can never acquire any positive good.
Nor is the doctrine sincere, if we may judge by Schopenhauer's life. He habitually dined well, at a good restaurant; he had many trivial love-affairs, which were sensual but not passionate; he was exceedingly quarrelsome and unusually avaricious. On one occasion he was annoyed by an elderly seamstress who was talking to a friend outside the door of his apartment. He threw her downstairs, causing her permanent injury. She obtained a court order compelling him to pay her a certain sum (15 thalers) every quarter as long as she lived. When at last she died, after twenty years, he noted in his account-book: 'Obit anus, abit onus.'1 It is hard to find in his life evidences of
any virtue except kindness to animals, which he carried to the point of objecting to vivisection in the interests of science. In all other respects he was completely selfish. It is difficult to believe that a man who was profoundly convinced of the virtue of asceticism and resignation would never have made any attempt to embody his convictions in his practice.
Historically, two things are important about Schopenhauer: his pessimism, and his doctrine that will is superior to knowledge. His pessimism made it possible for men to take to philosophy without having to persuade themselves that all evil can be explained away, and in this way, as an antidote, it was useful. From a scientific point of view, optimism and pessimism are alike objectionable: optimism assumes, or attempts to prove, that the universe exists to please us, and pessimism that it exists to displease us. Scientifically, there is no evidence that it is concerned with us either one way or the other. The belief in either pessimism or optimism is a matter of temperament, not of reason, but the optimistic temperament has been much commoner among Western philosophers. A representative of the opposite party is therefore likely to be useful in bringing forward considerations which would otherwise be overlooked.
More important than pessimism was the doctrine of the primacy of the will. It is obvious that this doctrine has no necessary logical connection with pessimism, and those who held it after Schopenhauer frequently found in it a basis for optimism. In one form or another, the doctrine that will is paramount has been held by many modern philosophers, notably Nietzsche, Bergson, James, and Dewey. It has, moreover, acquired a vogue outside the circles of professional philosophers. And in proportion as will has gone up in the scale, knowledge has gone down. This is, I think, the most notable change that has come over the temper of philosophy in our age. It was prepared by Rousseau and Kant, but was first proclaimed in its purity by Schopenhauer. For this reason, in spite of inconsistency and a certain shallowness, his philosophy has considerable importance as a stage in historical development.