Arthur Schopenhauer (Philosopher Biographies)

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Arthur Schopenhauer

(22 February 1788 – 21 September 1860) was a German philosopher known for his pessimism and philosophical clarity. At age 25, he published his doctoral dissertation, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which examined the fundamental question of whether reason alone can unlock answers about the world.

Schopenhauer's most influential work, The World as Will and Representation, claimed that the world is fundamentally what we recognize in ourselves as our will. His analysis of will led him to the conclusion that emotional, physical, and sexual desires can never be fulfilled. Consequently, he eloquently described a lifestyle of negating desires, similar to the ascetic teachings of Vedanta, Buddhism, Taoism and the Church Fathers of early Christianity.

Schopenhauer's metaphysical analysis of will, his views on human motivation and desire, and his aphoristic writing style influenced many well-known thinkers including Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Wagner, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Erwin Schrödinger, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank, Carl Gustav Jung, Leo Tolstoy, and Jorge Luis Borges.


Arthur Schopenhauer was born in the city of Danzig (now Gdańsk) as the son of Heinrich Floris Schopenhauer and Johanna Schopenhauer, both descendants of wealthy German Patrician families. When the Kingdom of Prussia acquired the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth city of Danzig in 1793, Schopenhauer's family moved to Hamburg. In 1805, Schopenhauer's father might have committed suicide. Schopenhauer's mother Johanna shortly after moved to Weimar, then the centre of German literature, to pursue her writing career. After one year, Schopenhauer left the family business in Hamburg to join her.

Schopenhauer became a student at the University of Göttingen in 1809. There he studied metaphysics and psychology under Gottlob Ernst Schulze, the author of Aenesidemus, who advised him to concentrate on Plato and Immanuel Kant. In Berlin, from 1811 to 1812, he had attended lectures by the prominent post-Kantian philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte and the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher.
Schopenhauer as a youth

In 1814, Schopenhauer began his seminal work The World as Will and Representation (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung). He would finish it in 1818 and publish it the following year. In Dresden in 1819, Schopenhauer fathered an illegitimate child who was born and died the same year. In 1820, Schopenhauer became a lecturer at the University of Berlin. He scheduled his lectures to coincide with those of the famous philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, whom Schopenhauer described as a "clumsy charlatan". However, only five students turned up to Schopenhauer's lectures, and he dropped out of academia. A late essay, "On University Philosophy", expressed his resentment towards university philosophy.

While in Berlin, Schopenhauer was named as a defendant in an action at law initiated by a woman named Caroline Marquet. She asked for damages, alleging that Schopenhauer had pushed her. According to Schopenhauer's court testimony, she deliberately annoyed him by raising her voice while standing right outside his door. Marquet alleged that the philosopher had assaulted and battered her after she refused to leave his doorway. Her companion testified that she saw Marquet prostrate outside his apartment. Because Marquet won the lawsuit, he made payments to her for the next twenty years. When she died, he wrote on a copy of her death certificate, Obit anus, abit onus ("The old woman dies, the burden flies").

In 1821, he fell in love with nineteen-year old opera singer, Caroline Richter (called Medon), and had a relationship with her for several years. He discarded marriage plans, however, writing, "Marrying means to halve one's rights and double one's duties", and "Marrying means, to grasp blindfolded into a sack hoping to find out an eel out of an assembly of snakes." When he was forty-three years old, seventeen-year old Flora Weiss recorded rejecting him in her diary.

Schopenhauer had a notably strained relationship with his mother Johanna Schopenhauer. After his father's death, Arthur Schopenhauer endured two long years of drudgery as a merchant, in honor of his dead father. Afterward, his mother retired to Weimar, and Arthur dedicated himself wholly to studies in the gymnasium of Gotha. After he left it in disgust after seeing one of the masters lampooned, he went to live with his mother. But by that time she had already opened her infamous salon, and Arthur was not compatible with the vain, ceremonious ways of the salon. He was also disgusted by the ease with which Johanna had forgotten his father's memory. Therefore, he gave university life a shot. There, he wrote his first book, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. She informed him that the book was incomprehensible and it was unlikely that anyone would ever buy a copy. In a fit of temper Arthur told her that his work would be read long after the rubbish she wrote would have been totally forgotten.

In 1831, a cholera epidemic broke out in Berlin and Schopenhauer left the city. Schopenhauer settled permanently in Frankfurt in 1833, where he remained for the next twenty-seven years, living alone except for a succession of pet poodles named Atman and Butz. The numerous notes that he made during these years, amongst others on aging, were published posthumously under the title Senilia.

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 at home. He was 72.

Philosophy of the "will"

A key focus of Schopenhauer was his investigation of individual motivation. Before Schopenhauer, Hegel had popularized the concept of Zeitgeist, the idea that society consisted of a collective consciousness which moved in a distinct direction, dictating the actions of its members. Schopenhauer, a reader of both Kant and Hegel, criticized their logical optimism and the belief that individual morality could be determined by society and reason. Schopenhauer believed that humans were motivated only by their own basic desires, or Wille zum Leben (Will to Live), which directed all of mankind. For Schopenhauer, human desire was futile, illogical, directionless, and, by extension, so was all human action in the world. To Schopenhauer, the Will is a metaphysical existence which controls not only the actions of individual, intelligent agents, but ultimately all observable phenomena. Will, for Schopenhauer, is what Kant called the "thing-in-itself".

Art and aesthetics

For Schopenhauer, human desiring, "willing," and craving cause suffering or pain. A temporary way to escape this pain is through aesthetic contemplation (a method comparable to Zapffe's "Sublimation"). This is the next best way, short of not willing at all, which is the best way. Total absorption in the world as representation prevents a person from suffering the world as will. Art diverts the spectator's attention from the grave everyday world and lifts them into a world that consists of mere play of images. With music, the auditor becomes engrossed with a playful form of the will, which is normally deadly serious. Music was also given a special status in Schopenhauer's aesthetics as it did not rely, in his thinking, upon the medium of phenomenal representation. Music artistically presents the will itself, not the way that the will appears to an individual observer. According to Daniel Albright, "Schopenhauer thought that music was the only art that did not merely copy ideas, but actually embodied the will itself."


Schopenhauer's moral theory proposed that of three primary moral incentives, compassion, malice and egoism, compassion is the major motivator to moral expression. Malice and egoism are corrupt alternatives.


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, or more accurately the motive, of the resultant action."  Choices are not made freely. Our actions are necessary and determined because "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."  A definite action inevitably results when a particular motive influences a person's given, unchangeable character. If there is no free will, should crimes be punished?

The State, Schopenhauer claimed, punishes criminals in order to prevent future crimes. It does so by placing "beside every possible motive for committing a wrong a more powerful motive for leaving it undone, in the inescapable punishment. Accordingly, the criminal code is as complete a register as possible of counter–motives to all criminal actions that can possibly be imagined…."

…the law and its fulfillment, namely punishment, are directed essentially to the future, not to the past. This distinguishes punishment from revenge, for revenge is motivated by what has happened, and hence by the past as such. All retaliation for wrong by inflicting a pain without any object for the future is revenge, and can have no other purpose than consolation for the suffering one has endured by the sight of the suffering one has caused in another. Such a thing is wickedness and cruelty, and cannot be ethically justified. …the object of punishment…is deterrence from crime…. Object and purpose for the future distinguish punishment from revenge, and punishment has this object only when it is inflicted in fulfillment of a law. Only in this way does it proclaim itself to be inevitable and infallible for every future case; and thus it obtains for the law the power to deter….

Should capital punishment be legal? "For safeguarding the lives of citizens," he asserted, "capital punishment is therefore absolutely necessary." "The murderer," wrote Schopenhauer, " who is condemned to death according to the law must, it is true, be now used as a mere means, and with complete right. For public security, which is the principal object of the State, is disturbed by him; indeed it is abolished if the law remains unfulfilled. The murderer, his life, his person, must be the means of fulfilling the law, and thus of re–establishing public security." Schopenhauer disagreed with those who would abolish capital punishment. "Those who would like to abolish it should be given the answer: 'First remove murder from the world, and then capital punishment ought to follow.' "

People, according to Schopenhauer, cannot be improved. They can only be influenced by strong motives that overpower criminal motives. Schopenhauer declared that "real moral reform is not at all possible, but only determent from the deed…."

He claimed that this doctrine was not original with him. Previously, it appeared in the writings of Plato, Seneca, Hobbes, Pufendorf, and Anselm Feuerbach. Schopenhauer declared that their teaching was corrupted by subsequent errors and therefore was in need of clarification.


Schopenhauer was perhaps even more influential in his treatment of man's psychology than he was in the realm of philosophy.

Philosophers have not traditionally been impressed by the tribulations of sex, but Schopenhauer addressed it and related concepts forthrightly: ought rather to be surprised that a thing [sex] which plays throughout so important a part in human life has hitherto practically been disregarded by philosophers altogether, and lies before us as raw and untreated material.

He gave a name to a force within man which he felt had invariably precedence over reason: the Will to Live or Will to Life (Wille zum Leben), defined as an inherent drive within human beings, and indeed all creatures, to stay alive and to reproduce.

Schopenhauer refused to conceive of love as either trifling or accidental, but rather understood it to be an immensely powerful force lying unseen within man's psyche and dramatically shaping the world:

The ultimate aim of all love affairs ... is more important than all other aims in man's life; and therefore it is quite worthy of the profound seriousness with which everyone pursues it.

What is decided by it is nothing less than the composition of the next generation ...

These ideas foreshadowed Darwin's discovery of evolution and Freud's concepts of the libido and the unconscious mind.

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