Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) was a German philosopher who became famous for his idea that “Will” is the most basic concept for both man and nature. He is also known for promoting an atheistic and pessimistic view of reality. Schopenhauer was born inDanzig and studied philosophy at Göttingen in 1810 after a failed attempt at medical school. Schopenhauer openly declared that the chief influences on his philosophy were Plato, Kant, and the Upanishads (holy writings of Hinduism). He was very critical of the ideas of Georg Hegel. In fact, Hegel’s optimistic view of history was viewed by Schopenhauer as the ramblings of a “stupid and clumsy charlatan.”
Schopenhauer was the first great Western philosopher to embrace Hindu and Buddhist ideas which often permeated his theories. Schopenhauer’s ideas are found in his most famous work, The World as Will and Idea, which contains four books. The first and third are devoted to the World as Idea; the second and fourth are devoted to the World as Will. Book One begins with his declaration that “The world is my idea.” Borrowing from Hindu philosophy, he claims that the world only exists as an idea in relation to consciousness.
Schopenhauer held a very pessimistic view of the world. For him, the world was wretched and human nature was nasty. People live, breed, and then they die. Even his mother disliked him because of his gloomy outlook. Schopenhauer’s big idea was that “will” drives both animate and inanimate objects in the universe. This will, though, which functions somewhat as a force or appetite, is not a positive thing. For humans, the will desires things that make life even more meaningless and full of suffering. As an atheist he did not believe in an afterlife.
Schopenhauer offered two approaches for escaping the slavery of the will and the wretched suffering that is part of this world. The first is the “aesthetic approach” in which a person loses himself in the arts such as drama, architecture, poetry, paintings, and especially music. The natural beauty of the world is also helpful. According to Schopenhauer, the arts and nature can help a person lose himself in the beauty being contemplated. The second and better approach, though, is the “ascetic approach.” The ascetic is the person who renounces the world by extreme self-denial and accepts poverty and injury from both himself and others. In doing these things, the ascetic attempts to kill the “will” and he escapes the suffering that often comes from worldly attachments and cravings. Some have pointed out that Schopenhauer’s philosophy of renunciation of the will is self contradictory. If a person wills to renounce the world is this not an act of the will? Also, if this renunciation happens naturally can it really be said to be a renunciation?
Schopenhauer’s views had a great impact on several important people including the musician, Robert Wagner and the anti-God philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. His views also impacted Sigmund Freud. It appears, though, that Schopenhauer did not readily apply his theories to his own life. He ate and drank a lot and had a reputation for being greedy. He was often rude as well, once pushing an elderly seamstress down some stairs, seriously injuring her. Schopenhauer is also well known for his hostility toward women in general. He once stated, “You need only look at the way she is formed to see that woman is not meant to undergo great labour, whether of the mind or body.”