Davidson, Robert F. "Pessimism: Arthur Schopenhauer." Philosophies Men Live By. New York: The Dryden Press, 1952. 84-113.

4. PESSIMISM: Arthur Schopenhauer

Although not usually included among the hedonists, Schopenhauer has an important contribution to make to our understanding of hedonism as a practical way of life. Mill, by his unwillingness to be consistent, escapes the logical consequences of hedonism; Schopenhauer, by an uncompromising development of the implications of hedonism, is led to pessimism. Every man's convictions, however, are the outgrowth not of logic alone but also of the circumstances of his life -- sometimes largely of home environment and training, at other times more obviously of the conditions of the world in which he lives. As Fichte, one of the great figures in modern German philosophy, remarks: "The kind of philosophy a man chooses depends upon the kind of man he is. For a philosophical system is no piece of dead furniture one can acquire and discard at will. It is animated with the spirit of the man who possesses it" [1]. In Schopenhauer's case, it may well seem that all things conspired together to make him a pessimist. Before we undertake an examination of his thought, let us look, therefore, at the man himself and the world in which he lived.


Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century was suffering all the disasters and ravages of war and of postwar unrest. It knew the terror of the French Revolution, the dream of empire of Napoleon, the constant march of French armies across the continent for a decade or more, and, finally, in 1815, the Congress of Vienna, where under the shrewd statesmanship of Prince Metternich of Austria the forces of reaction attempted to stamp out every vestige of democratic and liberal sentiment born in the early enthusiasm of the French Revolution. Today we ourselves are once more in a position to appreciate the meaning of such disaster, destruction, and disillusion. As did the ambition of Napoleon a century ago, so the lust for power, first of Hitler and now of the Russian communists, has again brought exhaustion and prostration to Europe. Then, as now, millions of men had perished; farm land everywhere lay neglected from want of men to till it; the economic life of the continent was in chaos. Then, as now, nations in power sought to impose upon the conquered and destitute populations a political ideology they did not want.

Every such major conflict brings in its wake a wave of reaction and disillusionment. In the decade after the First World War, Europe and America felt the spirit of cynicism and despair. The age of Schopenhauer knew it after the Napoleonic era. As our own world tries again slowly and painfully to recover from the conflict, disaster, and hatred of the most destructive war in history, we too are aware of this same sense of frustration and hopelessness. It is not difficult for a man to become a pessimist as he sees the high ideals and aspirations for which millions have sacrificed their lives gradually being engulfed by a spirit of self-interest, vengeance, and aggrandizement among the victor nations. In the thinking of such an age, the problem of evil becomes dominant. The tragedy of human society seems too often but a reflection of the chaos of the universe itself; to many, a divine order appears impossible and God, if there is a God, unconcerned or impotent to aid mankind in the hardships and hopelessness of life. It was in such an age that Schopenhauer lived. Small wonder that the prevailing despair of Europe found reflection in the mood of the philosopher.


William James has suggested that a man's philosophy of living is by and large a matter of temperament. But James would certainly admit that the conditions of life serve to make manifest the latent tendencies in one's nature. Schopenhauer's paternal heritage, as well as his youth and early manhood, fitted him in peculiar fashion to respond to the spirit of his age. Cut off almost entirely for most of his life from the normal ties of home, family, and friends, he had to seek in a boarding house and a dog the affection and understanding essential for human happiness.

Life for Schopenhauer began, however, with every prospect of fortune and happiness. His father, a practical, successful, and uncommonly intelligent merchant of Danzig, was known for his broad knowledge and his cosmopolitan spirit. Because of political unrest in Danzig, the family moved to Hamburg in 1793, when young Schopenhauer was five years old. Business interests led his father to travel extensively, and he quite frequently took his young son along. When Arthur was ten years old, his father arranged for him to spend two years with a French family. When he was about fifteen, he spent a winter in the home of a clergyman in England, where the affairs of business had taken his father. Here Schopenhauer picked up a decided distaste for the constant round of morning and evening prayers which he was forced to undergo, a good knowledge of English, and a genuine admiration for the British character. A winter in Paris the next year left him with a marked enthusiasm for the theater, if not for the French.

Expecting him to learn the mercantile business and become an accomplished man of the world, Schopenhauer's father provided every advantage for him. The atmosphere of business and finance in which Arthur grew up left its mark upon his philosophy. And despite the fact that he hated the countinghouse, and forsook it when his father died in 1805 with signs of a deranged mind and apparently by his own hand, there is a realism in Schopenhauer's treatment of human nature and a bluntness in his philosophy that clearly reflect his early experience in business.

Schopenhauer's mother was a woman of unusual ability, a brilliant and popular novelist of the day. Having married for social position rather than love, as she herself frankly confessed, she soon tired of her rather prosaic husband, who was twenty years her senior. At his death she sought a more exciting life in the sophisticated intellectual and literary circles of Weimar. There a brilliant company were gathered, with Goethe at its head, and her house soon became one of the social centers in the city. She was no more happy in the company of her son, however, than she had been with her husband. The two finally arranged to live apart, he coming to call upon her only on her afternoons at home, a guest among other guests. Their relationship at the time is described in one of his mother's candid letters to young Schopenhauer:

When you get older, dear Arthur, and see things more clearly, perhaps we shall agree better. Till then let us see that our thousand little quarrels shall not hunt love out of our hearts. To this end we must keep well apart. You have your lodgings; as for my house, whenever you come you are a guest, well received, of course, only you mustn't interfere. I can't bear objections. Days when I receive, you may take supper with me, if you will only be so good as to refrain from your painful disputations, which make me angry, too, and from your lamentations over the stupid world and the sorrows of mankind; for all that always gives me a bad night and horrid dreams, and I do so like a sound sleep [33].

Evidently Schopenhauer's sharp tongue was not reserved for his rivals in philosophy nor his pessimistic view of life to academic discussions. But even his mother's extreme expedient did not succeed. Things went from bad to worse, and finally one afternoon in a moment of anger she pushed Schopenhauer down the stairs of her home. He left Weimar soon afterward and never again made an effort to see her, although she lived for another twenty-four years. We ought not to conclude, however, that the fault in this case was all Schopenhauer's. A comment in the Memoirs of an acquaintance of his mother's runs as follows: "Madame Schopenhauer, a rich widow. Makes profession of erudition. Prattles much and well, intelligently; without heart and soul. Self-complacent, eager after approbation. God preserve us from women whose mind has shot up into mere intellect" [34]. Undoubtedly these experiences with his mother suggested to Schopenhauer many of those half-truths about women which not only serve to confirm his general pessimism but also add spice to his essays on life (at least for male readers).


It was not until he was twenty-one that Schopenhauer was able to begin his studies at the University of Göttingen. Here he devoted himself at first to courses in science and, before long, to philosophy. Kant and Plato were his favorite philosophers, but his interests were broad and general rather than technical or scholarly. He was an eager reader, with wide literary sympathies, and a keen observer, with the insight of one who enjoyed a rich and varied portrayal of life and saw swiftly rather than studied exhaustively. His sense of humor was also keen, leading him to single out the comic and the ridiculous in whatever he saw or read. Obtaining his doctorate when he was twenty-five, Schopenhauer gave himself at once to work on the book that was to establish his reputation in philosophy.

In five years The World as Will and Idea was completed, and in 1818 Schopenhauer sent his manuscript to the publishers with the modest claim that here was an original and highly significant work that "would hereafter be the source and occasion of a hundred other books." Actually, Schopenhauer was right but his masterpiece attracted very little attention when it was published. The young philosopher was furious when he learned that the greater part of this first edition was finally sold for waste paper, and he wrote such bitter letters to the publishers that they severed all further relations with him. A winter in the warm Italian sunshine, however, helped somewhat to overcome the pessimistic mood into which Schopenhauer was plunged by this disappointment. He was rather pleased also a year or two later to find the German universities taking some recognition of his philosophy. In 1820, after a good deal of negotiation, he was appointed a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Berlin. But with almost unbelievable egotism Schopenhauer deliberately chose to lecture at the same hours that were assigned for the lectures of Hegel, at that time the outstanding figure in German philosophy. Consequently he soon found himself talking to empty seats. For several years he continued to have his name printed in the university catalogue along with the announcement of his course of lectures, but nobody came to hear him. It took another two years in Italy for him to recover from this unpleasant experience. Even that was not enough, however, to prevent sarcastic comments upon professional philosophers, to whom he referred as "Sophists," from appearing with increasing frequency in subsequent editions of The World as Will and Idea.

Schopenhauer usually manages in these comments to sound a note of high principle. "The rule, 'I sing the song of him whose bread I eat,' has always held good; the making of money by philosophy was regarded by the ancients as characteristic of the Sophists. Since nothing is to be had for gold but mediocrity, we must be content with it here also," he writes [2]. "Life is short but truth works far and lives long; let us speak the truth." The fact that he had inherited an interest in his father's business ample enough to permit him to live in modest comfort had more to do, no doubt, with Schopenhauer's attitude than any superior loyalty to truth on his part. Unable to establish himself at the University of Berlin, he was free to give expression to his pessimistic conclusions about life and humanity with a frankness hardly possible for those whose daily bread depends upon official approval. Nor did he have a wife to see to it that he was properly ambitious for academic advancement or economic security. It is reported that thoughts of marriage did occur to Schopenhauer at about this time, but he could not bring himself to sacrifice his cherished independence for prospects so uncertain.


In 1825, Schopenhauer returned to Berlin, interested apparently in seeing what he could do to settle an old law suit against him there. While still connected with the university, he had come one day upon three women chattering away on a landing outside his room. When one of them refused to go away, the philosopher took his walking stick and put her out by force. Unfortunately for him, she fell down the steps in the process, was injured slightly, and brought suit against Schopenhauer for assault and battery. Despite all that he could do, he had to pay costs in the case and a compensation of five thalers a month to the woman for the rest of her life.

A few years after Schopenhauer returned, Berlin was visited by a cholera epidemic. Frightened by a dream which foretold his death if he remained in the city, he departed in haste and did not feel it safe to stop until he reached Frankfurt. In Frankfurt he spent the remaining years of his life, living quietly in two rooms with his pipe and his flute but with no friends or companions except a small poodle, the only creature to which Schopenhauer ever seems to have felt any real attachment. He named the dog Atman, a term taken from the pessimistic religion of India, in which Schopenhauer had become more and more interested in his later years. (A bronze statue of the Buddha was among his prized possessions.) The boys of the neighborhood preferred to call his poodle "der junge Schopenhauer," a nickname not too hard to understand when one looks at the philosopher's picture.

Schopenhauer was one of those philosophers whose genius expresses itself early and who is content thereafter largely with the elaboration of his early ideas. He was only thirty when he published The World as Will and Idea; during his next forty years he hardly deviated in the slightest detail from the philosophy expressed in it. His later essays are humorous and readable, full of wisdom and insight, but they are nevertheless only elaborations or applications of the convictions stated in his one great work. During Schopenhauer's last years, however, an increasing interest in his philosophy tended to mollify somewhat the pessimism of his youth. The growing prestige of science, especially of the biological sciences, drew attention to Schopenhauer's treatment of the will to live. Darwin's famous Origin of Species, published in 1859, gave convincing scientific validation to the thesis that life is strife and a struggle, a principle upon which Schopenhauer had based his own philosophy some forty years earlier.

In any case the freshness, vigor, and realism of Schopenhauer's philosophy gradually attracted many intelligent readers outside academic circles, men and women concerned with life itself rather than with abstract or technical treatises on the subject. A little circle of welcome flatterers gathered around the old philosopher at Frankfurt. Students made pilgrimages to his home; army officers felt the fascination of his pessimism; Leipzig University offered a prize for the best essay on his thought; his Essay on Women not only caused men to smile but brought increased attention to him from the sex he so maligned. On his seventieth birthday he received messages of congratulation from all over the world.

Schopenhauer loved the admiration of these people. An old man now, with clear, blue eyes and a somewhat sarcastic smile, he smoked his pipe, played his flute, had his portrait painted for posterity, and found life not nearly as gloomy and sad as he had pictured it in his youthful essays. The recognition came to him none too soon, however. The next year, with the will to live pretty well exhausted, Schopenhauer, after having his breakfast at the usual hour, died quietly and peacefully as he sat on his sofa. He had only to die, moreover, to establish his philosophical reputation securely -- a somewhat sardonic commentary on his own pessimism. His name has now become an accepted symbol of whatever is gloomy and disillusioned in the thought of our own age as well as his.

Such, in brief, are the facts of Schopenhauer's life. They do not reveal a man whom one can either admire or like. But the significance of these facts for the development of Schopenhauer's philosophy is a quite different matter. On this point a comment by Josiah Royce, distinguished American philosopher of a generation ago, is particularly pertinent:

There are conditions which make manifest the latent evil of human selfishness, the danger of the restless will that is in us all alike, better than do other conditions, but which do not therefore, create that latent evil. It will not do to state the case against Schopenhauer's pessimism in such shallow fashion as to make it appear that whilst all pessimism is mere pettiness, all optimism is prima facie noblemindedness. Optimists can also be selfish and even intolerable. In fine, then, I am disposed to say, as a matter of mere historical judgement, that Schopenhauer's nervous burdens unquestionably opened his eyes to the particular aspect of life which he found so tragic, but that meanwhile the fact of such burdens is of positively no service to us in forming our estimate of the ultimate significance of our philosopher's insight -- an insight which, for my part, I find as deep as it is partial [3].


No single aspect of a workable philosophy of living is more important than its estimate of man's place and worth in the total scheme of things. Is man but a cosmic accident, "a planetary eczema that will soon be cured," as one recent writer has put it? Or is man the center and climax of the divine creative activity, a son of God himself, as the Christian faith maintains? Is the universe itself the expression of moral order, the medium through which a divine personality works in human life? Or is it a blind mechanism, unconcerned with human life and destiny and unaware of the nobler aspirations of the human spirit? In its broadest outreach this aspect of philosophy is known as metaphysics. When stated in technical or scholarly terms metaphysics can become exceedingly academic and beyond the comprehension of the ordinary reader. But obviously, in its practical bearing upon the philosophy by which one lives, nothing is more influential than the metaphysics a man accepts. It colors his whole outlook on human nature, on the worth of life, on the trustworthiness of science, and on the acceptability of religious faith.

Schopenhauer's approach to metaphysics is neither academic nor difficult to understand.

Temples and churches, pagodas and mosques, in all lands and all ages, in splendor and vastness, testify to the metaphysical need of man, which strong and ineradicable follows close upon his physical need. Certainly whoever is satirically inclined might add that this metaphysical need is a modest fellow who is content with poor fare. It sometimes allows itself to be satisfied with clumsy fables and insipid tales. If only implanted early enough, they are for a man adequate explanations of his existence and supports of his morality. Consider, for example, the Koran. This wretched book was sufficient to found a religion of the world, to satisfy the metaphysical need of innumerable millions of men for twelve hundred years, to become the foundation of their morality, and also to inspire them to bloody wars and extended conquests. I have not been able to discover one single valuable thought in it. Such things show that metaphysical capacity does not go hand in hand with metaphysical need.

With the exception of man, no being wonders at its own existence; but it is to them all so much a matter of course that they do not observe it. Only after the inner being of nature has ascended, vigorous and cheerful, through the long and broad series of animals, does it attain at last to reflection for the first time on the entrance of reason, thus in man. Then it marvels at its own works, and asks itself what it itself is. Its wonder, however, is the more serious, as here it stands for the first time consciously in the presence of death. With this reflection and this wonder there arises therefore for man alone, the need for a metaphysic; he is accordingly an animal metaphysicum. The lower a man stands in an intellectual regard the less of a problem is existence itself for him; everything appears to him rather a matter of course. This rests upon the fact that his intellect still remains perfectly true to its original destiny of being serviceable to the will. On the other hand, it is the knowledge of death, and along with this the consideration of the suffering and misery of life which gives the strongest impulse to philosophical reflection. If our life were endless and painless it would perhaps never occur to anyone to ask why the world exists; and is just the kind of world it is, but everything would just be taken as a matter of course. In accordance with this we find that the interest which philosophical and also religious systems inspire has always its strongest hold as the dogma of existence after death [4].


The typical error of the philosopher, Schopenhauer maintains, has been in treating man as the rational animal. This idea naturally appeals to philosophers but it takes very little observation of psychological analysis to see that it is not correct, he argues. Although reason is certainly man's most valuable possession, it is actually but a sort of surface crust upon human behavior. We all make some pretense of being rational and intelligent, to be sure. We do so to maintain our prestige with our fellows, perhaps to impress those upon whom we look as inferior, even it may be to deceive ourselves at times. But beneath all such rational reflection, there is a dominant will, a persistent vital impulse or desire, that molds our thinking to its own purpose. Intellect may seem at times to direct the will; actually it is only an instrument to accomplish the purposes of impulse and appetite. Thinking is an aspect of living. We think initially in order to act, not to understand.

In all animal natures the will is primary and substantial, the intellect is secondary, indeed a mere tool for the service of the former. As a species of animals is furnished with hoofs, hands, wings, or teeth according to the aims of its will, so also is it furnished with a more or less developed brain, whose function is the intelligence necessary for its endurance.... The intellect becomes tired; the will is never tired. After a sustained work with the head we feel the tiredness of the brain, just like that of the arm after sustained bodily work. All knowing is accompanied with effort; willing, on the contrary, is our very nature, whose manifestations take place without any weariness and entirely of their own accord..... Hence all continuous mental work demands pauses and rest, otherwise stupidity and incapacity ensue; if rest is persistently denied to the intellect it will become fatigued and may pass into complete incapacity, into childishness, imbecility and madness.... The will, on the contrary, is never lazy, is absolutely untiring, it never ceases willing and when during sleep it is forsaken of the intellect it is active as the vital force, cares the more uninterruptedly for the inner economy of the organism and sets in order again the irregularities that have crept into it. For it is not, like the intellect, a function of the body, but the body is its function [5].

Examine your own conduct honestly, Schopenhauer suggests, and you will see at once that you do not want a thing because it is good; instead you find it good because you want it. "Thus we speak of good eating, good roads, good weather, and so on; in short, we call everything good that is just as we wish it to be." Other animals seek what they want without cloaking their desires in elaborate philosophies; only man finds it necessary to seek good reasons to justify himself in doing what he wants to do.

This process of rationalization has received much attention at the hands of contemporary psychology. Little has been added, however, to Schopenhauer's discerning analysis of the matter. "Nothing is more provoking," he writes, "when we are arguing against a man with reasons and explanations, and taking all pains to convince him, than to discover at least that we will not understand, that we have to do with his will." Hence, the uselessness of logic as a practical device. No one was ever convinced by argument of a thing he did not want to believe. In college classrooms, it is true, students do, as a rule, accept the conclusions presented to them with faultless logic by their professors. But one need not be a mind reader to recognize that in any discussion of controversial issues their own self-interest, their concern with the matter of grades, not the logic of the professor, is all too often responsible for this. To convince a man you appeal not to logic but to desire and self-interest. This fact is well known in all business circles; it is a basic tenet of advertising, which provides the lifeblood of business. No practical politician ever hopes for election at the polls or expects to gain a second term in office without operating on this principle. Only the philosophers have been shut off enough from the everyday world of affairs, where the nature of man is actually revealed, to describe human beings as rational. So, at least, runs the argument of Schopenhauer.

Reason, he concludes, holds a definitely secondary place in human nature. It is at best but the servant of will, at the worst the tool of desire. Reason enables man to get the things he wants more effectively than does unaided appetite at the animal level; it seldom enables him to change the dominant force of desire. Not only do we think in order to get what we want; we actually believe what we want to believe, not what is objectively true, and we refuse to believe what is contrary to our desires. In facing the unpleasant aspects of our world, reason simply gives way to imagination and to hope.

Plato very beautifully called hope the dream of the waking. Its nature lies in this that the will, when its servant the intellect is not able to produce what it wishes, obliges it at least to undertake the role of comforter, to appease its lord with fables, as a nurse a child, and so to dress these out that they gain an appearance of likelihood. Now in this the intellect must do violence to its own nature, which aims at the truth. Here we see clearly who is master and who is servant.... Our interest, of whatever kind it may be, exercises a like secret power over our judgement; what is in conformity with it at once seems fair, just, and reasonable, what runs contrary to it presents itself to us as unjust or outrageous. What is opposed to our plan, our wish, our hope, we often cannot comprehend or grasp at all, while it is clear to every one else; but what is favorable, on the other hand, strikes our eye from afar. What the heart opposes, the head will not admit. A trifling and absurd, but striking example of that mysterious and immediate power which the will exercises over the intellect, is that fact that in doing accounts we make mistakes much oftener in our favor that to our disadvantage, and this without the slightest dishonest intention. Thus is the intellect daily befooled and corrupted by the impositions of inclination [6].


If man is dominated by will, not by intellect, what is will? Schopenhauer leaves us in no doubt on this point. He does not mean what is popularly called "will power," that is, the higher forms of conscious choice or moral obligation. By will he simply means the active appetites and desires of living, wanting, longing, self-asserting. Will, as we know it in man and as we see it expressed in animal life below the human level, is simply the will to live, the biological drive inherent in life itself. In simplest form, the will to live expresses itself as hunger. Nothing is so important to a starving man as food, no effort too demanding, no deception too unforgivable, to satisfy this basic appetite. The human body itself, according to Schopenhauer, is but an expression of this underlying will to live. Pushed on by that force which we vaguely call life, the blood builds its own vessels by wearing grooves in the body of the embryo; the grooves deepen, close up, and become arteries and veins. The will builds the brain as an instrument for its own purposes in the struggle for existence just as surely as it builds hands and feet or the complicated digestive tract. "Teeth, throat and bowels are objectified hunger; the grasping hand, the hurrying feet, correspond to the more indirect desires of the will which they express."

It is in the relation of the sexes, however, that the will to live finds clearest and most direct expression, and this relationship as a result dominates our thought as well as our conduct, Schopenhauer maintains.

The sexual impulse proves itself the strongest assertion of life by the fact that to man in a state of nature, as to the brutes, it is the final end, the highest goal of life. Self- maintenance is his first effort, and as soon as he has made provision for that, he only strives after the propagation of the species: as a merely natural being he can attempt no more. Nature also, the inner being of which is the will to live itself, impels with all her power both man and the brute toward propagation. Then it has attained its end with the individual, and is quite indifferent to its death, for, as the will to live, it cares only for the preservation of the species, the individual is nothing to it [7].

If one considers the important part which the sexual impulse in all its degrees and nuances plays not only on the stage and in novels, but also in the real world, where, next to the love of life, it shows itself the strongest and the most powerful of motives, constantly lays claim to half the powers and thoughts of the younger portion of mankind, is the ultimate goal of almost all human effort, interrupts the most serious occupations, sometimes embarrasses even the greatest minds, does not hesitate to intrude upon the negotiations of statesmen and the investigations of men of learning, knows how to slip its love letters even into philosophical manuscripts, and no less devises daily the most entangled and the worst actions, destroys the most valuable relationships, demands the sacrifice sometimes of life or health, sometimes of wealth, rank and happiness, nay, robs them who are otherwise honest of all conscience, makes those who have hitherto been faithful, traitors; accordingly, on the whole, appears as a malevolent demon that strives to prevent, confuse and overthrow everything; then one will be forced to cry, Wherefore all this noise? Is it merely a question of every Hans finding his Grethe? Why should such a trifle play so important a part, and constantly introduce disturbances and confusion into the well-regulated life of man? But to the earnest investigator the spirit of truth gradually reveals the answer.... It is no trifle that is in question here, on the contrary, the importance of the matter is quite proportionate to the serious and ardor of the effort. The ultimate end of all love affairs is really more important than all other ends of human life, and is therefore quite worthy of the profound seriousness with which everyone pursues it. That which is decided by it is nothing less than the composition of the next generation.... It is not a question of individual weal or woe, as in all other matters, but of the existence and special nature of the human race in future times, and therefore the will of the individual appears at a higher power as the will of the species; -- this it is on which the pathetic and sublime elements in affairs of love depend, which for thousands of years poets have never wearied of representing in innumerable examples; because no theme can equal in interest this one, which stands to all others which only concern the welfare of individuals as the solid body to the surface, because it concerns the weal and woe of the species [8].


The will to live which moves the individual so powerfully and dominates his conduct so completely is not an expression primarily, then, of his own individual desire or passion; will in the individual springs, rather, from the life force in the human race as a whole, of which the individual is but a limited and partial expression. It is with mankind, not simply with this particular man or woman that the will to live is concerned.

The aim of nature is directed to the maintenance, and therefore to the greatest possible increase, of the species.... What draws two individuals of different sex exclusively to each other with such power is the will to live, which exhibits itself in the whole species, and which here anticipates in the individual which these two can produce an objectification of its nature.... The glowing inclination of two lovers is really already the will to live of the new individual which they can and desire to produce, nay, even in the meeting of their longing glances its new life breaks out, and announces itself as a future individuality harmoniously and well composed [9].

Propagation of the species, then, is not only the dominant motive but the ultimate purpose of every living organism. Only so can the will to live conquer death. To ensure the success of this conquest, the will to reproduce is placed almost entirely beyond the control of the intellect. Here intelligence has little chance against the deeper purposes of the will, as many parents have learned to their sorrow when attempting to reason with infatuated sons or daughters concerning the mate they have chosen.


Such is our philosopher's view of human nature and conduct. But man, for Schopenhauer, is not an isolated phenomenon, unrelated to the larger universe around him. He is, rather, the clearest expression of its inner character and being; in human nature we find our best clue to the nature of the universe itself. Two approaches can be made to an understanding of any object, Schopenhauer points out: one is external, the other internal; one is the way of rational analysis, the other the way of immediate, intuitive knowledge. As we examine ourselves in the first fashion, externally and rationally, we can know only the physical organism and the world of matter of which it is a part. But the immediate and intuitive insight that we have into human nature reveals to us the dominant, vital will to live as the reality beneath the physical and material externality, shaping and molding it according to its own deeper desires and purposes. Had we the ability to look beneath the surface, to obtain such an inside, intuitive knowledge of the rest of the universe, we would find just the same thing that we find in man. As a matter of fact, we are not able to do this. We must be content with the knowledge of the external universe which the human mind can grasp. The world of matter and physical objects, as science portrays it, is actually a product of thought and rational analysis, and so only an idea in the human mind, Schopenhauer maintains [35]. But there are indications enough that beneath the external appearance, behind the material and physical world which we know only as idea, there is at work the same dynamic, living will, the World-Will, of which the will to live of the human race as a whole, like each individual human desire, is but one aspect, a single, partial expression.

If we observe the strong and unceasing impulse with which the waters hurry to the ocean, the persistency with which the magnet turns ever to the north pole, the readiness with which the iron flies to the magnet, the eagerness with which the electric poles seek to be reunited, and which, just like human desire, is increased by obstacles; if we see the crystal quickly take form with such wonderful regularity of construction, which is clearly only a perfectly definite and accurately determined impulse in different directions, seized and retained by crystallization; if we observe the choice with which bodies repel and attract each other, combine and separate when they are set free in a fluid state; lastly, if we feel directly how a burden which hampers its body by its gravitation toward the earth, unceasingly presses and strains upon it in pursuit of its one tendency; if we observe all this, I say, it will require no great effort of the imagination to recognize, even at so great a distance, our own nature. That which in us pursues its ends by the light of knowledge, but here, in the weakest of its manifestations, only strives blindly and dumbly in a onesided and unchangeable manner, must yet in both cases come under the name of Will, as it is everywhere one and the same -- just as the first dim ray of dawn must share the name of sunlight with the rays of the full mid-day [10].

The unceasing, striving, creative power at work everywhere in the universe -- whether in the instinct of the animal, the life precess of the plant, or the blind force of the physical world -- this is just the will which we know in our own experience and which underlies all existence. Space and time, which the intellect uses to divide life into separate, individual things, are, as a matter of fact, but an illusion hiding the inner unity and oneness of reality, Schopenhauer insists. Actually the separate existence of the individual merges into that of the species, the various species into the stream of life; life itself is only will. What science has called the laws of nature are but the principles by which the World-Will operates in the physical universe, as in animals it operates by instinct and in man by intelligence. In one instance after another Schopenhauer remarks the truly remarkable function of instinct as an instrument of the will to live at the animal level: "the bird builds the nest for the young it does not yet know; the beaver constructs a dam the object of which is unknown to it; insects deposit their eggs where the coming brood finds future nourishment." the cause of human action, as we know it immediately, is the dominant force of will. The final cause of all things is the same dominant but unconscious and groping World-Will.

In later life, Schopenhauer read widely in the field of science to provide corroborations for his thesis. But it was not until the work of Henri Bergson, distinguished French philosopher of our own day, whose Creative Evolution (1907) is one of the outstanding achievements of contemporary philosophy, that Schopenhauer's insight was given convincing scientific validation. In the "Life Force," the élan vital, which Bergson sees as the creative driving force behind all human conduct and natural phenomena alike, one finds again the World-Will of Schopenhauer -- described in scientific rather than popular fashion, to be sure, but true nonetheless to Schopenhauer's original insight.


In popular usage, anyone who constantly looks on the dark side of life, who sees the world as gloomy, unhappy, and unappealing, is apt to be dubbed a pessimist. In more accurate philosophical terms, a pessimist is one who finds life, despite its occasional bright moments, "so bad it ought not to be," who sees evil, not good, as the ultimate fact of existence. So, also, the philosophical optimist is not simply one who looks on the bright side of things but one who finds this world, despite its obvious pain and unhappiness, the best of all possible worlds, who sees good, not evil, as the ultimate fact in life.

Schopenhauer was a pessimist in the philosophical sense as well as the popular sense. The pleasures of life, in his opinion, are but passing shadows which throw the fundamental evil of the world into stronger relief. The pursuit of pleasure, to which a man dominated by will and desire inevitably gives himself, brings pain, not happiness. We have only to look at life as we see it around us, he maintains, to recognize that pain and suffering, not pleasure and happiness, are the constant lot of our fellows as well as ourselves.


First, life is evil because will and desire are basic aspects of human nature. The very will to live itself engenders a ceaseless striving, a restless longing to satisfy our desires. The hedonist, in his naïveté, has assumed that if we get what we want, if our desires are fulfilled, we will be happy. It is quite obvious to Schopenhauer that such is not the case.

All willing arises from want, therefore from deficiency, and therefore from suffering. The satisfaction of a desire ends it, yet for one desire that is satisfied there remain at least ten which are denied. Further, the desire lasts long, the demands are infinite; the satisfaction is short and scantily measured out. But even the final satisfaction is itself only apparent; every satisfied wish at once makes room from a new one. No attained object of desire can give lasting satisfaction, but merely a fleeing gratification; it is like the alms thrown to a beggar that keeps him alive today that his misery may be prolonged till the morrow. Therefore, so long as we are given up to the throng of desires with their constant hopes and fears, so long as we are the subjects of willing, we can never have lasting happiness or peace [11].

Getting what we want, then, does not make us happy. It simply makes us want other things we do not have. Schopenhauer wrote at a time when the material comforts of life were denied to the mass of people, when want seemed almost universal in a period of postwar exhaustion. Had he lived in our country amid the prosperity of the 1950's, when it seemed as if everyone might have almost anything he desired, even Schopenhauer would have smiled to himself as he saw his analysis of life so amply substantiated. A machine civilization had brought material possessions to most of us that far exceeded the fondest dreams of our forefathers. Yet no generation has been less satisfied and happy. When we had one automobile, we wanted two; when we bought one radio for the family, we soon realized that we must have one for every member of the family to escape the inevitable conflict of desire for different programs to suit the tastes of each individual. If we had last year's car or last year's radio, we were dissatisfied with its old-fashioned and outmoded features and felt that only this year's model could make us happy. Advertising, which is the life of modern business, makes it a point, indeed, to see that the gratification of one desire does not bring us any lasting satisfaction. Ten more desires must at once be stimulated by the shrewd advertiser to take the place of the one that has been satisfied.

Even the complete fulfillment of desire, the getting of everything that we want, holds out no hope of happiness, according to Schopenhauer. Above the mass of the people, most of whose desires are unfulfilled, is the small, privileged group which has the means to gratify every desire: leisure, travel, amusement; no faintest passing fancy is denied its members. But instead of happiness, the result is only ennui, boredom. We are unhappy when we cannot have what we want. When we get it, we find that we no longer want it. None are so easily bored as the "idle rich," who give all their thought and effort to having a good time.

As soon as want and suffering permits man to rest, ennui is at once so near that he necessarily requires diversion. The striving after existence is what occupies all living things and maintains them in motion. But when existence is assured, then they know not what to do with it; thus the second thing that sets them in motion is the effort to get free from the burden of existence, "to kill time," i.e., to escape from ennui Accordingly we see that almost all men who are secure from want and care, now that they have thrown off all other burdens, become a burden to themselves, and regard as a gain every hour they succeed in getting through with. Ennui is by no means an evil to be lightly esteemed, in the end it depicts on the countenance real despair. It makes beings who love each other so little as men do, seek each other eagerly, and thus becomes the source of social intercourse. As want is the scourge of the people, so ennui is that of the fashionable world. Thus between desiring and attaining all human life flows on. The desire is, in its nature, pain, the attainment soon begets satiety; the end was only apparent; possession takes away the charm; the desire, the need, presents itself under a new form; when it does not, then follows emptiness, ennui, against which the conflict is just as painful as against want [12].


There is that romantic period in youth when all of us are convinced that in love, as in nothing else, man's happiness is to be found. But even here the pessimism of Schopenhauer demolishes completely the assumptions of hedonism. What we like to call love, Schopenhauer insists, is but the most subtle desire of the will to live, its shrewdest method of achieving its end, which is the perpetuation of the species, not the happiness of the individual. Opposites attract each other, as we constantly observe, the reason being that thus the species is improved. In every case of sex appeal and romantic passion the subtle purpose of the will to live is the production of a hardy offspring. Such is the unconscious eugenics of love.

"Each one loves what he lacks," Schopenhauer maintains. Accordingly the most manly man will seek the most womanly woman, and vice versa. Each one will regard as especially beautiful in another individual those perfections which he himself lacks -- nay, even those imperfections which are the opposite of his own. Little men love big women, fair persons like those who are dark, intelligent women fall in love with strong but stupid men. The weaker a man is the more he will seek a strong woman; and the woman on her side will do the same. Everyone endeavors to neutralize by means of the other his own weaknesses and defects so that they will not perpetuate themselves. What guides us here, Schopenhauer insists, is an instinct with is directed toward the welfare of the species, not the happiness of the individual. The health of the race is the great work with which Cupid is occupied unceasingly. In comparison with the importance of this great affair, the affairs of individuals are very trifling; therefore, he is always ready to sacrifice them without hesitation.

The passion of love depends, then, upon an illusion, the illusion that the satisfaction of desire will bring us happiness. With the fulfillment of desire, the individual discovers that he has been the dupe of the species. In reality, love is a deception practiced by nature for its own ends, and marriage is bound to be disillusioning.

Nature can only attain its ends by implanting a certain illusion in the individual, on account of which that which is only a good for the species appears to him as a good for himself, so that when he serves the species he imagines he is serving himself. In accordance with the character of the matter, every lover will experience a marvelous disillusion after the pleasure he has at last attained, and will wonder that what was so longingly desired accomplishes nothing more. Because the passion depended upon an illusion, the deception must vanish after the attainment of the end of the species. The spirit of the species which takes possession of the individual sets it free again. Forsaken by this spirit, the individual falls back into its original limitation and narrowness, and sees with wonder that after such a high and heroic effort nothing has resulted. Contrary to expectation, it finds itself no happier than before. It observes that it has been the dupe of the will of the species.

Marriages from love are made in the interest of the species, not for the individual. Certainly the persons concerned imagine that they are advancing their own happiness; but their real end is one which is foreign to themselves, for it lies in the production of an individual which is only possible through them. Brought together by this aim, they ought henceforth to try to get on together as well as possible. But very often the pair brought together by that instinctive illusion, which is the essence of passionate love, will in other respects be of very different natures. Accordingly, love marriages, as a rule, turn out unhappy; for through them the coming generation is cared for at the expense of the present. "Who marries for love must live in sorrow," says the Spanish proverb. The opposite is the case with marriages contracted for the purposes of convenience, generally in accord with the choice of the parent. Through them the happiness of the present generation is cared for, to the disadvantages of the coming generation. A girl who, against the advice of her parent, rejects the offer of a rich and not yet old man, in order, setting aside all considerations of convenience, to choose according to her instinctive inclination alone, sacrifices her individual welfare to the species. But just on this account one cannot withhold from her a certain approbation; for she has preferred what is of most importance, she has acted in the spirit of nature (more exactly, of the species), while the parents advised in the spirit of individual egoism [13].


If not in love, the dream of youth, neither in knowledge, the goal of maturity, is happiness to be had, according to our pessimistic philosopher. The higher the organism, the greater its suffering. A man suffers more than a dog or a horse; in memory and imagination he multiplies the unhappiness of daily experience, and so increases his own misery. The man who is aware of the strife and conflict, the want, and the exploitation existing throughout the world as a whole suffers more than the uninformed or self-centered individual who sees no further than the confines of his own family, his neighborhood or his community.

In the plant there is as yet no sensibility, and therefore no pain; even in the insect the capability to feel and suffer is still limited. It first appears in a high degree with the complete nervous system of vertebrate animals and always in a higher degree the more intelligence develops. Thus, in proportion as knowledge attains to distinctness, as consciousness ascends, pain also increases, and reaches its highest degree in man. And then, again, the more distinctly a man knows, the more intelligent he is, the more pain he has; the man who is gifted with genius suffers most of all [14].

Schopenhauer's gloomy view finds support in a study some years ago of the effects of famine in China. The most intelligent and cultured were the first to die or become mentally deranged. They felt most keenly the privation and want, the pain of famine; the stolid and dim-witted lived on, hardly conscious of the famine, since they had known little else but poverty for generations.


At bottom, life is evil because life is strife. The restless will to live can beget only life, competition, and strife. The effort to get what we want leads us inevitably into conflict with others. The goods of the world are limited; the desires of men are infinite. On every hand we see evidence of the inevitable strife and conflict into which we are led by nature. Every kind of being fights for the matter, the space, and the time of the other.

"This strife may be followed throughout the whole of nature; indeed nature only exists through it," Schopenhauer writes. At the animal level every beast is the prey and food of another.

Many insects lay their eggs on the skin and even in the body of the larvae of other insects, whose slow destruction is the first work of the newly hatched brood. The young hydra, which grows like a bud out of the old one, and afterwards separates itself from it, fights while it is still joined to the old one for the prey that offers itself, so that the one snatches it out of the mouth of the other. But the bulldog-ant of Australia affords us the most extraordinary example of this kind; for if it is cut in two, a battle begins between the head and the tail. The head seizes the tail in its teeth, and the tail defends itself bravely by stinging the head: the battle may last for half an hour, until they die or are dragged away by other ants. This contest takes place every time the experiment is tried. Thus the will to live everywhere preys upon itself; and in different forms is its own nourishment, till finally the human race, because it subdues all others, regards nature as a manufactory for its own use. Yet even the human race reveals in itself with most terrible destructiveness this same conflict, this variance with itself of the will, and we find homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to man) [15].

As Schopenhauer surveyed the human scene in his own age, he everywhere found manifestations of the strife and conflict bred by will and desire. If he had lived in our day, he might well have pointed out the same conditions. The strong nations prey upon the weak, and then in turn become the victims of the conflict they have initiated. The imperious will of Napoleon urged him on from victory to victory; but none brought him lasting satisfaction and he fell at least before the combined forces of the nations he had oppressed. Austria, Prussia, and England at once sought to gain for themselves the power of the fallen conqueror, each at the expense of the others, and so the strife continued ceaselessly. As Schopenhauer witnessed this spectacle in the Napoleonic era, we witnessed it again in the fate of Hitler and the Nazis. And the same weary cycle repeats itself as Russia and the United States now rise to compete for the domination of a world that is larger than Napoleon's but actually little changed for the better. A war to end wars breeds only a worse conflict in its place. Nations that unite to wage war victoriously fall immediately into conflict with one another when victory is won.

The world itself, then, is evil, not good; pain is the basic fact of human existence, and what we call pleasure is only the temporary cessation of pain, Schopenhauer concludes. The total picture of life is too painful, indeed, for contemplation. We make it bearable only by closing our eyes to its real character.

Life presents itself as a continual deception in small things as in great. If it has promised, it does not keep its word, unless to show how little worth desiring were the things desired. The enchantment of distance shows us paradises which vanish like optical illusions when we have allowed ourselves to be mocked by them. Happiness accordingly always lies in the future, or else in the past, and the present may be compared to a small dark cloud which the wind drives over the sunny plain: before and behind it all is bright, only it itself always casts a shadow.... We are not properly conscious of the blessings and advantages we actually possess, nor do we prize them, but think of them merely as a matter of course, for they gratify us only negatively by resisting suffering. Only when we have lost them do we become sensible of their value; for the want, the privation, the sorrow, is the positive thing, communicating itself directly to us [16].

As far as the life of each individual is concerned, every biography is the history of suffering, for every life is, as a rule, a continual series of great and small misfortunes, which each one conceals as much as possible, because he knows that others can seldom feel sympathy or compassion but almost always satisfaction at the sight of the woes from which they are themselves for the moment exempt. If we should bring clearly to a man's sight the terrible sufferings and miseries to which his life is constantly exposed, he would be seized with horror; and if we were to conduct the confirmed optimist through the hospitals, infirmaries, and surgical operating rooms, through the prisons, torture-chambers, and slave-kennels, over battle fields and places of execution, he, too, would understand at last the nature of this "best of possible worlds." For whence did Dante take the materials for his hell but from this our actual world? And yet he made a very proper hell of it. And when, on the other hand, he came to the task of describing heaven and its delights, he had an insurmountable difficulty before him, for our world affords no materials at all for this. From this it is sufficiently clear what manner of world it is [17].

It is only the young who, in their ignorance, think that happiness is possible. Youth thinks that willing and striving are joys, it has not yet discovered the weary unsuitableness of desire, and the fruitlessness of fulfillment, it does not yet see the inevitableness of defeat, Schopenhauer writes. But with old age there comes disillusion -- "for by that time the fictions are gone which gave life its charm; the splendors of the world have been proved null and void, its pomp, grandeur and magnificence are faded. A man has then found out that behind most of the things he wants, and most of the pleasures he longs for, there is very little after all, and so he comes by degrees to see that our existence is all empty and void" [18].


After such undiluted and thoroughgoing pessimism, one might well expect Schopenhauer to advise suicide as the only possible escape from the suffering and disappointment which he takes to be the general lot of mankind. But like most sensible pessimists he managed to find good reasons for avoiding this conclusion. What most impressed Schopenhauer as a philosopher was the futility of suicide. It was a gesture at which the World-Will could smile contentedly. Suicide may seem at first a triumph for the individual over will and desire, but in reality this is not the case and, even more important, in the species the will to live persists unhindered despite an occasional suicide. For every such deliberate death there are a thousand unplanned births.

Far from being denial of the will, suicide is a phenomenon of strong assertion of the will. The suicide wills life and is only dissatisfied with the conditions under which it has presented itself to him. He therefore by no means surrenders the will to live, but only life, in that he destroys the individual manifestation. Suicide, the willful destruction of the single phenomenal existence, is a vain and foolish act; for the thing-in-itself [the species, life, the will in general] remains unaffected by it, even as the rainbow endures however fast the drops which support it for the moment may change [19].

The evil of life lies not in our own unhappiness; that is but superficial. The ultimate evil consists in the fact that the game of life is played at all. Not the impotent pawn but the ruthless player, the brutal World-Will, must be killed. It is the part of the philosopher to make a contribution to this larger end, not to retire from the game by a futile gesture of self-destruction. Thus Schopenhauer interprets his own role.


With the hedonists Schopenhauer recognizes that man is essentially egoistic by nature; each of us is interested primarily in himself, in his own desires, needs, and ambitions. But Schopenhauer sees, as the hedonists do not, that in man's egoism and self-centeredness lies the root of strife, suffering, and unhappiness in human life. Each individual, he writes,

makes itself the center of the world, has regard for its own existence and well- being before everything else; indeed from the natural standpoint, is ready to sacrifice everything else for this -- is ready to annihilate the world in order to maintain its own self, this drop in the ocean a little longer. Everyone looks upon his own death as upon the end of the world, while he accepts the death of his acquaintances as a matter of comparative indifference if he is not in some way affected by it. This disposition is egoism, which is essential to everything in Nature. Yet it is just through egoism that the inner conflict of the will with itself attains to such a terrible revelation [20].

To conquer will and free ourselves from its domination, we must, then, overcome the egoism that is so deeply embedded in human nature. This task, as Schopenhauer well realizes, is not easy, but it is not an impossible one, and he sets out to show how it can be accomplished. Despite his earlier emphasis upon the secondary place of intellect in human nature, Schopenhauer in the end cannot escape the conviction of all philosophy that reason should serve as a pathway to the good life. Man's intellect has been produced as the instrument and servant of the will to live, and for most of us it operates only in this capacity, but it is possible nevertheless for reason in time to master the will that produced it. Desire can be moderated by knowledge; passion controlled by understanding.

Of ten things that annoy us, nine would not be able to do so if we understood them thoroughly in their causes, and therefore knew their necessity and true nature; but we would do this much oftener if we made them the object of reflection before making them the object of wrath and indignation. For what bridle and bit are to an unmanageable horse, the intellect is for the will in man; by this bridle it must be controlled [21].

Our desire and striving, our impatience with the conditions of life, arise for the most part from the fact that we regard things as a result of circumstances which might easily have been different. "We do not generally grieve over ills which are directly necessary and quite universal; for example, the necessity of age and death, and many daily inconveniences," Schopenhauer points out. When reason gains control over will, we are able to see clearly the necessity that exists in the nature of things. We realize that things could not be otherwise than they are, "that pain as such is inevitable and essential to life, and that nothing depends upon chance but its mere fashion, and form under which it presents itself, that thus our present sorrow fills a place that without it, would at once be occupied by another which now is excluded by it" [22]. Thus reason leads us to accept a deterministic philosophy and so enables us to escape the ceaseless round of desire and disillusion which makes up the life of the ordinary man. We become less anxious for our own well-being; we understand that fate can affect us little in what is essential.

The life of reason, then, is, for Schopenhauer, a life of self-control, of contemplation, of disinterestedness, to use a term of Walter Lippmann's. It is a life freed from the desire and passion that egoism breeds in us. Most men see things only as objects of desire, and for them intellect remains the tool of will. But the man in whom reason has finally overcome the domination of the will is able to forget his own individual desires and ambitions; he sees things as objects of contemplation rather than of desire. It is in the disinterested pursuit of truth that such a goal is most completely achieved, Schopenhauer feels. This is the ideal of pure science at its best. The great scientist is interested in truth for its own sake, not for what he can get out of it. A detachment of spirit, a freedom from individual ambition and self-interest, distinguishes such an individual and releases him from the pettiness and bitterness of ordinary life. In this enjoyment of knowledge for its own sake, reason in man achieves its full triumph over the will to live. "But, in fact, such a powerful control of reason over directly felt suffering seldom occurs," our pessimistic philosopher sadly admits. Among the vast multitude of human beings there are few men and no women who can expect to rise to such heights as this. The life of reason holds out little hope, therefore, for either the common man or the most gifted woman.


Schopenhauer's essay On Women is one of the classics in the literature of misogyny, "that last recourse of the captured male." His own experience with women had been an unfortunate one, and his estimate of feminine intelligence was low. As far as he could see, woman is by nature too completely a creature of emotion and desire for reason ever to rule her life. Indeed, it is just in the physical charms of the young woman that the will to live presents its greatest temptation to the man whose reason is struggling to free itself from slavery to passion and desire.

In his youth a man has not intelligence enough to realize how temporary and deceptive are the feminine charms that move him; when that realization comes, it is too late.

With young girls, nature seems to have in view what, in the language of drama, is called a striking effect, as for a few years she dowers them with a wealth of beauty and is lavish in her gift of charm, at the expense of all the rest of their lives, so that during those years they may capture the fancy of some man to such a degree that he is hurried away into undertaking the honorable care of them, in some form or another, as long as they live -- a step for which there would not seem to be any sufficient warrant if reason only directed man's thoughts [23].

Women, Schopenhauer concludes with obvious masculine prejudice,

form the sexus sequior -- the second sex, inferior in every respect to the first; their infirmities should be treated with consideration; but to show them great reverence is ridiculous and lowers us in their eyes.... The nobler and more perfect a thing is, the later and slower it is in arriving at maturity. A man reaches the maturity of his reasoning powers and mental faculties hardly before the age of twenty-eight; a woman, at eighteen. And then, too, in the case of woman, it is only reason of a sort -- very niggard in its dimensions. That is why women remain children their whole life long; never seeing anything but what is quite close to them, and preferring trifles to matters of first importance. For it is by virtue of his reasoning faculty that man does not live in the present only, like the brute, but looks about him and considers the past and the future; and this is the origin of prudence as well as of care and anxiety. Both the advantages and the disadvantages which this involves are shared in by the woman to a smaller extent because of her weaker power of reasoning. She may, in fact, be described as intellectually shortsighted because while she has an intuitive understanding of what lies quite close to her, her field of vision is narrow so that things which are absent, or past, or to come, have much less effect upon women than upon men. This is why women are more often inclined to be extravagant. In their hearts women think that it is men's business to earn money and theirs to spend it -- if possible, during their husband's life but at any rate after his death. However many disadvantages all this involves, there is at least this to be said in its favor, that the woman lives more in the present than the man and that if the present is at all tolerable she enjoys it more eagerly. This is the cause of that cheerfulness which is peculiar to women, fitting her to amuse man in his hours of recreation and, in case of need, to console him when he is borne down by the weight of his cares [24].

What shall we say of these ungallant comments upon feminine character in Schopenhauer's essay On Women? In one way they resemble the position presented so appealingly by Lin Yutang in The Importance of Living. Nature has so shaped the outlook of woman by the maternal instinct, a domination of feeling and desire over reason, an enduring concern for the welfare of the species, that she can never hope to escape her destiny in life. On this fact both agree. But concerning its implications they disagree sharply. To Lin Yutang, with his love of life, the charm of woman lies in her femininity; she should make the best use possible of it. For Schopenhauer, the pessimist, the less an intelligent man has to do with women, the better it will be for him. Let him never forget the snare of the will to live that lies hidden behind a woman's charms, the inevitable disillusion to which his desire for her must lead. Thus one's philosophy turns the facts of life to its own ends.


Schopenhauer was as fond of music as he was of philosophy. At noon each day by customarily found relaxation in playing for half an hour upon his flute. The enjoyment of art and music, he gradually came to realize, affords a deliverance from life's pain and strife more widespread and appealing than that which disinterested reason provides for a masculine intellectual aristocracy. Both art and science enable man to forget his individual desires, ambitions, and frustrations, to overcome the limitations of self-interest, and to become aware of that which is universal. It is in this fashion that they both provide an escape from the pain and tragedy of life, Schopenhauer feels. Although the truth that science seeks is an abstract truth, however, and is gained only as the result of careful, rational thought, great art is the product of an immediate insight in which a man of genius grasps the true nature of things without that long process of rational analysis upon which scientific knowledge depends.

In great art we find what Schopenhauer calls the "concrete universal"; that is, the poet or painted depicts a particular object with such insight that it reveals a universal truth. The madonnas of Raphael portray not one woman, but womanhood at its best.

In the selection of a theme both poetry and the plastic arts take some one individual person or thing and endeavor to present it as a separate entity with all its peculiarities even down to the minutest, exhibited with the most accurate precision.... The nature of art is such that with it one case holds good for a thousand, for by a careful and detailed presentation of a single individual, person or thing, it aims at revealing the genus to which that person or thing belongs. Thus some one event or scene in the life of a man, described with complete truth -- described, that is to say, so as to exhibit precisely all the individuals which go to make it what it is -- gives us a clear and profound insight into humanity itself, as seen from this particular point of view.... The true work of art should lead us from the individual fact, in other words, that which exists once only and then is gone forever, to that which always exists an infinite number of times in an infinite number of ways [25].

Since the will alone is the source of all our sorrows and sufferings, the whole possibility of suffering is taken away if willing and desiring vanish from consciousness. Now this is just what happens in the enjoyment of art and music, Schopenhauer points out; and it explains the feeling of pleasure which accompanies the perception of the beautiful.

The abundance of natural beauty which invites contemplation and even presses itself upon us whenever it discloses itself suddenly to our view, almost always succeeds in delivering us, though it may be for only a moment, from subjectivity, from the slavery of the will. This is why the man who is tormented by passion, or want, or care is so suddenly revived, cheered and restored by a single free glance into nature: the storm of passion, the pressure of desire and fear and all the miseries of willing are then at once in a marvelous manner, calmed and appeased. Happiness and unhappiness have disappeared; we are no longer individual; the individual is forgotten; we are only pure subject of knowledge; we are only that one eye of the world which looks out from all knowing creatures but which can become perfectly free from the service of will in man alone. Thus all differences of individuality so entirely disappear that it is all the same whether the perceiving eye belongs to a mighty king or a wretched beggar; for neither joy nor complaining can pass that boundary with us. So near us always lies a sphere in which we escape from all our misery; but who has the strength to continue long in it? As soon as any single relation of these objects of contemplation to our will or to our person comes again into consciousness, the magic is at an end and we are again abandoned to all our woe [26].

Being especially fond of music and conscious of its immediate appeal to all sorts of people, Schopenhauer contends that it must be given a place by itself among the arts. "The effect of music is stronger, quicker, more necessary and infallible," he writes. "It stands alone, quite cut off from all the other arts." We have only to look at our own experience to find ample confirmation of Schopenhauer's position. When the army desires to make its soldiers forget themselves and become part of a larger whole, it turns to martial music. To develop "college spirit" among its students, to unite them in a common cause, a college or university makes use of the song which has become its "alma mater." And almost every one of us is able to forget himself, for a brief time at least, as he enjoys a great symphony rendered by one of the outstanding orchestras of our day.

The larger appeal and significance of music is explained by the fact that music alone among the arts reflects the inner nature of all reality which is will, Schopenhauer argues. Music does not express this or that particular joy, this or that sorrow or delight, or peace of mind; but joy, sorrow, pain, delight, merriment, peace of mind themselves, in their essential nature without accessories, he maintains.

It is precisely this universality, which belongs exclusively to it, that gives music the high worth which it has as the panacea for all our woes. The unutterable depth of all music by virtue of which it floats through our consciousness as the vision of a paradise firmly believed in yet ever distant from us, and by which also it is so fully understood and yet so inexplicable, rests on the fact that it restores to us all the emotions of our inmost nature, but entirely without reality and far removed from their pain [27].


In the enjoyment of beauty, then, we may forget our pain and suffering for a time at least. But even here there is no permanent escape from evil for the pessimist. The contemplation of beauty gives us a foretaste of peace, but not the peace eternal. Even the artist is inexorably called away from his vision of beauty by the urge of appetite, if not of ambition; and the ordinary man or woman can hope at best to enjoy only brief moments of this higher peace, to escape but fleetingly the pendulum of life which swings relentlessly from pain to ennui and back to pain.

In his later years Schopenhauer came to feel that religion might perhaps be able to do what art could not. His own youthful reaction to religion had been a critical one. In the Christian churches of his day he saw only ecclesiastical organization, theological argument, hypocrisy, and self- deception. But in time he realized that the Christian view of life was in some ways remarkably similar to his own, and he took it upon himself to call men back to what he felt to be true religion. Orthodox Christianity has always maintained that man's state in this world is "both exceedingly wretched and sinful," he points out. It has condemned the quest for earthly goods together with all human selfishness, and has urged man to think of his neighbor as himself. With none of this does Schopenhauer have any quarrel. Christianity, he declares, is actually "a profound philosophy of pessimism." "Certainly the doctrine of original sin (assertion of the will) and of salvation (denial of the will) is the great truth which constitutes the essence of Christianity, while most of what remains is only the clothing of it, the husk or accessories," he writes. "That in recent times Christianity has forgotten its true significance, and degenerated into dull optimism, does not concern us here" [28].

The doctrine of the brotherhood of man Schopenhauer would have us take much more seriously than we customarily do. It is egoism, selfishness, sinfulness that lead us to make a distinction between our own interests and the interests of others. The highest religious vision leads us to see that we are one with all men.

Then it clearly follows that such a man, who recognizes in all beings his own inmost and true self, must also regard the infinite suffering of all suffering beings as his own, and take on himself the pain of the whole world. No suffering is any longer stranger to him. All the miseries of others which he sees and is so seldom able to alleviate, all the miseries he knows directly, and even those which he knows as only possible, work upon his mind like his own.

When this state of mind is reached, a man thinks no more of self; individuality and the will to live are overcome.

The will now turns away from life; it now shudders at the pleasures in which it recognizes the assertion of life. Man now attains to the state of voluntary renunciation, resignation, true indifference, and perfect willlessness.... That is to say, it no longer suffices for such a man to love others as himself, and to do as much for them as for himself.

There arises within him a horror of the will to live itself, which he recognizes as full of misery and sin. He therefore disowns this aspect of his nature, and "ceases to will anything, guards against attaching his will to anything and seeks to confirm in himself the greatest indifference to everything" [29].

Such an interpretation of religion obviously reflects the disenchanted wisdom of the Orient, not the eager ambition of the Western world. The profoundest religion, Schopenhauer feels, is not the Christianity of Europe and America but the Buddhism of India and China. The Buddhist recognizes specifically, as the Christian does not, that all individual distinctions are transitory and unreal. He accepts as the major goal of the religious life not love of others but the complete extinction of will and desire in Nirvana. And he realizes that in the ideal of asceticism one finds the surest road to salvation and the blessedness of Nirvana.

By the term asceticism, which I have used so often, I mean in its narrower sense this intentional breaking of the will by the refusal of what is agreeable and the selection of what is disagreeable, the voluntarily chosen life of penance and self-chastisement for the continual mortification of the will. He who has attained to this point compels himself to refrain from doing all that he would like to do and to do all that he would like not to do. Since he denies the will which appears in his own person, he will not resist if another does the same, i.e., inflicts wrong upon him. Therefore every suffering coming to him from without, through chance or the wickedness of others, is welcome to him, every injury, ignominy and insult. He receives them gladly as the opportunity of learning with certainty that he no longer asserts the will, but gladly sides with every enemy of the manifestation of will which is his own person. Therefore he bears such ignominy and suffering with inexhaustible patience and meekness, returns good for evil without ostentation, and allows the fire of anger to rise within him just as little as he does that of the desires. If at last death comes, which puts an end to this manifestation of that will whose existence here has long since perished through free-denial of itself, it is most welcome and is gladly received as a longed-for deliverance [30].


That this prospect of the complete denial of all desire holds so little appeal to most of us is simply evidence of the power of the will to live still exercises upon us. To those who have been freed from this domination of the World-Will, and from the mirage of happiness that it holds before our eyes -- to such alone is the deeper peace and blessedness of salvation known.

The wicked man, by the vehemence of his volition, suffers constant, consuming, inward pain, and finally, if all objects of volition are exhausted, quenches the fiery thirst of his self-will by the sight of the suffering of others. He, on the contrary, who has attained to the denial of the will to live, however poor, joyless, and full of privation his condition may appear when looked at externally, is yet filled with inward joy and the true peace of heaven. It is not the restless strain of life, the jubilant delight which has keen suffering as its precedent or succeeding condition; but it is a peace that cannot be shaken, a deep rest and inward serenity, a state which we cannot behold without the greatest longing when it is brought before our eyes or our imagination, because we at once recognize it as that which alone is right, infinitely surpassing everything else. Then we feel that every gratification of our wishes won from the world is merely like alms which the beggar receives from life today that he may hunger again with the morrow; resignation, on the contrary, is like an inherited estate, it frees the owner forever from all care.

Nothing can trouble him more, nothing can move him, for he has cut all the thousand cords of will which hold us bound to the world, and as desire, fear, envy, anger, drag us hither and thither in constant pain, he now looks back smiling and at rest on the delusions of the world, which once were able to move and agonize his spirit also, but which now stand before him as utterly indifferent to him as the chessman when the game is ended, or as in the morning, the cast-off masquerading dress which worried and disquieted us in the night in carnival. Life and its forms now pass before him as a fleeting illusion, as a light morning dream before half-awakening eyes, the real world already shining through it so that it can no longer deceive, and like this morning dream they finally vanish altogether without any violent transition [31].


What shall we say of such uncompromising pessimism? Is it enough to make the easy comment that to those who wear dark glasses the world always looks dark? Can we explain the unpleasant conclusions to which Schopenhauer's analysis of life led him merely by pointing to the circumstances in which his own life was cast, to the man himself and the age in which he lived? This has been done. "The natural response to such a philosophy is a medical diagnosis of the age and of the man," writes Will Durant. "Pessimism is an indictment of the pessimist. Given a diseased constitution and a neurotic mind, a life of empty leisure and gloomy ennui, and there emerges the proper physiology for Schopenhauer's philosophy" [32].

Such a statement, as appealing as it is to many who read Schopenhauer for the first time, is too easy an escape from the task of facing squarely the issues raised by this disturbing analysis of life. It is an escape so easy, indeed, that once we accept it we can never find any dependable ground for distinguishing the truth from the false. If Schopenhauer's pessimism is but the inevitable consequence of the individual and social influences that shaped his life, then we can legitimately claim no more than this for optimism or high idealism, which may hold greater appeal for us. Once we admit that the conclusions of the human mind are but the reflection, the inevitable product, of those circumstances and surroundings in which it is set, we surrender all hope of establishing any enduring truth. That is certainly too high a price to pay, if it can be avoided, for an easy answer to the pessimism of Schopenhauer. The innate confidence in the ability of human reason to distinguish the true from the false is one of man's most prized possessions, one without which he could have little hope of building an enduring and satisfying philosophy of life.

The unpleasant and disagreeable aspects of his own life undoubtedly served to open Schopenhauer's eyes to the widespread tragedy of human existence, but just as surely he did not create those aspects of life which he found so tragic. If his insight is limited and partial, it is also penetrating and disturbing. Too much that he has to say rings true in our experience, too much of his philosophy anticipates contemporary movements of wide influence -- such, for example, as the Freudian psychology or the philosophy of Henri Bergson -- to be easily dismissed as a product of a neurotic mind or a diseased constitution. The problems which Schopenhauer raises must be dealt with honestly and convincingly by every thoughtful student of philosophy. His emphasis upon the primary place of will in human life finds influential expression in the anti-intellectualism of our own day. In the thought of both Nietzsche and William James, we shall meet this point of view again and deal with it more directly. For our present consideration, however, the significance of Schopenhauer's pessimism is found primarily in the fact that it provides at once a final refutation of hedonism and a natural transition from a hedonistic to a rationalistic philosophy of life.

Schopenhauer accepts the basic assumption of hedonism -- that man naturally gives himself to the pursuit of pleasure and the satisfaction of desire. But his searching analysis of human experience shows conclusively that such hedonism is self-refuting. The pursuit of pleasure, the effort to get what we want when we want it, brings not happiness but pain, suffering, and disillusion. All life does swing like a pendulum from the pain of desire unsatisfied to the boredom and satiety of desire that is satisfied when life is lived upon hedonistic premises. It is not the conclusion reached here by Schopenhauer that should be attacked. Rather it is his adoption of the basic assumption of hedonism that is questionable. Given his assumption, the conclusion is sound. He argues convincingly for what experience has continued to demonstrate pragmatically, that those who seek happiness in the pursuit of pleasure are not the happiest but the most restless, bored, and disillusioned among us.

In such circumstances the confirmed pessimist will probably do well to follow Schopenhauer's counsel and root out the desires and passions which thus lure him into a life of restless boredom or disillusionment. But the intelligent student of life will rather raise a question concerning the hedonistic assumptions upon which this pessimistic philosophy rests. It may well be, as we have already suggested, that there are other, more adequate and worthy ends in life than the pursuit of pleasure, the satisfaction of appetite and desire. In a life devoted to ideals and purposes that are more uniquely human, we may find a meaning and satisfaction much more enduring and appealing than the bleak resignation of the ascetic to which Schopenhauer's pessimism finally leads him. Such, at least, is the claim made by exponents of that philosophy known as rationalism, to which we now turn. Here the life of reason, to which Schopenhauer himself was eventually led, is presented to us not as the last hope of pessimist, weary of life and anxious to escape its trials and hardships, but rather as the conviction of intelligent men who are eager to live in a way that is truly and uniquely human and thus to enjoy the lasting satisfaction which understanding alone can bring to human life. A philosophy of this sort certainly seemed to hold more promise than does the pursuit of pleasure to which the hedonist gives himself.

[1] Johann Fichte, Werke, I, 434. [back]
[2] The World as Will and Idea (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1896), I, Preface, XX, XV. [back]
[3] Josiah Royce, The Spirit of Modern Philosophy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1892), p. 242. [back]
[4] The World as Will and Idea, II, 361-362, 359, 360. [back]
[5] Ibid., II, 416, 424,. 427, 428. [back]
[6] Ibid., II, 431, 432. [back]
[7] Ibid., I, 425. [back]
[8] Ibid., I, 339; III, 340-431. [back]
[9] Ibid., III, 351, 343, 342. [back]
[10] Ibid., I, 153. [back]
[11] Ibid., I, 253-254. [back]
[12] Ibid., I, 404. [back]
[13] Ibid., III, 345-346; 371-372. [back]
[14] Ibid., I, 400. [back]
[15] Ibid., I, 492-193. [back]
[16] Ibid., III, 382-383; I, 412. [back]
[17] Ibid., I, 418, 419. [back]
[18] Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer, trans. T. Bailey Saunders (New York: A.L. Burt Company, no date), p. 200. [back]
[19] The World as Will and Idea, I. 514, 515. [back]
[20] Ibid., I, 428. [back]
[21] Ibid., II, 426. [back]
[22] Ibid., I, 406, 407. [back]
[23] Essays, p. 435. [back]
[24] Ibid., pp. 442, 436-437. [back]
[25] Ibid., pp. 281, 282. [back]
[26] The World as Will and Idea, I, 255-256. [back]
[27] Ibid., I, 338, 341. [back]
[28] Ibid., I, 524. [back]
[29] Ibid., I, 489, 490, 491. [back]
[30] Ibid., I, 506, 493. [back]
[31] Ibid., I, 503-504, 504-505. [back]
[32] Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy (New York: Garden City Publishing Company, 1943), p. 259. [back]
[33] Quoted by J. Royce, The Spirit of Modern Philosophy, p. 247. [back]
[34] Memoirs of Anselm Feuerbach, quoted by William Wallace, Life of Arthur Schopenhauer, p. 81. [back]
[35] It is this that accounts for the title Schopenhauer gave to his volume The World as Will and Idea. [back]
© Copyright 1997 Patrick Beherec (or original author)
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