Arthur Schopenhauer was born in Germany in 1788. One of the more famous philosophers of his time, Schopenhauer also contributed one of the bleakest views on the inner workings of life in his most well known work, "The World as Will and Idea" (1818). His idea of the universal will served as a precursor to Freud's theory of the unconscious mind. To Schopenhauer, every individual is the embodiment of a 'will to live' that motivates every action with the sole purpose of survival. This means that fundamentally every individual is an ego whose interest in staying alive overrides every other, including the life interest of every other individual. The only way to avoid this suffering is through denial of the will. Ultimately, the conscious acceptance of the need for annihilation as the only true cure for the sickness of life is the inevitable outcome drawn by the famous pessimist.

Selected Aphorisms:

  • On The Suffering Of The World

    "Not the least of the torments which plague our existence is the constant pressure of time, which never lets us so much as draw breath but pursues us all like a taskmaster with a whip. It ceases to persecute only him it has delivered over to boredom."

  • On Women

    "One needs only to see the way she is built to realize that woman is not intended for great mental or for great physical labour. She expiates the guilt of life not through activity but through suffering, through the pains of childbirth, caring for the child and subjection to the man, to whom she should be a patient and cheering companion. Great suffering, joy, exertion, is not for her: her life should flow by more quietly, trivially, gently than the man's without being essentially happier or unhappier."

  • On Thinking For Yourself

    "There are very many thoughts which have value for him who thinks them, but only a few of them possess the power of engaging the interest of a reader after they have been written down."

  • On Books And Writing

    "Writers can be divided into meteors, planets and fixed stars. The first produce a momentary effect: you gaze up, cry: 'Look!'- and then they vanish for ever. The second, the moving stars, endure for much longer. By virtue of their proximity they often shine more brightly than the fixed stars, which the ignorant mistake them for. But they too must soon vacate their place, they shine moreover only with a borrowed light, and their sphere of influence is limited to their fellow travellers (their contemporaries). The third alone are unchanging, stand firm in the firmament, shine by their own light and influence all ages equally, in that their aspect does not alter when our point of view alters since they have no parallax. Unlike the others, they do not belong to one system (nation) alone: they belong to the Universe. But it is precisely because they are so high that their light usually takes so many years to reach the eyes of dwellers on earth."

Schopenhauer was the pessimist of the 19th century, who discerned by their very human nature, as willing beings, people’s lives lead invariably to some sort of suffering or another, and that the only salvation from these torments (of disappointment, of jealousy, of lust) was denial of those base impulses. Only through restraint were you free from slavery to the will. His rather famous student Friedrich Nietzsche would later invert this equation. Schopenhauer's prescription for denial also have an aesthetic element, as he argued the struggle to escape the will also provided one with a certain level of detachment and distance from the objects of the world, affording the individual clarity of thought.

Essentially, if you view reality is an impelling force, which appears to the individual as will, then conflict arises when the individual cannot satisfy those desires, or they prove contradictory. To boil it down then, life is suffering and all people, Schopenhauer said, live in pain. The whole basis of ethics, in fact, rests on sympathy for the pain of others, which he outlined in his essay, On The Suffering Of The World, published after his death in 1851.

Schopenhauer was born in Danzig, Germany in 1788, into a wealthy, educated family. He traveled widely and was well schooled throughout Europe in this youth, focusing on Immanuel Kant, Plato and the Hindu Upanishads (which he stated later as his greatest influences). However, as his schooling continued, he encountered more and more the influence of Hegel on his studies (en vogue at the time, Hegel's Philosophy of History was a sort of ur-Modern Post-Modern Condition, certainly required reading).

Anyway, by 1816, S. begins to make a name for himself, writing a great deal on art, perception, colour, and even collaborating with Goethe. In 1818, though, his masterwork is published, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The World as Will and Idea, or The World as Will and Representation, depending on the translator), wherein he outlined his philosophy and vision of the world and mind extensively.

In 1820, he secured a position at University of Berlin, only to be enraged to find few students interested in attending his lectures on account of they're being held the same time as Hegel's across campus. After that, he made it a point to ridicule and revile Hegel (and who can blame him really?) whenever he had the chance, but eventually moved to Frankfurt in 1833 to devote himself exclusively to writing, expanding each of the ideas in his earlier work. He dies of a heart attack on September 21, 1860.


"Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world." (from Studies in Pessimism, 1851)

"In savage countries they eat one another, in civilized they deceive one another.'' (from Unser Verhalten gegen Andere betreffend', 1851)

"I have long held the opinion that the amount of noise that anyone can bear undisturbed stands in inverse proportion to his mental capacity and therefore be regarded as pretty fair measure of it." (from On Noise)

"There is no more mistaken path to happiness than worldliness, revelry and high life." (Essays, Our Relation to Ourselves, sec. 24)

"The two foes of human happiness are pain and boredom." (Essays, Personality; or What a Man Is)

"All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; and Third, it is accepted as self-evident." (from On the Wisdom of Life, Aphorism.)

"In the sphere of thought, absurdity and perversity remain the masters of the world, and their dominion is suspended only for brief periods." (from On the Wisdom of Life, Aphorisms.)

"Hatred is an affair of the heart: contempt that of the head." (from The World as Will and Idea, Vol.2, ch.26, sct.324)

Sources: 1. "Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)," Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (NY: 1998), v.8, p.545-554, and, 2. Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer, (NY: Burt, n.d.)
Schopenhauer's doctrines were much more in sympathy with Eastern religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism (he was familiar with both) than with the dominant Christianity of his time and place.

As can be seen from his pessimism, described above, the Buddhist doctrine that 'existence is suffering' was very close to his own position.

Though he wrote extensively about will, he regarded this (even the 'cosmic will') as intrinsically evil, and bound to lead to unhappiness and suffering, either in its frustration or its success.

He therefore advocated the lessening of the intensity of will - the less we will things, the less we will suffer. Ultimately, the abandonment of will is the best we can do, but is still none too pleasant. He wrote

"what remains after the entire abolition of will is for all those who are still full of will certainly nothing; to those in whom the will has turned and has denied itself, this our world, which is so real, with all its suns and milky ways--is nothing."
And again, lest it be thought he is pointing to a subtle positive good to be gained by the abandonment, after the will is surrendered, since the world is will,
"the whole manifestation of the will; and, finally, also the universal forms of this manifestation, time, space, and also its last fundamental form, subject and object; all are abolished. No will: no idea, no world. Before us there is certainly only nothingness."
This nothing, he maintained, is the best that can be hoped for - at least it is better than something.

This 'reversal' of the will was to be achieved by the classic techniques of asceticism: chastity, poverty, fasting, and self-flagellation.

Unfortunately, it seems that Schopenhauer was not able to put this into practice in his own life, being notoriously hot-tempered, un-chaste, and given to large meals at expensive tables.

His hot temper got him into trouble: annoyed by the chattering of an elderly lady outside his apartment door, he threw her down the stairs, injuring her permanently. She took him to court, and he was ordered to pay 15 thalers to her every three months, while she was alive. Twenty years later, when she died, his account book records the note he made: "Obit anus, abit onus" - "the old lady dies, the burden leaves".

Information and quotes from Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy. Unfortunately, Russell doesn't explicitly indicate which work the quotes are taken from, but from the context it's very likely The World as Will and Idea.

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