Schopenhauer's system is set forth in all its fulness in his
great work, The World as Will and Idea. All that he wrote after
the appearance of this book was confirmation and expansion of the
theories already laid down. It differs from his earlier books in
method. He no longer follows academic lines. He looks upon the work
as a revelation of the meaning of life, based on a clear and direct
intuition into life, and the style shapes itself accordingly. Metaphor
frequently takes the place of argument, and his theories are developed
in a flow of passionate eloquence, contrasting remarkably with the
severer methods of the ordinary metaphysician.
Schopenhauer takes as his starting-point certain theories from
the philosophies of Plato and Kant. Things, as we know them in experience,
said Kant, are made up partly of forms or moulds, which are in the
mind, and partly of something outside the mind. That which we know,
our actual experience, is a combination of the two elements, the
subjective and the objective element. That part of experience which
lies outside the mind, the reality, the thing-in-itself or the noumenon
in philosophical language, we can never know. For in order to be
known by us, it has to run into the forms or moulds supplied by
the mind, and in this transition its nature has been changed. To
know it as it is, before it enters into contact with our minds,
is impossible. That we appear to have objective knowledge is therefore
a deception and an illusion.
Schopenhauer accepts Kant's analysis of experience, but denies
that the thing-in-itself is unknowable. For that which is real in
our experience is not outside us altogether, as in Kant's theory.
It lies within ourselves; it is the only real and essential part
of our nature, and we have a direct knowledge of it. This reality
Schopenhauer finds in the will. Now the will is fully known to us
through internal perception, through intuition. It is the real,
inner nature of everything in the world. It affords the key to the
knowledge of the inmost being of the whole of nature. It is the
kernel of every individual thing, and also of the whole universe.
It is important to note, that Schopenhauer's use of the word
"will" is far wider than that of common usage. It includes not only
conscious desire, but also unconscious instinct, and the forces
of inorganic nature. He recognises will not only in the existences
which resemble our own, in men and animals, but also in the force
which germinates and vegetates in the plant, the force through which
the crystal is formed, that by which the magnet turns to the north
pole, the force which appears in the elective affinities of matter
as repulsion and attraction, decomposition and combination, and
lastly even as gravitation, which draws the stone to the earth and
the earth to the sun. All these in their inner nature are identical.
It is the same force in every manifestation of nature, as in each
preconsidered action of man. The difference is merely one of degree.
The body is the most real thing for everyone. If we analyse the
reality of this body, we find nothing but the will. With this its
reality is exhausted. The word will, like a magic spell, he says,
reveals the inmost being of all nature. Spinoza says, that if a
stone, which has been projected through the air, had consciousness,
it would believe that it was moving of its own will. Schopenhauer
adds that the stone would be right. The impulse given it, is for
the stone what the motive is for us. All blindly impelling force,
all forces which act in nature in accordance with universal laws,
are equally in their inner nature to be recognised as will. It is
everywhere one and the same, "just as the first dim light of dawn
must share the name of sunlight with the rays of the full midday."
Now the will expresses itself necessarily as a struggle. Everywhere
in nature we see strife, conflict, and alternation of victory. Every
grade of will fights for the matter, the space, and the time of
the others. For each desires to express its own inmost nature. Nature
exists only through such struggle. This universal conflict is most
distinctly visible in the animal kingdom. For animals have the whole
of the vegetable kingdom for their food, and even within the animal
kingdom every beast is the prey and the food of another. Each animal
can maintain its existence only by the constant destruction of some
This is the "will to live" which everywhere preys upon itself,
until finally the human race regards nature as a manufactory for
its own use. This strife manifests itself just as characteristically
in the lower grades of will, e.g. the ivy which encircles the oak
until the tree withers as if choked, the parasite which fastens
itself on the animal and kills it. Even crude matter has its existence
only in the strife of conflicting forces.
Man has need of the beasts for his support, the beasts in their
turn have need of each other as well as plants, which in their turn
require the ground, water, and chemical elements and their combinations.
Thus in nature everything preys on some other form of life. For
the will must live on itself; there exists nothing beside it, and
it is a hungry will.
This theory of the will is connected by Schopenhauer with pessimism.
Eternal becoming, endless flux characterises the inner nature of
the will. In the human race this character of the will is most clearly
marked. All our endeavours and desires delude us by presenting their
satisfaction as the final end of will. But as soon as we attain
our desires, they no longer appear the same. They soon grow stale
and are forgotten, and then are thrown aside as useless illusions.
The enchantment of distance shows us paradises, which vanish like
optical delusions, as soon as we have allowed ourselves to be mocked
by them. We are fortunate if there still remains something to wish
for and to strive after, that the game may be kept up of constant
transition from desire to satisfaction, and from satisfaction to
a new desire.
Happiness, therefore, always lies in the future, or else in the
past. The present, Schopenhauer compares to a small dark cloud,
which the wind drives over the sunny plain. Before and behind it
all is bright, but the cloud itself always casts a shadow. The present
is always insufficient, the future is uncertain, and the past irrevocable.
The will strives always, for striving is its real nature. No
attainment of the goal can put an end to this constant striving.
It is not susceptible, therefore, of any final satisfaction, for
in itself it goes on for ever. As in the life of the plant, so in
the life of all men. There is the same restless, unsatisfied striving,
a ceaseless movement through ever-ascending forms, until finally
the seed becomes a new starting-point. This is repeated ad infinitum,
nowhere an end, nowhere a final satisfaction, nowhere a resting-place.
No possible satisfaction in the world can suffice to still the cravings
of the will, to set a goal to its infinite aspirations, and to fill
the bottomless abyss of its heart.
The hindrance of this striving, through an obstacle, we call
suffering; the attainment of its temporary end is well-being or
happiness. But as there is no final end of striving, there is no
measure and end of suffering. In proportion as knowledge attains
to distinctness, as consciousness ascends in the scale of organic
life, pain increases also. It reaches its highest capacity, therefore,
in man. The more intelligence a man has, the greater his capacity
for suffering; the man who is gifted with genius suffers most of
all. Suffering is in the very nature of all life, and the ceaseless
efforts which we make to banish it succeed only in making it change
its form. Yet we pursue our lives, absorbed in the interests of
the moment, just as we blow out a soap bubble as large as possible,
although we know perfectly well that it will burst. Willing or striving
may be compared to an unquenchable thirst. Every act of willing
presupposes a want. The basis of all willing is need or deficiency.
The nature of man, therefore, is subject to pain originally and
through its very nature.
If, on the other hand, man lacks objects of desire, being deprived
of them by too easy satisfaction, then a terrible emptiness and
sense of boredom, comes over him. His very existence becomes an
unbearable burden to him. Thus life swings like a pendulum backwards
and forwards between pain and boredom. Men have expressed this truth
oddly, says Schopenhauer, in transferring all pain and torments
to hell, and in leaving what remains, that is, boredom, for heaven.
Man is of all animals the most full of wants and needs. He is a
concretion of a thousand necessities. Driven by these, he wanders
through life, uncertain about everything except his own need and
misery. The care for the maintenance of his existence occupies,
as a rule, the whole of human life. A second claim, that of the
reproduction of the species, is related directly to this. At the
same time, he is threatened from all sides by different kinds of
dangers, from which it requires constant watchfulness to escape.
"With cautious steps and casting anxious glances round him, he pursues
his path, for a thousand accidents and a thousand enemies lie in
wait for him. Thus he went while yet a savage, thus he goes in civilised
life. There is no security for him."
The majority of men wage a constant battle for their very existence,
with nothing before them but the certainty of losing it at last.
Man's greatest care in avoiding the rocks and whirlpools of life,
only bring him nearer at every step to the greatest, inevitable,
and irremediable shipwreck of death. This is the final goal of the
Whatever nature and fortune may have done, whoever a man be,
and whatever he may possess, the pain of life cannot be cast off.
Excessive joy and excessive suffering always occur in the same person,
for they condition each other reciprocally, and are conditioned
by great activity of the mind. Error and delusion lie at the foundation
of keen joy or grief. Joy rests on the delusion that lasting satisfaction
has been found for the desires. The inevitable result is that when
the delusion vanishes, we pay for it with pain as bitter as the
joy was keen. The greater the height from which we drop, the more
severe the fall.
For the most part we close our minds to the knowledge that happiness
is a delusion. We strive unweariedly from wish to wish, and from
desire to desire. It is incredible how meaningless when viewed from
without, how dull and unenlightened by intellect when felt from
within, is the course of life of the great mass of men. It is a
weary longing and complaining, a dreamlike staggering through the
four ages of life to death, accompanied only by trivial thoughts.
Such men go like clockwork, without knowing the reason why. The
life of every individual, if we survey it as a whole, is always
a tragedy, but looked at in detail, it has all the character of
a comedy. Everyone who has awakened from the first dream of youth,
who has reflected on his own experience and on that of others, must
conclude inevitably that this human world is the kingdom of chance
and error, which rule without mercy in great things and in small.
Everything better struggles through only with difficulty. That which
is noble and wise seldom attains to expression. The absurd and the
perverse in the sphere of thought, the dull and tasteless in the
sphere of art, the wicked and deceitful in the sphere of action,
assert a supremacy which is rarely disturbed.
Nothing external has power to deliver man from this dominion
of woe. In vain does he make to himself gods, in order to get from
them by prayers and flattery what can be accomplished only by his
The most beautiful part of life, its purest joy, is pure knowledge.
It is removed from all willing, and lifts us out of real existence.
This relief, however, is granted only to a few, because it demands
rare talents and rare opportunities. Even the few, to whom it comes
only as a passing dream, are made susceptible of far greater suffering
than duller minds can ever feel. They are placed in lonely isolation
by their nature, which is different from that of others. To the
great mass of men, purely intellectual pleasures are not accessible.
They are almost incapable of the joys which lie in pure knowledge.
Their lives are given up to willing.
If we could bring clearly to a man's sight the terrible sufferings
and miseries to which his life is exposed, he would be seized with
horror. The brevity of life may be the best quality it possesses.
All happiness is negative in character, and never positive. Only
pain and want can be felt positively. Happiness is merely the absence
of pain, for it follows upon the satisfaction of a wish. Some want
or need is the condition which precedes every pleasure. But with
the satisfaction, the wish, and therefore the pleasure, cease. The
satisfaction can never be more than deliverance from a pain or want.
We observe that the days of our life were happy after they have
given place to unhappy ones. In proportion as pleasures increase,
the capacity for them decreases. What is customary is no longer
felt as a pleasure. Achievement is difficult, but when attained
it is nothing but deliverance from some sorrow or want. Therefore
we value our blessings and advantages only when we have lost them,
for the deprivation, the need, is the positive factor.
Man's real existence is only in the present, and the present
is slipping ever into the past. There is thus a constant transition
into death. The future is quite uncertain, and always short. Our
existence, therefore, is a constant hurrying of the present, into
the dead past, a constant dying. On the physical side, the life
of the body is but an ever-postponed death. In the end death must
conquer, and he only plays for a little with his prey before he
swallows it up.
With such intensity did Schopenhauer feel that pessimism was
the only possible conclusion, that he maintained that optimism was
not only absurd, but really a wicked way of thought. For optimism
is a bitter mockery of the unspeakable suffering of humanity. He
revolted against the theory of Leibnitz, who maintained that this
is the best of all possible worlds. It is, on the contrary, he declared,
the worst of all possible worlds. Optimism is at bottom the unmerited
self-praise of the will to live, the real originator of the world,
which views itself complacently in its works. It is not only a false,
but also a pernicious doctrine. For it presents life to us as a
desirable condition, and happiness as its end. Everyone believes
that he has a just claim to happiness and pleasure, and if these
do not fall to his lot, he believes that he is wronged. It is far
more correct to regard misery and suffering, crowned by death, as
the end of our life, for it is these which lead to the denial of
the will to live. It is difficult to conceive how men can deceive
themselves and be persuaded that life is there to be thankfully
enjoyed, and that man exists in order to be happy. The constant
illusion and disillusion seem intended to awaken the conviction,
that nothing at all is worth our striving, our efforts, or our struggles,
and that all good things are but empty vanity. The truth is, he
says, we ought to be wretched and we are.
The world is a hell, which surpasses that of Dante. One need
look only at man's treatment of his fellow-men.
Schopenhauer points to the children, who are sent into factories
to work there daily for long hours, performing day after day the
same mechanical task. This, he adds, is to purchase dearly the satisfaction
of drawing breath. Everyone would have declined the "gift" of life,
if he could have seen it and tested it beforehand. But life has
never been chosen freely. Everyone would retire from the struggle
gladly, but want and boredom are the whips which keep the top spinning.
Every individual bears the stamp of a forced condition. Inwardly
weary, he longs for rest, but yet he must press forward. All movement
is forced, and men are pushed from behind. It is not life that tempts
them on, but necessity that drives them forward.
Suicide is no solution of the problem of life. It is not to be
regarded as a crime, as in the code of modern society. But there
is a valid moral reason against it, in that it substitutes for the
real emancipation from the world of suffering, a merely apparent
one. So far from being a denial of the will, suicide is indeed a
strong assertion of the will. The suicide destroys merely the individual
manifestation of life. The wilful destruction of the single existence
is a vain and foolish act. The suicide gives up living, because
he cannot give up willing. He denies the individual only, not the
species. There is a more adequate way of conquering life than by
destroying it, which Schopenhauer expounds when he deals with the
ethical aspect of his philosophy.
His analysis of the worth of human life, as represented in this
theory of pessimism, is the most passionate and terrible indictment
of existence which has ever found expression. His sense of disenchantment
is felt with such intensity, that it colours and distorts the whole
fabric of his vision of life.
There is much affinity between the character and work of Schopenhauer
and that of Leopardi. In both are displayed penetrating profundity
of thought, extraordinary beauty of expression, and deep insight
into the workings of the human mind, while the same passionate revolt
against the misery of life colours the outlook and achievement of
philosopher and poet alike. Schopenhauer was acquainted with the
writings of Leopardi, and had great admiration for his work. His
subject, he says, is always the mockery and wretchedness of existence,
and he presents it with such wealth of imagery, such multiplicity
of forms and applications, that he never wearies us, but is always
entertaining and exciting. This estimate of the work of Leopardi
might with equal justice be applied to Schopenhauer himself.
As his philosophy gained ground gradually, and became known,
he won many disciples and enthusiastic followers, and for a time
his theories of pessimism became fashionable. Certain literary groups
adopted them with enthusiasm, but in that direction his influence
was not permanent. It is not in Schopenhauer's theory of pessimism
that his true importance and real significance lie. In philosophy
this influence has but faintly shown itself. Schopenhauer's direct
successor on these lines of thought is Eduard von Hartmann. He rejects
Schopenhauer's doctrine that all pleasure is merely relief from
pain, but admits that the greater number of pleasures are of this
kind. Satisfaction, he asserts, is always brief, while dissatisfaction
is enduring as life itself. The pain in the universe greatly preponderates
over the pleasure, even for those who are regarded as the fortunate
ones in the eyes of the world. The future, moreover, seems likely
to bring us only increased misery. Hartmann's practical conclusion
is that we should aim at the negation of the will to live, not each
for himself, as Schopenhauer taught, but universally, by working
towards the annihilation of all existence. Schopenhauer's influence
is here, obviously, very strongly marked.
Another disciple, and a far more famous one, is Nietzsche. He
came under Schopenhauer's influence while a student at the university,
and threw himself with passionate enthusiasm under the spell of
his philosophy. Although in his later development he reacted strongly
in an opposite direction, yet all his work bears the mark of the
deep impress which Schopenhauer had made upon his mind. His outlook
on life had been changed profoundly by "that wonderful heart-stirring
philosophy," as he calls it. One of his earliest works was an essay
on Schopenhauer as Educator, in which he bases the greatness of
Schopenhauer on his power to see the picture of life as a unity,
and to express it as such. He is held up as the ideal philosopher,
and as one of three models for future man, the other two being Goethe
and Rousseau. Schopenhauer's insistence on action as the proper
sphere of man, as contrasted with the mere life of thought, made
a strong appeal to Nietzsche. A philosopher, says Nietzsche, must
be not only a great thinker, but a living man. Schopenhauer had
not been spoilt, as was Kant, by his education. He had seen life
as well as studied books, and so was able to see how the free, strong
man could be evolved. Many of Nietzsche's most characteristic doctrines
are suggested in this early essay, and are read partially into Schopenhauer's
It is more especially Schopenhauer's theories of art which influenced
Nietzsche's thought, and left the deepest and most permanent mark
on his work. He adopted in his early days the pessimism along with
the rest of Schopenhauer's system. But this conception of life was
not really native to his mind, and it was against this aspect of
Schopenhauer's philosophy that he reacted most violently in later
life. Nietzsche stands, above all else, for the affirmation of life,
Schopenhauer for the negation of life. In his protest against pessimism,
Nietzsche reaffirms with passionate intensity the worth of life
and the splendour of human destiny. He told men to believe in the
glory of things, and bade them shout for the joy of living. "All
that's joyful shall be true," he says in one of his poems. In another
passage he insists that "it is necessary to remain bravely at the
surface, to worship appearance, to believe in forms, in tones, in
words, in the whole Olympus of appearance." It is clear that by
this time nothing of the pessimistic outlook on life had been left
in Nietzsche's philosophy.
Pessimism will always find an echo in the minds of those who
by temperament tend to see only the darker colours of the picture
of life. Too much questioning and too little responsibility lead
down to the abyss, as William James points out. Pessimism, he says,
is essentially a religious disease. It consists in nothing but a
religious demand, to which there comes no normal religious reply.
To the great mass of mankind there is something alien and repellent
in this grim and bitter outlook of hopelessness. It finds little
or no response in the heart of the normal human being, even though
at times the nightmare view may force itself upon him. "Deliverance,"
says the Indian poet Tagore, "is not for me in renunciation. I feel
the embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight. All my illusions
will burn into illumination of joy and all my desires ripen into
fruits of love."
For Schopenhauer the way of escape lay in two directions. In
considering his ï¿½sthetic theories, we shall see how he found in
art a temporary release from the bondage of life, and in his ethical
system he points the way to a permanent deliverance.
It is in these statements, the ï¿½sthetic and the ethical aspects
of his system, that we find the most significant part of Schopenhauer's
philosophy. His pessimism left little permanent mark on the course
of philosophic thought. It is to the other side of his work that
we must look for a fruitful issue, to his statement of the function
of art and its meaning for life; his insistence on the will, the
active element, as that which has most reality and significance
in life; to the part which the feelings, instinct, and impulse play
in his system. In all these directions, Schopenhauer's influence
has been powerful and far-reaching. To-day he is a stronger force
than any other of the great thinkers of his time, overshadowed though
he was by them during his lifetime. In Germany especially, his influence
is felt as a powerful factor in the thought of the present day.
Source: Schopenhauer By Margrieta Beer, M.A.