Arthur Schopenhauer

The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.

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    The Power of Schopenhauer

    A philosophy for life that prizes beauty and compassion

    by Steven Gambardella

    Europe had been torn apart by the time Arthur Schopenhauer was a young man. Napoleon had marched east seizing state after state in his conquest to build a mighty French empire that could rival ancient Rome.

    The German-speaking world was profoundly affected by Napoleon’s conquests. At the time the Germanic people were spread among a diverse collection of smaller states that had found themselves polarized by the conflicts. Some believed Napoleon brought a surge of progress emanating from the French Revolution, others thought Napoleon’s conquests brought nothing but death and destruction.

    All this led philosophers to think a great deal about what progress actually was, and why there is so much suffering in the world. These are two questions that Schopenhauer developed into a comprehensive philosophy that not only describes how the world is, but also how we should live in it.

    Schopenhauer was “discovered” late in life. His masterwork, The World as Will and Representation, was published at a young age but largely ignored. It was only when he published a collection of essays at the age of 60 that he received recognition for his contribution to philosophy. He achieved fame in the few years before his death at the age of 72.

    Fame is an understatement. Fame is fleeting. Influence is lasting. Schopenhauer isn’t a household name now, but the thinker is among the most significant intellects of the modern era.

    The philosopher had a particularly profound effect on the arts. Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, Thomas Mann, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov all found inspiration in the philosopher’s ideas. Some of them name-checked him in their works. Scientists and philosophers have also cited Schopenhauer’s influence: Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Friedrich Nietzsche all read and admired The World as Will and Representation. Einstein kept a bust of Schopenhauer in his study.

    “Original Sin is the crime of existence itself”

    Most philosophical thinking around Schopenhauer’s time assumed that progress was happening. It was easy to make that assumption after the enlightenment, as the march of science modernised the western world. The industrial and political revolutions shaping Europe made that progress very real to people.

    Germanic philosophy went further. The most influential philosopher at the time, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, believed that the world was an all-encompassing spirit making its way to perfection. This idea of a collective spiritual or intellectual progress was widely accepted at the time. History had been considered as something that would reach a goal.

    When Hegel witnessed Napoleon riding through the city of Jena, he wrote to a friend:

    I saw the Emperor — this world-soul — riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.

    Schopenhauer’s philosophy, written in the shadow of Hegel’s work, is notorious for its pessimism. For Schopenhauer there is no spirit in the world and in the grand scheme of things there is no “progress”. Of Napoleon, he wrote:

    “He was possessed of the very ordinary egoism that seeks its welfare at the expense of others. What distinguished him was merely the greater power he had of satisfying his will.”

    Napoleon didn’t embody any kind of spirit, he was just fighting wars and killing thousands for his own gratification. History, as far as Schopenhauer was concerned, was meaningless. All the trials and tribulations mankind undergoes come ultimately to nothing.

    The universe is one of horrific suffering. Out in space there are unimaginably vast and ultimately meaningless cycles of creation and destruction. Great explosions, collisions, and implosions on a cosmic scale simply happen with no reason at all.

    Here on earth nature manifests as an appalling competition. Creatures survive by hunting and devouring other creatures. Every creature dies, more often than not in agony. There’s no God in Schopenhauer’s view. As the philosopher put it himself: “Original Sin is the crime of existence itself.”

    Schopenhauer’s ideas offer no consolation in themselves, there is no redemption in his world view, only relief. Instead of placing hope in a God or progress, Schopenhauer believed that we should look in two directions for peace of mind: compassion and art. To understand how he came to this conclusion, it’s worth unpacking his philosophy.

    Beyond the world as we know it

    Schopenhauer’s philosophical system was built on the work of Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher of the Enlightenment. Like Kant, Schopenhauer believed our world had two contrasting aspects to it: total reality can be separated into what we can and can’t experience of it.

    Firstly there is the “phenomenal” world (phenomenal meaning “what is experienced”). This is the world as ordered by our sense and as we experience it in space and time and according to the law of cause and effect. In short, the phenomenal world is everything we can feel, hear, perceive etc.

    But what if we somehow had access to the world as it really is? What is outside our perception of the world, outside our senses and even outside of space and time and cause and effect? Schopenhauer calls it the “noumenal” aspect of the world (noumenal meaning “what is outside of experience”).

    In short there is the universe in-itself and the universe for human beings. This is why Schopenhauer’s named his book The World as Will and Representation.

    Schopenhauer believed that since our intellect imposes difference on the universe, the universe outside of our intellect must be an undifferentiated oneness.

    The “phenomenal” world is things in space and time: trees, dust, people, sky, water. If we could ever step outside of ourselves (which we of course can’t), the “noumenal” world would be pure undifferentiated energy. All those trees, dust, people, sky and water and so on as a state of pure being.

    The Will

    This “energy” is what Schopenhauer called the “Will”. The philosopher reasoned that stuff happens, and as such something must be making it happen. By using a process of intuition, he deduced that we are nothing in essence but a set of desires and drives. Drives being as simple as our heartbeat, or the need to reproduce, and desires being our desire to stay alive or have sex.

    You can extrapolate this out to animals and plants, and ultimately to inert matter. Everything in the universe is changing. Everything has tendencies, from the inertia of a comet in deep space, to the libido of a rock star.

    Since it is outside of time, the Will is eternal, and if it is eternal it is purposeless.

    The Will manifests itself in us as desire: desire to live on, desire to eat, drink, have sex and buy the latest iPhone. In the context of living beings Schopenhauer called it the “Will to Life”.

    In a world bereft of meaning only desire drives human beings onwards, to procreate, to consume, to conquer and to accumulate. The blind, senseless force of the Will that drives the universe and is also driving through us, it allows us no respite from desire.

    We may get a momentary release from dissatisfaction when we acquire something, but soon another desire will get back in the driving seat of our consciousness. As the great writer put it:

    “Life therefore oscillates like a pendulum from right to left, suffering from boredom”

    We are never truly fulfilled, according to Schopenhauer. “Suffering is the substance of all life” (to a greater or lesser extent, I would add), only death is a true escape.

    Besides death, Schopenhauer thought that renouncing earthly things — in effect to renounce desire as much as possible — was the best way to ease the suffering of our unquenchable cravings.


    An important aspect of renunciation is compassion. Care for people and animals was important to Schopenhauer since there is no ultimate distinction between things. Everything and everybody is part of the noumenal “oneness” of the being. The philosopher agreed with the Buddhist idea that to harm other creatures is to ultimately harm ourselves.

    The similarities between the ethical ideas that Schopenhauer arrived at independently and Buddhist beliefs are clear. Asceticism is a common virtue among religions, but particularly Buddhism. The philosopher wrote:

    “If I wished to take the results of my philosophy as the standard of truth, I should have to concede to Buddhism pre-eminence over the others. In any case, it must be a pleasure to me to see my doctrine in such close agreement with a religion that the majority of men on earth hold as their own.”

    The person who acts with kindness is the person who knows the truth deep down: that in the grand scheme of things the distinction between living creatures is an illusion. If we act with compassion, we feel less separate and isolated, we feel connected in a way that dissolves our ego. That’s why we describe kind acts as “selfless”.

    Schopenhauer was also outspoken for animal rights, a very rare attitude in the nineteenth century:

    “The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.”

    Beauty and the Arts

    Another temporary escape from desire, is the way that we find enjoyment in the arts and beauty. Pleasure in art, for Schopenhauer, engrossed us in the world as representation, while momentarily being oblivious to the world as Will. Art can also give us an intuitive and therefore deeper connection to the world than science or reason could.

    Music was the highest form of art for Schopenhauer. Because it’s not “mimetic”, or a copy of anything else as, say, painting is, music depicts the will itself. As such, music is pure expression, a “true universal language” understood everywhere. Listening to music we may appreciate the Will without feeling the pain (desire or boredom) of its workings. The philosopher wrote:

    “The composer reveals the innermost nature of the world, and expresses the profoundest wisdom, in a language that his reasoning faculty does not understand.”

    Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde

    In 1856, about a year before beginning work on his masterpiece Tristan and Isolde, the composer Richard Wagner encountered The World as Will and Representation.

    It was almost forty years after the book had been published, but only a small number of people were at the time acquainted with Schopenhauer’s ideas. Wagner immediately recognised in Schopenhauer’s philosophy what he had been trying to achieve in his operatic works.

    Wagner had a complex love life and was particularly interested in the way Schopenhauer conceived of romantic love: as something that is driven by, but can also conquer, the Will.

    Schopenhauer had written extensively of about the Will’s relationship to sex and love. He was a rare philosopher who placed sex and love at the heart of his theory about the world. For Schopenhauer, the Will both stokes our sexual desire but is negated in the act of consummation (but only momentarily). Wagner wrote to a Franz Liszt:

    “Never in my life having enjoyed the true happiness of love I shall erect a memorial to this loveliest of all dreams in which, from the first to the last, love shall, for once, find utter fulfillment.”

    Wagner adopted Schopenhauer’s view of the primacy of music among the arts. Music was not a garnish for the drama of opera, but the principle moving force, like the Will itself, driving the characters on stage.

    The subject of Tristan and Isolde is the legendary love story between the Cornish knight Tristan and the Irish princess Isolde. While Tristan accompanies Isolde on a journey to King Mark of Cornwall, to whom she is betrothed, the two are given a love potion that makes them desire each other. They embark on an adulterous affair after the marriage. When they are found out, the two escape and are hunted to their deaths.

    Schopenhauer’s ideas are manifested at the very beginning of Tristan and Isolde. During the prelude (the introductory piece of music that sets the dramatic tone of the opera), Wagner sets a mood for the story in a way that astonished his audiences at the time.

    Each phrase of music is supposed to build to what is called a “harmonic resolution” — that is a satisfying sound — yet the melody dissolves into an “unharmonious discord” — an unsatisfied sound. It’s the expression of longing, of desire.

    This suspension sets a dramatic tone for the rest of the opera as the audience are left longing for the disharmony to resolve. The audience, like Tristan, feel the dissatisfaction of unfulfilled desire.

    At the climatic end of the opera, Isolde has a vision of the deceased Tristan and dies herself. The aria she sings is known as the “Liebestod aria”, from the German “love death”. After an immense dynamic and build up like a storm in the ocean, the aria reaches an exquisite and ecstatic climax. Isolde sings “to drown, to founder, unconscious, utmost bliss!”

    The music finally resolves itself to harmony when Isolde dies upon finishing the aria. The implication is that the desire that the lovers felt is finally gone and a balance has been reached in death.

    Wagner believed Schopenhauer’s philosophy was “a gift from heaven”. He sent a manuscript of his Ring Cycle to Schopenhauer in gratitude. The notoriously grouchy philosopher told a journalist friend of Wagner that the composer should “stop writing music”.


    Schopenhauer, by then in old age, found a huge audience and reputation in the late 1850s. Four portraits were painted of the philosopher and he didn’t much like them. The first of them was bought by a wealthy landowner who built an entire house to display it, such was the admiration for Schopenhauer in his last years. People booked out tables at his favorite restaurant just to watch him eat. Photographs of him were bought and sold at high prices.

    The philosopher died on his couch at the age of 72. He had told a friend he was at peace with the prospect of death.

    Leo Tolstoy wrote of Schopenhauer’s philosophy: “It is the whole world in an incomparably beautiful and clear reflection.” Tolstoy claimed that what he had written in his Napoleonic-era novel War and Peace had been said by Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Representation.

    Napoleon was not a “world-spirit” on horseback taking history ever closer to its goal. He was a drop in the ocean of Will, and the Will is eternal and meaningless.


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