Arthur Schopenhauer, the father of philosophical pessimism, was born in Danzig, Poland in 1788 to a merchant father and a novelist mother. As an adolescent, Schopenhauer traveled throughout Europe, living for a time in France, which he adored and later looked back on as the happiest period of his life, and Britain, which he detested for what he viewed as its strict, anti-intellectual religiosity. During this time, Schopenhauer witnessed rampant poverty, instilling in him at an early age the view that life is filled with suffering.
Schopenhauer was primed to follow in his father’s footsteps as a merchant when, at the age of 17, his father died, most likely from suicide. Still, Schopenhauer faithfully continued his merchant training for an additional two years until he finally came to terms with the fact that his passion lay not in business but academics.
Schopenhauer thus changed course, enrolling in university and frequenting his mother’s intellectual salon. In these years, he undertook a close study of Plato and Kant and was exposed to classical Indian texts such as the Upanishads.
The product of this study was Schopenhauer’s dissertation, “On The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason.” In it, Schopenhauer discusses the four ways that the principle of sufficient reason — that “nothing is without a reason for being” — can manifest itself:
- As causal necessity with regard to becoming. In order for a material object (e.g. a tree) to exist, it must have a progenitor (e.g. a seed).
- As logical necessity with regard to concepts/judgments. An abstract object (e.g. the conclusion that all bachelors are unmarried) must have a premise that justifies it (e.g. that the term bachelor means unmarried man).
- As spatial and temporal intuitions with regard to mathematics and geometry. Our understanding of space and time–related concepts (e.g. numbers and angles) allows us to devise arithmetical and geometrical proofs (e.g. solutions to equations and areas of shapes).
- As willing with regard to motivated acts. For every action (e.g. eating) there is a motive (e.g. hunger) that explains why it is carried out.
This conceptual framework forms the basis of all of Schopenhauer’s later philosophy, including his magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation.
In The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer begins with the statement:
“The world is my representation.”
By this, he means that his (and all humans’) apprehension of the world is mediated by the principle of sufficient reason. In other words, reality is made sense of via our inborn understanding of space, time, and causality; what Kant called “transcendentals,” which supply the preconditions for conscious experience.
What distinguishes Schopenhauer’s thought from Kant’s is his theory of the will. Schopenhauer notes that the body can experience itself not just conceptually (i.e. as an object among objects) but also kinesthetically (i.e. as pure sensation). Humans experience “the world as will” through the sensations of pleasure, pain, movement, and emotion.
Schopenhauer understands the will as a force of blind, insatiable striving. There is no sufficient reason for it — it simply is. The will thus exists outside of space, time, and causality, and is therefore infinite, eternal, and uncaused — the true “thing in-itself.”
Will — aimless, ceaseless striving — is said to be the principle undergirding all of reality, from gravity and electricity, through rocks, plants, and animals, to humans. Schopenhauer argues that all individual objects are merely manifestations, or what he calls “objectifications,” of a universal will and that separation is thus an illusion.
Schopenhauer holds that the will’s interminable striving, left unchecked, consigns us to a life of conflict and suffering. Humans, in the grip of desire, experience agony whenever their desires go unfulfilled. This causes them to commit any number of violent acts against one another, fulfilling their desires at the expense of those around them. Yet even when these desires are fulfilled, new ones immediately crop up to replace the old and discontent once again settles in.
In Schopenhauer’s otherwise pessimistic worldview, the realization of this truth is our one hope for salvation. Schopenhauer suggests two ways of liberating ourselves from the vicious cycle of desire. The first lies in what he calls “aesthetic contemplation”: grasping the universal, perfect forms (e.g. color, line, and proportion) that inhere in individual, imperfect objects. Viewing the world in terms of beauty and essence rather than utility affords us a reprieve from the will’s endless desire. Those fortunate enough to have this experience can create art (e.g. sculpture, painting, architecture, poetry, and music) to make aesthetic contemplation more accessible to others. Interestingly, Schopenhauer maintains that art, far from depicting reality unrealistically, actually affords us a more accurate picture of it, free of the distorting lens of personal desire.
The other approach to alleviating suffering involves renunciation, or what Schopenhauer calls “denial of the will.” Akin to asceticism, humans can overcome the will by diligently resisting its urges until the will weakens and loses its power over us.
By transcending our individual cravings through aesthetic contemplation and denial of the will, we pull back the illusory curtain of individualized perception to reveal the true nature of reality as boundless unity. Schopenhauer identifies this as the path to ending suffering, cultivating empathy, and fostering an ethical society.