Schopenhauer is not typical of contemporary German philosophers of the 19th century. He is a pessimist, is not particularly academic, dislikes Christianity, and has no nationalist sentiments. In Russell’s words, his appeal is less to professional philosophers, but to artistic or literary people in search of a philosophy that they could believe. If true, it is interesting to wonder what this says about ‘artistic or literary people’, given Schopenhauer’s view of the world.
The Wicked Cosmic Will
Like Kant, Schopenhauer believed that objects themselves are unknowable, that all we can know are the sensations that objects cause, and that these sensations are processed in the mind so are therefore subjective. However, Schopenhauer said that what appears to sense-perception as our bodies is really our will. By this I think he meant that our actions, including bodily movements, are determined by our will. Reminiscent of Hegel, he also believed that separateness is an illusion, and that our will is better understood as a part of the overall will of the universe. The idea of a single cosmic ‘will’ sounds a little like Spinoza’s conception of God, but Schopenhauer’s pessimism takes him down a very different path. The cosmic will is wicked, and is the source of all our suffering. Suffering is essential to all life, and is increased by every increase in knowledge. Our attempts at finding happiness are ultimately futile. To give Schopenhauer’s analogy, it is like blowing out a soap bubble as long and as large as possible, knowing perfectly well that soon it will burst. Fulfilment of our desires causes only temporary satiety, and unfulfilled desires cause unhappiness.
A life of near non-existence
There is an escape from this unhappiness, which can be found in the teachings of Buddhism. The cause of suffering is intensity of will, therefore the less we exercise our will, the less we will suffer. To break down our will we must shun our desires and live the ascetic life, which includes chastity, poverty and fasting. The right sort of knowledge can help, if it allows us to understand the universal will rather than merely our own. Through understanding the pain and suffering of others we can forget our own individual desires. It must be said that Schopenhauer’s ideal person is not one who uses this newfound understanding to help others – this would be futile. It is someone who turns away from the world and lives a life of near non-existence. If this is truly the best life, then that is a sad thought.
Russell complains that Schopenhauer’s own life had very little in common with his philosophy. He lived and ate well, enjoyed trivial love affairs, and was habitually selfish and quarrelsome. Apparently, his only virtue was an exceptional kindness towards animals. Nevertheless, Russell believes that Schopenhauer is historically important for two reasons. Firstly, Schopenhauer is one of the few true pessimists in philosophy, and so he arrived at ideas which would not occur to an optimist, and made philosophy more accessible to people of a pessimistic temperament. Secondly, and more importantly, he placed ‘will’ at the centre of his doctrine and made it more important than knowledge. This was a development of Rousseau’s conception of the ‘general will’ as the basis for political authority, and a development in the sceptical view of knowledge running through Berkeley, Hume, Kant and Hegel. The importance of will would become central to the next great western philosopher, Nietzsche.