Written by Vladimir Moss


 The failed revolution of 1848 introduced a profound change of mood into European thought. One of those who profited from the change in mood was the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, whose main work, The World as Will and Idea, had been written in 1819 but only now, after 1848, became popular. He became famous, writes Golo Mann, "because of historical trends which he would have disapproved of if he had been clear about them: post-revolutionary disappointment of the middle class, a temporary lack of interest in politics. These trends helped Schopenhauer, who despised history and politics..."[1]

    While retaining German idealism's characteristic starting-point in psychology (or meta-psychology), and its post-Hegelian emphasis on history and becoming, Schopenhauer changed its direction by arguing that the essence of reality, the "thing-in-itself", was not Idea or Mind or Reason, but Will. This idea could be said to be a German challenge to the Frenchman Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” For Schopenhauer, by contrast, the fundamental axiom of philosophy was: “I will, therefore I am.” It can also be seen as a development of one part of Kant's philosophy, that concerning the moral law. According to Russell, "Schopenhauer's system is an adaptation of Kant's, but one that emphasizes quite different aspects of the Critique from those emphasized by Fichte or Hegel. They got rid of the thing-in-itself, and thus made knowledge metaphysically fundamental. Schopenhauer retained the thing-in-itself, but identified it with will. Kant had maintained that a study of the moral law can take us beyond phenomena, and give us knowledge which sense-perception cannot give; he also maintained that the moral law is essentially concerned with the will.”[2]

     Not that Schopenhauer denied the sphere of thought. But he ascribed the primacy to will over knowledge, desire over thought; for him, knowledge and thought were at all times the servants of will and desire. In this way he provided the philosophical justification of that critical transition in German life from the dreamy, brilliant but somewhat ineffective Romantic period to the intensely active, enterpreneurial period that began after the 1848 revolution and continued after 1871 into the Second Reich. Moreover, the emphasis on will and desire corresponded to the intense development of the science of biology in this period.

     As John Gray has pointed out, Schopenhauer anticipated Freud in his emphasis on the dominance of unconscious desire over conscious thought, on the importance of the sexual impulse, slips of the tongue, repressed emotions, and so on. Yanis Varoufakis develops this theme, which links Schopenhauer not only with Freud but also with Nietzsche and Marx: “The German philosopher Schopenhauer castigated us modern humans for deceiving ourselves into thinking that our beliefs and customs are subject to our consciousness. Nietzsche concurred, suggesting that all the things we believe in, at any given time, reflect not truth but someone else’s power over us. Marx dragged economics into this picture, reprimanding us all for ignoring the reality that our thoughts have become hijacked by capital and its drive to accumulate. Naturally, although it follows its own steely logic, capital evolves mindlessly. No one designed capitalism and no one can civilize it now that it is going at full tilt…”[3]

      Copleston asks: "How does Schopenhauer arrive at the conviction that the thing-in-itself is Will? To find the key to reality I must look within myself. For in inner consciousness or inwardly directed perception lies 'the single narrow door to the truth'. Through this inner consciousness I am aware that the bodily action which is said to follow or result from volition is not something different from volition but one and the same. That is to say, the bodily action is simply the objectified will: it is the will become idea or presentation. Indeed, the whole body is nothing but objectified will, will as a presentation to consciousness. According to Schopenhauer anyone can understand this if he enters into himself. And once he has this fundamental intuition, he has the key to reality. He has only to extend his discovery to the world at large.

      "This Schopenhauer proceeds to do. He sees the manifestation of the one individual Will in the impulse by which the magnet turns to the north pole, in the phenomena of attraction and repulsion, in gravitation, in animal instinct, in human desire and so on. Wherever he looks, whether in the inorganic or in the organic sphere, he discovers empirical confirmation of his thesis that phenomena constitute the appearance of the one metaphysical Will.

     "The natural question to ask is this. If the thing-in-itself is manifested in such diverse phenomena as the universal forces of Nature, such as gravity, and human volition, why call it 'Will'? Would not 'Force' or 'Energy' be a more appropriate term, especially as the so-called Will, when considered in itself, is said to be 'without knowledge and merely a blind incessant impulse', 'an endless striving'? For the term 'Will', which implies rationality, seems to be hardly suitable for describing a blind impulse or striving.

      "Schopenhauer, however, defends his linguistic usage by maintaining that we ought to take our descriptive term from what is best known to us. We are immediately conscious of our own volition. And it is more appropriate to describe the less well known in terms of the better known than the other way round.

      "Besides being described as blind impulse, endless striving, eternal becoming and so on, the metaphysical Will is characterized as the Will to live. Indeed, to say 'the Will' and to say 'the Will to live' are for Schopenhauer one and the same thing. As, therefore, empirical reality is the objectification or appearance of the metaphysical Will, it necessarily manifests the Will to live. And Schopenhauer has not difficulty in multiplying examples of this manifestation. We have only to look at Nature's concern for the maintenance of the species. Birds, for instance, build nests for the young which they do not yet know. Insects deposit their eggs where the larva may find nourishment. The whole series of phenomena of animal instinct manifests the omnipresence of the Will to live. If we look at the untiring activity of bees and ants and ask what it all leads to, what is attained by it, we can only answer 'the satisfaction of hunger and the sexual instinct', the means, in other words, of maintaining the species in life. And if we look at man with his industry and trade, with his inventions and technology, we must admit that all this striving serves in the first instance only to sustain and to bring a certain amount of additional comfort to ephemeral individuals in their brief span of existence, and through them to contribute to the maintenance of the species.

     "Now, if the Will is an endless striving, a blind urge or impulse which knows no cessation, it cannot find satisfaction or reach a state of tranquillity. It is always striving and never attaining. And this essential feature of the metaphysical Will is reflected in its self-objectification, above all in human life. Man seeks satisfaction, happiness, but he cannot attain it. What we call happiness or enjoyment is simply a temporary cessation of desire. And desire, as the expression of a need or want, is a form of pain. Happiness, therefore, is 'the deliverance from a pain, from a want'; it is 'really and essentially always only negative and never positive'. It soon turns to boredom, and the striving after satisfaction reasserts itself. It is boredom which makes beings who love one another so little as men do seek one another's company. And great intellectual powers simply increase the capacity for suffering and deepen the individual's isolation.

      "Each individual thing, as an objectification of the one Will to live, strives to assert its own existence at the expense of other things. Hence the world is the field of conflict, a conflict which manifests the nature of the Will as at variance with itself, as a tortured Will. And Schopenhauer finds illustrations of this conflict even in the inorganic sphere. But it is naturally to the organic and human spheres that he chiefly turns for empirical confirmation of his thesis. He dwells, for example, on the ways in which animals of one species prey on those of another. And when he comes to man, he really lets himself go. 'The chief source of the most serious evils which afflict man is man himself: homo homini lupus. Whoever keeps this last fact clearly in view sees the world as a hell which surpasses that of Dante through the fact that one man must be the devil of another.' War and cruelty are, of course, grist for Schopenhauer's mill. And the man who showed no sympathy with the Revolution of 1848 speaks in the sharpest terms of industrial exploitation, slavery and such like social abuses.

      "We may not that it is the egoism, rapacity and hardness and cruelty of men which are for Schopenhauer the real justification of the State. So far from being a divine manifestation, the State is simply the creation of enlightened egoism which tries to make the world a little more tolerable than it would otherwise be."[4]

      The philosopher understands that there is only this constant striving and suffering, and therefore no other path for him except the decision to renounce the Will to live, which is the cause of all suffering. But this is not accomplished through suicide, as one might expect, for suicide is in fact an attempt to escape certain evils, and therefore the expression of a concealed will to live.

      Only two things relieve the bleakness of this nihilist vision to any degree: art and asceticism… In the contemplation of art - especially music, which exhibits the inner nature of the Will, the thing-in-itself - desire is temporarily stilled. For "it is possible for me to regard the beautiful object neither as itself an object of desire nor as a stimulant to desire but simply and solely for its aesthetic significance."[5]

      However, "aesthetic contemplation affords no more than a temporary or transient escape from the slavery of the Will. But Schopenhauer offers a lasting release through renunciation of the Will to live. Indeed, moral progress must take this form if morality is possible at all. For the Will to live, manifesting itself in egoism, self-assertion, hatred and conflict, is for Schopenhauer the source of evil. 'There really resides in the heart of each of us a wild beast which only waits the opportunity to rage and rave in order to injure others, and which, if they do not prevent it, would like to destroy them.' This wild beast, this radical evil, is the direct expression of the Will to live. Hence morality, if it is possible, must involve denial of the Will. And as man is an objectification of the Will, denial will mean self-denial, asceticism and mortification."[6]

     "We must banish the dark impression of that nothingness which we discern behind all virtue and holiness as their final goal, and which we fear as children fear the dark; we must not even evade it like the Indians, through myths and meaningless words, such as reabsorption in Brahma or the Nirvana of the Buddhists. Rather do we freely acknowledge that what remains after the entire abolition of will is for all those who are still full of will certainly nothing; but, conversely, 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."[7]

     With the surrender of the Will, "all those phenomena are also abolished; that constant strain and effort without end and without rest at all the grades of objectivity in which and through which the world consists; the multifarious forms succeeding each other in gradation; the whole manifestation of the will; and, finally, also the universal forms of this manifestation, time and 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."[8]

     So, contrary to the Christian vision, there is no positive end to the self-denial that Schopenhauer recommends. Nor could there be. For there is nothing other than the Will to live, which is neither God nor any positive ideal, but pure egoism "objectified" in various forms and ending in death.

     The most a man can hope for as a result of his self-denial is to "penetrate the veil of Maya [illusion] to the extent of seeing that all individuals are really one. For they are all phenomena of the one undivided Will. We then have the ethical level of sympathy. We have goodness or virtue which is characterized by a disinterested love of others. True goodness is not, as Kant thought, a matter of obeying the categorical imperative for the sake of duty alone. True goodness is love, agape or caritas in distinction from eros, which is self-directed. And love is sympathy. 'All true and pure love is sympathy (Mitleid), and all love which is not sympathy is selfishness (Selbstsucht). Eros is selfishness; agape is sympathy.'"[9]

     However, the existence of a "true and pure love" attainable by philosophy and self-denial seems to be inconsistent with the premises of Schopenhauer's system. For how can there be a selfless love when all that exists is the selfish Will to live? Indeed, for Schopenhauer "existence, life, is itself a crime: it is our original sin. And it is inevitably expiated by suffering and death."[10] Since for Schopenhauer there is no paradisal innocence, but only original sin, there can be no escape from sin, and no return to paradise, but only the vain and self-contradictory attempt of existence to deny itself, of being not to be.

     Schopenhauer's vision represents a significant new turn in European philosophy. On the one hand, it reflects the highly practical spirit (will rather than mind) of the early industrial age. On the other, it reflects the underlying scepticism of the post-1848 age in which it was read (rather than the age in it was written). Gone is the optimism of the Enlightenment, and its belief in reason and the perfectibility of man; gone, too, the innocence and freshness ofText Box:  the first wave of Romanticism. In its place we find Byronic despair and the Wagnerian death-wish[11], the despair of a man who has cut himself off from the last vestiges of Christian faith[12], who believes neither in God nor in anything else except his baser instincts, and is preparing to escape from his suffering by plunging into what he insists will be a sea of nothingness, but which he fears will be something very different and much more terrifying…


[1]Mann, A History of Germany since 1789, p. 141.

[2]Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, London: Allen Unwin, 1947, p. 783.

[3] Varoufakis, The Global Minotaur, London: Zed Books, 2013, p. 39.

[4]Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 7, part II: Schopenhauer to Nietzsche, Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1965, pp. 37-39.

[5]Copleston, op. cit., p. 43.

[6]Copleston, op. cit., pp. 47-48.

[7]Schopenhauer, in Russell, op. cit., p. 785.Here, perhaps, we see the influence of Buddhism. “In his study,” notes Russell, “he had a bust of Kant and a bronze Buddha.” (op. cit., p. 785).

[8]Schopenhauer, in Russell, op. cit., p. 785.

[9]Copleston, op. cit., pp. 48.

[10]Copleston, op. cit., pp. 48.

[11]Wagner read Schopenhauer for the first time in 1854, after the text of the Ring had been published. It therefore provided only retrospective illumination for that work: "Only now," he said, "did I understand my Wotan". However, the philosopher had a direct and powerful influence on Tristan (J.W. Burrow, The Crisis of Reason: European Thought, 1848-1914, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000, p. 29).

[12]"Nevertheless," writes Golo Mann, "he was a Christian and distinguished between two basic tendencies in Christianity: an optimistic one promising paradise on earth, which he regarded as Jewish in origin, and an ascetic one proclaiming the misery and treachery of the world, teaching resignation and compassion" (op. cit., pp. 142-143).


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