Arthur Schopenhauer: Father of Philosophical Pessimism

Arthur Schopenhauer
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Arthur Schopenhauer. Artistosteles, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Arthur Schopenhauer was a 19th-century German philosopher known for his pessimistic view of human existence. Born in Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland), Schopenhauer’s philosophy was deeply influenced by Eastern thought, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism.

His most famous work is “The World as Will and Representation” (1818), in which he argues that the world we perceive is essentially a manifestation of an underlying, blind, and insatiable will. This will drives all human desires and actions, leading to suffering and dissatisfaction. Schopenhauer believed that the only way to escape this suffering was through asceticism, self-denial, and a renunciation of worldly desires.

Despite being overshadowed during his lifetime by more popular philosophers like Hegel, Schopenhauer’s ideas gained prominence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, influencing thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein.

His emphasis on the irrational aspects of human nature and the ephemeral nature of happiness continues to be studied and debated by philosophers and scholars today. Schopenhauer died on September 21, 1860, in Frankfurt, Germany.

Early Life

Arthur Schopenhauer was born on February 22, 1788, in Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland), which was then part of the Kingdom of Prussia. He was the son of Heinrich Floris Schopenhauer, a prosperous merchant, and Johanna Schopenhauer, a novelist who gained some recognition in literary circles.

Schopenhauer’s upbringing was affluent but tumultuous. His father, though successful in business, was a strict and authoritarian figure, which led to a strained relationship between them. Arthur’s mother, on the other hand, was intellectually stimulating and had a significant influence on his early education and philosophical development. She introduced him to the works of Rousseau, Voltaire, and other Enlightenment thinkers.

After the family’s wealth declined due to various misfortunes, including the death of Arthur’s father, they moved to Hamburg in 1793. Here, Arthur received a solid education in the humanities, including languages, literature, and philosophy.

In 1805, at the age of 17, Schopenhauer began his university studies at the University of Göttingen, where he initially studied medicine but later shifted his focus to philosophy. He continued his studies at the University of Berlin, where he was influenced by the philosophical ideas of Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottlieb Fichte.

Despite his academic success, Schopenhauer’s relationship with his mother deteriorated, leading to a period of estrangement. After completing his studies, he spent several years traveling around Europe, during which time he worked on developing his philosophical ideas.

Overall, Schopenhauer’s early life was marked by intellectual stimulation, family tensions, and a quest for philosophical understanding that would shape his later work and reputation as one of the most significant philosophers of the 19th century.

Philosophical Influences

Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophical influences were diverse and encompassed a range of thinkers from both Western and Eastern traditions. Some of the most notable influences on his philosophical development include:

  1. Immanuel Kant: Arthur Schopenhauer was deeply influenced by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, particularly Kant’s transcendental idealism and his distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal realms. Schopenhauer built upon Kant’s ideas, especially in his theory of knowledge and understanding of the human mind.
  2. Plato and Aristotle: Schopenhauer was influenced by the classical philosophers Plato and Aristotle. He particularly admired Plato’s concept of the Forms and Aristotle’s notion of the will as a driving force in human action.
  3. Eastern Philosophy: Arthur Schopenhauer was one of the first Western philosophers to incorporate ideas from Eastern philosophy into his own work. He was particularly influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism, drawing parallels between his concept of the will and the Eastern notions of Brahman and Nirvana. The concept of desire, suffering, and the importance of renunciation in Eastern thought resonated deeply with Schopenhauer’s pessimistic worldview.
  4. Baruch Spinoza: Schopenhauer admired Spinoza’s rationalism and his conception of a single, infinite substance underlying all reality. Schopenhauer’s metaphysical views were influenced by Spinoza’s monism, although he diverged significantly in his emphasis on the primacy of the will.
  5. Johann Gottlieb Fichte: Arthur Schopenhauer was exposed to the idealist philosophy of Fichte during his studies in Berlin. While he initially admired Fichte’s work, Schopenhauer later criticized Fichte’s idealism, particularly his emphasis on the self as the foundation of reality.

These philosophical influences, along with Schopenhauer’s own unique insights and experiences, contributed to the development of his distinctive philosophical system, which focused on the primacy of the will, the irrational nature of human existence, and the importance of asceticism and renunciation in achieving a form of salvation from suffering.

Key Philosophical Aspects

Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy is multifaceted, but some key aspects include:

  1. The Primacy of the Will: Schopenhauer posited that the fundamental nature of reality is not rational or intelligible but rather a blind and insatiable will. This will is the driving force behind all phenomena, including human desires, actions, and suffering.
  2. Pessimism: Schopenhauer’s philosophy is often characterized by its pessimistic outlook on human existence. He believed that life is filled with suffering, dissatisfaction, and frustration, primarily because of the relentless striving of the will and the inability to fulfill its endless desires.
  3. The Phenomenal and Noumenal Realms: Schopenhauer, like Kant, distinguished between the phenomenal world (the world as we perceive it through our senses) and the noumenal world (the world as it truly is, beyond our perception). He argued that the will is the noumenal aspect underlying all phenomena.
  4. The Denial of Free Will: Despite the centrality of the will in his philosophy, Arthur Schopenhauer denied the existence of free will. He believed that humans are ultimately driven by unconscious impulses and desires, and true freedom can only be found in the denial of these impulses.
  5. Aesthetic Theory: Schopenhauer placed great emphasis on the importance of art and aesthetics as a means of transcending the suffering inherent in existence. He believed that art allows us to momentarily escape the dictates of the will and experience a state of contemplative detachment.
  6. Ethics of Compassion and Asceticism: Arthur Schopenhauer advocated for an ethical system based on compassion and empathy for all living beings. He believed that by recognizing the suffering inherent in existence and minimizing our own desires through ascetic practices, we can alleviate some of the world’s suffering.

These key aspects of Schopenhauer’s philosophy reflect his unique blend of Western philosophical traditions, particularly Kantianism and German Idealism, with Eastern influences, resulting in a distinctive and influential philosophical system.

Notable Writings

Arthur Schopenhauer wrote several notable works, among which the following are some of the most significant:

  1. “The World as Will and Representation” (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung): This is Schopenhauer’s magnum opus, first published in 1818. In this work, Schopenhauer presents his comprehensive philosophical system, outlining his views on metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics. He argues that the world is fundamentally driven by an irrational and insatiable will, which manifests itself in the physical world as well as in human desires and actions.
  2. “On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason” (Über die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde): Published in 1813, this work serves as a precursor to “The World as Will and Representation.” In it, Schopenhauer elaborates on his theory of the principle of sufficient reason, which he considers the basis for understanding the world and the relationship between the phenomenal and noumenal realms.
  3. “Essays and Aphorisms” (Parerga und Paralipomena): This collection of essays and aphorisms, published in two volumes in 1851, contains various reflections on a wide range of topics, including philosophy, aesthetics, ethics, and psychology. It includes some of Schopenhauer’s most accessible writings and provides valuable insights into his philosophical thought.
  4. “On the Basis of Morality” (Über die Grundlage der Moral): In this work, published in 1840, Arthur Schopenhauer expounds his ethical theory, which is centered around the idea of compassion as the foundation of morality. He argues against conventional moral systems based on duty and obligation, advocating instead for a more empathetic approach to ethics.
  5. “The Art of Being Right” (Eristische Dialektik): Also known as “The Art of Controversy,” this work offers a humorous and practical guide to the art of argumentation and debate. Published posthumously in 1864, it provides insights into Schopenhauer’s views on logic, rhetoric, and the psychology of persuasion.

These writings represent some of Schopenhauer’s most influential and enduring contributions to philosophy, aesthetics, ethics, and the art of reasoning. They continue to be studied and discussed by scholars and readers interested in his philosophical insights and unique perspective on the human condition.


Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy has had a significant influence on a wide range of thinkers across various disciplines. Some of the notable figures who were influenced by Schopenhauer include:

  1. Friedrich Nietzsche: Nietzsche was deeply influenced by Schopenhauer’s pessimistic view of existence and his emphasis on the will to power. While Nietzsche ultimately diverged from Schopenhauer in many respects, particularly regarding the nature of the will and the value of life, Schopenhauer’s ideas played a crucial role in shaping Nietzsche’s early philosophical development.
  2. Sigmund Freud: Freud acknowledged Schopenhauer’s influence on his own psychological theories, particularly in relation to the concept of the unconscious and the role of instinctual drives in human behavior. Schopenhauer’s emphasis on the irrational aspects of human nature resonated with Freud’s psychoanalytic ideas.
  3. Albert Einstein: Einstein was an admirer of Schopenhauer’s philosophical writings and cited him as one of his influences. While Einstein is best known for his contributions to theoretical physics, his interest in philosophy, particularly Schopenhauer’s ideas on the nature of reality and the limits of human understanding, is evident in his correspondence and writings.
  4. Richard Wagner: The composer Richard Wagner was profoundly influenced by Schopenhauer’s philosophy, particularly his aesthetics. Wagner’s concept of “Gesamtkunstwerk” (total work of art), which seeks to integrate various artistic forms into a unified whole, reflects Schopenhauer’s ideas on the redemptive power of art and music.
  5. Thomas Mann: The German novelist Thomas Mann was influenced by Schopenhauer’s philosophy, especially in his early works such as “Buddenbrooks” and “Tonio Kröger.” Mann’s exploration of themes such as the nature of desire, the conflict between individuality and societal norms, and the role of art in human life can be seen as reflecting Schopenhauerian themes.
  6. Jorge Luis Borges: The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges admired Schopenhauer’s philosophy and referenced his ideas in several of his essays and stories. Borges was particularly drawn to Schopenhauer’s concept of the will and its implications for human existence and perception.

These are just a few examples of the diverse range of thinkers and artists who have been influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy. His ideas continue to inspire and provoke discussion across various fields to this day.


Arthur Schopenhauer’s legacy today is multifaceted and encompasses several aspects:

  1. Philosophical Influence: Schopenhauer’s ideas continue to be studied and debated in academic philosophy. His emphasis on the irrational aspects of human nature, his pessimistic view of existence, and his unique synthesis of Western and Eastern philosophical traditions have made him a significant figure in the history of philosophy. Scholars continue to explore the relevance of his ideas to contemporary philosophical debates, particularly in areas such as ethics, metaphysics, and the philosophy of mind.
  2. Literary and Cultural Influence: Schopenhauer’s influence extends beyond academic philosophy into literature, art, and popular culture. Writers, artists, and musicians have drawn inspiration from his ideas on the redemptive power of art, the nature of desire, and the human condition. His influence can be seen in the works of authors such as Thomas Mann, Jorge Luis Borges, and Hermann Hesse, as well as in various cultural movements that explore themes of existential angst and disillusionment.
  3. Psychological and Psychoanalytic Influence: Schopenhauer’s ideas have also had an impact on psychology and psychoanalysis, particularly through his emphasis on the unconscious mind and the role of instinctual drives in human behavior. Figures such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung acknowledged Schopenhauer’s influence on their own psychological theories, contributing to his lasting legacy in the field of psychology.
  4. Continued Relevance: Despite the passage of time, Schopenhauer’s philosophy remains relevant to contemporary discussions about human nature, ethics, and the search for meaning in life. His insights into the nature of suffering, the limits of human knowledge, and the importance of compassion continue to resonate with people grappling with existential questions in the modern world.

Arthur Schopenhauer’s legacy endures today as a philosopher whose ideas continue to provoke thought, inspire creativity, and offer insights into the complexities of the human experience.

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