February 22, 2013
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that Arthur Schopenhauer was among the first of the 19th century philosophers to pose that essentially the universe is not a rational place, as he wrote in his doctoral thesis, “The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason,” in 1813.
Schopenhauer was born on Feb. 22, 1788, in Danzig (Gdansk, Poland) on the Baltic Sea. His father was a merchant and ship owner, who trained his son to assume control of the family business (His father named him Arthur because it was named spelled the same in German, French and English.) When Prussia annexed Danzig, the family moved to Hamburg, Germany, but the family lived in France and England during Schopenhauer’s childhood.
He began his apprenticeship in 1804 after attending boarding school in Wimbledon, England, and his father died in April 1805 (it was presumed by suicide). Schopenhauer tried to honor his father’s wishes, but decided in 1807 to pursue an academic career.
His mother, Johanna Henriette Troisiener Schopenhauer, who was 20 years younger than her husband, and sister moved to the literary capital of Weimar. Johanna wanted to become a writer, and opened her home to the many writers there, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Schopenhauer and his mother had a strained relationship; he stayed in Hamburg for several years, and did not remain in his mother’s home when he moved to Weimar when he disapproved of her much younger lover.
Schopenhauer attended the University of Göttingen, studying metaphysics and psychology. He published his doctoral thesis in 1813, and moved to Dresden, where he began working on “The World as Will and Representation,” his seminal work that was published in 1819. He was hired to lecture at the University of Berlin in 1820. He scheduled his lectures to compete with those of the famed philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. Only five students showed up for Schopenhauer’s lecture, and he quit the life of an academic. In 1847, Schopenhauer wrote dismissively of Hegel and the other academic German philosophers: “Verily German Philosophy stands before us loaded with contempt, the laughing-stock of other nations, expelled from all honest science—like the prostitute who sells herself for sordid hire today to one, tomorrow to another ; and the brains of the present generation of savants are disorganised by Hegelian nonsense : incapable of reflection, coarse and bewildered, they fall a prey to the low Materialism which has crept out of the basilisk's egg. Good speed to them.” Apparently he held a grudge.
Schopenhauer had no shortage of belief in himself. An 1876 biography by Helen Zimmerman opens with this anecdote … In a Frankfort, Germany, cemetery you can find a gravestone marked simply, “Arthur Schopenhauer.” He desired no fulsome inscriptions on his tomb, as he told his friend Dr. Gwinner, “No matter where; posterity will find me.”
Central to Schopenhauer’s investigation was how we reconciled our Will, the things we desire, and the fact that the world continually thwarted those desires. He advocated controlling our desires and living an ascetic life. The Stanford encyclopedia describes his views: “In a manner reminiscent of traditional Buddhism, he recognizes that life is filled with unavoidable frustration, and acknowledges that the suffering caused by this frustration can itself be reduced by minimizing one's desires. Moral consciousness and virtue thus give way to the voluntary poverty and chastity of the ascetic. St. Francis of Assisi and Jesus emerge, accordingly, as Schopenhauer's prototypes for the most enlightened lifestyle, as do the ascetics from every religious tradition.”
British historian and philosopher Bertrand Russell was amused by Schopenhauer’s insincerity. “It is hard to find in his life evidences of any virtue except kindness to animals ...”
Schopenhauer died in Frankfurt on Sept. 21, 1860.