If you had to draw up a list of philosophers you’d least like to get stuck next to at a dinner party, it would probably be wise to place Arthur Schopenhauer’s name at the very top. Schopenhauer did not possess, to put it mildly, a pleasant personality. He was an arrogant, paranoid and misogynistic man who slept with a loaded pistol every night and was not above pushing defenceless old ladies down long flights of stairs. Neither did he produce optimistic philosophy – quite the contrary, in fact. He believed that life is painful and that it would have been far better not to have been born. Are you won over by this charming man yet?
Yale University Press’ Little Histories collection is a family of books that takes a closer look at some of the most significant events, ideas, discoveries and people throughout history. As part of our ongoing coverage of the collection, here’s an excerpt from Nigel Warburton’s A Little History of Philosophy, a book that presents the grand sweep of humanity’s search for philosophical understanding from Socrates to Peter Singer.
So what exactly did this pessimistic philosopher believe? Warburton breaks it down simply for us:
‘According to [Schopenhauer], we are all caught up in a hopeless cycle of wanting things, getting them, and then wanting more things. It doesn’t stop until we die. Whenever we seem to get what we want, we start wanting something else. You might think you would be content if you were a millionaire, but you wouldn’t be for long. You’d want something you hadn’t got. Human beings are like that. We’re never satisfied, never stop craving for more than we have. It’s all very depressing.’
Still, maybe Schopenhauer’s ideas aren’t as strange and morbid as they first appear—after all, as Warburton points out, this philosophy is actually very close to the Buddha’s. The Buddha’s message was that ‘all life involves suffering but that at a deep level there is no such thing as ‘the self’: if we recognize that, we can achieve enlightenment’. Schopenhauer was in fact well-versed in Eastern philosophy; he even had a statue of the Buddha on his desk.
Nonetheless, the similarities with the Buddha begin and end in philosophy. Personality-wise, Schopenhauer was about as far away from the enlightened one as you could possibly get. For one, he was incredibly vain: when he got a job as a lecturer in Berlin, he insisted that his lectures should take place at the same time as Hegel’s, because he was so utterly convinced of his own genius. ‘This’, Warburton explains, ‘wasn’t his greatest idea, as Hegel was very popular with students. Hardly anyone showed up to Schopenhauer’s lectures; Hegel’s, meanwhile, were packed.’
Schopenhauer was as unkind as he was arrogant. Warburton describes an incident that took place between the cranky philosopher and one unfortunate old woman:
‘On one occasion, an old woman chatting outside his door made him so angry that he pushed her down the stairs. She was injured, and a court ordered Schopenhauer to pay compensation to her for the rest of her life. When she died some years later, Schopenhauer showed no compassion: instead he scribble the joke-rhyme ‘obit anus, abit onus‘ (Latin for ‘the old woman dies, the burden goes’) on her death certificate.’
Ironically enough, compassion was a big part of the basic morality that Schopenhauer taught. He believed that the harm we do to others is actually a harm that we inflict upon ourselves. Warburton explains, ‘If I kill you, I destroy a part of the life force that joins us all together. When someone harms another person it is like a snake biting its tail without knowing that it is sinking its fangs into its own flesh […] Properly understood, other people aren’t external to me. I care what happens to you because in a way you are part of what we are all part of’.
The apparent hypocrisy doesn’t end there: while Schopenhauer preached asceticism as the solution to escaping life’s endless cycle of desire, he continued to indulge in company, have affairs and eat well. Furthermore, Warburton writes, ‘the vein of pessimism that runs through his writing is so deep in places that some readers thought that if he had been sincere he would have killed himself’. It’s probably a good thing he didn’t, because despite all his nastiness Schopenhauer was an important philosopher who made significant contributions to metaphysics, ethics and aesthetics. At the expense of a few unlucky old women, philosophy has gained a great deal from this complex figure.