Arthur Schopenhauer: Stunningly and famously pessimistic

It is hard to know whether the pessimism is the result of his philosophical discoveries or, rather, his philosophy is shaped by his pessimism

Tuesday 19 October 2021 21:30
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<p>Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)</p>

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

Although outside the realm of academic philosophy, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) was nevertheless one of the most important philosophers of the 19th century, best known for his eastern influence and his philosophical pessimism.

Schopenhauer’s philosophy is stunningly and famously pessimistic. His work is certainly not the right sort of thing to read on a beach. It is hard to know whether the pessimism is the result of his philosophical discoveries or, rather, his philosophy is shaped by his pessimism. It might be that both simply follow from his own generally bleak temperament. His mother, Johanna, reports that from an early age her son “brooded on the misery of things”. Nevertheless, the broodings resulted in one of the nineteenth century’s philosophical masterpieces: The World as Will and Representation.

Schopenhauer was born in Danzig. His father, Heinrich, was a prosperous merchant, whose politics led him to move the family, at considerable cost, to Hamburg when Danzig was appropriated by Prussia in 1793. His parents encouraged his facility with languages – he was eventually fluent in six – and sent him to study in Paris and England. Although he would have preferred an academic life, he took a job as a clerk in Hamburg to satisfy his father. His father’s suicide left Schopenhauer with no incentive to stay in business and a reasonable income, so he turned to an academic life. Taking a place at the University of Goettingen, Schopenhauer initially studied medicine but switched to philosophy. At the suggestion of his tutors he focused on Plato and Kant. These two philosophers, combined with the unlikely influence of Hinduism and Buddhism, had an enduring effect on his thinking. He submitted his dissertation to the University of Jena, earned a doctorate, and returned to his mother’s home in Weimar.

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