An Animated Introduction to Arthur Schopenhauer and How We Can Achieve Happiness Through Art & Philosophy

For many years, as we wrote in a recent post, Friedrich Niet­zsche has been mis­un­der­stood as a philo­soph­i­cal nihilist and even a pro­to-Nazi. This is unfor­tu­nate, giv­en all Niet­zsche has to say about liv­ing coura­geous­ly in the face of nihilism and pro­to-Nazism, both of which he feared and hat­ed. But if we’re look­ing for a philoso­pher who espoused few, if any, pos­i­tive val­ues, who saw the entire world as emp­ty and malev­o­lent, and who had lit­tle sym­pa­thy for his fel­low man, we could instead turn to the Ger­man thinker whom Niet­zsche called his “teacher,” Arthur Schopen­hauer.

Schopen­hauer adopt­ed Bud­dhism ear­ly, years before D.T. Suzu­ki arrived in Europe and the U.S. and pop­u­lar­ized East­ern reli­gion and phi­los­o­phy. Per­haps Schopenhauer’s ver­sion of Bud­dhism didn’t quite catch on the same way because in his inter­pre­ta­tion, it resem­bles a dark, pes­simistic inver­sion of Rene Descartes’ propo­si­tions two cen­turies ear­li­er. “In my 17th year,” wrote Schopen­hauer (1788–1860), “I was gripped by the mis­ery of life, as the Bud­dha had been in his youth when he saw sick­ness, old age, pain and death.” So far, text­book intro to Bud­dhism.

But Bud­dhism has lit­tle to say about how the world came into exis­tence. Schopen­hauer goes on to write, “The truth was that this world could not have been the work of an all lov­ing being, but rather that of a dev­il, who had brought crea­tures into exis­tence in order to delight in their suf­fer­ings.” Schopen­hauer fits into the rare com­pa­ny of philo­soph­i­cal Anti­na­tal­ists, those who believe it would be bet­ter for us not to have been born at all. How is it then that Alain de Bot­ton can claim, as he does in his School of Life intro to Schopen­hauer above, that “like the Bud­dha… he deserves dis­ci­ples, schools, art­works, and monas­ter­ies to put his ideas into prac­tice.” What would that even look like?

Schopenhauer’s pes­simism was thor­ough­go­ing, and arrived ful­ly devel­oped in his 1818 mas­ter­piece, The World as Will and Rep­re­sen­ta­tion, pub­lished when he was thir­ty. The Schopen­hauer we tend to know, if we know him at all, is a scowl­ing old man with an incon­gru­ous­ly com­ic ring of white hair sur­round­ing his bald head like a fluffy winged  halo. But until his death at age 72, he stuck to the sys­tem­at­ic think­ing of his youth; “he pub­lished a great deal,” says Bryan Magee above in a dis­cus­sion with philoso­pher Fred­er­ick Cople­ston,” but all of it was to extend, or elab­o­rate, or enrich the philo­soph­i­cal sys­tem he had devel­oped in his twen­ties and from which he nev­er depart­ed.”

In those many lat­er pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing two works on ethics and a revised edi­tion of Will and Rep­re­sen­ta­tion over twice the orig­i­nal length, Schopen­hauer the­o­rized the world as essen­tial­ly irra­tional and the crea­tures in it as gov­erned by the “will-to-life,” which, says de Bot­ton, “makes us thrust our­selves for­ward, cling to exis­tence, and look always to our own advan­tage.” Expressed main­ly through sex, the will-to-life dri­ves us to fall in love again and again, a phe­nom­e­non Schopen­hauer respect­ed, “as one would a tiger or a hur­ri­cane.” But Schopen­hauer resent­ed love, and saw it only as a neces­si­ty for the preser­va­tion of the species.

Aside from serv­ing this essen­tial func­tion, the will-to-life expressed through love only drove us to unhap­pi­ness. Schopen­hauer tends to be much less quotable than his most famous admir­er, Niet­zsche, but in one quote that sums up his idea of love, he wrote, “direct­ly after cop­u­la­tion the devil’s laugh­ter is heard.” It is per­haps need­less to point out that he had a very low view of the busi­ness of pro­cre­ation, not only because he opposed birth, but also because he opposed the con­di­tions that give rise to it. Rather than ele­vat­ing us above the run of oth­er sex­u­al­ly pro­cre­at­ing ani­mals, our con­scious­ness only serves to make us aware of our mis­ery.

“At every stop, in great things and small,” Schopen­hauer wrote, “we are bound to expe­ri­ence that the world and life are cer­tain­ly not arranged for the pur­pose of being hap­py. That’s why the faces of almost all elder­ly peo­ple are deeply etched with such dis­ap­point­ment.” Nonethe­less, we can “rise above the demands of the will-to-life,” he believed, in the man­ner of celi­bate monks and nuns. As Bud­dhist monas­tics have for 2,600 years, and more recent­ly a few scowl­ing Ger­man philoso­phers, we can renounce the plea­sures and the suf­fer­ings of every­day human life.

The oth­er way in which Schopen­hauer rec­om­mend­ed that we face the grim­ness of human life is through a form of art ther­a­py, spend­ing “as long as we can with art and phi­los­o­phy, whose task is to hold up a mir­ror to the fren­zied efforts and unhap­py tur­moil cre­at­ed in us by the will-to-life.” Where Schopenhauer’s first pro­pos­al for deal­ing with life’s suf­fer­ing close­ly resem­bles that of Ther­ava­da Bud­dhism, his sec­ond is a Mahayana for a Ger­man Roman­tic, who finds com­pas­sion for oth­er suf­fer­ing indi­vid­u­als only through the medi­um of art, lit­er­a­ture, and phi­los­o­phy.

In the full embrace of pes­simism, Schopen­hauer may sound to us a lit­tle like anoth­er Ger­man artist, Wern­er Her­zog, who also stares into the abyss of human mis­ery and finds val­ue only in its rela­tion to art: “To mar­ry means to do every­thing pos­si­ble to become an object of dis­gust to each oth­er,” Schopen­hauer writes, “Every life his­to­ry is the his­to­ry of suf­fer­ing,” “Life has no intrin­sic worth, but is kept in motion mere­ly by desire and illu­sion.” Should you find such state­ments com­fort­ing because they sound true to your expe­ri­ence, then per­haps Schopen­hauer holds for you a key to under­stand­ing and accept­ing the tragedy of exis­tence. But maybe he was wrong in assum­ing every­one was as mis­er­able as him­self.

See de Bot­ton expand on Schopenhauer’s view of love in the video above from his A Guide to Hap­pi­ness series.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

How Did Niet­zsche Become the Most Mis­un­der­stood & Bas­tardized Philoso­pher?: A Video from Slate Explains

A Guide to Hap­pi­ness: Alain de Botton’s Doc­u­men­tary Shows How Niet­zsche, Socrates & 4 Oth­er Philoso­phers Can Change Your Life

See the Homes and Stud­ies of Wittgen­stein, Schopen­hauer, Niet­zsche & Oth­er Philoso­phers

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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