Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VII Section 2 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.


II. The Man

Schopenhauer was born at Dantzig on February 22, 1788. His father was a merchant noted for ability, hot temper, independence of character, and love of liberty. He moved from Dantzig to Hamburg when Arthur was five years old, because Dantzig lost its freedom in the annexation of Poland in 1798. Young Schopenhauer, therefore, grew up in the midst of business and finance; and though he soon abandoned the mercantile career into which his father had pushed him, it left its mark upon him in a certain bluntness of manner, a realistic turn of mind, a knowledge of the world and of men; it made him the antipodes of that closet or academic type of philosopher whom he so despised. The father died, apparently by his own hand, in 1805. The paternal grandmother had died insane. 

Young Schopenhauer grew up in the midst of business and finance; and it left its mark upon him in a certain bluntness of manner, a realistic turn of mind, a knowledge of the world and of men.

“The character or will,” says Schopenhauer, “is inherited from the father; the intellect from the mother.” The mother had intellect—she became one of the most popular novelists of her day—but she had temperament and temper too. She had been unhappy with her prosaic husband; and when he died she took to free love, and moved to Weimar as the fittest climate for that sort of life. Arthur Schopenhauer reacted to this as Hamlet to his mother’s re-marriage; and his quarrels with his mother taught him a large part of those half-truths about women with which he was to season his philosophy. One of her letters to him reveals the state of their affairs: “You are unbearable and burdensome, and very hard to live with; all your good qualities are over-shadowed by your conceit, and made useless to the world simply because you cannot restrain your propensity to pick holes in other people.” So they arranged to live apart; he was to come only to her “at homes,” and be one guest among others; they could then be as polite to each other as strangers, instead of hating each other like relatives. Goethe, who liked Mme. Schopenhauer because she let him bring his Christiane with him, made matters worse by telling the mother that her son would become a very famous man; the mother had never heard of two geniuses in the same family. Finally, in some culminating quarrel, the mother pushed her son and rival down the stairs; whereupon our philosopher bitterly informed her that she would be known to posterity only through him. Schopenhauer quitted Weimar soon afterward; and though the mother lived twenty-four years more, he never saw her again. Byron, also a child of 1788, seems to have had similar luck with his mother. These men were almost by this circumstance doomed to pessimism; a man who has not known a mother’s love—and worse, has known a mother’s hatred—has no cause to be infatuated with the world.

Schopenhauer had a difficult time with his mother who took to free love after his father died. He never knew a mother’s love and ended up breaking his relationship with her. This doomed him to pessimism.

Meanwhile Schopenhauer had gone through “gymnasium” and university, and had learned more than was on their schedules. He had his fling at love and the world, with results that affected his character and his philosophy. He became gloomy, cynical, and suspicious; he was obsessed with fears and evil fancies; he kept his pipes under lock and key, and never trusted his neck to a barber’s razor; and he slept with loaded pistols at his bedside—presumably for the convenience of the burglar. He could not bear noise: “I have long held the opinion,” he writes, ”that the amount of noise which anyone can bear undisturbed stands in inverse proportion to his mental capacity, and may therefore be regarded as a pretty fair measure of it. … Noise is a torture to all intellectual people. … The superabundant display of vitality which takes the form of knocking, hammering, and tumbling things about, has proved a daily torment to me all my life long.” He had an almost paranoiac sense of unrecognized greatness; missing success and fame, he turned within and gnawed at his own soul. 

His education, relations and experiences turned Schopenhauer into a  gloomy, cynical, and suspicious man. He became obsessed with fears and evil fancies. He could not bear noise. He had an almost paranoiac sense of unrecognized greatness.

He had no mother, no wife, no child, no family, no country. “He was absolutely alone, with not a single friend; and between one and none there lies an infinity.” Even more than Goethe he was immune to the nationalistic fevers of his age. In 1813 he so far fell under the sway of Fichte’s enthusiasm for a war of liberation against Napoleon, that he thought of volunteering, and actually bought a set of arms. But prudence seized him in time; he argued that “Napoleon gave after all only concentrated and untrammeled utterance to that self-assertion and lust for more life which weaker mortals feel but must perforce disguise.” Instead of going to war he went to the country and wrote a doctor’s thesis in philosophy. 

Schopenhauer was absolutely alone without family, friends and country. He wanted to volunteer in a war of liberation against Napoleon; instead he went to the country and wrote a doctor’s thesis in philosophy.

After this dissertation On the Fourfold Root of Sufficient Reason (1813),* Schopenhauer gave all his time, and devoted all his power, to the work which was to be his masterpiece—The World as Will and Idea. He sent the MS. to the publisher magna cum laude; here, he said, was no mere rehash of old ideas, but a highly coherent structure of original thought, “clearly intelligible, vigorous, and not without beauty”; a book ”which would hereafter be the source and occasion of a hundred other books.” All of which was outrageously egotistic, and absolutely true. Many years later Schopenhauer was so sure of having solved the chief problems of philosophy that he thought of having his signet ring carved with an image of the Sphinx throwing herself down the abyss, as she had promised to do on having her riddles answered.

*Schopenhauer insists, hardly with sufficient reason, and almost to the point of salesmanship, that this book must be read before the World all Will and idea can be understood. The reader may nevertheless rest content with knowing that the “principle of sufficient reason” is the “law of cause and effect,” in four forms: 1-Logical, as the determination of conclusion by premises; 2-Physical, as the determination of effect by cause; 3-Mathematical, as the determination of structure by the laws of mathematics and mechanics; and 4-Moral, as the determination of conduct by character. 

Schopenhauer was outrageously egotistic in promoting his work to the point of salesmanship. He was sure of having solved the chief problems of philosophy.

Nevertheless, the book attracted hardly any attention; the world was too poor and exhausted to read about its poverty and exhaustion. Sixteen years after publication Schopenhauer was informed that the greater part of the edition had been sold as waste paper. In his essay on Fame, in “The Wisdom of Life,” he quotes, with evident allusion to his masterpiece, two remarks of Lichtenberger’s: ”Works like this are as a mirror: if an ass looks in you cannot expect an angel to look out”; and “when a head and a book come into collision, and one sounds hollow, is it always the book?” Schopenhauer goes on, with the voice of wounded vanity: “The more a man belongs to posterity—in other words, to humanity in general—so much the more is he an alien to his contemporaries; for since his work is not meant for them as such, but only in so far as they form part of mankind at large, there is none of that familiar local color about his productions which would appeal to them.” And then he becomes as eloquent as the fox in the fable: ”Would a musician feel flattered by the loud applause of an audience if he knew that they were nearly all deaf, and that to conceal their infirmity he saw one or two persons applauding? And what would he say if he discovered that those one or two persons had often taken bribes to secure the loudest applause for the poorest player?”—In some men egotism is a compensation for the absence of fame; in others, egotism lends a generous cooperation to its presence. 

Schopenhauer’s book attracted hardly any attention. This wounded his vanity.

So completely did Schopenhauer put himself into this book that his later works are but commentaries on it; he became Talmudist to his own Torah, exegete to his own Jeremiads. In 1836 he published an essay On the Will in Nature, which was to some degree incorporated into the enlarged edition of The World as Will and Idea which appeared in 1844. In 1841 came The Two Ground-Problems of Ethics, and in 1851 two substantial volumes of Parerga et Paralipomena—literally, “By-products and Leavings”—which have been translated into English as the Essays. For this, the most readable of his works, and replete with wisdom and wit, Schopenhauer received, as his total remuneration, ten free copies. Optimism is difficult under such circumstances. 

Schopenhauer’s later works are but commentaries on his main book, “The World as Will and Idea.” Even though all his works were brilliant, he hardly got compensated for them.

Only one adventure disturbed the monotony of his studious seclusion after leaving Weimar. He had hoped for a chance to present his philosophy at one of the great universities of Germany; the chance came in 1822, when he was invited to Berlin as privat-docent. He deliberately chose for his lectures the very hours at which the then mighty Hegel was scheduled to teach; Schopenhauer trusted that the students would view him and Hegel with the eyes of posterity. But the students could not so far anticipate, and Schopenhauer found himself talking to empty seats. He resigned, and revenged himself by those bitter diatribes against Hegel which mar the later editions of his chef-d’oeuvre. In 1831 a cholera epidemic broke out in Berlin; both Hegel and Schopenhauer fled; but Hegel returned prematurely, caught the infection, and died in a few days. Schopenhauer never stopped until he reached Frankfort, where he spent the remainder of his seventy-two years. 

Schopenhauer invited to Berlin as privat-docent. He deliberately chose for his lectures the very hours at which the then mighty Hegel was scheduled to teach; and he found himself talking to empty seats.

Like a sensible pessimist, he had avoided that pitfall of optimists—the attempt to make a living with the pen. He had inherited an interest in his father’s firm, and lived in modest comfort on the revenue which this brought him. He invested his money with a wisdom unbecoming a philosopher. When a company in which he had taken shares failed, and the other creditors agreed to a 70% settlement, Schopenhauer fought for full payment, and won. He had enough to engage two rooms in a boarding-house; there he lived the last thirty years of his life, with no comrade but a dog. He called the little poodle Atma (the Brahmins’ term for the World-Soul), but the wags of the town called it “Young Schopenhauer.” He ate his dinners, usually, at the Englischer Hof. At the beginning of each meal he would put a gold coin upon the table before him; and at the end of each meal he would put the coin back into his pocket. It was, no doubt, an indignant waiter who at last asked him the meaning of this invariable ceremony. Schopenhauer answered that it was his silent wager to drop the coin into the poor-box on the first day that the English officers dining there should talk of anything else than horses, women, or dogs.

Schopenhauer did not attempt to make a living with the pen. He had inherited an interest in his father’s firm, and lived in modest comfort on the revenue which this brought him. 

The universities ignored him and his books, as if to substantiate his claim that all advances in philosophy are made outside of academic walls. “Nothing,” says Nietzsche, “so offended the German savants as Schopenhauer’s unlikeness to them.” But he had learned some patience; he was confident that, however belated, recognition would come. And at last, slowly, it came. Men of the middle classes—lawyers, physicians, merchants—found in him a philosopher who offered them no mere pretentious jargon of metaphysical unrealities, but an intelligible survey of the phenomena of actual life. A Europe disillusioned with the ideals and efforts of 1848 turned almost with acclamation to this philosophy that had voiced the despair of 1815. The attack of science upon theology, the socialist indictment of poverty and war, the biological stress on the struggle for existence,—all these factors helped to lift Schopenhauer finally to fame. 

The universities ignored Schopenhauer and his books, but belated recognition did come from men of the middle classes. They found in him a philosopher who offered them no mere pretentious jargon of metaphysical unrealities, but an intelligible survey of the phenomena of actual life.

He was not too old to enjoy his popularity: he read with avidity all the articles that appeared about him; he asked his friends to send him every bit of printed comment they could find—he would pay the postage. In 1854 Wagner sent him a copy of Der Ring der Nibelugen, with a word in appreciation of Schopenhauer’s philosophy of music. So the great pessimist became almost an optimist in his old age; he played the flute assiduously after dinner, and thanked Time for ridding him of the fires of youth. People came from all over the world to see him; and on his seventieth birthday, in 1858, congratulations poured in upon him from all quarters and every continent.

Schopenhauer was not too old to enjoy his popularity. So the great pessimist became almost an optimist in his old age.

It was not too soon; he had but two more years to live. On September 21, 1860, he sat down alone to breakfast, apparently well. An hour later his landlady found him still seated at the table, dead. 

Schopenhauer passed away peacefully, seated at his breakfast table, at age 72.


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