The Great Philosophers: Arthur Schopenhauer

For the griefs of love, he may be the finest among philosophers.

Porträt des Philosphen Arthur Schopenhauer, 1852

He was surely also one of the most pessimistic. Arthur Schopenhauer was born in Danzig in 1788. In later years, he looked back on the event with regret: “Human existence must be a kind of error,” he specified, “it may be said of it; ‘It is bad today and every day it will get worse, until the worst of all happens’.” Schopenhauer’s father Heinrich, a wealthy merchant and his wife Johanna, a dizzy socialite twenty years his junior, took little interest in their son as he grew into one of the greatest pessimists in the history of philosophy. “Even as a child of six, my parents, returning from a walk one evening, found me in deep despair.”

After the apparent suicide of his father, seventeen-year-old Schopenhauer was left with a fortune that ensured he would never have to work. He was sent to London to learn English at a boarding school, Eagle House in Wimbledon, and then attended the University of Göttingen, where he decided to become a philosopher: “Life is a sorry business,” he declared. Yet he concluded,  “I have resolved to spend it reflecting upon it.”

One day, on an excursion to the countryside, a male friend suggested they should attempt to make the acquaintance of women. Schopenhauer quashed the plan, arguing that “life is so short, questionable and evanescent that it is not worth the trouble of major effort.”


Young Schopenhauer 

Between 1814 and 1815 Schopenhauer moved to Dresden and wrote a thesis (On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason). In 1818 he finished The World as Will and Representation (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung), which he knew to be a masterpiece. Nevertheless, both books sold less than 300 copies. In 1820 Schopenhauer attempted to gain a university post in philosophy in Berlin. He offered lectures on ‘The whole of philosophy, i.e. the theory of the essence of the world and of the human mind.’ Only five students attended. In a nearby building, his rival Hegel could be heard lecturing to an audience of three hundred.

In 1821, Schopenhauer fell in love with Caroline Medon, a nineteen-year-old singer. The relationship lasted intermittently for ten years, but Schopenhauer had no wish to formalise the arrangement: “To marry means to do everything possible to become an object of disgust to each other.” Later, at forty-three, Schopenhauer thought once again of getting married. He turned his attentions to Flora Weiss, a beautiful, spirited girl who had just turned seventeen. During a boating party, in an attempt to charm her, he smiled and offered her a bunch of white grapes. Flora later confided in her diary, “I didn’t want them. I felt revolted because old Schopenhauer had touched them, and so I let them slide, quite gently, into the water behind me.” Schopenhauer left Berlin in a hurry, concluding “Life has no genuine intrinsic worth, but is kept in motion merely by want and illusion.”

In 1833, having failed in love, academia, and publishing, Schopenhauer moved to a modest apartment in Frankfurt am Main. His closest relationships began to be with a succession of poodles, whom he felt had a gentleness and humility humans lacked. (“The sight of any animal immediately gives me pleasure and gladdens my heart.”) He lavished affection on these poodles, addressing them as “Sir.”


A caricature of Schopenhauer and his beloved poodles by artist Wilhelm Busch 

Then, in 1851, he published a selection of essays and aphorisms, Parerga and Paralipomena. Much to the author’s surprise, the book became a bestseller. In the next two years, his fame spread across Europe (“the comedy of fame,” as he put it). Lectures on his philosophy began to be offered at the universities of Bonn, Breslau and Jena. He received fan mail. “After one has spent a long life in insignificance and disregard, they come at the end with drums and trumpets and think that is something,” was his response, but he also felt satisfaction. “Would anyone with a great mind have ever been able to attain his goal and create a permanent and perennial work, if he had taken as his guiding star the bobbing will-o’-the-wisp of public opinion, that is to say the opinion of small minds?” Perhaps best of all, philosophically-minded Frankfurters began to buy poodles in homage.

Such was the life of a philosopher who may offer the heart unparalleled assistance.

Philosophers have not traditionally been impressed: the tribulations of love have appeared too childish to warrant investigation, the subject better left to poets and hysterics. It is not for philosophers to speculate on hand-holding and scented letters. Schopenhauer was puzzled by the indifference. “We should be surprised that a matter that generally plays such an important part in the life of man has hitherto been almost entirely disregarded by philosophers, and lies before us as raw and untreated material.”

Most importantly, Schopenhauer gave a name to a force within us which he felt invariably had precedence over reason, a force powerful enough to distort all of reason’s plans and judgements, and which he termed the will-to-life (Wille zum Leben) – defined as an inherent drive within human beings to stay alive and to have children. As he described in The World as Will and Representation, the will-to-life leads even committed depressives to fight for survival when they are threatened by a shipwreck or grave illness. It ensures that the most cerebral, career-minded individuals will be seduced by the sight of gurgling infants, or if they remain unmoved, that they will be likely to conceive a child anyway, and love it fiercely on arrival. It is the will-to-life that drives people to lose their reason over comely passengers encountered across the aisles of long-distance trains.

Schopenhauer might have resented the disruption of love (it isn’t easy to proffer grapes to schoolgirls); but he refused to conceive of it as either disproportionate or accidental. It was entirely commensurate with love’s function. “Why all this noise and fuss? Why all the urgency, uproar, anguish and exertion?” he asked. “The ultimate aim of all love-affairs… is actually more important than all other aims in man’s life; and therefore it is quite worthy of the profound seriousness with which everyone pursues it.” The romantic dominates life because “what is decided by it is nothing less than the composition of the next generation….the existence and special constitution of the human race in times to come.”


An illustration from The Sorrows of Young Werther, a novel about the perils of love by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a much-admired acquaintance of Schopenhauer.

Of course, we rarely think of future children when we are asking someone for their phone number. But in Schopenhauer’s view, this is simply because the intellect “remains much excluded from the real resolutions and secret decisions of its own will.” An exclusion which explains how we may consciously feel nothing more than an intense desire to see someone again, while unconsciously being driven by a force aiming at the reproduction of the next generation.

Why should such deception even be necessary? Because, for Schopenhauer, we would not reliably assent to reproduce unless we first had lost our minds.

Indeed, if our intellect were in charge of choosing who to love, we would also choose radically different people. One of the most profound mysteries of love is “why him?” and “why her?”. Why, of all the possible candidates, did our desire settle so strongly on this creature, why did we come to treasure them above all others when their dinner conversation was not always the most enlightening, nor their habits the most appealing? And why, despite good intentions, were we unable to develop a sexual interest in certain others, who were perhaps objectively as attractive and might have been more commodious to live with?

This strange, unlikely choosiness did not surprise Schopenhauer. We are not free to fall in love with everyone because we cannot produce healthy children with everyone. Our will-to-life drives us towards people who will raise our chances of producing beautiful and intelligent offspring, and repulses us away from those who lower these same chances. Love is nothing but the conscious manifestation of the will-to-life’s discovery of an ideal co-parent. “The moment when [two people] begin to love each other - to fancy each other, as the very apposite English expression has it – is actually to be regarded as the very first formation of a new individual,” he suggested. In initial meetings, beneath the quotidian patter, the unconscious of both parties will assess whether a healthy child could one day result from intercourse. “There is something quite peculiar to be found in the deep, unconscious seriousness with which two young people of opposite sex regard each other when they meet for the first time, the searching and penetrating glance they cast at each other, the careful inspection of all the features and parts of their respective persons have to undergo,” he wrote. “This scrutiny and examination is the meditation of the genius of the species concerning the individual possible through these two.”

And what is the will-to-life seeking through such examination? Evidence of healthy children. The will-to-life must ensure that the next generation will be psychologically and physiologically fit enough to survive in a hazardous world, and so it seeks that children be well-proportioned in limb (neither too short nor too tall, too fat nor thin), and stable of mind (neither too timid nor too reckless, neither too cold nor too emotional, etc.)


Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man 

Since our parents made errors in their courtships, we are unlikely to be ideally balanced ourselves. We have typically come out too tall, too masculine, too feminine; our noses are large, our chins small. If such imbalances were allowed to persist, or were aggravated, the human race would, within a short time, founder in oddity. The will-to-life must therefore push us towards people who can, on account of their imperfections, cancel out our own (a large nose combined with a button nose promise a perfect nose), and hence help us restore physical and psychological balance in the next generation.

Unfortunately, the theory of attraction led Schopenhauer to a conclusion so bleak, it may be best if engaged readers left the next few paragraphs unread in order not to have to rethink their plans; namely, that a person who is highly suitable for our child is almost never (though we cannot realise it at the time because we have been blindfolded by the will-to-life) very suitable for us. “That convenience and passionate love should go hand in hand is the rarest stroke of good fortune,” he concluded. We should not be surprised by marriages between people who would never have been friends:  “Love…casts itself on persons who, apart from the sexual relation, would be hateful, contemptible, and even abhorrent to the lover. But the will of the species is so much more powerful than that of the individual, that the lover shuts his eyes to all the qualities repugnant to him, overlooks everything, misjudges everything, and binds himself for ever to the object of his passion.”


These guys were just following the will-to-life 

The will-to-life’s ability to further its own ends rather than our happiness may, Schopenhauer’s theory implies, be sensed with particular clarity in the lassitude and strong desire to spend a few minutes alone in the kitchen that frequently befalls people immediately after making love. “Has it not been observed how illico post coitum cachinnus auditur Diaboli? Directly after copulation the devil’s laughter is heard”.

Yet this strange truth offers some consolation, especially for romantic rejection. We simply need to recognise, and to remember, that we are not inherently unlovable. There is nothing wrong with us per se. Our characters are not repellent, nor our faces abhorrent. The relationship collapsed because we were unfit to produce a balanced child with one particular person. There is no need to hate ourselves. One day we will come across someone who can find us wonderful and who will feel exceptionally natural and open with us (because our chin and their chin make a desirable combination from the will-to-life’s point of view).

Schopenhauer died of heart failure in 1860, sitting on his couch with his cat. He was 72. His last notes were posthumously published with an appropriately pessimistic title: Senilia. Despite this pessimism, we can learn so much from Schopenhauer about the attitude necessary to approach love.


Schopenhauer felt particular sympathy for the mole, a stunted monstrosity dwelling in damp narrow corridors, who rarely saw the light of day and whose offspring looked like gelatinous worms – but who still did everything in its power to survive and perpetuate itself. He did not have to spell out the parallels. We pursue love affairs, chat in cafes with prospective partners and have children, with as much choice in the matter as moles and ants – and are rarely any happier: “There is only one inborn error, and that is the notion that we exist in order to be happy… So long as we persist in this inborn error… the world seems to us full of contradictions. For at every step, in great things and small, we are bound to experience that the world and life are certainly not arranged for the purpose of maintaining a happy existence… hence the countenances of almost all elderly persons wear the expression of what is called disappointment.”

We do have one advantage over moles. We may have to fight for survival and hunt for partners and have children as they do, but we can in addition go to the theatre, the opera and the concert hall, and in bed in the evenings, we can read novels, philosophy books and epic poems – and it is in these activities that Schopenhauer located a supreme source of relief from the demands of the will-to-life. What we encounter in works of art and philosophy are objective versions of our own pains and struggles, evoked and defined in sound, language or image. Artists and philosophers not only show us what we have felt, they present our experiences more poignantly and intelligently than we have been able; they give shape to aspects of our lives that we recognise as our own, yet could never have understood so clearly on our own. They explain our condition to us, and thereby help us to be less lonely with, and confused by it. We may be obliged to continue burrowing underground, but through creative works, we can at least acquire moments of insight into our woes, which spare us feelings of alarm and isolation (even persecution) at being afflicted by them. In their different ways, art and philosophy help us, in Schopenhauer’s words, to turn pain into knowledge.

We must, between periods of digging in the dark, endeavour always to transform our tears into knowledge.