Arthur Schopenhauer, A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), a perspective.

Who was he? He was a great philosopher of the 19th century who happened to be a contemporary of Hegel though younger than him. His mother was a great writer and he was apparently criticized by her for not being like her. Little did she know one day he would be more remembered than her mother not as a writer but as a thinker? He is said to have been pessimistic in his philosophy. Being a pessimistic philosopher who emerged after Kant, he wrote ‘The World as Will and Representation’ in which he plumped the depth of  Kant’s main ideas with his understanding of Hinduism and Buddhism something the latter missed in his discovery of the philosophical investigation. He must have noticed Hindu’s anticipation of Kant’s categorical imperative that is, give without expectation, which takes place in the dialogue between the incarnation of Vishnu Krishna and Arjuna in Bhagavad-Gita. This is something he wouldn’t have found in Hegel’s philosophy.

He was instrumental in making Kant’s obscure ideas popular to the general public and introduced the philosophical thoughts in the Vedas, the ancient sacred texts and Upanishads to the Western world for the first time.

He didn’t like Hegel although both taught at the University of Berlin. However, like the latter he began to work on what Kant thought impossible to know, namely the noumenal world through pure reason. The unknowability of thing-in-themselves was what Schopenhauer was interested in. He agrees with Kant that the reality beyond the phenomenal world is not known to the subject self. He and Hegel began their works with the knowledge that we simply cannot know the world beyond the phenomenal realm as if there’s such a Reality. What if there’s none. Some philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche argued there was no such a thing as a world behind appearances. The assumption is yes there’s. This problem existed all the way back to even St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. But gradually it faded away. Unlike Hegel, however, he believed this realm or the noumenal world is not knowable to the subjective self. Nevertheless, there’s a hidden back-door into the realm of things-in-themselves. This is like the secret garden the prince took Cinderella into where no one else had been there except himself. Schopenhauer puts it in a beautiful, vivid and quaint style, ‘a way from within stands open to us to that real inner nature of things to which we cannot penetrate from without. It is, so to speak, a subterranean passage, a secret alliance, which, as if by treachery, places us all at once in the fortress that could not be taken from outside.’ In a magazine put out by the Clover insurance company for the spring of 2022 we read about ‘Mind, Body& Spirit’ on its cover. On page 56 we read about Renée Victor who is the “talented actress, singer, and dancer. She shares her experience of “her formula for a rich, healthy life. On the third column she says: “I begin my morning with a daily meditation from ‘A Year with Thomas Merton’. Then I say my mantras,” “I’m a catholic, but there’s a lot about Zen that I admire; it is a wise and calming way of life.” If you notice, she seems to say that she enters Zen garden and sits in meditation. I personally think this is what Schopenhauer discovered. By the word ‘treachery’ I’m reminded of the Trojan horse, which was a huge, hollow wooden one with Greek soldiers in it: it was taken into Troy as an ostensible gift which led to the destruction of the city, (Webster’s New World Dictionary) this is like what we say ‘a wolf with a sheep clothing.’ By this Schopenhauer wants to tell us that the Berlin wall standing between us and the world beyond can be penetrated from within. This sounds like what he had learned from Hindu-Buddhist culture. This is what Hegel was unable to deliver.

This ‘subterranean passage’ is discovered through the understanding that ‘we ourselves are also among those entities we require to know, that we ourselves are the thing-in-itself’; an idea Schopenhauer believes is implicit in Kant’s philosophy. Unfortunately Kant overlooked it. When Kant said that by pure reason we cannot know ourselves, this also indicates that we’re not able to penetrate the Berlin wall of ourselves. Perhaps Kant had some idea of this so called ‘subterranean conduit’ through which we could enter this secret garden. However, Schopenhauer’s position is different. The subjective ‘I’ is disclosed to us in the phenomenal realm, thus it is not what constitutes our real essence, namely ‘thing-in-itself’. This ‘thing-in-itself’ is what Kant called it ‘noumenon realm’. Our real essence, according to Schopenhauer, is will. The will is the thing-in-itself. While it is manifested in the world of phenomena as struggling, that is, the will to live, this is nonetheless revealed to my subjective self without any medium and not through concepts. Unfortunately he never tells us what this will is all about except the fact that it doesn’t belong to us as individuals? It is a universal struggling power within us desiring to manifests itself in the realm of the phenomenal world. Having been exposed to Hinduism, it seems as if he was speaking of what is called ‘Atman’, which is like the ray of the sun in us. It is my true Self. But why did he name it ‘will’? It is not called ‘Geist’ as it was by Hegel. Perhaps by will he meant the uncreated Reality within us trapped in the cage of our bodies wanting to get out but our ordinary self stops it to be free. This sounds like a force driving the whole universe to go forward but not vertically. However, it is possible he meant we’re driven to either way, whether horizontally or vertically. Hindus by contrast believed this Reality has no direction, because it is beyond any duality whatsoever. It is possible Schopenhauer was referring to the same thing. This Reality or will is like a bird striving to get out.

A parrot was in a cage at the house of a business man. When he was about to go to India, he spoke to it saying if she had any message for her kind let him know knowing the aged parrot was also from India. The parrot simply told him to let other parrots know about her condition, the fact that she was in a cage. The gentleman saw a lot of parrots on a tree at where he was in India. He told them what his parrot asked him to do. All of a sudden, those Parrots fell to the ground. He felt very sad that he was involved in their death. He returned from his trip and consequently told her what had happened. As soon as he told her about his experience, the Parrot fell to the bottom of the cage. He was frustrated and sad that the same thing took place right in front of his eyes. He quickly opened the little gate of the cage and put the parrot out. Before he knew it, the Parrot took off and landed on the nearest branch of a tree in the yard. Only then did he realize what message had been conveyed between his parrot and the ones he had seen in India.   

This true Self is not ours. It is not mine as it was said in the movie ‘Out of Africa’ in the eulogy of a gentleman who had just been killed in a plane crash. It is the stranger in the night, the song sung by Frank Sinatra. This stranger is somewhere in us and perhaps is released from the cage of my heart once I’m dead as if it is in my chest surrounded by my ribs.

Schopenhauer, however, never glorified this stranger he felt this was something to be resisted. Why? Hindus tried to reach it through meditation to become free from the entanglement of this world.

If it were something to be opposed, then it couldn’t be Atman which doesn’t even exist, because it is beyond existence and non-existence. After all, Atman is connected to Brahman or the sun by analogy. So when we said it was something, on behalf of Schopenhauer, it is. But it is also beyond ‘is’ and ‘not is’. It is possible he had a change of mind after he studied Hinduism? May be he thought this will was not thing-in-itself, at the end of the day. Perhaps even Kant was also wrong by calling it ‘thing-in-and of itself’.

The Ultimate Reality is not a thing. If this were ‘will’, then I understand why Schopenhauer resisted it. I think what he meant by ‘will’ is the drive of change in the universe. Even Buddha told his followers to detach themselves from change so we wouldn’t suffer. Change and time are nothing but illusions Hinduism.

All of us are at the mercy of the will. It contaminates and corrupts everything we think and perform. It is the real essence of the universe and yet the cause of all our sufferings. Why? Because we are ourselves are attached to its wants but unlike Schopenhauer Nietzsche later on was in favor of this will. He came up with the idea of ‘will to power’, which was perhaps what Hitler liked. May be the former or Schopenhauer didn’t think ‘thing-in-itself’ was the Reality hidden from us as we mentioned before.

Schopenhauer nevertheless thought there was a way to overcome the will. How? The way to go about it was not what the Hindus had suggested and practiced. He argued that by contemplation of the arts and particularly music we can conquer the will. In arts and music we are able to contemplate the Universal Will separate from our own struggling. Here he seems to have been concentrating on the different aspect of the will. By contemplating we can reach a measure of objectivity. We can renounce the constant desires and struggling of the will for temporary aims. By subduing this horizontal will we’ll be able to achieve our freedom from the bondage and slavery to the world of change and becoming. We ought to reach the vertical Will. Let us not forget he knew the use of music and arts in Hindu culture for attaining the Ultimate Reality or Brahman.

He was contemporary of Richard Wagner (1813-83), the great German composer and had a lot of respect for his music. Although Wagner had anti Jewish sentiment, his music was unsurpassed. I guess Schopenhauer could separate the work of this remarkable composer from his feelings of anti Semitism. Friedrich Nietzsche was rather unable to do so and eventually he broke up with Wagner over this issue.

We must channel our will towards the vertical Reality, which is the Universal Will. However, with Atman we don’t have a drive or urge to either the horizontal reality or the vertical one. Atman is the ray of the sun within us here and now. We’re here reminded of Kant’s pure reason where it can either go right or left. But it is the Intellect that matches Atman, the uncreated Reality within us. It is with the power of the Intellect that our ordinary reason can be baptized; otherwise it is a lost sheep.

By the Universal Will Schopenhauer seems to be referring to the Ultimate Reality or Brahman. Just as the pure reason of Kant, which is a descended aspect of the Intellect, the horizontal reality of will is the one attached to the changing world causing our suffering. But when it comes to the Universal Will Schopenhauer appears to be anthropomorphic as if he never knew anything about Hinduism. In other words, he seems to be sticking to the God that is created and morphed by us.

We can conquer will by the intellectual understanding that our mortal selves are simple selves, who are agents of the Universal Will and death as results is not something to be afraid of. The Universal Will is eternal. Our wills are not to be valued, because they are attached to our individual existence in this phenomenal world naturally, we suffer.

  He seems to be heading towards justification of suicide. However, Schopenhauer tries to come around it and by claiming that suicide is also an act of will we surrender to the intellect rather than the victory, which can be achieved through contemplation. In other words, we don’t want to give what the will is asking us to do. We, on the other hand ought not to give in to the desire of the will. We must resist suicide as Albert Camus once said no matter how absurd the world may be suicide is not an answer to this absurdity. Of course Buddha was against any killing and taught we shouldn’t take our lives. To be out of this changing world, we must follow the 8 steps to reach Nibbana (Pali) or Nirvana (Sanskrit). ‘Thou shall not murder’ is one of the 10 commandments.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis seems to have been influenced by Schopenhauer’s philosophy. When we study Freud’s thoughts we come to what he called ‘id’, ego’ and super ego, which remind us of what Buddha taught 2600 years ago. We see its influence on Schopenhauer and even Nietzsche. Freud studied philosophy though he might not have admitted at a time. ‘Id’ is the source of energy and wants, the will and ‘super ego’ is the moral authority in this play. ‘Ego’ is nowhere near our ordinary egos. It governs action rationally. (Webster’s New World Dictionary).

“In music and arts we can contemplate the Universal Will apart from our own individual strivings”. (Not exact quote).

(Philosophy, 100 essential thinkers)