Schopenhauer : a biography

A review of Schopenhauer: A Biography by Rob Mason

David E. Cartwright, Schopenhauer: A Biography, Cambridge University Press

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was one of the most original and provocative thinkers of the nineteenth century. He spent a lifetime striving to understand the meaning of living in a world where suffering and death are ubiquitous. In his quest to solve "the ever-disquieting riddle of existence," Schopenhauer explored almost every dimension of human life, developing a darkly compelling worldview that found deep resonance in contemporary literature, music, philosophy, and psychology. This is the first comprehensive biography of Schopenhauer written in English. Placing him in his historical and philosophical contexts, David E. Cartwright tells the story of Schopenhauer's life to convey the full range of his philosophy. 

In chapter 1, The Affirmation of the Will, we are told that Schopenhauer viewed himself as being homeless and that this sense of homelessness became a sort of recurring theme for both his life and philosophy. His family fled the the city of Danzig five years after he was born and from that point onward, he said "I have never acquired a new home."   He subsequently extended this statement later in life, saying, "that the world itself was not his home." However he did conclude that he had a mission in life.

Chapter 2, A Tour for a Trade: we learn how Schopenhauer's father wanted his son to become an international merchant and invited his son to join him and his mother Johanna on  a European tour.  The Schopenhauers commenced their tour on Tuesday, 3rd May 1803.  They subsequently arrived at the Dutch border on 8 May.  Due to hostilities between England and France they changed theirr plans to tour France and journeyed instead to Amsterdam, the Hague, Rotterdam, Bergen OP Zoom and Antwerp and crossed the French border on 20 May 1803.  Three days later they arrived at the French seaport of Calais and prepared to cross to Dover.  After an 11 hour crossing the Schopenhauers arrived in Dover and from there they journeyed to London, arriving on 25 May 1803.

Chapter 3, A Father's Death; A Philosopher's Birth: relates the details of his father's death and Schopenhauer's opportunity to become a philosopher rather than an importer of goods.

Chapter 4, The University Years: A detailed account of Schopenhauer's tertiary education.

Chapter 5, The Better Consciousness, Causes, Grounds and Confrontations.  In this chapter we learn of an idea that Schopenhauer had in 1812, one that he referred to as the better consciousness, a consciousness that lies beyond all experience and thus all reason. "The better consciouness in me," he wrote, "lifts me into a world where there is no longer personality and causality or subject or object.  My hope and belief is that this better consciousness will become my only one."  This hope for the better consciousness becoming his only one entailed allowing it to "navigate the ship of life even in the dark, until after death only the better consciousness is left." The eternal better consciousness signified the ultimate distance from the world.  He saw it as a consolation for the earthly life and commented that: " it was possible to think of a virtuous man in whom the better consciousness is so animated that it speaks at all times and never allows the emotions to become so strong that he is wholly filled with them. Thus he is always guided directly by the better consciousness." Schopenhauer's reflections on the empirical and better consciousness moved him to consider that which binds a person to the ephemeral world of misery and despair and that which liberates one from this vale of tears. 

Chapter 6, Goethe, Colours and Eastern Lights.  This chapter relates some of the details about the friiendship between Schopenhauer and Goethe and the need of Goethe to find an ally to promote his theory of colours.  It also comments on Schopenhauers interest in Indian religion, namely the Upanishads.  Some thirty-seven years after his introduction to the Upanishads, and after reading extensively in philosophy, science, religion and literature, he judged the work to be "the most profitable and sublime reading that is possible in the world; it has been the consolation of my life and will be until my death"  In what is perhaps his first use of a significant term drawn from "Indian antiquity," Schopenhauer wrote:

"For sharing in the Peace of God (in other words for the appearance of the better consciousness) it is necessary that man, this frail, finite and transitory being, be something different: that he become aware of himself no longer as a human being at all, but as something quite different. For insofar as he is alive and is a human being, he is doomed but not merely to sin and death, but also to illusion and this illusion is as real as life, as real as the world of senses itself, indeed it is identical with these (maya of the Indians). On it are based all our desires and cravings, which are again only the expression of life, just as life is only the expression of illusion.  The extent that we live, will to live, and are human beings, the illusion is truth; only in reference to the better consciousness is it illusion." 

Chapter 7; The Single Thought of Dresden:  This chapter covers the period of Schopenhauer’s life during May 1814 thru September 1818.  It was the birthplace of his masterpiece: The World as Will and Representation.

Chapter 8 Failure in Berlin:  One point that Schopenhauer makes in this chapter is his idea of the “acquired character,” which involved Schopenhauer claimed, “nothing but the most complete knowledge of our own individuality.” This knowledge is gained from a diligent and honest reflection on one’s previous behaviour, the sum of which is the temporal unfolding of the intelligible character, the innermost essence from which all of a person’s actions invariably follow.  Schopenhauer analogized that just as a fish is only happy in water, a bird in the air, a mole under the ground, “every man is happy only in an atmosphere suitable to him.” Knowledge of one’s character allows one to determine the type of place where one can breathe in a way attuned to one’s fundamental dispositions, a requirement for doing anything of any worth.  Therefore, instead of crashing through life in a haphazard manner, one can discover the home grounds to carry out deliberately and methodically the unalterable rule of one’s character without being tempted to perform deeds too noble or base and without suffering the agony and distress of being something one is not.  Knowing one’s character, he claimed, prevents one from trying to imitate others, an act as outrageous as wearing another’s clothing.  By discovering what one necessarily is, one realises that things could not have been otherwise; “we are like entrapped elephants, which rage and struggle fearfully for many days, until they see that it is fruitless, and then suddenly offer their necks calmly to the yoke, tamed forever.”

Chapter 9, Ich Bin Kein Berliner (I am no Berliner)

In May of 1822 Schopenhauer left Berlin and would remain away for 3 years.

Chapter 10. The Frankfurt Philosopher

We have just had a General Election in New Zealand but had Arthur Schopenhauer been here he would not have been greatly impressed.  He took an indifferent atttude toward politics unless they personally concerned him. His primary interest was the universal, the unchanging and whatever remains the same behind the fleeting and changing circumstances of life. History only shows more of the same, he argued, and he believed that misery, despair and suffering were a function of the essence of life, of the will, and social change simply developed new channels for the expression of the same despair.  He felt that politics did not matter in the larger scheme of life. But as much as Schopenhauer attempted to turn his back on social and political events, he could not escape the revolutionary year of 1848, as progressive liberal forces attempted to drive democratic reform in Germany.  In the same year, Marx and Engels urged working men of all countries to unite in The Communist Manifesto, exaggerating the extent to which the communist system haunted Europe.

The rebellion of 1848 threatened the state, and without the state, egoism would have free reign and result in "a war of all against all." Schopenhauer argued that the state sprang from a fear of violence, which made it in each person's self interest for there to be a central power, institutionalised in the state, to provide protection from fellow citizens and the agression of foreign powers. Fear of punishment checked egoism and led to right conduct, that is conduct that did not harm others. 

Chapter 11, the last chapter is entitled: The Dawn of Fame and the End of Life.

In the last years of his life he advocated walking as a way to good health. His advice was to: "Go walking daily, quickly for 2 hours."  Schopenhauer also recommended sleeping, and said, " Sleep is the source of all health and energy."

Arthur Schopenhauer died alone on Friday 21st September 1860, he was 72.

Goethe once asserted with respect to Kant (but which could also be applicable to Schopenhauer) that all philosophy must be both loved and lived if it hoped to attain significance for life. “The Stoic, Platonist, Epicurean, each must come to terms with the world in his own fashion; indeed, precisely that is the task of which no one is exempted, to whatever school he may belong.  The philosophers for their part can offer us nothing but patterns for life. The strict moderation of Kant, for example, required a philosophy in accordance with his innate inclinations.  Read his biography and you will soon discover how neatly he blunted the edge of his stoicism, which in fact constituted a striking obstacle to social relationships, adjusted it and brought it into balance with the world. Each individual, by virtue of his inclinations, has a right to principles which do not destroy his individuality. Probably the origin of all philosophy is to be sought for here or nowhere. Every system succeeds in coming to terms with the world in that moment when its true champion appears. Only the acquired part of human nature ordinarily founders on a contradiction; what is inborn in it finds its way anywhere and not infrequently even overcomes its contrary with the greatest success.  We must first be in harmony with ourselves, and then we are in a position, if not to eliminate, at least in some way to counterbalance the discords pressing in on us from outside.”