The World’s Greatest Pessimist

The ‘wilfully’ pessimistic Arthur Schopenhauer

Reuben Salsa
Oct 18, 2020 · 5 min read
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Arthur Schopenhauer, 1859, by Angilbert Göbel

Arthur hated people. Arthur hated crowds. Arthur hated life. To Arthur, life was ‘a constantly prevented dying’, much the same way that walking was ‘a constantly prevented falling’.

It’s difficult to say what was the breaking point in Arthur’s relationship with life. It could’ve been his unconventional look. A man whose crazed mop of hair was equal to his objectionable personality.

Arthur hated many things in life. He despised women almost as much as he despised the Jews. This man was no fun at parties. There would be no frolicking on the beaches while Arthur was around.

Arthur’s greatest claim was his masterwork. A response to fellow philosopher Kant. Most great philosophies stem from a response to other philosophies. And so it came to pass that ‘The World As Will And Representation’ was Arthur’s big moment. A running commentary on the theories proposed by Kant.

Arthur coined the phrase ‘A Will To Live’ in describing his response to Kant. His retort was that we can sense within our every mental action the workings of our will and that it’s a constant struggle to survive and reproduce. The will to live, the will that drives us, was making us all very unhappy. Arthur loved nothing more than to spread his joy-germs from one party to another. If he wasn’t to have any fun, there nobody was.

Pretty soon, Arthur was no longer being invited to parties. No matter how hard he explained to people that it wasn’t all misery, Arthur’s invites were lost in the mail. “Respite is possible in aesthetic contemplation,” proclaimed Arthur to an audience made up of his beloved pet poodles. “As one gazes upon a painting, we forget ourselves and are briefly happy,” he would wistfully say.

Brief happiness isn’t what the party-crowd want to hear.

There’s lots to admire about Schopenhauer. He said many sensible things. He had a love for the Brahmins of India and couldn’t help but admire the philosophical teachings of Buddha. Unfortunately, it was Arthur’s curmudgeon spirit that always got in the way. Here some highlights:

Of the Germans: “For a German it is even good to have somewhat lengthy words in his mouth, for he thinks slowly, and they give him time to reflect.”

Women: “Women are directly fitted for acting as the nurses and teachers of our early childhood by the fact that they are themselves childish, frivolous and short-sighted.”

Jewish religion: “(Judaism) is, therefore, the crudest and poorest of all religions and consists merely in an absurd and revolting theism.”

Creating a master-race: “If we could castrate all scoundrels and stick all stupid geese in a convent, and give men of noble character a whole harem, and procure men, and indeed thorough men, for all girls of intellect and understanding, then a generation would soon arise which would produce a better age than that of Pericles.”

Yeah, Arthur was a real catch. His attitude towards women may well have been due to his relationship with his mother. She was a very sociable, ‘frivolous’ type of person. The very opposite of Arthur. When he left his mother and moved out, he was never to see her again.

Twenty four years would pass of terse correspondence. She wrote “You are unbearable and burdensome, and very hard to live with; all your good qualities are overshadowed by your conceit, and made useless to the world simply because you cannot restrain your propensity to pick holes in other people.”

Arthur, who would later die alone with nothing but his poodles for company, did have several affairs with women. The women were mostly ‘beneath’ him. Sexual affairs usually with women of lower social status, such as servants, actresses, and sometimes even paid prostitutes.

Prone to lapses of depression and anti-socialness, his father, Heinrich, was also similar. In 1805, Heinrich died by drowning in a canal by their home in Hamburg. His mother believed it was suicide brought on by his anxiety and depression. Arthur agreed. It wasn’t long before Arthur’s sense of superiority would find him at odds with the world.

He hated school. Hated university. Hated authority. Arthur had constant battles with teachers and peers. He felt that his work and mind were superior to what was being taught. One satirical poem about his schoolmaster would see Arthur expelled.

Meanwhile, his mother had written two highly successful books. Now in competition with his mom, this displeased him immensely. She found his dissertation incomprehensible and said it was unlikely that anyone would ever buy a copy. In a fit of temper Arthur told her that people would read his work long after the “rubbish” she wrote was totally forgotten. And yes, he was right!

There’s so many sides though to Arthur. He abhorred slavery despite the genetic superiority he felt that white people had. He was opposed to the prison system and felt there had to be a better way to treat convicted felons. His love for Eastern philosophy was to be admired. Compassion is thus the basis of morality was his driving message.

People are complicated and Arthur had many layers. His impact in the world was immense.

“Schopenhauer remained the most influential German philosopher until the First World War.[271] His philosophy was a starting point for a new generation of philosophers including Julius Bahnsen, Paul Deussen, Lazar von Hellenbach, Karl Robert Eduard von Hartmann, Ernst Otto Lindner, Philipp Mainländer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Olga Plümacher and Agnes Taubert. His legacy shaped the intellectual debate, and forced movements that were utterly opposed to him, neo-Kantianism and positivism, to address issues they would otherwise have completely ignored, and in doing so he changed them markedly.”

Not bad for a man who wanted to be alone and live life like a hermit.

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Reuben Salsa

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Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Reuben Salsa

Written by


Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

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