Last reviewed: June 2018
German philosopher and proponent of philosophical pessimism.
February 22, 1788
Danzig, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (now Gdańsk, Poland)
September 21, 1860
Free City of Frankfurt, German Confederation (now Frankfurt am Main, Germany)
Arthur Schopenhauer, known as the “philosopher of pessimism,” was born into a rich merchant family in the city of Danzig (now Gdańsk), then located in the Polish part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. His mother, Johanna Schopenhauer (born Trosiener), would later become an author of some renown; his father, Heinrich Floris Schopenhauer, was a liberal thinker, a Voltairean, who admired England and feared that Prussia would annex Danzig. When his fears were realized in 1793, the Schopenhauers hurriedly moved to Hamburg, then a free imperial city under the Holy Roman Empire. Arthur lived there with his family until 1797, when his sister, Louise Adelaide, known as Adele, was born; soon after, he was placed with a family in Le Havre, France, so that he might learn the French language for its commercial value. Arthur Schopenhauer
In 1803, when he was fifteen, Arthur was placed with an English cleric’s family and attended the local boarding school. He was disturbed by the cant and hypocrisy of his instructors and irritated by the daily rounds of prayers. After three months he returned and was sent on a European tour, having promised that upon his return he would enter his father’s business. True to his word, but against his inclinations, he returned and became a clerk in a commercial house in Hamburg.
In 1805 Heinrich Schopenhauer died, possibly as a result of suicide. Freed from domestic ties and responsibilities, Johanna moved to Weimar and established a literary salon that attracted many intellectuals, artists, and lovers, the most distinguished of whom was the elderly Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Although Arthur Schopenhauer was impressed by some of his mother’s friends, he disapproved of her love affairs. After quarreling violently, they parted, never to reconcile.
After giving up the business career he disliked, Schopenhauer studied classics at the gymnasium (secondary school) at Gotha before going on to the University of Göttingen in 1809. While there, he studied the works of Plato, Immanuel Kant, and other philosophers under philosopher Gottlob Ernst Schulze. Along with translations of the Hindu Upanishads, Plato and Kant would become Schopenhauer’s primary influences, while he grew to detest the work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. In 1811 he moved to Berlin, where he studied the natural sciences and attended lectures by Johann Gottlieb Fichte, of whom he was also critical. He had intended to complete his doctorate at the University of Berlin, but when the war between Napoleonic France and the Sixth Coalition spread south into Prussia, he instead submitted his dissertation to the University of Jena in September 1813 and was granted his doctorate in October. His thesis became his first book, Über die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde (1813; On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, 1889).
Six years later, in what is now his best-known work, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1819; The World as Will and Idea, 1883–86), Schopenhauer presented his basic philosophy, according to which everything is a manifestation of the will; as life is misery, the human objective should be to transcend the will by means of reflective and abstract contemplation, especially of music and the arts. The work was disregarded at first and only later became widely read.
During the 1820s Schopenhauer entered on a brief and unsuccessful phase as a lecturer at the University of Berlin; he withdrew when he failed to obtain a professorship. He left Berlin in 1831, following an outbreak of cholera in the city, and eventually settled in the Free City of Frankfurt, a member of the German Confederation, in 1833. He remained in Frankfurt for the remainder of his life, devoting his time to his writing and to his succession of poodles, all of which he named Atma, after the Sanskrit word for “inner self” or “soul.”