Authors: Arthur Schopenhauer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

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

(Library of Congress)

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.”

Author Works Nonfiction: Über die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde, 1813 (1 volume), 1844 (2 volumes; On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, 1889) Über das Sehen und die Farben, 1816 (On Vision and Colours, 1942) Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, 1819 (1 volume), 1859 (2 volumes; The World as Will and Idea, 1883–86, 3 volumes) Über den Willen in der Natur, 1836 (On the Will in Nature, 1888) Über die Freiheit des menschlichen Willens, 1839 (Essay on the Freedom of the Will, 1960) Über das Fundament der Moral, 1840 (The Basis of Morality, 1903) Die beiden Grundprobleme der Ethik, 1841 (2 volumes; contains Über die Freiheit des menschlichen Willens and Über das Fundament der Moral; The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics, 2009) Parerga und Paralipomena, 1851 (2 volumes; Parerga and Paralipomena: Short Philosophical Essays, 1974, 2 volumes) Complete Essays of Schopenhauer: Seven Books in One Volume, 1942 (Thomas Bailey Saunders, translator) Bibliography Atwell, John E. Schopenhauer on the Character of the World: The Metaphysics of Will. U of California P, 1995. An extended analysis of The World as Will and Idea that attempts, against the views of others, to establish that Arthur Schopenhauer has a metaphysics, though a severely limited one. Atwell, John E. Schopenhauer: The Human Character. Temple UP, 1990. Explores Schopenhauer’s ethics, pressing his examples logically to the point that they break down and reveal contradictions. Fox, Michael, editor. Schopenhauer: His Philosophical Achievement. Harvester Press, 1980. A collection of essays by distinguished scholars, divided into three sections: general articles, giving overviews of Schopenhauer; articles dealing with basic philosophical issues; and comparative studies that relate Schopenhauer’s philosophy to others’ and explore intellectual debts. Gardiner, Patrick L. Schopenhauer. Penguin Books, 1963. A piercing analysis of Schopenhauer’s life and philosophy. Hamlyn, D. W. Schopenhauer. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980. A general survey of Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Clarifies his terms, explains his epistemology, and offers extensive analysis of his philosophical debt to Kant. Jacquette, Dale, editor. Schopenhauer, Philosophy, and the Arts. Cambridge UP, 1996. A penetrating look at Schopenhauer’s philosophy and aesthetics. Janaway, Christopher. Schopenhauer. Oxford UP, 1994. A concise, though dense, overview of Schopenhauer’s life and philosophical system. Supplements synopses of the major works with references to lesser-known titles. Exposes some limitations and contradictions in Schopenhauer’s system, notably in his concepts of will, freedom, ethics, and pessimism. Safranski, Rüdiger. Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy. Translated by Ewals Osers, Harvard UP, 1990. Recounts Schopenhauer’s life and works, suggesting that events in his life contributed to his outlook and the formation of his pessimistic system. Places the philosophy within the aesthetic and intellectual currents of Schopenhauer’s time. Tanner, Michael. Schopenhauer: Metaphysics and Art. Phoenix, 1998. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Includes bibliography.

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