Arthur Schopenhauer: a herald of the World Soul

This philosopher, who, along with Hegel and Marx, can be considered the founder of one of the three major trends of the philosophy of Modern Times, the so called “irrationalism”. In contrast to “idealism” positing Reason as the foundation of the Universe, and to “materialism” recognizing the primacy of “Body”, philosophical irrationalism proceeds from the “medial”, “unknowable” Origin of Whatever Exists, referred to from of old as the World Soul.

Arthur Schopenhauer was born on February 22nd, 1788, in the free city of Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland), then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, into a German family having Dutch roots. His father was a well-to-do entrepreneur and a cultured and educated person at that, an admirer of Voltaire. His mother was a city senator’s daughter and a bit of a writer.

In 1783, after Prussia’s annexation of Danzig, the family moved to Hamburg. Thereafter, Arthur was left for some time in France, then in England, where he studied at various boarding schools. In 1805, the 17-year old Arthur returned to Hamburg, where he worked at his father’s office. That same year, his father died under obscure circumstances, so the entire burden of doing business fell upon Arthur.

In the meantime, an irresistible thirst for knowledge took hold of the youth. He struggled to cope with his family duties and to respond to the call of Truth. In parallel with running the company, he engaged intensively in self-education. Eventually, he did sell the business and moved to Weimar, the capital of the Great Duchy of Saxe-Weimar, where his mother lived at the time, and started preparing himself for university.

In 1809, Arthur entered the University of Göttingen, which was then situated in the Kingdom of Westphalia. First, it was the faculty of medicine, but soon he moved to the faculty of philosophy. But this seemed not enough for him. In 1811, he transferred to the University of Berlin located in the neighbouring kingdom of Prussia’s capital city. There, he attended, among others, lectures delivered by the famous philosopher J. G. Fichte, who tried to deify Subject to counterbalance Spinoza’s Substance. Also there, one could find among the lecturers the founder of “liberal theology” F. D. E. Schleiermacher, who, in the spirit of romanticism, would determine religion as a “sense and taste for the infinite”.

In 1813, Berlin was flooded with the remains of the Napoleonic army, which suffered a defeat in Russia. Schopenhauer looked for a quiter place to live in. So, he returned to Saxe-Weimar and settled in Jena suburbs, where he wrote his dissertation, devoted to philosophical issues. In his work, the 25-year old philosopher was positioning himself as I. Kant’s follower. At the same time, proceeding from Kant, he formulated the main tenets of his own philosophical teaching.

Schopenhauer overcame Kantian skepticism by reinterpreting both Subject and the “Thing-in-Itself”. For him, Both actually form yet another, “missing” Attribute of the Spinozian Substance, Which becomes Its Natura Naturans. The resulting Arche, in contrast to Mind or Body, is Life proper, Which in antiquity had been featured as the “World Soul” and Which in the philosophy of Modern Times was more commonly known as “World Will”. Unlike Schelling, Schopenhauer did not shrink from his discovery and did not return to the Christian God. Instead, he seized on this precarious Arche and termed It more concisely and definitely, as “Will-to-Live”.

Positing “Will” as the Arche, or the Basis of whatever exists, was really the call of the times. Interestingly, Schopenhauer started with what some of his elder contemporaries had been arriving at painfully and slowly. Fichte had spent almost all his life erecting his “Absolute Subject”, Which, in the end, had regenerated into the “rational and life-giving Will”. As for Schelling, he had been through materialism and idealism, tried to unite “Subject” and “Object”, and even put forward the idea of the “Absolute”, Which, again, had effectively, appeared to be the same “Absolute Will”.

From 1814 to 1818, Schopenhauer lived in Dresden, the capital of the Kingdom of Saxony, where he wrote the book of his life, “The World as Will and Representation”, in which he elaborated the ideas stated in his dissertation. Thus, Schopenhauer posited as What Truly Exists the Will-to-Live, Which is not Mind, and not Body, but some universal, insuperable, and instinctive Drive, or Desire. Due to Man’s limited perceptual capacities, the universal Will appears before Man as “Nature”, that is, as a “Representation”. But, in truth, Nature is objectified Will, Its projection, Its revelation.

Schopenhauer would reject Hegel and call him a charlatan. He argued that the universal Will had neither sense, nor purpose. Nevertheless, he could not avoid Hegel’s influence and posited his Will as developing and even having contradiction as its driving force. In his words, It abides in “discord” with Itself, and asserts Itself just as well as It negates Itself. For Schopenhauer, the development of the universal Will manifests itself in achieving higher degrees of Its self-cognition. Respectively, the development observable in Nature was for him nothing but the manifestation of the universal Will’s development. Here, Schopenhauer discerns 4 stages of the Will’s objectification: elemental forces (1), the vegetable kingdom (2), the animal kingdom (3), and the Human (4). And yet, Schopenhauer regards as the supreme form of Will’s objectification “Platonic ideas”, that is, the notions of things, or, to put it bluntly, Mind.

Recognizing the primacy of the Cosmic Will (Soul), Schopenhauer was inevitably faced with certain difficulties. On the one hand, he had to admit the presence of life in inanimate nature. On the other, he could not convincingly explain the emergence of rationality, which, in such a context, appeared to be superfluous. Strictly speaking, the universal Will does not need rationality. Therefore, on the one hand, Human appears as the supreme manifestation of Cosmic Will, as a conscious Will. On the other hand, the cleverer and more developed the human, the more he feels vulnerable and irrelevant, the more acutely he feels the absurdity of all that goes on in this world, where an unreasonable and unruly Will holds sway.

Human life, from the viewpoint of Will, represents a series of practicable and impracticable desires, which can be conscious or unconscious. A fulfilled wish after some time will generate new thirst, while an unfulfilled or impracticable (or unconscious) desire weighs Man down or even completely crushes Him. But should He manage to have all his wishes fulfilled, then the boredom of satiety creeps over Him. However, whatever life Man may have, it is, in any case, a tragedy, for it always ends in death. Generally, Schopenhauer comes to the conclusion that life is basically suffering. Thus, although he failed to return to the womb of Christianity, he decisively approached Buddhism.

What way out does Schopenhauer suggests of the situation he has placed Man? It looks like he backs down at this point. Schopenhauer recommends not to let the Will go, and not to yield to It, and, the more so, he would object expanding It to the “Will-to-Power”. On the contrary, again in the spirit of Buddhism, he suggests a “nirvana” of sorts. First of all, it is “renunciation of desires”, in other words, asceticism. Also along this vein there is “compassion”, i. e. identifying the person’s passionate Will with that of other people and animals, which may result in certain “self-denial”.

There are other means, though, of reposing from the insatiable Cosmic Will. For example, it may be science. Here, Man comes out as Scientist. He gets distracted from His wishes and identifies Himself with the Subject of knowledge. He ascends from things to their notions. Moreover, He can completely absorb Himself in the sphere of pure notions, be it in the form of some fundamental science, or idealistic philosophy. Pure notions, although representing an objectified Will, are Its supreme, refined manifestation. So, Man’s ardour for them makes Him a disinterested observer, free from His carnal desires.

Yet another way of deliverance is related to perceiving works of art and, generally, perceiving of whatever is beautiful. In this case, Human, again, appears as an unselfish contemplator, provided the object of His perception is not about provoking any carnal desires. In fact, it is the same conceiving of Platonic ideas, but only in images. Schopenhauer ranked music the highest among arts. In his view, it, unlike other forms of art, expresses not the notion, or idea of, but directly the Cosmic Will Itself. Paradoxically, even if being carried away by music, the listener never falls under the action of the Will proper; getting the “first-hand” idea of the Will, He, nevertheless, remains an uninterested perceiver. That is why Schopenhauer considered music to be the most complete, although figurative, exposition of his philosophy.

But however may Human struggle to avoid the action of Will, His life always represents a tragedy, for it always ends in death. And yet, everything is not so hopeless. Although Human is mortal, Will is immortal. You may say that Human is immortal in His Will, meaning that He is always “I”, Which always wants something. As a matter of fact, it is tantamount to the recognition of the immortality of the Soul. The only difference is that it is not the individual soul that is meant here, but the same Cosmic Soul, Which is incarnated in various individuals. Schopenhauer termed such an interpretation of the immortality of the soul “paligenesia”.

In 1818, Schopenhauer went to Italy. There, he familiarized himself with historical and cultural monuments, read Italian poets, visited opera houses. After Dresden with its famous art collections of the Electors of Saxony, Italy amazed him, first of all, by the richness of antique heritage. Of course, he was well acquainted with antique authors, but this time he saw with his own eyes the remnants of what served as a source of inspiration for them.

In 1819, his book “The World as Will and Representation” was published. But it was selling poorly, and Schopenhauer incurred considerable losses.

From 1820 on, Schopenhauer taught at the University of Berlin. But his lectures were in disfavour. There was Hegel teaching in the neighbouring auditorium, so nearly everyone was crazy about his dialectics, and no one cared about some obscure “Will”. Nevertheless, Schopenhauer himself could not avoid Hegel’s influence, although he would not admit it. His “Will” was virtually developing in accordance with those very laws that Hegel had discovered. The difference being that Hegel presented this Law, so to speak, in Its pure form, that is, exactly as Mind.

In 1833, Schopenhauer moved from Berlin, escaping a cholera epidemic. Eventually, he settled in Frankfurt-am-Main, where he lived nearly without a break over the last 27 years of his life. He led a quiet life: played the flute, took his dogs for a walk, dined at a restaurant, got political news from The London Times, and attended theaters in the evenings. He devoted the bulk of his time to reading books, eventually becoming keen on the ancient Indian culture, with the Latin translation of The Upanishads as his handbook. During that period of time, he wrote a number of miner works, which clarified or elaborated various aspects of his philosophical (and, effectively, religious) teaching. In the meantime, the 2nd edition of his book “The World as Will and Representation” came out – it was supplemented with a second volume, containing elucidations and comments to the 1st one.

In 1851, his work “Parerga and Paralipomena” (inclusions and omissions) was issued, subtitled “Stray, yet systematically arranged thoughts on a variety of subjects”. Here, Schopenhauer seemed to be not at all concerned with elaborating his teaching or even just re-stating it. The book contains aphoristic, often paradoxical discourse on human life in general. One may say that philosophy is stated here in the form more suited for the consumption in literary salons, than among the academic community. And this contributed considerably to the growth of Schopenhauer’s popularity. Strange as it might seem, it was exactly the style, which proved most appropriate to express the philosophy of Will-to-Life. Not without reason, it was subsequently taken over by Schopenhauer’s successor, F. Nietzsche.

In 1859, encouraged by the growing interest to his works, Schopenhauer undertook the last, 3d edition of his pivotal book, “The World as Will and Representation”. In the preface thereto, he sagaciously noted: “If I have, at last, achieved a success and got satisfaction in the end of my life, looking at the start of my ideas’ influence, it is only thanks to the hope that this influence will be growing even longer, than it was late in the beginning”.

Schopenhauer died on September 21st, 1860, having lived up to 72 years. He bequeathed his property to Prussian soldiers, who had been injured when suppressing the 1848 revolution. This last act of his individual will showed the direction, in which the woken and deified by him Will-to-Life was going to incarnate Itself.


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