Schopenhauer: A Pessimist in the Optimistic Month of May
by Paul A. Schons
originally published by
the Germanic-American Institute in May, 2000
May was a turning point twice in Arthur Schopenhauers life. The son of a very wealthy merchant, young Schopenhauer was brought up in Hamburg where he was trained in business, with the plan that he would one day take over his fathers trade. In was in May of 1807, two years after his fathers death, that he was able to escape from Hamburg and from the responsibilities of the business in which the young man had little interest. (The company did however provide him with a sufficient inheritance, such that he never in his life had to work nor worry about money and could ultimately devote his life totally to philosophy, music, literature and art.)
The escape brought him to Weimar and a close association with the leading intellectual of the age, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Schopenhauers mother had moved to Weimar earlier and was becoming a leading figure in Weimar society. It was his mother who introduced him to Goethe and arranged for him to join the company of the Weimar intellectual circle. He spent the next two years in Weimar under the tutelage of the great minds assembled there. When he left Weimar it was to pursue an academic career. After study at the universities of Göttingen and Berlin, he presented his doctoral dissertation at the University of Jena where he was awarded the doctoral degree in philosophy. His doctoral work was published as Über die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde (On the Fourfold Rood of the Principle of Sufficient Reason).
With some pride the new Ph.D. returned to live in Weimar and presented his book to his mother. By this time his mother had become a central figure in Weimar society and had established an international reputation with the very popular novels she wrote. Arthur was devastated by his mothers reaction to his new book. She informed him that the book was incomprehensible and it was unlikely that anyone would ever buy a copy. In a fit of temper Arthur told her that his work would be read long after the rubbish she wrote would have been totally forgotten. Their relationship grew progressively worse from that point on. This led to the second escape in May in young Schopenhauers life. It was in May of 1814 that after a violent series of arguments with his mother, he left Weimar and never saw her again during the remaining 24 years of her life. Departing Weimar was no easy matter for the young man. He and Goethe had become close friends and leaving that relationship was very difficult. At the same time his relationship with his mother had become impossible. He would later remark that the happiest times of his entire childhood had been those spent away from his mother.
Arthur Schopenhauer certainly proved his accuracy in his comparative evaluation of his own work as opposed to that of his mother. Along with the book he had written by that time, his masterpiece, Die Welt als Wille and Vorstellung, 1819 (The World as Will and Representation) and his later works such as Parerga und Paralipomena, 1851, have become classics in philosophic literature. Scarcely anyone in our own times has read the novels nor even heard of his mother, Johanna Schopenhauer.
None of the above is to say, by any means, that Arthur was the more pleasant person! He was, indeed, often irascible, angry, opinionated and sexist. His mother had earned a life of prominence, influence and great respect after the death of her husband. We can have compassion for her having to put up with her sons jealousies, and ill temper during those years when he lived in Weimar. We can assume without difficulty that she was no more anxious to see him than he to see her during those 24 years after he left.
Although he could be quite charming on occasion, Schopenhauer was a fairly unpleasant person. It may be partly the personality which inhibited his works from having earlier impact. It was not until very late in his life that he began to be noticed. It is now clear, though, that he is one of the most important followers and developers of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. He later became one of the most important mentors in the development of a wide range of thinkers and artists. His work was a critical point in the thinking of Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher. He had profound impact on Richard Wagner, the composer. Thomas Mann, the Nobel Prize winning author, held his ideas in high regard. The psychologists, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung are clearly indebted to Schopenhauers thought. The leading historian, Jakob Burckhardt, held Schopenhauer in high esteem. Many philosophers since his times have agreed with much of the system Schopenhauer developed. One of the recent philosophers who is currently having much impact on modern thinkers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, patterned much of his method after Schopenhauer.