Great Ideas Collection: Arthur Schopenhauer

In the second of our series exploring the books of Penguin’s Great Ideas Collection, Sophie Kingham reviews various essays of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer …

It’s easy to see why Arthur Schopenhauer is described as the ultimate pessimist in this collection of essays and aphorisms, especially when the opening line of first essay On the Suffering of the World is “If the immediate and direct purpose of our life is not suffering then our existence is the most ill-adapted to its purpose in the world.”

According to Schopenhauer “misfortune in general is the rule”. He must have been through some truly difficult trauma to speak in such a way; only someone who has suffered could make such statements so authoritatively, to describe how “all that is unpleasant and painful, impresses itself upon us instantly, directly and with great clarity”.

In the second essay of the book, On the Vanity of Existence, Schopenhauer continues his persistent pessimism questioning the point of anything, stating life is pointless and hard work: “Life presents itself first and foremost as a task”, “every evening we are poorer by a day”, life “cannot be worth any serious effort.” Essentially, he is saying everything we do is done in vain and not worth it.

Our somewhat vain existence meets death in On the Indestructability of Our Essential Being by Death. Here Schopenhauer ponders our existence after death, declaring “after your death you will be what you were before your birth”. Many people believe in some kind of existence after their body discontinues functioning, and Schopenhauer comments,

We all feel that we are something other than a being which someone once created out of nothing: from this arises the confidence that while death may be able to end our life, it cannot end our existence.

This could possibly raise questions of faith – is there a heaven or a hell? Reincarnation? Or nothing? However, in today’s modern society where religion is not as important as it used to be, readers may instead readily agree with Schopenhauer’s view that after death there is nothing.

But however dark and pessimistic Schopenhauer’s tone may be, his writing is also surprisingly life affirming in places. On the Vanity of Existence seems like a very convoluted way of saying the present is all that matters, “our existence has no foundation on which to rest except the transient present.”  In On the Antithesis of Thing in Itself and Appearance, he also states:

Not only is our life short, our knowledge is limited entirely to it, since we can see neither back before our birth nor out beyond our death, so that our consciousness is as it were a lightning-flash momentarily illuminating the night.

We can know nothing but our own existence – which is short and brief- so we must cease worrying of the past or future and enjoy the here and now.

Other essays and aphorisms in this book include On Affirmation and Denial of the Will to Live, On Suicide, On Thinking for Yourself, On Women, On Philosophy and the Intellect, and On Books and Writing. The titles explain themselves and all make interesting reads – if sometimes they are a little extensive.

Indeed, each is full of complex, in-depth wording which may require re-reading if unused to the work of Schopenhauer. It is rather ironic therefore that in On Books and Writing he describes “those who put together difficult, obscure, involved, ambiguous discourses do not really know what they want to say”. Nonetheless, once you do get your head round the complex sentences and understand what Schopenhauer is trying to say, his essays and aphorisms make for intriguing reading and a true boost of mental stimulation.

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