Schopenhauer’s Will to Life (Wille Zum Leben)

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“Life has no intrinsic worth, but is kept in motion merely by desire and illusion.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

The German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, had a unique philosophy that – though may be adaptable to other philosopher’s points of views – stands out in execution and solution.

This distinction appears when Schopenhauer discusses the human will to life. Many philosophers, such as Aristotle and Plato, taught that people had a will to live through society and, subsequently, offered ideas of moral behavior. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, believed no matter what society placed before us, our will to live was purely one of nature’s [1].

Schopenhauer’s views on marriage are a fine example and one we will look into further throughout this article.

To briefly put it, society leads us to believe there’s a necessity to marriage that goes beyond the natural world. Whether it be for something as emotional as family life or as economical as a tax break, society puts us in a position where marriage becomes ideal.

Yet, Schopenhauer plainly believes the only reason humans even fall in love is due to the necessity of reproduction [2].

Of course, many modern ideas go against these beliefs. For example, people of the same sex who fall in love don’t abide by Schopenhauer’s teachings by any means. For their love is something beyond that of reproduction.

Throughout this article, we’re going to explore Schopenhauer’s ideas on the will to life. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.

The Pessimism of Schopenhauer

“There is only one inborn error, and that is the notion that we exist in order to be happy… So long as we persist in this inborn error… the world will seem to us full of contradictions. For at every step, in great things and small, we are bound to the experience that the world and life are certainly not arranged for the purpose of being happy. That’s why the faces of almost all elderly people are deeply etched with such disappointment.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

Before we dive too deep into his philosophy, it’s important to understand Schopenhauer’s pessimism. To sum it up nicely, Schopenhauer believed life was innately bad. Though good moments come within our lives, they are so brief in comparison to the amount we suffer.

Take Christmas time during your childhood as an example. Prior to that morning where you run down the stairs to find all your gifts, you spend months anticipating the moment. Months spent writing lists to Santa Claus, coveting over all the toys you asked for, mesmerizing about that very morning.

Yet, when it comes, it’s so brief a moment, you come to lose all the passion you had for it within a few days.

The Cycle of Struggle

This same concept applies very well to adult life too. Many of us work hard to gain specific rewards. Whether it is a college degree or enough money to put a downpayment on a house, we’re always struggling for more. And the moment we have that more, it loses the value it had before it was in our possession.

The fun is over. And it’s onward to the next struggle.

But maybe we’re not struggling. For some, our goals may be handed over to us. Or maybe it’s a lazy Sunday and we’re taking a break from the struggle.

In this case, we are simply bored. As Schopenhauer saw it, boredom is all the same as intense clinical depression [3].

According to the philosopher, unless you’re experiencing one of those brief moments of happiness, you’re either struggling or bored. And this is the vicious cycle of our lives – struggle, brief happiness, boredom.

So, if this is the case, then how does Schopenhauer reflect on larger feelings associated with happiness. Feelings such as love?

Metaphysics of Love

To put it simply, Schopenhauer believed love is nothing more than a reaction to satisfy our instinct for sex. And the only reason we want sex is purely for the sake of procreating.

The idea that sex is nothing more than a human’s necessity to reproduce is something also recognized by top scientists, including Charles Darwin [4]. Both the philosopher and scientist agree that male and female have specific roles and seek out specific traits in a partner purely for producing the right offspring.

A woman may think she wants a muscular man purely out of attraction, but in accordance with Schopenhauer, she’s seeking a man who can offer her children the best physical genes. Likewise, a man may seek out an intelligent woman as he believes it will bring him a better life, but at the end of the day, he merely wants his child to have better brains than himself.

In modern society, ideas as such may appear to be trivial. But if Schopenhauer is right in the sense that we all live in accordance with natural law, then he’s also on the dot with these points.

Within his essay The Metaphysics of Love, these points are discussed. However, another set of points are also discussed which bring light to the human condition within society.

Is Marriage Just Another Struggle?

“In our monogamous part of the world, to marry means to halve one’s rights and double one’s duties.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer held a strong conviction that getting married is one of the worst decisions a person can make [5]. Though his explanation for this is rather lacking. Almost as though he needed a quick excuse.

He believes that people are dumb, selfish, and – for the most part – only out to harm you. In turn, you can’t trust anyone you come across, including your husband or wife. As the philosopher saw it, the result of marriage is often getting hurt in the long-run.

Still, even Schopenhauer was aware it remained impossible to avoid people. So, how did he go about handling them?

Well, there are two ways:

  1. Accept that nobody is perfect.
  2. It’s impossible to have a completely satisfying relationship.

Some examples of these ideals within his works include:

  • Friendship tends to be primarily for self-interest and true friendships are very rare, to the point where they may not exist at all.
  • People only have an interest in themselves. Therefore, it’s easy to influence their opinions and perspectives.
  • Trust is purely made out of laziness for one’s own efforts.
  • An extraordinary person isn’t able to tolerate an ordinary person.

Pretty intense stuff and possibly an unhealthy attitude towards life. But how does this all relate back to one’s will for life?

Discovering Happiness for Ourselves

Even if happiness is only momentary, Schopenhauer did believe it was possible for more of these moments to appear. The catch is, one can only make this appear for him/herself.

For example, Schopenhauer was keen to the fact that people in good physical health generally were happier people overall. In turn, he made this his first and most important factor contributing to happiness [6].

With better mental health, people don’t suffer from boredom nearly as much. Furthermore, they’re more likely to have the motivation necessary for passions. If we can ascribe to these ideals, we should do so – according to Schopenhauer – purely in the name of ourselves.

To top it off, the philosopher found people shouldn’t be concerned about money or other possessions. That placing happiness on these was very subjective. Yes, he granted having enough money to live was important, but any more wasn’t necessary.

Instead, we should focus our sights on both our physical health and our desire for knowledge.

How Did These Ideals Reflect in Schopenhauer?

This is where things seem to take a turn. Whether you agree with Schopenhauer or not, there’s no denying his life wasn’t necessarily ideal. And this says a lot considering he wanted to teach us a lot about the subject.

Early in his youth, Schopenhauer’s father, Heinrich, gave him a decision to either attend university or continue in his path as a merchant. Schopenhauer chose the latter and immediately regretted it. For he found the teachings to be too tedious, his father’s pressure to be overwhelming, and his mental stability slowly diminishing [7].

It was around this time when he began developing his pessimistic views towards life.

When his father died, he traveled around Weimar with his mother with the purpose of being surrounded by artists of various sorts. However, Schopenhauer grew extremely tired of his mother and even wrote in one letter to her:

“You are unbearable and burdensome, and very hard to live with; all your good qualities are overshadowed by your conceit, and made useless to the world simply because you cannot restrain your propensity to pick holes in other people.” [8]

Considering the negative attitude Schopenhauer has towards women, it’s believed by scholars he received this out ill feelings towards his mother.

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A Legacy in the Making

After attending college, participating in literary parties, and having multiple affairs, Schopenhauer quickly left the University of Berlin in fear of the city being attacked in the war against France. It was during this time that Napoleon was ruling the French and Schopenhauer couldn’t bear joining military services for Prussia.

While roaming around for a period time between small downs and through the Thuringian forest, he wrote his dissertation, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason.

Since his mother was a successfully published author at the time, Schopenhauer gave her the manuscript and asked her to get it published. She didn’t agree with his writing and didn’t think it’d go anywhere.

However, though the publishing company also didn’t think the manuscript was worth anything, they claim they “…wanted to please one of our best-selling authors by publishing her son’s work. We published more and more of her son Authur’s work and today nobody remembers Johanna [his mother], but her son’s work are in steady demand and contribute to Brockhaus'[s] reputation.” [9]

Pessimistic, but Content with the End

After traveling around Europe and even running into a detrimental lawsuit, Schopenhauer moved to Frankfurt where he claims he saw apparitions of his dead mother and father. In turn, he became highly interested in the supernatural and began to study it.

This is where Schopenhauer’s mind began to slowly melt. He remained in Frankfurt for the rest of his life, besides a few short journeys, and purchased a puddle who was referred to by neighborhood children as Mrs. Schopenhauer.

With the help of Julius Frauenstädt, Schopenhauer’s work finally began to garner a following. It was during this time that he began publishing more works, many of which are attached to the philosophy we know today.

Though critics were harsh on him, he continued to publish work all the way up until his death. The last friend to see him was Willhelm Gwinner who said Schopenhauer was content with dying but scared he wouldn’t be able to complete his project Parerga and Paralipomena.

What Can We Learn From Schopenhauer?

Yes, Schopenhauer is very pessimistic. Yes, he held a negative view on life which may not entirely coordinate with modern day beliefs.

Yet, Schopenhauer had a distinct characteristic to his writing which gave him the reputability he continues to hold. Though controversial, the philosopher brings to light the struggles we all face on a day to day basis. He understands we all feel as though we aren’t happy enough for this world and that other people are succeeding in this regard.

And, most importantly, he wants us to take a step back and realize that no matter who we are nor what we do, we’re all in this struggle together. We’re all trying to achieve happiness – especially those who seem happiest.

Your Questions

Have further questions or concerns pertaining to Schopenhauer’s philosophy?

We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If we don’t have a proper answer, we’ll direct you to a person or source who does.

If you have further knowledge on the topic, we’d also love to hear from you. We try to reply to each comment in a prompt and personal manner.

Reference Sources:

[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Arthur Schopenhauer

[2] Essays of Schopenhauer: Metaphysics of Love.

[3] Essays of Schopenhauer: The Emptiness of Existence.

[4] Mizzou Weekly: Darwin’s sexual selection theory best explanation for gender differences

[5] Hitschmann, E. (1989/1913). Schopenhauer: Proeve van een psychoanalyse van de filosoof. Amsterdam: Uitgave in de reeks Psychoanalytische Cahiers.

[6] Schopenhauer, A. (1995/1890). The wisdom of life and counsels and maxims (translated by T. Bailey Saunders). New York: Prometheus Books.

[7] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860)

[8] Wallace, W. (2003). Life of Arthur Schopenhauer. Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific. p. 59. ISBN 978-1410206411.

[9]  Fredriksson, Einar H. (2001), “The Dutch Publishing Scene: Elsevier and North-Holland”, A Century of Science Publishing: A Collection of Essays, Amsterdam: IOS Press, pp. 61–76, ISBN 978-4-274-90424-0

Featured Artist: Pat Perry (official website)

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