Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy, by Rüdiger Safranski

There was an old person of Buda,
Whose conduct grew ruder and ruder,
Till at last with a hammer,
They silenced his clamour,
By smashing that Person of Buda.

–Edmund Lear

Kant, Fichte, Schelling, the Romantics, Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx in his youth all made some noise in the early nineteenth centuries. Reality at last was becoming knowable and malleable. These were the “wild years of philosophy.” Schopenhauer’s great work, The World as Will and Representation (1814-18), took decades to be noticed, during which time the philosopher carried on in spite of the world.

The book is a biography of Schopenhauer with a great deal of summary of his and others’ philosophies mixed in, largely with success. There would not have been a philosopher Schopenhauer but for some circumstances. His father was a merchant in Hamburg, and wanted Arthur to follow in the family business. Arthur had studied literature and preferred it to trade. The father gave Arthur a choice in 1803, when he was fifteen: He could take a tour of several months to England, Holland, France, Austria, and Switzerland to see the world’s great architecture, paintings, and sculpture, and come home to start a life of business; or, he could skip the tour and live his own life that he chose. Arthur chose the tour, but then something intervened. The father died suddenly in 1805,  giving Arthur an inheritance and the opportunity and security to study.

With his mother, Johanna, he moved to Weimar, where he met Goethe. (The mother, who wrote several novels and was not bashful about promoting her work, deserves her own biography.) Young Arthur’s discussions with Goethe on the theory of colors got his own philosophy of sensation underway.

He never married, but had a keen appreciation of women. There were several affairs, but never a serious engagement. At forty-three, he proposed to a seventeen-year-old girl. The father was flabbergasted: “But she is only a child!” Schopenhauer’s philosophy frankly admits the sex drive as one of many expressions of the “Will,’ that chaotic urge behind all things.

He was appointed lecturer at Berlin University, where he scheduled his lectures at the same time as the celebrity Hegel, as if out of spite. No one came. No one came for fifteen years. It takes a certain self-confidence to carry on in such a fashion. Eventually, Schopenhauer took a new position at Frankfurt, but remained out of sight of all but a few. He declined to be relevant or to make philosophy serve the state, as tempted Fichte and Hegel.

There were two journeys to Italy. At the Café Greco in Rome, he “would sit and irritate people.” To a group of “Nazarene-German” artistic amateurs he praised the Olympic gods. His tablemates preferred the apostles, but Schopenhauer snorted, “Spare me your twelve philistines from Jerusalem!”

He wrote for three hours every morning and for consolation, played Rossini on the flute. The author says that Schopenhauer could play all of Rossini’s works, which is saying something. His greatest influence arguably is in aesthetics. It is in contemplation of the work of art that one overcomes the Wahn (madness, as Hans Sachs sings) of hither-and-yon activity. This attitude is all over Thomas Mann and James Joyce, to name two. Think of Stephen Dedalus explaining the artist to Lynch, “indifferent, paring his fingernails.”

There is only passing mention of Wagner in the book. Schopenhauer would be Wagner’s greatest philosophical influence. If one were to look for a “Schopenhauer for Dummies,” this would not be the book to read. Instead, take in the Tristan Prelude. Nietzsche called it the heartbeat of the Will.

Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld in the first production of Tristan und Isolde, Munich 1865

Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld in the first production of Tristan und Isolde, Munich 1865

 

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