September 1, 2001

1. Schopenhauer

The golden age of philosophy was the nineteenth century, and the best philosophers of the nineteenth century were Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. If I were to recommend one philosophical work to the average reader, it would be Schopenhauer’s essays and aphorisms. If you think that philosophy is dry or obscure, this book will change your mind. Schopenhauer’s style is always lucid, and he often gives one a deeper understanding of daily life. Schopenhauer’s essays and aphorisms contain the sort of wisdom that never grows old, and never becomes obsolete. For example, Schopenhauer speaks of, “that optical illusion of the mind from which everyone suffers, making life, at its beginning, seem of long duration; and at its end, when one looks back over the course of it, how short a time it seems!”1 Schopenhauer’s essays and aphorisms total about 800 pages; since some of them are of little interest, they should be read in an abridged version, such as the Penguin Classics version.

Schopenhauer displayed a certain disdain for his essays; he gave them the title Parerga and Paralipomena, which is Greek for Scraps and Leftovers. He treated his essays and aphorisms as minor works, less important than his two-volume work, The World As Will and Idea. The World As Will and Idea is as clear and readable as his essays are, but it deals with metaphysical abstractions rather than everyday reality. Though one need not read both volumes, it’s still a harder book to read than Schopenhauer’s essays. In The World As Will and Idea, Schopenhauer expresses his view that the world is hell, and that one should renounce life, not seek happiness. His pessimism is apparent in this aphorism: “No rose without a thorn. But many a thorn without a rose.”2

Schopenhauer is best known for his pessimism and his misogyny. These qualities have blinded many modern readers to the merits of his work. Those who are serious about philosophy will find The World As Will and Idea to be a work of the highest quality. Those who are interested in Schopenhauer’s life should read Helen Zimmern’s biography of Schopenhauer.

Schopenhauer wrote The World as Will and Idea when he was in his twenties; it was published in 1818, when Schopenhauer was thirty. It aroused no response from the public. For the next 35 years, Schopenhauer lived in obscurity in Frankfurt-am-Main, a bachelor, supporting himself with inherited money, confident of future fame. Schopenhauer’s favorite philosopher was Kant, who lived according to a fixed routine; Kant’s neighbors could set their clocks by his afternoon walk. Following Kant’s example, Schopenhauer lived according to a fixed routine: he rose every morning at seven, skipped breakfast, and wrote until noon. Then he quit work for the day, and practiced the flute for half-an-hour. He lunched at The English House, and always laid a gold coin on his table, promising to give it away if the English officers at nearby tables talked about anything except horses and women. After lunch, he read until four, then took a two-hour walk, regardless of the weather. At six, he went to the library and read newspapers. Then he went to a theater or a concert, had dinner, and went to bed.

In 1851, he published his essays, and said, “I am right glad to witness the birth of my last child, which completes my mission in this world. I really feel as if a load that I have borne since my twenty-fourth year had been lifted from my shoulders. No one can imagine what that means.”3 This book of essays brought him the fame that he had long sought; an English literary critic was impressed with Schopenhauer’s essays, and wrote a laudatory review of them, thereby starting a chain reaction that soon made Schopenhauer famous the world over.

Schopenhauer died in 1860, secure in the knowledge that his works would never die. In the 1890s, Schopenhauer’s fame was eclipsed by Nietzsche. Though he is still in Nietzsche’s shadow today, Schopenhauer will long be viewed by discerning readers as one of the deepest thinkers, and one of the best stylists, ever to put pen to paper.

Where does Schopenhauer fit in the history of philosophy? Schopenhauer was the enemy of Hegel, the student of Kant, and the teacher of Nietzsche. He despised Hegel; having seen Hegel in person, he said that he could tell by the shape of his head and the look in his eye that he wasn’t a genius. Meanwhile, Schopenhauer regarded Kant as a great thinker; Schopenhauer’s metaphysics picks up where Kant left off. Schopenhauer’s influence on Nietzsche was considerable. But Nietzsche disagreed with many of Schopenhauer’s views. Much of Nietzsche’s work was an attempt to justify life, and affirm life; Nietzsche was steadfastly opposed to Schopenhauer’s pessimism.

2. Nietzsche

Nietzsche was born in 1844. He was born into an upper-class family, and as a youngster, he attended Schulpforta, Germany’s most prestigious school. The first decisive event in his life occurred when he was four: his father died. This event must have had a profound impact on the young Nietzsche, and must have been an important factor in creating the instability that later developed into madness. Nietzsche exemplifies the idea that genius is akin to madness; as Plato said, genius is “divine madness.”

Nietzsche was an outstanding student, and when he was only 25, he became a professor of philology (ancient language and literature). At about the same time, he discovered the works of Schopenhauer, which made a deep impression on him. Nietzsche regarded himself not only as one of Schopenhauer’s readers, but as one of his “pupils and sons”4; Schopenhauer was a father figure for Nietzsche. To follow in Schopenhauer’s footsteps, to become a philosopher, became the goal of Nietzsche’s life.

When he was 24, Nietzsche met Richard Wagner, the creator of operas. At their first meeting, they discussed Schopenhauer, whom they both admired. Wagner was 31 years older than Nietzsche, and Wagner was an established figure, so it was natural for Wagner to become a father figure for Nietzsche. Nietzsche admired Wagner’s operas so much that he wanted to devote himself to explaining them to the world. Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, glorified Wagner’s operas by comparing them to Greek tragedy. Though Nietzsche eventually broke with Wagner, it was a peaceful break; Nietzsche looked back on his friendship with Wagner as the best experience of his life.

When Nietzsche was in his early thirties, he became seriously ill — so ill that he resigned his professorship, so ill that he seemed close to death. He withdrew into himself, and took stock of himself. It was time for Nietzsche to become Nietzsche. Now he must cease to be Wagner’s son or Schopenhauer’s son, now he must become his own man, now he must become a father figure in his own right. He parted ways with Wagner and Schopenhauer, and lit out on his own. His next two books — Human, All-Too-Human, and Dawn — are declarations of independence from Wagner and Schopenhauer.

Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche became happier, and more at peace with himself, as he grew older. In his next book, The Gay Science, Nietzsche wrote, “What is the seal of liberation? No longer being ashamed in front of oneself.”5 Nietzsche had finally liberated himself from inner obstacles. He accepted himself, he accepted his life, including sickness and death, and he accepted the world. Indeed, he went beyond acceptance to ecstatic affirmation. In his next book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche reached heights of inspiration rarely, if ever, reached in the history of literature.

One of the main themes of Nietzsche’s work is the critique of morality. Nietzsche argued that morality, as practiced by saints and preached by philosophers, is not as pure and holy as we think, and it’s not as healthy, not as beneficial to mankind as we think. According to Nietzsche, the saint, the “good man,” is driven by a variety of motives, including perhaps a lust for power, a hostility to other people, and a hostility to life itself; in short, the saint is driven by motives that are “human, all-too-human.”

Nietzsche’s view of morality is at odds with Schopenhauer’s view of morality. Schopenhauer rejected traditional religion and espoused atheism, but he was sympathetic to traditional morality. Nietzsche went further than Schopenhauer insofar as Nietzsche rejected traditional morality as well as traditional religion. While most moralists, including Schopenhauer, preached renunciation of life, Nietzsche affirmed life and espoused earthly values. Nietzsche deplored the old emphasis on the “other world”: “The concept of the ‘beyond’, the ‘true world’ invented in order to devaluate the only world there is — in order to retain no goal, no reason, no task for our earthly reality!”6

Nietzsche’s work is free from the Kantian verbiage that one finds in Schopenhauer, and free from the Hegelian verbiage that one finds in Kierkegaard. Nietzsche rejected the German philosophical tradition, the tradition of Kant and Hegel. Nietzsche emulated French philosophers like Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyére, etc. But while Nietzsche’s words are plain, his sentences are slightly precious and his thoughts are often strained. Thus, Nietzsche’s work, especially his early work, is difficult to read. His later work is strident, but more readable than his early work.

The most readable, concise and powerful book that Nietzsche wrote is his autobiographical work, Ecce Homo. I also recommend two of his late works, Twilight of the Idols and The Antichrist, and Part I of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Those interested in Nietzsche’s personality should read Conversations With Nietzsche (edited by Sander Gilman).

Nietzsche wrote a lot; though he preached brevity, he didn’t practice it. If his books were skillfully abridged, they would be incomparable. Nietzsche is unsurpassed in profundity and also in pathos.

If anyone doubts Nietzsche’s genius, they should consider three things:

  1. his gift for psychology; Freud said that Nietzsche’s “guesses and intuitions often agree in the most astonishing way with the laborious findings of psychoanalysis”7
  2. his style, his ability to express himself in German; Thomas Mann said that Nietzsche and Heine were the supreme masters of German prose
  3. his gift for prophecy; though he died in 1900, he foresaw many of the major events of the 20th century, such as the world wars, the rise of psychology (Freud), etc.

© L. James Hammond 2002
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1. Counsels and Maxims, 1 back
2. Essays and Aphorisms, “Aphorisms: On Various Subjects” back
3. Schopenhauer: His Life and Philosophy, by Helen Zimmern, ch. 10. Nietzsche was acquainted with Helen Zimmern, and had a high opinion of her. back
4. Nietzsche, Untimely Essays, “Schopenhauer as Educator” back
5. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, #275 back
6. Ecce Homo, “Why I Am A Destiny” back
7. Freud, An Autobiographical Study, 5 back