Book Summaries

Schopenhauer (A History of Western Philosophy)

Schopenhauer is peculiar among philosophers because he is a pessimist while almost all of the rest are optimists. He is not fully academic like Kant or Hegel, but not wholly outside the academic tradition. He prefers the religions of India, Hinduism and Buddhism, while he dislikes Christianity. He is free from nationalism and his appeal has been more to artists and literary people rather than professional philosophers.

The Doctrine of the Will

One of his notable contributions was his emphasis of the Will. For him, the Will is metaphysically fundamental but ethically evil.

He was anti-democratic, he believed in spiritualism and magic. He tried to imitate Kant in his manner of life except when it comes to rising early. His main work The World as Will and Idea was published at the end of 1818. He thought it was very important and claimed that some of its paragraphs were dictated to him by the Holy Ghost.

To his horror, it fell flat. He wrote a second edition, but only years later did he receive any recognition.

His system is an adaptation of Kant’s, but he emphasizes different aspects of the Critique from those emphasized by Fichte or Hegel. They got rid of thing and thus made knowledge metaphysically fundamental. Schopenhauer retained thething-in-itself, but identified it with will.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

Schopenhaeur thought that what appears to perception as your body is really your will. Kant thought that the study of moral law can teach us about phenomena and give us knowledge which the senses cannot give. Kant also held that the moral law is essentially concerned with the will. The difference between a good man and a bad man is a difference in the world of things-in-themselves and is also a difference of volitions. It follows that volitions belong to the real world, not the world of phenomena.

The phenomenon corresponding to a volition is a bodily movement; that is why, according to Schopenhauer, the body is the appearance of which will is the reality.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

But the will, according to both Kant and Schopenhauer, is real in the sense that it cannot be composed of separate acts of will, because it is space and time that are the source of plurality. But this will is one and timeless, and should be identified with the will of the whole universe. Your separateness is an illusion which comes from your subjective perception. What is real is one vast will, controlling all of nature, both animate and inanimate.

And this cosmic will, is not God, as one would expect him to say, but is wicked. It is the source of all endless suffering, and suffering is essential to life, and is increased with every increase of knowledge.

Will has no fixed end which would eventually bring contentment.

Although death must conquer in the end, we pursue our futile purposes, ‘as we blow out a soap-bubble as long and as large as possible, although we know perfectly well that it will burst’.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

Happiness does not exist, because a unrealized wish brings pain and attainment only brings temporary satiety. Instinct pushes man to procreate, which brings into being a new opportunity for suffering and death – this is why shame is associated with sex. Suicide is pointless.

This is all very sad but there is a way out.


The best of myths is that of Nirvana (which he sees as extinction). This is contrary to Christian doctrine. The intensity of will is the cause of suffering. The less will you exercise, the less you suffer. It turns out knowledge does have a use, only if it is this kind of knowledge.

There is no real difference between one man and another, it is only apparent. The good man can see through Maya (the illusion). He sees all things are one and that the difference between himself and others is only apparent. This insight is reached by love, which is sympathy for the pain of others. When the veil of Maya Is lifted, a man takes on the world’s suffering. The good man has knowledge of the whole, and his volition is quieted. His will turns away from life and denies his own

The good man will practice voluntary poverty, chastity, fasting, and self-torture. He will aim at breaking down his individual will, but he does not do this to achieve harmony with God – there is no such positive good. The good that is sought is completely negative.

‘We must banish the dark impression of that nothingness which we discern behind all virtue and holiness as their final goal, and which we fear as children fear the dark; we must not even evade it like the Indians, through myths and meaningless words, such as reabsorption in Brahma or the Nirvana of the Buddhists. Rather do we freely acknowledge that what remains after the entire abolition of will is for all those who are still full of will certainly nothing; but, conversely, to those in whom the will has turned and has denied itself, this our world, which is so real, with all its suns and milky ways—is nothing.’

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

Russel notes that there is a hint that the saint sees something positive that other men do not see, but there is no hint of what this is. According to Schopenhauer, the world and its phenomena is a representation of will. Without will, there is no idea, no world, only nothingness.


The saint’s purpose is approach as much as possible non-existence, which for an unknown reason, he cannot achieve by suicide. And it is not clear why the saint is preferred to the drunk.

But Schopenhauer’s gospel of resignation is not very sincere or consistent. The idea that a saint ay achieve a life of value contrasts with his pessimism. And in his personal life, he dined well at a good restaurant and had many trivial love affairs. He was very quarrelsome and greedy.

The two important things about Schopenhauer was his pessimism and his doctrine that will is superior to knowledge. His pessimism made it possible for men to take to philosophy without having to persuade themselves that all evil can be explained away, and in this way, as an antidote, it was useful.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

From a scientific perspective, there is no reason to be optimistic or pessimistic. The universe does not care about us either way. The belief in either pessimism or optimism is a personal bias, not one borne out of reason. But Western philosophers have usually been optimistic.

A representative of the opposite party is therefore likely to be useful in bringing forward considerations which would otherwise be overlooked.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

More important than pessimism was the doctrine of the will, which has no logical connection with pessimism. Others found in it a basis for optimism, such as Nietzsche, James, Dewey, and Bergson.

And in proportion as will has gone up in the scale, knowledge has gone down. This is, I think, the most notable change that has come over the temper of philosophy in our age. It was prepared by Rousseau and Kant, but was first proclaimed in its purity by Schopenhauer. For this reason, in spite of inconsistency and a certain shallowness, his philosophy has considerable importance as a stage in historical development.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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