Arthur Schopenhauer: “The Great Pessimist” With a Sense of Humor

Eloquence, pessimism, plus a bad mood... These are the hallmarks of Arthur Schopenhauer, an outstanding German philosopher, misanthrope, inveterate bachelor, and one of the most famous thinkers of irrationalism.

Feb 14, 2023By Viktoriya Sus, MA Philosophy

arthur schopenhauer the great pessimist


Arthur Schopenhauer is known as one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived. Unfortunately, during the life of the “great pessimist”, his work attracted relatively little attention.


Today, Schopenhauer is one of the most famous pessimists of all time. His philosophy is based on the idea that life is essentially suffering and everything we do is in vain. While this viewpoint may seem depressing, Arthur Schopenhauer’s pessimism can also be seen as a source of strength. In this article, we will explore Schopenhauer’s pessimism and discuss the benefits of his philosophical outlook.


The Life Path of the Great Pessimist, Arthur Schopenhauer

Portrait photograph of Arthur Schopenhauer by Johann Schäfer, 1859, via WikiMedia.


Arthur Schopenhauer was born in 1788 in Danzig (now Gdańsk) in the family of a wealthy businessman. Schopenhauer’s father was a disciplined pedant, a highly educated man, and a great connoisseur of culture. His mother was a cheerful, art-loving, and talented poet and writer. Her salon was always full of interesting people, and even the great Goethe liked to go there.


At the age of 15, Arthur Schopenhauer entered a private commercial gymnasium. He then began his studies at the medical faculty of the University of Göttingen but later switched to philosophy. After graduation, he taught philosophy in Berlin and in Frankfurt am Main.

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Schopenhauer was fluent in Latin, English, French, Italian, and Spanish. His main philosophical work is The World as Will and Representation. The philosopher commented on it until his death. Arthur Schopenhauer died on September 21, 1860, in Frankfurt am Main.


Schopenhauer’s Philosophical Views 

Beginning of English translation of Arthur Schopenhauer’s dissertation, 1903, via WikiMedia


Schopenhauer’s philosophical works dealt with a variety of topics. Still, in general, they showed pessimism and a consistent focus on the reality of human pain and suffering.


In his dissertation, The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, published in 1813, Arthur Schopenhauer examined the assumption about the knowability of the universe and criticized the law of sufficient reason.


Schopenhauer argued that to use the law of sufficient reason, a person must first think about what needs to be explained; hence a subject is needed. Thus, a perceiving consciousness is the only thing that makes experience possible. Therefore, according to Arthur Schopenhauer, the world is nothing more than a representation.


Pessimism in Schopenhauer’s Philosophy

Veracruz, Donald Sultan, 1986, via Sheldon Art Museum


Pessimism has a long history. Some of its ideas have been slipping into philosophy since antiquity when scientists thought about the role of knowledge and the meaning of our life. Likewise, many thinkers and poets saw their contemporary era as the worst, an age of decline and degeneration.


Arthur Schopenhauer presented the first non-classical philosophical project of pessimism. His most significant work is The World as Will and Representation. In this piece, Schopenhauer defines the main tenet of his philosophical concept.


“The world is my idea” – this is the truth that is valid for every living and knowing being. While asserting with Kant that the world is “my idea,” he does not deny the world’s reality. But Schopenhauer distinguishes between the world in itself, independent of feelings and reason, and the world as he sees and cognizes it, that is the phenomenal world.


In other words, there can be only one truth, only one world, and only such as we imagine it to be. Things do not exist without us, and people who perceive these things do not exist without our idea of them. We cannot see things in themselves but only through our representation.


Arthur Schopenhauer and the Philosophy of Will

The Blind Man’s Meal, Pablo Picasso, 1903, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Perhaps Schopenhauer’s most significant work deals with the topic of personal motivation. The philosopher was critical of optimism in the theories of Kant and Hegel, according to which human morality is determined by society and reason. He argued that a person’s motivation is their own desires, or “will-to-live,” which can never be satisfied. It is the driving force of humanity. According to Schopenhauer, the root of all suffering lies in human desires, and suffering itself is a consequence of the fact that a person constantly wants more.


Following this logic, one can conclude that the only way to get rid of suffering, destroy the will, and stop the ongoing malice, selfishness, and self-interest is suicide. But the author does not call for suicide. He convincingly proves that by committing suicide, we do not eliminate the will’s actions. We do not destroy it since it is indestructible. The will only “falls asleep” to wake up and act with renewed vigor.


Schopenhauer concluded that human desire (and therefore actions) has no direction or logic; it is futile. The philosopher argued that the world is not just a terrible place (where cruelty, illness, and suffering reign) but also the worst possible world. It would simply cease to exist if it were even a little worse.


How to Conquer the Will?

The Accommodations of Desire, Salvador Dali, 1929, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Schopenhauer believed that to “conquer” the will, it is necessary to rise above it. However, the philosopher offers a rather unusual way of doing this – through art. Indeed, in the aesthetic experience, we get rid of desires. We forget whether this or that object is harmful or useful. We forget ourselves and our sufferings, and we are free from self-interest. Both the creators of art and their consumers are freed from the dictates of worldly needs, the hardships of life, and selfishness.


According to Schopenhauer, aesthetics separates the intellect from the will and is not connected with the body. He considered art either an action predetermined in the artist’s mind before they create something or spontaneous action. At the same time, the body is nothing more than a posteriori knowledge of the will.


Suppose the will that guides people is based on desire. In that case, art temporarily allows a person to hide from the pain of the real world: aesthetic contemplation makes it possible not to perceive the world as a mere representation. Thus art transcends the boundaries of reason.


Schopenhauer called music the purest form of art: in his opinion, it is capable of putting the will into practice. But, unfortunately, happy moments of aesthetic contemplation are extremely short-lived, and only some people are equally capable not only of creating masterpieces of art but also of their perception.


The next stage of liberation after art is necessary – moral self-improvement. It includes asceticism, submissive acceptance of torment, altruism towards other people, disinterested help to any other people’s grief, and the abolition of one’s own egoism. As a result of this practice, a person can achieve holiness.


Our Salvation Is in the Ability to Sympathize

The Miseries of Idleness, George Morland, before 1790, via National Galleries of Scotland


According to Schopenhauer, life is like a pendulum swinging between suffering and idleness. The philosopher saw one of the ways to escape from pain in the ability to sympathize with others, not only people but also plants and animals. According to Schopenhauer, compassion for animals is closely related to kindness of character. One who is cruel to animals cannot be a kind person.


Schopenhauer began speaking out against scientific experiments on animals while still a student. During his studies, he went nearly everywhere accompanied by a charming poodle. His last dog (also a poodle) was named Butz. Schopenhauer loved her so much that he bequeathed a rather large sum of money for her maintenance.


Schopenhauer was convinced that only compassion could overcome egoism, which is precisely the basis of any ethics. And in this sense, his philosophy of life is close to Buddhism. He was even often called the “Frankfurt Buddha.”


The Optimism Trap

New Dreams of Happiness (from the series A Love), Max Klinger, 1887-1903, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Schopenhauer often contradicted himself. He preached asceticism and vegetarianism. Still, sometimes he allowed himself some meat and was very fond of wine. But what Schopenhauer absolutely did not deny himself was traveling around different countries and enjoying art. He simply adored painting and music.


He singled out beauty as the central category of aesthetics. The philosopher idolized beauty and believed that it allowed getting rid of the “tyranny” of the will.


The contemplation of art suspends the action of the will, consoles us, and takes us away from reality. It reflects the essence of things and helps to separate us from our will. However, art helps to curb one’s will only for a while. This is the basic concept of pessimism.


But people tend to choose the optimistic side, and it’s quite obvious why. Optimism is more attractive and simpler, and provides hope for happiness, which most people strive to find all their life. But, unfortunately, this is where the main trap of optimism lies.


Sooner or later, a person will realize that their expectations were in vain and complete disappointment will come. Such pessimism may reflect the reality of life, but since many, of course, do not like it, they stigmatize it as dull and continue to enjoy life. In fact, they deceive themselves. But even the most cheerful person cannot escape life’s suffering.


The Relevance of Arthur Schopenhauer’s Philosophy Today

Pessimism illustration, Alicia Tatone, 2018, via


Arthur Schopenhauer was the last German philosopher who attempted to create a comprehensive system capable of solving the fundamental problems of being, unraveling its mystery. The thinker, who was disliked not only by his contemporaries but also by his descendants, who accused him of many sins, left to humanity a beautiful analytical system in the form of a voluminous treatise.


Schopenhauer’s work’s distinctive features are the versatility of his ideas. He started his philosophy with specific views on the general problems of being and concluded with ethics and aesthetics, paying great attention to the problems of personality, morality, and the mechanisms of civil society.


Schopenhauer believed that all the troubles and misfortunes of a person stem from the will, from desires. People suffer either from the fact that their desires are not fulfilled or from boredom when desires are satisfied. Hence the pessimism: a person should know that only suffering awaits them in life. Otherwise, if people are conditioned to believe that they are born to be happy, they will feel deceived.


In the modern world, the theory of pessimism is as relevant as always. According to Schopenhauer, it is in vain to look for pleasures and happiness that are not realizable. In our age of consumption, a person can neither satisfy all desires nor refuse them; therefore, people are forced to suffer.

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By Viktoriya SusMA PhilosophyViktoriya is a writer from L’viv, Ukraine. She has knowledge about the main thinkers. In her free time, she loves to read books on philosophy and analyze whether ancient philosophical thought is relevant today. Besides writing, she loves traveling, learning new languages, and visiting museums.