The intellectual legacy of philosophy’s greatest pessimist: life is suffering, art is supreme
‘Life,’ Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in a typical mood in 1818, ‘is deeply steeped in suffering, and cannot escape from it; our entrance into it takes place amid tears, at bottom its course is always tragic, and its end is even more so.’ He is popularly known as the world’s greatest downer: whenever you think you might’ve found a smidgen of happiness, there’s Schopenhauer to prove it’s nothing more than a moment’s relief in the permanent misery of human existence. The problem is that he’s such a good writer you’re liable to start agreeing with him: happiness is just a temporary stay on the constant want of satisfaction after all! He is philosophy’s pessimist par excellence – but he is also one of the greatest thinkers to have ever lived.
Born just before the French Revolution and dying in mild obscurity at age 72, Schopenhauer’s posthumous influence is unrivalled – perhaps an ironic fate for one who thought that the future is nothing but the anticipation of suffering. His most famous disciple is Friedrich Nietzsche, but others who owe him a serious debt of gratitude amount to a list of intellectual summits: Richard Wagner, particularly for Tristan und Isolde; Ludwig Wittgenstein, who claimed Schopenhauer was the one philosopher he studied before upending the philosophical world with his Tractatus; Sigmund Freud, who was an absolutely miserable jerk for not giving Schopenhauer more credit for his explorations of the unconscious; and many others, such as Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges and Jacob Burckhardt. But beyond Schopenhauer’s relentless pessimism, what did he actually believe?
In 1987 Bryan Magee, a philosopher, MP and radio broadcaster, presented The Great Philosophers on the BBC. The idea was simple: invite an eminent thinker to sit on the couch and talk casually about the beliefs of some important historical philosophers. In the episode presented here, Magee is joined by Fr. Frederick Copleston to discuss the foundational ideas of Schopenhauer’s system of thought. As Magee is keen to announce at the beginning of the programme, he himself is the most respected expounder of Schopenhauer’s philosophy in the Anglophone world – nevertheless, Copleston, a brilliant historian of philosophy, is the perfect match for their discussion. Over the next 44 minutes, relax as two aggressively English philosophers explain Schopenhauer’s metaphysics and ethics, his search for the limits of thought, and even how he anticipated modern day physics by, in Magee’s words, the mere ‘reasoning out of it’.