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Arthur Schopenhauer was not an especially happy man in his middle and later years, and neither was he an especially happy or contented youth. In fact, from our modern-day perspective, he would probably be described as morose, erasable, and quarrelsome. He was never able to break into the academic world or hold a position of the kind he thought himself worthy. He lived most of his life on an inheritance. He loved the company of women, but his several marriage proposals were rejected and two children he probably fathered died in infancy. He achieved public acclaim (of sorts) only toward the end of his oft-troubled life.
Yet for all of this, his work had, as he himself predicted, a more powerful effect on future generations than on his own. (For example, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein are said to have been influenced by Schopenhauer.)
For those of us who trudged through his ponderous World as Will and Representation -- probably only if required reading in college -- Cartwright's meticulously studied and carefully articulated biography of the philosopher will explain a lot, and implies more, about the philosophical positions we hoped to winnow out of the challenging verbiage. In addition to copious details of Schopenhauer's own personal wanderings, Cartwright provides the social, political and everyday-life context of those days in Europe (especially the first half of the 19th century), and the effect of these tumultuous influences on the presumably inherited temperament of Schopenhauer himself.
Arthur's father was an upper middle-class Dutch businessman, and apparently intended for his only son to pursue that same career. The family's wide travels of Arthur's youth may have been, in part, designed to expose him to various cultures and languages. And the boy did in fact become fluent in English and French, the latter so much so that he mentioned that he had to relearn his native language after a lengthy stay in France. Yet he perhaps appreciated England above all other countries (though the time he spent at a school there were not altogether pleasant for him), and he regularly read English newspapers and followed English current events throughout his life.
When Arthur was 17, his unstable and rarely-satisfied father was found in a canal, his death likely due to suicide. As Cartwright portrays the father just prior to the incident, "he was inclined to loud outbursts and strange behavior. He would pace his room at night" (p. 88). The loss of his father, and the suspicions of suicide, troubled Arthur. (He would later write essays in defense of the right to suicide, even though this act was against the law in some countries and universally condemned by the Church.)
In contrast to her business-oriented husband, Arthur's mother had literary interests and was a successful author during her own productive years; after her husband's death, she achieved the respect as a writer that Arthur himself seemed never to be sure of for his own writings. It seems that Arthur secretly admired his mother's success even while voicing derision of her writing --along with her skills as a mother and wife -- to his friends.
Having completed his major work, World as Will and Representation, when still less than 30 years of age, Schopenhauer never deviated from the insights and positions he took up in that work; later editions were only expanded to permit clarifications, not revisions.
Cartwright's penetrating glimpses into Schopenhauer's personal life are sprinkled with significant connections to the philosopher's writings and philosophic positions, and although the book, as a biography, tends to focus on life events more than those works and positions, the substance of Schopenhauer's world view becomes increasingly clear throughout the book. (Chapter 10, "The Frankfort Philosopher," delves authoritatively into Schopenhauer's works.)
Today many would not find Schopenhauer's then-novel insights altogether unfamiliar -- the emphasis on self-consciousness in the "creation" of the world in which we find ourselves, the power of the instinct-like quality of experience that trumps a simple intellectual grasp of reality, the foundational duality of motivation to act, and the act itself. Cartwright's biography of the man shows that many of these ideas did not spring entirely new out of Schopenhauer's isolated creative genius but were seeded by his studious contemplation of Kant and others (even the Eastern mystical traditions). Yet much of Schopenhauer's work was creative genius and, significantly, conflicted in many respects with the religious views of his own Europe in those times. (Perhaps this helped set the stage for Nietzsche's arrival on the scene.)
Cartwright's biography is so comprehensive and so packed with facts, dates, details, conversations, transcribed or summarized letters, side-stories and the like, that it would be presumptuous for a reviewer (and non-philosopher) to single out any main thrust -- the whole stands most sturdily on its own and to emphasize one or several features would be to neglect the whole. Each reader will find his or her own "most interesting" details or ideas on which to reflect.
For me, Schopenhauer's almost incomprehensible contempt for Hegel, along with repeated and unsuccessful attempts to best the older philosopher, was strangely intriguing. Occasionally Schopenhauer sought out -- generally without success -- an academic career. In an early attempt at one university, his arrogance (I think of it as such) caused him to insist on setting the day and time of the class he would teach to be the same as that of a class taught by Hegel. Although Hegel, being on the approval committee, could have swatted away this upstart's demand, he courteously consented to the schedule. Even so, Schopenhauer's class was a flop -- his course attracted only a few students while Hegel's concurrently run course was packed. No doubt Schopenhauer irrationally blamed Hegel for this, rather than the fact that he, a relative unknown, had chosen to compete with a widely-respected, well-established professor.
Among the numerous instances of Hegel's personal life that I found fascinating are included his several-decades long outrage over a lost lawsuit with a woman; he may have pushed her to the ground (in 1821) after group of loudly-chatting women refused to vacate the area around his apartment door. In any case, she was awarded damages for life, and Schopenhauer was obliged to pay. Upon her death (in 1842) his satisfaction turned poetic: he scrawled the anagram "Obit anus, abit onus" on a copy of the woman's death certificate. ("The old woman dies, the burden flies.")
At 548 pages of text -- not including the preface and a lengthy index -- this biography is not light reading, yet it is satisfying and, in some senses, enlightening: To feel the real-life roots of an abstract philosophic system makes the foliage seem less dense. Considering his own ideas about the inseparability of experience from philosophical understanding, Schopenhauer himself would no doubt be very pleased.
© 2010 Keith Harris
Keith Harris, Ph.D., is Chief of Research for the Department of Behavioral Health in San Bernardino County, California. His current interests include the empirical basis for mental health research, behavioral genetics, and the shaping of human nature by evolutionary forces.