200 years of “The World as Will and Representation”

The first copies of Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung) started rolling off the presses in the winter of 1818/1819, when its author was only 30 years old. The book went largely unsold and unreviewed at the time, and indeed, the bicentenary of its publication has passed with very little comment as well. A quick Internet search on “Schopenhauer 200” turns up only “Arthur Schopenhauer and psychiatry 200 years after the publication of The World as Will and Representation (Idea),” an academic paper by Venezuelan researcher Trino Baptista. Apart from that, there’s been almost no recognition of the anniversary.

This response would most likely not have surprised Schopenhauer, but it remains curious. The book’s influence on philosophy, culture and art over the past few centuries has been phenomenal. As Baptista notes, Schopenhauer’s work inspired the major advances in the field of psychology that led to Freud and his followers (whatever you think of them, their impact on culture has been immeasurable), but more, he has been a major acknowledged influence on artists from Richard Wagner to Samuel Beckett, not to mention Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Mann, Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust, Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas Bernhard, Ludwig Wittgenstein and a host of other figures who shaped the art and the thinking of the recently past twentieth century. (And, perhaps, the science too; Don Howard’s 1997 paper “A Peek Behind the Veil of Maya” considers the extent of Schopenhauer’s influence on the work and worldview of Albert Einstein.)

One clue to the lack of 21st-century attention to Schopenhauer lies in Bryan Magee’s The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy, published in 2000 and still one of the best introductions not only to Wagner but to Schopenhauer as well. In surveying German philosophy in the years after Kant, Magee pays specific attention to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Schopenhauer’s contemporary and rival and an early influence on Wagner’s operas up to Siegfried. Hegel’s thought has had as much influence on the politics of 19th- and 20th-century Europe as Schopenhauer’s has had on the arts, and it has had just as lasting — if more dire — consequences.

In opposition to Schopenhauer’s pessimistic metaphysics, one of Hegel’s primary contributions to philosophy was a revised conception of dialectics: that given any thesis, an antithesis would emerge, and in the conflict between the two a new synthesis is created, which is itself a new thesis. And so on and so on, human activity making its slow incremental way to a more ideal world. In other times, this may have only resulted in a pitched battle in the academy, safely ignorable. But the increasing industrialization of Europe led to the appearance of a group of Young Hegelians, who following Hegel’s death married his philosophy to materialism and a radical politics, eventually resulting in the Revolutions of 1848. That same year, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels enshrined the Young Hegelian worldview in The Communist Manifesto with the sentence “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” — a sentence which launched a thousand revolutions over the following century and a half.

Like the Revolutions of 1848, most of those revolutions failed as well. But the marriage of philosophical materialism and dialectics stuck as the metaphysics of the Schopenhauerian variety declined in popularity. What’s more, unlike Hegel and the Marxists, Schopenhauer dismissed any kind of political activity as a solution to the genuine issues and problems of human experience. Obviously this kind of perspective does not feed into either envy or optimistic political struggle: resignation in the face of the phenomenal world is not an inspiring slogan, even if Schopenhauer’s philosophy served to explain political conflict, among other things. But it does inspire the philosophic inquirer to turn inward, and to art, rather than outward and to politics and science for ultimate explanations and redemption.

I give here even shorter shrift to complex philosophical arguments than Magee can in his book and so apologize for this Cliff’s-Notes summary. Until I became a father myself ten years ago, I spent many satisfying hours reading and studying Schopenhauer, but “resignation in the face of the phenomenal world” is not a particularly effective parenting technique either and so The World as Will and Representation fell by the wayside. The recent anniversary of its publication, though, is tempting me to go back to it. We’re both ten years older, and that can only suggest that I would read it differently now. What’s more, Schopenhauer may still have relevance to the new century as well.

Richard Wagner, Schopenhauer’s acolyte, continues to attract considerable attention, of course; it may be that Wagner’s achievement grows more astonishing with each passing year. Only recently, the conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton has made a significant addition to the bookshelf devoted to the Ring (following his earlier study of Tristan und Isolde), and even the actor and Orson Welles biographer Simon Callow recently got into the act. But of the several books that point the way to potentially useful 21st-century perspectives on Wagner and Schopenhauer, two are particularly attractive. In Wagner and the Erotic Impulse (2010), Laurence Dreyfus examines the sensual, gendered qualities of both Wagner’s aesthetics and his compositional practice (in which homosexuality, transvestism and transgender issues always played an implicit part) in a potentially liberating new avenue for contemplation (eroticism was central to Schopenhauer’s philosophy as well). Sophia Vasalou’s 2013 Schopenhauer and the Aesthetic Standpoint suggests that the best way to read The World as Will and Representation is not merely as a philosophical treatise but also — and perhaps primarily — as a work of art akin to the Ring cycle and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. ” … [To] understand Schopenhauer’s philosophical standpoint fully, we need to refer it to the terms of his own aesthetic theory, and more specifically to the vertiginous experience of the sublime which formed a staple of Romantic aesthetic sensibility,” she writes. The logical inconsistencies of Schopenhauer’s philosophy are notoriously obvious if we approach it from an analytic point-of-view. But if, instead, we approached The World as Will and Representation as we might approach King Lear or Tristan und Isolde, which themselves lack logical consistency, we may be closer to Schopenhauer’s intent and his value, even for this century.