Summary of Schopenhauer’s Pessimism


Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) was a German philosopher known for his atheism and pessimism—in fact, he is the most prominent pessimist in the entire western philosophical tradition. Schopenhauer’s most influential work, The World As Will and Representation, examines the role of humanity’s main motivation, which Schopenhauer called will. This will is an aimless striving which can never be fully satisfied, hence life is essentially dissatisfaction. Moreover, consciousness makes the situation worse, as conscious beings experience pain when thinking about past regrets and future fears.

Schopenhauer believed that desires cause suffering and, consequently, he favored asceticism—a lifestyle of negating desires or a denying the will similar to the teachings of Buddhism and Vedanta. In its most extreme form, asceticism leads to a voluntarily chosen death by starvation, the only form of suicide that is immune to moral critique according to Schopenhauer.

I have summarized and commented on his nihilism and pessimism in these previous posts:

Summary of Arthur Schopenhauer’s, ‘On the Vanity of Existence’
Commentary on Schopenhauer’s ‘On the Vanity of Existence’
Summary of Arthur Schopenhauer’s, “’On the Sufferings of the World’
Commentary on Schopenhauer’s ‘On the Sufferings of the World’

The above posts describe the basics of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, which is the most sustained defense of pessimism and nihilism of which I’m aware. In the very briefest sense, Schopenhauer claims that:

(1) existence is a mistake;
(2) there is no meaning or purpose to existence;
(3) the best thing for humans is non-existence;
(4) life is essentially suffering and suffering is evil;
(5) this is the worst of all possible worlds.

Of course, Nietzsche argued that Schopenhauer’s view of the world says more about Schopenhauer than it does about the world. Moreover, Nietzsche wrote that Schopenhauer’s asceticism and denial of Will were self-defeating. For to will nothingness is still a willing. Schopenhauer was willing nothing, rather than not willing at all. Thus Nietzsche claimed that Schopenhauer advocates a kind of “romantic pessimism.” Schopenhauer desired or willed nothing so as to achieve tranquility and peace. In contrast, Nietzsche adopted a philosophy that said yes to life, fully cognizant of the fact that life is mostly miserable, evil, ugly, and absurd.
Liked it? Take a second to support Dr John Messerly on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

13 thoughts on “Summary of Schopenhauer’s Pessimism

  1. Well Schopenhauer died sane at least. That’s quite an accomplishment with such a philosophy. I finally also have come to the conclusion that asceticism is the best way out of such a problem as being born into a world of suffering. If you are a deeply thoughtful person that is. Becker felt that most of humanity shuts off much of their awareness to self protect from the brutal facts of reality. Too late for me in being ascetic. I’m too much of a mess but if I could have one wish for another life if that be our fate it would be a favorable rebirth in a really wholesome monastery and at least 6 hours of meditation a day and the most of the rest at work in the garden, far far away from the madding crowd.

  2. Firstly, thank you for writing / creating content such as the above. I can safely imagine it took hard work and many hours to come up with this website.

    Secondly, I fear that I am drawn to the pessimist’s view of the world rather than their thoughts being chosen because it stands above all other philosophical view points.
    In other words- does this pessimism fit my bleak view of human nature and the world rather than challenge the notion that all is well with the universe.
    How do you suggest I proceed ? Am I truly prejudiced and not open to the thought that life is a blessing?

  3. for more see my meaning of life series on the blog. in the interim, the best I can do is quote Walt Whitman

    I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)
    My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods,
    No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,
    I have no chair, no church, no philosophy,
    I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange,
    But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
    My left hand hooking you round the waist,
    My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public road.

    Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
    You must travel it for yourself.

  4. Hey, anyone knows where Nietzche wrote that comment about Schopenhauer? “Nietzsche argued that Schopenhauer’s view of the world says more about Schopenhauer than it does about the world” Thanks.

  5. I have a first addition book by this author anyone interested to purchase? it will be leaving my home

    i am an optimist!!

  6. Schopenhauer says we should “will nothingness”, then this seems somewhat pointless, because nothingness is our destiny anyway i.e death. If nothingness is inevitable anyway, then Nietzsche’s stance of affirming life seems like the only reasonable and most noble response.

    However, I think the nothingness that Schopenhauer talks about could also be interpreted as similar to Nagarjuna’s “emptiness” or Meister Eckhardt’s “nothingness beyond god”. Both these two views could well qualify as Schop’s ascetic ideal.

  7. appreciate your thoughtful comments. Your interpretation may be correct given Scopenhauer’s familiarity with Buddhism.

  8. I’m just asking out of curiosity, but where does Nietzsche adopt a philosophy that says yes to life, fully aware that life is mostly miserable, bad, ugly and absurd? What can I learn more about this? And what exactly are we using “absurd” here? Often meaningless or lacking in meaning? Thank you.

  9. Stumbled across this blog while browsing. My only comment/question is there is no last word in philosophy. We are forever searching for a kindred spirit. Or is there?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.