E. Belfort Bax April 1880



Source: Modern Thought, “Religious Consciousness of Humanity,” April 1880, p.487-493.
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
The monthly journal ran a series on “Leaders of Modern Thought” which included Marx.

The genius of the founder of modern Pessimism has already begun to make some impression on the cultured class in England, largely owing to the labours of Mr. Franz Hueffer in sundry review articles, and of Miss Helen Zimmern in her short biography. But as yet, English knowledge on the subject is in most cases second-hand, as, strange to say, no translation of the philosopher’s writings has hitherto appeared. Most “educated” Englishmen have a vague notion of Schopenhauer as an eccentric metaphysician, professing a doctrine, supposed to lead to suicide, in some mysterious way connected with the “music of the future.”

Arthur Schopenhauer was born at Dantzic on the 22nd of February, 1788, and was called Arthur on account of the name being common to the three great western languages. His father, a successful merchant in the old Hanseatic town, was a great traveller for those days, being well acquainted not only with Germany, but with Belgium, France, and England. He was, moreover, a man of considerable general intelligence and culture. The wandering life of his youth was doubtless not without its influence in the formation of young Schopenhauer’s character. From his ninth to his eleventh year he boarded in the family of a merchant at Havre, where he became so thoroughly imbued with the French language, as for a time to forget his own. Soon after his return to Germany he was sent to school to be educated, much against his own inclinations, for the mercantile career. No sooner was his school education completed than to distract the boy’s attention from the intellectual pursuits he loved, and to which he was now desirous of devoting himself, he was taken on a tour of over two years, embracing Belgium, Switzerland, France, and England. While his parents extended their journey to Scotland Arthur was left in a clergyman’s family at Wimbledon, where he first formed the acquaintance of English Orthodoxy. The impression made upon him by the bigoted enunciation of dogmas he felt to be contemptible no less morally than intellectually, left behind it a sting which his otherwise favourable opinions of England never succeeded in eradicating. English Pietism and hypocrisy are the constant butt of his invective and sarcasm. Schopenhauer did not live to see the dawn of the “New Renaissance” in England, the last western country to reach its influence.[1] “Oh, that the torch of truth might burn through these darknesses,” he writes in a letter to his parents during his stay at Wimbledon. The following passages, among many others, written towards the close of his life, will show that his opinions of England in this respect underwent no change:-

“It is high time to send missions of Reason, Rationalism, and anti-Priestcraft to England with Bohlen’s and Strauss’s biblical criticism in the one hand, and the Critique of Pure Reason in the other to afford work for these haughtiest and most impudent of all priests in the world, who dub themselves reverend, and thus to make an end of the scandal.... It is no longer to be borne that these clergy should continue to the last degree to degrade and thereby render contemptible, the most intelligent, and in almost every other respect, the first nation in Europe.” “The English people signalises itself by its abjectness as a stultified and priest-ridden nation (the last six words are in English in the original). Europe spurns her with justice. But it will not remain so” .... “The demoralising effects of priestcraft and bigotry of course are not absent in all this. It must work demoralisingly when the priesthood pretend to the people that the half of all virtue consists in laziness on Sunday, and in bawling at church, and that the greatest iniquity, and one which paves the way to all others is ‘Sabbath breaking,’ viz., non-laziness on Sunday,” etc."[2]

Early in 1805, Schopenhauer entered a merchant’s office, and at the same time on a year of misery to himself, in the course of which he had the misfortune to lose his father, who was killed by a fall from an attic window. His reverence for his deceased parent was sufficient to induce him to spend twelve months in the hated pursuit. In an intended preface to the complete edition of his works, we see that this reverence strengthened rather than otherwise with his increasing years. Towards his mother, Johanna Schopenhauer, once a well-known novelist, on the other hand, our philosopher never entertained any great respect; indeed, so marked was the want of sympathy between them that, at his father’s death, they parted by mutual consent, she going to Weimar to plunge into the literary and courtly circle there, then at the height of its splendour, while he strove to complete his personal sacrifice to his father’s manes. When this became no longer endurable, he however threw it up and repaired to the University of Gotha with the definite intention of making literature his life-work. He subsequently left Gotha for Weimar, and on attaining his twenty-first year in 1807, he decided on completing his studies at Gottingen, where he matriculated in the medical faculty. One of his chief friends at Gottingen was the celebrated Bunsen, who became warmly attached to him. The renown of Fichte drew Schopenhauer to Berlin, but he was disappointed, and at this time, doubtless laid the foundation of the extravagant scorn with which throughout his works he invariably treats the post-Kantian academic philosophy. In this as in other respects, he affords a curious parallel with his disciple Richard Wagner; as the latter despises all his contemporaries and immediate precursors in music with the exception of Beethoven, so the former despises all his contemporaries and immediate precursors in philosophy with the exception of Kant. Perhaps this proceeds in both cases from the same cause, namely, lengthened and systematic depreciation, often to the advantage of undoubted inferiority.

After some further wandering, in the course of which he produced his first treatise, “On the Fourfold Root of the Doctrine of Adequate Cause,” which procured for him the degree of doctor of philosophy from the university of Jena, he took up his residence in Dresden, where he plunged earnestly into Kant, Plato, and those remarkable products of Oriental thought, the Upanischads. It was here that he completed the first volume of his “opus magnum,” Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The World as Will and Presentation). He then quitted Dresden for Italy. Returning to Germany, he localised himself at Berlin in the spring of 1820, in the hope of entering upon a career as lecturer in philosophy. In this he was unsuccessful, owing to the renown of Hegel and the academic school, a circumstance which not unnaturally intensified his dislike of the latter. He again set out on his travels, visiting Italy, South Germany, and concluding with Dresden. While on a visit to Weimar about this time, he became intimate with Goethe, who was a frequent guest in his mother’s salon. Schopenhauer ardently adopted the conclusions of the Farbenlehre, or “theory of colours,” and he had the honour of being the first to whom Goethe confided his ideas on the subject. In the “Fourfold Root,” Goethe at once recognised a philosophical genius. All his works were regularly forwarded on their publication to the sage of Weimar up to the time of the latter’s death. Schopenhauer had just now some thoughts of publishing a German rendering of Hume’s works, of which he was an ardent admirer.

His last move was to Frankfort-on-the-Main, where he remained with but little intermission till his death, and with which town his name is inseparably associated. A constant diner at the Swan Hotel, he soon became a noted character. It was here that the second volume of his great work was finished, together with those two delightful volumes of miscellaneous essays, the “Parerga und Paralapomena,” in which all the main points of the system are embodied and illustrated, besides his treatise on “Will in Nature,” and other less important essays. It was here, too, that he made the acquaintance of his first real disciple, the enthusiastic Dr. Frauenstadt, whose adoration of Schopenhauer rivalled that of a Boswell for his Johnson. Though his health had been undoubtedly failing for some time past, Schopenhauer died somewhat suddenly on the 21st of September, 1860, at the age of seventy-two, and lies buried in a quiet corner of a roadside cemetery near Frankfort.

What is this western Pessimism of which Schopenhauer was the founder and which, either in its original form or as modified by Hartmann and others, has obtained so much popularity in Germany of late, a popularity not confined to scholars and students, but embracing men of the world, bankers, merchants, and, above all, artists? Schopenhauer regarded himself as as much a disciple of Kant as the (by him) so much calumniated Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. His doctrine may be defined as Buddhism, grafted on to the critical philosophy. That which in Oriental thought appeared as a dreamy mysticism, in Schopenhauer’s hands became for the first time a coherent philosophical system, capable of definite presentation, and possessing at least some pretensions to an inductive basis.

Kant was the first thinker to give unfaltering and definite expression to two great antitheses — (I.) the antithesis between subject and object, the perceiving ego and the perceived non-ego, and (II.) the antithesis between phenomenon and noumenon, between existence, as it appears to us (in consciousness), and existence, as it is in itself (apart from consciousness). These antitheses have been implicitly present in human thought ever since man attained to self-reflection, in other words, since philosophy began; and from the time of Descartes especially they have been increasing in prominence and definiteness, but Kant was the first who gave them explicit expression, and never once lost sight of them. According to Kant, it is the object which constitutes the material element in consciousness, and the subject the formal element — consciousness being the fusion of these two elements in one synthesis. The formal element, which the subject contributes, consists of time, space, and the twelve concepts or categories of the understanding. What existence may be apart from these forms is unknowable, nay, unthinkable. We only know the world as given in consciousness — what it is as a thing-in-itself we cannot even conjecture. This Thing-in-itself, Noumenon or Absolute, can only be expressed by negatives, yet as a notion we cannot get rid of it. It is the unfathomable abyss out of which all our knowledge rises, the “blackness of darkness,” into which it merges. By a natural illusion of the mind we are forced to think of that as positive which we can only know as negative. We speak of the Absolute, the Thing-in-itself, we think we are nearing it in conception, but once let us try to fix this vague notion, to embody it in a concept, and it is gone. Like Faust, no sooner do we attempt to clasp the shadowy Helen, than we find ourselves embracing her mantle — a space-and-time mantle — and that all our efforts to obtain a glimpse of the mysteries it enshrouds, have proved but a “delusion and a snare.” The conditions of the problem forbid us to predicate ideas given in experience of that which is ex hypothesi beyond experience, and yet all thought is bounded by the conditions of experience. The most abstract concept we can possibly form involves the notion of time.

The impulse to formulate the mystery of existence in thought has nevertheless led the philosophers of all ages to identify it with some ultimate fact of consciousness, though usually with a reservation to the effect that this fact as noumenon bears no resemblance to the corresponding fact as phenomenon. The problem then really becomes — to discover some ultimate datum of consciousness or experience which forms the point of contact, or at least, of nearest approach; the connecting link, so to speak, between that which appears and that which is. Intelligence or thought has, since Anaxagoras, been the principle with which this essence of things has been identified. With Hegel, who represents the culminating point of absolute Idealism, it became the pure abstract “idea” per se, and thus the logical momenta of thought, which determine our consciousness, were to him the absolute determinations of existence. To Schopenhauer, on the other hand, will is more fundamental than thought. The thing in itself is accordingly not thought, but unconscious will. By this term, it should be observed, is to be understood impulse or energy (trieb) of every kind, organic and even mechanical no less than psychic. Existence is one great Will continually “rushing into life.” The distinction between thought and will as the prius of all things is alluded to by Goethe in his great tragedy, where Faust is translating the opening of the fourth gospel.[3] Schopenhauer boldly proclaimed the psychic principle (whether perceptive or conceptive vorstellung or begriff) to be merely secondary and phenomenal.; the Will alone was primary and noumenal

“The intellect,” he writes, “is physical not metaphysical; that is, as it has sprung from the will, to whose objectivation it belongs, so it is only there to do it service; but this latter only concerns things in nature, and not something lying above and beyond it.”

By its own inherent necessity the Will is continually realising itself as consciousness; falling asunder into subject and object, and thus becoming the will-to-live. Consciousness, however, is simply a phase through which the Will passes. In this phase it is subordinated to certain forms and conditions, essential to intelligence, but which have no existence apart therefrom. These forms are time, space, and causation, for the whole of Kant’s categories are resolvable, according to Schopenhauer, into this one. Such being the case, the time-honoured knots of philosophy, freedom, and necessity, the infinite in extension and intention, the grounds of the relation of subject and object, etc., if not untied, are at least cut, for inasmuch as these enigmas relate to the formal conditions of consciousness, it is obvious they exist as problems only within the range of these conditions, possessing, therefore, not a shadow of meaning apart from the phenomenal world.

“Let us suppose these forms but once suspended, and a consciousness of things as present notwithstanding, and the above problems would be not indeed solved, but would have utterly vanished, and their expression would have no more sense. For they arise entirely out of these forms, which have no reference to an understanding of the world, and existence, but merely to an understanding of our personal aims.”

Kant’s refutation of the so-called proofs of natural theology is accentuated by Schopenhauer, and especially severe is he on that mild sophism, the “argument from design.” Mind or intelligence, with the notions founded on its own conditions, is but evanescent and phenomenal; the Will alone endures and is immortal. Individuality is the form the Will invariably assumes, but the conception of a plurality of minds is metaphysically fallacious. It is based on number, a space-and-time-notion, which is valid indeed within the limits of our experience, but no farther. All consciousness is fundamentally the same, being the realisation of the one all-embracing Will. This doctrine Schopenhauer imagined to lead to a denial of the possibility of a philosophy of history. History he regarded as a mere fortuitous concurrence and sequence of events, individual development alone having any philosophical significance. Schopenhauer was a rigorous Necessarian. As Mr. Oxenford has it — “The individual will which lay beyond the range of causality has forced itself into the world of phenomena and must take the consequences, that is to say, be subject to the law of cause and effect by which the whole world of phenomena is governed.” In other words, the will, as individualised, is governed by motives from without according to the inexorable law of causation.

The influence of Plato on Schopenhauer is shown in a kind of revival of the doctrine of ideas, universalia ante rem, which he has interwoven with his system. This doctrine is the basis of Schopenhauer’s ęsthetics. The concession of a quasi-noumenal nature to intelligence may seem to some hardly to coincide with the purely phenomenal character it assumes in the rest of the system. The Platonic idea is the highest point of the Will’s objectivisation. It occupies a position midway between the noumenal “Will” and the phenomenal “presentation,” or perception. Art is an attempt to bring the idea within the range of phenomena. In ęsthetic contemplation we are purely passive. The specific character of the Will becomes temporarily merged; we are no longer self-conscious, our passions are quelled, we do not will or desire, we cognise merely — we cognise, that is, the objective idea. The idea, of course, being extra-phenomenal, is not conditioned by time, space, or causation. In music, we have the purest and most immediate objectivisation of the Will; in all the other arts, notably sculpture and painting, this takes place through special archetypal forms, the Platonic ideas proper — but in music without the medium of any special form or idea, it being merely idealisation in general.

Having now touched upon the main points in Schopenhauer’s pure metaphysics and ęsthetics, it remains to notice the great end and outcome of his whole system — his metaphysicoethics. Schopenhauer answered the now familiar question as to the worth of life by an unconditional denial. To the common mind pleasure is positive and pain negative. According to Schopenhauer this is an illusion, the reverse being the truth. Pain is the positive, and pleasure the negative, pleasure being nothing more than the cessation of a pain, the satisfaction of a want consequent on which new pains or new wants immediately obtrude themselves. All Will implies action, all action implies want, all want implies pain. Pain and misery are accordingly the essential condition of Will and of consciousness. Only in the highest ęsthetic contemplation can we experience real pleasure (viz., absence of pain) inasmuch as we are thus momentarily transformed into subjects of pure thought apart from will. The Will itself is then more or less completely metamorphosed into “presentation” (vorstellung), while in ordinary consciousness, the two are combined, the element of thought or presentation being merely there “at the service of the Will.” But this state of pure objectivisation is rare, and at best unsustainable for any length of time. The normal and constant condition of consciousness is pain and misery, pleasure and happiness in any degree being the exception, not the rule. A neutral state soon becomes painful through engendering ennui. Pain is the essential, pleasure the accidental.

It will be seen from this that Schopenhauer’s Pessimism is something more than mere empirical Pessimism; it claims a character of a priori certainty. The absolute Will, in sundering itself into subject and object, into I and not-I, entered upon a fiery ordeal which can only be terminated by a negation of the will-to-live. Consciousness, the last phase of the Will, must be played out before the end come. Not until all desire is extinguished in all conscious beings will Nirvhana finally be entered upon. The goal of the practical side of Schopenhauer’s philosophy is thus the extinction of all desire, and above all, sensuous desire as tending to reproduction — in other words pure asceticism, the type of which he found in the monks of La Trappe and still more in the Buddhist ascetics. Suicide he regarded as a clumsy solution of the enigma of life, as, though the phenomenon, the consciousness is suspended, the root of the evil, the will, remains intact, being only, so to speak, temporarily invested.

The above is a slight outline sketch of the philosophy of Schopenhauer. An initial objection may be taken to the system, in the connotation which Schopenhauer imposes on the word will. To the inductive psychologist, will is simply a synthesis of concept or notion, desire, and belief followed by action, and is not an ultimate fact at all, since it is resolvable into these constituents. The most delicate analysis is incapable of discovering anything more in what is commonly termed will, than the notion of an end (motive), the desire for that end, and the belief in the possibility of its attainment by means of action (or perhaps, more correctly, the exerting of power) on our part, consequent on which the action follows, unless hindered by some external obstacle. Subtract any of these elements, and the notion of will, as commonly understood, disappears. The having a desire, by itself, is not will, since it is something purely passive. No more is the belief in the attainment of a desired end, unless followed by action. Lastly, the exertion, the putting forth of power, or the action itself, is not will, unless preceded by the course mentioned; in other words, unless done consciously, as if so, instinctive, or even convulsive movements would be classed as voluntary, which they are not. Now with Schopenhauer the definition of will is extended, so as practically to include all emotion and all action, mechanical, physical, chemical action, no less than organic and psychic. Meanwhile, the specific content of the notion will doubtless seem to many minds to have evaporated. As well identify Will with Force as Force with Will, the one being as purely a subjective as the other is an objective phenomenon. Schopenhauer’s becomes, in the long run, nothing more than one of the many positive words which have been from time immemorial affixed to a negative notion. He himself says (“Uber Philosophic und ihre Methode”): —

“The foundation and grounds on which all our cognitions and sciences rest is the inexplicable. Hence every explanation leads, by means of a greater or less number of mediate steps, back to this; as on the sea, the plumbline finds the bottom, now in greater, now in lesser depths, but must everywhere reach it at last. This inexplicable falls to the share of metaphysics.”

And in another passage he makes the following remarkable admission: —

“Inasmuch as we know this essence, the Will as thing, in itself, only through the act of willing, so we are incapable of saying or of comprehending what it is or does further, after it has given up this Act; hence its negation is for us, who are the appearance of the Will, a passage into nothingness.”

The Noumenon must remain per se the unknown quantity, the X of the problem of existence. The true function of metaphysics is to discover the boundaries of cognition and to determine its relations to this unknown quantity. All science abuts on metaphysical ground, as well as on those fundamental laws to which the whole of the phenomenal world, subjective as well as objective, conforms. On ultimate analysis the objective data, matter and motion, are just as incomprehensible as the subjective data, feeling and thought.

Much exception might be taken to the manner in which Schopenhauer attempts to support or at least to illustrate his thesis. Mesmerism, clairvoyance, etc., and those remarkable coincidences (as they are regarded by most thinking people), so often adduced by the unscientific as proofs of the supernatural or of some hitherto unrecognised natural power, are rather unstable supports to a philosophical system. In this matter Schopenhauer is followed by Hartmann, and possibly this may have contributed in some measure to the contempt with which the Pessimist philosophy is too frequently viewed, by what its founder terms the “guild-philosophers,” namely, the professional philosophic class.

Setting aside the supernaturalist hypothesis, as belonging altogether to a lower stage of culture, it must be admitted that there is no a priori impossibility, or even improbability, in the existence of collocations of matter and motion, by which certain effects, answering to the description of “occult,” might be produced. But more than this cannot be said on their behalf. The amount of evidence required to substantiate an event necessitating the hypothesis of a new “law of nature,” must undoubtedly exceed to an incalculable extent, any evidence at present forthcoming for any such event, which from the standpoint of experience is highly improbable. The acknowledged facts of mesmerism are found to be explicable by recognised processes. With Schopenhauer, however, every narrative seeming to lend colour to his hypothesis is swept into the net, and forthwith applied.

Schopenhauer’s mind and his philosophy were sadly warped by his Individualist tendencies. These, we have seen, carried him to the length of denying the possibility of a philosophy of history and with it the whole science of Society, pre-eminently the study of the present day. It would have been curious to have observed the modifications the great generalisations of the last twenty years would have produced in Schopenhauer’s system. The doctrines of the persistence of Force and of Evolution (in its modern form) could not fail to have greatly influenced him, and the latter must certainly have been fatal to his Individualist theories. Even on Schopenhauer’s own principles this Individualism is a pure assumption. Why should Individual consciousness be the last phase of the Will? Schopenhauer’s reasons for this are surely very insufficient, while his own theory of Platonic ideas points in the direction of a possible further development of intuition beyond its individual form. And this view is moreover in striking accordance with the doctrine of Evolution, which shows us the low sentiency of protoplasm developing into the consciousness of the organised being, and which allows us no grounds for refusing to extend the same process of differentiation till we arrive at a higher form of consciousness in the super-organised being — Society.

Upon Schopenhauer’s opinions on subjects not directly connected with philosophy, there is no space to dilate towards the close of an article. We cannot, however, omit a passing notice of his views on women. Schopenhauer regarded women as the sexus sequior of the human species; the emptiness and vanity of the “lady” of western civilisation he considered to spring from the mischievous deference paid to women. According to his view, women are perpetual children, and ought to be treated as such. The distinction in intellectual strength between the sexes is as radical as the distinction in bodily strength, The whole essay “Uber die Weiber,” if betraying slight exaggeration, is well worthy of perusal, by at least the male section among our clamorous Anglo-Saxon advocates of “equality between the sexes.”

In summing up the real services Schopenhauer has rendered to modern thought, foremost must stand his having been the first in Christendom to explode the Optimist theory of the Universe. He demonstrated the hollowness of all those anthropomorphic assumptions of a beneficent purpose in the world and life, in which natural theology delights. He effectually pricked the wind-bag of Theism, with its rose-coloured order of things, and painted the world, we may fairly say, in its true colours, though the shades may have been too uniformly dark. The momentous question — Is consciousness preferable to its negation? — must be, by its very nature, incapable of an objective and demonstrative answer one way or the other, under present conditions. It is, however, to say the least, very questionable how many who are really capable of apprehending the question in its true bearings would not hesitate before answering in the affirmative. I say “in its true bearings” advisedly, as it is not everyone who will readily distinguish between the fact of non-consciousness, and the circumstances attending the condition of dying and death. As Mr. Mill puts it, we are apt to think of ourselves, as knowing that we are dead. We may remind those who deem the worst of evils to be the extinction of the phenomenal ego (if we may be allowed to speak in terms of Time of that which is out of all relation to Time), that this same evil existed as regards this said phenomenal ego, during ages and throughout the long course of history, with which we are familiar. The horror at reverting to our condition previous to the last thirty, forty, or fifty years, as the case may be, is, indeed, strange, but it is explicable; consciousness exists, and for us it is all in all; our highest work and our highest aim is not the destruction of the Conscious, but its intensification in higher and higher forms, without thought of the end, if end there be. To transfer our hope of the continuance of our individual consciousness to that of consciousness in general, is not, however, so hard as many think.

To Schopenhauer’s credit it must be said he never sought to popularize his work by illegitimate means. He did not, as many would have done, throw a sop to the vulgar by importing the term “God” (innocent looking little word, the friend in need of intellectual time-servers) into his system, or any other theistic notions heterogeneous to it. He exposed the subterfuge underlying Pantheism, and showed it to involve a meaningless use of language.

In conclusion, we may say that though Schopenhauer is undoubtedly the superior of his successful rival Hegel, in candour of expression as in literary style, we can hardly rank his services to philosophy as equal to those of the more solid though less brilliant thinker. Schopenhauer never left anything so fruitful as the Hegelian method. His works, indeed, rich as they are in suggestion, exhibit a certain confusion as to method, and occasionally a decided lack of method. Still, after making all allowance for defects in the constructive side of his writings, no one after reading them can refuse to admit that Schopenhauer was, at once, a great thinker and a consummate artist in philosophical exposition.


1. It is significant that he died the year of the publication of “Essays and Reviews,” which, timid and worthless as it may be from our present standpoint, was undoubtedly instrumental in helping to lay the foundation of current tolerance and independence of thought. That a country where long after the time of Schopenhauer’s visit, savants thought it not beneath their dignity to discuss seriously, or pretend to discuss seriously, the Mosaic cosmogony(!) etc., should have appeared somewhat backward to a countryman of Hegel, Schleiermacher, and Strauss, need surprise no one.

2. “Parerga and Paralopomena.” Vol. I. pp.287-9. Ed. Frauenstadt.

3. See Mr. Coupland’s masterly article on “Goethe,” of May, 1880, in MODERN THOUGHT. Mr. Coupland, however, does not seem aware that Goethe had access to the works of Schopenhauer. Some persons may think that Faust was playing somewhat “fast and loose” with the “canonical text” in thus reading his own ideas into it. The logos of the neo-Platonic author of the fourth gospel was undoubtedly pure thought, i.e., the second hypostasis of the Alexandrians, while the notion of will or energy appeared first in the third hypostasis. Will was quite unknown to European metaphysics as a primary principle till the time of Schopenhauer, if we except a few obscure hints of such a doctrine in Clement of Alexandria.

Modern Thought, “Richard Wagner,” September 1881, p.243-249, (6,007 words)