Arthur Schopenhauer “On the Suffering of the World” – book review

“Each of us is here being punished for his existence and each in his own particular way” (On the Suffering of the World)

I picked up this book while waiting for a job interview and feeling slightly mournful about everything. It seemed appropriate.

All I knew about Schopenhauer came from my high school textbook: a healthy dose of pessimism and a fascination with Eastern philosophy.

I was quite surprised to see the contents of this book. First of all, Schopenhauer is clearly very fond of Immanuel Kant and Goethe. There is more than a whiff of romanticism in his distaste for the bourgeoisie. I also didn’t realize how eminently quotable Schopenhauer is:

“Their attention, not to speak of their mind, is engaged by nothing that does not bear some relation, or at least, some possible relation to their own person: otherwise their interest is not aroused… They are..tradesmen, life’s born drudges. All their pleasures are sensuous: they have no feeling for any kind of pleasure. Talk to them about business, but not about anything else. To be sociable with them is to be degraded.” (‘On Philosophy and the Intellect’)

Or take his attitude towards reading and thinking

“Now you can apply yourself voluntarily to reading and learning, but you cannot really apply yourself to thinking: thinking has to be kindled, as a fire is by a draught… Fundamentally it is only our own basic thoughts that possess truth and life, for only these do we really understand through and through” (‘On Thinking for Yourself’)

Compare with Wordsworth’s

“Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it. ” (‘The Tables Turned’)

Indeed, Schopenhauer is absolutely insistent on this idea of the intellect at play:

“Every objective employment of the intellect compares with its subjective employment – ie.employment in regard to personal interest, however indirectly, as dancing does with walking: for, like dancing, it is the purposeless expenditure of excess energy.” (‘On Philosophy and the Intellect’)

This idea of subjective thought (connected, according to Schopenhauer to the Will and the world of business and ordinary life) contrasts with objective thought ( intellect, to use Schopenhauer’s terms, connected to philosophy and the arts/sciences). This is why Schopenhauer despises the idea of writers writing for money, or with the aim of pleasing the public. He argues that the very nature of an aim will debase the thoughts by subduing them to subjective purposes.

It is not entirely clear, however, what an artist or philosopher ought to survive off, if he should neither debase himself through conversations with tradesmen nor seek to write for their entertainment. Perhaps this is why Schopenhauer is so pessimistic?

But his pessimism fits overall very well with his time: in fact, after reading this book I was not surprised to hear that the deeply religious Tolstoy was influenced by Schopenhauer’s atheistic pessimism. Take extracts like those:

“The animals are much more content with mere existence than we are; the plants are wholly so; and man is so according to how dull and insensitive he is” (‘On the Suffering of the World’)

“Not only is our life short, our knowledge is limited entirely to it …Our consciousness is as it were a lightning-flash momentarily illuminating the night” (‘On the Antithesis of Thing in Itself and Appearance’)

Or lastly but mostly, Schopenhauer’s endorsement of asceticism:
“Unjust or wicked actions are, in regard to him who performs them, signs of the strength of his affirmation of the will to live, and thus of how far he still is from true salvation” (‘On Affirmation and Denial of the Will to Live’).

Is it me, or does it really remind one of Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata”?

P.S. Schopenhauer has some very weird opinions on things which amuse me – according to him, we are fond of plants because they grow upwards, and therefore challenge the law of gravity. Women are “childish, silly and short-sighted”. Most amusingly, you should treat your memory harshly

“You should deal sternly and despotically with your memory, so that it does not unlearn obedience; if, for example, you cannot call something to mind, a line of poetry or a word perhaps, you should not go and look it up in a book, but periodically plague your memory with it until your memory has done its duty. For the longer you have had to rack your brains for something, the more firmly will it stay once you have got it.” (

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