How Arthur Schopenhauer’s First Job Made Him Pessimistic For Life

Arthur Schopenhauer was not a particularly positive person, if I’m allowed such an understatement. The German philosopher wrote his famous work of metaphysics The World as Will and Representation before he was 30, and then spent the rest of his life writing in order to show how all that is wrong with the world proved his philosophy.

Here’s a taste of Schopenhauer’s view of the world:

Hollingdale on Schopenhauer's pessism, Essays and Aphorisms

“History shows us the life of nations and finds nothing to narrate but wars and tumults; the peaceful years appear only as occasional brief pauses and interludes. In just the same way the life of the individual is a constant struggle, and not merely a metaphorical one against want or boredom, but also an actual struggle against other people. He discovers adversaries everywhere, lives in continual conflict and dies with sword in hand.”

— (From On the Suffering of the World).

Why did Schopenhauer see the world in such a deeply pessimistic way? What led him to believe that all humans can aspire to is the avoidance of pain, and what leads, contrariwise, someone like the Dalai Lama to view people as fundamentally striving for good? Their contrasting philosophies do not stem from nothing, and it is logical to think that our individual development in youth will shape our personal philosophies towards life.

Schopenhauer’s translator and biographer R. J. Hollingdale certainly takes that view of individual philosophical development, and argues that we can understand a thinker by understanding both the problems that he or she is dealing with (how they fit into a tradition of thought), as well as by understanding “those elements in his personality and background which lead him to deal with these problems in just the way he does.” Applied to Schopenhauer, Hollingdale says: “We learn that this extraordinary man has created a new metaphysic… simply in order to understand and justify his own pessimistic disposition.”

Hollingdale points to a number of episodes in Schopenhauer’s life as evidence for why he could only have developed a negative view of the world, but it is one period of his youth, between ages 17-21, that seemed above all else to shape his outlook. I want to quote this section from Hollingdale in full, because it deals not just with Schopenhauer, but with most of us; and because how we reconcile in ourselves a similar set of feelings will determine, as it did with Schopenhauer, our general outlook on the world for our lifetimes.

“This is now the crucial epoch of his [Schopenhauer’s] life. In April his father dies: the death leaves him feeling more rather than less bound to fulfil his promise to become a merchant. But the house of Schopenhauer is sold up, his mother and sister leave for Weimar, and he is left in the office of Jenisch [a trading house where he is a clerk]. And now despair begins to enter his soul. He hates the work of a clerk, and has now come to hate the whole mercantile world; at the same time his very modest education has fitted him for little else. When he is 21 he will get his share of the paternal fortune, assuming his mother has not spent it by then—but as yet he is only 17, and at 17 four years are an unimaginable eternity.

In short, Jenisch’s office becomes Schopenhauer’s blacking factory—with this difference, that Dicken’s experience was that of a little boy unable to analyse his situation and was one now fortunately rare, while Schopenhauer’s is so ordinary as to be called perhaps the common lot of middle-class youth. The capitalist world, and in particular the heart of it, the world of buying and selling, offers almost nothing a young man wants: the instincts of youth are at variance with the demands of business, and especially with those of clerking. What young man is by nature diligent, sober and regular in his habits? Respectful to ‘superiors’ and humble before wealth? Sincerely able to devote himself to what he finds boing?

One in ten thousand, perhaps. But for the great majority a ‘job’ is, depending on temperament, a torment or a tedious irrelevance which has to be endured day after day in order that, during one’s so-called ‘free time’, one will be allowed to get on with living. The situation is the most commonplace in the world. I believe it is the cause of that settled cynicism with which nine out of ten regard the ‘social order’…

This familiar feeling was what now overcame Schopenhauer: the feeling which appears when life, hitherto apparently capable of granting anything, is suddenly revealed as deception, when the colour is drained from it and the whole future seems a single grey. The essence is in the question: Is this all? Is this life?

The intensity with which the question is asked must of course vary: but when we consider that Schopenhauer was in fact a man of genius, we shall not be surprised to discover that in him its intensity was very great.”

From these four years of “greyness”, Hollingdale argues, Schopenhauer built his life’s philosophy. He was so affected by the futility and meaninglessness of his work as a clerk that he needed to find an explanation for how the majority of humans could live their lives that way. Not that he lived the rest of his life with much more colour—he had an identical daily routine that he carried out almost every day of his life, and, as he put it in his early years as a philosopher: “Life is a missliche Sache — a disagreeable thing-: I have determined to spend it in reflecting on it.”

When he eventually does inherit his father’s fortune at 21, he immediately enrols in university and discovers philosophy—and therefore himself. While we would say the rest is history, he would probably say it was merely misery.

In reflecting on Schopenhauer’s life and philosophy, I can’t help but feel that to extend one’s youthful pessimism into one’s life work is simply believe in fixity. Even if one grants that life is as Schopenhauer described it—a later version of Hobbes’ “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”—it seems a far more human response to nevertheless hope that one’s own life, and the lives of those around us, might be lived more positively. Schopenhauer’s approach was resignation; his philosophy, a justification of his resignation.

I find it far more effective to describe the world as it could be, rather than as it is. Shakespeare told us (and Montaigne before him) that the world is neither good nor bad, but it is our thinking that makes it so. Hope that we could live more positively than Schopenhauer, even in the face of a job we don’t find meaningful and the “common lot of middle-class youth”, as Hollingdale put it, and we are far more likely to make it so.