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Schopenhauer, A Biography , by David E. Cartwright

Schopenhauer: A Biography - David E. Cartwright

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 - 1860) was born into a north German merchant's family whose activities were centered in Hamburg. His father, who was distant and nagged Arthur constantly about his handwriting and posture, was also mentally unstable and committed suicide when Arthur was in his late teens. His mother was an early free spirit, who, after her oppressive husband's death, moved to Weimar, started a bi-weekly salon attended by many of the luminaries of the German literary world (including Goethe, who interceded on Arthur's behalf at the beginning of his university education), and commenced writing. She was for a time the best selling female author in the German speaking world. However, both Arthur and Cartwright saw her as self-centered and only weakly maternal. Arthur grew to despise her and eventually cut off all ties with her. But, then, Arthur despised almost everybody he knew, referring to his fellow human beings as "unfeathered bipeds"...


From a early age Schopenhauer was caustic and arrogant, traits which only became more prominent with time, so he had few friends and fewer lovers (primarily of the sort with whom money changes hands). Reluctantly beginning an apprenticeship in business, which he continued two years after his father's death, he convinced himself and his mother that he wanted to go to university. He began studying medicine at the University of Göttingen but after two years went to the University of Berlin to study philosophy, primarily with Fichte, whom he soon execrated. He ultimately took his doctorate from the University of Jena, because Napoleon was rampaging through Germany at the time, Berlin was occupied, and German universities were being closed left and right by the occupiers. (His mother was in Weimar when Napoleon's troops looted and burned most of the city. With no sign of self-centeredness she pitched in to help many of the people left homeless and hungry.)


This biography, written by an academic philosopher on the faculty of a branch campus of the University of Wisconsin, is actually a "life and work" with an emphasis on "work". And Cartwright does not shrink from gracing the reader with sentences like "As an object of the inner sense, the subject of willing was cognized only in time," when discussing Schopenhauer's philosophy. You should know what you are getting into if you choose to read this book. 


For Schopenhauer, all of the post-Kantian idealists were idiots who had destroyed Kant's ideas by badly misunderstanding them, and he, Schopenhauer, was instead correcting Kant's mistakes and oversights. The favor of contempt was returned in spades by the "idiots", so that Schopenhauer's writings had little resonance for most of his life, which only increased his gall and bitterness. 


Though Cartwright's prose is generally graceless and, for me, irritatingly repetitive, he does, nonetheless, deliver insight into Schopenhauer's life and work. As an individual, Schopenhauer was sarcastic, cranky, self-centered and unbelievably arrogant.(*) So, once again, a total asshole managed to write some very interesting books, some of which I shall be reading (or re-reading) in the near future and hope to report upon. From my perspective, one of the more important insights I gained in reading this book is that Schopenhauer was deeply pessimistic already as a teenager, so pessimistic that his mother, who preferred to overlook the less happy aspects of life in order to enjoy what was left, avoided his presence as much as possible.(!) Here is yet another philosopher whose attitudes and inclinations as a teenager had lasting influence on the mature man's thought. 


Another matter of some importance to me is the further insight provided by Cartwright into which Asian sources Schopenhauer was familiar with, for his philosophy was definitely influenced by Asian thought. Curiously, his preferred translation of the Upanishads, even though other translations emerged during his lifetime, was a Latin translation by Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron from a Persian translation by Sultan Mohammed Dara Shikoh (for which transgression he was executed during another Persian spasm of fundamentalism) from the original Sanskrit. Schopenhauer also studied a German translation of an English translation of the Bhagavad Gita. It appears that he used primarily Indian sources. But he read quite a bit of secondary literature, including many years of journals like Asiatick Researches, where he also acquired a certain amount of exposure to Ch'an Buddhism. Late in his life he would refer to himself as a Buddhist and assert that the three immortals of philosophy were Buddha, Plato and Kant.


In an attempt to reach a wider audience Schopenhauer put together in 1850 Parerga und Paralipomena, a two volume collection of various and sundry essays (including his infamously misogynistic diatribe "On Women" in which all women had to stand stead for those who told him "no") which he marketed as a more approachable entryway into his ideas. Surprisingly, it worked. It found a readership, and academic philosophers started to break their embargo of silence. His work came to the attention of Wagner, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and the waves of his influence began to spread.


On a side note, how can it be that a nearly 600 page hardback biography has not a single photograph?! The University of Cambridge Press should be ashamed of that, as well as of the many "misprints" crowding the pages of this book. For many reasons I count myself fortunate that I only borrowed the book from a university library instead of paying the $50.00 (!) the publisher asks for it.


I also ask, in general, how is it that in an age when the authors provide the publishers with a proofread file in a format prescribed by the publisher that is designed to be ready to be fed directly into the publisher's electronic and fully automatized printing presses, that these publishers are raising their prices through the roofs while simultaneously reducing the extra value that they themselves are supposed to be providing? Is that "Taps" I hear playing?


(*) Aside from his arrogance regarding all other philosophers except Kant and Plato (which one could claim would be necessary in order to bring himself to the required efforts), he was a Besserwisser in every conceivable regard. Here an example: Goethe had worked for 20 years on his idiosyncratic Farbenlehre (theory of colors), which he actually thought was more important than his literary accomplishments. He introduced Schopenhauer (who was only 26 at the time) to his theory, and the young philosopher immediately produced his own theory of colors, writing to Goethe (who was at the pinnacle of the German intelligentsia) that he, Schopenhauer, had, on the basis of Goethe's phenomenological endeavors, for the first time succeeded in arriving at a theory of color.(!)  Goethe indicated that he was not particularly pleased and ended what he had considered to be a collaboration...