Old favourites: Essays and Aphorisms (1851) by Arthur Schopenhauer

Rob Doyle selects a year of his favourite works: week 5

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860): despised writers who conceal shallow minds behind a veil of unintelligible language. Photograph: Bruckman Evon Lenbach

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860): despised writers who conceal shallow minds behind a veil of unintelligible language. Photograph: Bruckman Evon Lenbach

In the history of ideas, the name Arthur Schopenhauer is indelibly linked with philosophical pessimism. True enough, Schopenhauer’s vision of existence is unflinchingly tragic: “For the world is Hell, and men are on the one hand the tormented souls and on the other the devils in it.” And yet, his synthesis of western philosophy with Hindu and Buddhist metaphysics offers not only ethical guidance, but even solace and redemption. Rereading him after a decade, I realised that such essays as On the Indestructibility of Our Essential Being by Death had helped dissuade my younger self from nurturing an excessive fear of death.

Schopenhauer despised writers who conceal shallow minds behind a veil of unintelligible language: if a writer is profound, he will seek the clearest possible expression of his ideas. The proof is in the prose: Schopenhauer’s limpid thoughts are a pleasure to read even for those lacking formal philosophical training. As with all true philosophers, his starting point is appalled astonishment at that elephant in every conceivable room, “the problem of existence” itself.

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