The idiosyncratic life and bleak philosophical outlook of Arthur Schopenhauer has long been a source of fascination for me. I first encountered him when researching his influence on the work of Samuel Beckett (and Ludwig Wittgenstein). In a recent article for the Times Literary Supplement, Julian Young acknowledges Schopenhauer’s profound influence on writers of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century; Young defines it as an influence “greater than that of any other philosopher”, which can be traced through the work of “Tolstoy, Turgenev, Zola, Maupassant, Proust, Hardy, Conrad, Mann, Joyce and Beckett”.
One of the things that draws me to Schopenhauer’s work are his remarks on the history and usefulness of asceticism (something that his early disciple, Friedrich Nietzsche, took significant issue with), and his reading of Eastern religious and philosophical texts. Young contextualises this recurrent theme in Schopenhauer’s work by listing striking similarities between his work and the central tenets of Buddhism:
“Schopenhauer was, I believe, the first European Buddhist (the first translations of the Hindu and Buddhist texts began to appear as he was writing the main work). To live, he tells us, is to will, and to will is to participate in the anxious, exhausting and endless Darwinian struggle that only the fittest survive. The pleasures of achieving a goal are either fleeting or non-existent. And once achieved, we must rush on to the next goal in order to escape the ever-present threat of boredom. Life is a treadmill; the ‘wheel of Ixion’ never stands still.”
Schopenhauer borrows from the Buddhist tradition not just a diagnosis of the problem, but a prescription for the solution:
“[T]his, Schopenhauer tells us, is a game we do not have to play. We can withdraw from the life of willing into a life of contemplation – “mindfulness”, in current jargon – a withdrawal which, for the enlightened, will complete itself in easeful death. At its deepest level, says Schopenhauer, his philosophy, like Socrates’, is a ‘preparation for death’.”