Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) was one of the few notable thinkers of his time to regard the relationship between life and death as the central problem of philosophy. He was also among the first Western intellectuals to draw insights from Buddhist and Hindu worldviews.
The German philosopher was born into a prosperous family that had many social and cultural connections. Contemporaries described Schopenhauer as a scintillating conversationalist with discerning taste in the arts. However, he was also seen as a gloomy person whose company was difficult to bear. Even as a youth, Schopenhauer was strongly affected by the imperfections of life— one must endure suffering, loss, disappointment, and frustration until the hammer blow of death ends all. Life seemed like an all but unbearable burden. Why go on living, then? The answer was clear to him: People put up with the miseries of life because they are terrified of death. Schopenhauer's need to resolve the dilemma of a miserable life and a terrifying death would contribute much to his elaboration of a philosophical system that has continued to influence world thought. His writings often challenge the reader's stamina: Schopenhauer himself cautioned his readers that they must resign themselves to reading all three volumes of The World As Will and Representation (1818) twice—and then perhaps once again for good measure.
Following Eastern religious perspectives, Schopenhauer rejected the assumption that the world presents itself directly to the human mind. He believed it is more accurate to say that people construct representations of the world and then respond to these ideas or images as though they were objective reality. Even such powerful ideas as life and death are framed within the conventions of language and societal custom. Not denying that there is a core of reality within representations of life and death, he argued that people often respond more to the representations than the reality.
The philosopher's quest to understand the world through words, logic, and reason had been missing the point, according to Schopenhauer. Words are usually limited to the superficial appearance of reality. Seldom do people recognize the thing-in-itself, the inner nature of both the universe and human nature. The essence of life is to be sought in a driving force, an incessant impulse that is far more powerful than reason. He called this force "The Will." The will might be regarded as the thing-in-itself in action. Life is the most significant example. The essence of life is the fierce impulse to continue, to survive. The will operates for the species as well as for the individual. The blind will of nature does not hesitate to sacrifice many individuals in order to keep the species going.
Death As the Answer to Life
Humans face a unique situation—they are driven by the will to live, like all other creatures, but are also aware of the certainty of death. In Schopenhauer's view, all religions have been motivated by the desire to find some way of coping with this dilemma. His own conclusion is, "Only small and limited minds fear death" (Schopenhauer 1957, vol. 1, p. 27). Humans have death as their destiny, their completion. Individuality ceases with death, but the essence of being is indestructible and remains part of the cosmic process.
Schopenhauer invites the reader to take a larger view of the universe instead of the usual concern for individual life. From this cosmic vantage point, life and death are reciprocals, not opposites. He notes that Eastern thought has long represented the same god as having both creative and destructive powers. Siva, for example, displays the lingam, a symbol of generation, although she is adorned with a necklace of skulls. Greeks and Romans celebrated "the full ardour of life" at their funerals to make a similar point (Schopenhauer 1957, vol. 1, p. 355). It would be wise then, according to Schopenhauer, for people to look "away from the death of the mourned individual [with] knowledge that the whole of nature is the phenomenon and also the fulfillment of the will to live" (p. 355).
The answer to death proposed by Schopenhauer has not been widely accepted, in part because many people continue to focus on individual fate rather than cosmic process. Among his many influences, however, was the life versus death instinct of Sigmund Freud, and continuing discussions about the value of death education and the ethics of rational suicide.
Choron, Jacques. Death and Western Thought. New York: Collier Books, 1963.
Janaway, Christopher. Self and World in Schopenhauer's Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World As Will and Representation. 3 vols. 1818. Reprint, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957.
See C OMMUNICATION WITH THE D EAD .