Why you should care
Arthur Schopenhauer had it all figured out. No wonder he remained single.
When Arthur Schopenhauer met Flora Weiss, he was 39 and she was 17. They were attending a boating party on a lake in Berlin, and the German philosopher, pleased by her youth and beauty, slipped her a bunch of grapes. Weiss later wrote that she surreptitiously tossed the grapes overboard, grossed out that “old man Schopenhauer” had handled them. His follow-up move was to ask Weiss’ father for permission to court her. The courtship did not go well for Schopenhauer, despite his being one of the foremost philosophers of the era.
He was also one of history’s great pessimists, and the more you learn about Schopenhauer, the more that designation makes sense. A principal focus of his was love and relationships — and how they make us deeply unhappy. In his 1818 essay “Metaphysics of Love,” Schopenhauer writes that “one cannot doubt either the reality or importance of love,” only to name the primary purpose of love as the creation of offspring, an expression of the “will to live,” which was one of his central preoccupations.
When we fall in love, he posits, we are unconsciously choosing someone who corrects all our flaws. Short men fall for tall women, large-nosed people for small-nosed people, and so forth, though some of the considerations are less overtly physical — “the most manly man will desire the most womanly woman,” he says. But that rarely leads us to a person who can truly make us happy. The drive to procreate, Schopenhauer writes, is so consuming that “the lover shuts his eyes to all objectionable qualities, overlooks everything, ignores all and unites himself forever to the object of his passion. He is so completely blinded by this illusion that as soon as the will of the species is accomplished the illusion vanishes and leaves in its place a hateful companion for life.” Requited love, according to the philosopher, is more likely than unrequited love to lead to an unhappy life, Shakespearean melodrama notwithstanding.
That Schopenhauer’s “Metaphysics of Love” was largely theoretical, as he had not at that point had a major relationship, didn’t seem to bother the budding curmudgeon.
“He was one of the first thinkers to depict the importance of sexuality in human life,” says R. Raj Singh, a professor of philosophy at Brock University and the author of two books on Schopenhauer (although Singh confides that he himself is actually more of a Heideggerian). “He says arranged marriages happen in a more rational fashion due to the intervention of the family and the community. People explicitly seek two compatible individuals … whereas you fall in love romantically seemingly for no reason, because this vital force, the will to live, is bringing you together.”
Schopenhauer considered himself a singular philosopher on love. While others had covered the subject, he deemed their critiques shallow, dismissing Plato’s and Immanuel Kant’s philosophies of love, among others, in favor of his own ideas about romance. That his 1818 work on the subject was largely theoretical, as he had not at that point had a major relationship (at least as far as is known), didn’t seem to bother the budding curmudgeon. Still, his criticisms of other philosophers suggest he may have had some experience in the area. “He says Kant has no personal experience of the phenomenon of love,” says Singh, “which means he believes that he had had some experience.”
Three years after “Metaphysics of Love” was published, the 30-something Schopenhauer met Caroline Richter, with whom he’s thought to have had his longest relationship. The two never married, and their fling was decidedly on again, off again. Schopenhauer had mused about the benefits of marriage but apparently couldn’t convince himself that Richter was the right woman. After they broke it off, he did his best to court Flora Weiss, but the adolescent disliked his grapes and his glower, and the philosopher of love eventually settled for going solo, living for 27 years with a succession of pet poodles, whom he adored. They were all named Atma, supposedly because Schopenhauer believed dogs had little individuality, even while he considered them very intelligent creatures. Throughout his 72 years, Schopenhauer maintained that the work he’d completed as a young man, including “Metaphysics of Love,” held true. “He was very proud of not changing,” Singh says. “He thought that his chief work, which he published at the age of 30, was the last word in philosophy.”
Schopenhauer may be known as one of history’s great pessimists, but, as Singh points out, many people — even non-philosophers — are drawn to his work because of his relatively jargon-free style and his focus on everyday problems. “His philosophy is very practical; it’s about mundane life,” Singh says. “Like how mean people are to each other … or the problem of love.”