Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and a Fall From Grace

Schopenhauer inspired a young Nietzsche. Then it all went wrong. What happened?

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The underrated — and oft overlooked — relationship between Nietzsche and Schopenhauer offers an insightful look into Nietzsche’s thought system.

The elder Schopenhauer (who died five years before Nietzsche even read The World as Will and Representation) had no direct contact with Nietzsche, but Schopenhauer left an indelible mark on Nietzsche.

Nietzsche discovered Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation in a used book store in 1865. Nietzsche later recounted that experience:

“I don’t know what demon whispered to me: ‘Take this book home.’ Back at home, I threw myself into the corner of a sofa with my new treasure, and began to let that dynamic, dismal genius work on me.”

In his book Beyond Selflessness: Reading Nietzsche’s Genealogy, philosopher Christopher Janaway notes that Nietzsche’s “infatuation” with Schopenhauer lasted years, with Schopenhauer’s work having “profound effects on (Nietzsche’s) emotions.”

In fact, when a 24-year-old Nietzsche became the chair of philology at the University of Basel (the youngest ever at the time), he vowed to “infuse the Schopenhauerian spirit into philology,” according to Nietzschean scholar Grace Neal Dolson.

The admiration of Schopenhauer did not last, however. In a letter to Cosima Wagner (wife of composer Richard Wagner), Nietzsche wrote:

“Would you be amazed if I confess something that has gradually come about, but which has more or less suddenly entered my consciousness: a disagreement with Schopenhauer’s teaching? On virtually all general propositions I am not on his side…”

In many ways, the relationship was doomed from the beginning.

The first philosophic difference would occur over mitleid, literally “fellow-feeling,” which is translated into English as “compassion” or “sympathy.” Schopenhauer viewed compassion as a positive virtue and the basis of morality.

Nietzsche rejected this thinking. Compassion is better defined as pity, according to Nietzsche. “A man loses power,” Nietzsche wrote in The Antichrist, “when he pities.” Pity was not a virtue, as Schopenhauer contended, but a vice.

Dolson sums up Nietzsche’s view of mitleid:

“(Sympathy) was a mark of weakness, a disgrace to both the giver and the receiver. In the one it shows a desire to pry into another’s secrets, a total lack of delicacy and reserve; in the other, a willingness to acknowledge oneself beaten and no longer self-sufficient. To found all morality upon sympathy is to make every man a slave.”

Nietzsche and Schopenhauer clashed over more than just compassion. Schopenhauer was a metaphysician who built upon Kant’s transcendental idealism. Nietzsche rejected such metaphysical inquiries.

Dolson elaborates:

“Nietzsche’s interests were never in the direction of metaphysics. He even ridiculed attempts to solve the ultimate problem of the universe, sometimes seeming to base his scorn less upon the frailty of the human reason than upon the conviction that there was no ultimates to be known. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, was a metaphysician.”

Indeed, Nietzsche derided Schopenhauer’s metaphysical arguments as “mystical embarrassments and evasions,” according to Janaway. (Nietzsche similarly dismisses Kant as “a fatal spider” in The Antichrist, and accuses Kant’s metaphysics as nothing but a “philosophy of backdoors” in The Twilight of Idols.)

Even on a fundamental level, the two disagreed on a basic outlook. Schopenhauer’s pessimistic outlook on life, including his skepticism about pleasure and life’s inevitable, meaningless death, can be described as “relentless monotony.”

Nietzsche was by no means a feel-good optimist. Life is full of suffering, but there is inherent meaning to life-affirming action. In The Will to Power, Nietzsche claims, “If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence…in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.”

Dolson describes Nietzsche as a “tragic optimist” — essentially, an optimist with an asterisk.

There were more disagreements besides compassion, metaphysics, and pessimism. Janaway describes many more Schopenhauerian positions — such as the belief that religion contains “important truths,” the “unreality of the individual,” and the “negativity of pleasure” — would have, or did, earn the scorn of Nietzsche.

Nietzsche’s denouncement of Schopenhauer reaches its intellectual climax in the ninety ninth aphorism of The Gay Science. Nietzsche, among other charges, accused Schopenhauer of issuing contradictory statements, corrupting Wagner with anti-Semitism, and foolishly attempting to “initiate a Buddhistic era in Europe.”

Later in life, Nietzsche attempted to downplay Schopenhauer’s impact. Such attempts by Nietzsche should be met with caution.

In his book Nietzsche and The Birth of Tragedy, Paul Raimond Daniels writes, “Nietzsche scholars…are apt to regard Nietzsche’s retrospective appraisals — where Nietzsche portrays the influence of Schopenhauer as unfortunate but minimal — as somewhat of a fabrication.”

Professor Ivan Soll concurs, adding “…the assertion by Nietzsche that Schopenhauer’s influence upon his work was minimal where it was presumably greatest is patently a bit of rhetoric used to remove himself as completely as possible from all association with Schopenhauer…”

At this point in the inquiry, a question arises. If Nietzsche opposed many of Schopenhauer’s positions, and even sought to retroactively minimize Schopenhauer’s impact on him, then why did Nietzsche consider himself a Schopenhauerian for so long in his life?

Why did Nietzsche refer to Schopenhauer as “the only serious moralist” and, even later in his life, refer to Schopenhauer as “a great teacher”?

There are really two answers to this.

First, as Janaway notes, Nietzsche was born and raised in a very religious household. His father and grandfather were both Lutheran ministers, and young Friedrich was destined to follow in their footsteps. Schopenhauer’s first great impact on Nietzsche came from the introduction of a secular framework devoid of an omnipotent or omniscient being.

Second, as Dolson notes, Nietzsche was drawn to Schopenhauer’s “radical independence of tradition and public opinion.”

Schopenhauer attacked any philosopher (not named Kant or Plato) with personal, scathing criticism. He did not care for tradition, public opinion, respecting peers, or following the rules — and neither did Nietzsche. Indeed, it was Schopenhauer’s “intellectual personality” that drew Nietzsche in.

Nietzsche once remarked, “Nothing can be done about it: every master has but a single pupil — and he will not stay loyal to him — for he is also destined to become a master.”

Perhaps this former master was Schopenhauer.

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