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