Art Philosophy

Arthur Schopenhauer’s Aesthetics

Arthur Schopenhauer is one of the most important, if otherwise neglected, philosophers of the nineteenth century. He is, alongside Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the supreme figures of post-Hegelian philosophy, a critic of the Hegelian historicism that pervades German Idealism and scientific socialism (i.e., Marxism and social democracy). He is associated with pious fatalism, that life is, itself, death. As Schopenhauer famously wrote, “Existence is certainly to be regarded as an error or mistake, to return from which is salvation.”

Schopenhauer’s contributions range from phenomenology and aesthetics. Both are actually intimately intertwined even though this isn’t the noticeable at first glance. Schopenhauer stands at the crossroads of Platonic Christianity and Orientalism, principally his limited but intoxicating understanding of Buddhism. He marries Augustinian eroticism and voluntarism, the belief that humans are principally creatures of will, with the Buddhist metaphysic of renunciation, that the world is itself the burden of our existence and ending existence in the body is liberation from the ills and ailments we suffer. This merits Schopenhauer’s association with fatalism. Existence sucks, in other words.

Because man is fundamentally desire, this desire is the nexus of the body and the world of bodies it inhabits. We are objects among objects and the compulsive eros that drives these bodily objects is unknowable, the “thing-in-itself,” which causes our misery because we can not know our deepest desire. This want for knowledge, satisfaction, contentment, is what spurs us on this never-ending quest. It is, however, never-ending because we can never achieve that contentment we desire. This is the error of Christianity, which posits that through union with Love (God is Love) serenity can be reached. The superiority of Buddhism, on this account, is in its recognition that embodied life is awful, despicable, even evil. This realization, the realization of despairing wisdom, is the closest we get to the contentment of our will and representation.

The one thing in the world that comes closest to the truth is aesthetics. Aesthetic rapture, or experience, is perhaps Schopenhauer’s great gift to the intellectual life. Aesthetic experience is the closest manifestation of satisfaction because the will is temporarily pacified in the aesthetic experience, or encounter, as we are overwhelmed by sublimity.

Consider the most moving paintings in the Western tradition and the truth they communicate according to Schopenhauer: Death. Some of the most recognizable and moving paintings in the artistic tradition of Western civilization deal with death, thereby subtly communicating to us what life is really about. Hector and Achilles. The murder of Julius Caesar. The suicide of Cleopatra. The Passion and Crucifixion of Christ. The martyrdom of the Christian saints. The grand spectacles of battle under the landscape of smoke and fire. Aesthetic representations of death capture us, pull us in, and cause our erotic desires to be temporarily suspended in this overwhelming experience of sublimity which verges on death just as Edmund Burke explained nearly a century earlier.

We are attracted to this kind of aesthetic experience in particular because death is the only escape from the restlessness of life. Here, readers of Schopenhauer who are well-versed in theology and Indian studies will see the overlap between Augustinian anthropology (the restless soul and its desire for beauty as refuge from lust and sin) with the Buddhist metaphysic of renunciation. Aesthetic experience captures this union and points us into the direction of Schopenhauer’s assertion of that to return from existence, that is to experience death, is “salvation” in the sense that the restless experience we are enslaved to finally dissipates.

But since we are unwilling to end our existence through suicide, we seek, paradoxically, continuous aesthetic experiences that bring us the temporary reprieve from existence. In aesthetic ecstasy, the restless soul is overwhelmed, we experience a sort of death—so to speak—which brings us that momentary peace in the aesthetic encounter. Art and aesthetics, for Schopenhauer, is the antidote to our bodily suffering. Schopenhauer can then be taken to his next logical extreme: in a world of meaninglessness we find “meaning” in aesthetic experiences that represent death: Schopenhauer is a prophet of aestheticism, the man who correctly ascertained that modernity’s malaise would lead to a new interest in art and aesthetics. It’s no wonder why the greatest artist of aesthetic destruction, Richard Wagner, was a disciple of Schopenhauer when finishing The Ring of the Nibelung.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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