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Arthur Schopenhauer: The Metaphysical Futility of Suicide

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This chapter provides a full and complete analysis of Schopenhauer’s view of suicide. Drawing on the limited secondary literature existing on this subject, attention is first focused on Schopenhauer’s dismissal of previous religious and philosophical arguments against this act, giving particular attention to his critique of Kant’s arguments (§3.1). Subsequently, the main points of Schopenhauer’s metaphysical worldview are presented and explained. Particular attention is given to Schopenhauer’s gloomy understanding of human condition and to his conception of death (§3.2). Having sketched the main features of what is commonly known as Schopenhauer’s pessimism, attention is drawn to Schopenhauer’s own argument for the futility of suicide as well as to his position on asceticism and on voluntary death by starvation (§3.3).


  • Suicide
  • Schopenhauer
  • Will
  • Negation
  • Asceticism

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  1. 1.

    The fourth part of this lecture contains a section dedicated to suicide, which is almost identical to section 69 of The World as Will and Representation. This lecture was given in Berlin in 1820. Schopenhauer requested to schedule his classes at the same time as Hegel’s principal lectures. It was a gross mistake: “Students flocked to Hegel and ignored Schopenhauer. While Hegel enrolled around two hundred of Berlin’s approximately eleven hundred students, Schopenhauer enrolled only five. Although Schopenhauer’s name would be listed in the prospectus of lectures from 1820–1822 and 1826–1831, he never enrolled and completed a course. His academic career was a disaster” (Cartwright 2005: xxxi).

  2. 2.

    To these aspects, it is possible to add the following three reasons listed by Dieter Birnbacher (1985: 115): (1) Suicide represents a central point in Schopenhauer’s philosophy; (2) Schopenhauer’s ethical evaluation of suicide is extremely nuanced (according to Birnbacher, such a degree of nuanced ethical evaluation of suicide has only been reached again in modern analytic ethics); (3) Schopenhauer’s way of considering suicide is characterized by a radical absence of bias and prejudices.

  3. 3.

    Mainländer wrote the first volume in 1874 and the second one in 1876. The first volume was published in 1876; the second, ten years later, in 1886.

  4. 4.

    For an overview of Mainländer’s philosophy of redemption, see Beiser (2016: 201–228). In a section of his work dedicated to suicide, Mainländer explains that immanent philosophy (according to him, true philosophy must be purely immanent) does not encourage suicide. However, in the service of truth, it undermines the powerful reasons against it. See Mainländer (1879: 350).

  5. 5.

    See Beiser (2016: 122).

  6. 6.

    The words “vulgar bigoted England [pöbelhaft bigotten England]” are omitted in the Cambridge edition. As Birnbacher (1985: 121) points out, in England suicide was decriminalized only in 1961 with the Suicide Act, whereas in France, already in 1790, and in Prussia, in 1794. The same “disgraceful bigotry and scandalous preacher hegemony” is the reason for which Hume’s essay On Suicide, which Schopenhauer found very insightful, “had to be secretly smuggled from there [England], like a churlish ruse, until it found refuge abroad” (PP II: 278–279).

  7. 7.

    On this, see Birnbacher (1985: 127), Cartwright (2005: 167), Jacquette (2005: 140).

  8. 8.

    See WWR I: 428. As already mentioned, Schopenhauer considered death by starvation as a form of suicide.

  9. 9.

    See also WWR II: 486. Note the similarity with Hume’s essay On Suicide: “though death alone can put a full period to his misery, he dares not fly to this refuge, but still prolongs a miserable existence, from a vain fear lest he offend his maker, by using the power with which that beneficent being has endowed him” (Hume 1996: 316).

  10. 10.

    See Hume (1996: 394): “It would be easy to prove that Suicide is as lawful under the Christian dispensation as it was to the heathens. There is not a single text of scripture which prohibits it.” On this, see Minois (1995: 29–36). It is noteworthy that, in The City of God (I, 20), Saint Augustine reverses the perspective and argues that “it is not without significance that, in the holy canonical books, no divine precept or permission can be discovered which allows us to bring about our own death, either to obtain immortality or to avert or avoid some evil” (Augustine 1998: 32).

  11. 11.

    See Birnbacher (1985: 119).

  12. 12.

    See PP II: 279, footnote. Schopenhauer’s source here is Rousseau.

  13. 13.

    As shown, a similar argument can be found in Kant’s Lecture on Ethics. See Sect. 2.2.1 of this book, dedicated to Kant’s religious argument.

  14. 14.

    See Hume (1996: 321–322). See also MR I: 437.

  15. 15.

    Compare with Kant’s crime argument analysed in Sect. 2.2.2 of this book.

  16. 16.

    Pliny’s passage is quoted by Schopenhauer in Latin.

  17. 17.

    The allusion is to the following passage from the Genesis (I, 31): “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” See also WWR II: 638–640.

  18. 18.

    See also WWR II: 522.

  19. 19.

    See Aristotle (2004: 101): “A person who cuts his throat in a fit of anger is doing this voluntarily, contrary to correct reason, and the law does not allow this; so he is acting unjustly. But towards whom? Surely towards the city, not himself, since he suffers voluntarily, and no one voluntarily suffers injustice?”

  20. 20.

    As mentioned in the previous chapter, for an overview of the Stoic view of suicide, see Rist (1977: 233–255).

  21. 21.

    Schopenhauer makes clear that his conception of practical reason should not be confused with Kant’s. On this, see WWR I: 112.

  22. 22.

    Here are only some of the critiques advanced by Schopenhauer: Kant’s assumption of the existence of moral laws (without proofs) involves a begging of the question; the concept of absolute ought is a contradiction in terms; his formal ethics is unkind and abstract; his ethics is devoid of any secure foundation and is essentially a conversion of theological morality disguised in abstract formulae; reason is something secondary: the real essence of the human being is will. On this, see particularly Young (1984).

  23. 23.

    See section 3 of On the Basis of Morals, in which Schopenhauer motivates his decision.

  24. 24.

    See section 23 of the Doctrine of the Elements of Ethics in The Metaphysics of Morals.

  25. 25.

    The principle, attributed to the Latin jurist Ulpian, originally reads nulla iniuria est, quae in volentem fiat (D. 47, 10, 1, 5).

  26. 26.

    To strengthen his argumentation, Schopenhauer quotes the following passage from Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals (MM, 6: 386): “What everyone already wants unavoidably, of his own accord, does not come under the concept of duty.” Here Kant specifically refers to one’s own happiness.

  27. 27.

    For a detailed analysis of Schopenhauer’s argument and the questions that it raises, see Jaquette (2007) and Shapshay (2019: 48–52). See also the chapter On the Possibility of Knowing the Thing-in-Itself from the second volume of The Will as World and Representation (§18). Shapshay (2019: 50–51) rightly recalls that, in identifying the thing in itself as will, Schopenhauer is using a denominatio a potiori, that is, “a denomination from the superior term that gives the concept of will a broader scope than it has had before” (WWR I: 135).

  28. 28.

    On this, see particularly Schopenhauer’s 1836 essay On the Will in Nature.

  29. 29.

    See WWR I: 154–155: “I understand by Idea every determinate and fixed level of the will’s objectification, to the extent that it is a thing in itself and thus foreign to all multiplicity; indeed, these levels relate to individual things as their eternal forms or archetypes.” On Schopenhauer on Platonic ideas, see White (2012) and Mann (2017), as well as chapter 29 of the second volume of The Will as World and Representation.

  30. 30.

    According to Schopenhauer, this struggle reveals itself with the most terrible clarity in the human race, as best synthesized in the Latin maxim homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to man). See WWR I: 172.

  31. 31.

    For a critique of this position, see Simmel (1991: 53–58).

  32. 32.

    For a critique of Schopenhauer’s “pain or boredom” argument, see Young (2003: 41–43). See also Janaway’s analysis of Schopenhauer’s “argument from the ubiquity of suffering within the structure of willing” (Janaway 1999: 327–335).

  33. 33.

    At the same time, it should be recalled that Schopenhauer developed a eudemonology (“the art of living life as pleasantly and happily as possible”; PP I: 273) in his Aphorisms on the Wisdom of Life and worked on a treatise on the art of being happy. Nevertheless, Schopenhauer’s eudemonology is to be understood as a pessimist or negative eudemonology, that is, as a theory of happiness whose aim is to minimize suffering rather than maximize happiness. On this, see Neymeyr (1996) and Debona (2016).

  34. 34.

    See Plutarch (Moralia, Consolatio ad Apollonium, sec. 27): “So, for example, they say that Silenus, after the hunt in which Midas of yore had captured him, when Midas questioned and inquired of him what is the best thing for mankind and what is the most preferable of all things, was at first unwilling to tell, but maintained a stubborn silence. But when at last, by employing every device, Midas induced him to say something to him, Silenus, forced to speak, said: ‘Ephemeral offspring of a travailing genius and of harsh fortune, why do you force me to speak what it were better for you men not to know? For a life spent in ignorance of one’s own woes is most free from grief. But for men it is utterly impossible that they should obtain the best thing of all, or even have any share in its nature (for the best thing for all men and women is not to be born); however, the next best thing to this, and the first of those to which man can attain, but nevertheless only the second best, is, after being born, to die as quickly as possible’” (Plutarch 1928: 179). Plutarch is here quoting from Aristotle’s Eudemus or On the Soul, a lost dialogue. As will be shown in the next chapter, Nietzsche discusses the wisdom of Silenus——via Schopenhauer——in The Birth of Tragedy. Although Schopenhauer does not make explicit reference to the wisdom of Silenus, there is little doubt that he shares this view (indeed, it is symptomatic that, in his study on pessimism in German philosophy, Beiser (2016: 45) defines Schopenhauer precisely as “the modern Silenus”). See the following passages: “Our existence is happiest when we are least able to feel it: from which it follows that it would be better not to exist at all” (WWR II: 590); “If therefore the evil were a hundred times less in the world than is the case, then the mere existence of evil would still be sufficient to ground a truth that can be expressed in different ways although only ever somewhat indirectly, namely that we should be sorry rather than glad about the existence of the world; that its non-existence would be preferable to its existence; that it is something that fundamentally should not be, etc.” (id.: 591–592); “There is in fact no goal to our existence except the recognition that we would have been better off not existing” (id.: 620). The same position is defended by Mainländer (1879: 208) who, in his Philosophy of Redemption, explicitly claims that “not to be is better than to be [Nichtsein ist besser als Sein].” See also Leopardi’s Dialogue between Malambruno and Farfarello (Moral Essays [Operette morali]), where Malambruno claims that, “in absolute terms, not living is always better than living” (Leopardi 1982: 103). For a recent defence of what is commonly known as anti-natalism, see Benatar (2006). See also Cioran (1976).

  35. 35.

    For an analysis of what is commonly known as the gift argument, see Battin (1996: 34–38) and Cholbi (2011: 47–53).

  36. 36.

    On this, see Janaway (1999: 319) and Cartwright (2005: 125 and 2010: 4, n. 11; 534, n. 31). In addition to the passage from Adversaria (§66) mentioned by Cartwright, I found Schopenhauer referring to his own philosophy as pessimism in Pandectae II, 49, as well as in the letters to Julius Frauenstädt (17 February 1853 and 15 July 1855) and to David Asher (16 June 1860).

  37. 37.

    See Shapshay (2019: 75).

  38. 38.

    Schopenhauer also speaks in exact similar terms of “fuga mortis” (“flight from death”) in WWR II: 485.

  39. 39.

    Topica III, 2. See Aristotle 1960: 399: “For living a good life is better than merely living.”

  40. 40.

    Schopenhauer considers the “horrors of death [Schrecknisse des Todes]”, which stand “as guards before the exit gate” (PP II: 279), also in his essay On Suicide. In this essay, he argues that “perhaps there is no one living who would not have made an end of his life if this end were something purely negative, a sudden cessation of existence.—Only there is something positive involved, namely the destruction of the body. This scares us off precisely because the body is the appearance of the will to life” (id.: 279–280).

  41. 41.

    As Singh (2007: 29) points out, “the contemplation of death remains the muse of Schopenhauer’s own philosophical system.” On Schopenhauer on death, besides Singh’s study, see Jacquette (1999).

  42. 42.

    See Diogenes Laertius, X, 125; 1925: 651. In the first volume of The World as Will and Representation, however, Schopenhauer makes clear that “it is not pain that we fear in death […] what we fear in death is in fact the termination of the individual” (WWR I: 309). For an analysis of Epicurus’ argument, see Wittwer (2003: 234–241). For an analysis of Schopenhauer’s Epicurean arguments, see Janaway (2017: 3711–3713).

  43. 43.

    For a similar argument, see letter 77 of Seneca’s Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (LXXVII, 11; Seneca 1920: 175). It is noteworthy that in his book The Trouble with Being Born Cioran puts forward the following counterargument: “Why fear the nothing in store for us when it is no different from the nothing which preceded us: this argument of the Ancients against the fear of death is unacceptable as consolation. Before, we had the luck not to exist; now we exist, and it is this particle of existence, hence of misfortune, which dreads death” (Cioran 1976: 95). In passing, it may be also mentioned that a similar argument to the one put forward by Schopenhauer in the quoted passage was also used by the Italian poet Torquato Tasso to cheer the philosopher Bernardino Telesio for the loss of his son. Tasso asked Telesio whether he regretted, before his son was born, the fact that he did not exist yet. Telesio answered that he did not. So, Tasso asked, why was Telesio now regretting the fact that his son did no longer exist (see Manso 1825: 262).

  44. 44.

    Schopenhauer defines this “return to the womb of nature” as “cessio bonorum [surrender of goods]” (WWR II: 486), an expression derived from Roman Law which calls to mind the religious argument against suicide based on the property analogy (see the analysis of Kant’s religious argument in Sect. 2.2.1 of this book).

  45. 45.

    See Homer, The Iliad, VI, 146: “Even as are the generations of leaves, such are those also of men” (Homer 1924: 273).

  46. 46.

    On Schopenhauer’s consoling view of death, see Janaway (2017).

  47. 47.

    To convey the idea that birth and death touch only the individual, not the will, Schopenhauer makes use of the same metaphor in section 65: “Death […] is like the setting of the sun that only seems to be devoured by night, but in truth, as the source of all light, burns without pause, bringing new days to new worlds, forever rising and forever setting” (WWR I: 393). Like the sun, the will, which lies outside of time and, therefore, remains untouched by beginnings and endings, objectifies itself without pause and brings new individuals to life. This is why, Schopenhauer concludes, suicide is no solution.

  48. 48.

    See Shakespeare (2009: 60): “To be, or not to be, that is the question, / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing, end them.”

  49. 49.

    To convey the idea of the futility of the act of suicide that destroys the single appearance but leaves the thing in itself untouched, Schopenhauer uses the image of the rainbow that “remains stable however rapidly the drops that support it at any given moment might change” (WWR I: 426). See also MR I: 433, where suicide is defined as “the master-stroke of Maya.”

  50. 50.

    See also MR III: 108–109.

  51. 51.

    See also Cosculluela (1995: 114).

  52. 52.

    On this, see Birnbacher (1985: 125). See also Fox (1980: 167): “though Schopenhauer categorically rejects all attempts to establish personal survival of death and adds that consolation in the face of death cannot be derived from this source, he proceeds nevertheless to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of his own dicta.”

  53. 53.

    This argument recalls Kant’s natural law argument, according to which the suicide’s maxim cannot be thought as a universal law of nature without contradiction (see Sect. 2.3.1 of this book). On this, see Jacquette (1999: 305 and 2000: 48). See also Gómez Alonso (2018: 306–308). As seen in the previous chapter, Kant puts forward two more arguments that emphasize the self-contradictory aspect of suicide, namely the freedom argument and the subject of duty argument (respectively, Sect. 2.2.3 and 2.3.3 of this book).

  54. 54.

    Needless to say, one can abhor life’s pleasures, but still find the burdens of life unbearable and, thus, choose to commit suicide.

  55. 55.

    See Dühring (1877: 176–177).

  56. 56.

    See MR I: 530–531.

  57. 57.

    For a similar critique, see Trogan (2013: 8).

  58. 58.

    See also Jacquette (1999: 309).

  59. 59.

    See chapter 44 of the Supplements to The World as Will and Representation.

  60. 60.

    See also Cartwright’s distinction between a broader and a narrower sense of morality in Schopenhauer (Cartwright 1999).

  61. 61.

    See Birnbacher (1985: 125–126).

  62. 62.

    Section 121 belongs, indeed, to the essay On Jurisprudence and Politics.

  63. 63.

    On this, see Janaway (2016).

  64. 64.

    In section 68 of the first part of The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer defines asceticism as follows: “I understand by it, in the narrow sense, this deliberate breaking of the will by forgoing what is pleasant and seeking out what is unpleasant, choosing a lifestyle of penitence and self-castigation for the constant mortification of the will.”

  65. 65.

    As Shapshay (2019: 119) points out, this distinction might be misleading. Schopenhauer’s view is that “denial of the will-to-life per se depends on knowledge; the real difference between the two paths is that in the second, but not the first, that knowledge is acquired as a result of personal suffering.” See WWR I: 427: “The will to life itself cannot be suppressed by anything except cognition.”

  66. 66.

    Pseudonym of Matthias Claudius. See Cartwright (2010: 29–30).

  67. 67.

    On this, see particularly Jacquette (1999: 312–314). On Schopenhauer on freedom from will, see chapter 11 of Janaway (1989), especially pp. 283–285.


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Stellino, P. (2020). Arthur Schopenhauer: The Metaphysical Futility of Suicide. In: Philosophical Perspectives on Suicide . Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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