Schopenhauer. 5. An Atheist Seeks Immortality

In Arthur Schopenhauer we meet the paradox of an atheist who believed in immortality.

A quick reflex would be to declare Schopenhauer hopelessly confused and dismiss him out of hand. That’s difficult for me, however, because he developed the concept of will so decisively.

I believe that the concept of will marks a path, an intellectual path at least, that makes belief in God reasonable. Let me try to explain.

When I was 14 years old, I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. It happened at Wesley Methodist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, during a Lay Witness Mission – a weekend in which the regular members from another church came to visit ours and to testify that they were “on fire for Jesus.” I responded by following my friends up to the front of the church and even took my turn at the pulpit, where I said something to the gathered saints about the Holy Spirit being so thick you could cut it with a knife – not sure why that particular line occurred to me, but it seemed to describe the emotion.

I continue to honor the decision of that 14-year-old boy responding to God’s call and to the witness of my friends. Ever since, through 54 additional years of life and encounters with untold numbers of divergently thinking people mostly in science and medicine, among whom I also count many friends,  I’ve found no reason to label myself anything other than a committed Christian.

Nevertheless, questions come up – questions more so than doubts – about the reasonableness of an intellectual basis for belief in God. It’s not so much about my own beliefs or doubts; it’s more about what I might tell other people. Is belief in God intellectually reasonable?

Again, here’s a quick answer: Intellect gets in the way and should be discarded. The irrationality of the decision to believe becomes itself a badge of genuine belief. The dumber the choice appears, the more certain you or I should be that it is the right choice.

I’m sorry. That is not the way I think about my faith.

Through young adult years, stealing scraps of time now and then from career and family to think about faith, I began to think the question of God is just too hard to explore in terms of reason and experience, too hard at least as an initial question. One should first look to answer one or more questions more closely tied to daily, personal life.

It occurred to me that if I could begin to understand my own self in terms of spirit or soul, then perhaps it would become easier to recognize God as a spiritual being. But even questions about my own soul or spirit might be burdened with too much baggage to be helpful. They are too closely linked with eternal destinations, heaven and hell. Who can understand what the human soul is, where it comes from, or where it’s bound? Again it’s too much.

Yet I might distill it down and ask simply – What does a soul do? The answer to this bare question seems clear. A soul makes choices. A soul (my soul or yours) creates or discovers or directs a journey through life. Is it creation, discovery, or direction? I’m not sure there is any difference.

A less encumbered name for a soul that makes choices is simply a will. Late one Friday night as a young adult I decided this: To develop a clear notion of how the human will (my will) works could be the most important initial step I can make toward understanding GSOT.

If I can make a reasonable argument that my will is something more than a combination of genetics, environment, and randomness, tossed and blended together, then and only then shall my choices in life fit into a vastly greater category of significance. Maybe this is what the old philosophers would call transcendence. Perhaps it is transcendence I’m looking to gain by asking if I really have free will.

The recognition of will, call it “free will” or just “will” whichever you like, in your own life could be the most important step you can make toward leaving the accidental world behind. In the end you might even find yourself responding personally to the universe or to God.

Understanding the will may be the key to understanding GSOT. It’s no surprise how powerfully I was and still am attracted to the work of Arthur Schopenhauer, who thought and wrote more clearly about the will than any other philosopher.

We have been sampling Schopenhauer’s ideas through the previous 4 blogs. Before closing this brief survey of his work, now let’s find out what he thought about religion. The answer is going to be complex. He expressed less compatibility with traditional Christianity in Parerga and Paralipomena than he did in The World as Will and Representation. Here is an excerpt from the former work:

I suppose I shall have to be told again that my philosophy is cheerless and comfortless simply because I tell the truth, whereas people want to hear that the Lord has made all things very well. Go to your churches and leave us philosophers in peace! At any rate, do not demand that they should cut their doctrines according to your pattern! This is done by knaves and philosophasters from whom you can order whatever doctrines you like.[1]

It’s easy to describe Schopenhauer’s religious viewpoint by saying that he was an atheist. However, he also believed in immortality. On the surface, it looks as if he believed in no God other than himself. But that’s unfair.

To understand his stance on religion better, let’s look at some terminology. First, the word “God,” then “atheism.” Here is how Schopenhauer defined “God”:

[Theism demands] a world-cause that is not only different from the world, but is intelligent, that is to say, knows and wills, and so is personal and consequently also individual; it is only such a cause that is indicated by the word God. An impersonal God is no God at all, but merely a word wrongly used, a misconception….[2]

If theism means believing in such a personal God, then what does atheism imply? There are actually two answers. The first answer is that atheism refers to the belief that the causal foundation of the world is less than personal and intelligent, that quantum interactions among mathematically defined particles and forces governed by physical laws and randomness give rise to the world in which we find ourselves. But atheism can also refer to a belief that the causal foundation of the world is more than what can be described as personal and individual and willing. This is an atheism that Schopenhauer attributed to Buddhism and to Hinduism expressed in the Upanishads. Despite using Brahma to name the supreme being, Buddhism in particular, according to Schopenhauer, is atheistic because Brahma does not relate to humans in any personal way. The same kind of religious nontheistic viewpoint was expressed by Albert Einstein, who said (in a passage already quoted in these blogs),

…whoever has undergone the intense experience of successful advances made in this domain [of science] is moved by profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence. By way of the understanding he achieves a far-reaching emancipation from the shackles of personal hopes and desires, and thereby attains that humble attitude of mind toward the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence, and which, in its profoundest depths, is inaccessible to man. This attitude, however, appears to me to be religious, in the highest sense of the word.[3]

In the following passage from The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer interprets Christian doctrine as compatible with Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. What Einstein describes above as “inaccessible to man,” Schopenhauer views as “accessible” leading toward “salvation.” Will-less knowledge is the goal toward which we may move through suppression of the will, which allows an “entrance into freedom” which is eternal freedom as opposed to mere “free choice.”

Now since, as we have seen, that self-suppression of the will comes from knowledge, but all knowledge and insight as such are independent of free choice, that denial of willing, that entrance into freedom, is not to be forcibly arrived at by intention or design, but comes from the innermost relation of knowing and willing in man; hence it comes suddenly, as if flying in from without. Therefore, the Church calls it the effect of grace…. In consequence of such an effect of grace, man’s whole inner nature is fundamentally changed and reversed, so that he no longer wills anything of all that he previously willed so intensely; thus a new man, so to speak, actually takes the place of the old. For this reason, the Church calls the consequence of the effect of grace new birth or regeneration. For what she calls the natural man, to whom she denies all capacity for good, is that very will-to-live that must be denied if salvation is to be obtained from an existence like ours. Behind our existence lies something else that becomes accessible to us only by our shaking off the world.[4]

Schopenhauer stated that “the really essential element in a religion as such consists in the conviction it gives that our existence proper is not limited to our life, but is infinite.” He then connected infinite existence with immortality, asserting that every major religion except Judaism has some doctrine of life after death. In the religion of Brahmans and Buddhists, which he favored, immortality is neither personal nor individual, but subsists in the experience of all knowledge.[5]

In the following passage, again from The World as Will and Representation, he moves from a consideration of the experience of beauty to a vision of final destination as a “pure knowing being.”

Aesthetic pleasure in the beautiful consists, to a large extent, in the fact that, when we enter the state of pure contemplation, we are raised for the moment above all willing, above all desires and cares; we are, so to speak, rid of ourselves. We are no longer the individual that knows in the interest of its constant willing, the correlative of the particular thing to which objects become motives, but the eternal subject of knowing purified of the will, the correlative of the Idea. And we know that these moments, when, delivered from the fierce pressure of the will, we emerge, as it were, from the heavy atmosphere of the earth, are the most blissful that we experience. From this we can infer how blessed must be the life of a man whose will is silenced not for a few moments, as in the enjoyment of the beautiful, but for ever, indeed completely extinguished, except for the last glimmering spark that maintains the body and is extinguished with it. Such a man, after many bitter struggles with his own nature, has at last completely conquered, is then left only as pure knowing being, as the undimmed mirror of the world.[6]

In the following, knowledge leads to true freedom by silencing the will.

We therefore see the histories of the inner life of saints full of spiritual conflicts, temptations, and desertion from grace, in other words, from that kind of knowledge which, by rendering all motives ineffectual, as a universal quieter silences all willing, gives the deepest peace, and opens the gate to freedom.[7]

This description of the final destination appears near the end of the book.

We now turn our glance from our own needy and perplexed nature to those who have overcome the world, in whom the will, having reached complete self-knowledge, has found itself again in everything, and then freely denied itself, and who then merely wait to see the last trace of the will vanish with the body that is animated by that trace. Then, instead of the restless pressure and effort; instead of the constant transition from desire to apprehension and from joy to sorrow; instead of the never-satisfied and never-dying hope that constitute the life-dream of the man who wills, we see that peace that is higher than all reason, that ocean-like calmness of the spirit, that deep tranquility, that unshakable confidence and serenity, whose mere reflection in the countenance, as depicted by Raphael and Correggio, is a complete and certain gospel. Only knowledge remains; the will has vanished.[8]

Schopenhauer added in a footnote: “This is also the Prajna-Paramita of the Buddhists, the ‘beyond all knowledge,’ in other words, the point where subject and object no longer exist.”

I do not agree with Schopenhauer’s denial of the personal aspects of religion. He avowed atheism. I believe in God. Nevertheless, his writings shown above make it clear that he gained inspiration from a transcendent religious vision.

Could Schopenhauer’s vision be appropriated into a coherent theistic frame, enhancing response to the divine Person? I don’t know. That is a question and a task for the future.


Next post:  The Will from Schopenhauer to Tolstoy

Previous post:  Schopenhauer. 4. The Worst of All Possible Worlds

Searching for GSOT outline:  Home

Header image: Composite of (A) Brahma at Erawan Shrine Ratchaprasong by J Aaron Farr (, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons, and (B) Arthur Schopenhauer in 1845, daguerrotype from, author Johann Jacob Seib, Public domain.

[1] Schopenhauer, A. Parerga and Paralipomena. Chapter 12: Additional Remarks on the Doctrine of the Suffering of the World. Transl. E.F.J. Payne. Clarendon Press, 1974.

[2] Schopenhauer, A. Parerga and Paralipomena. Chapter 1: Fragments for the History of Philosophy. Transl. E.F.J. Payne. Clarendon Press, 1974.

[3] Einstein, A. Ideas and Opinions. Bonanza, New York, 1954, p. 49.

[4] Schopenhauer, A. The World as Will and Representation (WAWR). Transl. Payne, E.F.J. Dover, New York, 1969, pp. 404-405.

[5] Parerga and Paralipomena. Chapter 1: Fragments for the History of Philosophy. Transl. E.F.J. Payne. Clarendon Press, 1974.

[6] Schopenhauer, A. WAWR, p.390.

[7] Ibid. P. 391.

[8] Ibid. Pp. 411-412.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s