Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College


Arthur Schopenhauer's
The World as Will and Representation

Lecture I

Schopenhauer and Buddhism

The Buddha's four noble truths and Schopenhauer

In which a favorable comparison will be drawn between the four noble truths of Buddhism and some of the key themes in Schopenhauer's philosophy.

The Four Noble Truths, on which all Buddhism is based, can be summarized thus:

1. Life is Dukkha. Life is full with suffering.

2. The cause of that suffering is that we desire. If we did not desire we would not suffer.

3. Despite this rather grim diagnosis, there is hope.

4. Hope lies in the Noble Eightfold Path.

In his own philosophy, Arthur Schopenhauer believes much of what Buddhism teaches in its Four Noble Truths, and then he adds something to each of these four truths. What Schopenhauer adds can be summarized in the following table, after which each element will be briefly explained.


 The Four Noble Truths

Schopenhauer adds 

1. Life is full with suffering   The World is mere Vorstellung
2. Suffering is rooted in desire  a) The cause of suffering is willing
b) The world as Der Wille 
 3. There is hope  There is miniscule hope
 4. Hope is in the Noble Eightfold Path Hope lies in:
a) aesthetic contemplation
b) the practice of asceticism 
  1. To Buddhism's first noble truth, that all life is full with suffering, Schopenhauer adds that the entire experienced world is not fully and entirely real. It is mere representation (Vorstellung) and has only the kind of phenomenal reality that the shadows have in Plato's cave.

  2. To the second noble truth, that all suffering is rooted in desire, Schopenhauer adds two things:

    a) Suffering is actually rooted in both desire and fear (the inclinations to approach or avoid), the two primary motivators of all actions. Both of these inclinations are, for Schopenhauer, included in the concept of will. Thus, all suffering is rooted in willing.

    b) The true underlying nature of the entire phenomenal universe is Will (urge, force, energy, drive). Der Wille is what everything actually is beneath its surface appearances.

  3. There is hope, despite the fact that life is full of suffering and that the world is all an illusion. There may not actually be very much hope because a) most people do not realize the real situation we are in (Noble Truths #1 & #2), and b) even if they did realize it, most people would not have the wisdom or strength to undertake what is necessary to get beyond the illusion and suffering.

  4. The two ways to salvation from the suffering and illusion are
    1. aesthetic encounter with The Beautiful
    2. the practice of asceticism

Each one of these elements of Schopenhauer's thought will be described in more detail in individual mini-lectures, and of course you'll be reading about each of these themes in much more detail in Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. Here are the places in his book where Schopenhauer discusses each of these themes:

Book I The World as Vorstellung
Book II The World as Der Wille
Book III Aesthetic contemplation (of representation)
Book IV Askesis (self-denial)