Arthur and Adele: A Philosopher’s Strange, Complicated (and Tragic) Relationship with his Sister

(Here is an extended excerpt  from the recently published book, Schopenhauer’s Will: Das Testament by Jack Matthews about the life of  19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.  In this excerpt, Matthews reflects  on Arthur Schopenhauer’s  relationship with his sister Adele.)

The Lonely Life

If a philosopher cannot live philosophically, what good is his philosophy? Schopenhauer understood the ancient ideal of philosophy as the study of how to live wisely and well, and once argued that all great thinkers think concretely, their ideas rooted in perception, with their minds never dismissive of phenomena, and yet. always from a noumenal perspective.  In one sense, the ultimate triumph and validation of such thinking is our ability to govern our passions and live reasonably. And one manifestation of this, is our ability to budget our resources, live within our means, and thereby preside over our lives in ways unknown to those who are subject to the tyrannies of appetite and emotion.

One of the great practical decisions is where to live, and Schopenhauer deliberated over this with great care. After long and serious study, he narrowed his choice to Frankfort and Mannheim, then in English listed their advantages in a double column, as follows:

Healthy ClimateNice weather (in spite of intolerable heat)
Fine countrysideSilent & uncrowded
Comfort of a large cityMore politeness
Better reading room in libraryBetter foreign bookseller
Natural history museumThe Harmony & its library
Better plays, operas, concertsThe Heidelberg library
More EnglishmenGreater sociability
Better coffeehousesBetter baths in summer
No bad waterFewer thieves

Choosing Mannheim, he moved there, where his first decision was to join the Harmony Society. And yet, within a year, he realized he was unhappy. For some reason, he did not feel completely at home. He began to grow restless, dissatisfied. And shortly, the prospect of Frankfort, with its larger English population and better medical care and more congenial coffee houses won him over. It appears that his second choice was a judicious one, for he lived there the rest of his life.

In 1845 his peace of mind was once again disturbed when Adele visited him on her way south to Italy. She was travelling with her dearest friends, Ottilie von Goethe and Sybelle Mertens. It was obvious that in many ways she was living a miserable life, largely dependent upon those two friends simply for subsistence. But she did have friends, at least; which was more than her brother could claim.

She had come to think of herself as a poet, a creator of delicate verse, who would have prospered from her writing if she had been a man. Schopenhauer disagreed, of course, but managed to treat her with something like kindness, even when she read some of her wretched verses aloud one evening, pausing after every stanza to ask if her brother understood its meaning. Twice in speaking of their mother, she broke down and cried, which infuriated Schopenhauer; he was infuriated simply by the notion that anyone could feel pity for that hopeless bitch. But here, too, he somehow managed to behave himself, and the next morning when Adele and her two friends departed, brother and sister could almost have passed for friends.

In solitude be a multitude unto thyself.  — Tibullus

His Sister’s Will

This was the last time he would see Adele. In four years she was dead. Her will specified that her pathetic savings were to be distributed evenly between her two friend, while her brother, identified as the “bachelor philosopher who lives in Frankfort” was to receive her reading glasses (still smudged with her small fingerprints), a broken gold locket concealing their mother’s portrait, a soft-paper notebook containing thirty-one of her pastel drawings of birds, flowers, and the naked human foot, along with the following poem, written in her own hand, written in her own hand, on peach-tinted paper, and dedicated simply to “my brother, Arthur”:

By Adele Schopenhauer

The winds wail at evening. I can hear its broom
Sweeping the air in the alleyways at night.
I can hear it crying from my small, lonely room
Knowing each and every syllable of fright.

“Why is one born to suffer?” the heart asks;
“And why should we yearn for what can never be?”
In my little room I busy myself with tasks.
They quiet the mind, knowing the heart can’t see.

One day Kierkegaard would write that man is an egotist, thus essentially tragic and condemned to depair. He would also argue that God is beyond the reach of human reason. And he would say that Eternity matters, not suffering. Finally, he would conclude that all huamn understanding leads to either error or paradox. Upon all this, the shadow of Schopenhauer’s thought had fallen…

That person is happiest, whether king or peasant, who finds peace at home
— Goethe


Reproduced  from Schopenhauer’s Will: Das Testament by Jack Matthews,  with permission from  Nine Point Publishing. Related: See an extended book review.

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