Essay by Schopenhauer about reason and will


Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher working in the first half of the 19th century, whose book The World as Will and Representation (1818 and 1844) proposed that Will (desire) drives Nature forwards and affects human behaviour more than nature, often bringing discontent to individuals. 

We know that Thomas Hardy read this book by Schopenhauer, as it was included in the inventory of his books when he died. Hardy wrote his name on the title page, and marked various passages. On the page shown here Schopenhauer is discussing the idea of the will, which exists as ‘the eternal and indestructible in man’; ‘the will is what is the primary, the prius of the organism… that thing in itself, which only becomes apparent as an organic body in our representation’. This is to say that the will is the driving force which is made visible in nature, i.e. all things. The will or desire in humans is what sets us up for disappointment, so the desire for more is the root of all suffering.

Schopenhauer’s thinking as seen in Tess of the d’Urbervilles

It is possible to read Tess of the d’Urbervilles as a dramatisation of Hardy’s reading of Schopenhauer: tragedy as life, the futile struggle against the Will, seen in the self-destructive impulses that drive the plot forward. Most noticeable is a sense of determinism, the idea that humanity’s actions are controlled by fate, fate that acts unsympathetically in most of Hardy’s works. This finds its manifestation in Tess in unconscious, instinctive behaviour. Impulsive actions show the influence of an underlying determinism, taking away the choices of the individual. For Schopenhauer, contentment for the individual could be achieved only through passivity.

In Tess of the d’Urbervilles these impulses lead to destruction. An example of this occurs when Clare sleeps on his decision to reject Tess, and then rationalises his ‘gut feeling’. Another is Tess’s decision to get into Alec’s carriage, leading her onto the road that ends with her destruction.

For Schopenhauer these are manifestations of Will, an underlying trend or push that negates the individual’s chance of happiness. In the novel Hardy creates the impression of a blind mechanistic force dictating human behaviour, with Tess as the main victim of her own impulses.

From his reading of Schopenhauer Hardy took other ideas, primarily a belief in a pantheistic force in nature, in which all creation is connected as one entity; and the idea that death is a positive alternative to a helpless life determined by blind irrational impulse.

The first idea is seen in Hardy’s view of nature as the expression of will: ‘So the two forces were at work here as everywhere, the inherent will to enjoy, and the circumstantial will against enjoyment’. If God exists in this cosmos, that God is definitely not interested in human affairs. Natural events, particularly those which show creatures at the mercy of winds or their own instinctive desire for shelter, which lead to their own destruction, are part of the same story that includes the main characters’ destruction of their own contentment. If Providence or Fate plays any part, it is as the President of the Immortals’ consideration of Tess as ‘sport’, something to be chased and destroyed for fun.

The second idea is seen in the repeated references to birth as a ‘curse’ or as ‘an offence’, with life seen as a ‘plight’ or a ‘degrading compulsion’, and death as an ‘emancipation’. The last phase of the novel, culminating in Tess’s death, is called Fulfilment.

Full title:
Two Essays ... I. On the fourfold root of the principle of Sufficient Reason. II. On the Will in Nature. A literal translation [from the fourth edition, edited with a preface by J. Frauenstädt].
1889, London
Artur Schopenhauer
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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