The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer is renowned for his uncompromising pessimism. His pessimistic worldview is based on his metaphysics, which he expounds in his seminal work The World as Will and Representation (1818). What he believes is true about the fundamental nature of reality has influenced his opinions on many disparate matters, including psychology, ethics, aesthetics, suicide, sex, and love.
I want to focus on Schopenhauer’s views on sex and love, specifically, as I’m interested in the question of how truthful his analysis is. His analysis is pessimistic, no doubt, casting sexual and romantic attraction in a negative light. The Schopenhauerian view on love is anathema to the hopeless romantic. But his somewhat disenchanting perspectives on love are not necessarily unfounded. Pre-dating Darwin’s theory of evolution and modern evolutionary science, Schopenhauer appears to have unearthed some kernel of truth by considering what romantic love is all about.
Before exploring the Schopenhauerian view on sex and love, we first need to clarify Schopenahuer’s general metaphysical views, as laid out in The World as Will and Representation. Schopenhauer adopts the transcendental idealism of Immanuel Kant, which posits that whenever we perceive things, we perceive only appearances and representations of such things, never the things as they are in themselves, the way objects are independent of observation.
Appearances constitute our experiences and are knowable, whereas things-in-themselves are the ultimate level of reality and unknowable. We cannot know of things-in-themselves because all of our sensing and understanding is based on mental categories. We can never perceive or think of something without using the mind and thus we are forever closed off from fundamental reality.
Schopenhauer similarly argued the world of objects in space and time is a representation that depends on a perceiving mind; yet what makes his philosophy unique and divergent from Kant is his interpretation of the thing-in-itself that exists independently from the mind. Schopenhauer proposed that the thing-in-itself is will: a blind, unconscious, pointless striving that expresses itself in all of nature, from inanimate to animate matter. Schopenhauer is not advancing the ludicrous claim that inanimate objects have motivations, which may be suggestive of the term ‘will’; instead, he conceives of the will as an energy or force of nature that expresses itself in all objects, manifesting in a variety of ways.
For Schopenhauer, there are different grades of the will’s objectification. At its lowest grade, the will is objectified in natural forces, such as the laws of gravity (which we can think of as the ‘will’ to attract). In living beings, there is a higher grade of the will’s objectification; it manifests as the will-to-life, the desire to cling onto existence. More specific desires, such as insatiable desires for food and sex, serve this self-preserving, life-affirming instinct. Schopenhauer claimed that the highest degree of the will’s manifestation is found in humans, and in us, he believed, the will-to-life has a unique expression: the experience of love.
Sex and Romantic Love as Expressions of the Will-to-Life
According to Schopenhauer, romantic love is a servant of the will-to-life. While we may think of such love as something highly rewarding in itself, profound, and sacred, an experience separate from base and simple desires, Schopenhauer argued all romantic love is based on the desire to reproduce and propagate the species. It is striving that creates more striving, endlessly and going nowhere.
In The Metaphysics of Sexual Love, an essay in the second volume of The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer states that the experience of falling in love and being madly in love with a partner is completely irrational and based solely on our perception of the other person as having ideal characteristics to produce children with. Romantic love is a biological trick that pushes us towards certain people, so that we can procreate, creating further instantiations of the will-to-life in new beings. Through living beings, the will-to-life perpetuates itself. Schopenhauer states: “Reproduction is the ultimate purpose of every organism, and its strongest instinct.”
But there is an apparent hole in this theory of sex and love: why does homosexuality exist? If our ultimate purpose is procreative in nature, why then would some people be naturally attracted to the same sex and be closed off from having children – naturally, anyway – as a consequence of sex and the bond of romantic love? In an addendum to The Metaphysics of Sexual Love, Schopenhauer addressed this problem – and his conjectural answer was that certain adolescent and elderly males are implanted with homosexual impulses by nature when they are unfit to procreate. He believed this applied to young and older men who had inferior semen, who could not produce healthy, strong offspring as a result. These males still have sexual urges and could procreate, but from the will-to-life’s ‘point of view’, it is undesirable, so nature developed the strategy of homosexuality to thwart the act of procreation. In contemporary times, homosexuality is still an evolutionary puzzle, although none of the major, competing theories follow Schopenhauer’s line of thought or something approaching it; but his perspective is at least fairly Darwinian in nature since he was proposing that homosexuality has been naturally selected – and is widespread – because it helps ensure the fitness of progeny and the species more generally. Hence, Schopenhauer did not see homosexuality as contradicting the will-to-life. It was another trait that affirmed it.
Schopenhauer believed the continuation of the will-to-life through procreation was not just blind and pointless, but also the cause of all our suffering. While many people may herald love as a joyous feeling, Schopenhauer’s more pessimistic take is that existence is a burden and it is only through the controlling, overpowering force of love that we decide to have children with others. He asks: “If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist?” The answer is an emphatic no from Schopenhauer. If the maddening, drug-like effects of love did not cloud our judgement and suspend the powers of our intellect, Schopenhauer maintains, we would never choose to reproduce and become parents.
Romantic love is supremely important to us. When we’re not in love, we are occupied with the desire of finding love; when we are in love, we are occupied with our lover; and when we lose our lover, we fall apart. Thoughts relating to romantic love are intrusive, unignorable, and intense. Our concern with love pervades music, literature, films, TV shows, adverts, magazines, our conversations, our priorities, and our plans. Schopenhauer, however, is in no way surprised by how much importance we attach to romantic love. “Why is there all this noise? Why all this crowding, blustering, anguish, and want? Why should such a trifle play so important a part and create disturbance and confusion in the well-regulated life of mankind?” he asked. His response:
But to the earnest investigator the spirit of truth gradually unfolds the answer: it is not a trifle one is dealing with; the importance of love is absolutely in keeping with the seriousness and zeal with which it is prosecuted. The ultimate aim of all love-affairs, whether they be of a tragic or comic nature, is really more important than all other aims in human life, and therefore is perfectly deserving of that profound seriousness with which it is pursued.
Love affairs determine the continuation of the human species. Romantic love, then, cannot be separated from the sexual act. Or as Schopenhauer so romantically put it: “Every kind of love, however ethereal it may seem to be, springs entirely from the instinct of sex.” As well as reducing love to sex, Schopenhauer also stresses how sex itself is less joyful than we may sometimes picture it to be. “Directly after copulation, the devil’s laughter is heard,” he writes in Parerga and Paralipomena (1851), a collection of essays and aphorisms. This represents the realisation we have after orgasm that we are enslaved by the will-to-life, unconsciously driven by our sex drive. In a state of post-coital clarity, we see that we are just vessels for the will-to-life’s own futile ends, which also results in further suffering through the act of procreation.
Interestingly, though, there is a term that describes the sadness that washes over us following an orgasm: post-coital tristesse (tristesse is French for sadness) – also known as post-coital dysphoria. It is a common feeling that affects both men and women, although studies indicate it is far more prevalent in men compared to women. Researchers have described how people will experience inexplicable tearfulness, sadness, irritability, and negative feelings after having sex. The ancient Greek physician and philosopher Galen said: “Every animal is sad after coitus except the human female and the rooster,” and Baruch Spinoza drew attention to it too in the Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione (1677): “…after the enjoyment of sensual pleasure is passed, the greatest sadness follows.”
While researchers may call post-coital tristesse an ‘inexplicable’ feeling, from a Schopenhauerian point of view, it is not inexplicable at all. The sadness follows the momentary insight we gain into our predicament: we pursue partners and procreation irrationally, without our own happiness in mind.
However, this Schopenhauerian interpretation does differ from modern evolutionary perspectives on the experience of post-coital dysphoria. In 2001, the psychologists Martie Haselton and David M. Buss proposed the ‘affective shift hypothesis’, which “predicts a negative affective shift in men who pursue a short-term mating strategy; this shift is hypothesized to function to curtail commitment by motivating the man to terminate the relationship”. Haselton and Buss contrast this with women in a study who “more than men, experienced increases in feelings of love and commitment following first-time sex”. Men with a high number of partners, but not those with a low number, experienced a decrease in the perceived sexual and physical attractiveness of their partner after first-time sex. These sex differences, the authors argue, point to the divergent and adaptive sexual strategies of men and women.
Men who feel this negative affective shift after sex are likely to produce more offspring compared to men who don’t experience this emotional change post-sex, or compared to men who experience to a lesser degree; after all, men who experience it will feel motivated to hastily leave one partner in pursuit of another, making this affective shift part of a successful short-term mating strategy. Whereas women who feel a positive affective shift are more likely to gain the investment of a man compared to women who don’t experience feelings of love and commitment after sex, thus enhancing the likelihood of reproductive success and the health and survival of the infant. In this way, the positive affective shift serves a woman’s long-term mating strategy.
Why We Choose Certain Partners
For Schopenhauer, we do not fall in love with others by way of accident. There is always a specific reason we are attracted to one person over another – and it is nothing to do with rational decision-making. After all, love is blind and we fall madly in love. Schopenhauer believes we end up falling in love with a person because we unconsciously determine that they possess qualities that, through the act of sex, will produce the most balanced child. We seek partners based on whether they cancel out our own issues, whether their physical and psychological extremes compensate for our own. This theory is summed up by the phrase ‘opposites attract’. Schopenhauer stated that:
each individual [is] trying to eradicate, through the medium of another, his weaknesses, deficiencies, and deviations from the type, in order that they may not be perpetuated in the child that is to be born or develop into absolute abnormities.
And he firmly believed that this is the only context in which romantic feelings can arise:
Before a truly passionate feeling can exist, something is necessary that is perhaps best expressed by a metaphor in chemistry—namely, the two persons must neutralise each other, like acid and alkali to a neutral salt.
Consistent with his theory of love, Schopenhauer concluded that hyper-masculine men will (as a rule) be attracted to hyper-feminine women; weak men will be attracted to strong, muscular women; and people with light hair will be drawn to people with dark hair. These conclusions certainly align with his theory, but they are still pretty dubious. I’m not aware of any empirical evidence that point to these kinds of rules of attraction that Schopenhauer has in mind. It is not clear that very tall men, for example, are more strongly attracted to very short women compared to men of average height.
Perhaps somewhat in line with Schopenhauer’s reasoning here is the current research on major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes. MHC is a group of genes that code for specific proteins responsible for the functioning of the immune system. These genes determine your level of resistance to diseases and have moreover been found to change the odour of bodily fluids, such as sweat, saliva, and urine. One experiment, for example, involved women rating the odour of t-shirts worn by different men over a period of two days. The researchers revealed that women showed a preference for odours that signalled differences – rather than similarities – in the MHC genetic profile. A preference for variety in HMC genes will ensure that offspring have a diverse set of immune system genes, increasing their chances of successfully fighting off harmful and potentially life-threatening infections and diseases. It is believed that dissimilarities in HMC genes influence attraction and mate choice today. Kissing or smelling someone else’s scent allows us to pick up on his or her HMC genes, and this may help to explain why we find ourselves becoming so intensely and mysteriously attracted to certain people. Schopenhauer’s theory of attraction may not necessarily apply to physical and psychological characteristics in the way he imagined, but his idea that we are attracted to people who correct our weaknesses bears some truth, at least in the context of HMC genes.
While there may be some truth to the notion that opposites attract, there are countless cases of people with similar dispositions and physical characteristics being attracted to each other and falling in love. In fact, evidence shows that we have a tendency to be attracted to people whose personality is similar to our own. Schopenhauer’s theory on romantic attraction also involves a pessimistic conclusion, namely that any person who is ideally suitable to have children with is invariably going to be incompatible with us. This could explain why many people we become so intensely attracted to end up becoming a major source of unhappiness in our lives. However, we can critique Schopenhauer here for generalising too much about partner choice – many people will admit they have chosen partners before who were incompatible with them but point out that they are compatible with their current partner and have a deep and genuine friendship with them. Moreover, these compatible relationships may involve stronger feelings of attraction and love than incompatible ones. Nevertheless, Schopenhauer remains pessimistic on this subject:
…requited love more frequently leads to unhappiness than to happiness. This is because its demands often so severely clash with the personal welfare of the lover concerned as to undermine it, since the demands are incompatible with the lover’s other circumstances, and in consequence destroy the plans of life built upon them. Further, love frequently runs counter not only to external circumstances but to the individuality itself, for it may fling itself upon a person who, apart from the relation of sex, may become hateful, despicable, nay, even repulsive. As the will of the species, however, is so very much stronger than that of the individual, the lover shuts his eyes to all objectionable qualities, overlooks everything, ignores all, and unites himself for ever to the object of his passion. He is so completely blinded by this illusion that as soon as the will of the species is accomplished the illusion vanishes and leaves in its place a hateful companion for life.
One can, of course, wonder whether Schopenhauer’s experiences of desiring women but being rejected by them influenced his views on love. This is a matter of speculation, although many readers may think about how they themselves or others they know look at love more cynically and negatively following romantic rejection or a breakup. Interestingly, Rüdiger Safranski suggests in his biography of Schopenhauer that the philosopher’s notorious misogyny (expressed in the essay On Women) was based on his bitter experiences of being rejected by women who he had a romantic interest in. Whether that’s a sufficient explanation for his misogyny remains to be seen, although it’s not out of the question, especially when we consider the misogynistic views held by incels (involuntary celibates), men who often who become resentful towards women following experiences of rejection. The point here is not to establish the exact cause of Schopenhauer’s misogyny, only to present the reasonable possibility that his personal life greatly influenced his philosophy, including his ideas on love.
The Evolutionary Perspective on Romantic Love
Even if we accept that Schopenhauer’s generalising philosophy arises out of specific, negative life experiences, this does not mean his philosophy lacks veracity. It is not hard to imagine how romantic love would be a biologically advantageous experience to have, given how it motivates us to pursue – and stick with – partners. Indeed, in an article published in Perspectives in Psychological Science, a group of psychologists state:
Romantic love provides a potent motivational push toward the kind of devotion and commitment required for the huge investment needed to support a mate and raise children successfully.
Romantic love helped our early ancestors to form long-term, monogamous pair-bonds, which allowed partners to provide their children with more resources compared to single parents. Romantic love, by promoting this kind of pair bond and pattern of child-rearing, would be naturally selected for. In their article, the researchers suggest that monogamy – as well as family assistance for child-rearing – allowed our uniquely large brains to develop, as a result of increased resources available for developing offspring. There are, in fact, many fascinating evolutionary explanations for the emergence of romantic love.
One alternative explanation is that romantic love helped to sustain monogamy among our ancient ancestors, not for the purposes of child-rearing, necessarily, but for curtailing the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), some of which can cause infertility, injury to the fetus, and increased risks during childbirth. What these different explanations share in common, though, is the insight that this nebulous, mysterious feeling of love serves the propagation of genetic material. Thus, in terms of evolutionary perspectives on love, we can credit Schopenhauer with some prescience, despite the potential flaws in his arguments.
One of these flaws might be that what Schopenhauer is calling love is not true love at all but is in fact lust or limerence (a term coined by the psychologist Dorothy Tennov, describing the experience of obsessing over and craving another person). Limerence is the drug-like, addictive, ‘crazy-in-love’ aspect of romantic attraction. It is forceful like lust but is not purely sexual in nature. Schopenhauer’s analysis of love may really be an analysis of lust and limerence (since many people can confuse both with true love). If his notions of love do, indeed, refer more to infatuation, a parallel with modern biology does exist. As the evolutionary psychiatrist Randolph M. Nesse notes in Good Reasons for Bad Feelings (2019), with respect to an unhappy couple he saw in clinical practice:
Together they often make good decisions, but they don’t much enjoy the process or each other. The futures they imagined proved poor predictors. The self-deceptions induced by romantic infatuation are exhilarating, but they benefit our genes more than our selves.
Returning to the potential criticisms of Schopenhauer, it may be simplistic to paint all feelings of love as irrational. Berit Brogaard, a professor of philosopher at the University of Miami, proposes in her book On Romantic Love (2014) that love can be both irrational and rational. Romantic love is an emotion and is not innately irrational or rational. It depends on the context. She writes:
Sometimes love is illogical and foolish or even harmful, and sometimes it’s perfectly sensible. If you love someone who treats you with disdain and disrespect or who abuses you, your love is irrational. If you are in love with your own fantastical creation of your beloved, your love is irrational. On the other hand, the love you feel for the partner who respects you and desires your happiness is perfectly rational.
Love is clearly a highly complex and still misunderstood human emotion. Schopenhauer’s outlook on love may illuminate some aspects of this emotion but it may also ignore or overlook the many positive experiences associated with romantic love. This kind of love does not always ruin the lives and well-being of both lovers, as Schopenhauer imagines it does, nor is it always irrational. Many people experience romantic love towards partners who they also consider genuine friends, people they have a deeply meaningful relationship with. However, even if Schopenhauer conceded this possibility, he was still nonetheless pessimistic when it came to the subject of friendships, believing that they are generally based on self-interest and that our so-called ‘friends’ will often take pleasure in our misfortunes.
As we can see, it is hard to find any glimmer of hope in Schopenhauer’s philosophy of love. For those who are more optimistic about love (or who have experienced romantic love that is uplifting rather than soul-destroying), Schopenhauer’s writings may simply appear typical of a wounded romantic. On the upside, his theory does provide some useful avenues in which to think about why we become so intensely attracted to specific individuals. It’s always worth asking ourselves whether this inexplicable, unconscious passion is based on our best interests or whether we are being dragged along by drives that don’t have our happiness in mind.