Affinity with Schopenhauer

Hardy’s philosophical outlook appears in some degree to be parallel to, or a reinterpretation of, Arthur Schopenhauer's (1788-1860) doctrine, which emphasised the non-rational and amoral character of ultimate reality, and Eduard von Hartmann's (1842-1906) theory of the unconscious. However, in his later years, Hardy significantly modified his pessimistic worldview by declaring himself to be an evolutionary meliorist.

Schopenhauer provided a highly imaginative representation of human existence which anticipated not only Freudian theories of unconscious motivation but also the notion of the absurd in existentialism. The concept of freedom in Schopenhauer is really a negative one. “All things,” says Schopenhauer, “ are like puppets set in motion by internal clockwork” (Stumph 349). Every phenomenon is absolutely necessary and determined. Man as a rational animal with individual character is never free.

Schopenhauer did not believe in personal freedom; for him everything was predetermined. Evil is always present in the world; good is for Schopenhauer simply lack of evil. People live lives full of anxieties and are constantly aware of imminent death. Schopenhauer reversed Leibniz's statement that 'this world is the best of all possible worlds'. He asserted that the world is so bad that it cannot be worse, and it cannot be improved; hence evil is unavoidable and people have to accommodate it, while man is the most intelligent, and most sensitive creature also he is the unhappiest creature under the sun. Human morality must be thus based not on some natural law but on compassion. For Schopenhauer, as David E. Cartwright claims, “compassion is the source of actions possessing moral worth” (Vandenabeele 255).

There is much evidence that Hardy was influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer's philosophy, which claimed that the world is the manifestation of the 'Immanent Will'. Helen Garwood, an American scholar, published a Ph.D. dissertation in 1911 in which she argued convincingly that Hardy derived many ideas from Schopenhauer. Hardy told Helen Garwood that his philosophy “was a development from Schopenhauer through later philosophers” (Bailey 10). Hardy never acknowledged publicly his interest in Schopenhauer’s philosophy, but much of his fiction, and particularly the poetic drama The Dynasts, show striking affinity with Schopenhauer's Weltanschauung. In the 1920s and 1930s this opinion was widespread.

Recent opinions on Schopenhauer's influence are more varied. Although the extent of Arthur Schopenhauer's influence on Hardy is in dispute (Jacquette 238), there is little doubt that Hardy knew quite a lot about Schopenhauer's godless, pessimistic philosophy, which considerably influenced many Victorian thinkers. According to J. O. Bailey, Hardy read Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Idea, translated by R. B. Haldane and J. Kemp, in 1883, while writing The Woodlanders (88). He also consulted before 1888 “the Encyclopaedia Britannica to take a note on Schopenhauer's pessimistic view of the will to live” (Schweik in Kramer 69). Hardy's early critic, Ernest Brennecke, wrote in 1924 that

it seems to be universally recognized at the present time by everybody interested in the subject that there is the closest intellectual affinity between Arthur Schopenhauer and Thomas Hardy. He himself has freely and frequently admitted it. Mr. Edmund Gosse, it is true, in a letter to M. Hedgcock, has denied the possibility that Schopenhauer exercised any influence on Hardy's work before 1874; and it is perfectly believable that the broad outlines of his philosophy, and the rather vague and less sharply defined terms in which he had presented it up to that time, were developed in complete independence of the writings of Schopenhauer. But it is equally apparent that in his later works a definite and unmistakable Schopenhauerian phraseology is adopted, and that the “Overworld” scenes of The Dynasts could not possibly have been composed if Schopenhauer had not previously written Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. [14-15]

However, Hardy did not share fully Schopenhauer's profoundly pessimistic view of the human condition. As K. M. Newton asserts,

unlike Schopenhauer, Hardy does not condemn the world or see life as not worth living: both the world which is indifferent to human concerns and humanity with its hopes and desires deserve respect. Undoubtedly there is anger in Hardy's fiction, particularly in Tess and Jude, but it is not directed at a morally indifferent reality, but rather at the denial of or refusal to accept it on the part of religion or optimistic forms of thought. [69]

It seems that under the inspiration from the writings of Edouard von Hartmann Hardy developed his own concept of the Immanent Will alongside his theory of evolutionary meliorism.

Affinity with Eduard von Hartmann

Hardy read von Hartmann's Philosophy of the Unconscious (1869, first translated into English in 1884), which combined Schopenhauer's concept of the blind Will and Friedrich Schelling's theory of the Unconscious. However, as Robert Schweik points out, “although Hardy no doubt partly agreed with von Hartmann's concept of the Will as Unconscious, even when almost quoting him, he freely made changes that radically altered von Hartmann's views” (Kramer 70). In von Hartmann's view the will is primarily unconscious and omnipotent, lacking any ethical values. Hardy adapted and creatively modified von Hartmann's thought of the unconscious will which becomes conscious and acquires a positive purpose (a victory over Napoleon), as he illustrated it in his epic drama, The Dynasts. In a way, von Hartmann contributed to Hardy's meliorism, which implied amelioration, i.e. improvement of the human condition thanks to the conscious will. However, as Bailey argued, “in order for consciousness to modify the world-process, the will must be free. Human beings must have freedom of the will to act as taught by reason, and the Will must have freedom to alter Its courses. Freedom of the will means freedom to choose between one or the other of two bases for action" (161). Ultimately, Hardy dissociated himself from von Hartmann, who claimed that the world would end in total annihilation as the highest expression of the Unconscious. Hardy in his later years was in favour of the evolutionary meliorist approach which held that through suffering, compassion and self-knowledge the unconscious mind becomes conscious and contributes to the welfare of the humankind.

Freedom as self-awareness and self-knowledge

It seems that Schopenhauer and von Hartmann provided Hardy with a well-developed philosophical system which was conformable to his earlier Weltanschauung. Following the ideas of Schopenhauer and von Hartmann Hardy saw humanity as a partial realisation of 'universal consciousness', perhaps prefiguring Carl Jung's concept of self-awareness and self-knowledge as important faculties of the mind. As Jeannette King put it:

If freedom exists at all, for Hardy, it is to be found in knowledge. Only by learning that we are less free than we thought, can we learn to become more free. [30]

In his major novels, Hardy describes the tragic journey of his protagonists towards spiritual self-awareness and self-knowledge in an elemental and distressing world which is controlled by unpredictable and cruel fate. The tragedies of Tess and Jude may be treated as allegories or parables of the human condition. Both protagonists come to spiritual self-awareness through suffering. After the publication of Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, Hardy reached the limits of his pessimism and disillusionment, like Shakespeare after finishing Macbeth and King Lear. Hardy certainly derived some inspiration from Schopenhauer and von Hartmann, but as Robert Schweik affirmed, their influence was overemphasised by early critics:

What can be said with greatest certainty is that Hardy's readings of and about Schopenhauer and von Hartmann confirmed some ideas he had arrived at independently or that he might earlier have derived from Mill, Spencer, Huxley and others. [Kramer 70]

Although Hardy borrowed from Schopenhauer the concept of the Immanent Will and from von Hartman the concept of the unconscious, he felt free to modify them in his fiction in a highly original way.


In the late 1880s, Thomas Hardy was undoubtedly well acquainted with the philosophical works of Arthur Schopenhauer and his follower, Eduard von Hartmann, which confirmed his pervasive pessimism about the value of human existence, but unlike the two German philosophers, he refrained himself from the negation of the world. Hartmann, who extended Schopenhauer's pessimistic philosophy by announcing a possible annihilation of the human race, was less convincing to Hardy, who eventually declared himself to be a meliorist, and The Dynasts as well as some of his later poems reveal his belief in evolutionary meliorism which implies reverence for life and hope that man can gradually improve his lot.

References and Further Reading

Bailey, J. O. Thomas Hardy and the Cosmic Mind: A New Reading of 'The Dynasts'. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956.

Brennecke, Ernest, Jr. Thomas Hardy's Universe: A Study of a Poet's Mind. Boston: Small Maynard and Company, 1924.

Garwood, Helen. Thomas Hardy, an Illustration of the Philosophy of Schopenhauer. Philadelphia: Winston, 1911.

Kelly, Mary Ann. “Hardy's Reading in Schopenhauer: Tess of the D'Urbervilles,” Colby Library Quarterly, 18(3) 1982, 183-198.

King, Jeanette. Tragedy in the Victorian Novel, Theory of Practice in the Novels of George Eliot, Thomas Hardy and Henry James. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Stumph, Samuel Enoch. Philosophy. History and Problems. New York: Mc Graw-Hill, Inc., 1989.

Vandenabeele, Bart, ed. A Companion to Schopenhauer. Chichester: Wiley & Blackwell, 2012.

Von Hartmann, Eduard. Philosophy of the Unconscious. Translated by W. C. Coupland. London: Trübner & Co., 1884.

Last modified 6 September 2014