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In Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, in part 10, Thomas Buddenbrook finds himself reading a treatise on philosophy, which elevates him above his day to day care to a level where he can see the pettiness of this life and how death should be welcomed as it erases the singular person. However, this state soon escapes him and he goes back to his complacent life as a merchant. The book is never named, but appears to have been Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation.

Is there some deeper significance to this episode, beyond underlining just how stifled Thomas has become through him feeling compelled to continue the family business? To what extent could readers have been expected to recognise the book as Schopenhauer's treatise when Buddenbrooks first came out?

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  • Schopenhauer's philosophy is definitely significant in Buddenbrooks; it has been the subject of several master theses and at least one book-length monograph (which is now out of print). How familiar readers were expected to be with Schopenhauer may be a more difficult question to answer.
    – Tsundoku
    Oct 24, 2021 at 20:10
  • Note that Thomas Mann edited an abridged version of this work in 1948. Nov 30, 2022 at 14:31

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The following comes from “Thomas Mann: Buddenbrooks” (Landmarks of world literature) by Hugh Ridley (Cambridge University Press, 1987).

Significance in general.
According to Ridley, critics don’t agree on the role of Schopenhauer’s philosophy in the novel.

Thomas Mann had been writing Buddenbrooks from 1897 to 1900. Mann said he'd read Schopenhauer’s book in 1899 and simply applied it to the episode he’s been writing at that moment:

the appropriateness of Schopenhauer to the novel stems from his encounter with The World as Will and Imagination in the autumn of 1899, when, in an intoxication similar to Thomas's, he gulped down this philosophy 'for days on end'. Mann's account of this episode concludes with the claim that he incorporated his reading experience into the manuscript of Buddenbrooks, 'which had just reached the point at which Thomas Buddenbrook had to be brought to his death'

Some authors agree with this account, while others believe that Mann downplayed Schopenhauer’s role:

This 'instrumental' view of the role of Schopenhauer in the text is taken up strongly by T. J. Reed (82). Frizen goes much further, showing on the evidence of the Notebooks that Mann knew Schopenhauer much more fully than Mann himself had claimed ([...] Vogt gives an account of this argument on p.80f); while Erich Heller in a rightly celebrated chapter on Buddenbrooks offers an interpretation of the entire novel in terms of Schopenhauer's system. Expressing the central formula of the plot - the decline of the will in the face of increasing reflective consciousness, culminating in the total rejection of the will in music, the art-form most removed from reality - Heller suggests that the entire novel stands to Schopenhauer's philosophy as the Divina Commedia does to Thomas Aquinas' theology: that the philosophy is source and 'syntax' of the plot, that the novel is a brilliant exegetic act on a canonical text.

Relevance of the episode.

The central argument of Schopenhauer's work is given in his title: that the world can be experienced in two ways, as will and as imagination. The world as will is that ceaseless struggle for existence in which people spend their energies, asserting themselves as individuals, striving and competing for illusory happiness and success. It is this world as will of which Thomas (and his father before him) sees in business life the partial reflection.

Schopenhauer believed that the real world is run by desire, blind and insatiable. However, in our everyday interactions, we don’t see the world as it is – what we see is only representation. Mann’s characters also start to see real life as arena for primitive instincts and forces under the veil of civility:

[Thomas] encountered there in business life something which he understands as a feature of life itself, for business life is merely 'an image of the larger totality of life itself (8,4): the falling-away of all pleasantness and conventionality as so much play-acting 'in the face of the single raw, naked and domineering instinct of self-preservation'. This experience has hurt him even more than it had hurt his father. How often he has had to 'correct' his personal emotions in order to try to diminish the hurt: how he has wished to 'deal out harshness to suffer harshness, and to feel it not as harshness but as something natural'. How often, in short, has his hurt longing that life be different taken the form of pretending that he is different, doing violence to his real nature, because he knows that life cannot be changed. This is the conflict that has worn him out.

This internal conflict brings suffering:

Another reason for Thomas's attraction to Schopenhauer is suffering: Thomas's perennial experience, for which Schopenhauer gives a theoretical foundation. In Schopenhauer's system, to live in the world as will means to suffer. For the individual, suffering is part of the very process of individuation, part of the self's creation of particular needs and the unceasing effort to fulfill them - an effort which is futile because the will knows neither rest nor fulfilment. It is irrelevant which motives (firm, family, social status) lie behind the striving which Schopenhauer shows by its very nature to lead to suffering; motive is merely the form which the will has temporarily adopted - 'what matters is that the will is exercised at all’ […]We can understand the satisfaction with which Thomas realises that his suffering has been brought into a system, and - so to speak – justified.

Also a theme of death:

Thomas is suffering from the fear of death and the issue of personal immortality that Schopenhauer so directly raises is anything but academic to him. Schopenhauer met that painful insight which, throughout his life, Thomas could only repress: that the goal to which he was devoting his life and energy, his individual 'will', was ultimately pointless.

Why does then Thomas end up affirming life?

Thomas ends his reading of a chapter, whose message is that it is good to give up the individual will, by affirming not only life in general, but that I behind it, the source of all individual willing and suffering. Thomas must have misread Schopenhauer if he imagines that it is an invitation to continue the dance of life.

Was there a scholar who understood Schopenhauer in such a peculiar manner?

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche replaced Schopenhauer’s concept of “will to life” by putting in the center a notion of “will to power” (thereby influencing subsequent generations of 20th century thinkers). From Schopenhauer: A Very Short Introduction by Christopher Janaway:

Plumbing the depths of the Schopenhauerian vision is a necessary step, but there must be an alternative to the ‘life-denying’ attitude of seeking to escape from the will and despising the individual material being that one is. Nietzsche’s proposed solution is that of a creative self-affirmation (‘Become who you are!’), embracing one’s pain and even one’s cruelty as true parts of oneself.

Ridley continues:

This is not Schopenhauer at all - although it is a half quotation from him - the source of this affirmation of life is recognisably Nietzsche, and Thomas has invoked a scaled down version of the blond beast, the one who says ‘I’.

So Ridley thinks this reflects both Thomas’ inability to stand outside life and Mann’s influences outside the text.

Contemporary audience.
Can we expect the 1901 audience to recognise the book? This depends on what audience we have in mind.

According to Ridley the novel was read mostly by educated public:

If Buddenbrooks has achieved, in the course of this century, a readership that is both popular and specialised, this cannot disguise the fact that in its day the novel was liable to be understood only by the specialist group.

It seems these educated readers would be able to recognise the book.

Mann gives the title of the chapter Thomas reads ('On Death and its relation to the indestructibility of our true nature'), and Thomas sees himself as “Organism! Blind, thoughtless, pitiful eruption of the urging will!” It’s hard to see whose work this could’ve been confused with.

Schopenhauer was extremely popular in the second half of the 19th – early 20th century. From VSI book:

In fact, not to have read Schopenhauer would have been the odd thing for a young person from a cultured family such as Wittgenstein’s.

However, this is probably not the audience Mann hoped to attract:

he was still far from having a realistic view of his public. This emerged in his understandable, but rather naive, request to his friend Otto Grautoff to review the novel in such a way as to assure for it a good reception among readers in Lübeck.

The split between the actual reading public for quality literature and the public Mann seemed to aim at (the traditional middle classes about whom he wrote) was a well-known feature of the German literary scene. As one reviewer of Buddenbrooks commented: it was irrelevant to the German public if a novel is written well or badly' (Eloesser, 1281) - such matters were for the specialised readers of literature.

How likely is that this desired audience’s read Schopenhauer? Ridley says that it would not be unusual for someone like Thomas Buddenbrook to encounter The World as Will and Representation:

Thomas's acquaintance with Schopenhauer is anything but accidental (indeed, Schopenhauer's popularity at the end of the nineteenth century makes it a typical experience)

I take it as there being some non-zero chance that a member of the bourgeoisie would've read the book. This might also suggest that for Mann it wasn’t that important that his readers understood what book Thomas was reading.

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