This is my first posting, and I have no background in philosophy so I beg your indulgence if this is an unusually basic query. I was hoping for clarification of a very short passage in Schopenhauer's "On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason".

The passage is simply the two italicised sentences in the extract below. I am finding Schopenhauer to be a wonderfully clear and persuasive writer as many have said, but I am having trouble fixing exactly what he means here (the non-italicised parts on the chain of causality are fine). This is from chaper 4 (this part also classed under section 20), subtitled "First class of objects for the subject.". I have changed to bold those words that were already italicised in the text:

"...a first cause is just as inconceivable as the point at which Space ends or the moment when Time first began. For every cause is a change, which necessarily obliges us to ask for the preceding change that brought it about, and so on in infinitum, in infinitum! Even a first state of Matter, from which, as it has ceased to be, all following states could have proceeded, is inconceivable. For if this state had in itself been the cause of the following ones, they must likewise have existed from all eternity, and the actual state existing at the present moment could not have only just now come into being. If, on the other hand, that first state only began to be causal at some given period, something or other must have changed it, for its inactivity to have ceased; but then something must have occurred, some change must have taken place; and this again obliges us to ask for its cause - i.e. a change which preceded it and here we are once more on the causal ladder, up which we are whipped step by step, higher and higher, in infinitum, infinitum!"

I don't follow why the idea of a first state of matter implies all subsequent states having existed from all eternity. And supposing there had been this first state of matter, why couldn't the present moment simply be the latest in the series of changes - why could it not have only just come into being?

The section that follows "on the other hand" is totally clear, but I am not getting what the first "hand" is, as it were. Can anyone help me see how I am misreading or misconceiving this?

Many thanks,


1 Answer 1


The key to understanding the italicized part of your question is “in itself”. If the first state of matter is the cause in itself (and does not become the cause as a result of something else at a certain point in time), it means that all the effects or subsequent changes in states of matter start following immediately as soon as this first cause exists, without any delays, without any exceptions, with strict necessity. Cause “in itself” cannot be “inactive”, cannot exist without causing the following effect - it would be a violation of a law of nature. Thus, the period of time between that first state of matter and the current moment will always be limited, finite, with a beginning (the first cause in itself) and an end (the current moment). No matter how long this finite period of time is or can be, it will be always shorter than the infinite time in the past. If we imagine such first causal state of matter, we would have to move it into past infinity and thus all following states of matter, including the current moment, would also be in the infinite past, or as Schopenhauer says, “they must have existed from all eternity”.

Schopenhauer is consistent and insistent in his ideas and arguments. So, when we are not sure that we fully understand his thoughts or ideas, further reading of his works can reassure us if we interpreted his ideas correctly. For example, here is how Schopenhauer «answers» your question directly: «But now, in the case of the honestly expressed cosmological proof through the assumption of a first cause, and consequently of a first beginning in a time absolutely without beginning, this beginning is moved up higher and higher by the question: Why not earlier? In fact, it is moved so high that we never reach down from it to the present, but must marvel that this present did not itself exist already millions of years ago». (WWRII, chapter IV, p.43-44 in Dover Publications, Inc. Ed.)

And furthermore: Schopenhauer explains why any cause in itself cannot be in a state of «inactivity» by pointing to the connection of the law of causality and eternal forces of nature. «…the law of causality finds complete application, and admits of no exception, to all things in the world, in accordance with their form of course, to the variation of these forms, and hence to their changes. … if we try to comprehend it [the law of causality] in a purely objective way, then fundamentally and ultimately it rests on the fact that every operative or causative thing acts by virtue of its original, and thus eternal, i.e. timeless, power [force of nature]. … Completely different from the cause, this force is nevertheless what imparts to every cause its causality, in other words, the possibility of acting. … Therefore its present effect would necessarily have appeared infinitely earlier, and so prior to any conceivable time, if the temporal condition for this had not been lacking. This condition is the occasion, i.e., the cause, by virtue of which alone the effect appears only now, but now with necessity; the cause assigns it its place in time.» (WWRII, chapter IV)

  • 3
    Thank you Victoria. I thought it was maybe something to do with placing finitude next to infinity and had also focussed on the "in itself" but was not sure if I was on the right track. In fact I see now that in my reading I did not let the italicised passage follow on in a narrative sense from the preceding "in infinitum!" which clarifies that this is the context in which a first state is to be imagined. I think I have a bit more of a clue what he means now. If anyone else wants to contribute thoughts though, please do! Thanks again Victoria.
    – Jack H
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 19:05
  • Hi Victoria, sorry for the slow reply. Many thanks for the fascinating addition. I have the first volume of WWR11 but not the second. I hope to read both before long.
    – Jack H
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 15:47

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