The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (February 22, 1788 – September 21, 1860) is widely known as the quintessential pessimist among western thinkers. Whatever one’s opinion about the general orientation of his system, it must be acknowledged that Schopenhauer grasped the powerful forces at work in the human psyche much better than the prevalent rationalism of his time. He realized that these forces cannot be overcome by mere rational constructs and that they must be met on their own ground. In this, he helped remove the stereotype of the philosopher who is only concerned with meaningless abstractions.
Unlike German Idealism, the prevalent philosophy of his day, Schopenhauer’s philosophy does not build on the insights of Christianity but on those of Hinduism and Buddhism. In Schopenhauer’s opinion, Christianity itself must have borrowed its deepest insights from Indian teachings and not from its Jewish roots, with the exception of the doctrine of original sin. He sees a parallel between the doctrine of atonement and that of nirvana, the avatar and the return of Christ, reincarnation and predestination. These have in common an understanding that there are underlying causes to our suffering—causes that are unrelated to individual actions.
For Schopenhauer, except for Kant’s work (which he felt was essential to an understanding of his own philosophy), every other reading was a waste of time, the only further exception being the Vedanta or Upanishads. At the same time, he stated that they contained nothing that could not be found in his philosophy as well, while they lacked his own key insights. Still, in the days preceding his death, Schopenhauer was found reading the Upanishads before going to sleep.
Schopenhauer is most famous for his work The World as Will and Representation and is commonly known for having espoused a view that saw life as being essentially evil, futile, and full of suffering. However, upon closer inspection, in accordance with Eastern thought, especially that of Hinduism, he saw salvation, deliverance, or escape from suffering in aesthetic contemplation, sympathy for others, and ascetic living. His ideas profoundly influenced the fields of philosophy, psychology, and literature.
Schopenhauer is one of the very few western philosophers who showed interest in the spiritual world. In his open-mindedness towards that aspect of reality as well as in the extent of his descriptions he probably went further than any other philosopher, though he lacks a clear theory of spiritual world.
Schopenhauer was born in Stutthof (Sztutowo) an ethnically German area then controlled by Poland near Danzig (Gdańsk). He was the son of Heinrich Floris Schopenhauer and Johanna Schopenhauer, a middle class mercantile family of Dutch heritage, although they had strong feelings against any kind of nationalism. Indeed, the name Arthur was selected by his father especially because it was the same in English, German, and French. His parents were both from the city, and Johanna was an author as well. After the city fell to Prussia during the second partition of Poland in 1793 the Schopenhauer family moved to Hamburg. The years 1803 and 1804 were spent traveling though Europe with his parents. Schopenhauer’s father was a free mind and appreciative of Voltaire, a trait that Arthur obviously inherited from him: a sarcastic wit reminiscent of Voltaire can be found throughout his writings. His mother was an ambitious writer and socialite whose frivolous ways were never accepted by her son. Eventually, he broke with her entirely, not even attending her funeral. Many celebrities were regular guests at their home, including Goethe. Through his mother, Schopenhauer became acquainted with him and with other luminaries of the time. Thanks to his background, Schopenhauer became an accomplished polyglot. His knowledge of languages included Ancient Greek and Latin and he considered anyone ignorant of the Latin language to be thoroughly uneducated.
In 1805 Schopenhauer's father died, possibly by suicide, and Johanna moved to Weimar. First, in order to honor a promise he had made to his father, Schopenhauer studied to become a merchant. Then, from 1809 to 1822, he went on to study medicine, natural sciences, and philosophy at the University of Göttingen and was later awarded a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Jena. As a student, Schopenhauer had the opportunity to hear the lectures of Fichte and Schleiermacher. He was utterly unimpressed by them, considering their teachings empty verbiage – a first sign of his later opposition to the philosophical establishment and German idealism. At the same time, he discovered the philosophies of Plato and Kant, who would become the main influence on his thought. A few years later, encouraged by the famous orientalist Friedrich Mayer, he read the Upanishads, which were to become his third source of inspiration.
In 1813, he successfully defended his dissertation on what was to become his first work, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. The following year, he broke with his mother and moved to Dresden, then traveled to Italy, where he had a brief but intense relationship with Teresa Fuga, a Venetian aristocrat. During that same period he did considerable work on his emerging philosophical system, which resulted in the publication (1819) of his major work, The World as Will and Representation.
In 1820, Schopenhauer became a lecturer at the University of Berlin; it was there that his opposition to Hegel began. Convinced of the value of his own teachings, Schopenhauer intentionally scheduled his courses at the same time as those of the well established Hegel, with the predictable result that almost nobody attended his lectures. Schopenhauer became increasingly embittered and alienated from academic philosophy. Additionally, an incident involving a neighbor caused him to be sentenced to pay that woman a monthly sum until her death, which obviously did not improve his opinion of the female gender. When hearing of her death, he typically declared: “Obit anus, abit onus.” (The old woman is dead, the debt is extinguished).
In 1831, he fled Berlin due of a cholera epidemic (which would claim Hegel’s life) and moved to Frankfurt on the Main, were he would remain as an independent philosopher, living from his estate, until his death in 1860.
In the latter years of his life, Schopenhauer finally knew the fame that had eluded him until then. Though the core of his system had been conceived at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it is only in the second half of the 1800s, after a general disillusionment with the claims of idealism had set in, that his pessimistic philosophy found its place. All over Europe, it had become fashionable to read his works. Though he had insisted that his lifestyle would allow him to become hundred years old, Schopenhauer's health deteriorated during the year of 1860 and he died of natural causes on September 21 of the same year at the age of 72.
He was the first to speak of the suffering of the world, which visibly and glaringly surrounds us, and of confusion, passion, evil – all those things which the [other philosophers] hardly seemed to notice and always tried to resolve into all-embracing harmony and comprehensibility. Here at last was a philosopher who had the courage to see that all was not for the best in the fundaments of the universe. (Jung 1961, 69)
This quote by Carl Gustav Jung (one of those influenced by Schopenhauer) offers an excellent and accurate first impression of Schopenhauer’s philosophy and his main focus. But Schopenhauer’s fascination with the darker side of life – his pessimism – is firmly embedded in a systematic rational explanation contained in the four books of his main work, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung.
Schopenhauer's starting point was Kant's division of the universe into phenomenon and noumenon, claiming that the noumenon was the same as that in us that we call Will. It is the inner content and the driving force of the world. For Schopenhauer, human will had ontological primacy over the intellect; in other words, desire is understood to be prior to thought, and, in a parallel sense, will is said to be prior to being. In solving/alleviating the fundamental problems of life, Schopenhauer was rare among philosophers in considering philosophy and logic less important (or less effective) than art, certain types of charitable practice ("loving kindness," in his terms), and certain forms of religious discipline (though for him this did not imply any religious faith). Schopenhauer concluded that discursive thought (such as philosophy and logic) could neither touch nor transcend the nature of desire—i.e., the will. In The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer posited that humans living in the realm of objects are living in the realm of desire, and thus are eternally tormented by that desire (his idea of the role of desire in life is similar to that of Vedanta Hinduism and Buddhism, and Schopenhauer draws attention to these similarities himself).
While Schopenhauer's philosophy may sound rather mystical in such a summary, his methodology was resolutely empirical, rather than speculative or transcendental:
Philosophy... is a science, and as such has no articles of faith; accordingly, in it nothing can be assumed as existing except what is either positively given empirically, or demonstrated through indubitable conclusions. (Parerga & Paralipomena I, 106, E. F. J. Payne trans.)
This actual world of what is knowable, in which we are and which is in us, remains both the material and the limit of our consideration. (World as Will and Representation, I, 273, E. F. J. Payne trans.)
It is generally acknowledged that Schopenhauer’s serious scientific analysis of natural phenomena (e.g., in Ueber den Willen in der Natur) stands in stark contrast to Hegel’s speculative method, often based on a very limited and inaccurate knowledge of nature. In that respect at least, Schopenhauer is the true continuator of Kant.
This division of reality into two spheres radically alien to each other, though somehow mysteriously connected, appears in Schopenhauer’s notions of representation (Vorstellung) and will (Wille). In Schopenhauer’s main work, these two spheres are dealt with in volume 1 and volume 2 respectively.
First, then, the world is my representation. In this, Schopenhauer goes beyond Kant, who firmly believed that there was an external reality behind the phenomena that appear to us. For Schopenhauer, there is no such thing. Unlike Kant, Schopenhauer greatly admired Berkley for his subjective idealism, i.e., his intuition that the world we perceive is nothing more than the perception we have of it.
Second, the world is will, at work both in us and in nature. Schopenhauer's identification of the Kantian noumenon (i.e., the actually existing entity) with what we call our will deserves some explanation. The noumenon was what Kant called the Ding an Sich ("Thing in Itself"), the reality that is the foundation of our sensory and mental representations of an external world; in Kantian terms, those sensory and mental representations are mere phenomena. Schopenhauer's assertion that what we call our will is the same as this noumenon might at first instance strike some as oddly as Heraclitus's revelation that everything is made out of fire.
Schopenhauer begins by arguing that Kant's demarcation between external objects, knowable only as phenomena, and the Thing in Itself of noumenon, contains a significant omission. There is, in fact, one physical object we know more intimately than we know any object of sense perception. It is our own body.
We know our human bodies have boundaries, and occupy space, the same way other objects known only through our named senses do. Though we seldom think of our bodies as physical objects, we know even before reflection that it shares some of their properties. We understand that a watermelon cannot successfully occupy the same space as an oncoming train. We know that if we tried to repeat the experiment with our own bodies, we would obtain similar results. We know this even if we do not understand the physics involved.
We know that our consciousness inhabits a physical body, similar to other physical objects only known as phenomena. Yet, our consciousness is not commensurate with our body. Most of us possess the power of voluntary motion. We usually are not aware of our lungs' breath, or our heartbeat, unless our attention is called to it. Our ability to control either is limited. Our kidneys command our attention on their schedule rather than one we choose. Few of us have any idea what our livers are doing right now, though this organ is as needful as lungs, heart, or kidneys. The conscious mind is the servant, not the master, of these and other organs. These organs have an agenda that the conscious mind did not choose, and has limited power over. Schopenhauer calls our bodies “objectified will.”
When Schopenhauer identifies the noumenon with the desires, needs, and impulses in us that we name "will," what he is saying is that we participate in the reality of an otherwise unachievable world outside the mind through will. We cannot prove that our mental picture of an outside world corresponds with a reality by reasoning. Through will, we know—without thinking—that the world can stimulate us. We suffer fear, or desire. These states arise involuntarily. They arise prior to reflection. They arise even when the conscious mind would prefer to hold them at bay. The rational mind is, for Schopenhauer, a leaf borne along in a stream of pre-reflective and largely unconscious emotion. That stream is will; and through will, if not through logic, we can participate in the underlying reality that lies beyond mere phenomena. It is for this reason that Schopenhauer identifies the noumenon with what we call our will. The mind can only create the world of representation, opposed to the Will; but since the Will is the source of life, and our very bodies are stamped with its image and designed to serve its purpose, the human intellect is, in Schopenhauer's simile, like a lame man who can see, but who rides on the shoulders of a blind giant (the will).
Schopenhauer was perhaps even more influential in his treatment of man's mind than he was in the realm of philosophy. Or rather, one could say that his philosophical approach is much more concerned with what is going on in the depth of the human psyche than with a priori rational deductions or speculation. In that sense, his description and interpretation of mental processes has had a decisive impact on the field of psychology and related areas.
Philosophers have not traditionally been impressed by the tribulations of love. But Schopenhauer addressed it, and related concepts, forthrightly.
He gave a name to a force within man which he felt invariably had precedence over reason: the Will to Live (Wille zum Leben), defined as an inherent drive within human beings, and indeed all creatures, to stay alive and to reproduce.
Schopenhauer refused to conceive of love as either trifling or accidental, but rather understood it to be an immensely powerful force lying unseen within man's psyche and dramatically shaping the world:
Arthur Schopenhauer's aesthetics flow from his doctrine of the primacy of the Will as the thing in itself, the ground of life and all being; and from his judgment that the Will is evil. Schopenhauer held that art offered a way for people to temporarily escape servitude to the Will, and from the suffering that such servitude entails. In effect, Schopenhauer's aesthetics turn art into a substitute for religion.
For Schopenhauer, the Will is an aimless desire to perpetuate itself, the mainspring of life. Desire engendered by the Will is the source of all the sorrow in the world; each satisfied desire leaves us either with boredom, or with some new desire to take its place.
Schopenhauer's aesthetics is an attempt to break out of the pessimism that naturally comes from this worldview. Schopenhauer believed that what distinguished aesthetic experiences from other experiences is that contemplation of the object of aesthetic appreciation temporarily allowed the subject a respite from the strife of desire, and allowed the subject to enter a realm of purely mental enjoyment. Schopenhauer analyzed art from its effects, both on the personality of the artist, and the personality of the viewer.
Schopenhauer believed that what gives arts such as literature and sculpture their value was the extent to which they incorporated pure perceptions. In volume 3 of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, he establishes a hierarchy of arts, culminating with the art of tragedy, which in his eyes best captures the human predicament. But, all these art forms were inferior to music, which was thus given a special status, as it did not rely upon the medium of representation to communicate a sense of the universal. For Schopenhauer, music is a direct, immediate objectification of the whole will. It is like a parallel world. Schopenhauer's philosophy of music was influential in the works of Richard Wagner. Wagner was an enthusiastic reader of Schopenhauer, and recommended the reading of Schopenhauer to his friends. Schopenhauer himself, however, preferred the transparent music of Mozart and that of Rossini to the music of Wagner that engulfs the listener in its passion.
In proposing that art could offer deliverance from the Will, Schopenhauer elevated art from mere artisanry or decoration, and held that art potentially offered temporary deliverance from the aimless strife of the Will in nature. In effect, Schopenhauer turned art into a substitute religion by offering a doctrine of salvation through aesthetic experiences. Artists were not merely skilled hands; they were priests or prophets of this doctrine. This teaching goes far to explain Schopenhauer's appeal to members of the creative communities over the second half of the nineteenth century. Schopenhauer's doctrine of aesthetics justified artistic work as a matter of highest importance in human society.
Schopenhauer's aesthetics remain influential today, and are perhaps the most lasting part of Schopenhauer's philosophy. Their appeal to later generations of Romantics, and to all schools of bohemianism, is apparent. Schopenhauer's philosophy in general left a deep impression on a number of important writers, especially Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust, Stephane Mallarmé, Thomas Mann, and Ivan Turgenev.
Schopenhauer's aesthetics were directly responsible for the rise of the Symbolists and their allied movements, and to the general development of the concept of art for art's sake. It deeply influenced the aesthetics of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose famous opposition of the Apollonian and the Dionysian is a translation of Schopenhauer's opposition of intellect against will in terms of Greek mythology.
Finally, it must be said that Schopenhauer himself had considerable artistic qualities in the literary field. Unlike Kant and Hegel, whose expressions are often obscure, he expresses himself clearly and his prose is considered one of the best in German literature.
Quite logically, Schopenhauer’s view of ethics is deterministic. For him, one is free to decide what one wants, but not free to will what one wants. Though one is still somehow responsible for his or her actions (reflecting who one is), one is fully determined by the will under its various forms. Hence, under similar circumstances, similar results will inevitable occur (a response to the question, ‘what if I could do it all over again?’). In matters of ethics, Schopenhauer is thus quite the opposite of Kant and his categorical imperative.
Since the “will” inevitably overpowers our life, the only solution is a denial of that will – stepping outside its reality. Art offers a temporary escape. A full and lasting escape is only possible through the equivalent of the nirvana: the ability to liberate oneself from the veil of the Maya. In this sense, if Kant’s ethics can be called a secularized for of Christian ethics, Schopenhauer’s ethics can be called a secularized form of Hindu or Buddhist ethics.
Schopenhauer’s ethics can be summarized by his statement that it would be better for us not to exist. This sarcastic remark is known as the trademark of Schopenhauer’s pessimism. Nevertheless, in his view, removing oneself from the life of the will has to be gained through asceticism or the experience of suffering, and it can only be achieved gradually with the advancement of age. Schopenhauer strongly disapproved of suicide, calling it an illusion. That forceful attempt to escape the will is nothing more than a further affirmation of one’s desire. It can never serve to extinguish the underlying will.
Schopenhauer’s ethical views are expressed in book 4 of The World as Will and Representation and in Die beiden Grundprobleme der Ethik, available in English as two separate books, On the Basis of Morality and On the Freedom of the Will.
Schopenhauer's politics were, for the most part, a much-diminished echo of his system of ethics. In occasional political comments in his Parerga and Paralimpomena and Manuscript Remains, Schopenhauer described himself as a proponent of limited government. What was essential, he thought, was that the state should "leave each man free to work out his own salvation," and so long as government was thus limited, he would "prefer to be ruled by a lion than one of his fellow rats"—i.e., a monarch. Schopenhauer did, however, share the view of Thomas Hobbes on the necessity of the state, and of state violence, to check the destructive tendencies innate to our species. Schopenhauer, by his own admission, did not give much thought to politics, and several times he writes prideful boasts of how little attention he had paid "to political affairs of his day." In a life that spanned several revolutions in French and German government, and a few continent-shaking wars, he did indeed maintain his aloof position of "minding not the times but the eternities."
Schopenhauer is also famous for his essay "On Women" (Über die Weiber), in which he expressed his opposition to what he called "Teutonico-Christian stupidity" on female affairs. He claimed that "woman is by nature meant to obey," and opposed Schiller's poem in honor of women, Würde der Frauen. The essay does give two compliments however: that "women are decidedly more sober in their judgment than [men] are" and are more sympathetic to the suffering of others. However, the latter was discounted as weakness rather than humanitarian virtue.
The ultra-intolerant view of women contrasts with Schopenhauer's generally liberal views on other social issues, including the treatment of African slaves. This polemic on female nature has since been fiercely attacked as misogynistic. In any case, the controversial writing has influenced many, from Nietzsche to nineteenth century feminists. While Schopenhauer's hostility to women may tell us more about his biography than about philosophy, his biological analysis of the difference between the sexes, and their separate roles in the struggle for survival and reproduction, anticipates some of the claims that were later ventured by sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists in the twentieth century.
Schopenhauer innovates by introducing the issue of sexuality into western philosophy. Of course, his assessment of it is not an encouraging one. For him, it embodies the will to life more strongly than any other urge or desire; hence it is responsible for the misery of the human condition more than anything else. Even the most elevated form of romantic love is nothing but a mental addition or justification for the natural need for sex and the species’ desire to maintain itself. After succumbing to our sexual desires, he says, we realize that we have once again been deceived by the instinct of survival that seeks procreation through us. The lessening of sexual desire with age is thus to be welcomed as a liberation. Needless to say, Schopenhauer remained celibate throughout his life.
In that context, Schopenhauer is also one of the first philosophers since the days of Greek philosophy to briefly address the subject of male homosexuality. In the third, expanded edition of The World as Will and Representation (1856), Schopenhauer adds an appendix to his chapter on the "Metaphysics of Sexual Love." Since for him, the only purpose of sex is procreation, he explains pederasty (the love of elderly men for young boys) as a way for the will to trick them away from intercourse with women, since offspring born to the old and the excessively young are not generally healthy. This, for him, explains the prevalence of that vice in all cultures, even those that strongly disapprove of it. Schopenhauer makes no mention of homosexuality other than as a common tendency in old age; neither does he mention female homosexuality. Finally, he shows contempt for those who give in to that distortion of the sex drive, since it does not even offer the perspective of future liberation through procreation.
In 1851, as part of his Parerga und Paralipomenia, Schopenhauer published a 100-page essay on spirit seeing (Über das Geistersehn). That mostly forgotten work is both similar and different from Kant’s Dreams of a Spirit Seer, to which it refers. Unlike Kant, Schopenhauer does not reject the realm of the “supernatural” as having no place in his rationalist system. Living in a time when spiritism had become fashionable, Schopenhauer considers the existence of paranormal phenomena a proven fact and explains it as a direct expression of the will bypassing the usual avenues of our senses. He discusses prophetic dreams, clairvoyance and somnambulism. Schopenhauer sees the anticipation of coming events in dreams as an evidence of determinism. For him, these directly disprove materialistic theories. He even states that the discovery of what he calls “animal magnetism” (parapsychological phenomena) as the greatest discovery of philosophy. Schopenhauer considers the vision of spirits to be related to these phenomena. Far from being mentally ill, spiritualists have the still unexplained capacity to transcend the world of representation in space and time and to directly connect with the world of the will to live. Even Schopenhauer is somewhat skeptical about the possibility of the deceased appearing in visions to be more than a reflection of a past existence. Still, he considers the a priori decision that the world of spirits is impossible to be untenable. If we assume that there is more to life than the material body, we must be open to the possibility of a “something” remaining after death and “being around,” occasionally becoming visible. In this context, he approves of the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, whereas he rejects the Protestant view that the deceased simply disappear in Heaven or in Hell.
Schopenhauer seems to have disliked just about everything concerning his contemporary Hegel. The following quotation from On the Basis of Morality (15-16) is quite famous:
If I were to say that the so-called philosophy of this fellow Hegel is a colossal piece of mystification which will yet provide posterity with an inexhaustible theme for laughter at our times, that it is a pseudo-philosophy paralyzing all mental powers, stifling all real thinking, and, by the most outrageous misuse of language, putting in its place the hollowest, most senseless, thoughtless, and, as is confirmed by its success, most stupefying verbiage, I should be quite right.
Further, if I were to say that this summus philosophus [...] scribbled nonsense quite unlike any mortal before him, so that whoever could read his most eulogized work, the so-called Phenomenology of the Mind, without feeling as if he were in a madhouse, would qualify as an inmate for Bedlam, I should be no less right.
Schopenhauer's critique of Hegel is directed at his perception that Hegel's works use deliberately impressive but ultimately vacuous jargon and neologisms, and that they contained castles of abstraction that sounded impressive but ultimately contained no verifiable content. He also thought that his glorification of church and state were designed for personal advantage and had little to do with search for philosophical truth. Although Schopenhauer may have appeared vain in his constant attacks on Hegel, they were not necessarily devoid of merit: many after him have agreed in his criticism of the bombastic claims of Hegelian speculation. Also, the Right Hegelians did in fact interpret Hegel as seeing the Prussian state of his day as perfect and the goal of all history up until then.
Many are put off Schopenhauer by descriptions of him as an obstinate and arrogant man, who did not lead the ascetic life that he glorified in his work. The idea that he made resignation into a command to virtue is inaccurate, as he was merely trying to explain asceticism in terms of metaphysics. He does refer to the asceticism as a state of "inner peace and cheerfulness," but he also clearly states that he was not trying to recommend the denial of the will above the affirmation of the will. Furthermore, the call to asceticism was supposed to come to select individuals as knowledge all of a sudden, rather than being a virtue that can be taught. "In general," he wrote, "it is a strange demand on a moralist that he should commend no other virtue than that which he himself possesses." (The World as Will and Representation, Vol.I, § 68)
Nietzsche seems to have made this misinterpretation, leading some people to a distorted view of Schopenhauer. The following sentence from The Twilight of the Idols is often quoted: “He has interpreted art, heroism, genius, beauty, great sympathy, knowledge, the will to truth, and tragedy, in turn, as consequences of "negation" or of the "will's" need to negate.”
Schopenhauer did see all these things as means to a more peaceful and enlightened way of life, but none of them were "denial of the will-to-live." Only asceticism is referred to in that way. Nietzsche also claimed that Schopenhauer did not recognize that suffering had a redemptive quality, yet his recognition of this seems blatantly clear in part 4 of The World as Will and Representation.
Also, his identification of the will with the Kantian "thing-in-itself" has been misunderstood. Kant defined things-in-themselves as being beyond comprehension and that no one could know the inner nature of a material thing. It is sometimes thought that Schopenhauer denied this, but he did not. What he did assert was that one could know things about the thing-in-itself. For example, you can know that the will is a striving force, that it is endless, that it causes suffering, and that it will produce boredom if unoccupied, etc. However, he did not say that you could directly know the will. In addition, it has sometimes been criticized that he never defined the will, but he explained that it could not be fully defined.
Schopenhauer is thought to have influenced the following intellectual figures and schools of thought: Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Wagner, Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Theodule Ribot, Max Horkheimer, Carl Gustav Jung, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Eduard von Hartmann, Jorge Luis Borges, Dylan Thomas, Emil Cioran, Phenomenalism, and Recursionism.
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