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If you want to reach a large audience appeal to idiots - A. Schopenhauer
So, here we are, fellow idiots. Schopenhauer’s essays have stood the test of time, as relevant today as they were when he wrote them. Unlike the quote above Schopenhauer does not appeal to idiots, thus he is not a household name. He does not get the recognition of a Nietzsche, but espouses similar ideas, but with a flare of Indian inspiration and deep rooted asceticism.
Maybe he is too austere for some, the popularity of Nietzsche is largely attributed to his idea of the Will to Power often left unencumbered by the Dionysian delights. Schopenhauer too believes in The Will to Power, but along more ascetic lines. Schopenhauer’s ideological style is intriguing due to its simplicity and rigor.
Schopenhauer has a compendium of works that range from self discipline, morality, to genius. His ideas have inspired many great minds such as Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Einstein, German Name, Proust, Austrian name, you get the picture. If you don’t realize that German thinkers of the 19th century dominated and continue to dominate Western thought, then you have not been paying attention.
The only thing that stands in our power to achieve, is to make the most advantageous use possible of the personal qualities we possess, and accordingly to follow such pursuits only as will call them into play, to strive after the kind of perfection of which they admit and to avoid every other; consequently, to choose the position, occupation and manner of life which are most suitable for their development. - A Schopenhauer
He did not ask to be listened to as a matter of courtesy but as a right–a right for which he would struggle, for which he fought, and which has in the course of time, it may be admitted, been conceded to him.
His essays are a valuable criticism of life by a man who had a wide experience of life, a man of the world, who possessed an almost inspired faculty of observation. Schopenhauer, of all men, unmistakably observed life at first hand. He was a deliberate and diligent seeker of truth, always striving to discover what is behind things, to arrive at a knowledge of first principles. Too much importance cannot be attached to this quality of seeing things for oneself; it is the stamp of a great and original mind; it is the principal quality of what one calls genius.
Life is a difficult question; I have decided to spend my life in thinking about it. - A Schopenhauer
In possessing Schopenhauer the world possesses a personality the richer; a somewhat loquacious personality it may be; a curiously whimsical and sensitive personality, full of quite ordinary superstitions, of extravagant vanities, selfish, at times violent, rarely generous; a man whom during his lifetime nobody quite knew, an isolated creature, self-absorbed, solely concerned in his elaboration of the explanation of the world, and possessing subtleties which for the most part escaped the perception of his fellows; at once a hermit and a socialite. His was essentially a great temperament; his whole life was a life of ideas, an intellectual life. And his work, the fruit of his life, would seem to be standing the test of all great work–the test of time.
Esoteric and Exoteric
There are, first of all, two kinds of authors: those who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake. The former have had thoughts or experiences which seem to them worth communicating, while the latter need money and consequently write for money. Leo Strauss writes extensively on the fact that many great minds write in a manner that needs to be interpreted in two ways. Both esoterically (between the lines) by other great minds and exoterically (on the surface) by those with average minds. Not all writing will be interpreted by all people the same way. Next time you read Aristotle or Machiavelli try to remember this fact.
It is only the person who writes absolutely for the sake of the subject that writes anything worth writing. What an inestimable advantage it would be, if, in every branch of literature, there existed only a few but excellent books. A great number of bad authors eke out their existence entirely by the foolishness of the public, which only will read what has just been printed. Book club anyone? This point highlights the adage of reading the Great Books over and over rather than reading the latest publication The New York Times.
Views of Schopenhauer
There are those who have thought before they begin to write. They write solely because they have thought; and they are rare. They write in a manner that is pithy and stimulating. But although the number of those authors who really and seriously think before they write is small, only extremely few of them think about the subject itself; the rest think only about the books written on this subject, and what has been said by others upon it. In order to think, they must have the more direct and powerful incentive of other people’s thoughts. These become their next theme, and therefore they always remain under their influence and are never, strictly speaking, original. They are victims of the zeitgeist.
It is only the writer who takes the material on which he writes direct out of his own head that is worth reading. Book manufacturers, compilers, and the ordinary history writers, and others like them, take their material straight out of books; it passes into their fingers without its having paid transit duty or undergone inspection when it was in their heads, to say nothing of elaboration. (How learned many a man would be if he knew everything that was in his own books!) Hence their talk is often of such a vague nature that one racks one’s brains in vain to understand of what they are really thinking. They are not thinking at all.
No greater mistake can be made than to imagine that what has been written latest is always the more correct; that what is written later on is an improvement on what was written previously; and that every change means progress. Men who think and have correct judgment, and people who treat their subject earnestly, are all exceptions only. Vermin is the rule everywhere in the world: it is always at hand and busily engaged in trying to improve in its own way upon the mature deliberations of the thinkers. So that if a man wishes to improve himself in any subject he must guard against immediately seizing the newest books written upon it, in the assumption that science is always advancing and that the older books have been made use of in the compiling of the new. They have, it is true, been used; but how? The writer often does not thoroughly understand the old books; he will, at the same time, not use their exact words, so that the result is he spoils and bungles what has been said in a much better and clearer way by the old writers; since they wrote from their own lively knowledge of the subject. He often leaves out the best things they have written, their most striking elucidations of the matter, their happiest remarks, because he does not recognise their value or feel how pregnant they are.
Write books which are worth translating and leave the books of other people as they are. One should read, if it is possible, the real authors, the founders and discoverers of things, or at any rate the recognized great masters in every branch of learning, and buy second-hand books rather than read their contents in new ones.
What is new is seldom good; because a good thing is only new for a short time.
A thought only really lives until it has reached the boundary line of words; it then becomes petrified and dies immediately; yet it is as everlasting as the fossilized animals and plants of former ages. Its existence, which is really momentary, may be compared to a crystal the instant it becomes crystallized.
Other men. In almost every age, whether it be in literature or art, we find that if a thoroughly wrong idea, or a fashion, or a manner is in vogue, it is admired. Those of ordinary intelligence trouble themselves inordinately to acquire it and put it in practice. An intelligent man sees through it and despises it, consequently he remains out of the fashion. It is not easy to walk alone…
Nothing is easier than to write so that no one can understand; on the other hand, nothing is more difficult than to express learned ideas so that every one must understand them. Every true thinker endeavors to express his thoughts as purely, clearly, definitely, and concisely as ever possible. This is why simplicity has always been looked upon as a token, not only of truth, but also of genius.
Hence, the first rule–nay, this in itself is almost sufficient for a good style–is this, that the author should have something to say. Ah! this implies a great deal.
Men should use common words to say uncommon things, but they do the reverse.If a man has something to say that is worth saying, he need not envelop it in affected expressions, involved phrases, and enigmatical innuendoes; but he may rest assured that by expressing himself in a simple, clear, and naïve manner he will not fail to produce the right effect.
ON READING AND BOOKS
When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process. It is the same as the pupil, in learning to write, following with his pen the lines that have been pencilled by the teacher. Accordingly, in reading, the work of thinking is, for the greater part, done for us. This is why we are consciously relieved when we turn to reading after being occupied with our own thoughts. But, in reading, our head is, however, really only the arena of some one else’s thoughts. And so it happens that the person who reads a great deal–that is to say, almost the whole day, and recreates himself by spending the intervals in thoughtless diversion, gradually loses the ability to think for himself; just as a man who is always riding at last forgets how to walk.
For the more one reads the fewer are the traces left of what one has read; the mind is like a tablet that has been written over and over. Hence it is impossible to reflect; and it is only by reflection that one can assimilate what one has read if one reads straight ahead without pondering over it later, what has been read does not take root, but is for the most part lost.
One can never read too little of bad, or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind. In order to read what is good one must make it a condition never to read what is bad; for life is short, and both time and strength limited.
Every one has aims, but very few have anything approaching a system of thought. This is why such people do not take an objective interest in anything, and why they learn nothing from what they read: they remember nothing about it.
Any kind of important book should immediately be read twice, partly because one grasps the matter in its entirety the second time, and only really understands the beginning when the end is known; and partly because in reading it the second time one’s temper and mood are different, so that one gets another impression; it may be that one sees the matter in another light.
The scenes of our life are like pictures in rough mosaic, which have no effect at close quarters, but must be looked at from a distance in order to discern their beauty. So that to obtain something we have desired is to find out that it is worthless; we are always living in expectation of better things, while, at the same time, we often repent and long for things that belong to the past. We accept the present as something that is only temporary, and regard it only as a means to accomplish our aim. So that most people will find if they look back when their life is at an end, that they have lived their lifelong ad interim, and they will be surprised to find that something they allowed to pass by unnoticed and unenjoyed was just their life–that is to say, it was the very thing in the expectation of which they lived. And so it may be said of man in general that, befooled by hope, he dances into the arms of death.
That boredom is immediately followed by fresh needs is a fact which is also true of the cleverer order of animals, because life has no true and genuine value in itself, but is kept in motion merely through the medium of needs and illusion. As soon as there are no needs and illusion we become conscious of the absolute barrenness and emptiness of existence.
ON THINKING FOR ONESELF
The largest library in disorder is not so useful as a smaller but orderly one; in the same way the greatest amount of knowledge, if it has not been worked out in one’s own mind, is of less value than a much smaller amount that has been fully considered. For it is only when a man combines what he knows from all sides, and compares one truth with another, that he completely realises his own knowledge and gets it into his power. A man can only think over what he knows, therefore he should learn something; but a man only knows what he has pondered.
This is why much reading robs the mind of all elasticity; it is like keeping a spring under a continuous, heavy weight. If a man does not want to think, the safest plan is to take up a book directly he has a spare moment.
Men of learning are those who have read the contents of books. Thinkers, geniuses, and those who have enlightened the world and furthered the race of men, are those who have made direct use of the book of the world.
It is a hundred times more valuable if he has acquired it by thinking it out for himself. For it is only by his thinking it out for himself that it enters as an integral part, as a living member into the whole system of his thought, and stands in complete and firm relation with it; that it is fundamentally understood with all its consequences, and carries the colour, the shade, the impress of his own way of thinking; and comes at the very moment, just as the necessity for it is felt, and stands fast and cannot be forgotten.
Reading is thinking with some one else’s head instead of one’s own. But to think for oneself is to endeavor to develop a coherent whole, a system, even if it is not a strictly complete one.
Religion is the metaphysics of the people, which by all means they must keep; and hence it must be eternally respected, for to discredit it means taking it away. Just as there is popular poetry, popular wisdom in proverbs, so too there must be popular metaphysics; for mankind requires most certainly an interpretation of life, and it must be in keeping with its power of comprehension.
Or, to take a simpler simile, truth, which cannot be expressed in any other way than by myth and allegory, is like water that cannot be transported without a vessel; but philosophers, who insist upon possessing it pure, are like a person who breaks the vessel in order to get the water by itself. This is perhaps a true analogy. At any rate, religion is truth allegorically and mythically expressed, and thereby made possible and digestible to mankind at large. For mankind could by no means digest it pure and unadulterated, just as we cannot live in pure oxygen but require an addition of four-fifths of nitrogen.
Simplex sigillum veri: the naked truth must be so simple and comprehensible that one can impart it to all in its true form without any admixture of myth and fable (a pack of lies)–in other words, without masking it as religion.
Hence religion must be regarded as a necessary evil, its necessity resting on the pitiful weak-mindedness of the great majority of mankind, incapable of grasping the truth, and consequently when in extremity requires a substitute for truth.
They require also a popular system of metaphysics, which, in order for it to be this, must combine many rare qualities; for instance, it must be exceedingly lucid, and yet in the right places be obscure, nay, to a certain extent, impenetrable; then a correct and satisfying moral system must be combined with its dogmas; above everything, it must bring inexhaustible consolation in suffering and death.
Perhaps the metaphysics in all religions is false; but the morality in all is true. This is to be surmised from the fact that in their metaphysics they contradict each other, while in their morality they agree.
Even Plato, without comparison the most transcendental philosopher of pre-Christian antiquity, knows no higher virtue than Justice; he alone recommends it unconditionally and for its own sake, while all the other philosophers make a happy life the aim of all virtue; and it is acquired through the medium of moral behavior. Christianity released European humanity from its superficial and crude absorption in an ephemeral, uncertain, and hollow existence.
Accordingly, Christianity does not only preach Justice, but the Love of Mankind, Compassion, Charity, Reconciliation, Love of one’s Enemies, Patience, Humility, Renunciation, Faith, and Hope.
It is precisely what is most elevated that is the most open to abuse and deception and therefore those lofty doctrines have sometimes served as a pretext for the most disgraceful transactions and veritable crimes.
ON THE PSYCHOLOGICAL
In general, any disproportion between the will and intellect–that is to say, any deviation from the normal proportion referred to–tends to make a man unhappy; and the same thing happens when the disproportion is reversed. The development of the intellect to an abnormal degree of strength and superiority, thereby making it out of all proportion to the will, a condition which constitutes the essence of true genius, is not only superfluous but actually an impediment to the needs and purposes of life.
What makes a man hard-hearted is this, that each man has, or fancies he has, sufficient in his own troubles to bear. This is why people placed in happier circumstances than they have been used to are sympathetic and charitable. But people who have always been placed in happy circumstances are often the reverse; they have become so estranged to suffering that they have no longer any sympathy with it; and hence it happens that the poor sometimes show themselves more benevolent than the rich.
People who do not go to the theatre are like those who make their toilet without a looking-glass;–but it is still worse to come to a decision without seeking the advice of a friend. For a man may have the most correct and excellent judgment in everything else but in his own affairs; because here the will at once deranges the intellect. Therefore a man should seek counsel. A doctor can cure every one but himself; this is why he calls in a colleague when he is ill.
Anything artistically beautiful cannot exist without truth.
“Rien n’est beau que le vrai; le vrai seul est aimable.” ("Nothing is beautiful but the true, the true alone is agreeable") is a dictum of Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux
Every one will desire in the other individual those perfections which he himself lacks, and he will consider imperfections, which are the reverse of his own, beautiful.
Instinct everywhere works as with the conception of an end, and yet it is entirely without one. Nature implants instinct where the acting individual is not capable of understanding the end, or would be unwilling to pursue it. Consequently, as a rule, it is only given prominently to animals, and in particular to those of the lowest order, which have the least intelligence. But it is only in such a case as the one we are at present considering that it is also given to man, who naturally is capable of understanding the end, but would not pursue it with the necessary zeal–that is to say, he would not pursue it at the cost of his individual welfare. So that here, as in all cases of instinct, truth takes the form of illusion in order to influence the will….
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.
ON COUNSELS AND MAXIMS
Not pleasure, but freedom from pain, is what the wise man will aim at.
The happiest lot is not to have experienced the keenest delights or the greatest pleasures, but to have brought life to a close without any very great pain, bodily or mental. To measure the happiness of a life by its delights or pleasures, is to apply a false standard. For pleasures are and remain something negative; that they produce happiness is a delusion, cherished by envy to its own punishment. Pain is felt to be something positive, and hence its absence is the true standard of happiness. And if, over and above freedom from pain, there is also an absence of boredom, the essential conditions of earthly happiness are attained; for all else is chimerical.
We see that the best the world has to offer is an existence free from pain–a quiet, tolerable life; and we confine our claims to this, as to something we can more surely hope to achieve. For the safest way of not being very miserable is not to expect to be very happy.
Accordingly it is advisable to put very moderate limits upon our expectations of pleasure, possessions, rank, honor and so on; because it is just this striving and struggling to be happy, to dazzle the world, to lead a life full of pleasure, which entail great misfortune. It is prudent and wise, I say, to reduce one’s claims, if only for the reason that it is extremely easy to be very unhappy; while to be very happy is not indeed difficult, but quite impossible.
The golden mean is best–to live free from the squalor of a mean abode, and yet not be a mark for envy. It is the tall pine which is cruelly shaken by the wind, the highest summits that are struck in the storm, and the lofty towers that fall so heavily.
To estimate a man’s condition in regard to happiness, it is necessary to ask, not what things please him, but what things trouble him; and the more trivial these things are in themselves, the happier the man will be. To be irritated by trifles, a man must be well off; for in misfortunes trifles are unfelt.
Care should be taken not to build the happiness of life upon a broad foundation–not to require a great many things in order to be happy. For happiness on such a foundation is the most easily undermined; it offers many more opportunities for accidents; and accidents are always happening. The architecture of happiness follows a plan in this respect just the opposite of that adopted in every other case, where the broadest foundation offers the greatest security. Accordingly, to reduce your claims to the lowest possible degree, in comparison with your means,–of whatever kind these may be–is the surest way of avoiding extreme misfortune.
To make extensive preparations for life–no matter what form they may take–is one of the greatest and commonest of follies. Such preparations presuppose, in the first place, a long life, the full and complete term of years appointed to man–and how few reach it! and even if it be reached, it is still too short for all the plans that have been made; for to carry them out requites more time than was thought necessary at the beginning. And then how many mischances and obstacles stand in the way! how seldom the goal is ever reached in human affairs! And lastly, even though the goal should be reached, the changes which Time works in us have been left out of the reckoning: we forget that the capacity whether for achievement or for enjoyment does not last a whole lifetime. So we often toil for things which are no longer suited to us when we attain them; and again, the years we spend in preparing for some work, unconsciously rob us of the power for carrying it out.
The cause of this commonest of all follies is that optical illusion of the mind from which everyone suffers, making life, at its beginning, seem of long duration; and at its end, when one looks back over the course of it, how short a time it seems! There is some advantage in the illusion; but for it, no great work would ever be done.
Men of any worth or value soon come to see that they are in the hands of Fate, and gratefully submit to be moulded by its teachings. They recognize that the fruit of life is experience, and not happiness; they become accustomed and content to exchange hope for insight;
In their search for gold, the alchemists discovered other things–gunpowder, china, medicines, the laws of nature. There is a sense in which we are all alchemists.
If there is any merit or importance attaching to a man’s career, if he lays himself out carefully for some special work, it is all the more necessary and advisable for him to turn his attention now and then to its plan, that is to say, the miniature sketch of its general outlines. Of course, to do that, he must have applied the maxim [Greek: Gnothi seauton]; he must have made some little progress in the art of understanding himself. He must know what is his real, chief, and foremost object in life,–what it is that he most wants in order to be happy; and then, after that, what occupies the second and third place in his thoughts; he must find out what, on the whole, his vocation really is–the part he has to play, his general relation to the world. If he maps out… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Again, just as the traveler, on reaching a height, gets a connected view over the road he has taken, with its many turns and windings; so it is only when we have completed a period in our life, or approach the end of it altogether, that we recognize the true connection between all our actions,–what it is we have achieved, what work we have done. It is only then that we see the precise chain of cause and effect, and the exact value of all our efforts. For as long as we are actually engaged in the work of life, we always act in accordance with the nature of our character, under the influence of motive, and within the limits of our capacity,–in a word, from beginning to end, under a law of necessity; at every moment we do just what appears to us right and proper. It is only afterwards, when we come to look back at the whole course of our life and its general result, that we see the why and wherefore of it all. When we are actually doing some great deed, or creating some immortal work, we are not conscious of it as such; we think only of satisfying present aims, of fulfilling the intentions we happen to have at the time, of doing the right thing at the moment. It is only when we come to view our life as a connected whole that our character and capacities show themselves in their true light; that we see how, in… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
But the past and the future are, on the whole, of less consequence than we think. Distance, which makes objects look small to the outward eye, makes them look big to the eye of thought. The present alone is true and actual; it is the only time which possesses full reality, and our existence lies in it exclusively.
But in regard to the present let us remember Seneca’s advice, and live each day as if it were our whole life,–singulas dies singulas vitas puta: let us make it as agreeable as possible, it is the only real time we have.
Limitations always make for happiness. We are happy in proportion as our range of vision, our sphere of work, our points of contact with the world, are restricted and circumscribed. We are more likely to feel worried and anxious if these limits are wide; for it means that our cares, desires and terrors are increased and intensified.
The advice here given is on a par with a rule recommended by Pythagoras,–to review, every night before going to sleep, what we have done during the day. To live at random, in the hurly-burly of business or pleasure, without ever reflecting upon the past,–to go on, as it were, pulling cotton off the reel of life,–is to have no clear idea of what we are about; and a man who lives in this state will have chaos in his emotions and certain confusion in his thoughts; as is soon manifest by the abrupt and fragmentary character of his conversation, which becomes a kind of mincemeat.
To be self-sufficient, to be all in all to oneself, to want for nothing, to be able to say omnia mea mecum porto–that is assuredly the chief qualification for happiness.
There is no more mistaken path to happiness than worldliness, revelry, high life: for the whole object of it is to transform our miserable existence into a succession of joys, delights and pleasures,–a process which cannot fail to result in disappointment and delusion; on a par, in this respect, with its obligato accompaniment, the interchange of lies.
Man can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.
This demands an act of severe self-denial; we have to forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to become like other people. No doubt their company may be set down against our loss in this respect; but the more a man is worth, the more he will find that what he gains does not cover what he loses, and that the balance is on the debit side of the account; for the people with whom he deals are generally bankrupt,–that is to say, there is nothing to be got from their society which can compensate either for its boredom, annoyance and disagreeableness, or for the self-denial which it renders necessary. Accordingly, most society is so constituted as to offer a good profit to anyone who will exchange it for solitude.
It is really a very risky, nay, a fatal thing, to be sociable; because it means contact with natures, the great majority of which are bad morally, and dull or perverse, intellectually. To be unsociable is not to care about such people; and to have enough in oneself to dispense with the necessity of their company is a great piece of good fortune; because almost all our sufferings spring from having to do with other people; and that destroys the peace of mind, which, as I have said, comes next after health in the elements of happiness. Peace of mind is impossible without a considerable amount of solitude. The Cynics renounced all private property in order to attain the bliss of having nothing to trouble them; and to renounce society with the same object is the wisest thing a man can do.
Envy is natural to man; and still, it is at once a vice and a source of misery. We should treat it as the enemy of our happiness, and stifle it like an evil thought. This is the advice given by Seneca; as he well puts it, we shall be pleased with what we have, if we avoid the self-torture of comparing our own lot with some other and happier one–nostra
We often try to banish the gloom and despondency of the present by speculating upon our chances of success in the future; a process which leads us to invent a great many chimerical hopes.
As Seneca says, to submit yourself to reason is the way to make everything else submit to you–si tibi vis omnia subjicere, te subjice rationi.
It is most important to allow the brain the full measure of sleep which is required to restore it; for sleep is to a man’s whole nature what winding up is to a clock. This measure will vary directly with the development and activity of the brain; to overstep the measure is mere waste of time, because if that is done, sleep gains only so much in length as it loses in depth.
Sleep is a morsel of death borrowed to keep up and renew the part of life which is exhausted by the day–le sommeil est un emprunt fait à la mort. Or it might be said that sleep is the interest we have to pay on the capital which is called in at death; and the higher the rate of interest and the more regularly it is paid, the further the date of redemption is postponed.
No man can see over his own height. Let me explain what I mean. You cannot see in another man any more than you have in yourself; and your own intelligence strictly determines the extent to which he comes within its grasp. If your intelligence is of a very low order, mental qualities in another, even though they be of the highest kind, will have no effect at all upon you; you will see nothing in their possessor except the meanest side of his individuality–in other words, just those parts of his character and disposition which are weak and defective. Your whole estimate of the man will be confined to his defects, and his higher mental qualities will no more exist for you than colors exist for those who cannot see. Intellect is invisible to the man who has none. In any attempt to criticise another’s work, the range of knowledge possessed by the critic is as essential a part of his verdict as the claims of the work itself.
To forgive and forget means to throw away dearly bought experience.
Accordingly, suppose you want to know how a man will behave in an office into which you think of putting him; you should not build upon expectations, on his promises or assurances. For, even allowing that he is quite sincere, he is speaking about a matter of which he has no knowledge. The only way to calculate how he will behave, is to consider the circumstances in which he will be placed, and the extent to which they will conflict with his character.
But if you come across any special trait of meanness or stupidity–in life or in literature,–you must be careful not to let it annoy or distress you, but to look upon it merely as an addition to your knowledge–a new fact to be considered in studying the character of humanity. Your attitude towards it will be that of the mineralogist who stumbles upon a very characteristic specimen of a mineral.
No man is so formed that he can be left entirely to himself, to go his own ways; everyone needs to be guided by a preconceived plan, and to follow certain general rules. But if this is carried too far, and a man tries to take on a character which is not natural or innate in him, but it artificially acquired and evolved merely by a process of reasoning, he will very soon discover that Nature cannot be forced, and that if you drive it out, it will return despite your efforts:–
Here, as in all theoretical instruction that aims at a practical result, the first thing to do is to understand the rule; the second thing is to learn the practice of it. The theory may be understand at once by an effort of reason, and yet the practice of it acquired only in course of time.
The difference between action in accordance with abstract principles, and action as the result of original, innate tendency, is the same as that between a work of art, say a watch–where form and movement are impressed upon shapeless and inert matter–and a living organism, where form and matter are one, and each is inseparable from the other.
There is a maxim attributed to the Emperor Napoleon, which expresses this relation between acquired and innate character, and confirms what I have said: everything that is unnatural is imperfect;–a rule of universal application, whether in the physical or in the moral sphere.
And in this connection let me utter a word of protest against any and every form of affectation. It always arouses contempt; in the first place, because it argues deception, and the deception is cowardly, for it is based on fear; and, secondly, it argues self-condemnation, because it means that a man is trying to appear what he is not, and therefore something which he things better than he actually is. To affect a quality, and to plume yourself upon it, is just to confess that you have not got it. Whether it is courage, or learning, or intellect, or wit, or success with women, or riches, or social position, or whatever else it may be that a man boasts of, you may conclude by his boasting about it that that is precisely the direction in which he is rather weak; for if a man really possesses any faculty to the full, it will not occur to him to make a great show of affecting it; he is quite content to know that he has it. That is the application of the Spanish proverb: herradura que chacolotea clavo le falta–a clattering hoof means a nail gone.
No one can persevere long in a fictitious character; for nature will soon reassert itself.
A man bears the weight of his own body without knowing it, but he soon feels the weight of any other, if he tries to move it; in the same way, a man can see other people’s shortcoming’s and vices, but he is blind to his own. This arrangement has one advantage: it turns other people into a kind of mirror, in which a man can see clearly everything that is vicious, faulty, ill-bred and loathsome in his own nature; only, it is generally the old story of the dog barking at is own image; it is himself that he sees and not another dog, as he fancies. He
But the more of personal worth a man has, the less pleasure he will take in these conventional arrangements; and he will try to withdraw from the sphere in which they apply. The reason why these arrangements exist at all, is simply that in this world of ours misery and need are the chief features: therefore it is everywhere the essential and paramount business of life to devise the means of alleviating them.
Apart from the case where it would be a real help to you if your friend were to make some great sacrifice to serve you, there is no better means of testing the genuineness of his feelings than the way in which he receives the news of a misfortune that has just happened to you.
If you desire to get on in the world, friends and acquaintances are by far the best passport to fortune. The possession of a great deal of ability makes a man proud, and therefore not apt to flatter those who have very little, and from whom, on that account, the possession of great ability should be carefully concealed.
It is a wise thing to be polite; consequently, it is a stupid thing to be rude. To make enemies by unnecessary and willful incivility, is just as insane a proceeding as to set your house on fire. For politeness is like a counter–an avowedly false coin, with which it is foolish to be stingy. A sensible man will be generous in the use of it.
Wax, a substance naturally hard and brittle, can be made soft by the application of a little warmth, so that it will take any shape you please. In the same way, by being polite and friendly, you can make people pliable and obliging, even though they are apt to be crabbed and malevolent. Hence politeness is to human nature what warmth is to wax.
A man should act in accordance with his own character, as soon as he has carefully deliberated on what he is about to do. The outcome of this is that originality cannot be dispensed with in practical matters: otherwise, what a man does will not accord with what he is.
If you want your judgment to be accepted, express it coolly and without passion.
Even when you are fully justified in praising yourself, you should never be seduced into doing so. For vanity is so very common, and merit so very uncommon,
And, as a general rule, it is more advisable to show your intelligence by saying nothing than by speaking out; for silence is a matter of prudence, whilst speech has something in it of vanity.
But it should not be forgotten how clever people are in regard to affairs which do not concern them, even though they show no particularly sign of acuteness in other matters.
This is a kind of algebra in which people are very proficient: give them a single fact to go upon, and they will solve the most complicated problems.
It is only when a man has reached the happy age of wisdom that he is capable of just judgment in regard either to his own actions or to those of others.
Change alone endures.
People generally think that present circumstances will last, and that matters will go on in the future as they have clone in the past. Their mistakes arises from the fact that they do not understand the cause of the things they see–causes which, unlike the effects they produce, contain in themselves the germ of future change. The effects are all that people know, and they hold fast to them on the supposition that those unknown causes, which were sufficient to bring them about, will also be able to maintain them as they are. This is a very common error; and the fact that it is common is not without its advantage, for it means that people always err in unison; and hence the calamity which results from the error affects all alike, and is therefore easy to bear; whereas, if a philosopher makes a mistake, he is alone in his error, and so at a double disadvantage.
Such is Time’s usury; and all who cannot wait are its victims. There is no more thriftless proceeding than to try and mend the measured pace of Time. Be careful, then, not to become its debtor.
Whatever fate befalls you, do not give way to great rejoicings or great lamentations; partly because all things are full of change, and your fortune may turn at any moment; partly because men are so apt to be deceived in their judgment as to what is good or bad for them. Almost every one in his turn has lamented over something which afterwards turned out to be the very best thing for him that could have happened–or rejoiced at an event which became the source of his greatest sufferings. The right state of mind has been finely portrayed by Shakespeare: I have felt so many quirks of joy and grief That the first face of neither, on the start, Can woman me unto’t.
The most finished man of the world would be one who was never irresolute and never in a hurry.
Courage comes next to prudence as a quality of mind very essential to happiness.
Our whole life long it is the present, and the present alone, that we actually possess: the only difference is that at the beginning of life we look forward to a long future, and that towards the end we look back upon a long past; also that our temperament, but not our character, undergoes certain well-known changes, which make the present wear a different color at each period of life.
To use Spinoza’s phraseology, the child is learning to see the things and persons about it sub specie aeternitatis,–as particular manifestations of universal law. So, it may be said that in childhood, life looks like the scenery in a theatre, as you view it from a distance; and that in old age it is like the same scenery when you come up quite close to it.
The chief result gained by experience of life is clearness of view. This is what distinguishes the man of mature age, and makes the world wear such a different aspect from that which it presented in his youth or boyhood. It is only then that he sees things quite plain, and takes them for that which they really are: while in earlier years he saw a phantom-world, put together out of the whims and crotchets of his own mind, inherited prejudice and strange delusion: the real world was hidden from him, or the vision of it distorted. The first thing that experience finds to do is to free us from the phantoms of the brain–those false notions that have been put into us in youth.
From the point of view we have been taking up until now, life may be compared to a piece of embroidery, of which, during the first half of his time, a man gets a sight of the right side, and during the second half, of the wrong. The wrong side is not so pretty as the right, but it is more instructive; it shows the way in which the threads have been worked together.
But why is it that to an old man his past life appears so short? For this reason: his memory is short; and so he fancies that his life has been short too. He no longer remembers the insignificant parts of it, and much that was unpleasant is now forgotten; how little, then, there is left! For, in general, a man’s memory is as imperfect as his intellect; and he must make a practice of reflecting upon the lessons he has learned and the events he has experienced, if he does not want them both to sink gradually into the gulf of oblivion.
Deep truths may be perceived, but can never be excogitated–that is to say, the first knowledge of them is immediate, called forth by some momentary impression. This knowledge is of such a kind as to be attainable only when the impressions are strong, lively and deep; and if we are to be acquainted with deep truths, everything depends upon a proper use of our early years. In later life, we may be better able to work upon other people,–upon the world, because our natures are then finished and rounded off, and no more a prey to fresh views; but then the world is less able to work upon us. These are the years of action and achievement; while youth is the time for forming fundamental conceptions, and laying down the ground-work of thought. In youth it is the outward aspect of things that most engages us; while in age, thought or reflection is the predominating quality of the mind. Hence, youth is the time for poetry, and age is more inclined to philosophy. In practical affairs it is the same: a man shapes his resolutions in youth more by the impression that the outward world makes upon him; whereas, when he is old, it is thought that determines his actions.
It is only then that a man can be said to be really rich in experience or in learning; he has then had time and opportunity enough to enable him to see and think over life from all its sides; he has been able to compare one thing with another, and to discover points of contact and connecting links, so that only then are the true relations of things rightly understood. Further, in old age there comes an increased depth in the knowledge that was acquired in youth; a man has now many more illustrations of any ideas he may have attained; things which he thought he knew when he was young, he now knows in reality. And besides, his range of knowledge is wider; and in whatever direction it extends, it is thorough, and therefore formed into a consistent and connected whole; whereas in youth knowledge is always defective and fragmentary.
But though the tree of knowledge must reach its full height before it can bear fruit, the roots of it lie in youth.
Every generation, no matter how paltry its character, thinks itself much wiser than the one immediately preceding it, let alone those that are more remote. It is just the same with the different periods in a man’s life; and yet often, in the one case no less than in the other, it is a mistaken opinion.
The main difference between youth and age will always be that youth looks forward to life, and old age to death; and that while the one has a short past and a long future before it, the case is just the opposite with the other.
A nation of nothing but peasants would do little in the way of discovery and invention; but idle hands make active heads. Science and the Arts are themselves the children of luxury, and they discharge their debt to it. The work which they do is to perfect technology in all its branches, mechanical, chemical and physical; an art which in our days has brought machinery to a pitch never dreamt of before, and in particular has, by steam and electricity, accomplished things the like of which would, in earlier ages, have been ascribed to the agency of the devil.
There is no idea so foolish but that it cannot be put into the heads of the ignorant and incapable multitude, especially if the idea holds out some prospect of any gain or advantage.
The English show their great intelligence, amongst other ways, by clinging to their ancient institutions, customs and usages, and by holding them sacred, even at the risk of carrying this tenacity too far, and making it ridiculous. They hold them sacred for the simple reason that those institutions and customs are not the invention of an idle head, but have grown up gradually by the force of circumstance and the wisdom of life itself, and are therefore suited to them as a nation.
ON FREE-WILL AND FATALISM
The only freedom that exists is of a metaphysical character. In the physical world freedom is an impossibility. Accordingly, while our several actions are in no wise free, every man’s individual character is to be regarded as a free act. He is such and such a man, because once for all it is his will to be that man. For the will itself, and in itself, and also in so far as it is manifest in an individual, and accordingly constitutes the original and fundamental desires of that individual, is independent of all knowledge, because it is antecedent to such knowledge.
All genuine merit, moral as well as intellectual, is not merely physical or empirical in its origin, but metaphysical; that is to say, it is given a priori and not a posteriori; in other words, it lies innate and is not acquired, and therefore its source is not a mere phenomenon, but the thing-in-itself. Hence it is that every man achieves only that which is irrevocably established in his nature, or is born with him. Intellectual capacity needs, it is true, to be developed just as many natural products need to be cultivated in order that we may enjoy or use them; but just as in the case of a natural product no cultivation can take the place of original material, neither can it do so in the case of intellect. That is the reason why qualities which are merely acquired, or learned, or enforced–that is, qualities a posteriori, whether moral or intellectual–are not real or genuine, but superficial only, and possessed of no value. This is a conclusion of true metaphysics, and experience teaches the same lesson to all who can look below the surface. Nay, it is proved by the great importance which we all attach to such innate characteristics as physiognomy and external appearance, in the case of a man who is at all distinguished; and that is why we are so curious to see him. Superficial people, to be sure,–and, for very good reasons, commonplace people too,–will be of the opposite opinion; for if anything fails them they will thus be enabled to console themselves by thinking that it is still to come.
That is why Seneca’s remark, that even the smallest things may be taken as evidence of character, is so true: argumenta morum ex minimis quoque licet capere. If a man shows by his absolutely unscrupulous and selfish behavior in small things that a sentiment of justice is foreign to his disposition, he should not be trusted with a penny unless on due security.
The man who has no conscience in small things will be a scoundrel in big things. If we neglect small traits of character, we have only ourselves to blame if we afterwards learn to our disadvantage what this character is in the great affairs of life.
The whole influence of example–and it is very strong–rests on the fact that a man has, as a rule, too little judgment of his own, and often too little knowledge, o explore his own way for himself, and that he is glad, therefore, to tread in the footsteps of some one else. Accordingly, the more deficient he is in either of these qualities, the more is he open to the influence of example; and we find, in fact, that most men’s guiding star is the example of others; that their whole course of life, in great things and in small, comes in the end to be mere imitation; and that not even in the pettiest matters do they act according to their own judgment. Imitation and custom are the spring of almost all human action. The cause of it is that men fight shy of all and any sort of reflection, and very properly mistrust their own discernment. At the same time this remarkably strong imitative instinct in man is a proof of his kinship with apes.
Men who aspire to a happy, a brilliant and a long life, instead of to a virtuous one, are like foolish actors who want to be always having the great parts,–the parts that are marked by splendour and triumph. They fail to see that the important thing is not what or how much, but how they act.
What is the meaning of life at all? To what purpose is it played, this farce in which everything that is essential is irrevocably fixed and determined? It is played that a man may come to understand himself, that he may see what it is that he seeks and has sought to be; what he wants, and what, therefore, he is. This is a knowledge which must be imparted to him from without. Life is to man, in other words, to will, what chemical re-agents are to the body: it is only by life that a man reveals what he is, and it is only in so far as he reveals himself that he exists at all. Life is the manifestation of character, of the something that we understand by that word; and it is not in life, but outside of it, and outside time, that character undergoes alteration, as a result of the self-knowledge which life gives. Life is only the mirror into which a man gazes not in order that he may get a reflection of himself, but that he may come to understand himself by that reflection; that he may see what it is that the mirror shows.
Since character, so far as we understand its nature, is above and beyond time, it cannot undergo any change under the influence of life. But although it must necessarily remain the same always, it requires time to unfold itself and show the very diverse aspects which it may possess. For character consists of two factors: one, the will-to-live itself, blind impulse, so-called impetuosity; the other, the restraint which the will acquires when it comes to understand the world; and the world, again, is itself will.
There are two ways of behaving in regard to merit: either to have some of one’s own, or to refuse any to others. The latter method is more convenient, and so it is generally adopted. As envy is a mere sign of deficiency, so to envy merit argues the lack of it.
Modesty should be the virtue of those who possess no other.
Xenophon’s remark: he must be a wise man who knows what is wise.
It is a suspicious sign if a reputation comes quickly; for an application of the laws of homogeneity will show that such a reputation is nothing but the direct applause of the multitude.
What this means may be seen by a remark once made by Phocion, when he was interrupted in a speech by the loud cheers of the mob. Turning to his friends who were standing close by, he asked: Have I made a mistake and said something stupid?
For when any new and wide-reaching truth comes into the world–and if it is new, it must be paradoxical–an obstinate stand will be made against it as long as possible; nay, people will continue to deny it even after they slacken their opposition and are almost convinced of its truth. Meanwhile it goes on quietly working its way, and, like an acid, undermining everything around it. From time to time a crash is heard; the old error comes tottering to the ground, and suddenly the new fabric of thought stands revealed, as though it were a monument just uncovered. Everyone recognizes and admires it.
Let him never forget the words of Balthazar Gracian: lo bueno si breve, dos vezes bueno–good work is doubly good if it is short.
In sum, there are beautiful passages that are worth reflecting on and re-reading. On Reading and Books, Counsels and Maxims, Free Will and Fatalism, and The Wisdom of Life really stand. Grab a cigar and a single malt and dive into Schopenhauer’s timeless wisdom.