- This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.
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 recognise that the fruit of life is experience, and not happiness…
I recently finished reading Arthur Schopenhauer’s 1851 collection of essays Parerga and Paralipomena. The title words being Greek for
ommissions, respectively, the essays were intended to expand on elements of Schopenhaeuer’s philosophy for those readers already familiar with it. Despite not being that, nonetheless I found the essays to stand respectively on their own merits, and Schopenhauer to be both a clear and insightful thinker and an incredible curmudgeon—I suppose that’s what a life of philosophical pessimism does to you.
This post will go through some of my thoughts on the various articles, which cover a whole host of topics and, as may be expected from an aphoristic a writer as Schopenhauer, will be liberally sprinkled with quotes.
The Wisdom of Life
Here Schopenhauer muses on the wisdom he has accumulated over his long life (he was 63 when the collection was released), including his system of philosophical pessimism. On the notion of a good life, he writes that
A quiet and cheerful temperament, happy in the enjoyment of a perfectly sound physique, an intellect clear, lively, penetrating and seeing things as they are, a moderate and gentle will, and therefore a good conscience—these are the privileges which no rank or wealth can make up for or replace.
One of the more progressive elements of Schopenhauer’s philosophy was his advocacy for animal welfare, as he considered animals to be
…beings like us, whose existence is but an infinitesimal moment between two eternities. Meanwhile, on the topic of interpersonal relations he writes that the advantage of beauty is that it is
…an open letter of recommendation, predisposing the heart to favour the person who presents it. He criticises the use of ad hominem attacks (of which he experienced no small share), writing that
[I]f a man abuses another, he is simply showing that he has no real or true causes of complaint against him; as, otherwise, he would bring these forward as the premises and rely upon his hearers to draw the conclusion themselves, instead of which, he gives the conclusion and leaves out the premises, trusting that people will suppose that he has done so only for the sake of being brief.
Schopenhauer is cautious as a result:
Now, unfortunately, if we want to take a serious view of any question, we have first of all to consider whether it will not give offence in some way or other to the dullard, who generally shows alarm and resentment at the merest sign of intelligence…
Counsels and Maxims
Schopenhauer begins with a justification:
I have simply put down those of my thoughts which appear to be worth communicating—thoughts which, as far as I know, have not been uttered, or, at any rate, not just in the same form, by any one else; so that my remarks may be taken as a supplement to what has been already achieved in the immense field [of guidance for life].
Here Schopenhauer’s pessimism is evidence by aphorisms like
[t]here is no doubt that life is given us, not to be enjoyed, but to be overcome—to be got over and
…there is some wisdom in taking a gloomy view, in looking upon the world as a kind of Hell, and in confining one’s efforts to securing a little room that shall not be exposed to the fire. He even prefigures one of my favourite elements of Camus with the quote that forms this post’s epigram.
Schopenhauer also has no time for respect unearned by conduct or wisdom, writing that
…while Nature sets very wide differences between man and man in respect both of morality and of intellect, society disregards and effaces them; or, rather, it sets up artificial differences in their stead—gradations of rank and position, which are very often diametrically opposed to those which Nature establishes.
A lot of time is devoted to Schopenhauer justifying why he was such a friendless loner (it’s because he was just so damn smart, don’t you see?). Considering being surrounded by friends to be a
…deficiency of quality in those we meet…to some extent [being] compensated [for] by an increase in quantity, he adds that
[i]t is natural for great minds—the true teachers of humanity—to care little about the constant company of others; just as little as the schoolmaster cares for joining in the gambols of the noisy crowd of boys which surrounds him.
He is also wary of forgiveness.
To become reconciled to a friend with whom you have broken, he writes,
is a form of weakness; and you pay the penalty of it when he takes the first opportunity of doing precisely the very thing which brought about the breach; nay, he does it the more boldly, because he is secretly conscious that you cannot get on without him.
Finally, he concludes with counsel to live in the moment, rather than the future or the past, as a route to true happiness.
[T]he first forty years of life furnish the text, while the remaining thirty supply the commentary.
Religion: A Dialogue
This essay takes the form of a dialogue between the religious Demopheles and the irreligious Philalethes. Whilst the latter argues that
[t]he power of religious dogma, when inculcated early, is such as to stifle conscience, compassion and finally every feeling of humanity, the former begs his companion to
…take religion cum grano salis…to see that you must meet the requirements of the people according to the measure of their comprehension. He states that
…truth, which is inexpressible except by means of myth and allegory, is like water, which can be carried about only in vessels; a philosopher who insists on obtaining it pure is like a man who breaks the jug in order to get the water by itself…religion is truth allegorically and mythically expressed, and so rendered attainable and digestible by mankind in general.
Philalethes is not against making the odd dig at his friend:
Demopheles:[Religion] takes the place of that pure philosophical truth which is infinitely difficult and perhaps never attainable.
Philalethes:Ah! just as a wooden leg takes the place of a natural one; it supplies what is lacking, barely does duty for it, claims to be regarded as a natural leg, and is more or less artfully put together…
Demopheles:That may be, but still for a man who hasn’t a natural leg, a wooden one is of great service.
Overall, Demopheles’ arguments boil down to two major points: his view that Philalethes has
…no notion how stupid most people are, and his belief that
…the chief aim of [religion] is not so much to make this life pleasant as to render us worthy of a better, whether that better life literally exists or not.
Philalethes is not convinced, retorting that
It is easy to let adulation of the Deity make amends for lack of proper behaviour towards man. And so we see that in all times and in all countries the great majority of mankind find it much easier to beg their way into heaven by prayers than to deserve to go there by their actions.
He ends by presenting Demopheles with a hypothetical designed to test his faith in faith’s civilising influence:
Just think; if a public proclamation were suddenly made, announcing the repeal of all the criminal laws; I fancy neither you not I would have the courage to go home from here under the protection of religious motives. If, in the same way, all religions were declared untrue, we could, under the protection of laws alone, go on living as before, without any special addition to our apprehensions or our measures of precaution.
It’s hard to tell which view Schopenhauer subscribed to. On the one hand, Philalethes criticises religion’s influence behind a great many historic atrocities, including the trans-Atlantic slave trade which Schopenhauer was heavily critical of. On the other, an entry in the later essay A Few Parables suggests a Demopheles-esque view on the irreligious:
A mother gave her children Æsop’s fables to read, in the hope of educating and improving their minds; but they very soon brought the book back, and the eldest, wise beyond his years, delivered himself as follows: This is no book for us; it’s much too childish and stupid. You can’t make us believe that foxes and wolves and ravens are able to talk; we’ve got beyond stories of that kind!
In these young hopefuls you have the enlightened Rationalists of the future.
On Books and Reading
For a man who wrote a bunch of stuff, one of Schopenhauer’s stranger targets of criticism is the very act of reading.
When we read, he writes,
another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process. Later, in On Thinking for Oneself, he adds that
[t]o read another’s thoughts is like taking the leavings of a meal to which we have not been invited, or putting on the clothes which some unknown visitor has laid aside. To the well-read Schopenhauer, true genius does not spend all its time reading, but thinking. The irony is not commented upon.
The Art of Literature
And yet, he goes on to offer an entire essay of writing advice. Claiming that
…nothing is easier than to write so that no-one can understand; just as, contrarily, nothing is more difficult than to express deep things in such a way that everyone must necessarily grasp them and that
[e]very word that can be spared is hurtful if it remains, he surmises that
[t]rue brevity of expression consists in everywhere saying only what is worth saying, and in avoiding tedious detail about things which everyone can supply for himself.
The Vanity of Existence
The scenes of our life are like pictures done in rough mosaic. Looked at close, they produce no effect. There is nothing beautiful to be found in them, unless you stand some distance off. So, to gain anything we have longed for is only to discover how vain and empty it is; and even though we are always living in expectation of better things, at the same time we often repent and long to have the past back again. We look upon the present as something to be put up with while it lasts and serving only as the way towards our goal. Hence most people, if they glance back when they come to the end of life, will find that all along they have been living ad interim: they will be surprised to find that the very thing they disregarded and let slip by unenjoyed was just the life in the expectation of which they passed all their time.
Further Psychological Observations
Another collection of aphorisms, including:
Reason deserves to be called a prophet; for in showing us the consequence and effect of our actions in the present, does it not tell us what the future will be?
…if a man sets out to hate all the miserable creatures he meets, he will not have much energy left for anything else; whereas he can despise them, one and all, with the greatest ease.
Opinion is like a pendulum and obeys the same law. If it goes past the centre of gravity on one side, it must go a like distance on the other; and it is only after a certain time that it finds the true point at which it can remain at rest.
On Human Nature
Schopenhauer really was a miserable git:
How shall man be proud, when his conception is a crime, his birth a penalty, his life a labour, and death a necessity!
When you come into contact with a man, no matter whom, do not attempt an objective appreciation of him according to his worth and dignity. Do not consider his bad will, or his narrow understanding and perverse ideas; as the former may easily lead you to hate and the latter to despise him; but fix your attentions only upon his sufferings, his needs, his anxieties, his pains. Then you will always feel your kindship with him; you will sympathize with him; and instead of hatred or contempt, you will experience the commiseration that alone is the peace to which the Gospel calls us.
Therefore let even the young be instructed betimes that in this masquerade the apples are of wax, the flowers of silk, the fish of pasteboard, and that all things—yes, all things—are toys and trifles; and that of two men whom he may see earnestly engaged in business, one is supplying spurious goods and the other paying for them in false coin.
I observe in myself that at one moment I regard all mankind with heartfelt pity, at another with the greatest indifference, on occasion, with hatred, nay, with a positive enjoyment of their pain.
At the end of the collection, and having not commented on the topic previously, Schopenhauer lays out his views on government. To begin with, he laments that
…whereas between one individual and another, and so far as concerns the law and morality of their relations, the principle, Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t like done to yourself, certainly applies, it is the converse of this principle which is appropriate in the case of nations and in politics: What you wouldn’t like done to yourself, do to others.
and adds that
[e]very State looks upon its neighbours as at bottom a horde of robbers, who will fall upon it as soon as they have the opportunity. He also lays out his version of the the Hobbesian state of nature and social contract, writing that
…originally it was not right, but might, that ruled in the world. Might has the advantage of having been first in the field. That is why it is impossible to do away with it and abolish it altogether; it must always have its place; and all that a man can wish or ask is that it should be found on the side of right and associated with it.
[r]ight in itself is powerless; in nature it is Might that rules. To enlist might on the side of right, so that by means of it right may rule, is the problem of statesmanship and
…right, if it is to gain a footing in the world and really prevail, must of necessity be supplemented by a small amount of arbitrary force.
Most impactful, I thought, was his criticism of the USA—all criticisms that are still relevant today, over a century and a half later:
The United States of North America exhibit the attempt…to allow abstract right to prevail pure and unalloyed. But the result is not attractive. For with all the material prosperity of the country what do we find? The prevailing sentiment is a base Utilitarianism with its inevitable companion, ignorance; and it is this that has paved the way for a union of stupid Anglican bigotry, foolish prejudice, coarse brutality, and a childish veneration of women. Even worse things are the order of the day: most iniquitous oppression of the black freedmen, lynch law, frequent assassination often committed with entire impunity, duels of a savagery elsewhere unknown, now and then open scorn of all law and justice, repudiation of public debts, abominable political rascality towards a neighbouring State, followed by a mercenary raid on its rich territory—afterwards thought to be excused, on the part of the chief authority of the State, by lies which every one in the country knew to be such and laughed at—an ever-increasing ochlocracy, and finally all the disastrous influence which this abnegation of justice in high quarters must have exercised on private morals.