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Schopenhauer’s Wisdom of Life and Our Modern Age



The central tenet to what we can loosely describe as modern Western liberalism is the idea that all progress should be predicated upon the social and spiritual uplift of others or—more specifically—exhausting the wealth, ingenuity, bravery, and work of the higher man in service of those who circumstance has relegated to a lesser station.  The basis for this line of thinking—an ideology and governing philosophy devoid of reason and serious introspection—rests upon the notion that the world is not made inequitable by the laws of nature, but rather by a grave evil whereby the haves have achieved their status and accumulated their resources through a series of larcenies, underhandedness, and exploitation.

It is a curious thing that this oft discussed and sought after progress never seems to arrive at anything besides the need for more progress and not the sort of progress that results in individuals maximizing their human potential.

And since how best to live is seldom, if ever, asked with anything that resembles seriousness, we must to look to the sages and thinkers of old for answers to the questions which still trouble our minds.

I am unsure if the cultural rot we drudge through at present—the collective shame we are made to feel for greatness or healthy self-interest—is merely the logical outgrowth of our technologically advanced age of abundance or if the zeitgeist find its origins in Christianity, clumsy genetically-expressed altruism, or the Enlightenment.  Either way we live in a time were Christ’s Beatitudes and Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” are not just lofty sentiments to ponder, they make perfect moral sense.

Well, the huddled masses may indeed inherit the earth, but that inheritance was secured by a managerial elite and pried from the hands of the producers—folks who desire little more than to be left alone—through shame, humiliation, and the power of the state, namely its monopoly of force.  This state of affairs, loathsome as it may be, might just be tolerable if individuals possessed the liberty of seeking out a means of living well, without being made to feel guilty for doing so.

And since how best to live is seldom, if ever, asked with anything that resembles seriousness, we must to look to the sages and thinkers of old for answers to the questions which still trouble our minds.  I have long searched for guidance of this sort and I—autodidactic though I may be—have yet stumble upon anything as concise, straightforward, and as powerfully truthful as Arthur Schopenhauer’s The Wisdom of Life.

Less than 100 pages and taken from his Parerga und Paralipomena (the Greek for appendices and omissions), The Wisdom of Life was published in 1851, 9 years before its writer’s death.  In it, the German pessimist, writing in old age, assured of the truth of his greatest contribution to philosophy (the idea of the blind, undying will as spelled out in The World as Will and Representation), seeks to highlight what constitutes living well or, more specifically, managing our affairs in such a way as to achieve the highest amount of pleasure and success.

Arthur SchopenhauerSchopenhauer orders his work in three sections: personality (what a man is), property (what a man has), and reputation (how man is esteemed by others).  This classing, as he tells us, should not lead readers to the conclusion that they share in importance as it is the first subject, what a man is, that Schopenhauer is most insistent upon expounding upon.  Indeed, for a man of low social status and meager wealth, if of a higher intellectual capacity, can find greater pleasure from life than men of the highest station and wealth.

Ultimately Schopenhauer believes that life is an eternal struggle between the twin evils of boredom and poverty and just as man finds his way out of the clutches of one he is ensnared by the other.  The poor and destitute have nothing but poverty to occupy their minds, while the rich, free from the horrors of living without, are bored with their lives of ease and often seek out trite amusement and extravagance to dull their boredom.  The very wisdom in The Wisdom of Life is that we must take up the task of finding an equilibrium between these burdensome poles.


Schopenhauer’s broader commentary on how man should govern his affairs in relation to himself is couched with the caveat that the most central facet of a happy existence is found in our physical constitution: man can only obtain a high level of pleasantness provided that he is in good health.  Without it, all other aspects of life suffer.  Schopenhauer explains that a man with a minor injury—though every other part of him fully fit—will focus his mind and mental powers on what is hurting him.  Like a splinter in our finger that we cannot seem to stop picking at, Schopenhauer relays that the majority of our good spirit lies in our personal health, for when we are deprived of it, no amount of pleasure or good fortune can erase our suffering.  Schopenhauer recounts Aristotle’s “all life is movement” and encourages readers to keep physically active.  Though writing in the mid-19th century, he was keenly aware of how the body impacts the mind.

Taking the overall health of the body into account, what Schopenhauer supposes that man’s highest level of satisfaction in life lies solely in what the man can muster from himself.  This idea—undeniable in and of itself—runs smack against the pervasive yammering of modern egalitarianism as it removes man from society and places him alone in his struggle to live as well as he can.  To be sure, Schopenhauer is unapologetic that the highest life is an intellectual life and that obtaining it is the work of but a small minority of people, a cognitive elite, who by their very nature, or “will” as it were, are capable of achieving some semblance of continued pleasure.

As true poverty—the very struggle to survive—has all but been eliminated from the industrial world (today’s poor are often obese, well-dressed, and have access to limitless entertainment), the greatest struggle for us is the struggle against boredom.  Schopenhauer explains its heavy toll, particularly on the left side of the bell curve thusly:

A dull mind is, as a rule, associated with dull sensibilities, nerves which no stimulus can affect, a temperament, in short, which does not feel pain or anxiety very much, however great or terrible it may be.  Now, intellectual dullness is at the bottom of that vacuity of soul which is stamped on so many faces, a state of mind which betrays itself by a constant and lively attention to all the trivial circumstances in the external world.  This is the true source of boredom—a continual panting after excitement, in order to have a pretext for giving the mind and spirits something to occupy them.  The kind of things people choose shows that they are not very particular, as witness the miserable pastimes they have recourse to… Nothing is so good a protection against such misery as inward wealth, the wealth of the mind, because the greater it grows the less room it leaves for boredom.

The “inner wealth” Schopenhauer describes here, does not come without a cost.  For the more intelligent a man is, the higher his understanding of the world around him and his role in it, the more prone he is to excitability, alienation, and melancholy.  To guard against this, Schopenhauer posits the over-arching theme of his work and its most quotable line (emphasis mine):

The wise man will, above all, strive after freedom from pain and annoyance, quiet and leisure, consequently a tranquil, modest life, with as few encounters as may be; and so, after a little experience of his so-called fellow-men, he will elect to live in retirement, or even, if he is a man of great intellect, in solitude.  For the more a man has in himself, the less he will want from other people—the less, indeed other people can be to him.  This is why a high degree of intellect tends to make a man un-social.

Again and again Schopenhauer reminds us that the highest value derived from life is not found in the pleasures of the physical world or the comforts and charms of others.  Nor is it found in great and elaborate spectacles or experiences one may witness during their course of their life; life’s highest reward is found in the mind—that is to say in a life of intellectual curiosity and contemplation.

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Aphorisms IV: Return of the Don

Better to be remembered as great by posterity than acceptable by contemporaries.

The best and the best produced are seldom the same.

Perceived self-interest is the foundation for all effective propaganda.

A paradox: the more shamefull a person, the less they desire privacy.

When in Rome do as the Romans.  When in Juarez, still do as the Romans.

The basis for all human interaction is resource competition.  Therefore, true altruism is a genetic anomaly or—at the very least—recessive in nature.

Only a narcissist contemplates what his funeral will be like.


The Return of the Don: not to be confused with the posthumously released Tupac Shakur mixtape of the same title.

Writing is the opposite of doing, which is why it is often a refuge for halfwits.

Liberty is not for the faint of heart; it is ugly, cruel, and unfair.  Freedom is scary.

In most instances one hates another because he sees in himself nothing worth loving. However, sometimes a man hates another precisely because he loves himself.  The former is resentment, the latter a virtue.

There is nothing noble in dying for strangers.

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In Memoriam: Fat Moe

Over the course of my three and a half decades on this planet, I have been master to many a canine.  My memories are filled with tales of Buttercup, Spencer, Baby, and Toby, but today has given me cause to pause and reflect on quite possibly the best friend I have ever had, Fat Moe.

I have always owned beagles and if you don’t mind them chewing up every earthly possession you own when puppies, they are quite possibly the most friendly and obedient breed of pooch around.


Years back I engaged the Arizona Beagle Rescue about adopting a dog.  They sent a couple of volunteers out to Ragle Manor to ensure I wasn’t operating a meth lab and I was adoption material.  During the course of that meeting, a Birkenstock-wearing poof went all rubbery on me, holding back tears, with tales of how the older beagles—abandoned by their owners—were all too often overlooked.  This fellow’s sad story made an impression on me.  Rather than adopt a young hound, I opted to take in an older one.

This is how I came across Fat Moe.  Moe was a monster beagle with a head as big as a pumpkin and a bad attitude.  He is previous owner, an elderly New Yorker retired in Sin City and diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, would not leave for the assisted care facility his children had placed him until he knew Moe had a home.  They drove all the way down from Las Vegas to ensure he  had a good place to live out his days.

All the dogs I have ever had have always favored the women in life, most likely because they feed them, but not Moe.  I was his God.  He followed me everywhere; to the bathroom, to the pool, he waited at the door when I left and whimpered until I returned home.  He was my dog. When my alarm would sound in the morning, he would open the level handled door with his paw and nudge his cold nose up against my torso until I got out of bed.

One night while watching Cinderella Man, during the scene where the impoverished family of James Braddock sang happy birthday, Moe began to howl.  It turned out that one of Moe’s talents was singing Happy Birthday.  This skill got him on Fox 10 as he sang for Jordin Sparks’s birthday at Arizona Mills Mall when she was on American Idol and was on Channel 3 singing for the grand opening of a pet spa in Gilbert.  He was a rock star.

Moe was about as ill-tempter as his owner; quick to growl and snap at passersby.  I used to dress him up in a blue service dog vest and take him with me to the book store and restaurants.  I would feed him off my plate and speak with him like he was a human.  I like to think he understood me.

A year before he shuffled off this earthly plane, I dropped $8k to get his pancreas taken out.  He bought him another 14 months, I am the better for it.  I walked him down Central Ave. in the Fiesta Bowl parade, where he dropped the greasiest, greenest turd you ever seen right in front of a gaggle of anchor babies. “Aye, caca!!” they exclaimed.  But old Moe couldn’t be bothered.  He had a style all his own.

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Review: Sam Harris’ Free Will

The very idea that human beings possess a level of agency in their personal affairs and actions is considered as self-evident by most, if not everyone.  Transcending race, culture, geography, and levels of religiosity, the concept that each person has the ability to freely choose their actions—on its face—appears to be as concrete as the laws that govern our universe.  In recent times, with advances in brain imagining and our understanding of the brain’s function, the world of science has exposed that free will—as we understand it in the moral, philosophical, and legal sense—is no more a source of individual activity than Divine Providence.

If the authorship of human decisions does not find its origins in cognizant agency, how then is society to interpret human behavior?

That human beings do not freely make the sort of decisions that impact our day to day lives is an alien concept that many folks may have a hard time wrapping their minds around.  That our actions are more the result of neurophysiology informed by genetics, upbringing, trauma, and experience flies in the face of what we assume to know about ourselves.  With that said, who (much like this writer) hasn’t held their head in their hands and wondered aloud, “Why on Earth did I do that?”

This leads me to Dr. Sam Harris’ Free WillIn less than 80-pages Harris, a bestselling writer, Ph. D., and CEO of the Reason Project has accomplished what I would have otherwise assumed to be impossible: to clearly and succinctly demonstrate the idea of free will as illusionary.

To be clear, Free Will, is not an overt exercise in philosophy or social commentary.  Harris has set out to explain the absence of agency in our personal, every day decision-making by demonstrating, categorically, that all available scientific indicators such as brain imaging and controlled studies support his thesis.   The absence of free will as the average person comprehends it is, in Harris’ world, a question of the physical, not the emotional.

In the opening pages, Harris sets the stage by pointing out that even contemplating the idea personally may demonstrate its lack of existence (emphasis by the author):

The popular concept of free will seems to rest on two assumptions (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present…

But the deeper truth is that free will doesn’t even correspond to any subjective fact about us—and introspection soon proves as hostile to the idea as the laws of physics are.  Seeming acts of volition merely arise spontaneously (whether caused, uncaused, or probabilistically inclined, it makes no difference) and cannot be traced to a point of origin in our conscious minds.  A moment or two of serious self-scrutiny, and you might observe that you no more decide the next thought you think than the next thought I write.

Taking the above into account, the main thrust of Harris’ claim is reliant upon the scientific data on human cognition and decision-making.  Harris cites a timed experiment where test subjects were instructed to press one of two buttons based on a series of letters and numbers flashed upon a screen.  The experiment, utilizing MRI, “found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decisions was consciously made” (emphasis by the author).

Harris further confounds traditional thinking by pointing out the sheer exhaustive nature of free will should it exist and as it is presently understood within broader society.  In one example, Harris recounts his drinking either coffee or tea in the morning.  He concludes that there is was no true agency on his part in drinking one or the other any given morning as he just does it without thought.  Furthermore, free will would ultimately mean that someone would have to consider each option available to him prior to making a decision.  Imagine walking into a convenience store and grabbing a Coke.  Did you freely choose to drink a Coke over Snapple?  Did the thought of drinking a Snapple ever enter into the equation?  How did you freely choose to drink a Coke over Snapple or Dr. Pepper or Yoo-hoo?  Were you even thirsty to begin with?

This line of reasoning underlies the sheer exhaustive nature of true free will.  If one were to have to consciously choose every decision at every moment of the day, they would find it hard to get anything done, if they even left the house at all.  How do proponents of free will reconcile the fact that—even by their own admission and evidenced by science—certain neuroactivity exists outside of the realm of choice at all times (e.g. breathing, hunger, the creation of red blood cells, et al.)?

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Aphorisms III: A Witty Phrase Proves All

If you care to know who has ruined your life, look in the mirror. Should you want to know who has ruined your neighborhood, look out the window.  If you want to know who has ruined your country, turn on the TV.

Good taste has no influence on natural selection.

In the days of old the anxious, melancholy, hyper, and eccentric composed symphonies, wrote novels, crafted plays, invented gadgets, led nations, entertained the masses, informed us how to think about the world, and painted masterpieces.  Today they are put on psychotropic drugs to make them “better.”

The crowning achievement of New Age Spiritualism: making the esoteric cliché.

The trouble with being a starving artist is the starving part.

Far better it would have been to see a civilization’s ascent than witness its sad decline.

Giving the benefit of the doubt shouldn’t leave you doubting the benefit.

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Franz Schubert as Posthumous Man

Last weekend, while digging through some old boxes of books, I came across Edmund Morris’s brisk and insightful Beethoven: The Universal Composer.  The book was given to me as a Christmas present nearly a decade ago and was published via HarperCollins’ Eminent Lives series of biographies.  Rereading the book over the last two evenings I was taken back by how Morris—an immensely talented historian and skilled writer—often intersperse the tale of the composer from Bonn with antidotes of Franz Schubert, a contemporary of Beethoven who worshipped the Master while never achieving a modicum of the accolades afforded to Beethoven during his life.

Schubert, by all accounts now considered one of the greatest composers of all time, lived a life of relative obscurity during the age of Beethoven only to die a year after his idol.  Morris, quite brilliantly, closes The Universal Composer thusly:

On March 29, an endless procession followed Beethoven’s body out of the courtyard of the Schwarzpanierhaus and up the Währinger Gürtel to the cemetery.  Estimates of the size of the crowd ranged from ten to thirty thousand.  “All Vienna seemed to be on the move,” Gerhard von Breuning reported.  A brass band and chorus preceded the coffin.  Eight Kapellmeisters carried the pall.  Among the twenty top-hatted torchbearers was Schubert.  Before the next year was out, he would be buried in the same plot as his hero just one monument away—dominated, in death as well as life, by the huge name


Reading this I couldn’t help but be taken back to Nietzsche and his thoughts on posthumous men.  This is someone who is often misunderstood by his contemporaries as an extremist or mere kook or, even worse, ignored completely, but one whom history will recognize as a man before his time.  Being assured of future vindication by generations to come apparently helped the mad philosopher sleep at night.

In an ever-godless epoch, the idea that our thoughts and works will live on is an alien concept.  Had Franz Schubert thoughts been of this frame of mind, we wouldn’t have his music today.

Franz Schubert is a perfect example of how this plays out.

Today, Schubert is widely considered one of the greatest composers of all time.  Phil Goulding, in his extremely popular (and Brandon Ragle endorsed) Classical Music, rates Schubert as the 7th greatest behind Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Haydn, and Brahms.  His works are widely conducted by modern orchestras and enjoyed by countless classical buffs worldwide.

The son of a peasant schoolmaster, Schubert lived most of his life just a step above poverty and had to rely on friends and admirers of his music, during adulthood, to survive financially.  To make matters worse, he lived most of his adult life in poor health; suffering from both physical illness (typhoid fever) and mental anguish (cyclothymia, a bipolar spectrum mood disorder).

Yet, despite all this, in his brief life—dying before the age of 32—Schubert composed nearly 600 lieder, nine symphonies, two full song cycles, and a number of chamber and solo piano works.  He also composed opera, incidental music, and religious works.  It wasn’t until decades after his death, when musical giants such as Liszt and Brahms began to champion his works, that the world began to take notice.  That this happened, we are all the better for it.

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Aphorisms II: Why I am so Witty

The sage wears tracksuits while contemplating the cosmos in 72-degree December weather.

Never do for others what they should do for you.

The problem with being a starving artist is the starving part.

Football Metaphors: The Philosophy of Boobs.

Contra modern psychiatry, genius begets neurosis.

In matters philosophical, only charlatans take offense.

If mankind is indeed governed by imagination, then style surely trumps substance.

Coffee is the reason people do not commit suicide in the morning.

To say yes with the body when the mind says no is to master the will.

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Arctic Monkeys’ A.M.: A Romantic Decline

The first time I heard Sheffield, England’s Arctic Monkeys back in 2006 it was a revelation.  I remain unsure of the post-punk revival description that mainstream critics give them, I just knew, back then and recall with advantageous nostalgia at the time of this writing, that they were unlike any band I had ever heard.  They were aggressive, witty, and completely without pretense.  Seeing them live at Tempe’s Marquee Theater was a frenetic experience that left my heart pounding an hour afterwards.  It was a complete contrast in styles as Voxtrot opened for them (remember Voxtrot?  What happened to those guys?).

Sheffield’s own: Arctic Monkeys

Tracks from their debut—the fastest selling debut in English history—Whatever People Say I am, That’s What I’m Not and sophomore release, Favourite Worst Nightmare, raced across my iPod for many a workout and in the latter part of the last decade no band could pull off the magic and intensity that the Arctic Monkeys could.  Offerings like “A Certain Romance,” “From the Ritz to Rubble,” “Brainstorm,” and “Do Me a Favour” weren’t just straight-laced bangers, they were a soundtrack to a mind-state of young adulthood; a tale of drunken excess, modern insecurity, and a commentary on the failings and miscues of a decadent and hopeless culture of conspicuous consumption and superfluousness.

Even slower tracks such as “Mardy Bum,” “Fluorescent Adolescence,” and “Riot Van” complemented the band’s larger narrative.  Far from mere novelties, these songs expressed the universal uncertainties of romantic relations and coming of age youthful exuberance.

Unfortunately (for fans and casual observers alike), sometime around 2009, lead singer and chief lyricist Alex Turner underwent a catastrophic change of heart.  Rather than construct the sort of ditties that made his collective world famous, Turner focused is principle songwriter duties on his—what I am guessing—real world romantic conundrums.  The band’s third and fourth studio offerings, Humbug and Suck it and See respectively, were absent of the angst-fueled three-minute escapades that fans had come to expect.

If critical reception and album sales are any sort of gauge, this newer, softer approach can be considered a step backwards.  If Whatever People Say.. and Favourite Worst Nightmare are still on heavy rotation, Humbug and Suck it and See serve as almost afterthoughts; each with a mere handful of tracks worthy of an occasional listen.  Every fan can expect some sort of evolution with their favorite artists and bands, but a metamorphosis this dramatic can only leave us scratching our heads.

Which brings me to the band’s most recent offering, 2013’s A.M.  Rather than reverting back to the formula that made

Arctic Monkeys’ 5th Studio Offering: A.M.

Arctic Monkeys the Arctic Monkeys, Turner doubles down on his all but douche-chill inducing romantic, heartstring pulling crooning.  A.M. isn’t just another salvo in terms of what we have seen from more recent offerings, it is almost a complete departure from the definitive sound that made the band a beloved treasure to begin with.

The first thing you notice on this album is the slick and clean production, which is yet again a departure from the Monkey’s earlier work.  Played against this soundscape, the lead single “Do I Wanna Know” and cuts like “Mad Sounds” (complete with a cringe-worthy “Oh la la la” refrain) sound artificial and so decidedly pop that it is hard to wrap your mind around the idea that this is actually the same band that used to sing of pub fights and bedding fat chicks.

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