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.
Schopenhauer 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.
When reading anything Schopenhauer has to say about mankind, at the forefront, beyond his pessimism, is the elitist nature of his writing. He makes no effort to soften the cold, hard reality of the world and the part mankind plays by drawing the unpleasant and unflinching distinction between the man of a higher mind and the “philistine” whom he describes as “a man without mental needs”
…[A]s he possesses no intellectual, but only physical needs, he will seek the society of those who can satisfy the latter, but not the former. The last thing he will expect from his friends is the possession of any sort of intellectual capacity; and, if he chances to meet with it, it will rouse his antipathy and even hatred; simply because in addition to an unpleasant sense of inferiority, he experiences, in his heart, a dull kind of envy, which has to be carefully concealed even from himself…All this is consequence of his being a man without intellectual needs.
Aristotle tells that we are to seek out a state of eudemonia, a Greek word to which no English counterpart exists; it loosely translates to “good living” or, more specifically, an active life governed by reason. Schopenhauer sees this as a concept that is primarily achieved by the individual alone. When we are free to seek out our true selves, devoid of the influence and annoyance of the outer world, and namely the people in, we can truly take the liberty to master ourselves. This task is not one of joy and satisfaction, in fact is ultimately an endeavor comprised of avoiding pain (poverty and boredom). For Schopenhauer, owing to the Buddhist and Hindu texts that so heavily influenced his work, life is a living hell cast between two eternal abysses and the man of the highest intellect will endeavor to find an earthly and spiritual home as far away from the flames as possible.
In Schopenhauer’s view there is something to be said of possessions, namely a modest inheritance (like the one he lived off his entire adult life) to secure a manner of living that allows for an intellectual life. Outside of what secures one from the grip of poverty, Schopenhauer sees little in the accumulation of wealth or possession as contributing to a meaningful existence. In the introduction he recounts how Socrates, while walking through the market in Athens, remarked that there was so much that he just didn’t want. Again the idea of a man having what he needs in himself bears repeating: individuals cut from a nobler cloth needn’t concern themselves with possessions or their standing with others as they—upon careful inspection—to do not result in purposeful pleasure. In our consumer-driven, fame-obsessed world, this view is antithetical to what the modern Westerner would believe constitutes the good life.
For Schopenhauer, owing to the Buddhist and Hindu texts that so heavily influenced his work, life is a living hell cast between two eternal abysses and the man of the highest intellect will endeavor to find an earthly and spiritual home as far away from the flames as possible.
Of the three sections, his writing on property is the shortest and for good reason: outside of securing a state of affairs free from poverty—where the essentials for living (food, shelter, etc.) are accounted for—Schopenhauer sees little use in the accumulation of wealth or possessions that do not contribute to an intellectual life. He observes that those who have come by material wealth by good fortune or after a period of poverty are more inclined to squander it; for while they have cast off the fetters of poverty, they have only welcomed the chains of boredom, exhausting their resources in a futile attempt to keep it at bay.
All this is not say that Schopenhauer takes a negative view of wealth, to the contrary, he has quite a healthy respect for it as it provides a man with high intellectual needs a very distinct advantage:
[T]o start life with just as much as will make one independent, that is, to allow one to live comfortably without having to work—even if he has just enough for oneself—…cannot be overestimated; for it means exemption and immunity from that chronic disease of penury, which fastens on the life of man like a plague; it is emancipation from that forced labor which is the natural lot of every mortal. Only under a favorable fate like this can a man be said to be born free…master of his own time and power, and able to say every morning, This day is my own.
In essence, all a man may possess of the material world should be in the service of the freedom required to live out his days as his own man; an intellectual free from the nightmare of poverty actively engage in his own thoughts as a buffer against boredom.
The final section on position is Schopenhauer’s most cumbersome and, as such, we should devote the least amount of time to it. Much of what is discussed—though entertaining and insightful—amounts to little more than the German philosopher cementing the ideas already detailed in the previous sections. The bulk of its contents may seem antiquated to modern readers as a large portion is devoted to long outmoded concepts of honor, dueling, and the curiosity in which the author views the concept of medieval European chivalry.
This is not to say that Schopenhauer’s view on how others esteem us should is not without its many pearls of wisdom as can be seen in his general feelings on the subject:
…[W]hat goes on in other people’s consciousness is, as a matter of indifference to us: and in time we get really indifferent to it, when we come to see how superficial and futile are most people’s thoughts, how narrow their ideas, how mean their sentiments, how perverse their opinions, and how much of error there is in most of them; when we learn by experience with what depreciation a man will speak of his fellow, when is not obliged to fear him, or thinks that what he says will not come to his ears.
At a glance, Schopenhauer believes that we ought to be somewhat concerned with our position within society as it has a direct influence on how others treat us and that treatment—whether just or unjust—can have an impact on our ability to secure a life devoted to high-mindedness. So long as one is made not to suffer an existence as a pariah and has the liberty to live out his days otherwise unmolested, there is little need in paying mental rent to the opinions of “blockheads.”
In Beyond Good and Evil, early Schopenhauer admirer, Friedrich Nietzsche laments the problem with philosophers is rooted in their prejudices or, more specifically, their dogmatism; their philosophy is more confession than pure thought or explication of some heady subject matter. And it is quite easy to see The Wisdom of Life as little more than The Wisdom of Arthur Schopenhauer’s Life; a justification for how the philosopher lived and managed his affairs. A life of solitude, a disregard for the thoughts of others, an engrossing pessimism on the nature of man, amongst others cannot simply be brushed aside, but what makes this brief work of philosophy so important today is the uneasy and unmistakable truths it so plainly elucidates.
The Wisdom of Life speaks to a broader truth in a manner that is seldom experienced in that it its truth is of the organic sort, which is to say that it requires little, if any, examination, as it is as obvious as the nose on our faces. The overwhelming majority of people are indeed ill-equipped in the struggle to live well and those who are must safeguard themselves against an unending onslaught of triviality and insincerity.
Those of the highest caliber must endeavor—for the sake of their own sanity—to escape a fate marred by either poverty or boredom. Ultimately what little happiness and contentment we can eke out of existence requires progress of the personal sort, which—rather ironically—requires a complete regression from the very will that animates human activity in our modern age.