“Health outweighs all other blessings so much that one may really say that a healthy beggar is happier than an ailing king.”~ Arthur Schopenhauer
The Wisdom of Life is a short philosophical essay by Arthur Schopenhauer which he\ explores the nature of human happiness and how we should live in order to obtain it. It is one of the six essays from the first part of his 1851 book, Parerga and Paralipomena. (Greek for “Appendices” and “Omissions”.) It was originally intended as an appendix to his philosophy, although Schopenhauer maintained that it would be comprehensible and of interest to the uninitiated. I believe he was right.
The Wisdom of Life Summary
Schopenhauer begins thus,
In these pages, I shall speak of The Wisdom of Life in the common meaning of the term, as the art, namely, of ordering our lives so as to obtain the greatest possible amount of pleasure and success.
Schopenhauer sees his work as adding to the study of happiness or, as the Greeks called it, eudaimonia. This may strike us as strange, given Schopenhauer’s reputation as a pessimist. (Some of his most quoted lines include, ‘life swings back and forth like a pendulum between pain and boredom,” and “life is a business that does not cover its costs.”)
But notice that in the first few paragraphs he defines the happy existence as one “which, looked at from a purely objective point of view … would be decidedly preferable to non-existence.” For Schopenhauer happiness is the temporary absence of suffering, and the best life is a semi-satisfied one which we cling to because we deem it preferable to death. His is essentially a negative theory of happiness.
Chapter I: Division of the Subject
Schopenhauer notes that in The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle had argued that a happy life consists in acquiring external goods, bodily goods, and goods of the soul. However, Schopenhauer believes that life’s possible blessing could be divided into these categories:
1. What a person is: this refers to one’s personality including their health, temperament, moral character, strength, intelligence, and education. In short, their mental and physical health.
2. What a person has: this encompasses their property and possessions. In other words, their material wealth.
3. How a person is viewed by others: this is determined largely by one’s position. In short, this refers to how others regard a person’s rank and reputation.
Chapter II: Personality or What a Person Is
Schopenhauer argues that your personality—-your physical and mental health—is the most important factor for happiness. He agrees with the Stoics that you cannot escape from your mind and body, no matter where you go. Schopenhauer writes,
What a man is, and so what he has in his own person, is always the chief thing to consider; for his individuality accompanies him always and everywhere, and gives its color to all his experience. In every kind of enjoyment, for instance, the pleasure depends principally upon the man himself.
Regarding physical health, he maintains that a healthy body is a necessary condition for a happy soul. Health doesn’t guarantee happiness, but being unhealthy will surely make you miserable. If you’re healthy you can find pleasure; but if you are unhealthy, nothing will be enjoyable. “Health then outweighs all other blessings,” writes Schopenhauer, noting that “a healthy beggar is happier than an ailing king.” (Or an old proverb states, “A healthy person has a thousand wishes, but a sick person only one—to get well.”)
Regarding mental health, the gifts of the mind are also significant in determining human happiness. Thus you should cultivate your intellect to live a full and rich life. (As the Bible says “The life of the fool is worse than death.” Ecclesiasticus 22:11). A lively mind finds beauty and enjoyment in the most mundane of situations whereas fools see nothing of value in even the most majestic things.
An intellectual man in complete solitude has excellent entertainment in his own thoughts and fancies, while no amount of diversity or social pleasure, theaters, excursions and amusements, can ward off boredom from a dullard.
Think of it like this. You will spend the rest of your life with yourself, so in order to be happy, you must be in good physical and mental company. Thus who you are matters most when it comes to your own happiness.
Chapter III: Property, or What a Person Has
How important are money and material wealth? Schopenhauer takes the view they are (somewhat) important but not as crucial as many people think. Money has value in the sense that it buys things we need to survive and without which we would be in pain–food, clothing, and shelter. It also provides us the freedom to do certain things. However, we may also want excess gratification of the senses or unnecessary luxuries. The problem with these desires is that they are difficult to satisfy and they never come to end. As he states,
It is difficult, if not impossible, to define the limits which reason should impose on the desire for wealth; for there is no absolute or definite amount of wealth which will satisfy a man.
Or, as he says later,
A man never feels the loss of things which it never occurs to him to ask for; he is just as happy without them; whilst another, who may have a hundred times as much, feels miserable because he has not got the one thing he wants.
To better explain this Schopenhauer turns to Epicurus who argued that our material needs can be divided into:
- Natural and necessary. Food, shelter, clothing—things we need to survive.
- Natural, but unnecessary. Excess food, space, clothes, sex—things that go beyond what we need to survive.
- Unnatural and unnecessary. Artificial needs that entertain us or provide luxuries— sports cars, luxury handbags, mansions, home movie theatres, etc.
Now is he saying that happiness only consists of the bare minimum it takes to survive? No. His point is that the greater your desires and expectations are for possessions and property the harder they will be to satisfy. Also, while wealth provides some freedom, the returns of having more and more money are marginal. Most importantly, by focusing on what we have we disregard what is more important to our happiness—what we are.
Thus who we are is by far the most important factor in our happiness. What we have is somewhat important but the continual pursuit of property and possessions decreases our happiness. As Schopenhauer writes, “A good, temperate, gentle character can be happy in needy circumstances, whilst a covetous, envious and malicious man, even if he be the richest in the world, goes miserable.”
Chapter IV: Position, or A Man’s Place in the Estimation of Others
Concerning what others think of us—our status or position—this is actually an obstacle to our happiness. As he says,
We should add very much to our happiness by a timely recognition of the simple truth that every man’s chief and real existence is in his own skin, and not in other people’s opinions; and, consequently, that the actual conditions of our personal life, —health, temperament, capacity, income, wife, children, friends, home, are a hundred times more important for our happiness than what other people are pleased to think of us…
This chapter is by far the longest in The Wisdom of Life and is divided into five sections, each dealing with different aspects of our position. We’ll briefly summarize each in turn.
By a peculiar weakness of human nature people generally think too much about the opinion which others form of them, although the slightest reflection will show that this opinion, whatever it may be, is not in itself essential to happiness.
He explains this with two examples of men about to be hanged. The first bowed to the crowd while the second complained that he wasn’t allowed to shave beforehand. Isn’t it obvious that such concerns were ill-placed? It didn’t matter what others thought of the condemned at that moment.
His point is that an inwardly rich person pays little heed to others’ opinions. Furthermore, our hunger for others’ approval induces anxiety and is a source of vanity—both obstacles to our happiness.
While vanity is the desire to appreciate ourselves from the outside, pride is the direct appreciation of ourselves from the inside. As he states, pride “is an established conviction of one’s own paramount worth in some particular respect; while vanity is the desire of rousing such a conviction in others.”
Schopenhauer also says that “the cheapest sort of pride,” is national pride. Why? Because “if a man is proud of his own nation, it argues that he has no qualities of his own of which he can be proud; otherwise he would not have recourse to those which he shares with so many millions of his fellowmen.” He claims that only those who see the folly of their own nations can be considered intelligent.
Rank, he says, “is a sham; its method is to exact an artificial respect, and, as a matter of fact, the whole thing is a mere farce.” Here he was thinking of being a prince, a count, or a king. In retrospect, I think most of us would agree with him on this point.
Schopenhauer regards honor as a primitive characteristic of human nature. “And if people insist that honor is dearer than life itself, what they really mean is that existence and well-being are as nothing compared with other people’s opinions.”
According to Schopenhauer “Fame is something which must be won, honor, only something which must not be lost.” But it is hard to be famous, and it is out of our control whether we attain it. These provide good reasons not to worry about it.
Schopenhauer also thought that if you strive for a great personality then you might just become famous, even if only after you die. But if you strive for fame directly, then you won’t become a great person. And you’ll also never be happy.
Two Miscellaneous ideas
Schopenhauer believes that 1) if you can’t find happiness in solitude or 2) if you are a nationalist, then you are likely both unhappy and unintelligent.
Regarding #1 – “A high degree of intellect tends to make a man unsocial.” The idea is that social people find solitude a burden because there aren’t imaginative and thoughtful. They are bored when alone because they are boring to themselves. Thus they are unhappy when alone. On the other hand, intelligent people don’t need much company because they find their own minds enjoyable and engaging.
Regarding #2 – If you are a nationalist Schopenhauer thinks you are unintelligent, as nationalism is “the cheapest sort of pride.” Typically, nationalists are proud of their nation because they don’t have personal qualities to be proud of. Be proud of what you are, he counsels, not of having been born in a certain place as were millions of others.
Schopenhauer’s Exceptionally Wise Counsel
In the end, Schopenhauer says that being cheerful is the primary antidote to the oftentimes misery of life. This cheerfulness isn’t a positive emotion but a state of little pain, a contentment that doesn’t depend on external circumstances like being rich or famous.
And the surest path to happiness is to not desire much happiness. Rather, he says, we should find contentment by losing ourselves in activities that enlarge our minds such as reading, writing, meditation, philosophy, science, poetry, music, and culture—things don’t depend on wealth or fame. This is how to achieve some comfort in a world permeated by pain. This, he thinks, is the essence of wisdom.