Schopenhauer On Wisdom


“What a man is contributes much more to his happiness than what a man has.” ~ Arthur Schopenhauer

“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

Introduction 

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:

  1. Natural and necessary. Food, shelter, clothing—things we need to survive.
  2. Natural, but unnecessary. Excess food, space, clothes, sex—things that go beyond what we need to survive.
  3. 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.

a) Reputation

Schopenhauer begins

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.

b) Pride

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.

c) Rank 

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.

d) Honor 

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.”

e) Fame

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.

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13 thoughts on “Schopenhauer On Wisdom

  1. Very nice synopsis of Schopenhauer’s essay.
    I wrote this poem tonight. It seems to echo Schopenhauer’s take on life.

    Why does the moon shine
    Serene on our corrugated
    Adobe barricades – our lovely
    Negations of illusory dangers?

    The moon shines – we shine
    Though pocked with craters.
    Our dreams of watered oases
    Awaken to dust – but out of vision’s
    Distances – shining stars
    And verdant planets beckon.

    Under moon glow desert leaves
    And spines silver – gleam in silver
    Light. Night winds carry
    Fragrance of night-blooming saguaro.
    If we breathe on that vision, a sweet
    Tomorrow begins to grow, first
    A simple sketch, then colors flow
    And night petals blossom. A banquet
    For moths and promise of new
    Eyes to see life’s dances, and new ears to hear
    Life’s bittersweet songs. Life’s lilting songs…

  2. I generally do not agree with Schopenhauer— “Things outside of the Power of the Will are unstable, unsteady, and fleeting–Magisterial Offices, Wealth, Health, Opinion, Reputation–In General Those things that are not up to us ” Epictetus

    “The Hollowest of all Gospels is the Gospel of ease and comfort ” Samuel Smiles

    “Condition of man inconstancy, boredom, and unrest ” Pascal

    “Adversity is not without hopes and comforts, and Prosperity is not without Fears and Distastes ” Bacon

    “True Happiness is to enjoy the present without anxious dependence upon the future” Seneca

  3. Wise indeed is the man/woman that learn that while needs and desires are infinite, resources are limited. I’ve reached my 7th decade observing so many peers burn themselves out reaching for more and more, oblivious of the hedonistic paradox.

  4. This is a comprehensive piece! Only a few disagreements with the philosopher: in his time a beggar could be a beggar—today a beggar is considered a complete loser and throwback.
    A beggar is liked; but is not respected, as he is now perceived as totally non-21st century.
    A beggar today might be (if young) physically healthy, but many are not mentally healthy. Not mentally ill per se, but personality disorders are quite common among beggars/homeless—the ‘street people’.
    ——
    Nationalists even more often than street people possess personality disorders; quite a few are veterans who became so used to military life, that they could no longer conceive of life without militaristic nationalism.
    “There is no us in the world,” a highly educated (GI Bill) talk show host said when I called to speak on his his segment concerning foreign relations,
    “There is only us versus them.”
    Our leaving Afghanistan didn’t change his mind; his sort believes in making the same mistake over and again, hoping for a different outcome.

  5. This is one of the very few books that I truly love that changed me forever and which I review regularly. Chock full of insights I haven’t found anywhere else. The arguments in it are second to none, and they tear down many conformist ideas generally held by society and its trite commonplaces and misguided and often silly beliefs.

    Thanks for the article.

  6. Insights such as “pleasure should never be bought at the cost of possible pain, be it even remote” frankly blow my mind almost every day when I observe how people do exactly the opposite by doing the many unwise and often stupid things they do.
    In my view, Schopenhauer’s accuracy is pretty incredible; his words roam my mind all the time.

    ——
    I don’t think many people get what’s written in these great essays; for example they consider the one about honour “boring”. But the truth is that the “duels” are taking place everywhere, 24/7. Only the outward form of the duels changed, nothing else. As S wrote, just the same stupid things repeating themselves, with little variations.

    —-
    And the ultimate bucket of cold water in the face: that life is, after all is said and done, a cheat.

    Interesting that you have doubts about the two points he made. But in regard to point one, history is replete with great artists, painters, musicians, philosophers, samurais, writers, etc, preferring to be alone, for the simple fact that other people are often a burden and they get in the way of one’s true calling. I have certainly seen this for myself (whether or not I am great or not, is not the point. I don’t think I am “great”, but I don’t thing I am talentless either.). Maybe your experience of people was different, but I believe that this would be the exception and not the rule. I too am certain that for a few, things may be different, but it’s not common. I remember you wrote about your wife in a very positive way, but you surely know that for many men and women, marriage “is a very good way to get sick of each other”, as Schopenhauer himself wrote (unless I am mistaken). But whether or not one is married (which seems to me people do precisely because they can’t bear being alone. But, oh yeah, they call it “love”), the fact is that it is very difficult to deal with people at all, “unless you get to their level”.

    (There is an amusing story about Schopenhauer going to eat to the Englischer Hof as usual. He would place a little piece of gold on the table while eating. Once he had finished eating, he would put the gold back in his pocket and leave. Until someone said he found this curious, and asked him the significance of it. Schopenhauer responded: ” I have promised myself I will give this gold to the first homeless person I find, when I’ll come here and hear people talking about something different than women and horses.”.

    Ha ha, I love these stories :). But this is the reality. Tell me, have you found many people you can talk with about philosophy? I really doubt it. Even in a university where you lectured, most of these people would be like everyone else as soon as the lecture finished, i.e. there’s little or no philosophy in what they do.

    In regard to point 2, nationalism, I have to join in with Schopenhauer’s amusement. The only interesting thing about nations may be their different cultures, (and even there I have doubts) but to be proud of being Italian (or Japanese, or American, etc), is to me some of the ultimate silliness: this square of dirt I call “X Country” and that one “Y Country”, and I stand in one and you in the other. I just cannot see what is special about that. And to realize how this is why one nation feels disdain for another, is truly proof of human stupidity. (But I am not saying you maintained the point I made, of course.).

    Now, I certainly like a really good pizza 🙂 But it is amusing to me to note how most people take so seriously where they come from, when they have little idea of where they end up, and that this is the place we will all end up in. (Of course, you are far from being one of these clueless people.).

    As Schopenhauer wrote: “Every nation derides the other: and all of them are right.”.

    —-

    Also, I think you wrote about your conclusion about Schopenhauer’s solution in a tad too pedestrian way (although I am sure you did not intend to present it that way): I don’t think he meant we should find contentment in “simple pleasures” (he would probably say that every mediocrity does that), but to lose yourself in contemplation of (art, philosophy, etc) and “developing the powers of the mind”. “According to one’s talents, whether this involves writing a book, or making a basket.”.

    Therefore, the pleasures will be as “simple” as the person is simple.

    You have certainly developed the powers of your mind, which is why I wrote above about how I am sure that you didn’t mean to present the idea of contentment too simply. I write all this with much respect for you, of course. Thanks for your article.

    PS. seriously, how can you stand people in general?
    “The best thing to do is to have nothing to do with them. But if you must deal with them, may Heaven grants you the patience!”.

  7. PPS: believe it or not, it took me almost 3 hours to write the above. Incredible. (I totally understand when you wrote that you can’t read all you want anymore. I can’t write anymore at all, but only read. It’s ridiculous how fast time seems to be passing. It seems a dream, which is anyways.).

  8. oh, and let’s not forget Schopenhauer’s brilliant tale of the porcupines. A true classic. 🙂 Even more than that, an absolute reality, at least for some (or many. Sooner or later one will have to deal with solitude, and the older one gets, the more this reality will start to come to the surface. But no need to repeat what Schopenhauer already extensively explained.).

    “Truth is first derided; then vigorously denied; but in the end it will be self-evident”.

  9. “There is no us in the world,” a highly educated (GI Bill) talk show host said when I called to speak on his his segment concerning foreign relations,
    “There is only us versus them.” Quote from Al brooks comment!

    Our problem is; We don’t know who we are nor can we clearly see them, while I think that they can clearly see us!

    Here is something from an UN-renowned Country Poet, who was known as poet Whalen, he wrote this in the WW1 era.

    I do not wish for honor,
    I do not seek renown,
    False fame, I frown upon her,
    I ask the poets crown.
    I do not seek a Patron,
    I ask but to be free,
    I do not mourn what I have not, God’s Gifts, enough for me! (Poet Whalen)

    Perhaps there is a hint of sour grapes in this, it would be entirely human if there was!

    God’s Gift is to be a sentient person and able to see and attempt to make sense of the, ever changing, reality we live in! A time when no one really knows what will happen next, a time when the population is sedated with Media memes and Legal and illegal drugs, Not everyone of course, but surely the majority!

    “What a man ‘is’ contributes much more to his happiness than what a man has.” ~ Arthur Schopenhauer

    No man creates himself, all people are the blending of two people, if you inherit good genes and have a nurturing and stimulating childhood your ‘IS’ will be a comfort to you on your journey through Life! No one knows what challenges they will meet on their journey across the stage but your thoughts are your best defense!
    I’m in my eighty’s now and it seems, to me that no one, that didn’t die in childbirth, can escape some pain on the passage, so, if you can, use your pain to strengthen yourselves.

  10. Writing is hard work and takes time. As for reading and writing a mentor told me a long time ago that in some ways the intellectual had to choose between reading and writing because both were essentially full-time jobs. Now, this isn’t literally true but his point was that you can focus on either reading Russell or Kant or Aristotle or Shakespeare or any great thinker with a huge body of knowledge or writing about them and either is almost a full-time job.

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