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Quick Summary: The Wisdom of Life is a short philosophical essay by Arthur Schopenhauer in which the most famous philosophical pessimist in history explores the nature of human happiness and tries to understand how one should order his life so as to obtain the greatest possible amount of pleasure and success.
Who Should Read “The Wisdom of Life”? And Why?
If you are interested in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer but you are not that keen on spending many a tiresome hour reading The World as Will and Representation, then The Wisdom of Life is as a good alternative as any.
One of the six essays from the first part of his 1851 book, Parerga and Paralipomena, The Wisdom of Life was originally intended to work as an appendix to Schopenhauer’s philosophy.
True, this may mean that you won’t get to the bottom of it – for better: it is dark and gloomy there – or that you won’t even understand some parts of it the way you should be, but the essay is, nevertheless, approachable, comprehensible and, for the most part of it, testable by itself.
Add to this its subject – human happiness and how to attain it – and you already know that this is one curious kind of a self-help book you’re not allowed to pass on.
The Wisdom of Life Summary
“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.”
Thus begins Arthur Schopenhauer his essay on happiness which he then says is merely another addition to the study of happiness, or as the Greeks called it Eudaimonology (eudaimonia, you guess, is the Greek word for happiness).
To those who know at least something about Schopenhauer, the sentence above may seem a bit strange. After all, the man is basically synonymous with pessimism in the world of philosophy!
And you kinda get that feeling right from the start when Schopenhauer defines the happy existence as one “which, looked at from a purely objective point of view, or, rather, after cool and mature reflection — for the question necessarily involves subjective considerations — would be decidedly preferable to non-existence.”
If you want a bit clearer formulation, this means that the happy existence, for Schopenhauer is one we cling to “for its own sake, and not merely from the fear of death,” one we don’t like to come to an end.
You understood that right: in short, to Schopenhauer, happiness is a temporary state which doesn’t make you want to kill yourself.
Great start, Arthur!
And it gets even weirder!
In the very second paragraph from the “Introduction,” Schopenhauer makes clear that the very idea that man can be happy is ridiculous: “this hypothesis,” he writes, “is based upon a fundamental mistake.”
However, he goes on, he is willing to make a compromise and “take the common standpoint of every day, and embrace the error which is at the bottom of it.”
Well, the scene is yours, Arthur: please do!
Chapter I: Division of the Subject
Of course, the question of happiness is neither a new one nor one rarely explored by other ancient thinkers and philosophers.
However, as far as Schopenhauer is concerned, none of them really got to the bottom of it. On the contrary, in fact, they made numerous incorrect guesses.
Aristotle, for example, in Nicomachean Ethics, divides the blessings into three categories: “those which come to us from without, those of the soul, and those of the body.”
According to Schopenhauer, he was only right about the number. In other words, there are three distinct classes of “fundamental differences in human lot,” but they are much different:
#1. What a man is: this refers to a man’s personality, in the widest sense of the word; meaning, it includes a man’s health, beauty, strength, moral character, temperament, intelligence, and education;
#2. What a man has: this encompasses “property and possessions of every kind,” aka material wealth; and
#3. How a man stands in the estimation of others: “by which is to be understood, as everybody knows, what a man is in the eyes of his fellowmen, or, more strictly, the light in which they regard him. This is shown by their opinion of him; and their opinion is in its turn manifested by the honor in which he is held, and by his rank and reputation.”
Of course, there’s a big difference between the degree with which each of these three contributes to one’s overall happiness, with #1 (i.e., man’s nature) kind of governing the other two (#2 and #3).
Time to explore them one by one and see why this is so.
Chapter II: Personality or What a Man Is
Already in Chapter I, Schopenhauer notes that “the world in which a man lives shapes itself chiefly by the way in which he looks at it, and so it proves different to different men.”
A man of genius, in other words, may see happiness in all sorts of banal things, while an ordinary individual can see nothing of this sort even in majestic things.
To explain this better, he uses Goethe and Byron’s poems, which, he says, are obviously founded upon actual facts.
Now, most people, upon reading them or finding out about all of the interesting things described in the verses, start envying the poets and thinking things like “Oh, why doesn’t something like this happen to me for once!”
However, Schopenhauer says, “it is only a foolish person who would envy the poet because so many delightful things happened to him, instead of envying that mighty power of phantasy which was capable of turning a fairly common experience into something so great and beautiful.”
In layman’s terms, it’s not that Goethe or Byron found better romantic partners than you; it’s just that they were smart enough to transform their pretty normal love life into something grander. Objectively, their love wasn’t that much different from yours; but they were smart enough to not see it that way.
“The life of the fool,” says the Bible (Ecclesiasticus 22:11), “is worse than death.” Schopenhauer goes a step further: “a man is sociable just in the degree in which he is intellectually poor and generally vulgar.”
Of course, just a sentence later he makes an extremely racist remark concerning “the most sociable of all people… the negroes” – so, we are really starting to wonder how many friends did Schopenhauer have, i.e., how smart he actually was.
Racism aside, Schopenhauer has a point: even if you are the richest person in the world (#2), admired by just about anyone on this planet (#3), you’d still probably feel a gaping hole inside if you are a fool, because, as Seneca noted once, “folly is its own burden.”
To understand better why “what a man is” naturally takes up a large portion of his ability to feel happiness, it’s probably smart to think about another aspect of our “personalities,” i.e., our general health.
“Health outweighs all other blessings,” writes Schopenhauer, noting that “a healthy beggar is happier than an ailing king.”
It’s kind of difficult to argue with this because, let’s face it, you can’t even enjoy your favorite TV show if you’re sick in bed with temperature. And even if you had all the money in the world at that moment, the only thing you’d ask for is a cure.
“A healthy person has a thousand wishes,” says an old (probably Indian) proverb, “but a sick person only one – to get well.”
Chapter III: Property, or What a Man Has
“I don’t care too much for money,” sang the Beatles famously in 1964, “money can’t buy me love.”
But that was only a year after they covered Barrett Strong’s “Money” and announced to the world that “money don’t get everything it’s true/ what it don’t get, I can’t use: now give me money, that’s what I want.”
So, which of the two is true according to Schopenhauer?
Well, in a way, both of them – because (as Epicurus first demonstrated) there are different things that money can buy and different needs they satisfy:
#1. Natural and necessary needs: those that, when not satisfied, produce pain, such as food and clothing;
#2. Natural, but not necessary needs: these are all the things that gratify the senses; since they gratify them, they are natural; however, the absence of them, doesn’t cause any pain in the case of many people; and
#3. Needs which are neither natural nor necessary: these are the luxuries.
Schopenhauer notes that #1 are the most discernible and the most easily satisfiable needs; #2 are a bit more difficult to categorize and even more difficult to satisfy. #3 are both the least comprehensible and are almost impossible to satisfy: they “never come to an end.”
Of course, the needs vary from person to person.
For example, if you are born wealthy, you’d probably adapt to a certain lifestyle which you wouldn’t want to lose, deeming a necessity something others would consider a luxury.
On the upside, if you are lucky enough to have been born rich, you’d probably develop a more independent mind, and you’d probably acquire a certain set of talents which would allow you to extract happiness from things a beggar rarely would (such as poetry).
Chapter IV: Position, or A Man’s Place in the Estimation of Others
The fourth chapter of Schopenhauer’s Wisdom of Life is, by far, the longest one and is divided into five sections, each one dealing with a different aspect of “a man’s place in the estimation of others.”
“By a peculiar weakness of human nature,” notes Schopenhauer, “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.”
To illustrate “his perverse and exuberant respect for other people’s opinion,” Schopenhauer uses two examples, both from the gallows and both dated back to 1846.
In the first case, a man named Thomas Wix was executed for murdering his master. “On reaching the scaffold,” says a contemporary report, “the miserable wretch mounted the drop without the slightest assistance, and when he got to the center, he bowed to the spectators twice, a proceeding which called forth a tremendous cheer from the degraded crowd beneath.”
Why would a man care about generating a cheer from a crowd a mere second before his inevitable death – is beyond Schopenhauer.
Even stranger: a guy named Lecompte, executed in Frankfurt for an attempt on the king’s life, was annoyed on the day of execution that he was not allowed to shave and appear in decent attire before the crowd.
Schopenhauer notes that this hunger for other people’s approval is the reason for numerous life anxieties and that it is the source of vanity, one of the biblical obstacles to attaining happiness.
The other side of the vanity coin: pride.
Vanity, says Schopenhauer, is the desire to arrive at appreciation indirectly, from without; pride, on the other hand, is “the direct appreciation of oneself.”
Pride, in other words, “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.”
Now, “the cheapest sort of pride,” in Schopenhauer’s opinion, is national pride.
Well, because – explains Schopenhauer – “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.”
And he goes even a step further: only people who see the follies of their nations and don’t really like them can be considered intelligent ones.
Take that, nationalists!
Rank has “purely conventional value” and, in Schopenhauer’s opinion, can be dismissed in a few words.
And those few words are these: rank “is a sham; its method is to exact an artificial respect, and, as a matter of fact, the whole thing is a mere farce.”
Schopenhauer wrote at a time when it mattered a lot to be a prince or a count or a Sir, and a century and a half later, we see that he was right in the above assessment.
There are fewer and fewer people today who think that someone is worthier than them merely because he has obtained some kind of a state title; consequently, there are fewer and fewer people really dreaming about them.
Which is a great thing!
Schopenhauer admits that talking about honor is much more difficult than talking about rank, but, ultimately, he dismisses it as well as because mostly it is a “primitive and innate characteristic of human nature,” the other side of shame.
There are two types of honor, he argues: objective (in the eyes of others) and subjective (in your own eyes). The latter one doesn’t matter as much as the former one since one’s opinion of oneself doesn’t count if it isn’t reaffirmed by others.
And others can affirm it in four different ways:
#1. Civic honor. This is the basic type of honor, “the widest sphere of all;” it is what prevents us from using “any unjust or unlawful means of getting what we want,” aka “the condition of all peaceable intercourse between man and man,” aka the thing which allows for societies to exist.
#2. Official honor. This is the honor you get (or at least you got a century or two ago) when you’re serving other people in the public sphere; yup, Schopenhauer is talking about teachers, doctors, lawyers, and soldiers;
#3. Sexual honor. You’ve met the racist Schopenhauer, now it’s time you meet the sexist Arthur: a man gets honor from serving the household by bringing in the money, a woman gets honor from (wait for it…) being pure (if girl) and faithful (if woman). A woman’s honor is much more important, says Schopenhauer, because “women depend upon men in all the relations of life; men upon women, it might be said, in one only.” That’s just fantastic!
#4. Knightly honor. This is the only one which depends on another person’s opinion – and, thus, it is the most primitive one. You know, the one which made people organize duels and kill each other over nothing.
Fame is honor’s twin, and in the sense Castor and Pollux were twins in Greek mythology: while one is mortal, the other is not.
Of course, Schopenhauer is talking about true fame, the one which is undying and lasts more than a day.
“Fame is something which must be won,” he notes, “honor, only something which must not be lost.”
It’s difficult to attain fame: it both takes a lot of effort and, for a large part, it doesn’t depend on you whether you’ll ever get it.
This last part is why you shouldn’t worry about it too much.
Fame, in the wrong and outdated opinion of Schopenhauer, is but a reflection of your own great personality – i.e., what you are (Chapter II).
In other words, if you strive for greatness (i.e., achieving a great personality), then you might just become famous (even if merely after death), and you’ll certainly be a bit happier than the other people.
However, if you strive to become famous, not only you’ll never become a great person, you’ll probably never be happy as well.
That makes a bit more sense theoretically – but the 21st century called, Arthur, and it has given you an F on your essay on this subject.
Key Lessons from “The Wisdom of Life”
1. If You Can’t Find Any Happiness in Solitude – Then You Are, by Definition, Stupid
2. If You Need Money or Fame to be Happy – Then You Are, by Definition, Stupid
3. If You Are a Nationalist – Then You Are, by Definition, Stupid
If You Can’t Find Any Happiness in Solitude – Then You Are, by Definition, Stupid
“A high degree of intellect tends to make a man unsocial,” says Schopenhauer, probably trying to find some comfort in the fact that he didn’t have many true friends.
The logic goes like this: the more social you are, the more burden you find in your solitude; and the more burden you find living with yourself, the less interesting things objectively one can find inside your head.
Smart people don’t really need company – they are their own truest and most engaging and most interesting company.
If You Need Money or Fame to be Happy – Then You Are, by Definition, Stupid
There are three kinds of needs in life, and only one of these are natural and necessary: those which, when left unsatisfied, cause pain. Of course, we’re talking about food and clothing and stuff here.
The problem is not the second category – natural, but not necessary (those that give pleasure) – but the third one: both natural and unnecessary (aka luxuries). Because these ones are never satisfied.
In other words, if you are feeling unhappy because you are not famous like Beyoncé or because you don’t have a yacht, you can be absolutely sure that you’ll never be happy.
If You Are a Nationalist – Then You Are, by Definition, Stupid
National pride, in the opinion of Schopenhauer, is “the cheapest sort of pride,” because if you are proud of your own nation, then you have no qualities of your own that you can be proud of.
In other words, if you have achieved anything – absolutely anything – in your life, then it makes much more sense to be proud in that than in your nation, something you share with so many millions of people and something you’ve achieved by, well, being born.
Let us make this clearer for you: Schopenhauer says that if you take pride in your nation, then you are not merely stupid, but an entirely unaccomplished imbecile.
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The Wisdom of Life QuotesA healthy beggar is happier than an ailing king. Click To Tweet 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. Click To Tweet To one who has the constant delight of a special individuality, with a high degree of intellect, most of the pleasures which are run after by mankind are simply superfluous; they are even a trouble and a burden. Click To Tweet A high degree of intellect tends to make a man unsocial. Click To Tweet Fame is the undying brother of ephemeral honor. Click To Tweet
The Wisdom of Life is certainly not a major work by Schopenhauer, and nor is it his best-known minor work (which is, arguably, The Art of Being Right).
But even so – perhaps because of its approachableness – it is still an influential work and one which has made at least a few lives better and more bearable.
“With his truths, Schopenhauer gave me a spiritual world and an awareness of happiness,” said once noted Soviet composer, Sergei Prokofiev – echoing the views of many.
Echoing not our views, though, because, for the most part, we believe that The Wisdom of Life is an outdated manual for happiness, which is not only racist and sexist but also bases some of its findings on these beliefs; the others seem based on Schopenhauer’s own, personal opinions – and not on objective facts.
But, then again, almost all philosophy is. And there are better, more contemporary takes on human happiness than this one.