Wisdom of Life

Arthur Schopenhauer: On the Wisdom and Meaning of Life

“Life is a constant process of dying.”

“Change alone is eternal, perpetual, immortal.”

“A sense of humour is the only divine quality of man.”

“Human life must be some kind of mistake. The truth of this will be sufficiently obvious if we only remember that man is a compound of needs and necessities hard to satisfy; and that even when they are satisfied, all he obtains is a state of painlessness, where nothing remains to him but abandonment to boredom. This is direct proof that existence has no real value in itself; for what is boredom but the feeling of the emptiness of life? If life—the craving for which is the very essence of our being—were possessed of any positive intrinsic value, there would be no such thing as boredom at all: mere existence would satisfy us in itself, and we should want for nothing.

Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom. The life of every individual, viewed as a whole and in general, and when only its most significant features are emphasized, is really a tragedy; but gone through in detail it has the character of a comedy. If we were not all so interested in ourselves, life would be so uninteresting that none of us would be able to endure it. Life is full of troubles and vexations, that one must either rise above it by means of corrected thoughts, or leave it.

If the immediate and direct purpose of our life is not suffering then our existence is the most Ill-adapted to its purpose in the world: for it is absurd to suppose that the endless affliction of which the world is everywhere full, and which arises out of the need and distress pertaining essentially to life, should be purposeless and purely accidental. Each individual misfortune, to be sure, seems an exceptional occurrence; but misfortune in general is the rule.

Life presents itself first and foremost as a task: the task of maintaining itself, the task of earning one’s living. If this task is accomplished, what has been gained is a burden, and there then appears a second task: that of doing something with it so as to ward off boredom, which hovers over every secure life like a bird of prey. Thus the first task is to gain something and the second to become unconscious of what has been gained, which is otherwise a burden.

The scenes in our life resemble pictures in a rough mosaic; they are ineffective from close up, and have to be viewed from a distance if they are to seem beautiful. That is why to attain something desired is to discover how vain it is; and why, though we live all our lives in expectation of better things, we often at the same time long regretfully for what is past. The present, on the other hand, is regarded as something quite temporary and serving as the only road to our goal. That is why most men discover when they look back on their life that they have been living the whole time ad interim, and are surprised to see that which they let go by so unregarded and unenjoyed was precisely their life, was precisely that in expectation of which they lived.

It is difficult to find happiness within oneself, but it is impossible to find it anywhere else. What disturbs and depresses young people is the hunt for happiness on the firm assumption that it must be met with in life. From this arises constantly deluded hope and so also dissatisfaction. Deceptive images of a vague happiness hover before us in our dreams, and we search in vain for their original. Much would have been gained if, through timely advice and instruction, young people could have had eradicated from their minds the erroneous notion that the world has a great deal to offer them.

A man is never happy, but spends his whole life in striving after something that he thinks will make him so; he seldom attains his goal, and when he does, it is only to be disappointed; he is mostly shipwrecked in the end, and comes into harbour with mast and rigging gone. And then, it is all one whether he is happy or miserable; for his life was never anything more than a present moment always vanishing; and now it is over.

The safest way of not being very miserable is not to expect to be very happy.

If the world were a paradise of luxury and ease, a land flowing with milk and honey, where every Jack obtained his Jill at once and without any difficulty, men would either die of boredom or hang themselves; or there would be wars, massacres, and murders; so that in the end mankind would inflict more suffering on itself than it has now to accept at the hands of Nature.

A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free. We forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to be like other people. Almost all of our sorrows spring out of our relations with other people. There is no more mistaken path to happiness than worldliness. Great men are like eagles, and build their nest on some lofty solitude.

Ordinary people merely think how they shall ‘spend’ their time; a man of talent tries to ‘use’ it.

Compassion is the basis of morality. The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality. Men are the devils of the earth, and the animals are the tormented souls. Compassion for animals is intimately associated with goodness of character, and it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to animals cannot be a good man.

Without books the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are the engines of change, windows on the world, “Lighthouses” as the poet said “erected in the sea of time.” They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind, Books are humanity in print.

The person who writes for fools is always sure of a large audience. Authors can be divided into meteors, planets and fixed stars. The meteors produce a loud momentary effect; we look up, shout ‘see there!’ and then they are gone for ever. The planets and comets last for a much longer time….The fixed stars alone are constant and unalterable; their position in the firmament is fixed; they have their own light and are at all times active, because they do not alter their appearance through a change in our standpoint, for they have no parallax. Unlike the others, they do not belong to one system (nation) alone, but to the world. But just because they are situated so high, their light usually requires many years before it becomes visible to the inhabitants of earth.

Wealth is like sea-water; the more we drink, the thirstier we become; and the same is true of fame.

Our civilized world is nothing but a great masquerade. You encounter knights, parsons, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, priests, philosophers and a thousand more: but they are not what they appear – they are merely masks… Usually, as I say, there is nothing but industrialists, businessmen and speculators concealed behind all these masks.

I have not yet spoken my last word about women. I believe that if a woman succeeds in withdrawing from the mass, or rather raising herself from above the mass, she grows ceaselessly and more than a man.”

“Mostly it is loss which teaches us about the worth of things.

“We can regard our life as a uselessly disturbing episode in the blissful repose of nothingness.”

“After your death, you will be what you were before your birth.”

***

~Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher. He is best known for his 1818 work The World as Will and Representation, which characterizes the phenomenal world as the product of a blind and insatiable noumenal will.

Excerpts from Arthur Schopenhauer, The Basis of Morality, Essays and Aphorisms

©Excellence Reporter 2021

Categories: Wisdom of Life

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