25 Great Quotes From German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer
You may have first been exposed to German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer with his essay On Women, which I reviewed a year ago. It was originally found in his Studies In Pessimism compilation which includes eight other essays. Here are my favorite quotes from those essays:
…the greatest wisdom is to make the enjoyment of the present the supreme object of life; because that is the only reality, all else being merely the play of thought. On the other hand, such a course might just as well be called the greatest folly: for that which in the next moment exists no more, and vanishes utterly, like a dream, can never be worth a serious effort.
…a man never is happy, but spends his whole life in striving after something which 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 harbor with mast and rigging gone. And then, it is all one whether he has been happy or miserable; for his life was never anything more than a present moment always vanishing; and now it is over.
…to gain anything we have longed for is only to discover how vain and empty it is; and even though we are always living in expectation of better things, at the same time we often repent and long to have the past back again.
Every satisfaction he attains lays the seeds of some new desire, so that there is no end to the wishes of each individual will.
…if the lives of men were relieved of all need, hardship and adversity; if everything they took in hand were successful, they would be so swollen with arrogance that, though they might not burst, they would present the spectacle of unbridled folly—nay, they would go mad. And I may say, further, that a certain amount of care or pain or trouble is necessary for every man at all times. A ship without ballast is unstable and will not go straight.
He who lives to see two or three generations is like a man who sits some time in the conjurer’s booth at a fair, and witnesses the performance twice or thrice in succession. The tricks were meant to be seen only once; and when they are no longer a novelty and cease to deceive, their effect is gone.
…in order to increase his pleasures, man has intentionally added to the number and pressure of his needs, which in their original state were not much more difficult to satisfy than those of the brute. Hence luxury in all its forms; delicate food, the use of tobacco and opium, spirituous liquors, fine clothes, and the thousand and one things that he considers necessary to his existence.
…need and boredom are the two poles of human life.
…something of great importance now past is inferior to something of little importance now present, in that the latter is a reality, and related to the former as something to nothing.
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. But as it is, we take no delight in existence except when we are struggling for something; and then distance and difficulties to be overcome make our goal look as though it would satisfy us.
[Consciousness makes] the individual careful to maintain his own existence; and if this were not so, there would be no surety for the preservation of the species. From all this it is clear that individuality is not a form of perfection, but rather a limitation; and so to be freed from it is not loss but gain.
The real meaning of persona is a mask, such as actors were accustomed to wear on the ancient stage; and it is quite true that no one shows himself as he is, but wears his mask and plays his part. Indeed, the whole of our social arrangements may be likened to a perpetual comedy; and this is why a man who is worth anything finds society so insipid, while a blockhead is quite at home in it.
Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world. This is an error of the intellect as inevitable as that error of the eye which lets you fancy that on the horizon heaven and earth meet.
No one knows what capacities for doing and suffering he has in himself, until something comes to rouse them to activity: just as in a pond of still water, lying there like a mirror, there is no sign of the roar and thunder with which it can leap from the precipice, and yet remain what it is; or again, rise high in the air as a fountain. When water is as cold as ice, you can have no idea of the latent warmth contained in it.
With people of only moderate ability, modesty is mere honesty; but with those who posses great talent, it is hypocrisy.
…man may have the most excellent judgment in all other matters, and yet go wrong in those which concern himself; because here the will comes in and deranges the intellect at once. Therefore let a man take counsel of a friend. A doctor can cure everyone but himself; if he falls ill, he sends for a colleague.
Imagination is strong in a man when that particular function of the brain which enables him to observe is roused to activity without any necessary excitement of the sense. Accordingly, we find that imagination is active just in proportion as our sense are not excited by external objects. A long period of solitude, whether in prison or in a sick room; quiet, twilight, darkness—these are the things that promote its activity; and under their influence it comes into play of itself.
The scenes and events of long ago, and the persons who took part in them, wear a charming aspect to the eye of memory, which sees only the outlines and takes no note of disagreeable details. The present enjoys no such advantage, and so it always seems defective.
The little incidents and accidents of every day fill us with emotion, anxiety, annoyance, passion, as long as they are close to us, when they appear so big, so important, so serious; but as soon as they are borne down the restless stream of time they lose what significance they had; we think no more of them and soon forget them altogether. They were big only because they were near.
It is a curious fact that in bad days we can very vividly recall the good time that is now no more; but that in good days, we have only a very cold and imperfect memory of the bad.
The ordinary method [of education] is to imprint ideas and opinions, in the strict sense of the word, prejudices, on the mind of the child, before it has had any but a very few particular observations. It is thus that he afterwards comes to view the world and gather experience through the medium of those ready-made ideas, rather than to let his ideas be formed for him out of his own experience of life, as they ought to be.
A man’s knowledge may be said to be mature, in other words, when it has reached the most complete state of perfection to which he, as an individual, is capable of bringing it, when an exact correspondence is established between the whole of his abstract ideas and the things he has actually perceived for himself. His will mean that each of his abstract ideas rests, directly or indirectly, upon a basis of observation, which alone endows it with any real value; and also that he is able to place every observation he makes under the right abstract idea which belongs to it.
The nobler and more perfect a thing is, the later and slower it is in arriving at maturity. A man reaches the maturity of his reasoning powers and mental faculties hardly before the age of twenty-eight; a woman at eighteen.
…to marry means to halve one’s rights and double one’s duties.
The delight which a man has in hoping for and looking forward to some special satisfaction is a part of the real pleasure attaching to it enjoyed in advance. This is afterwards deducted; for the more we look forward to anything, the less satisfaction we find in it when it comes. But the brute’s enjoyment is not anticipated, and therefore, suffers no deduction; so that the actual pleasure of the moment comes to it whole and unimpaired.”
And here are nine more things I learned from the essays:
1. The unconscious man, the brute, is superior to man because, while he doesn’t have hope and anticipation, he doesn’t get restless or experience discontent.
2. The punishment of wealth is boredom.
3. All the faults you criticize in others are what you’re capable of, and which may be a prominent feature of your future. It is therefore prudent to have tolerance for your fellow man.
4. Consciousness is beneficial because it gives us a stronger will to live. It makes us think we are special and unique, giving us a fear of death that increases our survivability. It’s evolution’s victory of intelligence over will, but comes at a cost of allowing us to see life’s vain and futile character. Yet even with individual character, most humans lead generic forms of existence.
5. Effortless mastery comes when you simply follow what your brain wants to do.
6. Pleasure comes from alternating between work and rest, hardship and comfort, pleasure and pain. There is no happiness in constant satisfaction.
7. Stimulus from the external world must be digested before it becomes creativity in the same way that food must digest before converting to nutrients that the body can use. There is a lag time between experience and mental enlightenment.
8. Smell is strongly connected to memory because it is unique and unambiguous. Smelling the perfume of your ex-girlfriend will immediately evoke a vivid memory of her.
9. Education stuffs you full of ideas without the coinciding experience that gave rise to those ideas in the first place, giving you incorrect perspective and notions.
The essays are surprisingly readable, and you can even pick out a bit of Schopenhauer’s humor. I recommend it.
Read More: “Studies In Pessimism” on Amazon