I picked up a copy of Schopenhauer’s The Wisdom of Life, in which he outlines a number of principles for recognising and understanding how we can live a well-adjusted life. Contrary to the postmodern claims that we can reinvent ourselves based on a fluid sense of identity, Schopenhauer details the well-established and long-standing idea, that we are each defined by our character when we are born, and that we spend life’s journey working out what our character is, and in what circumstances we can demonstrate or mitigate our genius.
Schopenhauer rejects the pursuit of pleasure and happiness as the aim of living, and instead affirms that we are characterised by our suffering and the pains of living. A successful adjustment to life, according to Schopenhauer, is to find peace and freedom from suffering, for it is in the manner that we adapt to the pains and vicissitudes of life that we become whole. Schopenhauer contrasts our capacity for absorbing pain with that of the pursuit of sensation and stimulation, where we are inclined to make unnecessary sacrifices based on a chimerical and frivolous perception of life that is illusory.
According to Schopenhauer, as we progress through the stages of our life, we frequently find something else that is better than any pleasures and happiness we might be looking for. We often find ourselves on a “very different path from that on which we began a vain search,” says Schopenhauer. Instead of seeking and expecting to find “pleasure, happiness, joy,” we instead get “experience, insight, knowledge.” Giving us perceptions and understanding of our path that is a “permanent blessing, instead of a fleeting and illusory one” (Schopenhauer, 1851, p. 83).
On reflecting on Schopenhauer’s comments, I’ve concluded that I have also reached a stage in my life where I am more than half-way through the journey ‘over the hill,’ as Schopenhauer calls it. It is at this stage, Schopenhauer suggests, that we are more able to see the road that we have travelled, and reflect on the way we’ve played our hand, or dealt with circumstances. In our youth we are likely to rush towards the pleasures of life, argues Schopenhauer, though we too often find ourselves “their dupe.”
So, rather than viewing the development of our sense of self as a task of manufacture and invention, as if from parts, Schopenhauer instead highlights that our character is set before we start on our journey through life, though this character is shaped by circumstances and the interactions that we have with others. Some see fate as a taskmaster, according to Schopenhauer, while others see fate as a teacher.
Rather than seeking happiness, Schopenhauer argues, we should instead be seeking insight based on a perpetual regard for learning. As Schopenhauer puts it
“In their search for gold, the alchemists discovered other things – gunpowder, china, medicines, the laws of nature. There is a sense in which we are all alchemists” (Schopenhauer, 1851, p. 83).
It is our task, then, to act in accordance with the nature of our character, says Schopenhauer, but this means understanding both the limits of our capacity, and also our motives. Each will be different, and circumstances can force us to apply them in ways that we are not comfortable with or prepared for. We can only, according to Schopenhauer, do what we feel at every moment to be “right and proper.” For it is “only afterwards, when we come to look back at the whole course of our life and its general result, that we see the why and wherefore of it all” (Schopenhauer, 1851, p. 85).
Instead of constantly planning for the future, and anxiously anticipating the challenges that the future inevitably brings; or wrapping ourselves in knots of “regret for the past,” Schopenhauer instead urges that we should never “forget that the present is the only reality, the only certainty.” (Schopenhauer, 1851, p. 86). Living our days as each is to be our whole life, is the most agreeable way that we can make use of the limited time that we have, according to Schopenhauer, thereby reducing our expectations of suffering by reducing the need for external stimulus. Instead, our focus should be on finding peace through our self-reliant intellectual efforts, especially as we seek to “relive the will of internal sources of excitement” (Schopenhauer, 1851, p. 88).
The more that we have a sense of self-sufficiency, Schopenhauer argues, the more we are prepared to sacrifice excitement and stimulation in the world. However, we must also heed the warning that “it is difficult to keep quiet if you have nothing to do” (Schopenhauer, 1851, p. 88). As Schopenhauer argues
“The more a man has in himself, the less others can be to him. The feeling of self-sufficiency! It is that which restrains those whose personal value is in itself great riches, from such considerable sacrifices as are demanded by intercourse with the world, let alone, then, from actually practicing self-denial by going out of their way to seek it” (Schopenhauer, 1851, p. 92).
It’s warming to read such a diametrically oriented point of view about our mode of social conduct. The contemporary approach to positivist self-becoming is causing untold harm and anxiety. The mantra of modern persona-industries, that peddles self-realisation as within each person’s capacity, needs to be shut down. Simply learning to be who we are meant to be, as Carl Jung reminds us, is
“To round itself out, life calls not for perfection but for completeness; and for this the ‘thorn in the flesh’ is needed, the suffering of defects without which there is no progress and no ascent” (Jung, 1968, p. 159).
It is in the monotony of our own nature, then, that we “find solitude” (Schopenhauer, 1851, p. 93), for it is through contemplation of the self and our desire to learn about our character that means that we can discern the better part of our character and our motives. As Schopenhauer reminds us “The tree of silence bears the fruit of peace” (Schopenhauer, 1851, p. 132), though “the tree of knowledge must reach its full height before it can bear fruit, the roots of it lie in youth” (Schopenhauer, 1851, p. 155).
Jung, C. G. (1968). Psychology and Alchemy (Second ed.). Routledge.
Schopenhauer, A. (1851). The Wisdom of Life and Counsels and Maxims. Pantianos Clasics.