Essays and Aphorisms by Arthur Schopenhauer
Arthur Schopenhauer was a renowned nineteenth-century German philosopher. Essays and Aphorisms is a collection of his thoughts on a wide range of topics including suffering, critical thinking, writing, habit creation, living more consciously, religion, politics, dealing with the fear of death, and much more.
I grabbed this book hoping to get a broad overview of Schopenhauer's philosophy. I was not disappointed. Below is a hand-picked series of impactful ideas I pulled from this excellent work.
Limit your inputs; think for yourself:
Too many inputs rob our minds of all elasticity by pressing upon us relentlessly. These constant inputs severely limit our ability to form thoughts of our own. If we want to be critical thinkers, to form our own original ideas, we must protect time and space to simply sit with our thoughts. Most people never do this, but all great thinkers do.
"Forever reading, never to be read." —Alexander Pope, The Dunciad
💡Consider this: It is fascinating to note that Schopenhauer was discussing this idea in the mid-1800s. What would he think were he alive today? So many of us unconsciously and automatically reach for our phones every time we have a spare moment. We think this distraction is a modern phenomenon. In reality, it's a timeless human struggle to remain present.
The value of skepticism:
Skepticism is to philosophy what opposition is in government—beneficial and necessary. Philosophy can never produce the kind of proof that mathematics and science can. And yet so many beliefs and opinions are pressed upon us as objective truths from the time we are children. If we're not mindful, these ideas become automatic, we accept them unquestioningly. It is critical to maintain a healthy degree of skepticism. Pressure your own thoughts and those of others relentlessly.
"We credit these propositions so completely because when we first began to speak and think we continually had them recited to us and they were thus implanted in us; so that that the habit of thinking them is as old as the habit of thinking as such and we can no longer the separate the two."
It is natural to resist new ideas:
It is no surprise that we resist new ideas; they force their way "as an enemy into the previously closed system of our own convictions." They prod us from our comfortable rest. They require work of us. They require us to admit that our previous efforts may have been in vain. Resistance is natural. Stay mindful. Skepticism is good. Obstinacy is not.
"When will crowds out knowledge, we call the results obstinacy."
Exercise your memory:
Work your brain out like a muscle. If you can't remember something right away, let your brain struggle to recall it. The more our brains have to work to assemble or re-assemble ideas, the more firm our grip on those ideas will be.
💡Consider this: This is another surprisingly timeless idea. Schopenhauer was urging this in the 1800s, long before search engines and ubiquitous computing made it easy to outsource our need to remember facts. It seems like a worthy endeavor to deliberately challenge our memory muscles from time to time.
It is the small actions that reveal our character:
It can be easy to overlook how people deal with minor trifles. But one's character is perhaps best revealed in these moments. During the most significant exchanges, people put their guard up. But when dealing with minor annoyances, they are more unaware, unguarded. This is when you are most likely to see their true nature revealed.
"As a botanist can recognize the whole plant from one leaf...so an accurate knowledge of a man's character be arrived at from a single characteristic action"
The first step is not the hardest, the last step is:
We're often told, "the first step is the hardest." With creative work, this isn't necessarily true. The last step is. For proof, look at all the incomplete, half-baked ideas you've left in your wake. When we start out, we can take the work in many different directions. But by the end, there is a specific goal you are trying to achieve, a point you are trying to convey, a story you are trying to tell. Your options become increasingly limited. It is here that most people fail; it is here where we must be the most relentless.
"The difficulty of the dénouement is the result partly of the fact that it is easier to confuse things than it is to straighten them out again."
Habits - acting unconsciously:
A horse passively pulls a cart long after the blow of the whip that set him in motion. Human beings mindlessly engaging in the same behaviors over the course of their lives are no different. While the manifestations are wildly different, the underlying principle is exactly the same—we are not consciously choosing our actions.
"Genuine force of habit...really derives from the inertia which wants to spare the intellect and the will the labour, difficulty, and sometimes the danger involved in making a fresh choice..."
To become more conscious is to make our existence more real:
The degree of consciousness is the same thing as the degree of reality of existence. All living things are driven by the will to live. What separates humans from animals is the degree to which we are conscious of our existence. It can be said, therefore, that the more conscious we are, the more we actually exist. But to increase our consciousness is not easy. It takes intellectual effort.
"The degree of clarity of consciousness, and consequently of thought, can therefore be regarded as the degree of reality of existence. But this degree of thought, or of clear consciousness one's own existence of that of others, varies greatly within the human race..."
Think about the subject, not the book:
Few people think deeply about a subject. They may be well-read on the topic of their interest, but they aren't actually thinking about the subject itself, they're thinking about what others have written or said about the subject. They require this external stimulus in order to think at all, and they remain entirely under the influence of these arguments. The only way to achieve originality is to go beyond what others have said. Think for yourself.
"As the biggest library if it is in disorder is not as useful as a small but well-arranged one, so you may accumulate a vast amount of knowledge but it will be of far less value to you than a much smaller amount if you have not thought it over for yourself; because only through ordering what you know by comparing every truth with every other truth can you take complete possession of your knowledge."
If you want to write well, have something to say:
There are lots of reasons we write—to satisfy an assignment, to convey information, to seek approval, fame, or money. But the only writing that is worth a damn happens when we write entirely for the sake of wanting to say something. Writing for any other reason, no matter how hard you work on your delivery, will come across as pretense.
"The first rule, indeed by itself virtually a sufficient condition for good style, is to have something to say."
Writing is a dialogue, not a monologue:
When writing, the author must remember he is engaged in a dialogue with the reader. And beyond that, he is engaged in a dialogue in which he can neither hear nor directly respond to the reader's questions. This is why the author must labor to create clear and objective writing that compels the reader to see the argument in precisely the way the author intends it.
"...the writer proceeds as if he were engaged in a monologue: while what should really be taking place is a dialogue, and indeed one in which the speaker has to express himself the more clearly in that he cannot hear the listener's questions..."
Perception must precede concept:
We should always allow our real-world experiences (perceptions) to shape our ideas about how things work (concepts). The problem is that we too often entertain pre-conceived ideas based on how we think the world should work. These preconceived notions are not based on our own perceptions but are instilled in us in school and other means of education. By putting concepts first, we often wrongly apply them. This creates angst as we try to function in a world that doesn't fit with our concepts. We can avoid this by continually allowing perception to shape and re-shape our concepts.
"So it happens the education produces wrongheadedness, and that is why in youth, after much reading and learning, we go out into the world part naive, in part confused, and conduct ourselves in it now with arrogance, now with timidity: our heads are full of concepts which we are now endeavoring to apply, but which we almost always apply wrongly."
Focus: Concentrate your forces:
Just as an army becomes ineffective when it is divided into smaller groups, the power of focus lies in concentrating all of our mental power on a single object. Avoid distraction, interruption, and spreading yourself too thin if you want to achieve great results.
"...when an army is reduced to small units, it becomes ineffective, so when a great mind is interrupted, disturbed and distracted it is capable of no more than a commonplace mind because its superiority consists in concentrating all its forces on one single point and object..."
We don't control what thoughts and arise when; thoughts show up when they want to. The only thing we do control is how we react to them.
Even the most brilliant mind amongst us is stupid at something.
Fear, anger, hatred, jealousy... these emotions are common. What is uncommon is the ability to prevent them from controlling our actions.
Newspaper writers are incentivized to make drama. Like little dogs who start yapping the moment anything moves, it is best not to pay them much mind.
A sure sign of greatness is the ability to ignore hurtful statements by simply attributing them to a lack of knowledge.
Own your flaws, you are doing them great honor by the act of possessing them.
Don't judge a man by his flaws, judge him instead by the heights he achieves when the conditions are right. For we can all fall victim to weakness and flawed character but only a select few of us can reach greatness.
"If your abilities are only mediocre, modesty is mere honesty; but if you possess great talents, it is hypocrisy."
"A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones."
"It is not without meaning that mythology depicts Cronus as devouring and digesting stones: for that which is otherwise quite indigestible, all affliction, vexation, loss, grief, time alone digests."
"Only he who writes entirely for the sake of what he has to say writes anything worth writing."
"...thoughts obey the law of gravity...they travel much more easily from the head down to the paper then they do from the paper up to head so that for the latter journey they require all the assistance we can give them."
"He who writes carelessly makes first and foremost the confession that he himself does not place any great value on his thoughts. For the enthusiasm which inspires the unflagging endurance necessary for discovering the clearest, most forceful and most attractive form of expressing our thoughts is begotten only by the conviction of the weightiness and truth..."