Counsels and Maxims (The Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer)

Arthur Schopenhauer

Book cover

I picked this up (free from Project Gutenberg) because it was mentioned as a reference related to Stoicism by William Irvine, the author of “A Guide to the Good Life.” It certainly is that, but as much as I like some of the classical Stoic authors, I couldn’t get behind Schopenhauer.

It’s funny because of his message is in many ways so similar to that espoused by the classical authors: the key to happiness is the achievement of tranquility, and many of the things held in high esteem by society (riches, fame) are not of real value. However, AS just puts such a gloomy and negative spin on this view that it is hard for me to imagine reading this book and feeling inspired. AS’s main approach seems to be to achieve tranquility by not aspiring to much, and by avoiding things that could cause pain. The perspective of Epictetus and others seems much more correct to me: achieve tranquility through the cultivation and exercise of your reason, training yourself to value those things that have true value, to reflect on your own actions and reactions, and to focus your efforts and aspirations on those things over which you have some control.

I think the paragraph I wrote above points up an important difference between AS and the classical Stoics. The classical Stoic philosophy is heavily focused on personal growth–there is an ideal of a Stoic sage that we all fall short of, but can continually work toward through effort and discipline. For AS, though, change and growth seem to be absent. He seems to take us as we are–disappointing, in many ways–and simply seeks to deal with that. Epictetus prescribes a cure; AS prescribes a palliative. Not unrelated, I think, is AS’s very offputting elitism and misanthropy. He states plainly that he thinks that most people are idiots and not worth the time or attention of “higher sorts of people.” This is a fundamental tenet of his approach that I just can’t agree on.

I noticed belatedly that this is actually the second (short) volume of a two-part work, with “The Wisdom of Life” being the former. I had also downloaded that volume onto my Kindle, but just arbitrarily chose to read this one first. Now I have to decide whether it’s worth reading the other. I’m leaning toward no, but will keep it on my Kindle for the time being.

My Goodreads rating: 2 stars