The Wisdom of Life

Arthur Schopenhauer

Book cover

This is another book I read because it was mentioned in the “Further Reading” section of “The Art of Stoic Joy,” and because it is available for free from Gutenberg. I actually read Schopenhauer’s “Counsels and Maxims” first, which was a mistake because it is kind of a Part 2 to this book. I didn’t love C&M, but I guess I was interested enough to still want to pick up the WoL. I’m glad I did, because I think it is a better, though still flawed, book.

In this short book, Schopenhauer lays out a basically Stoic philosophy. There are three factors that tend to influence our happiness: who or what we are, what we have, and what others think of us. His argument is that the first is by far the most important, yet the one that we least attend to. (This is similar to Fromm’s position in “To Have or To Be,” another book that I appreciated very much.) This is an easy argument to assent to intellectually, but a challenging one to live out. Schopenhauer allows that material wealth is valuable to the extent that it allows us to live a life free of disturbance, but no further; similarly, that our reputation matters in the sense that it shouldn’t be so bad as to act as a roadblock for us, but no further. The second main theme that he repeats throughout the book is that human life is a constant struggle to avoid either poverty or boredom, and that to the extent that we avoid one, we are more at risk of the other. Although this is a pretty pessimistic way of putting it, I think there’s a lot of truth to it.

To those interested in reading this, I would recommend skipping nearly the entire third section, on reputation. He has a very extended digression on the absurdity of aristocratic dueling and conceptions of honor which, while reasonable as far as it goes, was quite boring to this 21st century reader. Schopenhauer’s snobbery still comes through strongly, and he still drops the occasional racist or sexist remark, but overall I found this book worth reading.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars