Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Studies In Pessimism questions.

Schopenhauer's Essays

The best introduction to Arthur Schopenhauer is not his heavy philosophical book The World as Will and Idea, but a collection of his practical, worldly-wise essays. The best collection of these is was published in two volumes by Clarendon Press, Oxford. They are titled  Parerga and Paralipomena: Short Philosophical Essays. The title looks somewhat intimidating. Parerga means supplementary works, and Paralipomena means matters omitted from the main structure of Schopenhauer's ideas).

The following is a characteristic sampling of these pessimistic (or realistic) thoughts.

The anxieties of all of us, our worries, vexations, bothers, troubles, fears, exertions, and so on, are really concerned with someone else’s opinion, perhaps in the majority of cases, and are just as absurd as is the behavior of those miserable sinners [previously described]. For the most part, our envy and hatred also spring from the same root.

Now it is obvious that our happiness, resting as it does mainly on peace of mind and contentment, could scarcely be better promoted than by limiting and moderating these motives to reasonable proportions that would possibly be a fiftieth of what they are at present, and thus by extracting from our flesh this thorn that is always causing us pain. Yet this is very difficult, for we are concerned with a natural and innate perversity. Tacitus says: “The thirst for fame is the last thing of all to be laid aside by wise men.” The only way to be rid of this universal folly is clearly to recognize it as such and for this purpose to realize how utterly false, perverse, erroneous, and absurd most of the opinions usually are in men’s minds, which are, therefore, in themselves not worth considering. Moreover, other people’s opinions can in most cases and things have little real influence on us. Again, such opinions generally are so unfavourable that almost everyone would worry himself to death if he heard all that was said about him or the tone in which people spoke of him. Finally, even honour itself is only of indirect not direct value. If we succeeded in such a conversion from this universal folly, the result would be an incredibly great increase in our peace of mind and cheerfulness, likewise a firmer and more positive demeanour, and generally a more natural and unaffected attitude. The exceedingly beneficial influence a retired mode of life has on our peace of mind is due mainly to the fact that we thereby escape having to live constantly in the sight of others and consequently having always to take into consideration the opinions they happen to have; it restores to a man his true self. Similarly, we should avoid a great deal of real misfortune into which we are drawn simply by that purely ideal endeavour, or more correctly that incurable folly. We should also be able to devote much more attention to solid blessings and then enjoy them with less interruption.  Schopenhauer, "What a Man Represents"      

In childhood life is like a theatrical décor seen from a distance, in old age it looks like the same décor seen at very close quarters.
Schopenhauer, "On the Different Periods of Life"

Here also life presents itself by no means as a gift for enjoyment, but as a task, a drudgery to be performed; and in accordance with this we see, in great and small, universal need, ceaseless cares, constant pressure, endless strife, compulsory activity, with extreme exertion of all the powers of body and mind. . . . All strive, some planning, others acting; the tumult is indescribable. But the ultimate aim of it all, what is it? To sustain ephemeral and tormented individuals through a short span of time in the most fortunate case with endurable want and comparative freedom from pain, which, however, is at once attended with ennui; then the reproduction of this race and its striving. In this evident disproportion between the trouble and the reward, the will to live appears to us from this point of view, if taken objectively, as a fool, or subjectively, as a delusion, seized by which everything living works with the utmost exertion of its strength for something that is of no value. But when we consider it more closely, we shall find here also that it is rather a blind pressure, a tendency entirely without ground or motive. -Schopenhauer (quoted by Harold Bloom)

What makes it specially difficult for us to arrive at these wholesome views is the hypocrisy of the world which I have already mentioned and which should be made known to one at an early age.  Most of the pomp and splendours are, like theatre decorations, mere show, and the very essence of the thing is missing.  Ships festooned and dressed with pennants, salutes with cannon, illuminations, beating of drums and blowing of trumpets, shouting, applauding, and so on, all are the outward sign, the hint, the suggestion, the hieroglyphic of gaiety or joy.  But this is just where joy is rarely found; it alone has declined to be present at the festival.  Where it actually makes its appearance, it as a rule comes uninvited, by itself and sans facon.  Indeed, it quietly slips in often on the most unimportant and trivial occasions, in the most ordinary everyday circumstances; in fact, anywhere but where the company is brilliant or distinguished.  It is scattered here and there, like the gold in Australia, by the whim of pure chance according to no rule or law, often only in tiny grains, and exceedingly rarely in large quantities.  But the object of all the things just mentioned is to make others believe that joy had here put in an appearance; to produce this illusion in the minds of others is the intention.  It is the same with mourning as with joy. How sad and melancholy is that long and slowly moving funeral procession!  There is no end to the number of carriages.  But look inside them; they are all empty and the deceased is escorted to the grave merely by the coachmen of the whole town.  An eloquent picture of the friendship and esteem of this world!  This, then, is the falsehood, hollowness, and hypocrisy of human affairs.  Again, many guests in ceremonial dress and welcomed with much pomp and festivity afford another example; they are the signs of noble and exalted fellowship.  But instead, the real guests, as a rule, are only compulsion, pain, and boredom; for where there are so many guests, it is already a rabble, even though they wear on their breasts all the stars.  Thus genuinely good society is everywhere of necessity very small.  Generally speaking, however, brilliant parties and noisy entertainments at bottom always have emptiness and even a jarring note because they flagrantly contradict the misery and barrenness of our existence and the contrast enhances the truth.  Looked at from without, however, all this has its effect and this is precisely its purpose. Therefore Chamfort makes the excellent remark: la societe, les cercles, les salons, ce qu'on appelle le monde, est une piece miserable, un mauvais opera, sans interet, qui se soutient un peu par les machines, les costumes et les decorations.  [Society, circles, salons, what is called high society, is a miserable play, a bad opera, without interest, which is kept going for a while by the stage effects, the costumes, and the decorations.]  Now it is the same as regards academies and chairs of philosophy; these are the signs, the outward show, of wisdom; but she too has often declined to come and is to be found in quite a different place.  The continual ringing of bells, the costumes of priests, pious attitudes, and grotesque antics are the outward sign, the false appearance, of devotional feeling, and so on.  Thus almost everything in the world can be called a hollow nut; the kernel is in itself rare and even more rarely is it to be found in the shell.  It must be sought in quite a different place; and frequently it is found only by accident. -Schopenhauer, "Counsels and Maxims"