Saturday, March 23, 2013

Big heads on small people - Schopenhauer on books and reading

This is the post where I let Arthur Schopenhauer insult me.  This is all from the Penguin Essays and Aphorisms.   For example:

The difference between the effect produced on the mind by thinking for yourself and that produced by reading is incredibly great, so that the original difference which made one head decide for thinking and another for reading is continually increased…  The result is that much reading robs the mind of all elasticity, as the continual pressure of a weight does a spring, and that the surest way of never having any thoughts of your own is to pick up a book every time you have a free moment.  (89-90)

Although the idea sounds familiar – did not Georg Christoph Lichtenberg condense it to “Much reading is harmful to thinking.”  He did.  Schopenhauer is writing in the classic aphoristic tradition, which in its German form, for whatever reason, is especially concerned with books.

Even among the small number of writers who actually think seriously before they start writing, there are extremely few who think about the subject itself: the rest merely think about books, about what others have said about the subject.  They require, that is to say, the close and powerful stimulation of ideas produced by other people in order to think at all.  (199)

This is getting personal.  Nonsense, I shout in desperate self-defense.  “Only he who takes what he writes directly out of his own head is worth reading” (200), Schopenhauer responds.

He attacks my pseudonym, too.   “[Anonymity] often merely serves to cloak the obscurity, incompetence and insignificance of the reviewer” (202) – my only objection here is that in my case the word “cloak” should be replaced by “declare.”

Almost every book blogger will wince at this aphorism:

Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them in: but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents.  (210)

And I do not see how we can argue against at least the conclusion of this one:

The art of not reading is a very important one.  It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time…  A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.  (210)

The entire little section on “Books and Writing” is easy to recommend, although it omits my favorite grotesque line:

All genuine thought and art is to a certain extent an attempt to put big heads on small people: so it is no wonder the attempt does not always come off. (126)

By the way, which four novels are the “crown of the genre,” the four greatest novels according to Arthur Schopenhauer?  Guess, guess!  Yes, Don Quixote, that’s one.  Time’s up:  Wilhelm Meister, Tristram Shandy, and La Nouvelle Héloïse (165).  Schopenhauer also says nice things about Jean Paul and Walter Scott.  Good choices.  He believes that the best novels emphasize “inner over outer life…  while in bad novels the outer action is there for its own sake.”  Simple but plausible.


  1. Almost everything he says seems plausible and persuasive to me. Hard not to agree about life being too short to read bad books. And the one about big heads on small people, although harsh to our elitist-free era's ears, has a ring of truth to it.

  2. Keep in mind the form of Essays and Aphorisms is Hollingdale not Schopenhauer. The entire book is extracted from the second volume of Parerga and Paralipomena--the volume of Paralipomena. Schopenhauer describes it as "Single but systematically ordered thoughts on diverse subjects." The construction is very similar to Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals or Beyond Good and Evil. They are broken in to numbered sections, as short as a paragraph and as long as twenty pages or more. Like Nietzsche, the thoughts, while somewhat independent, are connected to form a larger argument or point of view.

    For some reason Hollingdale has completely missed this, as he believes that "the 'system' referred to in Schopenhauer's subtitle consists solely in collecting the aphorisms together under chapter headings according to subject matter." This is a good description of Hollingdale's book, but I think misses the overall direction and purpose of Schopenhauer's carefully composed Chapters.

    This unusual form has been even more troublesome for readers of Nietzsche, whose very quotable "aphorisms" taken out of their context are often very misleading and even contradict his overall argument.

  3. Schopenhauer's writings are so persuasive that no less a towering figure than Jorge Luis Borges himself wrote on his Poem of the Gifts:

    I'd like to thank the godly labyrinth of cause and effect
    For Schopenhauer who perhaps deciphered the universe.

  4. As one of the small people, I think that line is entirely correct. Not every big head will fit.

    I dealt with the Hollingdale / Schopenhauer collaboration in the first post in the series. Hollingdale was a serious Nietzsche scholar, so I will bet he did not miss the organization but rather thought it was not so important.

    humblehappiness, do you think Borges was persuaded by Schopenhauer? That is the central issue I have been nibbling on all week. I do not know the answer myself. I suspect a shared Gnosticism is at the root of the interest of Borges.

    1. Good question Tom. Whether Schopenhauer is the one who persuades you, or you come to your similar world-view from some other source depends on how old you are when you first read him. Borges was very young when he read him. He was barely out of his teens when he wrote about every bird being the same bird (an idea he got from Schopenhauer) and he also wrote a poem around the same time (that he later disowned) telling a girl that he loved her like the universal will dreams her.
      I too was very young when I read him, so now all of my religious beliefs come from Schopenhauer: i.e. that there is this universal Will that is dreaming all of us, and each of us is experiencing this dream as the Universe, and when we die we dissolve back into the Will we came from.

      Now, had I been born in India, I would have learned in my childhood that: 'Vishnu is the divine dreamer of the world dream. Vishnu sleeps on a great serpent, whose name is Ananta, which means Endless... Vishnu, the God, sleeps, and the activity of his mind stuff creates dreams, and we are all his dream: the world is Vishnu's dream. And just as, in your dreams, all the images that you behold and all the people who appear are really manifestations of your own dreaming power, so are we all manifestations of Vishnu's dreaming'. as Joseph Campbell wrote.

  5. A difficulty with writing about Schopenhauer is that I am writing about other people's religious beliefs but treating it is as literature, just as I would do writing about the Gospels or the Upanishads.

  6. I should have written spiritual beliefs and not religious, I'm sorry about that. Spirituality is just a bunch of things one thinks about from time to time, to feel better, knowing that they are both true and untrue at the same time; spirituality is not something one gets angry or offended about. As a matter of fact Schopenhauer had a very dim view about any religion:
    'The bad thing about all religions is that, instead of being able to confess their allegorical nature, they have to conceal it; accordingly, they parade their doctrines in all seriousness as true sensu proprio, and as absurdities form an essential part of these doctrines we have the great mischief of a continual fraud. Nay, what is worse, the day arrives when they are no longer true sensu proprio, and then there is an end of them; so that, in that respect, it would be better to admit their allegorical nature at once. But the difficulty is to teach the multitude that something can be both true and untrue at the same time. Since all religions are in a greater or less degree of this nature, we must recognise the fact that mankind cannot get on without a certain amount of absurdity, that absurdity is an element in its existence, and illusion indispensable; as indeed other aspects of life testify'.

  7. "mankind cannot get on without a certain amount of absurdity" - now that, in a phrase, is what I find most attractive about Schopenhauer!

    I might find a statement of purpose for fiction here as well - it "teaches" that "something can be both true and untrue at the same time."

  8. Some words of wisdom and some that make me say ouch. So if reading a lot is bad for our ability to think for ourselves, are we supposed to read only a few books? And I bet the books we do read should all be by some guy named Schopenhauer ;) Seriously though, he clearly believes reading is important, but where does he draw the line between just enough and too much?

  9. This makes me want to read more Schopenhauer. I take the first excerpt that you present to be compatible with reading aphorisms, which are a springboard to "thinking for yourself."

  10. I was genuinely impressed that Schopenhauer had such nice things to say about novels, that he took the art of the novel seriously (and theater, too). One could imagine a writer of his temperament rejecting novels. Schopenhauer comes across as a critical but enthusiastic reader.

    But then, where does he draw the line - good question! Based on his own behavior, he would seem to suggest setting aside time (on walks, say) for uncluttered thinking. Fewer books, but better absorption, I guess.

    Or perhaps Schopenhauer is arguing for intensive over extensive reading - a continual return to a small set of valuable texts, whatever they might be, rather than the neurotic search for novelty or completion that I do.

    praymont, that Schopenhauer advertisement you found is nuts!

    I think you are right, that Schopenhauer is in part discussing aphoristic writing. A deep understanding of one good sentence could trump a shallow understanding of an entire book.