Schopenhauer's Wit & Wisdom

The other day I spent a few minutes reading some of the aphorisms in Schopenhauer's Parerga And Paralipomena (2 volumes, Clarendon Press), and at one point I wondered why the investment of time was more entertaining than arduous. 

Why am I amused, for instance, when I read passages such as this:

"The ordinary use of the word person in all European languages for describing the human individual is unconsciously striking and to the point. For persona really means a mask as worn by actors; and it is certain that no one shows himself as he is, but everyone wears a mask and plays a part. Generally speaking, the whole of our social life is the continuous performance of a comedy. This renders it insipid for men of substance and merit, whereas blockheads take a real delight in it."

Or this:

"A misfortune for intellectual merit is that it has to wait until what is good is praised by those who themselves produce only what is bad...They do not know how to distinguish the genuine from the spurious, the oats from the chaff, gold from copper. They do not perceive the wide gulf between the ordinary and the rarest mind. No one is taken for what he is, but for what others make of him."

Or these three lines at the end of the second volume:

Wilt thou waste wit and wisdom to gain a retinue of men?

Give them what's good to gorge and guzzle,

And they will throng to thee in crowds.

We're as likely to be turned off by hard-bitten, censorious critics as we are to be attracted to them. Whenever I read H.L. Mencken, I cannot escape the fact that he's a clever verbalist, but I cannot count him among the wise because too often all he offers up is a show of nastiness and words. So his hatred is gowned in the silk of fine metaphors and imaginative put-downs; so what? What good are his fulminations if unaccompanied by rich insights into our nature and world? 

In the three passages above we get a taste of Schopenhauer's contempt for his fellow beings and a whiff of his arrogance. But his words are aimed at what he perceives is some flouting of the good and the true: in the first passage it is the hypocrisy of social convention; in the second it is the incapacity of culture to recognize and esteem merit; in the third it is the inclination of people to prefer cheap works to those with greater aesthetic value. I find that the philosopher's words must correspond to the severity of each social failing. I suspect, too, that these failings are transcultural. His Prussia is in large part my America, and my America is surely someone else's Belgium. And so I (and other readers) see the keen philosopher as the friend of our conscience: if we laugh at his aphorisms it is because we know that he's describing our society every bit as much as his own.

-- Tim Ruggiero (August 27, 2004)

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