The art of knowing yourself

Work by Arthur Schopenhauer - Extract from the original text published by Adelphi


Arthur Schopenhauer

Introduction by Franco Volpi Know yourself! Self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom. Know yourself! it is the teaching of life attributed to one of the Seven Sages, perhaps even a precept of divine origin for self-realization. It was inscribed at the entrance to the temple of Apollo of Delph, the navel of the world, the point where two eagles freed by Jupiter at the ends of the earth, and headed for its center, had met. At the same time it is the maxim on which the life lesson that philosophy has always intended to impart is hinged: All men have the possibility of knowing themselves as Heraclitus already affirms. But it is above all Socrates who makes the art of knowing oneself the cornerstone of all philosophical wisdom, as Plato testifies in the Major Alcibiades. It is no coincidence that in the iconographic tradition wisdom will often be represented as a female figure who holds in her hand the precious instrument in which it is possible to look at oneself and to know oneself: the mirror. Yet self-knowledge is also Narcissus's mistake. The vain retreat on oneself of those who, in love with their own beauty, see only themselves and are unable to enter into a relationship with reality. In this sense, knowing only oneself means remaining a prisoner of one's own image. Over the centuries, the motif of self-knowledge, in its double value, reaches up to the modern age, where it is taken up and developed especially by moralistic, up to Goethe, who is skeptical about the divine origin of the motto of the figure, convinced as is his deceit. Schopenhauer draws the reason for self-knowledge precisely from moralistic, as well as, of course, from his enviable familiarity with classical culture, but he does not limit himself to treating it in the abstract: he practices it as a concrete wisdom of life.

THE ART OF KNOWING YOURSELF Yes, at a time when the youth of my imagination still populated the world with beings similar to me, I had a certain propensity for sociability when the natural instinct for sociability, the desire to trust and the sincere need to experience still balanced each other. with nausea for mankind. With the passage to maturity, the experience gained strengthened this repulsive force and weakened the other. Since then, I have gradually acquired an eye that reflects loneliness, I have become systematically misanthropic and have proposed to dedicate the rest of this transient life solely to myself, losing as little as possible with those creatures who, due to the circumstance of having two legs, they feel legitimate to consider us similar to them; or that, while realizing, as happens most of the time, that we are not, they feel wisely authorized to ignore it and to treat us as their kind; while we, already afflicted by the fact that they are not, must also feel the pain of being wronged. In a world where at least five sixths of men are rogues, fools, or suckers, for each individual of the remaining sixth, the more he distinguishes himself from the others, the basis of his way of life must be secluded existence, and the more so it is. , so much the better. The belief that the world is a hermitage in which society must not be taken into account must become a sensation and a habit. Just as the walls limit the gaze, which then returns to dilate when it has only fields and countryside in front of it, so society limits my mind and loneliness dilates it again.

What has been an impediment to me in concrete life, always and everywhere, is that, except at an advanced age, I have not been able to form a sufficient concept of the pettiness and misery of men. In every epoch there has been in civilized nations a lineage of natural monks, people who, conscious of possessing superior intellectual abilities, have placed their training and exercise before every other good, and therefore led a contemplative life, that is active in a spiritual sense, the fruits of which then went to the benefit of humanity. They have consequently renounced wealth, earnings, earthly fame, having a family of their own: this is what the law of compensation dictates. The noblest class by hierarchy of humanity, whose recognition anyone honors himself, renounces the common nobility with a certain external humility, similar to that of monks. The world is their monastery, their hermitage. What one can be for the other has very narrow limits: basically everyone is and remains alone. It is therefore a question of understanding who is alone. If I were a king, as far as I am concerned I would not give any other command than this with so much frequency and insistence: leave me alone! People like me should live in the illusion of being the only man on a desert planet, and make a virtue of necessity. Most people realize, from the moment they make my acquaintance, that it can be nothing for me, and I nothing for them. Having a higher degree of conscience, therefore a higher existence, my wisdom of life consists in keeping the enjoyment of it pure and unperturbed, and for this purpose, not expecting anything else.

Therefore it is already a great deal if with age and experience a clear vision of the entire moral and intellectual misery of men in general is finally reached. So you are no longer tempted to get involved beyond what is necessary, you no longer live continuously in a dilemma like that between thirst and a disgusting herbal tea, you no longer allow yourself to be led into illusions and to think men as you would like them to be, keeping instead always well present as I am. I got used to putting up with a lot from men, because I soon realized that I couldn't act otherwise if I somehow wanted to deal with them. But this maxim is formed in youth, when one needs a relationship with others. Experience and maturity make it superfluous, and it would therefore be crazy to win it back at the price of infinite patience. It is better, as Goethe says, to abandon all these people to God, to themselves, to the devil. If you don't want to be a toy in the hands of any boy or the laughing stock of every madman, the first rule is: stay buttoned!

What my peers think and feel is nothing like what they think and feel. Therefore it is better for me to remain hermetically closed in myself. The right tone towards them is irony; but an irony without any affectation, calm, which does not betray itself. It should never be directed at the one you are talking to. Never having stopped practicing it, I consider it a personal victory every time. One must get used to listening to anything, even the craziest, in all calm, considering the insignificance of the speaker and his opinion, and avoiding any conflict. This way, you can later rethink the scene with a sense of self-satisfaction. The whole must always be kept in mind: if you stop at the detail, it is easy to make mistakes and you only have a wrong view of things. You will never be able to judge the course of a river by this or that bend. You don't have to pay attention to the success or failure of the moment, and the impression they arouse. From how others behave towards us we must not infer and learn who we are, but who they are. In the latter sense we can observe their behavior with coldness, in the first no. In a two-way conversation, usually each makes fun of the other to some extent. Therefore, in every moment of cold rationality he will rethink with a feeling of triumph at every moment of irony, with shame at every sentimental outpouring. One must never indulge in the pleasure of speaking in order to speak, because loquacity is transformed into frankness. Just observe how different the face one makes while listening to us is from the one he makes when he speaks to us.

Most men are seduced by a beautiful face; in fact, nature induces them to marry by making the women show their full splendor all at once, that is ... make a hit and instead hides the many troubles they will have later on: never ending expenses, worries for the children, a curmudgeon, stubbornness, aging and souring within a few years, deceit, coma, tantrums, hysterics, lovers, devils and hell. I therefore define marriage as a debt contracted in youth and paid in old age, and I refer to Baltasar Graciàn who calls a forty-year-old a camel only because he has a wife and children. In fact, the usual goal of the so-called career of young men is only to become a woman's beasts of burden. For the best of them, usually, the wife passes only through a youthful sin. The free time they gain for their women by toiling all day is a commodity that the philosopher needs for himself. The married man carries all the weight of life on his shoulders, the unmarried man only half: those who dedicate themselves to the muses must be part of the last class. Hence it will be found that nearly all the verifiers have remained bachelors, such as Descartes, Leibniz, Malebranche, Spinoza and Kant. The ancients do not fall into the category, because in those days women had a subordinate position; after all, the penalties of Socrates are known, and Aristotle was a court tutor. The great poets, on the other hand, were all married, and unhappy. Shakespeare, even, with a double pair of horns. Husbands are more often than not Papageno in reverse: as in Papageno (The Magic Flute) it happens that an old woman is transformed with miraculous speed into a young girl, so it happens to married men, just as quickly, that a young girl transforms herself into a young woman. in an old woman.

Most men are like the fruits of the horse chestnut: they look like real chestnuts but they are not edible. In the Kural of Tiruvalluvar it says: Common people have the appearance of human beings; I have never seen something so human-like! Many are an amalgam of wickedness and stupidity, traits that are difficult to distinguish in them. Goethe wrote: If you want to enjoy what you are worth, you must value the world you live in. Chamfort: It is better to leave men as they are than to take them for what they are not. Nothing is richer than a great self! Almost every contact with human beings is a contamination. They are of such a fact that the wisest of all is the one who has had as little to do with them during his life as possible. We must be fully convinced, and always keep it in mind, that we have descended into a world populated by morally and intellectually miserable beings of which we are not a part, and of which therefore we must in every way avoid company. One must consider and behave like a brahmin between sudra and pariah. The few higher beings, insofar as they are, are to be esteemed and honored. As for the others, we were born to teach them, not to be in their company. We must get used to considering them as a species alien to us, which is only the matter of our work. We must meditate daily on their moral and intellectual misery, proposing that we do not need them and keep away from them. Since the lowest and the worst are still our fellowmen in many respects, physical and moral, they will constantly try to highlight them, putting instead in the background what we are best for. And since they only have consideration for strength and power, they must either be rendered harmless or avoided. Because of the envy inherent in human nature, it is fatal for those who are dull and unintelligent to harbor a latent dislike for those who are mentally superior.

The wicked and the outcast will feel the same for the honest and the noble, though they sometimes take advantage and relief from these objects of their latent hatred and therefore, temporarily, seek them out. Similarly, those who always seek in others, but in vain, the same nobility of feelings and the same degree of clarity of intelligence that they possess, in the end cannot but begin to tacitly despise them. From this depends the double isolation of every sublime individual, of which the bipedal pretends not to see the superiority, when he has noticed it, with the same instinct with which an insect pretending to be dead, hides it from itself. The macroscopic difference between beings similar to me and others rests largely on the fact that the former have a pressing need that the latter ignore, and whose satisfaction would indeed be to their detriment: the need for free time to think and to study. This even changes the moral criterion for judging men similar to me, although Pericles is right when at the point of death he says that no merit in the end counterbalances a bad conscience. I therefore believe with the ancients, with Socrates and Aristotle that free time is the greatest good on this earth. When a being like me is born, the only thing desirable from the outside is that for his entire life, every day and every hour, he is himself as much as possible and lives for the good of his spirit. But it is difficult to satisfy this need in a world where the fate and destination of man are very different, and where we must make a course, as between Scylla and Charybdis, between the poverty that takes away all our free time, and the wealth that tends in every way to spoil it and steal it from us. Nature determines the fate of man, work during the day, rest at night, and very little free time, and his happiness, that is, his wife and children, which are a consolation to him in life and at the point of death. But where an abnormal constitution generates great spiritual needs and therefore the possibility of great spiritual pleasures, then free time becomes the main condition of happiness, and in exchange for it one is ready to give up the normal human happiness made up of wife and children. The individual of this kind belongs to another sphere. However, a condition for satisfying this different need are some external circumstances that occur very rarely.

A propitious destiny must be at work here, bringing extraordinary circumstances to an extraordinary nature. In the life of most men we find a certain pattern which, so to speak, is already drawn by their nature and by the circumstances that guide them. However alternate and changeable the events of life may be, in the end a certain coherence of the whole is revealed. We see the hand of a determined destiny, however secretly it acts: moved by an external action or by an internal drive; even conflicting motives often turn in his direction. I think with Tommaso da Kempis: Whenever I have been among human beings, I have returned less of a man. Admittedly, Goethe affirms that the dialogue of even greater relief than light. However, it is better not to talk at all rather than having such a grim and cloying conversation as the one usually has with bipedes: in it three quarters of what one thinks of saying should not be said for reasons as trivial as necessary, and the conversation is in fact nothing more than a painful tightrope walk on the fine line of what one is allowed to say without danger. As a rule, every dialogue, with the exception of that with a friend and beloved, leaves an unpleasant aftertaste, a slight disturbance of inner peace. Instead, every occupation of the mind with itself has the effect of a beneficial resonance. If I hang out with people, I get opinions that are mostly wrong, flat or untruthful and expressed in the poor language of their spirit. If I entertain myself with Nature, it offers, true and sincere, the entire essence of all the things it speaks of, clearly visible and inexhaustible, and speaks to me in the language of my spirit. My thoughts and how to communicate them are a matter that is very close to my heart. But this usually does not happen in bipedes: in their free thinking and speaking there is no real interest, and their taking part lacks ardor because they let themselves be fully involved in it. Therefore they always pay a lot of attention to the surrounding environment, so much so that I can't even imagine immediately. While my gaze is fixed on one point, theirs wanders, and any disturbing noise is welcome. Therefore, I can never consider men my fellowmen, especially when for example I see them shouting senselessly or listening to the barking of dogs or tender canaries.

All the surprising and striking examples of wickedness, wickedness, betrayal, triviality, envy, stupidity and perversity that one has to undergo and endure should not be thrown away, but used as feeds misanthropiae. They must be continually recalled and recalled in order to always have before their eyes the real qualities of men and not to compromise in any way with them. In fact, it will be found that we had often frequented those with whom we had such experiences for years without our believing them capable of much, and therefore it was only the occasion that allowed us to distinguish them. When you begin to get acquainted with someone, you always have to think that once you get to know them better, they should probably be despised or hated. I've always hoped to die well. In fact, those who have lived all their life in solitude will know how to deal with this solitary matter better than others. Instead of the antics commensurate with the miserable ability of the bipedes, I will end my days in the happy awareness of returning to where I came from with so many talents in dowry, and of having fulfilled my mission.

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