Although everything that Schopenhauer wrote was written more or less as evidence to support his main philosophical thesis, his unifying philosophical principle, the essays in this volume have an interest, if not altogether apart, at least of a sufficiently independent interest to enable them to be considered on their own merits, without relation to his main idea. And in dissociating them, if one may do so for a moment (their author would have scarcely permitted it!), one feels that one enters a field of criticism in which opinions can scarcely vary. So far as his philosophy is concerned, this unanimity does not exist; he is one of the best abused amongst philosophers; he has many times been explained and condemned exhaustively, and no doubt this will be as many times repeated. What the trend of his underlying philosophical principal was, his metaphysical explanation of the world, is indicated in almost all the following essays, but chiefly in the "Metaphysics of Love," to which the reader may be referred.
These essays are a valuable criticism of life by a man who had a wide experience of life, a man of the world, who possessed an almost inspired faculty of observation. Schopenhauer, of all men, unmistakably observed life at first hand. There is no academic echo in his utterances; he is not one of a school; his voice has no formal intonation; it is deep, full-chested, and rings out its words with all the poignancy of individual emphasis, without bluster, but with unfailing conviction. He was for his time, and for his country, an adept at literary form; but he used it only as a means. Complicated as his sentences ...
The contents of this, as of the other volumes in the series, have been drawn from Schopenhauer's Parerga, and amongst the various subjects dealt with in that famous collection of essays, Literature holds an important place. Nor can Schopenhauer's opinions fail to be of special value when he treats of literary form and method. For, quite apart from his philosophical pretensions, he claims recognition as a great writer; he is, indeed, one of the best of the few really excellent prose-writers of whom Germany can boast. While he is thus particularly qualified to speak of Literature as an Art, he has also something to say upon those influences which, outside of his own merits, contribute so much to an author's success, and are so often undervalued when he obtains immediate popularity. Schopenhauer's own sore experiences in the matter of reputation lend an interest to his remarks upon that subject, although it is too much to ask of human nature that he should approach it in any dispassionate spirit.
In the following pages we have observations upon style by one who was a stylist in the best sense of the word, not affected, nor yet a phrasemonger; on thinking for oneself by a philosopher who never did anything else; on criticism by a writer who suffered much from the inability of others to understand him; on reputation by a candidate who, during the greater part of his life, deserved without obtaining it; and on genius by one who was incontestably of the privileged order himself. And whatever may be thought of some of his opinions on matters of detail—on anonymity, for instance, or on the question whether good work is never done for money—there can be no doubt that his general view of literature, and the conditions under which it flourishes, is perfectly sound.
It might be thought, perhaps, that remarks which were meant to apply to the German language would have but little bearing upon one so different from it as English. This would be a just objection if Schopenhauer treated literature in a petty spirit, and confined himself to pedantic inquiries into matters of grammar and etymology, or mere niceties of phrase. But this is not so. He deals with his subject broadly, and takes large and general views; nor can anyone who knows anything of the philosopher suppose this to mean that he is vague and feeble. It is true that now and again in the course of these essays he makes remarks which are obviously meant to apply to the failings of certain writers of his own age and country; but in such a case I have generally given his sentences a turn, which, while keeping them faithful to the spirit of the original, secures for them a less restricted range, and makes Schopenhauer a critic of similar faults in whatever age or country they may appear. This has been done in spite of a sharp word on page seventeen of this volume, addressed to translators who dare to revise their author; but the change is one with which not even Schopenhauer could quarrel.
If my object in these pages were to present a complete scheme of counsels and maxims for the guidance of life, I should have to repeat the numerous rules—some of them excellent—which have been drawn up by thinkers of all ages, from Theognis and Solomon down to La Rochefoucauld; and, in so doing, I should inevitably entail upon the reader a vast amount of well-worn commonplace. But the fact is that in this work I make still less claim to exhaust my subject than in any other of my writings.
[Footnote 1: I refer to the proverbs and maxims ascribed, in the Old
Testament, to the king of that name.]
An author who makes no claims to completeness must also, in a great measure, abandon any attempt at systematic arrangement. For his double loss in this respect, the reader may console himself by reflecting that a complete and systematic treatment of such a subject as the guidance of life could hardly fail to be a very wearisome business. I have simply put down those of my thoughts which appear to be worth communicating—thoughts which, as far as I know, have not been uttered, or, at any rate, not just in the same form, by any one else; so that my remarks may be taken as a supplement to what has been already achieved in the immense field.
However, by way of introducing some sort of order into the great variety of matters upon which advice will be given in the following pages, I shall distribute what I have to say under the following heads: (1) general rules; (2) our relation to ourselves; (3) our relation to others; and finally, (4) rules which concern our manner of life and our worldly circumstances. I shall conclude with some remarks on the changes which the various periods of life produce in us.