In Praise of Solitude: Stachelschweine in der Kälte

Perhaps you ‘ve heard of Schopenhauer’s cold porcupine/hedgehog dilemma.  Therein the poor creatures, analogous to we shivering masses — in need of what society has to offer, huddle together for warmth.  Of course, the pricks of proximity drive them again away from one another and so an equilibrium is reached where both cold and pricking are minimised.  My reading of Schopenhauer finds the negative qualities given central roles — we do not find a good in society as good is merely the absence of bad, happiness the absence of suffering.  And so, as the title Studies in Pessimism should warn the reader, goodness’ solidity is no match for the harshness of its more effective counterpart.

Having heard the parable before, I was surprised to find his intended point: not that it is best to find this equilibrium, but it is best to have an internal source of heat.  What interests is the non-hopeful idealism this elicits, in myself at least.  The goings-on of these pigs-with-spikes is of little immediate interest — it is to the pig of a different sort Schopenhauer beckons.

Ordinary people are sociable and complaisant just from the very opposite feeling;—to bear others’ company is easier for them than to bear their own…

…people are rendered sociable by their ability to endure solitude, that is to say, their own society.  

Our Relation to Ourselves

Here too he goes on to discuss people crowding together for warmth and to aver that this sociability which develops is not worth the condescension imposed on this singular person.  “It may be said that a man’s sociability stands very nearly in inverse ratio to his intellectual value.”



Not so long ago, I would have agreed.  I still wish to uphold the value of a cultivated solitude (for in a noisy, inter-networked world maintaining the state necessary for concentration is no small feat), but it must also be helpful to some portion of the others.  It is not acceptable only to be a man apart, capable of self-produced warmth but not of diffusing such heat.  In such a state the good which might be attained is lost — bottled up inside the (perhaps) happy but incommunicable soul.  It is not enough that Socrates pursued the true path if the markers left behind cannot be followed.  Surely not all (likely most) society is worthy of our time, but the good must be communicated else no lasting progress be effected.

In sum, solitude is not merely a worthy pastime and a potential joy but its benefits are insufferable if they are to never be offered (in some adjusted socialisation) to others who shiver as well.

Noise – Noxia – Nausea

Engulfed.  A sea of noise drowns out all competitors and so plunges thoughts below the surface.  Be carried by the current or struggle against it at your peril.

My wife won’t stand for commercials.  They grate on her classically trained ears.  I feel my best chance of returning to the ‘sunlit lands’ above the waves is to ignore them.

We each have cultivated sensitivities which require focus, and focus must be protected.  As Schopenhauer relates, a diamond divided into shards loses all value.  So too with thought or the serenity which accompanies its careful manifestations.

The city is no friend of the sound-sensitive, or smell- or sight-sensitive for that matter, but we are on the subject of sound.  For Schopenhauer, it was the heedless and unceasing cracking of whips — a sound which paralyses the brain.  Its current counterpart would be the car-horn: counterintuitively it demands another go when the sound screams halt.  And so it has not the desired effect, resulting in a chorus of replying honks.  Or, an incomprehensible blaring of directions must be shouted at us until the warning it is meant to deliver is blocked out with all other such noisea.

As a teacher I have well marked that my best chance of regaining control of the classroom is not to shout over the students, but to grow quieter and firmly signal my intent to speak.  A nudge effects more than a shove, unless we are living in a world of shoves.


But thought, if it is to be fruitful and worthy of discourse, must be checked and re-checked.  New pathways must be explored and old ones unearthed.  Most cultural output is too ready to speak and shows it has not listened.  It cannot listen for it is merely shouting over the din and so becoming part of this oceanic violence.

Getting our attention for a fraction of a moment is considered just cause for violating our peace.  My thought and your thought is not worth protecting when profit is to be made.  It is everyone’s job to entertain us long enough to be marketed to.

But books are little better.  Publishers, academic or otherwise, are less interested in the value of their product and its usefulness to the audience than in making a profit despite technological challenges.

That which is most helpful often is whispered, not shouted, and for the listener ear and ground must draw closer.  But so long as profit is to be made from noise it must remain the primary occupation of thinkers to escape long enough to produce something.

In Want of Style: Teaching Writing and Talking Schop

The result of all this is that thoughts put on paper are nothing more than footsteps in the sand: you see the way the man has gone, but to know what he saw on his walk, you want his eyes.

~A. Schopenhauer, ‘On Books and Reading’ (an online version of which can be found here)

Teaching writing horrendously frustrates — especially when I am unsure how I learnt to do any of this, if I learnt at all.  While I can’t help beaming as I lead these pups along to the home away from home of the bibliophile, I wonder if I ‘ve done more than show where the library lies.  While I question to what extent I truly want these students gazing through my eyes, I particularly feel the strain of Schopenhauer’s next lines:

There is no quality of style that can be gained by reading writers who possess it… But if these qualities are already in us, exist, that is to say, potentially, we can call them forth and bring them to consciousness; we can learn the purposes to which they can be put; we can be strengthened in our inclination to use them, or get courage to do so; we can judge by examples the effect of applying them, and so acquire the correct use of them; and of course it is only when we have arrived at that point that we actually possess these qualities.  The only way in which reading can form style is by teaching us the use to which we can put our own natural gifts.

~ibidem, emphasis mine

Autobiographically, how else do I understand anything, I can see this.  Until I was willing to stop admiring words or imagery and try to ‘look along’, as per an essay of C.S. Lewis’ I have largely forgotten, at what the author was seeing I could write nothing worth my own reading.  Funny that there is no way for me to judge my own reading but only by output — by what thoughts can be born onto the page and borne by them.  The same for my students — I only know the qualities of their reading by their writing much as we detect life by looking for movement (as Schopenhauer relates of Aristotle).

My own reading was dead for a long time, not merely because of the faults in my writing.  It was n’t until I found something worth reading, Till We Have Faces is my preferred culprit, until I felt life and thus a renewed movement that I could want to wield these shoddy limbs; not till I scratched out poorly enough to be told the lacks of quality in my work that any chance of dis-covering such ‘inclinations’ as A.S. speaks of.  Once I needed to hear, I had to learn to ask how to hear better, ask to go over it again — needed to speak until I did n’t cringe at the dust in my throat anymore.

The courage to find courage, it seems, may come later for my students.  I almost feel they need to be starved of reading, of speaking, of writing until they will learn to listen — for what I ‘m not allowed to know, or it is n’t worth listening for.  And then, then perhaps they can begin to scrawl in the dirt, shout silence to passersby, and follow the sight lines not the footsteps.  Reading cannot lend form to style until style fails to matter — until I need to commune deeply with something rather than starve, as beggar or welcomed guest.  And such a thing can surely not be inherited or mimicked; only lived.

Pebbles in the revered boots of authors preserved in rows await discovery, but one must yet be weary enough to travel.  We too shall be forgotten.

One final note, lest I forget the cheer of trying to summarize Orwell or am misinterpreted for being too optimistic:

Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are.

~George Orwell, ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’ (1946) [also by way of:]

Intros to European Philosophy: Schopenhauer


Previously read: nyet

Key texts: World as Will and Idea, the (abr.)

Overall impression: There was a bit more here than I expected, but by this point I really wanted to get through to Nietzsche (to be fair, anyone but Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, or Heidegger was going to disappoint after Hegel).  Schopenhauer still managed to pass on some thoughts worthy of reflection.  The pendulum was rebalancing toward action/will and that makes sense, but there is n’t an acceptable cosmology remaining if we take Schopenhauer’s premisses.


On succession in time:

  • “Succession is the form of the principle of sufficient reason in time, and succession is the whole nature of time. (European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche, ed. M. Beardsley: p. 652)”  How are we to know that this is truly the case?  Experience suggests that this is all we may meaningfully speak of, but it may not be all that is truly experienced in time, only that which is perceived.

`That is, we can argue that we experience time according to succession, but could time have depth in some sense we are incapable of experiencing at present?

What is there for a skeptic to do but attack?

“Since however, and this cannot be too much emphasized, there is absolutely no relation according to the principle of sufficient reason between subject and object, neither of these views could be proved, and therefore skepticism attacked them both with success. (European Philosophers, p. 653)”

`Such is the ‘foolish controversy about the reality of the outer world’.

Fichte’s subjective presumption subjected to the object:

“Materialism overlooked the fact that, with the simplest object, it assumed the subject also; and Fichte overlooked the fact that with the subject (whatever he may call it) he assumed the object also, for no subject is thinkable without an object… (ibidem, p. 659)”

`Seems a reasonable enough critique.

Ratio femina (not going to pretend that ‘s upstanding Latin…)

“Reason is feminine in nature; it can only give after it has received.  Of itself it has nothing but the empty forms of its operation.  There is no absolutely pure rational knowledge except the four principles to which I have attributed metalogical truth; the principles of identity, contradiction, excluded middle, and sufficient reason of knowledge. (European Philosophers, p. 660)”

`Eh, this hardly seems a robust feminine concept.  The idea is striking, perhaps because it is offensive.  The denial of (most) pure rational knowledge is helpful – the others are products of intuition in my view.

Will and body: united yet given according to different perceptions —

“Every true act of [the subject of knowledge’s] will is also at once and without exception a movement of his body.  The act of will and the movement of the body are not two different things objectively known, which the bond of causality unites; they do not stand in the relation of cause and effect; they are one and the same, but they are given in entirely different ways – immediately, and again in perception for the understanding. (ibidem, p. 666)”

Few theoretical items can be refuted…less theoretical egoism:

“Theoretical egoism can never be demonstrably refuted, yet in philosophy it has never been used otherwise than as skeptical sophism, i.e., a pretence.  As a serious conviction, on the other hand, it could only be found in a madhouse, and as such it stands in need of a cure rather than a refutation. (p. 667)”

`Perhaps more foolishness should be so handled – not by further provocation but by some more caring means.

And we ‘ll conclude with Spinoza:

“Spinoza (Letter 62) says that if a stone which has been projected through the air had consciousness, it would believe that it was moving of its own will.  I add to this only that the stone would be right. (European Philosophy, p. 673)”

`The ‘quality’ or necessity or force impelling the stone is, for Schopenhauer that which is called in humans ‘character’.  When perceived momentarily, it is called will (ibidem, p. 674).  The force, or tendency, is meaningless apart from the relation in time; ‘take the earth away and the stone will not fall’.

“Thus the law of causality is essentially bound up with that of the permanence of substance; they reciprocally derive significance from each other.  Time and space, again, are related to them in the same way. (ibidem, p. 675)”