About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Schopenhauer and the meaning of life

In my endless quest for wisdom, I've been reading Arthur Schopenhauer's “The Wisdom of Life,” an interesting little booklet that shows how the German philosopher really got a surprising number of things right (despite the occasional racist or misogynist comment, showing how hard it is to lift one's intellect above the prejudices of one's age).

Broadly speaking, Schopy argues that there are three factors that decide human happiness (though, typically, he starts the book by warning the reader that he actually thinks that human happiness is, in fact, an unattainable chimera): What one is, What one has, and How one is regarded by others. Of these, he claims the first one to be by far the most important and yet neglected, and the latter two by far the least relevant and yet those on which most of us spend an inordinate amount of time and energy.

A person's character, which Schopy thinks is shaped by a combination of birth (we would say genetics) and environmental circumstances, is crucial because “The world in which a man lives shapes itself chiefly by the way in which he looks at it,” which implies that “personality is the greatest factor in happiness.” This isn't too far from some recent discoveries in psychology hinting at a “set point” for people's happiness, evident for example in the fact that people who suffer debilitating injuries or win the lotto both go back to their pre-existing level of self-reported satisfaction with life after only a few months.

It also follows from Schopenhauer's argument that we should “make the most advantageous use possible of the personal qualities we possess” (e.g., seek a job that makes use of them, rather than just a way to make a living), and that “it is manifestly a wiser course to aim at the maintenance of our health and the cultivation of our faculties, than at the amassing of wealth,” even though “still men are a thousand times more intent on becoming rich than on acquiring culture.” The latter statement also anticipates recent research showing that the intuitive positive relationship between wealth and happiness breaks down after certain basic needs are taken care of, and that even in the US the breaking point beyond which money makes little difference to one's happiness is surprisingly low. Schopy got to that conclusion by an insightful observation of human nature, more than a century before modern cognitive science. Not bad for an old curmudgeon who didn't believe people could be happy.


  1. He prefered to be called "Master Schopy". But anyway, this is a great choice of topics. Alain De Botton is an author who has written books covering this very subject. One is "Status Anxiety", another "The Consolations of Philosophy". Both were made into documentaries which I thought were fascinating. And Botton focused on Schopy's three factors of human happiness.

    In my own experience - I actually won a few Trumps (the new US currency) on the lottery when I was 19, a bad age for money management. The thrill lasted only a few weeks as I planned what to do with the winnings. In the end I used it to fund my film school project. But I was soon back to my old depressed self. Although I did have fun making the movie.

    I guess wanting is more pleasing than having, but having is not as pleasing as doing what you love.

    Clearly, the mind needs more stimulation than we think. (Sounds circular). Again, great topic. Thank you for posting it.

  2. Yes, thanks for the post and for bringing my attention to that piece of work. I'm a long-time reader of your blog but I've never commented before. I enjoy the topics you discuss and I like your writing style as well.

    I'm sure I'll enjoy "The Wisdom of Life" as well. I seem to be always discussing Schopy in some context in my blog called Dasein & Dharma

    My blog is a chronicle of my attempt to live with a naturalistic worldview; i.e., no God, no Free Will, no self/soul, and no ultimate meaning or purpose to life.

    Stop by and check it out when you have a chance. I'm always interested in having thoughtful people join the discussion there.


  3. The king of pessimism, yes? philosophically, what do you think of pessimism and cynicism?

  4. I'm too much of an incurable optimist to consider them seriously... :)

  5. haha incurable. i like that.

  6. hmmm... so does anybody think we should give all that excess wealth to charity or to the government instead of hoarding it for ourselves? opinions? :) Peter Singer seems to think so.


  7. exceess wealth to charity - great idea! To government - bad idea. Giving excess wealth to goverment actually lowers the over all wealth.

    Take a thousand dollars and help someone you know. They will benifit by exactly one thousand dollars. Take a thousand dollars and give it to the government and ask it to help that same person. Will they still receive the benifit of one thousand dollars?

  8. "Take a thousand dollars and give it to the government and ask it to help that same person. Will they still receive the benifit of one thousand dollars?"

    It depends. Some government programs are a waste, others are a huge investment in social futures, so that $1000 may actually be much better invested if you give it to a government. It's the same with giving money to private charities: some of them don't use it very efficiently, others do the kind of job that simply couldn't be done if you gave the money directly to, say, a single refugee from Sudan.

  9. For my part I believe that people with more money than others are happier than the others who have less money.

    For example, I am happier than other people in the neighborhood with less money.

    However, it is all up to how we regard money. In my case I don't live more ostentatiously than others who have less money, and I believe that makes me more happy than others who don't have as much money as myself.

    Why am I happier than others who have less money, everything else being equal in terms of ostentatious expenditure and lifestyle? because I am more secure than those with less money.

    I don't flaunt my more money by overt display, but I feel and am more secure and more free and more relaxed from worry and tension than others with less money.

    The knowledge itself that I have more money than others within my peer group, that is already an enjoyable mood; and that is certainly a part of happiness which I think people with less money does not have.

    Take this particular situation: I always buy anything I need in cash, but others have to pay on installment which means more worry and tension that in turn compromises their happiness.

    Another example, every start of the school year, I am not in trouble where to get money for enrolling my kids because I have the money, but my neighbors for having less money they have to seek financing anywhere and anyhow they can find it -- that certainly is not going to be happy for them. I however feel happy or secure or swell -- and God forgive me but I also thank God for the more money that I have earned from my honest work and by his goodness and mercy.

    Summing up: in any peer group, say, in the same neighborhood, people with more money are happier than people with less money; but and this is the very big but, don't flaunt your more money around with ostentatious expenditure and lifestyle, because you will end up more tense and worried and never feel you have sufficiently enough to continue with being ahead in lifestyle pomp.

    What about having as much money as Bill Gates? I certainly would like to have the kind of money Bill Gates has, if only I were as smart as Bill Gates and as lucky.

    If people think that Bill Gates is not happier than the average guy in the middle class neighborhood, then I think that is a consolation for the latters; but for me I sure will welcome the kind of money Bill Gates has, and I am absolutely sure that I will be very very much happier, if for nothing else than the knowledge that I can fly to Paris anytime I want and in personal luxurious style, and not have to line up to check in like everyone else at the common airport.

    And no, I won't be foolish to get myself into all kinds of tension, worry, and trouble only fools with a lot of money and no brains and no wisdom do.

    And that is the big difference between really rich folks like those Vanderbilt guys and Bill Gates, and people who don't really know wealth and how to control it instead of being controlled by wealth.

    About dying, it is certainly better and happier to die rich than to die poor; you don't believe that? Well, don't believe it, but go to the hospital and see how rich people die and how poor or not as rich people die.

    Important thing however is not to die like everyone else does die, but to live in wealth while one lives and not everyone else does live in wealth.

    So it is a consolation for the people with no wealth to feel some soothing compensation that everyone dies, even the rich folks. And what a consolation?

    Forgive me, but I still choose if given a choice to die rich and of course most important to live rich.


  10. Totally unrelated, but it would be awesome if the RS team could add three things to this blog to make it even better: a search function, archives by topic as well as date, and a social media share widget (especially to share via Twitter).

  11. to Gerry about happiness and money, Lao Tsu wrote about 2500 years ago: " If your Happiness depends on Money you will never be Happy with yourself. If you realize you have enough you are truly rich.." March 22, 2014


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