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Arthur Schopenhauer

German Philosopher


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Narrated by Michael Prichard

Download mp3 file: Thinking for Oneself

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The largest library in disorder is not so useful as a smaller but orderly one; in the same way the greatest amount of knowledge, if it has not been worked out in one's own mind, is of less value than a much smaller amount that has been fully considered. For it is only when a man combines what he knows from all sides, and compares one truth with another, that he completely realises his own knowledge and gets it into his power. A man can only think over what he knows, therefore he should learn something; but a man only knows what he has pondered.

A man can apply himself of his own free will to reading and learning, while he cannot to thinking. Thinking must be kindled like a fire by a draught and sustained by some kind of interest in the subject. This interest may be either of a purely objective nature or it may be merely subjective. The latter exists in matters concerning us personally, but objective interest is only to be found in heads that think by nature, and to whom thinking is as natural as breathing; but they are very rare. This is why there is so little of it in most men of learning.

Reading is thinking with some one else's head instead of one's own. But to think for oneself is to endeavour to develop a coherent whole, a system, even if it is not a strictly complete one. Nothing is more harmful than, by dint of continual reading, to strengthen the current of other people's thoughts. These thoughts, springing from different minds, belonging to different systems, bearing different colours, never flow together of themselves into a unity of thought, knowledge, insight, or conviction, but rather cram the head with a Babylonian confusion of tongues; consequently the mind becomes overcharged with them and is deprived of all clear insight and almost disorganised. This condition of things may often be discerned in many men of learning, and it makes them inferior in sound understanding, correct judgment, and practical tact to many illiterate men, who, by the aid of experience, conversation, and a little reading, have acquired a little knowledge from without, and made it always subordinate to and incorporated it with their own thoughts.

The scientific thinker also does this to a much greater extent. Although he requires much knowledge and must read a great deal, his mind is nevertheless strong enough to overcome it all, to assimilate it, to incorporate it with the system of his thoughts, and to subordinate it to the organic relative unity of his insight, which is vast and ever-growing. By this means his own thought, like the bass in an organ, always takes the lead in everything, and is never deadened by other sounds, as is the case with purely antiquarian minds; where all sorts of musical passages, as it were, run into each other, and the fundamental tone is entirely lost.

The works of all really capable minds are distinguished from all other works by a character of decision and definiteness, and, in consequence, of lucidity and clearness. This is because minds like these know definitely and clearly what they wish to express—whether it be in prose, in verse, or in music. Other minds are wanting in this decision and clearness, and therefore may be instantly recognised.

The characteristic sign of a mind of the highest standard is the directness of its judgment. Everything it utters is the result of thinking for itself; this is shown everywhere in the way it gives expression to its thoughts. Therefore it is, like a prince, an imperial director in the realm of intellect. All other minds are mere delegates, as may be seen by their style, which has no stamp of its own.

Hence every true thinker for himself is so far like a monarch; he is absolute, and recognises nobody above him. His judgments, like the decrees of a monarch, spring from his own sovereign power and proceed directly from himself. He takes as little notice of authority as a monarch does of a command; nothing is valid unless he has himself authorised it. On the other hand, those of vulgar minds, who are swayed by all kinds of current opinions, authorities, and prejudices, are like the people which in silence obey the law and commands.

The presence of a thought is like the presence of our beloved. We imagine we shall never forget this thought, and that this loved one could never be indifferent to us. But out of sight out of mind! The finest thought runs the risk of being irrevocably forgotten if it is not written down, and the dear one of being forsaken if we do not marry her.

There are many thoughts which are valuable to the man who thinks them; but out of them only a few which possess strength to produce either repercussion or reflex action, that is, to win the reader's sympathy after they have been written down. It is what a man has thought out directly for himself that alone has true value. Thinkers may be classed as follows: those who, in the first place, think for themselves, and those who think directly for others. The former thinkers are the genuine, _they think for themselves_ in both senses of the word; they are the true _philosophers_; they alone are in earnest. Moreover, the enjoyment and happiness of their existence consist in thinking. The others are the sophists; they wish to seem, and seek their happiness in what they hope to get from other people; their earnestness consists in this. To which of these two classes a man belongs is soon seen by his whole method and manner.

When one considers how great and how close to us the problem of existence is,—this equivocal, tormented, fleeting, dream-like existence—so great and so close that as soon as one perceives it, it overshadows and conceals all other problems and aims;—and when one sees how all men—with a few and rare exceptions—are not clearly conscious of the problem, nay, do not even seem to see it, but trouble themselves about everything else rather than this, and live on taking thought only for the present day and the scarcely longer span of their own personal future, while they either expressly give the problem up or are ready to agree with it, by the aid of some system of popular metaphysics, and are satisfied with this;—when one, I say, reflects upon this, so may one be of the opinion that man is a thinking being only in a very remote sense, and not feel any special surprise at any trait of thoughtlessness or folly; but know, rather, that the intellectual outlook of the normal man indeed surpasses that of the brute,—whose whole existence resembles a continual present without any consciousness of the future or the past—but, however, not to such an extent as one is wont to suppose.

And corresponding to this, we find in the conversation of most men that their thoughts are cut up as small as chaff, making it impossible for them to spin out the thread of their discourse to any length. If this world were peopled by really thinking beings, noise of every kind would not be so universally tolerated, as indeed the most horrible and aimless form of it is. If Nature had intended man to think she would not have given him ears, or, at any rate, she would have furnished them with air-tight flaps like the bat, which for this reason is to be envied. But, in truth, man is like the rest, a poor animal, whose powers are calculated only to maintain him during his existence; therefore he requires to have his ears always open to announce of themselves, by night as by day, the approach of the pursuer.

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