Mixing Memory

Schopenhauer’s Parables

I posted these long ago on the old blog, but I was reading Studies in Pessimism, and when I came across them, I decided to post them again. The parables are all from the last chapter of the book. At the end is one of his “Psychological Observations,” which is from the fifth chapter.

  • A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told–in the English phrase–to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.
  • In a field of ripening corn I came to a place which had been trampled down by some ruthless foot; and as I glanced amongst the countless stalks, every one of them alike, standing there so erect and bearing the full weight of the ear, I saw a multitude of different flowers, red and blue and violet. How pretty they looked as they grew there so naturally with their little foliage! But, thought I, they are quite useless; they bear no fruit; they are mere weeds, suffered to remain only because there is no getting rid of them. And yet, but for these flowers, there would be nothing to charm the eye in that wilderness of stalks. They are emblematic of poetry and art, which, in civic life–so severe, but still useful and not without its fruit–play the same part as flowers in the corn.
  • Two men from China traveling in Europe went to the theatre for the first time. One of them did nothing but study the machinery, and he succeeded in finding out how it was worked. The other tried to get at the meaning of the piece in spite of his ignorance of the language. Here you have the Astronomer and the Philosopher.
  • Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world. This is an error of the intellect as inevitable as that error of the eye which lets us fancy that on the horizon heaven and earth meet. This explains many things, and among them the fact that everyone measures us with his own standard–generally about as long as a tailor’s tape, and we have to put up with it: as also that no one will allow us to be taller than himself–a supposition which is once for all taken for granted.


  1. #1 tirta
    December 5, 2006

    i have a question about the last parable: every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world. as much as i agree with schopenhauer, do we really have options here?

    i guess this somehow lurks behind the heated debate between the chamberlain and the churchill camps.

  2. #2 Chris
    December 5, 2006

    Tirta, the last one isn’t actually a parable, it’s one of his “psychological observations,” and it’s meant to be an observation about the way things are. So according to Schopenhauer, at least, we don’t really have any options here.

  3. #3 Kenny Pearce
    December 8, 2006

    A similar Schopenhauer quote, this one from E.F.J. Payne’s translation of The World as Will and Representation, vol. 1:

    For the power of truth is incredibly great and of unutterable endurance. We find frequent traces of it again in all, even the most bizarre and absurd, dogmas of different times and countries, often indeed in strange company, curiously mixed up but yet recognizable. It is then like a plant that germinates under a heap of large stones, but yet climbs up towards the light, working itself through with many deviations and windings, disfigured, bleached, stunted in growth – but yet towards the light.