The Art of Literature, by Arthur Schopenhauer

Translator’s Preface.

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.

It is thus a significant fact — a testimony to the depth of his insight and, in the main, the justice of his opinions — that views of literature which appealed to his own immediate contemporaries, should be found to hold good elsewhere and at a distance of fifty years. It means that what he had to say was worth saying; and since it is adapted thus equally to diverse times and audiences, it is probably of permanent interest.

The intelligent reader will observe that much of the charm of Schopenhauer’s writing comes from its strongly personal character, and that here he has to do, not with a mere maker of books, but with a man who thinks for himself and has no false scruples in putting his meaning plainly upon the page, or in unmasking sham wherever he finds it. This is nowhere so true as when he deals with literature; and just as in his treatment of life, he is no flatterer to men in general, so here he is free and outspoken on the peculiar failings of authors. At the same time he gives them good advice. He is particularly happy in recommending restraint in regard to reading the works of others, and the cultivation of independent thought; and herein he recalls a saying attributed to Hobbes, who was not less distinguished as a writer than as a philosopher, to the effect that “if he had read as much as other men, he should have been as ignorant as they.”

Schopenhauer also utters a warning, which we shall do well to take to heart in these days, against mingling the pursuit of literature with vulgar aims. If we follow him here, we shall carefully distinguish between literature as an object of life and literature as a means of living, between the real love of truth and beauty, and that detestable false love which looks to the price it will fetch in the market. I am not referring to those who, while they follow a useful and honorable calling in bringing literature before the public, are content to be known as men of business. If, by the help of some second witch of Endor, we could raise the ghost of Schopenhauer, it would be interesting to hear his opinion of a certain kind of literary enterprise which has come into vogue since his day, and now receives an amount of attention very much beyond its due. We may hazard a guess at the direction his opinion would take. He would doubtless show us how this enterprise, which is carried on by self-styled literary men, ends by making literature into a form of merchandise, and treating it as though it were so much goods to be bought and sold at a profit, and most likely to produce quick returns if the maker’s name is well known. Nor would it be the ghost of the real Schopenhauer unless we heard a vigorous denunciation of men who claim a connection with literature by a servile flattery of successful living authors — the dead cannot be made to pay — in the hope of appearing to advantage in their reflected light and turning that advantage into money.

In order to present the contents of this book in a convenient form, I have not scrupled to make an arrangement with the chapters somewhat different from that which exists in the original; so that two or more subjects which are there dealt with successively in one and the same chapter, here stand by themselves. In consequence of this, some of the titles of the sections are not to be found in the original. I may state, however, that the essays on Authorship and Style and the latter part of that on Criticism are taken direct from the chapter headed Ueber Schriftstellerei und Stil; and that the remainder of the essay on Criticism, with that of Reputation, is supplied by the remarks Ueber Urtheil, Kritik, Beifall und Ruhm. The essays on The Study of Latin, on Men of Learning, and on Some Forms of Literature, are taken chiefly from the four sections Ueber Gelehrsamkeit und Gelehrte, Ueber Sprache und Worte, Ueber Lesen und Bücher: Anhang, and Zur Metaphysik des Schönen. The essay on Thinking for Oneself is a rendering of certain remarks under the heading Selbstdenken. Genius was a favorite subject of speculation with Schopenhauer, and he often touches upon it in the course of his works; always, however, to put forth the same theory in regard to it as may be found in the concluding section of this volume. Though the essay has little or nothing to do with literary method, the subject of which it treats is the most needful element of success in literature; and I have introduced it on that ground. It forms part of a chapter in the Parerga entitled Den Intellekt überhaupt und in jeder Beziehung betreffende Gedanken: Anhang verwandter Stellen.

It has also been part of my duty to invent a title for this volume; and I am well aware that objection may be made to the one I have chosen, on the ground that in common language it is unusual to speak of literature as an art, and that to do so is unduly to narrow its meaning and to leave out of sight its main function as the record of thought. But there is no reason why the word Literature should not be employed in that double sense which is allowed to attach to Painting, Music, Sculpture, as signifying either the objective outcome of a certain mental activity, seeking to express itself in outward form; or else the particular kind of mental activity in question, and the methods it follows. And we do, in fact, use it in this latter sense, when we say of a writer that he pursues literature as a calling. If, then, literature can be taken to mean a process as well as a result of mental activity, there can be no error in speaking of it as Art. I use that term in its broad sense, as meaning skill in the display of thought; or, more fully, a right use of the rules of applying to the practical exhibition of thought, with whatever material it may deal. In connection with literature, this is a sense and an application of the term which have been sufficiently established by the example of the great writers of antiquity.

It may be asked, of course, whether the true thinker, who will always form the soul of the true author, will not be so much occupied with what he has to say, that it will appear to him a trivial thing to spend great effort on embellishing the form in which he delivers it. Literature, to be worthy of the name, must, it is true, deal with noble matter — the riddle of our existence, the great facts of life, the changing passions of the human heart, the discernment of some deep moral truth. It is easy to lay too much stress upon the mere garment of thought; to be too precise; to give to the arrangement of words an attention that should rather be paid to the promotion of fresh ideas. A writer who makes this mistake is like a fop who spends his little mind in adorning his person. In short, it may be charged against the view of literature which is taken in calling it an Art, that, instead of making truth and insight the author’s aim, it favors sciolism and a fantastic and affected style. There is, no doubt, some justice in the objection; nor have we in our own day, and especially amongst younger men, any lack of writers who endeavor to win confidence, not by adding to the stock of ideas in the world, but by despising the use of plain language. Their faults are not new in the history of literature; and it is a pleasing sign of Schopenhauer’s insight that a merciless exposure of them, as they existed half a century ago, is still quite applicable to their modern form.

And since these writers, who may, in the slang of the hour, be called “impressionists” in literature, follow their own bad taste in the manufacture of dainty phrases, devoid of all nerve, and generally with some quite commonplace meaning, it is all the more necessary to discriminate carefully between artifice and art.

But although they may learn something from Schopenhauer’s advice, it is not chiefly to them that it is offered. It is to that great mass of writers, whose business is to fill the columns of the newspapers and the pages of the review, and to produce the ton of novels that appear every year. Now that almost everyone who can hold a pen aspires to be called an author, it is well to emphasize the fact that literature is an art in some respects more important than any other. The problem of this art is the discovery of those qualities of style and treatment which entitled any work to be called good literature.

It will be safe to warn the reader at the very outset that, if he wishes to avoid being led astray, he should in his search for these qualities turn to books that have stood the test of time.

For such an amount of hasty writing is done in these days that it is really difficult for anyone who reads much of it to avoid contracting its faults, and thus gradually coming to terms of dangerous familiarity with bad methods. This advice will be especially needful if things that have little or no claim to be called literature at all — the newspapers, the monthly magazine, and the last new tale of intrigue or adventure — fill a large measure, if not the whole, of the time given to reading. Nor are those who are sincerely anxious to have the best thought in the best language quite free from danger if they give too much attention to the contemporary authors, even though these seem to think and write excellently. For one generation alone is incompetent to decide upon the merits of any author whatever; and as literature, like all art, is a thing of human invention, so it can be pronounced good only if it obtains lasting admiration, by establishing a permanent appeal to mankind’s deepest feeling for truth and beauty.

It is in this sense that Schopenhauer is perfectly right in holding that neglect of the ancient classics, which are the best of all models in the art of writing, will infallibly lead to a degeneration of literature.

And the method of discovering the best qualities of style, and of forming a theory of writing, is not to follow some trick or mannerism that happens to please for the moment, but to study the way in which great authors have done their best work.

It will be said that Schopenhauer tells us nothing we did not know before. Perhaps so; as he himself says, the best things are seldom new. But he puts the old truths in a fresh and forcible way; and no one who knows anything of good literature will deny that these truths are just now of very fit application.

It was probably to meet a real want that, a year or two ago, an ingenious person succeeded in drawing a great number of English and American writers into a confession of their literary creed and the art they adopted in authorship; and the interesting volume in which he gave these confessions to the world contained some very good advice, although most of it had been said before in different forms. More recently a new departure, of very doubtful use, has taken place; and two books have been issued, which aim, the one at being an author’s manual, the other at giving hints on essays and how to write them.

A glance at these books will probably show that their authors have still something to learn.

Both of these ventures seem, unhappily, to be popular; and, although they may claim a position next-door to that of the present volume I beg to say that it has no connection with them whatever. Schopenhauer does not attempt to teach the art of making bricks without straw.

I wish to take this opportunity of tendering my thanks to a large number of reviewers for the very gratifying reception given to the earlier volumes of this series. And I have great pleasure in expressing my obligations to my friend Mr. W.G. Collingwood, who has looked over most of my proofs and often given me excellent advice in my effort to turn Schopenhauer into readable English.


Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29