Timeless Writing


Schopenhauer manuscript

If you stand for nothing, you fall for everything. I probably heard an ad person say that. It holds for writing.

Arthur Schopenhauer believed that people act out of a blind and irrational desire for physical experience, what later thinkers would call the unconscious. As one of the greatest philosophers of the nineteenth century, he tackled many topics from politics and ethics to women and books. In 1851, he published some notes on writing:

Writers can be divided into meteors, planets and fixed stars.

The first produce a momentary effect: you gaze up and cry: Look!and then they vanish for ever.

The second, the moving stars, endure for much longer. By virtue of their proximity they often shine more brightly than the fixed stars, which the ignorant mistakes them for. But they too must soon vacate their place, they shine moreover only with a borrowed light, and their sphere of influence is limited to their own fellow travelers (their contemporaries).

The third alone are unchanging, stand firm in the firmament, shine by their own light and influence all ages equally, in that their aspect does not alter when our point of view alters since they have no parallax. Unlike the others, they do not belong to one system (nation) alone: they belong to the Universe. But it is precisely because they are so high that their light usually takes so many years to reach the eyes of dwellers on earth.

His influence extended to the work of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Wagner, and more.

 

How timeless ideas are born

Though Schopenhauer's ideas were innovative, the illustrious philosopher was very much a man of his time.

For example, at 19 he was fluent in Greek and Latin, pursued a degree in medicine, and a Ph.D. in philosophy. He met influential writers like Johann Wolfgang van Goethe in his mother's reputed literary salon. Thanks to a fixed income from his paternal estate, he dedicated his life to research, reading, and writing. His only companions his poodles and pets.

After the on-and-off relationship with Caroline Richter in his 30s, an incident at a boating party in Berlin likely set the stage for his life of solitude. Struck by the beauty of 17-year-old Flora Weiss, the 39 year old philosopher offered her a bunch of grapes: she promptly tossed them overboard in disgust. After asking her father permission to court her, he didn't do well there, either.

Schopenhauer was one of the first thinkers to understand the role of sexuality in human life. But he said women were incapable of decision making and rationality. Which is interesting, given the role his mother had in his personal and intellectual  life after his father's suicide.

According to him, art, morality, and self-awareness are our only salvation.

During his time it wasn't easy nor inexpensive to publish and distribute ideas. The philosopher lived a life very specific to his time and social class. But he wrote about overcoming the frustrating and painful human experience. By publishing, he planted the seeds for new movements of thought.

 

Writing as the epicenter of influence

Schopenhauer's writing is very relatable. Without jargon, he tackled everyday problems like how mean people are to each other, how we choose partners often irrationally. His philosophy was very pragmatic, thus relatable at any age.

On the timely vs. timeless nature of writing, he remarks that some people write for money, while others write because they have something to say.

“You can recognize them [those who write for money] by the fact that they spin out their ideas to the grater possible extent, that their ideas are half-true, obscure, forced, and vacillating.” They lack clarity of thought because they focus “exclusively on the stupid desire of the public to read nothing but what has just been printed.” He notes how journalist means day-laborer.

He splits authors into three categories: those who write about thinking from memory or other people's books, those who write to think, and those few rare ones who have thought or developed a thesis before writing. In the 19th Century, original ideas were as rare as they are today.

Publishing or posting about ideas has become much easier. But it's the original thought that pierces through the wall of indifference, and not the mere act of posting.  Of course, we all draw inspiration from the thought of others. For Schopenhauer, it was Plato and Kant. For me it was Dante Alighieri, a giant among the thinkers of any age. James Joyce said that there are only two books: the Bible and Dante's Commedia. T. S. Eliot said Dante and Shakespeare split the modern world with their dominance.

 

Timeless writing

This is writing that focuses on the subject itself. Social media has created this gigantic machine in which the majority tends to react to the ideas of others. They are the theme, hence no true originality. David Perell, talked about the paradox of news recently: By telling us to care about everything, the news creates indifference instead of action.

It's a bit extreme, but he hits on an important point: without a theory to hang your idea onto, it could be about anything. It ends up being about nothing. But if you have a theory or a thesis, it will still take time to shape it. I could go back all the way to the beginning of this site and find the very same idea under different writing.

Writing improves through writing. There are no shortcuts, if you want to write for yourself.

For many years I focused on quantity over quality. But in doing that, I got a fairly good idea of what's timeless in my work. A very small number of articles have outperformed the rest—they were timely and treated relatable subjects.

Through his body of work, psychological insights on unconscious motivation and non-religious view of the cosmos, Schopenhauer has influenced the work of more creative writers than any other philosopher. Novelists like Maupassant, Proust, Hardy, Thomas Mann, Conrad, Melville, George Bernard Shaw, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Zola. Short‐story writers Borges and Maugham. Poets Rilke and Eliot. Dramatists Beckett and Pirandello. 

And yet, his books took time to write and received mixed success upon publishing. Only those writers who endure become immortal,” he wrote in his later essays. Eventually, he began to attract practical professionals, lawyers and others who studied philosophy outside academia. He referred to them as evangelists” and apostles,” two terms he liberally borrowed from the Church. They started promoting his work.

Ironically, his less important work met greater initial success with the public. Even though those essays didn't treat the basic ideas of his system, their popularity helped him get noticed among academics. He was a pessimist and not an easy person. But his thoughts were original, and the people who discovered them contributed greatly to distributing and sharing his ideas.

As for the notes on writers as meteor, planet, or fixed star from his later essays on books and writing, it's clear he thought himself to be worth reading at any age. He wrote quality ideas for discerning thinkers and accepted those who started repackaging his work from the most accessible essays as a form of feedback. 

Success came from his ability to work on an original theory. But it was his body of work that made his writing timeless.

[image of Arthur Schopenhauer autographed manuscript Paralipomena volume]

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This is my work. I'm a cultural lens for reading the world. I do the work so that your work becomes easier, richer, and more satisfying. Durability comes from having a cultural link.


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