Subject:  Pessimism – The Porcupine’s Dilemma

Event:  Birthday of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, 1788

Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom. -Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer, who was born on this day in 1788, is philosophy’s best-known curmudgeon. He was born into a wealthy German family, but tragedy struck when he was just a teen:  his father’s suicide caused him, like Buddha, to begin reflecting on life’s suffering:  “In my seventeenth year, without any earned school education, I was gripped by the misery of life as Buddha was in his youth when he saw sickness, old age, pain and death.” 

Arthur Shopengauer by Gennadij Jerszow.jpg
Sculpture of Arthur Schopenhauer by Gennady Jerszow (Wikimedia Commons)

Schopenhauer had little doubt that the glass of life was half empty; nevertheless, he still resolved as a philosopher to record and share his thoughts: “Life is an unpleasant business; I have resolved to spend it reflecting upon it.”

Just in case anyone doubted his pessimistic outlook, Schopenhauer entitled one of his works Studies in Pessimism (1851).  Here he gives a less than glowing review to life:

In early youth, as we contemplate our coming life, we are like children in a theatre before the curtain is raised, sitting there in high spirits and eagerly waiting for the play to begin. It is a blessing that we do not know what is really going to happen. Could we foresee it, there are times when children might seem like innocent prisoners, condemned, not to death, but to life, and as yet all unconscious of what their sentence means.

There are two closely related words, however, that present a ray of sunshine and hope in Schopenhauer’s otherwise gloomy world view: ascetic and aesthetic.

“Ascetic” refers to the monk-like existence of a person who lives a life of self-denial.  The ascetic overcomes bodily desires and appetites, never marries, and embraces a life of austerity and humility. Schopenhauer lived a very simple, regimented life.  He never married, and lived alone, except for a pet poodle named “Atma,” a Hindu word for the supreme universal soul.

“Aesthetic” refers to the branch of philosophy that contemplates and explores the nature of art and beauty. Attending the theater, reading poetry, or examining a painting allow us to hold a mirror up to life.  Schopenhauer advised us to respect all artistic creations:  “Treat a work of art like a prince.  Let it speak to you first.”  Of all the arts, music was especially important to Schopenhauer; he was known to play his flute every evening after dinner (1).

Schopenhauer also turned to nature as a means to reflect on life.  In his famous parable called the “Porcupine’s Dilemma,” he holds up the social habits of porcupines  as providing wisdom into the tension between intimacy and autonomy that lives in each of us.  Sigmund Freud was so inspired by Schopenhauer’s prickly metaphor that he kept a bronze porcupine figurine on his desk:

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. (2)

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What are the two areas of life that Schopenhauer turned to to find hope in what he saw as an otherwise hopeless existence?

Challenge – Fables of Flora and Fauna:  Like Schopenhauer, the philosopher Alain de Botton advised us to examine nature:  “Nature is a kind of book, and when we open our eyes to it, find its pages filled with distinctive lessons about wisdom and serenity” (3).  Do a bit of research on some specific plants or animals.  Select one that you find particularly interesting.  Explain how what you learned about his plant or animal might serve as a parable for the human species.


February 22, 1930:   Today is the birthday of psychologist Walter Mischel. Mischel’s marshmallow test gives us unique insight into the role that willpower plays in individual success.  Summarizing his work, Mischel said the following:

“. . . When I am asked to summarize the fundamental message from research on self-control, I recall “Descartes’s famous dictum cogito, ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am.” What has been discovered about mind, brain, and self-control lets us move from his proposition to “I think, therefore I can change what I am.” 


1-Warburton, Nigel.  A Little History of Philosophy. New Haven:  Yale University Press, 201.

2-Schopenhauer, Arthur. “Studies in Pessimism – A Few Parables”  (1913)   translated by Thomas Bailey Saunders.  Wikisource.

3-”The Wisdom of NatureThe School of Life