Arthur Schopenhauer followed the same routine every day for 27 years

“At noon he ceased work for the day and spent half-an-hour practising the flute.”

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: Emily Carr: brilliant painter, terrible landlord

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860)

Occasionally I’ll meet someone who doesn’t like to watch depressing movies or read depressing books because, well, life is depressing enough already—a perfectly defensible position. Me, however, I like these kinds of movies and books because I find that they actually have the exact opposite effect: They cheer me up! At least certain examples—in particular, the ones where the author or artist pushes the bleakness so far that you can’t help but feel the corners of your lips tilting up into a grin.

One of my personal exemplars of this quasi-genre is Arthur Schopenhauer, Germany’s “philosopher of pessimism.” His collected essays and aphorisms are about as accessible as 19th-century continental philosophy gets, particularly if you’re an angsty teenager (or still have the outlook of one). For example, here’s an excerpt from Schopenhauer’s aptly titled essay “On the Suffering of the World”:

Not the least of the torments which plague our existence is the constant pressure of time, which never lets us so much as draw breath but pursues us all like a taskmaster with a whip. It ceases to persecute only him it has delivered over to boredom.

Sounds about right! (Later in the same essay, he writes: “Want and boredom are indeed the twin poles of human life.” Please tell me I’m not the only one who finds this kind of thing utterly delightful.)

Here’s another example, still on the theme of boredom, from Schopenhauer’s essay “On the Vanity of Existence”:

That human life must be some kind of mistake is sufficiently proved by the simple observation that man is a compound of needs which are hard to satisfy; that their satisfaction achieves nothing but a painless condition in which he is only given over to boredom; and that boredom is a direct proof that existence is in itself valueless, for boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence.

What kind of person thinks and writes like this? In the introduction to my Penguin edition of Essays and Aphorisms, the scholar R. J. Hollingdale paints an evocative portrait of Schopenhauer the man, including a description of the philosopher’s unvarying daily routine—which I really, really wish I had read in time to include it in Daily Rituals. Oh, well, you’ll just have to enjoy it here:

From the age of 45 until his death 27 years later Schopenhauer lived in Frankfurt-am-Main. He lived alone, in ‘rooms’, and every day for 27 years he followed an identical routine. He rose every morning at seven and had a bath but no breakfast: he drank a cup of strong coffee before sitting down at his desk and writing until noon. At noon he ceased work for the day and spent half-an-hour practising the flute, on which he became quite a skilled performer. Then he went out for lunch at the Englischer Hof. After lunch he returned home and read until four, when he left for his daily walk: he walked for two hours no matter what the weather. At six o'clock he visited the reading room of the library and read The Times. In the evening he attended the theatre or a concert, after which he had dinner at a hotel or restaurant. He got back home between nine and ten and went early to bed. He was willing to deviate from this routine in order to receive visitors: but with this exception he carried it through for 27 years.

Any time I’m feeling adrift in my daily life, I like to picture this dour German philosopher, with his crown of white hair spiking out from his grimacing face, setting aside 30 minutes to practice the flute every day before lunch, and somehow I feel buoyed and able to get back on track.


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The other week I appeared on the wonderful Best Advice Show to give my best advice, geared especially toward those of us pursuing creative projects: Procrastinate just the right amount. Give it a listen here.

Shortly afterward, however, I read a New York Times Q&A with the artist Roni Horn, who has a completely different attitude toward procrastination (below) that immediately struck me as far more practical, useful, and mature than my own . . . and now I’m reconsidering my whole outlook on work/life/the universe.

Thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment via the button below.

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In the wake of my last advice column, I received a bunch of emails detailing all sorts of vexing creative dilemmas in search of solutions, which I would be honored to try to address in future installments of said column. However, I’ve now fallen way behind on actually replying to these emails. 🤦🏻‍♂️ If you sent one in and haven’t heard back from me yet—my sincere apologies! I promise to get back to everyone this week.

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