Schopenhauer on Health

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

With our first post regarding Schopenhauer’s take on what makes for a happy life, we now turn toward what makes that happiness possible, namely, the fortune of good health.

It might seem an unlikely source to receive advice on health from a 19th century philosopher, but Schopenhauer acknowledged that it was good health which made all other experiences and insights possible. When it comes to the body, we rarely are aware of a system or function when the body operates properly, it is only in the absence of health that we come to appreciate its prior presence.

“Now it is certain that nothing contributes so little to cheerfulness as riches, or so much, as health.”

Schopenhauer took a two-hour walk each morning, and commented in The Wisdom of Life that he observed the lower classes living out in the country were always cheerful and content while the social elite appeared of an unpleasant nature. This lead him to write:

“Health outweighs all other blessings so much that one may really say that a healthy beggar is happier than an ailing king.”

It is nearly impossible to care about another’s well being, let alone to “love your neighbor as yourself”, when dealing with chronic pain. Physical discomfort vies for our attention so strongly that higher thoughts become inaudible. In order to achieve the self-development which makes happiness possible, we must have the prerequisite health and energy to do so.

Schopenhauer lays down the prescription for good health as follows:

“I need hardly say what one must do to be healthy– avoid every kind of excess, all violent and unpleasant emotion, all mental overstrain, take daily exercise in the open air, cold baths and such like hygienic measures.”

Schopenhauer was among the first major western thinkers to be influenced by eastern teachings. In avoiding excess, one finds the path between extremes which the Buddha described as “The Middle Way.” Stressing the need to avoid violent emotion, he echoes the Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha’s teachings, which opens with, “All that we are is a result of what we have thought.” It is the cultivation of a healthy mind which makes a healthy body possible.

The most important things in life we did not buy and cannot be recouped when lost. Our health, our loved ones, our relationship to a higher power, all come without a price tag. In fact, the only things in life that are truly valuable have nothing to do with money.

“It follows from all this that the greatest of follies is to sacrifice health for any other kind of happiness, whatever it may be, for gain, advancement, learning or fame, let alone, then, for fleeting sensual pleasures. Everything else should rather be postponed to it.”

And yet, for many of us, we sacrifice our health for everything else. We have it backward.

It’s hard to be a great dad when you’re in chronic pain. It’s hard to pay your partner the attention they deserve when your sedentary lifestyle leaves you perpetually exhausted. To live a fulfilled life and to help others do the same, we must have an abundance of energy and attention which only good health can provide.

Practicing healthy eating and exercise drains a will which is already tapped by daily responsibilities. Sometimes concern for our own lives is simply not enough to create lasting change. For me, I find that when I focus not on how these disciplines will improve my life, but on how they will improve the lives of those around me, it becomes much easier to practice the right habits.

When we take care of ourselves we become capable of taking care of others, and I believe this to be the ultimate purpose of our lives.

In our first post, Schopenhauer taught that what a man is matters much more to his happiness than what a man has. Without health, man can be but little, but with it, one becomes capable of pursuing his highest calling, the subject of our next post in this series, self-actualization.


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