The Wisdom of Life

——沈佳祺Johnson Shen


At my leisure I would always consider what I should do. It seems to me that, except for necessary social engagements, a book and a cup of tea are the most suitable for me to spend my free time.


 From time to time, therefore, I notice a public appeal to people to read more books. Citizens’ average amount of reading in China is often compared with that in Western countries to show that our next generation is beginning to experience the knowledge poverty.


On the whole, my amount of reading in 2018 was far from enough. I would find various excuses for myself: business trips, family affairs, or parties. In a word, I always try to evade reading with a reason that satisfied me. Even when I occasionally sat down before the desk, I was completely spiritless and found the books insipid. This made me feel uncomfortable. I was always totally bewildered by my conflicting thoughts and the feeling of regret hovered in my mind.


A long time ago, however, reading was not a big thing at all. Quite a few people even reminded us that we should not read blindly and should spend more time on thinking. Previously I read Arthur Schopenhauer’s The Wisdom of Life, whose title, at first glance, made me believe it’s a book purely concerns the importance and implications of thinking. I realized this is not its real point shortly after I finished the first several sentences in it. The author, to a certain extent, criticized aimless reading without thinking, and thus seemed to have refuted some of the ideas in the modern era.


Reading is after all something outside us; it lays the foundation for thinking, and yet no more than that. Only a true thinker for himself is spiritually like a monarch. The largest library in disorder is not so useful as a smaller but orderly one; in the same way the greatest amount of knowledge, if it has not been worked out in one’s own mind, is of less value than a much smaller amount that has been fully considered.


A man can apply himself of his own free will to reading, while he cannot to thinking. For it is only when a man combines what he knows from all sides, and compares one truth with another, that he completely realizes his own knowledge and gets it into his power. A man can only think over what he knows, therefore he should learn something; but a man only knows what he has pondered.


These might be known to all, but why are they seldom discussed in our times? It seems that we are busy appealing for more amount of reading, and yet have neglected the quality of it.


 However, that is not the case. We are now living in an age different from that of Schopenhauer’s, when people did not have many things to do for entertainment, and reading seemed to the only thing left that could be done to kill time without using their brains. Today, our lives have become overly enriched, and a person who does not want to exert much effort will by no means choose reading as a pastime. Anyway, he has more alternatives that are simpler and more straightforward than reading.


It is the very reason why we no longer emphasize the necessity of thinking while reading, for we know that people who are still willing to read books today are not like those in Schopenhauer’ era. We have incorporated thinking into our reading from the very beginning. What we need more now is the time for reading.


According to Schopenhauer, even the greatest mind is not always able to think for itself at all times. Therefore, it is advisable for us to use the spare moments in reading to build our abilities. Schopenhauer appealed to people of his times to think for themselves. He hoped that a man can become the master of his own mind and not become a slave of others’ thought. At present, what we need to do is to kindle people’s original enthusiasm. How could we begin to talk about thinking if we do not read in the first place? How could we expect to achieve excellency if we do not have even the minimal accumulation?


Thinking, nevertheless, is always needed while you are reading. If we do not read, we will be short of the accumulation of knowledge; but too much knowledge robs the mind of all elasticity; it is like keeping a spring under a continuous, heavy weight. If a man does not want to think, the safest plan is to take up a book directly he has a spare moment. This practice accounts for the fact that learning makes most men more stupid and dull than they are by nature, and prevents their writings from being a success; they remain, as Alexander Pope has said, “For ever reading, never to be read.” The mind thus suffers total compulsion from without; it has first this and first that to think about, for which it has at the time neither instinct nor liking.


Men always have inertia. People in past times were reluctant to think. People in modern age are not willing to read; even when they really read, what they are doing is no more than reading the words in books. It is a slow and ineffective way of taking in knowledge. Mere experience can as little as reading take the place of thought.


The works of all really capable minds are distinguished from all other works by a character of decision and definiteness, and, in consequence, of lucidity and smoothness. This is because minds like these know definitely and clearly what they wish to express — whether it be in prose, in verse, or in music. Other minds are wanting in this decision and lucidity, and therefore may be instantly recognized.


I believe that all young persons in our era are unwilling to remain mediocre and always wish to be outstanding. But more than often this is only something in their mind; they become at a loss again when facing the real world. The case might be the same throughout the history. Only a true thinker for himself is like a monarch in the realm of mind. On the other hand, those of vulgar minds, who are swayed by all kinds of current opinions, authorities and prejudices, are like the people which in silence obey the law and commands.


 What I have said so far is in fact an issue which ought to be discussed later; what I should do at this moment might be to sit down and, with nothing to disturb me, seriously finish all the books piled up in the past year. I cannot become the master of myself before I take this very first step.


Reading is our companion that should not be forgotten, and thinking is our step that should not come to a stop.







How Shall We Begin?


跟随内心 止于至善


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