A good conscience means more than a good reputation (IRVIN YALOM)

A good conscience means more than a good reputation (IRVIN YALOM)

Who among us has not known someone (including, perhaps, ourselves) so outwardly directed, so concerned about accumulating possessions or about what others think, as to lose all sense of self? Such a person, when posed a question, searches outward rather than inward for the answer; that is, he or she scans the faces of others to divine which answer they desire or expect.

 

For such a person, I find it useful to summarize a triplet of essays that Schopenhauer wrote late in life. (For anyone philosophically inclined, they are written in clear, accessible language.) Basically the essays emphasize that it is only what an individual is that counts.

 

Neither wealth nor material goods nor social status nor a good reputation results in happiness. Though these thoughts are not explicitly about existential issues, they nonetheless assist in moving us from superficial ground to deeper issues.

 

1. What we have. Material goods are a will-o’-the-wisp. Schopenhauer argues elegantly that the accumulation of wealth and goods is endless and unsatisfying; the more we possess, the more our claims multiply. Wealth is like seawater: the more we drink, the thirstier we become. In the end, we don’t have our goods—they have us.

 

2. What we represent in the eyes of others. Reputation is as evanescent as material wealth. Schopenhauer writes, “Half our worries and anxieties have arisen from our concern about the opinions of others … we must extract this thorn from our flesh.” So powerful is the urge to create a good appearance that some prisoners have gone to their execution with their clothing and final gestures foremost in their thoughts.

 

The opinion of others is a phantasm that may alter at any moment. Opinions hang by a thread and make us slaves to what others think or, worse, to what they appear to think—for we can never know what they actually think.

 

3. What we are. It is only what we are that truly matters. A good conscience, Schopenhauer says, means more than a good reputation. Our greatest goal should be good health and intellectual wealth, which lead to an inexhaustible supply of ideas, independence, and a moral life. Inner equanimity stems from knowing that it is not things that disturb us, but our interpretations of things.

 

This last idea—that the quality of our life is determined by how we interpret our experiences, not by the experiences themselves—is an important therapeutic doctrine dating back to antiquity. A central tenet in the school of Stoicism, it passed through Zeno, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, to become a fundamental concept in both dynamic and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

 

 

 

 

Staring At The Sun: Being at peace with your own mortality

Irvin Yalom



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