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Schopenhauer, On Authorship and Style (excerpts p 2)

Schopenhauer, On Authorship and Style (excerpts p 2)

A continuation from yesterday…

Arthur Schopenhauer’s “On Authorship and Style” is an essay full of nuggets on writing (and much more).

On author’s rehashing older, better books they don’t understand:

The writer often does not thoroughly understand the old books; he will, at the same time, not use their exact words, so that the result is he spoils and bungles what has been said in a much better and clearer way by the old writers; since they wrote from their own lively knowledge of the subject. He often leaves out the best things they have written, their most striking elucidations of the matter, their happiest remarks, because he does not recognise their value or feel how pregnant they are.

…In general, the following rule holds good here as elsewhere, namely: what is new is seldom good; because a good thing is only new for a short time.

On faddish but wrong ideas:

In almost every age, whether it be in literature or art, we find that if a thoroughly wrong idea, or a fashion, or a manner is in vogue, it is admired. Those of ordinary intelligence trouble themselves inordinately to acquire it and put it in practice. An intelligent man sees through it and despises it, consequently he remains out of the fashion. Some years later the public sees through it and takes the sham for what it is worth; it now laughs at it, and the much-admired colour of all these works of fashion falls off like the plaster from a badly-built wall: and they are in the same dilapidated condition.

On anonymity:

An anonymous writer is a literary fraud against whom one should immediately cry out, “Wretch, if you do not wish to admit what it is you say against other people, hold your slanderous tongue.”

At-a-glance evaluation of another author:

In order to get a provisional estimate of the value of an author’s productions it is not exactly necessary to know the matter on which he has thought or what it is he has thought about it,—this would compel one to read the whole of his works,—but it will be sufficient to know how he has thought.

How the simple-minded author tries to appear smarter than (s)he is :

But instead of that they try to appear to have thought much more deeply than is the case. The result is, they put what they have to say into forced and involved language, create new words and prolix periods which go round the thought and cover it up. (cf. Orwell’s “Politics and English Language,” excerpted here)

And the dreadful result of this, the funniest bit of the whole essay:

Accordingly, they sometimes put down their thoughts in bits, in short, equivocal, and paradoxical sentences which appear to mean much more than they say…; sometimes they express their thoughts in a crowd of words and the most intolerable diffuseness, as if it were necessary to make a sensation in order to make the profound meaning of their phrases intelligible—while it is quite a simple idea if not a trivial one…, or else they endeavour to use a certain style in writing which it has pleased them to adopt—for example, a style that is so thoroughly kat’ exochen profound and scientific, where one is tortured to death by the narcotic effect of long-spun periods that are void of all thought…; or again, they aim at an intellectual style where it seems then as if they wish to go crazy, and so on. All such efforts whereby they try to postpone the nascetur ridiculus mus make it frequently difficult to understand what they really mean.

On clear, concise style:

We also find that every true thinker endeavours to express his thoughts as purely, clearly, definitely, and concisely as ever possible. This is why simplicity has always been looked upon as a token, not only of truth, but also of genius. Style receives its beauty from the thought expressed… Style is merely the silhouette of thought; and to write in a vague or bad style means a stupid or confused mind.

Including choosing concrete over abstract expressions:

It is also a characteristic of such writers to avoid, if it is possible, expressing themselves definitely, so that they may be always able in case of need to get out of a difficulty; this is why they always choose the more abstract expressions: while people of intellect choose the more concrete; because the latter bring the matter closer to view, which is the source of all evidence.

… they do not really themselves understand the meaning of their own words, because they take ready-made words and learn them. Hence they combine whole phrases more than words—phrases banales. (cf. Orwell’s, “Politics,” once again).

…Truth that is naked is the most beautiful, and the simpler its expression the deeper is the impression it makes.


Obscurity and vagueness of expression are at all times and everywhere a very bad sign. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred they arise from vagueness of thought, which, in its turn, is almost always fundamentally discordant, inconsistent, and therefore wrong.

Writing with care:

A man who writes carelessly at once proves that he himself puts no great value on his own thoughts. For it is only by being convinced of the truth and importance of our thoughts that there arises in us the inspiration necessary for the inexhaustible patience to discover the clearest, finest, and most powerful expression for them; just as one puts holy relics or priceless works of art in silver or golden receptacles.



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