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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

On Criticism

By Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860)

Translation of Thomas Bailey Saunders

THE SOURCE of all pleasure and delight is the feeling of kinship. Even with the sense of beauty, it is unquestionably our own species in the animal world, and then again our own race, that appears to us the fairest. So too in intercourse with others: every man shows a decided preference for those who resemble him; and a blockhead will find the society of another blockhead incomparably more pleasant than that of any number of great minds put together. Every man must necessarily take his chief pleasure in his own work, because it is the mirror of his own mind,—the echo of his own thought; and next in order will come the work of people like him. That is to say, a dull, shallow, and perverse man, a dealer in mere words, will give his sincere and hearty applause only to that which is dull, shallow, perverse, or merely verbose: on the other hand, he will allow merit to the work of great minds only on the score of authority,—in other words, because he is ashamed to speak his opinion, for in reality they give him no pleasure at all; they do not appeal to him,—nay, they repel him: and he will not confess this even to himself. The works of genius cannot be fully enjoyed except by those who are themselves of the privileged order. The first recognition of them, however, when they exist without authority to support them, demands considerable superiority of mind.

When the reader takes all this into consideration, he should be surprised, not that great work is so late in winning reputation, but that it wins it at all. And as a matter of fact, fame comes only by a slow and complex process. The stupid person is by degrees forced, and as it were tamed, into recognizing the superiority of one who stands immediately above him; this one in his turn bows before some one else; and so it goes on until the weight of the votes gradually prevails over their number: and this is just the condition of all genuine—in other words, deserved—fame. But until then, the greatest genius, even after he has passed his time of trial, stands like a king amidst a crowd of his own subjects who do not know him by sight, and therefore will not do his behests, unless indeed his chief ministers of State are in his train. For no subordinate official can be the direct recipient of the royal commands, as he knows only the signature of his immediate superior; and this is repeated all the way up into the highest ranks, where the under-secretary attests the minister’s signature, and the minister that of the king. There are analogous stages to be passed before a genius can attain widespread fame. This is why his reputation most easily comes to a standstill at the very outset,—because the highest authorities, of whom there can be but few, are most frequently not to be found; but the further down he goes in the scale, the more numerous are those who take the word from above, so that his fame is no more arrested.

We must console ourselves for this state of things by reflecting that it is really fortunate that the greater number of men do not form a judgment on their own responsibility, but merely take it on authority. For what sort of criticism should we have on Plato and Kant, Homer, Shakespeare, and Goethe, if every man were to form his opinion by what he really has and enjoys of these writers, instead of being forced by authority to speak of them in a fit and proper way, however little he may really feel what he says? Unless something of this kind took place, it would be impossible for true merit, in any high sphere, to attain fame at all. At the same time, it is also fortunate that every man has just so much critical power of his own as is necessary for recognizing the superiority of those who are placed immediately over him, and for following their lead. This means that the many come in the end to submit to the authority of the few; and there results that hierarchy of critical judgments, on which is based the possibility of a steady and eventually wide-spreading fame.

The lowest class in the community is quite impervious to the merits of a great genius; and for these people there is nothing left but the monument raised to him, which, by the impression it produces on their senses, awakens in them a dim idea of the man’s greatness.

Literary journals should be a dam against the unconscionable scribbling of the age, and the ever-increasing deluge of bad and useless books. Their judgments should be uncorrupted, just, and rigorous; and every piece of bad work done by an incapable person, every device by which the empty head tries to come to the assistance of the empty purse,—that is to say, about nine tenths of all existing books,—should be mercilessly scourged. Literary journals would then perform their duty; which is to keep down the craving for writing, and put a check upon the deception of the public, instead of furthering these evils by a miserable toleration which plays into the hands of author and publisher, and robs the reader of his time and his money.

If there were such a paper as I mean, every bad writer, every brainless compiler, every plagiarist from others’ books, every hollow and incapable place-hunter, every sham philosopher, every vain and languishing poetaster, would shudder at the prospect of the pillory in which his bad work would inevitably have to stand soon after publication. This would paralyze his twitching fingers, to the true welfare of literature; in which what is bad is not only useless but positively pernicious. Now, most books are bad and ought to have remained unwritten. Consequently praise should be as rare as is now the case with blame; which is withheld under the influence of personal considerations, coupled with the maxim, “Accedas socius, laudes lauderis ut absens.”

It is quite wrong to try to introduce into literature the same toleration as must necessarily prevail in society towards those stupid, brainless people who everywhere swarm in it. In literature such people are impudent intruders; and to disparage the bad is here duty towards the good, for he who thinks nothing bad will think nothing good either. Politeness, which has its source in social relations, is in literature an alien and often injurious element; because it exacts that bad work shall be called good. In this way the very aim of science and art is directly frustrated.

This ideal journal could, to be sure, be written only by people who joined incorruptible honesty with rare knowledge and still rarer power of judgment: so that perhaps there could at the very most be one, and even hardly one, in the whole country; but there it would stand, like a just Areopagus, every member of which would have to be elected by all the others. Under the system that prevails at present, literary journals are carried on by a clique, and secretly perhaps also by booksellers for the good of the trade; and they are often nothing but coalitions of bad heads to prevent the good ones succeeding. As Goethe once remarked to me, nowhere is there so much dishonesty as in literature.

But above all, anonymity, that shield of all literary rascality, would have to disappear. It was introduced under the pretext of protecting the honest critic, who warned the public, against the resentment of the author and his friends. But where there is one case of this sort, there will be a hundred where it merely serves to take all responsibility from the man who cannot stand by what he has said; or possibly to conceal the shame of one who has been cowardly and base enough to recommend a book to the public for the purpose of putting money into his own pocket. Often enough it is only a cloak for covering the obscurity, incompetence, and insignificance of the critic. It is incredible what impudence these fellows will show, and what literary trickery they will venture to commit, as soon as they know they are safe under the shadow of anonymity. Let me recommend a general Anticriticism, a universal medicine or panacea, to put a stop to all anonymous reviewing, whether it praises the bad or blames the good: Rascal, your name! For a man to wrap himself up and draw his hat over his face, and then fall upon people who are walking about without any disguise,—this is not the part of a gentleman: it is the part of a scoundrel and a knave.

An anonymous review has no more authority than an anonymous letter; and one should be received with the same mistrust as the other. Or shall we take the name of the man who consents to preside over what is, in the strict sense of the word, une société anonyme, as a guarantee for the veracity of his colleagues?

Even Rousseau, in the preface to the ‘Nouvelle Héloïse,’ declares, “Tout honnête homme doit avouer les livres qu’il publie;” which in plain language means that every honorable man ought to sign his articles, and that no one is honorable who does not do so. How much truer this is of polemical writing, which is the general character of reviews! Riemer was quite right in the opinion he gives in his ‘Reminiscences of Goethe’: “An overt enemy,” he says, “an enemy who meets you face to face, is an honorable man, who will treat you fairly, and with whom you can come to terms and be reconciled: but an enemy who conceals himself is a base, cowardly scoundrel, who has not courage enough to avow his own judgment; it is not his opinion that he cares about, but only the secret pleasure of wreaking his anger without being found out or punished.” This must also have been Goethe’s opinion, as he was generally the source from which Riemer drew his observations. And indeed, Rousseau’s maxim applies to every line that is printed. Would a man in a mask ever be allowed to harangue a mob, or speak in any assembly, and that too when he was going to attack others and overwhelm them with abuse?

Anonymity is the refuge for all literary and journalistic rascality. It is a practice which must be completely stopped. Every article, even in a newspaper, should be accompanied by the name of its author; and the editor should be made strictly responsible for the accuracy of the signature. The freedom of the press should be thus far restricted: so that what a man publicly proclaims through the far-sounding trumpet of the newspaper, he should be answerable for—at any rate with his honor, if he has any; and if he has none, let his name neutralize the effect of his words. And since even the most insignificant person is known in his own circle, the result of such a measure would be to put an end to two thirds of the newspaper lies, and to restrain the audacity of many a poisonous tongue.