What the Swedes Read

A Reader Makes His Way Through One Book By Each Nobel Laureate

by Daniel Handler
  • LAUREATE: Rudolf Eucken (Germany, 1908)
  • BOOK READ: Life’s Basis and Life’s Ideal: The Fundamentals of a New Philosophy of Life, translated by Alban G. Widgery

What’s your philosophy of life? Oh, you don’t have one. Maybe you have a witty aphorism—mine is “Never refuse a breath mint”—you can bandy about when someone asks you, and you likely have a set of moral beacons lying around somewhere, religious and political and aesthetic ideas that pop to the forefront when you’re in some sticky fix. But you don’t have a wide-screen philosophy of life, built on a thoroughly vetted set of abstractions, do you? Of course not. You’re busy. There’s stuff to do.

Philosophy requires the contemplation of abstractions, which makes it the headiest of luxuries, indulged in by people who either have someone else to pick up their dry-cleaning or who dress in clothes that never need to be dry-cleaned. The rest of us generally get our musings about who we are, why we’re here, and what we ought to be doing, wherever and whenever we can. The philosophy I hope you have, for instance, of treating people decently, didn’t come from sitting around in isolation thinking over human behavior; you learned it from something specific. An adult said, “Give the truck back to Loretta,” or a book told you, “There once was a Samaritan,” or Michael Bolton asked, “How can we be lovers if we can’t be friends?”

It’s the specificity that nails it down when we read philosophy, too. Abstraction might work on a guy in a cave watching shadows on the wall, but everybody else needs a story about a guy in a cave watching shadows on the wall to know what it is he’s trying to tell us. It’s the story that endures, the example that can nail down a philosophical truth, which is why you don’t have a philosophy of life, but you can remember things that happened to you that guide your future actions. The best philosophy is concretely grounded—Descartes’s ball of wax, Barthes’s word-by-word analysis of a Balzac short story—so that readers can find their place in the otherwise airy and cerebral goings-on.

Alternately, there’s this:

Philosophies of life, representations of human life as a whole, surround us today in abundance and court our adherence. The fusion of rich historical development with active reflection gives occasion to the most diverse combinations and makes it easy for the individual to project a representation corresponding to his circumstances and his mood. Thus, today, the philosophies of life of individuals whirl together in chaotic confusion, gain and lose the passing favor, displace one another, and themselves change kaleidoscopically. It is not the concern of philosophy to occupy itself more closely with opinions so accidental and so fleeting.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Daniel Handler writes books under his own name and as Lemony Snicket.

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