Hermann Hesse on the Difference Between Knowledge and Wisdom and Why Balance is Your Enemy

Hermann Hesse should be on any soul-searcher’s reading list. Each exploring one’s authenticity and path to self knowledge, Hesse’s novels help you question, understand and appreciate the uniqueness of everyone’s path in life.

In Steppenwolf, looking down on the average man, the bourgeois, Hesse tells how and why man tends to a balance, consequently becoming the average:

Now what we call “bourgeois”, when regarded as an element always to be found in human life, is nothing else than the search for a balance. It is the striving after a mean between the countless extremes and opposites that arise in human conduct. If we take any one of these coupled opposites, such as piety and profligacy, the analogy is immediately comprehensible. It is open to a man to give himself up wholly to spiritual views, to seeking after God, to the ideal of saintliness. On the other hand, he can equally give himself up entirely to the life of instinct, to the lusts of the flesh, and so direct all his efforts to the attainment of momentary pleasures. The one path leads to the saint, to the martyrdom of the spirit and surrender to God. The other path leads to the profligate, to the martyrdom of the flesh, the surrender to corruption. Now it is between the two, in the middle of the road, that the bourgeois seeks to walk. He will never surrender himself either to lust or to asceticism. He will never be a martyr or agree to his own destruction. On the contrary, his ideal is not to give up but to maintain his own identity. He strives neither for the saintly nor its opposite. The absolute is his abhorrence. He may be ready to serve God, but not by giving up the fleshpots. He is ready to be virtuous, but likes to be easy and comfortable in this world as well. In short, his aim is to make a home for himself between two extremes in a temperate zone without violent storms and tempests; and in this he succeeds though it be at the cost of that intensity of life and feeling which an extreme life affords. A man cannot live intensely except at the cost of the self. Now the bourgeois treasures nothing more highly than the self (rudimentary as his may be). And so at the cost of intensity he achieves his own preservation and security. His harvest is a quiet mind which he prefers to being possessed by God, as he does comfort to pleasure, convenience to liberty, and a pleasant temperature to that deathly inner consuming fire. The bourgeois is consequently by nature a creature of weak impulses, anxious, fearful of giving himself away and easy to rule. Therefore, he has substituted majority for power, law for force, and the polling booth for responsibility.

Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf

Essentially, Hesse states that intense experience is what pulls you away from the average, where nothing admirable is to be found.

Hesse was immensely shaped by Eastern philosophy, the grand result of this being his novel Siddhartha. To truly understand the importance Hesse gives to variety and intensity of experience, it’s enough to look at a few passages from Siddhartha.

Of the Western philosophers, I have been influenced most by Plato, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche as well as the historian Jacob Burckhardt. But they did not influence me as much as Indian and, later, Chinese philosophy.

From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969

In it, Hesse takes his main character through a life of extreme ups and downs, reaching worldly success only to reject it on a whim. But all of that experience was essential for Siddhartha to gain any wisdom, which no amount of meditation, fasting and teaching could yield.

“It is good,” he thought, “to get a taste of everything for oneself, which one needs to know. That lust for the world and riches do not belong to the good things, I have already learned as a child. I have known it for a long time, but I have experienced only now. And now I know it, don’t just know it in my memory, but in my eyes, in my heart, in my stomach. Good for me, to know this!”

Hermann Hesse – Siddhartha

To emphasize the importance of experience even more, Hesse gives a beautiful distinction between knowledge and wisdom:

I’m telling you what I’ve found. Knowledge can be conveyed, but not wisdom. It can be found, it can be lived, it is possible to be carried by it, miracles can be performed with it, but it cannot be expressed in words and taught. This was what I, even as a young man, sometimes suspected, what has driven me away from the teachers.

Hermann Hesse – Siddhartha

This is why storytelling and literature, especially philosophical novels such as Siddhartha, are so powerful – in order to convey a point, you’re taken for a journey that makes you feel the point, instead of just telling you a rule of conduct. That’s as close as you can get to wisdom without direct experience. But, if we’re to learn anything from Hesse, that’s still very remote from the real thing.

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