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Schopenhauer now says that one must learn from experience:

To live a life that shall be entirely prudent and discreet, and to draw from experience all the instruction it contains, it is requisite to be constantly thinking back,–to make a kind of recapitulation of what we have done, of our impressions and sensations, to compare our former with our present judgments–what we set before us and struggle to achieve, with the actual result and satisfaction we have obtained. To do this is to get a repetition of the private lessons of experience,–lessons which are given to every one.

This is the sort of advice that sounds good until it is considered. It is remarkable how thin most wisdom becomes when it obtains some attention.

William Blake in the Proverbs of Hell from the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, we read:

Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

We all speak generically of having learned from our experience. But what and how precisely do we learn anything from experience? Experience alone cannot teach us anything. It certainly cannot teach us either contentment or happiness.

The learning takes place upon the basis of some basic structure, some values or propositions which tell me what to value and what to avoid. The experience can at most tell me the extent to which my suppositions about the world are work out in practice.

Let us say I learn that purposeful cruelty to other human beings results in their sorrow and pain. I see that happen on so many occasions that I conclude on the basis of induction that it will be true for all other persons I have never met. Now, experience has taught me a correlation between two events.

But experience alone does not tell me whether the pain I have inflicted is good or bad. I know that it is evil to purposefully provoke sorrow and pain, not on the basis of experience but upon some ethic which I had prior to my experience.

The infamous Marquis De Sade drew a very different conclusion from precisely the same experience. Experience did not teach the evil or cruelty. Experience can only demonstrate but not teach.

A life-long libertine learns nothing from the road of excess, except perhaps empirical facts about the results of his conduct. But nothing teaches him happiness or contentment. So, we first must begin by limiting our trust in experience as a teacher. It does teach some empirical information, but it does not teach us that means.

Let us take another comparison with Blake’s Proverbs. They both say that experience teaches – Blake in a much more memorable manner. But the next proverb of Blake proves the point that experience merely demonstrates or at best teaches facts but not values.

Schopenhauer commends experience as a way to learn prudence: Presumably we are to learn what sorts of things result in unpleasant experiences, and thereby avoid such experiences. Schopenhauer sees prudence as the goal of learning by experience.

But Blake commends precisely the opposite:

Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.

Blake here turns Schopenhauer on his head. For Schopenhauer, experiences teaches prudence. Blake says that experience teaches – indeed the most excessive experiences are the surest are the surest paths to wisdom. The wisdom in Blake’s hellish proverbs is that prudence is a failure; it is lack and incapacity.

If we consider Blake and Schopenhauer from a distance, how do we decide between the two? Certainly not on the basis of experience, because the conclusion of both is made upon the basis of experience. And, an argument can be made that experience does teach both prudence and the painful constriction of prudence.

How does one choose between the two and conclude that one or the other is wisdom?

We will take a third voice in our consideration of experience as a basis to gain wisdom. In the second chapter of Ecclesiastes, we read of Solomon’s experience. He obtained all that the world could possibly provide; he rebuilt a veritable Eden from endless wealth and tremendous power:

Ecclesiastes 2:3–10 (ESV)

3 I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. 4 I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.

9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.

Solomon certainly took Blake’s advice to heart and full followed the road of excess. But what conclusion did Solomon gain?

Ecclesiastes 2:11 (ESV)

11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

This is the most negative evaluation in the entire book. Solomon learned that there was nothing of value in experience. He learned that experience amounts to nothing. In fact, he learned that wisdom adds nothing because it cannot save from death:

Ecclesiastes 2:14–15 (ESV)

14 The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 15 Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity.

In fact, experience teaches that we die. What wisdom is there in seeing death? What would constitute wisdom in light of death? What does prudence provide if I will die? What does excess teach if it runs into death. What palace of wisdom stands before us?