The Daily Habits of Highly Productive Philosophers: Nietzsche, Marx & Immanuel Kant

Ever won­der how famous philoso­phers from the past spent their many hours of tedi­um between par­a­digm-smash­ing epipha­nies? I do. And I have learned much from the bio­graph­i­cal morsels on “Dai­ly Rou­tines,” a blog about “How writ­ers, artists, and oth­er inter­est­ing peo­ple orga­nize their days.” (The blog has also now yield­ed a bookDai­ly Rit­u­als: How Artists Work.) While there is much fas­ci­nat­ing vari­ety to be found among these descrip­tions of the quo­tid­i­an habits of celebri­ty human­ists, one quote found on the site from V.S. Pritch­ett stands out: “Soon­er or lat­er, the great men turn out to be all alike. They nev­er stop work­ing. They nev­er lose a minute. It is very depress­ing.” But I urge you, be not depressed. In these pré­cis of the mun­dane lives of philoso­phers and artists, we find no small amount of med­i­ta­tive leisure occu­py­ing every day. Read these tiny biogra­phies and be edi­fied. The con­tem­pla­tive life requires dis­ci­pline and hard work, for sure. But it also seems to require some time indulging car­nal plea­sures and much more time lost in thought.

Let’s take Friedrich Niet­zsche (above). While most of us couldn’t pos­si­bly reach the great heights of icon­o­clas­tic soli­tude he scaled—and I’m not sure that we would want to—we might find his dai­ly bal­ance of the kinet­ic, aes­thet­ic, gus­ta­to­ry, and con­tem­pla­tive worth aim­ing at. Though not fea­tured on Dai­ly Rou­tines, an excerpt from Cur­tis Cate’s epony­mous Niet­zsche biog­ra­phy shows us the curi­ous habits of this most curi­ous man:

With a Spar­tan rigour which nev­er ceased to amaze his land­lord-gro­cer, Niet­zsche would get up every morn­ing when the faint­ly dawn­ing sky was still grey, and, after wash­ing him­self with cold water from the pitch­er and chi­na basin in his bed­room and drink­ing some warm milk, he would, when not felled by headaches and vom­it­ing, work unin­ter­rupt­ed­ly until eleven in the morn­ing. He then went for a brisk, two-hour walk through the near­by for­est or along the edge of Lake Sil­va­plana (to the north-east) or of Lake Sils (to the south-west), stop­ping every now and then to jot down his lat­est thoughts in the note­book he always car­ried with him. Return­ing for a late lun­cheon at the Hôtel Alpen­rose, Niet­zsche, who detest­ed promis­cu­ity, avoid­ed the mid­day crush of the table d’hôte in the large din­ing-room and ate a more or less ‘pri­vate’ lunch, usu­al­ly con­sist­ing of a beef­steak and an ‘unbe­liev­able’ quan­ti­ty of fruit, which was, the hotel man­ag­er was per­suad­ed, the chief cause of his fre­quent stom­ach upsets. After lun­cheon, usu­al­ly dressed in a long and some­what thread­bare brown jack­et, and armed as usu­al with note­book, pen­cil, and a large grey-green para­sol to shade his eyes, he would stride off again on an even longer walk, which some­times took him up the Fex­tal as far as its majes­tic glac­i­er. Return­ing ‘home’ between four and five o’clock, he would imme­di­ate­ly get back to work, sus­tain­ing him­self on bis­cuits, peas­ant bread, hon­ey (sent from Naum­burg), fruit and pots of tea he brewed for him­self in the lit­tle upstairs ‘din­ing-room’ next to his bed­room, until, worn out, he snuffed out the can­dle and went to bed around 11 p.m.

This comes to us via A Piece of Mono­logue, who also pro­vide some pho­tographs of Nietzsche’s favorite Swiss vis­tas and his aus­tere accom­mo­da­tions. No doubt this life, how­ev­er lone­ly, led to the pro­duc­tion of some of the most world-shak­ing philo­soph­i­cal texts ever pro­duced, per­haps rivaled in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry only by the work of the prodi­gious Karl Marx.


So how did Marx’s dai­ly life com­pare to the morose and monk­ish Niet­zsche? Accord­ing to Isa­iah Berlin, Marx also had his dai­ly habits, though not quite so well-bal­anced.

His mode of liv­ing con­sist­ed of dai­ly vis­its to the British Muse­um read­ing-room, where he nor­mal­ly remained from nine in the morn­ing until it closed at sev­en; this was fol­lowed by long hours of work at night, accom­pa­nied by cease­less smok­ing, which from a lux­u­ry had become an indis­pens­able ano­dyne; this affect­ed his health per­ma­nent­ly and he became liable to fre­quent attacks of a dis­ease of the liv­er some­times accom­pa­nied by boils and an inflam­ma­tion of the eyes, which inter­fered with his work, exhaust­ed and irri­tat­ed him, and inter­rupt­ed his nev­er cer­tain means of liveli­hood. “I am plagued like Job, though not so God-fear­ing,” he wrote in 1858.

Marx’s mon­ey wor­ries con­tributed to his phys­i­cal com­plaints, sure­ly, as much as Nietzsche’s social anx­i­ety did to his. Not all philoso­phers have had such dra­mat­ic emo­tion­al lives, how­ev­er.

immanuel-kantSmok­ing plays a sig­nif­i­cant role as a dai­ly aid, for good or ill, in the dai­ly lives of many philoso­phers, such as that of giant of 18th cen­tu­ry thought, Immanuel Kant. But Kant suf­fered from nei­ther penury nor some severe case of unre­quit­ed love. He seems, indeed, to have been a rather dull per­son, at least in the bio­graph­i­cal sketch below by Man­fred Kuehn.

His dai­ly sched­ule then looked some­thing like this. He got up at 5:00 A.M. His ser­vant Mar­tin Lampe, who worked for him from at least 1762 until 1802, would wake him. The old sol­dier was under orders to be per­sis­tent, so that Kant would not sleep longer. Kant was proud that he nev­er got up even half an hour late, even though he found it hard to get up ear­ly. It appears that dur­ing his ear­ly years, he did sleep in at times. After get­ting up, Kant would drink one or two cups of tea — weak tea. With that, he smoked a pipe of tobac­co. The time he need­ed for smok­ing it “was devot­ed to med­i­ta­tion.” Appar­ent­ly, Kant had for­mu­lat­ed the max­im for him­self that he would smoke only one pipe, but it is report­ed that the bowls of his pipes increased con­sid­er­ably in size as the years went on. He then pre­pared his lec­tures and worked on his books until 7:00. His lec­tures began at 7:00, and they would last until 11:00. With the lec­tures fin­ished, he worked again on his writ­ings until lunch. Go out to lunch, take a walk, and spend the rest of the after­noon with his friend Green. After going home, he would do some more light work and read.

For all of their var­i­ous com­plaints and ail­ments, through­out their most pro­duc­tive years these high­ly pro­duc­tive writ­ers embraced Gus­tave Flaubert’s max­im, “Be reg­u­lar and order­ly in your life, so that you may be vio­lent and orig­i­nal in your work.” I have always believed that these are words to live and work by, with the addi­tion of a lit­tle vice or two to spice things up.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

John Updike’s Advice to Young Writ­ers: ‘Reserve an Hour a Day’

John Cleese’s Phi­los­o­phy of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Cre­at­ing Oases for Child­like Play

Read­ing Marx’s Cap­i­tal with David Har­vey (Free Course)

Wal­ter Kaufmann’s Clas­sic Lec­tures on Niet­zsche, Kierkegaard and Sartre (1960)

Down­load 90 Free Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es and Start Liv­ing the Exam­ined Life

Sartre, Hei­deg­ger, Niet­zsche: Three Philoso­phers in Three Hours

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (21)
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  • leonardo says:

    Before call­ing Kant “a rather dull per­son” I would advise any­one to read some of his books. Goethe said that turn­ing one page of the Cri­tique of Pure Rea­son was like enter­ing in a room full of light. True, he did­n’t look like a roman­tic poet, or like a hip­pie: in order to be excit­ed by Kant, you have to take some time to study his writ­ings.

  • AB says:

    Inter­est­ing. Peo­ple should ignore the desire for great­ness and con­cen­trate on “take a walk.” 30 min­utes on a walk this morn­ing, with the weath­er warm and the Earth­’s odors per­me­at­ing, allowed me to see so clear­ly.

  • Nick Bobil says:

    Lit­tle bit of cel­e­bra­to­ry gos­sip for the intel­lec­tu­al­ly mind­ed. Nice. Kant lived this life and nev­er trav­elled. Even the Dali Lama trav­els and he’s sup­posed to be noth­ing but pure spir­i­tu­al cat­e­gor­i­cal imper­a­tive isn’t he? That’s pret­ty dull.

  • barthomew says:

    I once read that Kant reg­u­lar­ly came to an restau­rant or tav­ern for nour­ish­ment. Maybe it was his lunch that was being described. It was said that he was so reg­u­lar that one could set one’s clock by his appear­ances. One day he did not show up. It turned out that he had had one of the key insights of his life and work; and so he stayed with his thoughts and work rather than show­ing up at that.nI also heard a sto­ry that may have been about Kant. Every time he came to the tav­ern he would put a coin on the table; he would remove it after the meal was over. Final­ly some­one asked him why he did that. And the philoso­pher said that he had promised him­self that he would give that coin to char­i­ty if he ever came into the tav­ern and heard any­one talk­ing about any­thing besides.…sports and sex [or a sim­i­lar des­ig­na­tion of the habit­u­al on a super­fi­cial lev­el].

    • Derrick Everett says:

      I believe that this is a sto­ry told, not about Kant, but about Schopen­hauer. It was a gold coin and the philoso­pher put the same coin on the table each evening for many years.

  • Peter says:

    Nice piece, but:nIn Man­fred Kuehn’s biog­ra­phy of Kant, the author is at pains to empha­sise the fact that Kant was, in fact, NOT ‘a rather dull per­son’, as you write. This view was prop­a­gat­ed for var­i­ous rea­sons by his ini­tial biog­ra­phers.

  • inthepresent says:

    I Kant stop think­ing about work. I hate it when that hap­pens.

  • Joshua says:

    Inter­est­ing, though — as bril­liant and and excit­ing as Kan­t’s ideas may be, his writ­ing sure was pro­sa­ic, par­tic­u­lar­ly on con­trast with the fiery poet­ry of Niet­zsche and Marx.

  • SB_London says:

    Per­son­al­ly, I favour St Augustine’s max­im: make me pure, but not yet…

  • mb says:

    Deleuze’s book on Spin­oza has a great intro­duc­tion about his life if you’re look­ing for some­thing read on him!

  • michael benton says:

    I would rather be one of the exis­ten­tial­ists — embrac­ing and engag­ing the ran­dom­ness of life with a pur­pose.

  • Antony says:

    hav­ing read the com­ments above I would just like to add this…the great­est decep­tion men suf­fer from is their own opin­ions lol

  • Carlos F. Hernandez Villarreal says:

    Philoso­phers are NOT some kind of rare or atyp­i­cal peo­ple if you judge them from a per­son­al per­spec­tive; I mean, they are mem­bers of the human race, with all the pos­si­ble virtues and defects inher­ent to men. So, their biog­ra­phers are whom overem­pha­size some char­ac­ter­is­tics in an effort to make them recher­ché. The real dif­fer­ence between a philoso­pher and «com­mon» per­sons is their tal­ent to express ideas of com­mon­sense but with words that make them look like if has nev­er said before, and easy to be under­stood by most intel­li­gent, think­ing peo­ple.

  • Arthur says:

    Just so you know, it’s actu­al­ly ordi­nary peo­ple who think that because some­one does­n’t throw par­ties is ‘lone­ly’ is also ‘dull’. That is what they appear to ordi­nary peo­ple.

    Most of the great­est minds and artists have always been lone­ly, most­ly by choice, but even when not, they had a rich inner world to be busy with. They did­n’t need to throw par­ties, mar­ry, pro­cre­ate like rab­bits, trav­el, or care about the exter­nal world. Schopen­hauer explains all this very well in his essays. He even goes as far as say­ing that ‘to say that some­one does not have a social life is almost tan­ta­mount to say that he is a man of great capac­i­ty’.

    Even Goethe, which had a ‘very rich’ social life, assert­ed that in the end he was alone.

    There is also a stu­pid view about the soli­tary per­son being ‘weird’, ‘creepy’, etc.…Many psy­chos have also been very social and ‘charm­ing’.

    Fun­ny how ‘the mul­ti­tude’ (as Seneca and Aure­lius called it)when say­ing that so and so is ‘lone­ly and dull’ seems to reflect them­selves in a mir­ror.

  • Schopenhauer says:

    “They nev­er stop work­ing. They nev­er lose a minute. It is very depress­ing”

    It is real­ly the oth­er way around,i.e. not los­ing a minute is the grestest thing, only great peo­ple do that; it is real­ly depress­ing to have noth­ing to work on.

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