The Porcupine’s Dilemma

Author

Schopenhauer, Arthur

Genre

Short Story

Overview

Nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote extensively on motivation, desire, and the relationship between the individual and society. Sometimes called “the philosopher of pessimism,” he regarded human desire as the root of suffering and human action as aimless and futile. But he highly valued the arts, believing that they offer a temporary reprieve from the pain of the human condition. Though he struggled to win recognition during his lifetime, Schopenhauer had a posthumous influence on numerous major thinkers and artists, including Sigmund Freud, who cited “The Porcupine’s Dilemma” in his discussion of group psychology and the ego. In Schopenhauer’s short parable, a group of porcupines finds that their desire for warmth is in conflict with their desire to avoid giving and suffering pain. The story raises questions about the value and the cost of human intimacy and community.

Full Text*

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Type

Reading - Short Enough to Read Aloud.

Themes

Connection and RelationshipExclusion and BelongingIdentity and Community

Big Questions

How does fear bring us together and how does it divide us?What makes it possible for us to connect to others? What gets in the way?Why is connection important? What does it enable? What does it impede?What does a sense of belonging make possible?What does it mean to be alone?How do we define who we are?Is your sense of individual identity ever in conflict with your community? How?What do people gain or lose from joining a group or a community?What makes a community strong? What makes it weak?

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. What is the dilemma faced by the porcupines in this story? What difficult choice are they forced into making?
  2. Why do they behave in the same way over and over?
  3. How do the porcupines resolve their predicament? Is the resolution that they reach a successful solution to it?
  4. What are the "prickly and disagreeable qualities" that drive human porcupines apart?
  5. In his last sentence, Schopenhauer refers to “a man who has some heat in himself.” What kind of man might this be, and what might it mean that he has “heat in himself”?
  6. Does the end of the parable point toward an alternative resolution to the porcupine’s’ dilemma? If so, does it seem to you a satisfying one?
  7. Is it possible for human beings to connect with and warm one another without being hurt and hurting others?
  8. Is it possible for an individual “to remain outside” his or her community? If not, why not? If so, what are the advantages and drawbacks of doing this?
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