The Porcupine Dilemma: Schopenhauer’s Parable about Negotiating the Optimal Distance in Love
By Maria Popova
This is the supreme challenge of intimacy — how to reconcile the aching yearning for closeness with the painful pressures of actually being close, how to forge a bond tight enough to feel the warmth of connection but spacious enough to feel free.
Kahlil Gibran knew this when he contemplated the vital balance of intimacy and independence, urging lovers to “love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.” Rilke knew it when he reckoned with the difficult art of giving space in love, observing that “even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist.” In consequence, we move through love in a clumsy dance of approach and withdrawal, trying to negotiate the optimal distance for that elusive, ecstatic feeling of spacious togetherness.
Long before Gibran and Rilke, Arthur Schopenhauer (February 22, 1788–September 21, 1860) explored this calibration in his 1851 collection of short philosophical essays Parerga and Paralipomena (public library), presenting The Porcupine Dilemma — part parable and part thought experiment, illustrating the paradox of intimacy.
One cold winter’s day, a number of porcupines huddled together quite closely in order through their mutual warmth to prevent themselves from being frozen. But they soon felt the effect of their quills on one another, which made them again move apart. Now when the need for warmth once more brought them together, the drawback of the quills was repeated so that they were tossed between two evils, until they had discovered the proper distance from which they could best tolerate one another. Thus the need for society which springs from the emptiness and monotony of men’s lives, drives them together; but their many unpleasant and repulsive qualities and insufferable drawbacks once more drive them apart. The mean distance which they finally discover, and which enables them to endure being together [means] that the need for mutual warmth will be only imperfectly satisfied, but on the other hand, the prick of the quills will not be felt.
Complement Schopenhauer’s parable with Octavio Paz on how to inhabit love as “a knot made of two intertwined freedoms” and Alain de Botton on the challenge of closeness, then revisit Schopenhauer on the power of music and the mark of genius.
Published August 3, 2023