The Responsibility of Happiness: Paulo Coelho’s Philosophy in The Alchemist

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“Before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World tests everything that was learned along the way. It does this not because it is evil, but so that we can, in addition to realizing our dreams, master the lessons we’ve learned as we’ve moved toward that dream. That’s the point at which most people give up. It’s the point at which, as we say in the language of the desert, one ‘dies of thirst just when the palm trees have appeared on the horizon.”

— Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

The Alchemist is 1988 novel by the Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. Originally written in Portuguese, it has been translated into over 50 languages and is one of the most cherished international novels of all time. [1]

What is it about this book that makes it so universally loved? What makes it resonate with so many people across so many cultures for so many years? 

I believe it comes down to Paulo Coelho’s philosophy and the universal way in which he delivers it in this story.

The Alchemist is about an Andalusian (Spanish) Shepard named Santiago who follows his dream of finding a mysterious treasure near the pyramids of Egypt. The story is largely allegorical, and uses Santiago’s experiences and attitude to deliver and explain Coelho’s philosophy on life. This philosophy focuses on living well in the world and centers around his views on expectations and courage, intuition and the “Language of the World,” and his universal idea of God—which he refers to as “the Soul of the World.”

On Expectations and Courage

“Everyone seems to have a clear idea about other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.”

A core part of Coelho’s philosophy on living is a response to these expectations that others place on us which he believes are often misguided. Coelho believes that people who have not pursued a life that they authentically wanted for themselves will turn their resulting bitterness towards others. 

We can understand this philosophy when the shepherd, Santiago, wavers in a moment of crisis and Coelho gives him this thought:

“When I had my sheep, I was happy, and I made those around me happy. People saw me coming and welcomed me […] But now I’m sad and alone. I’m going to become bitter and distrustful of people because one person betrayed me. I’m going to hate those who have found their treasure because I never found mine. And I’m going to hold on to what little I have, because I’m too insignificant to conquer the world.”

Santiago’s fear in this moment is ultimately Coelho’s warning of the bitter and resentful masses, something that the author has a keen understanding of and sees as a possibility for us all. Coelho says that in order to shed these misguided expectations of others and follow our true desire, we need a certain amount of courage. However, he believes that despite the difficulty, this personal task is ultimately necessary. 

“Courage,” Coelho says, “is the quality most essential to understanding the language of the world.”

On Intuition and the “Language of the World”

Throughout the novel, evident in almost every line, are Coelho’s beliefs in the power and importance of intuition. He believes that our intuition speaks to us in ways that our rational mind cannot comprehend and will tell us things that we would otherwise not be able to see. 

Coelho refers to this intuitive understanding of the world and others as the “Language of the World,” and sees it as something we must learn to discern for ourselves. He says that we can do this by learning to trust ourselves and completely make our own decisions. 

“Intuition,” he says, “is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life.”

Coelho believes that many people lose an understanding of this when they grow up and because of this, lose touch with their own personal strength and control over their decisions. 

This loss of personal power and a misguided acceptance of some kind of tragic fate beyond their control, Coelho says, is “the world’s greatest lie,” which far too many people fall victim to. 

Ultimately, Coelho says, “You’ll never be able to escape from your heart. So it’s better to listen to what it has to say.”

On Goodness, God, and the “Soul of the World”

While Coelho explains intuition as the “Language of the World,” he similarly views God or goodness as the “Soul of the World.” 

This is one of the reasons that this book is so universal, because Coelho expresses ideas like this in language that is so accessible. Terms like the “Soul of the World” reach far beyond any particular region or religion and act on a deeper understanding that we all share by simply experiencing the miracles of life.

In the story, Coelho explains how the “Soul of the World” will work for us when we take on the responsibility of our own happiness. He believes that there is an innate goodness in the world and in life that compounds when we work towards what truly makes us happy. 

Coelho says, “When you want something [that is noble], all of the universe conspires to help you achieve it.”

Ultimately, he believes that this desire for goodness and true contentment is what God, or religion, is really about, saying:

“All people who are happy have God within them.”

Conclusion

Overall, the philosophy behind The Alchemist is one of personal responsibility and the pursuit of happiness. While there are religious elements within it (i.e. the mention of God), Coelho’s philosophy isn’t bound to any particular religion, and therefore has been able to connect with such a large and diverse audience. 

Although these are the main philosophical ideas behind Coelho’s story, there are countless others that I believe are just as valuable, many of which cannot be understood without being experienced—whether through reading the novel or, even better, by living through them yourself.


References:

  1. Racoma, Bernadine. “The Alchemist in 56 Languages: Most Translated Book by a Living Author.” 2013.  
  2. Coelho, Paulo. The Alchemist. 1988.

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