Schopenhauer and Indian Philosophy
Mis à jour : janv. 11
Arthur Schopenhauer, by J. Schäfer (1859)
"Schopenhauer was one of the few modern philosophers who made a serious study of Upanishads and Buddhist philosophy, not merely to satisfy an intellectual quest but also to derive from them some of the basic elements of his own philosophy, as also the grounds for the aim and method of the practice in life. In Schopenhauer, we find an early exemplar in the modern era of the view that
the East and West can meet.
It is mainly for this reason that we in India look upon Schopenhauer with deep appreciation and we are impelled to make a special effort to trace those elements in the Western philosophy which culminated in Schopenhauer who was the first one to proclaim in its
purity the doctrine that Will is paramount, the doctrine which came to be advocated by many subsequent modern philosophers such as Nietzsche, Bergson, James and Dewey. That doctrine has effected a striking change in the temper of philosophy in our own times. Realisation that that doctrine was in some measure the result of the influence on him of the Upanishads and Buddhism inspires us to undertake a fresh look into the Indian philosophy and to enrich our own critical assessment of the comparative study of Indian and Western philosophy.
A central question relating to Schopenhauer’s philosophy is regarding the nature of Will. According to Schopenhauer, all processes in nature are fundamentally a kind of striving. He also speaks of unconscious processes of end-seeking. His statement of the world as a Will is not merely empirical but also metaphysical.
Will provides Schopenhauer with a kind of nature of the world-in-itself, including the underlying reality of the individual human being. This view is comparable to the Buddhistic view of the world as a constant becoming and of the life of the human beings driven by desire.
Schopenhauer’s philosophy is anti-dualist, and he paints a vivid picture of the whole of animate nature as for ever striving, struggling, and competing for life and further life by producing offsprings. He maintains that the conscious or rationally caused willing in human beings is merely the highest sophistication of will to life that permeates all nature.
Although human beings are organisms whose brains and other physiological processes enable them to function as subjects of knowledge, applying classification of space, time, and causality, and making rational judgements, yet the innermost core is the Will.
He points out that the mental processes are almost always at a deeper level subservient to blind will to life. Incidentally, it may be mentioned that his idea that the intellect is often forced to follow the secret purposes of uncontrollable underlying will was a precursor of Freud’s view of the unconscious.
According to Schopenhauer, there cannot be a plurality of things in themselves since plurality implies individuation, and individuation arises from space and time, and space and time do not apply to the thing in itself. He contends that thing in itself or the will objectifies itself as multiplicity of things itself. This view is comparable to the Upanishadic view that reality is one without the second that it isspaceless and timeless and that it is only in space and time that oneness of the ultimate reality manifests itself or appears in terms of multiplicity.
According to Schopenhauer, will is associated with misery. For will to life impels us on ever-increasing train of desires and goals, but we reach no ultimate point or final satisfaction. The conclusion is that desires always remain unsatisfied, and to have desires unsatisfied is to suffer. In developing this aspect of his philosophy, Schopenhauer comes closest to the Buddhistic doctrine, according to which there is perennial suffering in the world and that suffering is caused by desire. Upanishads, too, maintain that all human suffering is caused by desire. Both Buddhism and Upanishads, therefore, advocate renunciation of desire. And Schopenhauer, too, maintains that suffering can be alleviated, and this alleviation can come about when one may have the suspension of the will.
The World as Will and Representation, Arthur Schopenhauer (1819)
One can notice here the reason as to why Schopenhauer felt a great solace in the Upanishads and why he found in Buddhism a great support. Both in the Upanishads and in the Buddhism, the resolution of suffering is in the cessation of desire; in both, the emphasis is on the cessation of the limitation of space and time and in the cessation of the limited individuality. Both speak of the experience in which there is an experience of silence.
Schopenhauer is often stigmatised as a pessimistic philosopher, in the same way as many critics of Upanishads and Buddhism regard them as pessimistic. But when we consider Schopenhauer’s understanding of the psychology of the saint, of compassion and the value he attaches to striving for liberation without escaping from the struggle by taking recourse to suicide, one is obliged to conclude that his theory exemplifies, not the futility of life, but the possibility of attainment of a state of release from all subjectivity of egoism.
Just as we can say that Buddhism is not a petty ideal of escape but of heroic striving towards Nirvana, a state free from suffering, and just as we see the Upanishadic teachings
as an affirmation of the possibility of the recovery of spaceless-timeless Reality in experience that transcends all subjectivity and objectivity, even so we can say that Schopenhauer advocates the possibility of release from sorrow in the experience of compassion.
He rightly holds the view that individuation or egoism is not an ultimate truth in the
universe and that therefore compassion is more profoundly justified than egoism.
We may recall that according to Schopenhauer, compassion is the impulse is to seek
another’s well-being and to prevent another’s suffering, and is grounded in a vision of
the world which sets less store than usual on divisions between individuals. According
to Schopenhauer, the good man sees everywhere “I, once more”.
A true understanding of Schopenhauer’s philosophy reveals a profound psychology of saintliness, of inner resignation, true composure, true desirelessness. His message is a message of remedy, which lies in achieving a vision of the world which attaches the lowest possible importance to egoism, to one’s own individuality which strives in divisions.
Philosophical Notes on Schopenhauer and Indian Philosophy,
by Kireet Joshi