Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

SCHOPENHAUER: The Indestructibility of Our Inner Nature

Philosophy has sometimes been defined as the human mind taking itself seriously. For human beings there’s nothing more serious than death. A story like The Death of Ivan Ilych proves that great literature can help us cope with real life situations such as dying. Can philosophy do that too? Schopenhauer points out that Socrates defined philosophy as “preparation for death.” And he whole-heartedly agrees. Schopenhauer goes even further: without death there would hardly have been any philosophizing…All religions and philosophical systems are primarily the antidote to the certainty of death. Other philosophers have also tried to console us with advice concerning our own mortality. Epicurus said “Death does not concern us,” with the explanation that when we are, death is not, and when death is, we are not. That’s very, well, philosophical. But it’s cold comfort to someone like Ivan who’s dying and enjoys life and wants to go on living.

The question is: why would we want to go on living in a messed up world? Is death really so bad? If we knocked on the graves and asked the dead whether they would like to rise again, they would shake their heads. In Plato’s Apology this is also the opinion of Socrates. Schopenhauer asks us to consider an old man, stricken in years, totters about or rests in a corner, now only a shadow, a ghost, of his former self. What still remains there for death to destroy? One day a slumber is his last, and his dreams are??? They are the dreams that Hamlet asks about in his famous monologue. And Hamlet did ponder this problem when he said “to be, or not to be. That is the question.” Is it better to be, or not to be? Death may be a friend to an old man who’s only a ghost of his former self. Do we want to go on existing in that condition, or not? This is religion and philosophy at its very roots. Schopenhauer tells us that …(some) religions represent man as being made out of nothing and as actually beginning at his birth the existence he has received from another. This is exactly what we find in our reading of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…and God saw that it was good.” According to this version everything that exists was created out of nothing by God. Existence is good. Cherish it.

Schopenhauer doesn’t believe that. He thinks things have always existed and always will. They just change shapes and forms. That’s neither good nor bad. It’s just the way things are. So death shouldn’t bother us. Why should it bother us if we ceased to exist in our current forms? Think about it this way …non-existence after death cannot be different from non-existence before birth…an entire infinity ran its course when we did not yet exist, but this in no way disturbs us… An infinite time has run its course before my birth; what was I throughout all that time? Metaphysically, the answer might perhaps be: “I was always I; that is, all who throughout that time said I, were just I.” Talking about infinity is a deep philosophical topic. But it’s also a deep question to consider who you were before you were born. Where were you? Did you have a name? A face? A personality? Who am I, really? What makes me who I am? In our reading of Exodus Moses essentially asks God the same question. Who are You? Who is sending me to relay God’s message to the Hebrew people? The answer is: I AM. At some point philosophy stops and the human mind is at the end of its ability to understand without supernatural help.

Schopenhauer has been down that road. He looked at Western religion and philosophy and did not find satisfactory answers to his questions. So he turned to the East. He apparently found what he was looking for in the Bhagavad-Gita: Nature’s statement is that the life or death of the individual is of absolutely no consequence. This was somehow comforting to Schopenhauer. Mark Van Doren once wrote: trust no philosopher who doesn’t relish his existence; choose life.


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