- Death, Contemplation and Schopenhauer
In his newly released Death, Contemplation and Schopenhauer, R. Raj Singh, Chair of the Philosophy Department at Brock University in Ontario, attempts to reawaken what he argues to be the true vocation of the “authentic” philosophical life. For Singh, “death is not only a theme but the theme of philosophy, and . . . the very impetus to philosophize issues from a reflection on death” (p. 10). The classics of ancient and modern philosophy, in both Western and Asian civilizations, attest to the vocation of philosophy as “death contemplation.” Death is seen as the inspiration [End Page 115] of the search for wisdom in Socrates, who characterizes philosophy as “rehearsal for death (thanatoi meletos)” (pp. 1–4); in Plotinus, who extols “the attempt to free one’s soul from ‘matters bodily’” (pp. 4–8); in Nachiketas, who seeks knowledge of the soul from the god of death in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad (pp. 13–22); in the bhakti poet Kabir, who praises fearlessness of death in the knowledge of brahman (pp. 22–23); and in Heidegger, who finds in the existential encounter with death the key to human authenticity (pp. 8–10).
Rather than construct a thematic anthology that would include the breadth of these classical statements, Singh focuses his study on Arthur Schopenhauer, both because Schopenhauer’s metaphysics, ethics, and soteriology are thoroughly suffused with the insights of genuinely philosophical “death-contemplation” and because Schopenhauer draws his insights from the religious and philosophical classics of the West and from the Vedāntic and Buddhist treatises of India. In Schopenhauer, as Singh sees it, we find a thinker whose searching is profoundly rooted in the significance of death as the motivator of contemplation and who can truly be called a “world philosopher.”
Singh begins with an examination of the development of Schopenhauer’s philosophy in the three editions (1818, 1844, 1859) of his “chief work,” The World as Will and Representation (WWR). Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of will grounds all individuals in an eternal, undifferentiated force that nonetheless consigns those individuals to contest, conflict, and death, and this inspires the “denial of the will-to-live” in the sages and saints of the world’s religious traditions (pp. 29–37). This metaphysics leads Schopenhauer to an overarching doctrine of “eternal justice,” according to which suffering and death are the just penalties that the will inflicts on itself in the lives of successive individuals, who in the delusions (māyā) of egoism carry out this mutual punishment (pp. 37–42). Schopenhauer overtly sees this doctrine symbolically reflected in the Brāhmiṇical and Buddhist notions of rebirth (p. 42).
Singh then devotes a chapter to exploring the precise relationship between Schopenhauer and classical Indian thought, since the influence of the latter on the former has been so often discounted by Western Schopenhauer commentators and derided by modern Indian critics. Wilhelm Halbfass is approvingly quoted in support of the contention that Schopenhauer appropriates various concepts from the Indian tradition, notably those pertaining to illusion, desire, and worldly suffering, in order to critique Western approbations of rationality and Hegelian progressivism (pp. 57–58). Moira Nicholls is taken to task, however, for linking Schopenhauer’s increased interest in Brāhmiṇical and Buddhist thought to “shifts” in his articulation of the will as the thing-in-itself (pp. 58–60), and Bhikkhu Nanajivako is critiqued for positing that Schopenhauer’s early fascination with Vedānta was overshadowed in his later career by a preference for Buddhism (pp. 60–62). Western commentators such as Michael Fox, David Cartwright, and John Atwell are criticized for rejecting out of hand Schopenhauer’s defense of “eternal justice” as overly pessimistic because they lack sufficient knowledge of the Indian texts from which Schopenhauer drew inspiration (pp. 62–65). [End Page 116]
Singh expresses sympathy with modern Indian philosophers (presumably Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan) who deem Schopenhauer’s construals of concepts such as māyā, tṛṣṇa, upādāna, or dukkha as too pessimistic, for Schopenhauer does not take into account that the same Vedāntic and Buddhist traditions that...