Schopenhauer and Shankara
Theosophical Forum, January, 1901
It is a somewhat humiliating thing to think of, that in spite of all the good intentions and praiseworthy endeavours of Sir William Jones and his colleagues of the Calcutta school of Oriental studies, they succeeded in missing altogether the most valuable part of India’s intellectual heritage; and but for a grammar or two, which have since been wholly superseded, we might almost say that their entire work could be blotted out from our records without sensibly lessening the total of Oriental knowledge. Of the first generation of Sanskrit scholars we still see the name of Colebrooke quoted occasionally; but even then it is not so much as a trustworthy judge of the real value of India’s contribution to culture that Colebrooke is cited, but rather as a man of retentive memory who gleaned much knowledge from native scholars and accurately recorded what he gleaned. Yet even Colebrooke, though a man of far more serious intellectual attainments than Sir W. Jones, and a better scholar than Sir Charles Wilkins, seems never to have quite conquered the idea that the natives of India were, and had ever been, an inferior race, whom we might with propriety patronise, but from whose highest works even it would be useless to expect any serious help in the weightier questions of life.
There is one mental attitude that we find repeated again and again in the books of the earlier Orientalists,—and even today certain scholars still retain the habit of it,—and this is the mixture of patronage and pity bestowed on what are called “the moral gropings of heathen religions.” We are seriously told,—and we are compelled in patience to submit to the telling,—that, for mere heathens, Gautama Buddha and Shankara did not do so badly, and we learn patience by remembering that, not so long ago, the same sort of thing used to be said of Socrates and Plato. It need hardly be said that criticism of this sort does not really enter the intellectual world at all, and that pure reason cannot even take cognisance of it. But the fact that it has been so abundant,—fairly saturating the text-books,—shows that we have one more evidence that what is called the Anglo-Saxon mind has no great gift for problems of pure intelligence, no real affinity for ideas.
In the modern world,—even the most robust Anglo-Saxon mind will hardly deny it,—we have one grand centre of ideas, which can be likened in eminence to Plato’s work in Greece; and that centre is the thought of Kant, as developed, especially in one particular, by Schopenhauer. And we may well illustrate the unfitness of the Anglo-Saxon mind for pure thought, by the example of the neo-Kantian philosophy. The Anglo-Saxon mind proposed to itself the problem: “Why do the heathen imagine a vain thing?” And the works of our Calcutta Orientalists are so many changes rung on the theme of that question, with such results as, for instance, the Boden Professorship of Sanskrit, the incumbent of which is appointed to fit young men to frustrate the wiles of the wicked one, as manifested, let us say, in the Vedanta or the Lotus of the Good Law. Kant, who was possessed of a philosophical spirit, asked no questions about the heathen at all, but rather set himself to explore the question: “What is real, and what only seeming, in this strange world of ours?” Or, to put it in another way: “How much of our perceptions are due to the perceiver, and how much are due to the thing perceived,”—what, in a word, is the thing, in itself, as apart from our perception? That is the kind of question pure reason asks, has ever asked, and will ever ask; and it is the mark of philosophic spirit to see with perfect clearness that all questions about the heathen, and much more of like value, must be set aside, until these weightier questions have been met, so far as they can he met. Yet another proof that the Anglo-Saxon mind is unsuited to pure philosophy is the fact that the whole of the epoch of physical science, which has been the glory of the Anglo-Saxon mind for the last half-century, is based on a sheer misconception, at least so far as it claims to have any philosophic value at all. For this physical science assumes that we really know how much of reality there is in our perceptions and in the phenomenal world as a whole; while the philosophic mind sees clearly from the beginning that this is just one of those question that nobody can answer, and which, in the nature of things, can never have an answer. It is assuming that we know what things really are; and that they really are pretty much what they seem to be. It is characteristic of our intellectual levity that we have for two generations had a flourishing philosophy of Materialism which has never had any sound idea as to what Matter really is, and, better still, has never felt that it was necessary to have any idea on the subject.
Kant, as we saw, did not set out to investigate the nature of matter; he rather proposed to himself the problem, as to what things were in themselves, and what we added to them by looking at them. And he came to the curious conclusion that we can never know things as they really are in themselves, because of the action of our own intellects. So that, instead of being an instrument for the discovery of truth,—since reality must be the synonym of truth,—it appears that the intellect is the very opposite; that it is an instrument for the creation of falsehood, the root of illusion, the fruitful source of all misapprehensions, and the necessary cause of their continuance in perpetuity. Things as they really are are for ever hidden from us by the action of our own intellects, which build up mask after mask, veil after veil, between us and the objects, if such there be, which we are trying to behold in the white light of truth. Kant took great pains to give names to three of these veils, and found that they are what we know as Time, as Space, and as the idea of cause and effect, or Causal Law.
Let us try to make clear what Kant meant by this, for simplicity’s sake taking the matter from the other end. Let us consider a single conscious mind; a unit of consciousness. Consciousness, unless it be the ultimate liberated Being, must be conscious of something. Let us consider this something as simply a sensation; some kind of stimulus touching our unit of consciousness, and waking it into perception. Then consider the stimulus to be again withdrawn, and after a while again called into activity. These alternate impressions and blanks are interpreted by the unit of consciousness as being connected together by a causal bond; that is, each is supposed to be the effect of what went before, and the cause of what comes after. This is the idea of Causation; it is built up on mere succession of impressions, and upon these successive impressions the conscious unit imposes the thought of a causal relation, weaving the impressions into causal series.
Now succession gives rise to a second idea; the idea of duration. The perceiving consciousness, waiting for each impression to follow the other, and noting their successive appearance, conjures up the sense of time; of duration; for time is nothing but succession, the sense of moments following each other in order, each one colored by some impression or sensation. Now we see that from the mere succession of impressions, or, to speak quite accurately, from the sense that impressions are following each other, we get the thought first of causation, and then of time. Let us consider how the thought of space is to grow out of these two.
Suppose yourself in a dark room, first in silence, and then hearing a sound, at first faint, then growing slowly louder, till it clangs upon the ear; then growing less and less, until it quite fades out of hearing. You will irresistibly get the feeling of something drawing near, and then departing; that is, from a mere change in intensity, you get the idea of distance or space of one dimension. So long as the sound waxes and wanes in the same way, you will time after time get the same impression of nearness and farness; but suppose another sound to strike upon your hearing at the same time, a sound different in pitch, and waxing and waning at a different rate. You will enlarge your ideas of space, and imagine a second direction for the new sound, and if you come to hear several different sounds, of different qualities, you will end by building up for them a fully developed space, expanding all around you, and stretching to indefinite directions.
We do this very thing with visual images. In reality, they rest on the retina of the eye, but we project them out into space and so build up a roomy and commodious world about us. But, says Kant, this world is of our building; we have conjured up from mere succession of impression a triple veil of illusion, imagining first causation, then time, then space, and filling up the world we create with imagined images embodying our impressions. There was something to begin with, besides ourselves; but the working of our minds hid it so effectually, that what that something was, became ever more doubtful and obscure.
So that, to know anything as it is,—the thing-in-itself, as Kant called it,—we must take it out of time, out of space, and away from the idea of causation; and what is left, if anything is left, is the thing in itself. Kant supposed that the thing left, after his triple unveiling, would be what we call Force; though what Force is, is one of those things nobody knows. The wise are wise because they know that they do not know it; and so we come back again to the heathen Socrates. Now it is quite clear that we cannot conceive of Force, which is outside space, above time, and not subject to causation; and it is further quite clear that we should not be in the slightest degree benefited, even if we could conceive it. Here, we may note, one comes clearly to see why such problems as the raging of the heathen, the descent of man, the number of the physical elements, and other questions that vex the Anglo-Saxon mind, lose their hold on the philosophic spirit; for, if we are so far from knowing what man is now, are we likely to be wiser as to what man was, when he was not yet man?
Then comes the vital contribution of Schopenhauer to our mental riches. We cannot conceive force, or the thing-in-itself, he says; but that does not greatly matter; for we are that Force, that thing-in-itself; and so, even if we are intellectually lazy and indifferent, there is no fear of the thing-in-itself escaping us, since we cannot run away from ourselves. The Will in us is the thing-in-itself, the reality, the Force behind phenomena and it is the passage of the Will through the triple prism of the intellect—with its three sides, Time, Space, Causality—that gives rise to the many coloured world.
Now here comes in the moral of the tale; It is axiomatic—at least with the modern Europeans—that modern Europeans are the most important and admirable persons in the world; that their achievements are to the achievements of other folk as wine is to water, as sunlight to moonlight. It is instructive, therefore, for us to learn that the last and highest achievement of the best intellect of modern Europe, and the only achievement which is the outcome of pure reason and serious thought, brings us exactly to where we were in the old Indian days, when silver-tongued Shankara taught the final lessons of the Vedanta philosophy. Every conclusion, even the very phrases of our best modern thought, have their counterparts in that great teacher’s work, and, we are constrained to say, the Indian expression of the ultimate truth has a far finer quality of style than the modern, for Shankara says the last reality is, not the reverted Will-toward-life, or some hypothetical Force, but our own inmost and Eternal Self; and we can easily see how much higher an expression, from the point of view of power and beauty, Shankara’s is than Kant’s or Schopenhauer’s.
Let us linger a moment over this conclusion of Shankara’s, and bring it home closer to our understandings. In the age when Shankara lived and taught, the older Vedanta and the Sankhya of Kapila had been blended into one, and Shankara used the forms of thought of both schools. The Sankhya had gained notions so like Kant’s that we are tempted to see in Kant a Kapila reborn, and transported from the Ganges to the Baltic. Like Kant, Kapila taught that the units of consciousness—purushas, he called them; men or spirits—had been entangled by the power of mind, and had built up on the first impression or sensation, the first outline sketch of nature—mula-prakriti, he called it—a triple world of illusions, imagining first, substance, then force, then inertness or materialism. Our bodies belong to the lowest world; our senses and impulses to the mid-world; and our pure perceptive power to the highest. We see how this agrees with Kant, for our bodies are in space; our emotions and feelings are in time, but occupy no space; for instance, we do not measure hope and fear, or joy and sorrow by the cubic yard, or the metrical system, but by intensity and duration, and the latter is the very essence of the idea of time. But pure perception has not even duration; it simply is; therefore it is above both time and space. Thus does Kapila agree with Kant.
Both Kapila and Kant leave us there, with an endless number of purushas or units of consciousness, weaving a web of triple worlds. These perceiving souls, both taught, are immortal; and only undergo time’s chances and space’s mutations through an illusion of their own making. Their hope of liberation, therefore, lies in ridding themselves of Maya’s three-fold veil, and dwelling thereafter in their own pure essence, forever free. Thus does pure reason solve the riddle of the world.
Then comes the mightier mind of Shankara. These three worlds are what you say they are, he says; and they are the same thing that the old Vedanta meant by the three selves in the three bodies: the causal self, above time and space, but bound by separation, by the idea of separate, successive impressions, knit together by causation; the psychic world, in time but not in space, with our psychic and emotional selves living in it; and, lastly, our bodily selves in the material world, dominated by space, as well as by the two prior illusions. So long as this triple illusion lasts, said Shankara, so long are we under the wheels of mutation, or, to speak humanly, of separation, age and death. But veils may be rent, illusions may be pierced; and we shall wake to the sense of our spirits, above time, outside space, not subject to succession or separation; immortal, fearless, full of joy.
And here comes in the preeminence of the Vedanta; for where the Sankhya saw numberless single spirits, the Vedanta sees but one Spirit, indivisible; the manifoldness of spirits, say the Vedantins, is one of those very veils of illusions; there is but the immortal One, and this One builds up the illusory worlds by its own Power. Now we come to Schopenhauer and his vision, whereby he perceived that the one Force behind all impressions is something belonging to us. the Will; ourselves revealed to ourselves, in successive degrees. Self only, and the Power of Self making up all this wonderful world. Everywhere the One, the immortal. Soul the magician, weaving warp and woof of life.
Treating of these thoughts, we can come to see how it was that Sir William Jones, Sir Charles Wilkins and Thomas Colebrooke so unaccountably missed the most vital matter that India had to offer them,—a treasure the worth of which it will take us generations yet to realize. These Anglo-Saxon minds, with all their fine and admirable qualities, had not even heard whether there be any thing-in-itself; and would have felt that any tampering with Time, any skepticism as to Space, was a sheer piece of heathenish impiety almost as bad as speaking evi1 of the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, or the Balance of Trade; in other words, the Anglo-Saxon mind is only accessible in a faint degree to questions of pure intelligence.