Schopenhauer on death

Arthur Schopenhauer is much given to refutation by insult, a practice that irritates me. Thus, he says many times that only fools could believe in the existence of the soul after death without also believing in its existence before birth, but we are never given an argument why the idea is incoherent, just that some arguments for post-existence are unavailable to one who won’t embrace pre-existence (i.e. that the soul is atemporal, which no one who believes in an afterlife believes anyway). Personality tics like that make me warm to Schopenhauer less than I do to Montaigne. Let me now try to set that aside.

According to Kant, all we know about things are how they fit into categories that we already have in our minds. (You can’t get an answer to a question that you can’t think to ask.) There may be more to objects than this, but we’d never know it; thus the claim that the thing “in itself” is unknowable. Schopenhauer, like Descartes before and C. S. Lewis after, claimed we have unique access to one object, ourselves, toward whom our relationship is not just that of a subject knowing an object, and from this he thought he had caught a glimpse of the thing-in-itself: will. Now, the thing-in-itself is, by definition, outside our ordinary categories of thought–space and time (and hence, he infers, individuation), substance and causality. Thus, temporal properties do not apply to our innermost essence, which is the thing-in-itself, which is will, but belong only to our “representation” (the world as ordered by our mental categories). So this essence doesn’t cease to exist at death. Now, if we are to deny temporal categories, neither should we say that it persists after death, but having made this point Schopenhauer soon puts it aside in his enthusiasm for what he takes to be the wisdom of the ages (all peoples who weren’t screwed up by those dumb Abrahamic religions): the transmigration of souls. As he pithily puts it, men fear that death means themselves terminating while the world continues, but in fact it’s the opposite: our innermost essence (unindividualized will) is beyond termination, while the world (our representation of it) ends.

This German idealist reasoning is remarkable. I’d like to try it. I have a red rubber ball. “Red” is an a priori category I have imposed on the ball–just an arbitrary range of EM radiation when my ball has so many other properties that are not captured by this designator. Because there is more to the ball than its color, let us speak of the ball in its other aspects, abstracting from color. Call this “the-ball-apart-from-its-color”. Now, by definition, the-ball-apart-from-its-color does not include color descriptions. One might say that the the-ball-apart-from-its-color is not red. It is not any color. The-ball-apart-from-its-color is invisible! Warming up to my though of the-ball-apart-from-its-color not being red, I shall even see wisdom in calling it that quality which is the opposite of red, namely blue.

The lesson of this rather silly example is clear. If your post-mortem hope is in your noumenal self being atemporal, you’d better find something else to help you sleep at night. That you-apart-from-temporality can’t be said to cease to exist (because of arbitrary restrictions on what aspects of you we’re talking about) doesn’t mean that you won’t cease to exist.

I’m a fan of philosophical writings about death, but they usually strike me as dishonest. The problem is framed that each of us knows that he is going to die someday, and we must find some reason why we shouldn’t be freaking out about this. But that is starting with a desired conclusion and reasoning backwards, an invitation to sophistry. We should start our investigation open to the possibility that maybe it is rational to be inconsolably horrified by the prospect of our own mortality. Of course, practically speaking, such horror would not help anything and would make us miserable, so we would like to avoid it. But that’s not a rational justification.

Speaking even more practically, regardless of whether or not the knowledge of our own mortality should fill us with crippling terror, mankind never seems to have had this problem and doesn’t seem to have it today. Here I think Schopenhauer is right, and it’s a point I’ve made myself–Christianity has made men less able to accept death than they were without it. And this is a good thing, because the heathen acceptance of death is founded on forgetting the distinctiveness of each person and is therefore metaphysically deficient and morally suspect.

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