Soul-Unity (ஆன்மநேய ஒருமை): A Great Ideal of Suddha Sanmargam (2)

Chidambaram Ramalingam
May All Beings Attain Bliss and Flourish!

In the previous post, I pointed out the crucial distinction between the claim of soul-unity based on soul-kinship and the claim of soul-identity or oneness of souls. I argued that, unlike Ramalingam’s claim of soul-unity based on soul-kinship, the claim of identity or oneness of a plurality of souls or individuals is incoherent since it implies both a denial of plurality of souls and an acknowledgment that a plurality of souls perceive the appearance of plurality and/or discern the underlying reality of oneness.

In his great unfinished essay on “The Ethic of Compassion for Sentient Beings“, written in eloquent and moving Tamil prose in the mid-1860’s and first published in 1879, five years after his disappearance, Ramalingam argues that soul-kinship is the basis of compassion. The intuitive discernment of the fact that another sentient being subject to suffering is one’s soul-kin and soul-kind underlies all compassion.

Soul-kinship makes it possible for an agent not only to empathize with a being who is suffering, but also to make the alleviation of the suffering of that being the main motive of the agent’s action. Otherwise, it remains a mystery why anyone would be moved by a total stranger’s suffering, or the suffering of distant peoples, or even an animal’s suffering, and make it their main motive or purpose to alleviate that suffering.

Ramalingam, therefore, holds that any manifestation of compassion is not only evidence that an underlying soul-kinship exists, but also that the person who feels compassion possesses moral and spiritual discernment of the underlying reality of soul-kinship.

In just the way knowledge of bodily or biological kinship is the basis of  concern for and empathy with the suffering of a brother or sister, a soul’s intuitive knowledge of soul-kinship with another sentient being, regardless of whether this being is a stranger, or even a member of another species, is the basis of compassion for that being.

In the Western tradition of philosophy, the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) whose seminal work in ethics, titled “On The Basis of Morality”, first published in 1840 when Ramalingam was only seventeen years old, offered important and radical reflections on compassion.

Indeed, Schopenhauer tried to show that compassion is the basis of morality.  Ramalingam, living in the city of Madras (now Chennai) in India in 1840, could not have known about Schopenhauer’s work, but he would later affirm the same truth that ethical conduct has its foundation in compassion in his essay on the ethic of compassion.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 - 1860) Portrait by Jules Lunteschütz

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) Portrait by Jules Lunteschütz

Schopenhauer points out that compassion is a puzzling psychological fact. Compassion has for its sole object the alleviation of the suffering of another. It involves empathy or the ability to feel the bite or weight of another being’s suffering. Schopenhauer is puzzled by this and asks:

But now how is it possible for a suffering which is not mine and does not touch me to become just as directly a motive as only my own normally does, and to move me to action?” (On The Basis of Morality, trans. E. F. J. Payne, Berghahn Books, p. 165)

Schopenhauer goes on to observe that in a state of compassion for another who is suffering,

…I share the suffering in him, in spite of the fact that his skin does not enclose my nerves. Only in this way can his woe, his distress, become a motive for me…I repeat that this occurrence is mysterious, for it is something our faculty of reason can give no direct account of, and its grounds cannot be discovered on the path of experience.” (On The Basis of Morality, trans. E. F. J. Payne, Berghahn Books, p. 165)

If Schopenhauer is correct in his claim that the “grounds” or basis of compassion “cannot be discovered on the path of experience”, or, in other words, cannot be explained in terms of empirical factors, then this implies that the moral and psychological phenomenon of compassion poses a serious problem for Darwinian or evolutionary approaches to ethics and human psychology.

Schopenhauer argues that compassion presupposes an identification with the person who is suffering and that this implies a temporary abolition or suspension of the “barrier between the ego and non-ego”. (ibid., p. 165)

In holding this view, he seems to be affirming that compassion presupposes a metaphysical identity or oneness of the agent who feels compassion and the person or being the agent feels compassion for.

Indeed, in the section “On The Metaphysical Explanation“, he explicitly upholds that

“…plurality and diversity of individuals are mere phenomenon, that is, exist only in my representation.  My true inner being exists in every living thing…we are all one and the same entity.” (ibid., pp. 210-211)

The problem here is not only the incoherence of the concept of metaphysical identity or oneness of the observer who feels compassion and the victim who is suffering, but also the issue of how we can distinguish between compassion and self-pity on the basis of this alleged foundation of metaphysical oneness or identity of observer and victim.

If I am actually one with the other, then his or her suffering is actually my own suffering. This also implies that in feeling compassion for the other, I am actually feeling compassion for myself. This turns compassion into an exercise in self-pity.

Schopenhauer praises compassion as the very paradigm of the ethical particularly for the reason that it is directed toward the recognition of another being’s woe and the alleviation of that woe, but his affirmation of metaphysical identity or oneness undermines this moral status of compassion and reduces it to an egoistic exercise in  self-pity on a grand metaphysical scale!

Far from explaining compassion, his monistic metaphysical theory explains it away by reducing it to self-pity.

Further, Schopenhauer’s correct view of compassion, i.e., that it is solely directed toward the recognition and alleviation of another being’s woe, obviously implies that his metaphysical theory of identity or oneness of all individuals must be false! Compassion requires not only the recognition of the reality of the other, and, by implication, the reality of the distinction between the self and the other, but also the reality of the suffering experienced by the other.

Schopenhauer’s confusion is evident from the fact that in another passage in the same work he disavows this metaphysical identity or oneness and argues that the observer who feels compassion is still conscious of the difference between the self and the other who is suffering.

The Italian moral philosopher Ubaldo Cassina (1736 – 1824) had argued in his Saggio analitico sulla compassione (Analytical Essay on Compassion) published in 1788 that compassion is a function of a deception or delusion of the imagination in that the observer feels that he is actually undergoing in his own person the suffering of the victim. Since this cannot be real, compassion is based on a delusive state of empathetic identification with the victim.

Schopenhauer rejects Cassina’s analysis of compassion on the grounds that compassion does not abrogate the distinction between the observer’s awareness of his own condition and the victim’s state of suffering. He points out that contrary to Cassina’s claim,

…at every moment we remain clearly conscious that he is the sufferer, not we; and it is precisely in his person, not in ours, that we feel the suffering, to our grief and sorrow. We suffer with him and hence in him; we feel his pain as his, and do not imagine that it is ours.” (On The Basis Of Morality, trans. E.F. J. Payne, Berghahn Books, p. 147)

I think that the metaphysical linchpin of compassion Schopenhauer is searching for is provided by Ramalingam’s concept of soul-kinship.

As I pointed earlier, Ramalingam’s concept of soul-kinship avoids the incoherence of metaphysical identity or oneness of individuals and provides a basis for empathy and compassion.

Kinship presupposes a distinction between the self and the other, but it also implies a close bond or relation between the self and other which explains empathy, compassion, and a sense of unity with someone who is kin.

Hence, Ramalingam’s concept of soul-kinship is the key to the resolution of Schopenhauer’s confusion on the metaphysical basis of compassion.




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