How Much Are Humans Alike and How Are We So Different at the Same Time?

shopenhauer-graphic— G. Dale Meyer, 2013

Joseph Campbell in his book Thou Art That wrote about compassion among human beings through posing a set of questions about our behavior toward each other. The material below is an encapsulation of Campbell’s thinking that begins with thoughts of the renowned 19th Century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

Arthur Schopenhauer [1788-1860] was a 19th Century philosopher who was among the first to contend that at its core, the universe is not a rational place. However, inspired by Plato and Immanuel Kant, both of whom regarded the world as being amenable to reason, Schopenhauer developed their philosophies into an instinct-recognizing and ultimate ascetic outlook, emphasizing that in the face of a world filled with endless strife, we ought to minimize our natural desires for the sake of achieving a more tranquil frame of mind and a disposition towards universal beneficence. Often considered to be a thoroughgoing pessimist, Schopenhauer in fact advocated ways – via artistic, moral and ascetic forms of awareness – to overcome a frustration-filled and fundamentally painful human condition. Since his death in 1860, his philosophy has had a special attraction for those who wonder about life’s meaning, along with those engaged in music, literature, and the visual arts.

Schopenhauer nearly 200 years ago posed the question:
“How is it possible that suffering that is neither my own nor of my concern should immediately affect me as though it were my own, and with such force that it moves me to helping action?”

Nearly always when a “stranger” witnesses an accident or dire difficulty of another sentient being s/he moves quickly into action to help the suffering person or other sentient being. Such actions surface in the “helper” and oneness in all of us that allows her or him to:
• Identify with someone not oneself.
• Penetrate any barrier between persons so that the suffering individual is not perceived as only a stranger but rather with a “oneness” of sentient beings.
• Behaving with an empathy that Schopenhauer phrased “In whom I suffer in spite of the fact that his skin does not enfold my nerves.”

This fundamental insight was also phrased by Schopenhauer in the statement:
“My own true inner being actually exists in every other living creature, and this is the ground of that compassion upon which all true, that is to say, unselfish virtue rests and whose expression is in every good human deed.”

The virtue of behaving in an unselfish and compassionate fashion led Joseph Campbell [the eminent scholar who spent his adult life explaining mythologies as teaching methods that had common meanings] to adopt as his motto “THOU ART THAT” or in its original Sanskrit language “TAT TVAM ASI.” Bill Moyers eulogized Joseph Campbell as a person who interacted with love for others and particularly for his students in his long career as a professor at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

Thou Art That is difficult for most of us to internalize; it can guide a challenging spiritual path through a lifetime beginning with a true spiritual awakening ongoing to one’s death – difficult, yes, worth trying? Your ways of life and behavior will venerate what you have chosen, internalized, and guided your behavior along your life path to your death.