In his writings, Friedrich Nietzsche consistently criticizes Buddhism, condemning it as a “nihilistic” belief system, and yet he also refers to himself as the “Buddha of Europe.” On certain points, the thoughts of Nietzsche come very close to articulating some of the same insights voiced by Siddhartha Gautama thousands of years earlier; particularly on topics such as the impermanence of the world and the rejection of substance ontology. On other points, such as his advocacy of self-assertion and the will-to-life, Nietzsche defines himself in direct opposition to The Buddha. So, what is the connection between Nietzsche and Buddhism? This complicated and sometimes confusing relationship is explored in close and subtle detail by Antoine Panaïoti in his new book Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy.
Panaïoti’s book is a version of his doctoral dissertation, written while he was a student at Cambridge University, but this should not scare potential readers off since there is nothing overly technical or difficult about the text. It is clearly written, well researched and easy to read. An interest in the subject matter is all that is necessary before diving into and enjoying this study.
Panaïoti’s initiating insight is that the fundamental connection between Nietzschean philosophy and Buddhism stems from their shared concern with the problem of nihilism. While the concept of “nihilism” is itself a complicated and difficult topic, Panaïoti summarizes the problem as one in which the world of becoming is viewed as both “unreal” and “not good.” (p. 21) In the thinking of the nihilist, the impermanent and changing world of flux that is apparent to our senses is neither real nor good precisely because it is not stable and permanent. A stable and permanent realm would be the only one that measures up to the nihilist’s standards for a “real” world; a world which Nietzsche and Panaïoti refer to as the wahre Welt (German for “true world”). Since such a “true world” apparently does not exist, the nihilist responds either by condemning all of reality as “not good” or by positing the existence of an unapparent world that is unseen and hidden, but valuable because it is eternal and unchanging.
This latter maneuver is an act of ressentiment against reality. While it is an attempt to move beyond nihilism, from the perspective of those like Nietzsche and Siddhartha who claim that the world really is characterized by impermanence, it is also an illusion (or as Panaïoti claims a delusion) that distracts us from the actual nature of reality. By looking for the “truth” in some hidden, illusory realm, humans delude themselves and ultimately waste their lives hunting after phantasms and “spooks” (a term that Max Stirner playfully utilizes in his classic work The Ego and Its Own) rather than learning to embrace the world for what it is: a process of never-ending flux and change.
The problem that concerns both Nietzsche and Buddhists, then, is the problem of how to overcome aversion to an impermanent world in which nothing – including the “self” – remains stable. How is it that one can move beyond the crisis of nihilism, avoid ressentiment and salvage a sense of value and worth while still affirming a world that is neither constant nor lasting? Panaïoti argues that this is where the connection between Nietzscheanism and Buddhism lies, and it is in their responses to this question where we find points both of overlap and of divergence. Ultimately, however, the author argues that Nietzscheanism is more like Buddhism than Nietzsche himself recognized. Both systems turn out to be paths toward a sort of “great health” that will dismantle the delusions of ressentiment, allowing us actively to affirm and embrace an impermanent world. They are both philosophies that strive to confront and solve the problem of nihilism not by denying reality, but by recognizing it for what it truly is.
When the supernatural realm of the gods (or God) is rejected as a delusion, then it is only in the non-supernatural world that we can seek justifications for life. For this reason Panaïoti argues that in both Buddhism and in Nietzsche’s philosophy an appeal is made to the this-worldly standard of “health” as the most appropriate goal of aspiration. When God has died, one must look for more natural criteria against which to make valuations if one is to continue to embrace life rather than retreating from it, and in both Buddhism and Nietzscheanism this is precisely what is done. While superficially it may appear that there is a conflict between Nietzsche’s admonition to make the world’s suffering “greater than ever” and the Buddha’s admonition to eliminate the world’s suffering altogether, Panaïoti argues that at a deeper level both individuals are actually concerned with a similar project: the project of making people so strong and healthy that they no longer perceive the obstacles, challenges and consequent sufferings that occur during the course of living life as objectionable.
This is the meaning of the Nietzschean aphorism, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” (Twilight of the Idols: 8) From the perspective of healthy strength, the struggles of life are embraced as a necessary part of self discovery and adventure. It is only from the perspective of unhealthy weakness that people recoil from life’s challenges and surprises, according to Nietzsche. What an unhealthy person experiences as vile torment, a healthy person experiences as affirmative and invigorating. This, according to Panaïoti, is a message that is also taught in Buddhism, where healthy compassion is encouraged as a means toward enlightenment. The term “compassion” literally means “to suffer with,” and thus this central Buddhist virtue requires an engagement with the suffering of others, not in order to condemn reality, but in order to learn how to embrace and affirm it. Ultimately, in the state of nirvana, the Buddhist finally attains a “great health” that experiences joy through compassion. Joy and suffering become one, just as Nietzsche also taught, when we are able to understand suffering as an opportunity for spiritual growth rather than as some sort of supernatural punishment. So it is that both The Buddha and Nietzsche offer a similar solution to the problem of nihilism. In a world of impermanence, where nothing lasts and everyone grows old, gets sick and dies, we need not recoil or retreat from life. If we learn to value the virtue of spiritual health in the way that others have chosen to value God or heavenly salvation, we might be able to embrace the challenges and obstacles of this world as opportunities that spur us on to become more vital, potent and robust.
In the conclusion of his book, Panaïoti proposes “a new response to the challenge of nihilism” modeled on the insights of both Buddhism and Nietzsche, which he calls “great health perfectionism.” (pp. 212 – 229) Great health perfectionism is a form of idealism that asserts “a distinctive ‘healthy type'” (p 218) as the goal of aspiration. This ideal healthy type is not conceptualized as a positive “Good,” however, but rather as involving the “recovery from illness.” (219) As such, it is a kind of negative ideal that tells us what to avoid so that we can move toward becoming more and more healthy. I detect an echo of Epicurus here, who held that pleasure is not a positive quality in human life, but something that is approximated by the progressive elimination of pain. This would dovetail quite well with the Buddhist directive to withdraw from the suffering and pain of the world, but Panaïoti insists that if we pair these insights with Nietzsche’s philosophy, great health perfectionism will emphasize the creative and active aspects of striving toward, rather than withdrawing from, the perfection of health. It will, thus, express an active rather than a reactive ideal. In great health perfectionism, we are encouraged to constantly strive toward health by constantly moving away from sickness. Since the targets by which we gain our bearings are moving ones, the author seems to be suggesting that his philosophy will help us come to terms with the reality of impermanence while avoiding the despair of meaninglessness.
While I love the bulk of Panaïoti’s book and admire his scholarship, I have two related criticisms that are focused on his concluding ideas. First of all, his “new response to the challenge of nihilism” sounds to me very much like ancient Stoicism, and thus I think it is not really a “new” response at all. Second, in appealing to the ideal of “great health,” it seems to me that Panaïoti is not so much offering a “response” to nihilism so much as he is articulating a perspective that demonstrates his own further entanglement in the dynamics of nihilism; a situation, which as I will explain below, I do not really object to since I see nihilism less as a problem to be solved and more as an underlying condition of human existence.
First let me address the point that the author’s suggestions are not really “new” but actually a reiteration of ancient Stoic ideas. As Panaïoti describes it, great health perfectionism directs us to embrace the world and all of its challenges as a necessary backdrop to life’s unfolding drama. Furthermore, great health perfectionism encourages us to engage the world ironically, like actors on a stage. As I act in the world, I should retain an ironic awareness that I am simply playing my role in life and that, for this reason, it is not really “me” that is doing the acting at all. Additionally, great health perfectionism is for everyone; slaves as well as masters. Thus is avoids the elitism of Nietzsche’s philosophy and embraces the call to compassion of Buddhist philosophy. But what Panaïoti describes here are just the suggestions of the ancient Stoics, and the reason why I suspect he has arrived back at this position is directly attributable to his Buddhist reading of Nietzsche. Nietzsche himself was an admirer of the Stoics, but he interpreted Stoic ideas (and the doctrine of amor fati in particular) as manifestations of the master mentality. What Panaïoti has done, by way of Buddhist interpretation, is to strip Nietzsche’s account of its elitism and once again make Stoic doctrines applicable to all people. In Panaïoti’s reading, amor fati is not exclusively for masters, but a doctrine for slaves as well. Consequently, he arrives at an egalitarian philosophy that closely resembles the original form of ancient Stoicism. What is new appears old again!
Whether it is actually “new” or not, in regard to its content Panaïoti asserts that the only really pressing objection to great health perfectionism is what he calls the “saintliness objection.” (p. 229) This is the objection that his proposed ideal is so ambitious that it is impossible to reach. He responds to this “pressing” objection by stating that such an unreachable ideal provides a goal for human striving, and thus it is not so bad that it is unreachable, since it provides a path for continued and ongoing human aspiration. This is the focus of my second criticism. If aspiration toward the impossible is not such a bad thing, then what is the problem with nihilism in the first place? Recall that the “crisis of nihilism” erupts when the apparent world is rejected in favor of an unapparent world. When we strive after abstractions at the cost of this world, we denigrate and belittle this world in favor of an illusion, or as Panaïoti calls it, a “delusion.” This is the root of ressentiment, and it is precisely this sort of delusion that great health perfectionism is intended to combat.
But any form of “perfectionism” is subject to the charge of ressentiment insofar as it posits the goal of a perfect ideal as worthy of aspiration rather than simply counseling us to affirm the concrete, non-ideal world that we live in. If the conundrum of nihilism is initiated when an abstract, non-apparent reality is elevated and affirmed as more real or valuable than our actual, concrete, apparent reality, then I fail to see how encouraging us to pursue the superlative goal of “great health” helps to alleviate ressentiment or the problem of nihilism at all. It seems only to reinscribe the challenge within another set of values. As De Beauvoir puts it in her book The Ethics of Ambiguity, the nihilist is essentially a frustrated idealist precisely because the nihilist has come to the realization that abstract perfection of any kind is an impossible goal. The only way to eradicate nihilism, then, is to dissolve any notion of the “ideal” and to live only according to the “real.” In order to overcome nihilism, we have to kill Plato.
I don’t want to kill Plato. I’ve come to embrace nihilism, and so I personally do not see it as something that necessarily needs to be “overcome” or as a problem that needs to be solved at all. As I argue in Laughing at Nothing, there is not necessarily anything undesirable or destructive about nihilism. Nihilism is a situation in which one constantly strives toward unreachable goals, and though this striving may be at times unpleasant, if we cultivate the ability to appreciate the incongruous and absurd struggles of life, we can extract some form of amused pleasure out of the process while participating in a kind of progress that is eternal and ongoing, but which does not ever reach a final termination point. Panaïoti’s “great health perfectionism” has just this sort of structure to it, and so while I have no objection to the form of the idea, it seems neither new to me nor does it seem to really solve any problems. Rather, it is just one more illustration of how entrenched nihilism is in the very structure of human life.