The Philosophy of Schopenhauer

767690I came across Bryan Magee’s book, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, in a particularly touching way. The librarian at my school, John, was friends with a philosopher from Seattle who had died suddenly. Lacking any close family, it was left to John to take care of his friend’s meagre estate, which consisted of few things other than a small library of books. John called to tell me that his friend would have wanted these books passed along to people who would appreciate them, and so I ended up with this volume on Schopenhauer, as well as another one dealing with the philosophy of humor. Though I never knew the original owner, I still feel a real sense of privilege to have this artifact handed down to me. It makes me feel connected, by philosophical interest, to a person I never met. Philosophy has that power.

The book itself is a thorough and very sympathetic account of Arthur Schopenhauer’s life, his philosophy and his intellectual effect on others. It consists of two main sections: the first is a comprehensive account of Schopenhauer’s philosophical system, while the second consists of a series of appendices detailing Schopenhauer’s influence on such figures as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Mann and many more.

Schopenhauer is a thinker who I was never introduced to by my teachers while studying philosophy. I first learned of his ideas on my own through reading Nietzsche (another thinker avoided by most of my teachers), who accepted the Schopenhauerian worldview while rejecting his “pessimism.” I put pessimism in scare quotes, because Magee makes the point early on in his book that there really is nothing inherently pessimistic in Schopenhauer’s philosophy as such:

“Non-pessimism is equally compatible with his philosophy. The traditional identification of him in terms of his pessimism is largely irrelevant to a serious consideration of him as a philosopher: I am tempted to say that this is a view of his writings which leaves his philosophy out.” (p. 13)

Magee’s point is that the “pessimism” of Schopenhauer is a psychological aspect of the man, not of his philosophical system. Indeed, his philosophy itself shares many things in common with religious systems like Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which offer paths toward the successful reconciliation of human-being with ultimate reality; hardly a pessimistic message. So although Schopenhauer himself uses vocabulary that suggests a rather dark and despairing orientation toward the wold, one could accept all that Schopenhauer describes while still remain cheery and optimistic – or just “agnostic” – in one’s attitude. In fact, as noted above, that is precisely what Nietzsche did.

Personally, while I understand that many people are resistant to pessimism, and that many regard it as a term of criticism when leveled against philosophical belief systems, I am not one of them. Pessimism is actually preferable in my mind to the sort of blind and vapid optimism that many people seem to accept as an unquestioned “good,” and which is generally encouraged and considered the sign of a healthy mind. To me, pessimism can very often be realistic and more sensitive to the world’s actual suffering than shallow optimism. In fact, I prefer sensitive and caring pessimists to insensitive and uncaring optimists who think that just by putting on a happy face, everything will be alright! So while I appreciate Magee’s point about Schopenhauer’s own pessimistic personality, I also think it unnecessary to defend his philosophy against it.

It is refreshing to read a book by someone who enthusiastically embraces the philosophy that he is writing about, and Magee is certainly an author who deals with the content of Schopenhauer’s ideas in a wonderfully personal, passionate, detailed and, at many points, surprising way. Beginning with  Schopenhauer’s early work, as contained in On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, and devoting most space to an analysis of The World as Will and Representation, Magee goes on to place Schopenhauer within a philosophical tradition of modern, western philosophers working through the implications of Kantian philosophy. The thinkers in this tradition, he emphasizes, exist in the shadow of Descartes, who Schopenhauer thought was an important philosopher for three reasons: 1) He rejected external authority as validation for his arguments; 2) He established that “objective” reality is far less certain than “subjective” experience; 3) He formulated the central issue of modern philosophy in asking “What can I know? And how can I know what I know?” (p. 57) Schopenhauer’s own engagement with these issues led him on a path culminating in the construction of a grand, transcendental idealist system that, while resembling religious doctrines from the east, was developed (Magee argues) independent of those doctrines. The fact that his philosophy shares such a close affinity with ideas from Hinduism and Buddhism, while being developed from a western perspective, suggests, perhaps, that there is something transcultural about the truths articulated by Schopenhauer.

schopenhauer-y-kantThe transcendental idealist position holds that our understanding of reality is constituted by the mental imposition of a priori conceptual categories upon the data of perception. This is in contrast to the empiricist claim that our understanding of reality is built directly from perceptions, and that the way the world appears to us is (in some way, shape, or form) indicative of the way the world really is objectively. Transcendental idealists, however, dispute that the “objective” world could possibly be anything like our perceptions. Since the categories of our minds actively mold, shape, organize, and indeed distort, perceptual data into a subjective world of lived experience, our subjective world is of necessity different from the world as it is in-itself independent of our experience. This is the fundamental distinction that Kant insisted upon – and that Schopenhauer applauded – between the noumenal and the phenomenal realms. Our experienced, phenomenal reality is a product of the mind’s interpretive powers, and since we cannot step outside of our own minds, we cannot step out of the phenomenal world. And since we cannot step outside of our phenomenal world, there is no possible way for us to know anything about the “objective,” noumenal world that exists independently of us. According to the transcendental idealist, trying to know what objective reality is like independent of our mental interpretations would be like trying to know what the world really looks like independent of our eyes.

One of the key issues that Magee devotes a great deal of attention to in his book is the charge, promoted by empirical philosophers, that transcendental idealism culminates in solipsism; the view that the world is simply the product of the mind. In solipsism, the objective world evaporates altogether, leaving us with nothing more than mind dependent appearances. As Magee tells us, “I have often heard professional philosophers in Britain, including gifted ones, assert that according to transcendental idealism ‘everything exists in the mind, or in minds’ or ‘existence is mental.’ This is a radical error.” (p. 73) The reason why this is an erroneous view is very simple. Both Kant and Schopenhauer clearly recognize the need for some sort of independently existing, objective realm in order to provoke the mind to engage in the process of conceptual interpretation. Knowledge requires both subject and object. Thus, neither of these thinkers deny the existence of an extra-mental world; only that we can ever know that world independent of our thinking about it. Transcendental idealists don’t claim that the objective world does not exist. They only deny that we have direct access to it, or that our subjective understanding of objective reality bears any resemblance to the world of uninterpreted reality. Like the Hindus, they claim that there is a perpetual “veil” of illusion hiding the true nature of the universe from us.

Kant referred to the objective world that exists independent of human thought as the Ding-an-Sich (Thing-in-itself). Schopenhauer’s own system puts “the will” in its place; a development that Magee claims is an improvement, drawing out certain implications of Kantian philosophy that Kant himself did not fully realize. According to Schopenhauer, the objective, noumenal world cannot be, as Kant claimed, a thing at all. Rather, it must be an unbroken unity possessing no parts or boundaries whatsoever. Since the existence of things comes about only by way of the mind’s imposition of time and space upon the the raw data of perception, “things” only exist in the phenomenal, time and space bound world of human interpretation. Independent of that world, the very idea of a “thing” ceases to make sense, and if this is the case, then noumenal reality must be a realm in which there are no distinctions, no boundaries, no divisions. It must be unbroken and singular. According to Schopenhauer, the will is the substance that best embodies these characteristics.

When we aim our attention outwards, using the physical senses, we encounter the will through three filters of interpretation: 1) Time 2) Space and 3) Causality. The phenomenal world that is built out of sensory data is a world of things, located in time and space, interacting with one another according to the laws of cause and effect. However, when we turn our attention inward, toward consciousness itself, we bypass two of these mind-dependent filters, encountering reality more directly, through the single filter of inner time consciousness. It is in this manner, by reflecting on the interior movement and force of thought itself, that we come as close as possible to a direct encounter with the noumenal realm. And it is there that we discover the will, pulsing with primal ferocity.

Magee tells us that Schopenhauer knows he has not deductively “proved” the equation of the will and noumenal reality. That sort of demonstration is, in principle, impossible when discussing matters relating to the objective world as it exists independent of the human understanding. However, Schopenhauer thinks he has offered good reasons for accepting his doctrine, and that by directing readers inward, he has, in a sense, taken us by the hand to show how we may make the same sort of discovery that he himself has made: turn inward and you yourself will confront the will, a vital force of energy, which constitutes the underlying and unitary foundation of all existence. “The whole universe is the objectification of this force.” (p. 139)

Although Schopenhauer is clear that it is not an anthropomorphic entity, Magee suggests that his choice of this term “will” to designate noumenal reality has led precisely to this sort of misunderstanding:

“He has given it the name ‘will’ for no other reason than that the nearest we as experiencing subjects can come to a direct apprehension of it is through manisfestation of primal energy that each one of us experiences in inner sense as the ordinary drive of life, the ongoing thrust, however weak, of being alive…” (p. 142)

ElectricityNonetheless, confusion has occurred, and Magee tells us that occult readings of Schopenhauer abound in which the will is construed as some sort of spiritual world consciousness rather than as the aimless force of energy that Schopenhauer intended. This force manifests in its most complicated form as human consciousness, but it is human consciousness that is the product of will, not the other way around. Gravity, minerals, plants and animals are also products of the primal will, and so it is a mistake to think of will as equivalent to our own human experience of it. In human consciousness, the will gains its most complicated – and thus its most tortured – objectification. But, Schopenhauer insists, such consciousness is continuous with the rest of nature, and not qualitatively different from other non-consicous manifestations. The will, as it exists independent of human consciousness, is timeless and spaceless. It does not think or feel or care. It simply pulses and moves, endlessly objectifying itself in all of the manifestations that comprise the natural world. There is nothing supernatural or spiritual about it at all. The world as will has no ultimate meaning or purpose. It is simply a blind force of energetic striving.

“Bleak, bleak, bleak!” some say, and Schopenhauer does not disagree. He writes:

“life is deeply steeped in suffering, and cannot escape from it; our entrance to it takes place amid tears, at bottom its course is always tragic, and its end more so.” (p. 220)

Magee, as mentioned above, thinks it a mistake to equate Schopenhauer’s philosophy with pessimism. However, the philosopher himself did draw this very implication. Human life, being one of many manifestations of a blind, senseless will, is spent perpetuating itself for no other reason than that it must express itself, the way that electricity must conduct down a wire. This is the will to life, and Schopenhauer sees in this drive the root of our suffering. We take up projects, anxiously pursuing them until we fall into boredom upon their completion, at which time we anxiously take up other projects. The will to life, then, consists of a never ending vacillation between anxiety and boredom. The only types of consolation that are available to us, according to Schopenhauer, are aesthetic experiences in which we lose ourselves for a finite period of time by being absorbed into the rhythms of music or getting lost in the scenery of a painting. Sex also offers escape. But all of these distractions are only temporary. Songs come to an end; we must eventually turn away from paintings; sexual acts can’t go on forever.

You might think suicide would be an option, but surprisingly Schopenhauer councils against it, seeing suicide as “a form of aggression and quite specifically an assertion of self-will.” (p 222) In suicide there is no escape from suffering, but the aggravation of it, as the suicide must anxiously will him or herself to commit the act in the first place. And once dead, the will that was manifest in the body is reunited with the primal, universal will once more to become objectified to suffer yet again.

schopenhThe only real escape comes through turning against the will to life through aseticism. In this, a person ceases to desire altogether, and like in Buddhism and Hinduism, becomes reconciled with the impermanent nature of the universe. But this cannot be accomplished through willing it to be. The will to life must evaporate through an understanding of the ultimate nothingness of our world. When we come to realize that no-thing is ultimately real or important, then the chains that bind us are slackened and we find ourselves melting away into the buzzing backdrop that is the universe, feeling no separation, no distinction between ourselves and all the other manifestations that arise out of the noumena. We realize that everything is, at its foundation, one. Once this is understood, then there is no need for further painful striving.

Is this pessimism? If it is, it seems to me no more or less pessimistic than Buddhism or Hinduism, systems which, apparently, many people find comforting and consoling. So maybe pessimism, despite the complaints of Magee, is not such a terrible thing.

I enjoyed reading The Philosophy of Schopenhauer a great deal. Magee’s treatment of this man’s philosophy is careful, sympathetic and very thorough. But beyond this, I found it extremely edifying to read a book concerned with themes of universal unity while actually experiencing a sense of connectedness with three philosophers – Schopenhauer, Magee, and the original owner of this book – who I have never met.

In philosophy, we all share something in common.

Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy

9781107031623In 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.

The Buddha in Hollywood

On January 10th, 2013 I will deliver a lecture on Buddhist themes in contemporary film. The lecture will take place at the Buddhist Temple of Marin, in Mill Valley California from 7:30 – 9:30pm.

The ideas articulated by Siddhartha Gautama in the 5th Century BC are truths that extend beyond Buddhism itself. In this talk, I will examine a number of contemporary motion pictures in order to demonstrate how ideas basic to Buddhism are also conveyed through popular culture. By scrutinizing films such as Night of the Living Dead, Perfect Sense, The Fountain and The Matrix, we will discover how impermanence, suffering, desire and the aspiration toward enlightenment are common themes in modern film.

Full details can be found at:


Buddhism is a belief system that stands somewhere between a religion and a philosophy. Like all religions, it asks followers to have faith in a program that promises to alleviate human suffering once and for all. Like a philosophy, however, it encourages people to use logic and reason in order to sort through and understand the realities of human existence. Buddhism rejects the notion that there is any form of supernatural help to be had in the struggle toward perfection, insisting that it is only through personal effort that one can achieve enlightenment. “Be lamps unto yourselves,” Siddhartha is reported to have told his closest attendant, Ananda, as he neared death. “Do not look for refuge in anyone but yourselves.”

I find the individualism and the non-supernatural character of classical Buddhism very attractive, and after reading Karen Armstrong’s biography of the Buddha, I am even more intrigued by the system of Buddhism and the man who created it. It is, incidentally, important to emphasize that Siddhartha Gautama was a man, and not a god. In becoming a buddha, Siddhartha did nothing more than “wake up” to the reality of the world. He relinquished his desires and found peace amidst the impermanence of all things. He ended his craving for the world to be anything other than what it really is. This is all that Buddhist enlightenment consists of. In fact, according to Siddhartha, anyone is capable of becoming a buddha and of achieving nirvana, which is why writing a biography about Siddhartha is so appropriate. He was a man who struggled with problems like anyone else, making mistakes, learning lessons and changing directions throughout his life. He started by following in the footsteps of others, and later came to break away from all authority, ultimately establishing his own path toward reconciliation with the infinite.

Armstrong’s biography highlights, more than most other texts I’ve read, the mistakes and u-turns in the life of Siddhartha, from his abandonment of asceticism to his initial refusal to admit women into his order. Armstrong does a wonderful job of showing that Siddhartha was not a divinely inspired figure who claimed to channel the unquestionable and final wisdom of the gods, but a real flesh and blood man who, though he sometimes stumbled, remained magnificent due to his willingness to admit mistakes, readjust his views, struggle with difficult ideas and to keep preaching the Truth as he saw it. In this regard, Siddhartha resembles someone like Socrates more than he does Jesus. He was not a god/man, but a human being through and through.

There are ideas and speculations in Armstrong’s book I have never encountered before, and that imbue the Buddha’s life and message with an increased level of complication. One of these claims is that the Buddha offered a different set of teachings to those who were ready to fully commit to enlightenment than he did to those who were not. Armstrong writes that the Buddha encouraged the less committed to follow the basic rules of morality simply because it would make their lives easier and happier in the here and now. This is a quite pragmatic attitude toward morality that does not seem entirely consistent with other Buddhist doctrines, such as the second step in the Eightfold Path, which emphasizes the necessity of “right intentions,” or the Buddha’s assertion, in the Digha Nikaya that “there is no teaching for one type of person and another for other types.”

Another alarming speculation that Armstrong raises is that the Buddha’s death might not have been the result of accidental food poisoning, as the Pali texts report, but that it may have been a deliberate act of murder. She cites a scholar who points to the fact that upon sitting down to his last meal, Siddhartha did not allow any of his friends to eat from the same bowl out of which he served himself, and afterwards that he had the leftover food buried. This might be an indication that Siddhartha knew that his food had been tampered with and that he was trying to protect those who were with him. If this truly is the case, then it would be one more way that Siddhartha resembles Socrates, who willingly drank hemlock while his friends looked on.

For those who approach Buddhism from a religious orientation, Armstrong’s book might be unsettling. The overall picture she paints is of a man who was fallible, at times mistaken, and often depressed and isolated. Such characteristics might not be the sort that inspire faith and unshakable confidence in followers. For those of us who approach Buddhism from a philosophical perspective, however, these same characteristics inspire empathy and reinforce the feeling that the Buddha was a real, flesh and blood human being who suffered in many of the same ways that the rest of us still suffer. If this is so, then his thoughts on how to confront the pain of impermanence can stand alongside those of other great philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Heidegger.