Sunday, August 29, 2021

Friedrich Nietzche: A European Buddhism

“I could be the Buddha of Europe: though admittedly an antipode to the Indian Buddha”

(Friedrich Nietzsche)

I've got to admit that I've never read much of Nietzsche simply because he hasn't really interested me that much.  But perhaps I've been wrong. While rummaging through some journal articles I became aware of the fact that he had a reasonably solid understanding of Buddhism and apparently even spent two years learning Sanskrit. Interestingly, a lot of the "Will to power" and "Ubermesch" stuff was a consequence of his understanding of Buddhism and its application to European culture.

What I also found astounding is that there is a fair amount of literature out there looking at the relationship between Nietzsche's thought and Buddhism, the executive summary being that they are more alike than different. What I find interesting is how he also recognised that the decline of European culture will come with it becoming more Buddhist, particularly Christianity, something this blog has mentioned before.

This is form an excellent journal article which summaries his thoughts on the subject which I would highly recommend:

Nietzsche opened his Genealogy of Morals with a revaluation of Schopenhauer, considered as a cultural event in the history of Europe. Thus, at the moment when Schopenhauer's philosophy was a cause celebre, creating spectacular enthusiasm among intellectual and artistic circles, Nietzsche felt compelled to abandon his most influential mentor in order to dramatize the danger that he believed Schopenhauer's Weltanschauung represented when conceived as a European destiny.

It was precisely here that I saw the great danger to mankind, its sublimest enticement and seduction—but to what? to nothingness?—it was precisely here that I saw the beginning of the end ... the will turning against life . . . I understood the ever spreading morality of pity . . . as the most sinister symptom of a European culture that had become sinister, perhaps as its by-pass to a new Buddhism? to a Buddhism for Europeans? to Nihilism?

In this manner, Nietzsche raised the specter of European culture passing into a nihilistic phase, one characterized by a will to nothingness—a will to the absolute relativity of all values and, hence, to the frank realization that life was without any given meaning or goal. Such a cultural destiny, Nietzsche called a new or "European" Buddhism. We should note immediately that Nietzsche took special care to emphasize that a Buddhistic phase in the cultural life of Europe would constitute a new form of Buddhism and, thus, would exhibit qualities both consistent with and profoundly different from classical Buddhism. Some of those differences we have already encountered in Nietzsche's judgment that classical Buddhism arose out of the death throes of an exhausted civilization and marked, therefore, a final cultural form of excessively spiritual men[ED].

Nietzsche saw that the loss of the transcendental values which came about with encroaching atheism would  produce a state of affairs which was similar to what went on in Asia before. Neitzsche's critique of Schopenhauer was about how he approached the "death of God". Nietzsche may have ranted about his pity but what really irked him was his passive acceptance of the fact which he saw as a type of Nihlism.   But its also important to note that excessive spirituality paved the way for the transformation of Christianity.

The Christian era is succeeded by its opposite, a new Buddhism. Such a movement occurs within Christianity as a result of its revaluation of itself. Nietzsche postulated that the "will to truth" was the agency by which Christianity overcomes itself and necessarily eventuates in an honest atheism and a radical cultural nihilism. After almost two thousand years of training in the "will to truth," which eventually got sublimated into cleanliness of intellectual conscience (science), European man is finally ripe for the truth of a new Buddhism and the total revaluation of his most precious venerations. The new Buddhism, therefore, will be the terminal phase of the Christian era.

But how could Christianity give birth to a European form of Buddhism? In Nietzsche's judgment, European Christianity's moral world-view and its in-junctions produced a man already trained in the ways of practical nihilism. In fact, Christians have always been practicing nihilists, and it was this hidden scandal that Nietzsche believed he had uncovered about Christianity. Such a practical nihilism was rooted in the Christian's disposition to invest all of the significance of life in a kingdom beyond this world—indeed, to devalue the earth—including human reason, instincts, and passions. Such a tendency brought about a radical depreciation of the richness of earthly life and the concomitant investment of nothing, and the beyond, with ultimate meaning. By these means, Christianity educated European man toward a yearning for nothingness and created a Buddhistic tendency in man. Viewed in this manner, European Buddhism, whatever specific form it might finally take, would have to be seen as the culmination of a moralistic development within Christian culture itself. Its appearance would symbolize the final collapse of the Christian movement and the onset of a post-Christian era.
There are several really important points here. That excessive spirituality conditions men to a Buddhist worldview. Secondly a detachment from "the world" negates the importance of worldly affairs. Thirdly, an excessively keanotic interpretation of Christianity produces an atmosphere akin to nihlism. What Nietzsche is saying is that traditional asceticism and modern theological developments i.e. Kumbayah Kenotic Christianity will transform Christianity into a Buddhist version of itself.
Strangely, Nietzsche greeted the prospect of a Western form of Buddhism with considerable ambivalence. In Beyond Good and Evil, he spoke of Europe being threatened by a new Buddhism, while in an unpublished note, he characterized the possibility as a "nihilistic catastrophe." Yet in another unpublished note, Nietzsche welcomed a European form of Buddhism as both "the most extreme form of nihilism" and "the most scientific of all possible hypotheses." Such an ambivalence on Nietzsche's part reflected his genuine uncertainty regarding what kind of pessimism (or nihilism) would eventually come to dominate European culture. Nietzsche never doubted that Europe had already entered a nihilistic phase of cultural existence. What he did have serious misgivings about was the specific interpretation that Western man would give to his emerging awareness of a culture-wide crisis of meaning—that the old values which had supported and shaped his life had collapsed and, therefore, could no longer insure a future for him. In other words, how European man would appropriate the new conditions of his life mattered greatly! The issue turned, for Nietzsche, on whether Europe would succumb to a pessimism of weakness, symbolized by Schopenhauer's metaphysics and an opiate Christianity, or whether it would will the courage of a "pessimism of strength" symbolized by Nietzsche's Zarathustra, the Dionysian man. Only under the latter banner would it be possible to create a future beyond the desert of nihilism. Moreover, it was in the latter sense alone that Christianity could become the proper basis for a new European civilization. Should this occur, then the emergence of a European Buddhism could be viewed as the signal for the beginning of a more spiritual age.

If found this last bit quite interesting as Nietszche still saw some possible hope for Christianity, but it had to reverse some of its tendencies. You've got to take Nietzsche with a grain of salt but what I find interesting is his notion that Christianity could successfully tackle society if it could "deascetisise" to a degree and recognise the legitimacy of the the created world, not just in theory but in practice.

*Bonus: Another good blog post on the subject.


Hoyos said...

Here’s a thought and pardon me if you’ve brought this up before, but is this basically another manifestation of the perennial heresy of Manichaeism?

It’s a perennial heresy because it’s more of a natural human tendency to either worship the physical world or see it as evil. Buddhism was even described by CS Lewis as the chief “heresy” of Hinduism.

I mean a lot of it seems to be a demotion of the physical world, which paradoxically leads to hedonism or an attempt at complete detachment (both of which you see in the Cathars).

Valuing physical realities means fighting for them to preserve them. If they are meaningless it’s a take it or leave it proposition, you can lose yourself in hedonism or castrate yourself, doesn’t really matter. You see it in Buddhist countries a weird comfort with either extreme asceticism or depraved sexual or even culinary appetite (a lot of cuisines in that part of the world can be quite cruel, such as the eating of live baby mice).

This perversion of instinct may even partially explain the widespread comfort with the church scandals, a base, maybe even unstated belief, that the physical world just doesn’t matter.

Chent said...

"Here’s a thought and pardon me if you’ve brought this up before, but is this basically another manifestation of the perennial heresy of Manichaeism?"

There is something of that, but classical Manichaeism is not nihilistic. Buddhism is completely nihilistic.

"Buddhism was even described by CS Lewis as the chief “heresy” of Hinduism."

In fact, Buddhism is an offshoot of the Upanishads, Hinduist texts. The only major difference is that Buddhism does not respect the caste system, vital to Hinduism.

You have to see Hinduism as a cake of three layers: the polytheistic religion of the Vedas, above it the Upanishads (very similar to Buddhism) and above it the Bhagavad Gita, which is the most relevant to modern people and it's closer to Christianity.

jorgey said...

Well clearly Nietzsche was wrong because Christianity became Jewish not Buddhistic. It became all about Israel, dispensationalism, rejection of replacement theology, worship of the Jews, claims that the Jews are still God's chosen people and he cares most about them physically even though they are going to hell for rejecting Christ, and insistence that we spend ridiculous amounts of our tax money on Israel and that no policy either foreign or domestic can even be considered unless it is not only good for but best for the Jews.

As to asceticsism, if Nietzsche thought Christianity was going to become more ascetic, he was really off! Instead it threw away sexual morality altogether and embraced pre-marital sex and homosexuality!

Now, Buddhism became Christian actually (but only after Christianity become Jewish). Buddhism dropped its asceticism and becaome Episcopalian (after the Jews took over Episcopalianism), and so modern Buddhism also is all about acceptance of LGBTQ+ and whatever other Jewish political agendas there are (climate change and so on). So Nietzsche was way off.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Hoyos and Chent

It’s a perennial heresy because it’s more of a natural human tendency to either worship the physical world or see it as evil.

Yes. I think the continual appearance of this line of reasoning in different religions is as a result of some kind of innate human cognitive bias, a bias which sees the abstract as better than the real. Manicheanism may be a specific manisfestation which is contingent upon the times as is Jansenism.

Explicit nihlism is not the end-point of extreme ascetism rather it tends to result in a "practical nilhism/opposition" especially when it comes to carnal things, and as Hoyos said, it denies them a legitimacy in the big scheme of things.

The "Buddhist state" may be approached explicitly by holding values which lead to Buddhist practices, or "functionally" by acting in a buddhist ways without the explicit beliefs. What's interesting about Nietzsche is that he saw that European Buddhism would be different to the Eastern one but never the rot that it caused would be the same.


Now, Buddhism became Christian actually

I agree that the cultural flow has gone both ways, but I think Judaism is in many ways the opposite of buddhism. It's far more carnal.

John Rockwell said...

This is why the Incarnation of God in the flesh is so important.

And the implication for the redemption of bodies made incorruptible. And a restoration and perfection of the passions in accordance with goodness, truth and Beauty.

Sexual desire and Sexual passion was for example originally was uncorrupted and pure not non-existent.
Augustine speculated that Man and Woman when unfallen would reproduce asexually like Bacteria:

Unfortunately his only experience was sexual passion that is lustful and promiscuous not properly in the marriage bed undefiled.

This and the formative influence of manicheanism negatively colored his views and led to the conflation of health with disease.

John Rockwell said...

I firmly disagree that given the fact that Adam and Eve being Male and Female somehow would also be asexual.

If the marriage bed involved no sexual intercourse wouldn't there be no need for God through the Holy Spirit to stress that it is undefiled?

Certainly if the relationships between Adam and Eve were meant to be identical to room mates even as they are married.

Then there doesn't look to be a problem to be marry anyone. Because it involves no consummation.

Likewise the sexual organs is a waste of energy and time. Rather God could have very easily have made humanity like Bacteria or Protists.

Unknown said...

Emile Cioran's "The Trouble with Being Born" provides a highly readable example of the European Buddhism which Nietzsche believed Schopenhauer's thought would produce.

The Social Pathologist said...


Sorry for the late reply.

Sexual desire and Sexual passion was for example originally was uncorrupted and pure not non-existent.

That is the position that Aquinas takes.

Of all the passions we possess, Eros, in its consummation is the most carnal and I think that none of the other passions so firmly ground us in our "materiality". The fluids, the sweats, grunts and groans. Nothing could be more opposed to a platonic love.

There's a wonderful scene in the 90's sitcom Married with Children. Where Peggy, the wife Ted Bundy, discovers that he is thinking about another woman whom he sincerely idolises and loves. Peggy asks him if he is fanasising about having sex with her and he replies, "no that would spoil it." Ted Bundy loved her in a "platonic" manner. Here we love the idea of the thing so much that the actual incarnation of it is offensive.

The psychological process behind all of this is probably the foundation of platonism and manicheanism.

Interestingly you also see the same thing these days with porn. One of the really interesting phenomenon to emerge from today mass porn consumption is the problem of young men with sexual dysfunction. Porn presents this idealised--unrealistic--conception of female sexuality. Young men who are immersed in this "fantasy world" find the experience of a real woman not up to the ideal and therefore unsatisfactory.

The more I look at this subject the more I begin to acknowledge the necessity of Aquinas in being a corrective to Augustine.


Emile Cioran's "The Trouble with Being Born" provides a highly readable example of the European Buddhism

Thanks for that. So much to read, so little time to do it.

John Rockwell said...

@Social Pathologist

"The more I look at this subject the more I begin to acknowledge the necessity of Aquinas in being a corrective to Augustine."

I bet Augustine must regret being so wrong on this subject in Heaven. Since his faculties will have been perfected.

John Rockwell said...

"The psychological process behind all of this is probably the foundation of platonism and manicheanism."

No doubt this is also because of the fall introducing imperfection and disease into the mix.

I think originally the bodies of both Men and Women is far closer to the Platonic ideal or is the Platonic ideal.

I also notice the Manichean hatred of eating too for similar reasons.