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A spectre is haunting Europe – and rather than communism, as Marx famously said, this spectre is nihilism. We are at “the advent of nihilism,” or so Friedrich Nietzsche argued in The Will to Power. However, why is only Europe in this predicament? Has the Asian philosophical tradition saved the East from similar demise? During the late 19th century, Buddhism was relatively unknown in detail to Western observers. It was through the work of Jesuit missionaries that Asian thought found itself in Europe. Nietzsche was fond of Buddhism to some degree, but he still considered it nihilistic. He used Buddhism to make comparisons to Christianity, contrasting them to show the futility of Christendom. Nietzsche likely encountered discussions on Asian philosophy through the work of Schopenhauer, who he admired dearly. His examinations between the two did not go in vain and, as historian Guy Welborn describes, he was likely “one of the best read and most solidly grounded in Buddhism for his time” (Elman, 673). Thus, a constructive assessment of Buddhist philosophy can help us fill in the apparent “gaps” in Nietzsche’s philosophy, and see if Buddhism acts as a proper remedy to the ills Nietzsche attributes to Western society.

I. Nietzsche as the “Buddha of Europe”

In a note dated during the 1880s, Nietzsche writes “I could be the Buddha of Europe: though admittedly an antipode to the Indian Buddha” (Halbfass, 128). Here, we find a contradiction of terms. In his writing, Nietzsche affirms Buddhism as the only positivistic religion in the history of humanity; however, he also distances himself from the nihilism and the disaffirmation of life that he believes Buddhism supposedly entails. The reason Nietzsche calls himself “the Buddha of Europe” is because of the ontological similarities between himself and Buddha; however, he also paradoxically claims he is diametrically opposed to Buddhist philosophy, since he does not give the same solutions that are posited in early Buddhist thought. Firstly, apparent in both Buddhist and Nietzschean thought is the utmost rejection of metaphysics. Of course, Nietzsche himself and some Buddhist schools dabble in metaphysical inquiry by establishing criteria of the “self” and other concepts, but they never make it a rule of their inquiry. Rather, it is supplementary to their greater philosophy. To give an example, Gautama Buddha, the original Buddhist sage, demonstrates skepticism of metaphysics in a story known as the “Parable of the Arrow” found in one of the five sections of the Sutta Pitaka. A monk, Malunkyaputta, is bothered by the Buddha’s silence on the fourteen unanswerable questions. Frustrated, Malunkyaputta then issues an ultimatum – if the Buddha does not entertain these questions, he will renounce his teachings as a monk. Gautama Buddha responds by stating that he never promised to uncover “ultimate truths” and then goes on to explain a parable of a man who had been shot with a poisoned arrow to further prove his point.

It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. [We] would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city…’ The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him (Bhikku, 63).

This parable demonstrates the futility of metaphysics in fixing the suffering (Dukkha) that is inherent in life. When a poison arrow is lodged into you and causing you pain, discovering just where it came from is irrelevant to the more crucial problem at hand, which is actually removing it. Later Buddhist thinkers such as Nagarjuna and Dogen affirm this position as in line with original Buddhist thinking. Dogen, especially, emphasizes this fact by “concern[ing] himself only with what is experienced… he is not concerned with notions of reality outside this process of experiencing consciousness” (Kasulis, 69). Rather than see statements as having “metaphysical significance,” Dogen posits that such claims are misunderstood descriptive statements about experience. In Dogen’s View of Authentic Selfhood, Francis D. Cook talks about metaphysics in relation to authenticity and the self. He writes:

Metaphysical systems… are constructed and defended to the death in order to solace and defend minds that are primarily concerned with their own reality, importance, and survival. As Nāgārjuna argued in the second century and Dōgen continued to insist in the thirteenth, all positions and ideologies arise from and, in turn, nourish the inauthentic self (Cook, 136).

Thus, for Dogen and Nagarjuna, metaphysics functions as a means to selfishly bolster the individual rather than cure the condition. Nietzsche, too, sought to bring philosophy back to the experiencer rather than put it in hands beyond ourselves. Therefore, he rejected abstractions as needless constructions that merely separate us from our actual-existing reality. He uses Christian imagery of God becoming man through Christ as a means to allegorically demonstrate that divine instruction, metaphysics, and “objective” knowledge has now grounded itself in man, for all of us to experientially explore.

That God became man only indicates that man shouldn’t search for blessedness in the infinite; rather, he should ground his heaven on earth. The delusion of a world beyond has cast human spirits and minds in a false relation to the earthly world: it [that delusion] was the product of a childhood of peoples (Porter, 1).

Buddhism (particularly the Madhymaka School) and Nietzsche reach their anti-metaphysical position by, firstly, rejecting theism. For Gautama Buddha, the idea of God was a non-issue since it has little to do with “seeing things as they really are” – as Buddha himself said, “I teach one thing and one thing only, suffering and the end of suffering(Nisker, 23).  It is because both Nietzsche and Guatama Buddha reject God that they also reject metaphysics, objective value, and any purpose behind suffering.

II. Suffering as Perpetual

Both Nietzsche and Buddhism affirm suffering as always present. Nietzsche derives his concept of Dukkha from the work of Schopenhauer, who might had very well come to the idea through Buddhism.  For Schopenhauer, suffering was “an obstacle placed between the will and its aim” (Elman, 675). Thus, “because all efforts of will arose from the constant dissatisfaction with its present state, there could be no end to striving; therefore, there could be no end to suffering either” (Elman, 675). Schopenhauer took this fact to mean that Dhukka can never be overcome and the only proper solution is to negate our own will, since we can never escape suffering. Nietzsche rejected this view and instead inverted Schopenhauer’s conclusion – the solution was not to negate the will, but to elevate it above all else. Although we live without God and objectivity, that does not mean we are doomed to nihilism. If we reject metaphysics and realize that Dukkha is ever-present in our current reality then there are two possible solutions: (I) we either appeal to Buddha’s Bodhisattva ideal in an effort to ultimately end it or (II) we affirm suffering itself and take it as a form of strength through Nietzsche’s idea of the Ubermensch. For Nietzsche, Buddhism is life-negating because it fails to affirm suffering as a means towards improvement. Rather, it wishes to escape it. As Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil:

The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? That tension of the soul in unhappiness which cultivates its strength, its shudders face to face with great ruin, its inventiveness and courage in enduring, preserving, interpreting, and exploiting suffering, and whatever has been granted to it of profundity, secret, mask, spirit, cunning, greatness – was it not granted to it through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering? (Kaufmann, 344)

From this common position of suffering, two potential roads open up: the “life-negating” ethics of the Buddha’s Bodhisattva ideal, or the life-affirming ethics of Nietzsche’s own Übermensch ideal. It is because Buddhism accepts suffering as paramount that Nietzsche places it higher than Christianity, since it does not succumb to ressentiment. Nietzsche’s characterization of Buddhism as “life-negating” comes from a misunderstanding of Asian philosophy. While the goal of Buddhism is to negate yourself and realize your self is an illusion (Anatta), you make yourself empty in order to affirm life. This same concept is present in Daoism, found in the Dao De Jing chapter 11:

By adding and removing clay we form a vessel. But only by relying on what is not there, do we have use of the vessel. …And so, what is there is the basis for profit. What is not there is the basis for use (Ivanhoe, 11).

Thus, it is through “negating” yourself that you become an empty vessel in order to be filled with everything else – you destroy the distinction between the self and the universe, in order to be fully realized and reach enlightenment. Nietzsche seems to be missing this characteristic of Buddhist doctrine; instead he focuses specifically on Anatta as a means to prove Buddhism is inherently nihilistic, a position which Gautama Buddha and Nagarjuna reject.

III. Impermanence and the Self

Heraclitus was a Pre-Socratic thinking known as the

Heraclitus was a Pre-Socratic thinking known as the “weeping philosopher.” He was an influence on Nietzsche. Here he is depicted on an oil canvas by Hendrick Bloemaert.

If suffering (Dukkha) is reality, then what does it mean to be resentful towards that reality? What does it mean to deny it? For Nietzsche, such thinking is an act of ressentiment and a characteristic of slave morality. However, suffering is only one aspect of reality. Nietzsche also agrees with the other Buddhist mark of existence, impermanence (Anicca) or the idea that everything is in constant flux. Nietzsche was introduced to this concept not through Buddhism, but rather through the works of pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus. Nietzsche writes that “Heraclitus will remain eternally right with is assertion that being is an empty fiction” (Common, 15). Nietzsche hoped to transform the talk of an ontological and static “being” into one of a more dynamic “becoming.” This dynamism he attempts to capture in his conception of will to power (Barrett, 178). Reality does not create fixed entities such as subject, being, object, and essence. These words are created for convenience since we cannot possibly see this flux in full; we do not see the interaction between different beings, temporally and spatially, which leads to their co-dependent creation. By postulating “being” as fixed, Nietzsche argues, we make ourselves foolishly comfortable by grounding a reality which is, ultimately, never constant and always changing. It is from this idea that Nietzsche attacks truth:

What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and; anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding (Magnus, 29, 30).

In the same vein, Nietzsche affirms that the self is co-dependent and of “great intelligence, a multiplicity with one sense, a war and a peace, a herd and a herdsman(Hollingdale, 61). He also describes the self as a “social structure of… drives and emotions” (Hollingdale, 25) In the Will to Power, he expounds on this idea by describing the subject are more multi-faceted than just a “self.” He writes:

The assumption of one single subject is perhaps unnecessary; perhaps it is just as permissible to assume a multiplicity of subjects, whose interaction and struggle is the basis of our thought and our consciousness in general?… My hypothesis: The subject as multiplicity (Kaufmann and Hollingdale, 270).

Nagarjuna, specifically, speaks of Buddhist co-dependent origination in Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness where he writes in poetic form:

Entities do not exist In their causes, in their conditions In aggregations of many things, or in individual things Therefore, all entities are empty (Lindtner, 3).

In this stanza, “empty” does not mean “not existing.” It simply means empty of an essence. There is no static being that is a thing-in-itself; rather, an object is dependent on other entities for it to exist temporally and spatially.

Without one there are not many, and Without many there is not one. Therefore, dependently arisen entities [like these] Have no characteristics (Lindtner, 7).

The co-dependency of all entities also implies that these same entities are in constant flux. In these two stanzas, Nagarjuna outlines the case for impermanence. From the position of impermanence, both Nietzsche and Buddhists run into a problem – how can individuals overcome Dukkha in an ever-changing world? How can one create value or affirm anything in a world that does not have constant or eternal entities? Ultimately, these questions are where Nietzsche and Buddhists overlap. They both seek to solve the issue of nihilism which is inherent in an impermanent world. They do this by striving to recognize reality for what it is and then offering a solution with which to solve the problem of suffering. For Buddhists, this is found in denying the self and its desires, which will ultimately put an end to Dukkha. Nietzsche, conversely, affirms suffering as necessary to fulfillment which is the inspiration for his aphorism: “What does not kill me, strengthens me” (Common, 6). Despite the differing solutions, Antoine Panaioti in Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy attempts to reconcile these two views of suffering by arguing that both philosophies attempt to make its followers so strong and healthy that they no longer perceive suffering as an obstacle. In other words, both seek the elimination of suffering as an impediment – for Nietzsche, this is done through will and self-affirmation; for Buddhism, this is done by disaffirming the self and one’s will.

IV. Final Remarks

I find the Buddhist response to suffering to be much more sound, since impermanence of the self implies a lack of a subject. Nietzsche, paradoxically, triumphs the individual will above all else while also arguing that the self is multi-faceted and not just an essence. He is an individualist that denies the individual. The Buddhist philosophy is consistent because it denies the self as an entity of itself, but it goes even further – it also denies the subject as an individual agent. Thus, Nietzsche’s formula is left incomplete. Buddhism correctly fills in the gaps. At the root, both Buddhism and Nietzsche seek to destroy ideals. For Nietzsche, this was the entire Western tradition. The nihilist, in all its negative connotations, is in actuality a frustrated idealist that realizes abstractions will never reach perfection. The solution, then, is to simply destroy these notions of “ideals” and to live according to the “real.” In other words, in order to fully overcome nihilism, we need to kill Platonic forms, metaphysical tribulations, and conceptions of “noumenon” that cloud our perceptions. Therefore, nihilism is a kind of product of Western metaphysics. Buddhism had no such institutional opposition, and thus had no need to break down ideal forms as Nietzsche did. Nietzsche overlaps with Buddhism in his ontological conception of the self, in his ideas on “becoming,” and the reality of constant suffering. The difference is, largely, the historical context and the solutions for the problems posed. For all his denouncing and rejection, it seems that Nietzsche was much more of Buddhist than he cared to realize.

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– Elman, Benjamin A. Nietzsche and Buddhism. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 44, No. 4. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983. pp. 671 – 686.

– Halbfass, Wilhelm. India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding. State University of New York Press, New York. 1988. Print.

– Bhikkhu, Thanissaro. Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta: The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 Nov. 2013. Web. <http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.063.than.html&gt;.

– Kasulis, T. P. Zen Action: Zen Person. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu. 1989. Print.

– Cook, Francis Dojun. Dogen’s View of Authentic Selfhood. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu. 1985. Print.

– Porter, James I. The Invention of Dionysus and the Platonic Midwife: Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. Journal of the History of Philosophy, Vol. 33, No. 3. John Hopkins University Press, 1995. Print.

– Nisker, Wes. Buddha’s Nature, reprint ed. Bantam, 2000. Print.

– Kaufmann, Walter. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Modern Library of New York, New York. 2000. Print.

– Ivanhoe, Philip J. The Daodejing of Laozi. Seven Bridges Press, New York. 2002. Print.

– Common, Thomas. The Twilight of the Idols and Antichrist. Digireads.com, 2010. Print.

– Barrett, William. Irrational Man; A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Doubleday, 1958. Print.

– Magnus, Bernd. The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche. Cambridge, England. Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.

– Hollingdale, R. J. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Penguin Press, 1974. Print.

– Kaufmann, Walter. Hollingdale, R. J. The Will to Power. Vintage, 2011. Print.

– Lindtner, Christian. Nagarjuna: Studies in the Writings and Philosophy of Nagarjuna. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. New Delhi, 1997. Print.

– Panaioti, Antoine. Nietzsche and Buddhism. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 2013. Print.

 

Kierkegaard & Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard are often grouped together as some of the first thinkers in what would become existential philosophy. However, Nietzsche (who outlived Kierkegaard by decades) likely never encountered the other’s work directly. The differences between them are therefore stark. Although diametrically opposed on religion, both philosophers find some common ground in making the subject the most prescient matter in their works. It is this similarity which leads them into comparable territory – it forces them to reconsider the metaphysical tribulations that were (and still are) ingrained in Western culture, critiquing and dismantling them, all in hopes of giving the individual the philosophical focus it so deservingly needs. Nietzsche arguably does this best since he begins by overturning basic assumptions, leaving nothing unchecked, and then works his way up to the individual and the herd. Thus, although Kierkegaard writes poetically of the self, Nietzsche truly provides existentialism with an all-encompassing critique of contemporary thought by beginning with basal ontology and then moving forward, in an engaging fashion.

I. Ontological Differences and Categorizations of the Self

Kierkegaard does not have a strident ontology of anything but the self. For him, the self is all-encompassing and the most pressing issue. Therefore, he is not concerned with the categorization of “being” in the tradition of Aristotelian thought. Rather, he turns his focus to subjective experience. This is particularly why in Martin Heidegger’s notes on Being and Time he gives Kierkegaard much credit. He writes, “Søren Kierkegaard explicitly seized upon the problem of existence as an existentiell problem, and thought it through in a penetrating fashion” (Perkins, 187). Heidegger recognizes Kierkegaard as the first to establish the self not as a category of thought, but rather as a way of being. In other words, one becomes a subject rather than thinking subjectivity into being. It is on this basis that Kierkegaard largely stays away from abstractions on religion, the self, or society. In the same vein as Nietzsche’s polemics against metaphysics, William Barrett describes Kierkegaard’s skepticism in Irrational Man:

Existence and theory about existence are not one and the same, any more than a printed menu is as effective a form of nourishment as an actual meal. More than that: the possession of a theory about existence may intoxicate the possessor to such a degree that he forgets the need of existence altogether (Barrett, 141).

Kierkegaard was attempting to fight against the dominant Hegelian philosophy of the time, which posited that man was merely a victim of social forces – a philosophy where the individual disappears in change, rather than creating the change himself. Whereas many thinkers of his time influenced by Hegel and Kant saw existence as a concept, Kierkegaard realized that “[his] own existence [was] not a matter of speculation to [him], but a reality in which [he was] personally and passionately involved” (Barrett, 145). Therefore, Kierkegaard viewed the categorization of the self as a perversion of subjectivity. Existence is not mirrored as a concept in the mind, it is self-created and self-categorized through the “Either/Or of choice” (Barrett, 145). No metaphysical abstractions will do the self justice – only the subjective choices truly represent it.

Similar to Kierkegaard, Nietzsche’s conception of “being” is difficult to pinpoint since he is mostly a political writer interested in polemics. Yet, his ontology is the cornerstone of his greater ideas and is therefore necessary to understanding his positions fully. His ontology can thus best be watered down to a kind of opposition to Kantian conceptions of “being.” Kant considers there to be two realms of knowledge regarding an object, that which is phenomenon (i.e. experienced by the senses) and that which is noumenon (i.e. “something that is thought” or “the object of an act of thought”). Thus, Kant differentiates a “thing” from a “thing-it-self” and posits that the latter is not fully knowable since we can only infer from the appearances of phenomena. Kant uses noumena as a way to defend reason and metaphysics by arguing they are a “necessary limitation” since they leave questions of the divine outside of its scope.

The "thing-in-itself" is seen as that which is beyond perception.

The “thing-in-itself” is seen as that which is beyond perception.

For Nietzsche, Kant’s distinction is a meaningless metaphysical construction. A “thing-in-itself” cannot be conceived separate from its appearance, since that would undermine our entire ability to perceive. Noumenon is therefore identical to phenomenon. It is from here that Nietzsche begins to break down Western metaphysics from its dogmatic roots. By eliminating the “metaphysical realm,” Nietzsche inadvertently opens the door to an innumerable amount of questions – if there is no noumenon, if appearance is all we have, then there is no objective ethics, no distinction between metaphysics and science, and no knowledge greater than us. This trail of thought inevitably leads to a form of subjectivity, one which Kierkegaard embraces as the only real truth. Nietzsche pushes this idea to its ultimate conclusion by arguing for a morality beyond good and evil, giving agency to the individual rather than to “objective” categorizations of what one ought to do. It is through his rejection of the noumenon that he affirms life, the subject, and experience as the basis of philosophy itself.

Questions of noumenon for Nietzsche are useless since this reality is the only reality we can conceive of. Discussions on “ideal” or “greater” forms are thus useless in accruing usable knowledge. Nietzsche writes in Twilight of the Idols, “the reasons for which this world has been characterized as apparent are the very reasons which indicate its reality; any other kind of reality is absolutely indemonstrable… The apparent world is the only one, the true world is merely added by a lie” (Addis, 27). It is here that he accuses Western metaphysics of perpetrating a lie, of creating a “true” world of greater forms that distorts our actual perceivable reality. He goes even further, laying a criticism on Kant’s influence on metaphysics in The Challenge of Every Great Philosophy by contrasting him with Schopenhauer.

Kant clung to the university, subjected himself to governments, remained within the appearance of religious faith, and endured colleagues and students… Schopenhauer [had] no consideration for the scholars’ caste, stands apart, strives for independence of stat and society… wherever there was any kind of tyranny, it has hated the lonely philosopher (Kaufman, 123).

Therefore, Nietzsche mostly rejected metaphysics as institutionally illegitimate. William Barrett speaks of this in the Irrational Man, arguing that “Nietzsche ridiculed the very notion of Being as one of the most deceptive ghosts spawned by the brains of philosophers, the most general and therefore the emptiest of concepts” (Barrett, 178). Hence, there are no transcendent features of humanity that are always true irrespective of context. Such claims are that which philosophers want to be true since every great philosophy, as Nietzsche writes, “is the personal confession of the author” (Magnus, 216). Therefore, for Nietzsche, Western metaphysics ironically proves his argument for will to power – be it Kant’s a priori arguments for noumena, or Plato’s forms, these metaphysical claims are merely descriptions of what the author wants to see in the world, all to grant him to the power of knowledge, in the hopes of foolishly making the world more recognizable.

Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche value the subject and largely reject metaphysics, which is where they intersect ontologically. Kierkegaard’s position against universals bears resemblance to Nietzsche’s position of perspectivism – that there are many different interpretations, and different perspectives, of a particular truth. He echoes this sentiment in Three Upbuilding Discourses, “When one person sees one thing and another sees something else in the same thing, then the one discovers what the other conceals” (Hong, 59). Therefore, it is through subjective perspectives and the commonality between them that we find truth and fulfillment as individuals, rather than through categorizations and abstractions.

II. Ontology Applied: Consciousness, the Subject, and the Masses

Nietzsche and Kierkegaard both place emphasis on the individual, but apply these emphases differently. Nietzsche is concerned with the will of the individual in social relations and is thus concerned with questions of consciousness that Kierkegaard neglects to mention. He begins this inquiry from his ontology – if there are no metaphysical claims “beyond” human capacities, all that is required is the will for it to be done. It is from here Nietzsche explores consciousness, stemming from his ontological foundations.

gay-scienceHe theorizes in the Gay Science that “consciousness has developed only under the pressure of the need for communication… consciousness is really only a net of communication between human beings” (Solomon, 70). This “net of communication” Nietzsche speaks of can be conceived as a type of organization within an individual himself. In other words, consciousness is necessary to reconcile and communicate competing instincts, drives, desires, and passions. Given all of this burden internally, man is left powerless. Nietzsche writes:

Our actions, thoughts, feelings, and movements enter our own consciousness… as the most endangered animal, he needed help and protection, he needed his peers, he had to learn to express his distress to make himself understood (Solomon, 70).

It is here that Nietzsche’s position on the self becomes clear – we are not a kind of “Platonic essence” or a “Cartesian thinking substance”; we are a product of competing drives and perspectives. He goes further argue a controversial point that cements most men into the herd.

My idea is, as you see, that consciousness does not really belong to man’s individual existence but rather to his social or herd nature (Solomon, 71).

It from here that man finds himself stuck. Nietzsche describes our “subconscious world [as one of] servant organs working in mutual co-operation and antagonism” (Samuel, 34). We neglect this internal relationship and create a “little tabula rasa of the consciousness” through induced forgetfulness“ to make room again for the new, and above all for the more noble functions and functionaries, room for government, foresight, predetermination” (Samuel, 34). Thus, the creation of structure and the herd requires a kind of forgetfulness that is self-induced.

Kierkegaard fails to properly discuss consciousness in the context of the crowd. He only briefly explores phenomenology in The Concept of Anxiety where he argues that anxiety serves as a means for the mind to induce self-conscious reflection before a choice of either/or. The lack of analysis on consciousness leaves a gap in Kierkegaard’s work – he jumps into analyses of the self without fully establishing his foundations. Nietzsche’s claims, on the other hand, build off each other by philosophically reaching the self from the ground-up rather than assuming certain characteristics of the self and its interaction with the world.

Looking past consciousness, Nietzsche begins to dismantle the herd and its characteristics. He sees it as the main opponent of the individual since it values what does not have value. The herd accepts pessimism and makes value judgments based on fear and peer-approval rather than personal conviction; They take comfort in being in relation to others. For Nietzsche, the herd denies their own will. Similarly, Kierkegaard writes that “a crowd – in its very concept – is untruth, since a crowd either renders the single individual wholly unrepentant and irresponsible, or weakens his responsibility by making it a fraction of his decision” (Solomon, 13). The crowd (or the herd) therefore dissipates responsibility among itself, acting as one unit, but not taking responsibility as one. This creates a dissonance between action and accountability, which Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are correct to be wary of.

III. How Do We Ought to Live?

The question of what we ought to do is a difficult one and both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche treat this question differently. Kierkegaard argues that the leap to faith is necessary reach the religious state where one is personal dialogue with God. It is at this level that the self is actualized and becomes fully authentic in serving a greater subjective purpose. Therefore, the religious stage is beyond living as a mere ethical individual; it suspends the universal ethical for a subjective realization of God’s purpose. Nietzsche, too, suspends the universal ethical, but he does this from a very different philosophical position. Nietzsche’s discussion of ethics is not normative. He is very polemical in his writing and fervent in his criticisms, but he does not prescribe an easy solution to the social ills he diagnoses. He is simply interested in removing constraints, both real and imagined, which prevent individuals from reaching their actual potentiality. He worked to bring philosophy down from divine instruction to more human relations, in the grasp of our will. Kierkegaard, alternatively, wishes for us to subjectively realize this divine instruction rather than have it be commanded to us by others.

Despite not having a normative description of ethics, the point to take away from Nietzsche’s writing is clear – He was for the affirmation of life, to be able to look back on your life and confidently say “once more,” and to be able to celebrate one’s whole life in full. Kierkegaard was for this affirmation, but with strings attached which envelops man into an innumerable amount of paradoxes and inconsistencies. Despite Kierkegaard’s push for subjectivity above all else, he still leaves man’s subjectivity in the presence of God. Despite his desire to be authentic, his argument for the divine still robs the individual of pure autonomy since he is beholden to a greater power beyond himself. Nietzsche would find this to be a perversion of man’s will. Therefore, abandoning the divine as a legitimate argument truly places power back into the hands of the individual by eliminating the unnecessary contradictions Christian theology brings and all the institutional baggage it holds.

In Buddhist philosophy, the single-stroke circle represents continuity and the mind when it is not wandering. Its form bears resemblance to Nietzsche's affirmation of life; that one would do it all over again if need be, for eternity. This piece, Ensō (2000), is by Kanjuro Shibata XX

In Buddhist philosophy, the single-stroke circle represents continuity and the mind when it is not wandering. Its form bears resemblance to Nietzsche’s affirmation of life; that one would do life all over again, if need be, for eternity. This particular piece, Ensō (2000), is by Kanjuro Shibata XX.

IV. The Existential Diagnosis

Being polemical authors, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are both heavily invested in social criticism and vindicating the self against the masses. Kierkegaard identifies these social ills in The Present Age where he eloquently argues against the social excesses of temporary pleasure as a means of coping with existential angst. It is an age of confused spontaneity and misdirection, an “age of advertisement and publicity” where “nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere” (Solomon, 4). It is also an age where the public domineers, leveling passion to the lowest common denominator; “it hinders and stifles all action” (Solomon, 7). Kierkegaard argues that the public is “the most dangerous of all powers and the most insignificant” since one can speak to the whole nation on behalf of all, but yet actually be speaking to no true individual at all.

Nietzsche characterizes his contemporary society as approaching the “advent of nihilism” and Kierkegaard would surely agree. However, they would differ on the reasons behind the cultural malaise that sweeps Europe. Nietzsche would attribute the age of nihilism as a consequence of the death of God. He writes in The Gay Science, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms” (Kaufmann, 126). Nietzsche is arguing that we have exhausted religion as a moral compass and source of meaning, yet the objectivity we derived from the divine we still use foolishly. Kierkegaard would certainly disagree with this characterization, instead arguing that the cultural malaise is due to a lack of true religiosity of the self through institutional Christendom. Here, Kierkegaard’s and Nietzsche’s diagnosis of society can be synthesized to form a more complete picture – the kind of hedonism Kierkegaard describes is one of worry and concern, but it is directly linked to Nietzsche’s characterization of nihilism. It is because we are living in the age of nihilism that the present age is so bleak.

V. Conclusion

Overall, Nietzsche provides a far more nuanced existential critique of society and the limitations imposed on individuals from realizing themselves fully. Kierkegaard sets the foundation for analysis of the self through his assertions, but he fails to build on his ideas. Nietzsche’s thought can be mapped from his ontology, to his definition of consciousness, and then consistently applied to his social criticisms – Kierkegaard fails to create this basis and instead places the ideal individual in the hands of God. Inadvertently, Nietzsche pokes holes into Kierkegaard’s dependence on the divine through his anti-Christian rhetoric, during which he makes the case that the divine is yet another limitation on self-realization. Therefore, Kierkegaard – although passionate and refined in his interpretation of God – fails to capture the spirit of individuality fully, since it is constantly being anchored in Christian imagery. Nietzsche breaks all assumptions, questioning the very basis of Western though, forcing us to start from scratch and affirm life for what it is, in all its contradictions and absurdities.

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– Perkins, Robert L. The Concept of Anxiety (International Kierkegaard Commentary). Mercer University Press, 1985. Print.

– Barrett, William. Irrational Man; A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Doubleday, 1958. Print.

– Addis, Laird. Nietzsche’s Ontology. Ontos Verlag, 2012. Print.

– Kaufmann, Walter Arnold. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre,. New York: Meridian Books,    1956. Print.

– Magnus, Bernd. The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche. Cambridge, England. Cambridge University    Press, 1996. Print.

– Hong, V. Howard. Hong, Edna H. Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses: Kierkegaard’s Writings, Vol. 5.    Reprint Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992. Print.

– Samuel, Horace B. The Genealogy of Morals. New York. Dover Publications, Inc., 2003. Print.

– Solomon, Robert C. Existentialism. 1st ed. New York: Modern Library, 1974. Print.

“The Pinch of Poverty” by Thomas Benjamin Kennington

Altruism — the most charitable, the most genial, the most endearing ethic — is promoted in Western society as the pinnacle of what is ‘good.’ Helping others before helping oneself is the crux of the democratic ideology, one that guides us and facilitates a feeling of social and cultural unity that strengthens human relations. It has become so inherent that it lay outside our mere conscious ideology. It has developed to be central to our being, and has thus become an obligatory act in order for one to be seen as a ‘good person.’

I take the golden rule in stride and I cherish it as a moral maxim for proper human relations. However, the Western conception of altruism has reached a disingenuous aura about it that cheapens the whole character of giving. In the First World, and other nations of Christendom, conceptions of ‘proper’ morality are derived from the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. The mantra is one of universal pity and, most importantly, universal love. Friedrich Nietzsche, quite famously, criticized such conceptions of morality in many of his texts for watering down their true meaning. A vindication of the ‘slave morality,’ Nietzsche vehemently opposed the undermining of the strong by the Judeo-Christian tradition of universality, which made man into a flock rather than an independent being. His gripe was, in essence, that if love is universal, one truly loves no one; if pity is universal, it is cheapened and means little. It becomes an obligation, done without question, rather than an honest moral calling.

When child labor was on our own American soil, the suffering was closer to home and easier to empathize with.

Such is the caricature of modern Western ethics, which is well-grounded in this Judeo-Christian moral responsibility. It corresponds love with selflessness, when in retrospect, love is perhaps the most selfish virtue of them all — the longing to deviate attention towards one individual despite all others. Most crucial, however, is the Christian caricature of pity which has ramifications in contemporary ideology most concretely. Take it, for example, the bleeding-heart liberal that so desperately desires to help others — he wishes to help everyone. Moved by the conditions around him, he feels compelled to do something. A noble endeavor, but to what end? Current conceptions of pity, especially towards poverty, tend to take the form of dissociating abstractions rather than a real phenomenon we can touch and feel. The West has done, for the most part, a proper job of exporting poverty to mainly areas outside of their bounds (i.e. the Third World) where production is brutal and dangerous, but is well beyond the public’s immediate consciousness. Perhaps most of us know of the tragedy that is Third World production, but we do truly Know? Can we truly empathize with the unnecessary pain and toil that goes into commodity creation, or do we just accept it while superficially denouncing it? When properly examined, Western pity may, ironically, be a subtle concession to the status quo. In this twisted moral code, poverty can be mitigated by buying a new pair of Toms, ghastly pollution can be solved with a few less plastic bags, and water deprivation can be cured by a conspicuous purchasing of Ethos water. Such is the eternal bliss of the modern consumer — capitalism with a human face, as its called. Sprinkle a little welfare, a friendly face, and a commodity with an ethical cause and you’ve solved the moral crises of production.

This is what leads me to believe that modern pity is, for the most part, one mostly of dissociation and perhaps even utter disillusionment. You donate a few dollars to a charity, to a decent cause, but have you truly alleviated the positions which created the suffering to begin with? Surely, it makes one feel warm, but does it not exasperate the issue rather than cure it? Modern morality should be about bringing to fruit a real call to action rather than a few token good works. I would categorize charitable giving as, fundamentally, such a token good work, one that gives the illusion of actual action. Surely, it is better than no action at all, but it, in essence, creates a temporary solution rather than a concrete one. And so the cyclical nature continues, with the Third World still dependent and the West still ubiquitously benevolent and longing to help. And no progress is made, except for a few dollars being thrown at poverty-stricken families in hopes helping them.

The abstraction of poverty, grief, and suffering is mostly a recent phenomenon and it corresponds with the rise of mass marketing and, more generally, the Internet. The human condition is expected to be moved by a starving African child, but when it presents itself as a commercial while sitting on a couch patiently waiting for the next programming, it comes off as less-then-urgent. It becomes a nonchalant mentioning of a real struggle, to which the American consumer responds likewise — I’ll donate a few dollars here, I’ll do what I can, but I have a family to take care of myself. The issue is that individuals cannot place themselves in that suffering, in that pain, since they are so distanced from it. And here lies the moral dilemma and the reason for the lethargy in modern activism. We see the suffering, but we don’t truly feel it; We see it as an image rather than as a condition. 

More generally, such dissociation is present in other aspects of social justice beside the fight to end world poverty. With the creation of the Internet, although possessing the ability to stimulate politically-charged movements, it has sadly lead to the creation of supposed ‘slactivists’ that lack the vigor to pursue any true cause outside of their immediate bedrooms. These self-congratulatory armchair activists pride themselves on fighting a grave injustice. Signing internet pleas, changing their Facebook profiles to lighten an alleged injustice (as in the Kony 2012 sham), or wearing certain clothing to support something or another — the illusion of actual action is watered down to petty online signatures and nicely-packed slogans that make nifty bumper stickers. If only we had sent Adolf Hitler a few more petitions during the height of Nazi rule he would have relinquished power– what were we thinking?

Rather than abstractions, let us feel real sympathy. Rather than token givings, let us fix the conditions which created the need.  In order to pinpoint true suffering, to actually Know the true hollowness of poverty, we must be fully attuned to all its horror. Oscar Wilde captures this sentiment most eloquently in his beautiful essay, The Soul of a Man under Socialism:

[The majority of people] try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.

And thus is the crux of the issue — let us question the basis of poverty we see, the ugliness we encounter, and the horror we experience.  Pity is not a cheap spontaneous ordeal; Pity is genuine expression of empathy, one which must precede the drive to solve the impoverished environment that evoked it.

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