Robert Morrison And Antoine Panaioti’s Nietzsche And The Buddha

Two recent books on Nietzsche and Buddhism–Robert Morrison’s Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities, and Antoine Panaioti’s Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy–do an exemplary job of examining, sympathetically and rigorously, some related questions of enduring philosophical interest: What is the relationship between Nietzsche’s writings and Buddhism? What were Nietzsche’s views on Buddhism? Was he grossly mistaken in his reading–if any–of Buddhist texts?

The answers these two texts provide are roughly similar.

First, Nietzsche had mixed views on Buddhism: he praised it for sounding the same alarm he was to a decadent culture confronting the loss of its most cherished ideals and ‘fictions’; he criticized it for what he saw as its nihilistic, world-denying aspects. This latter viewpoint, as both Morrison and Panaioti are at pains to point out, rests on a systematic misunderstanding of key Buddhist concepts and theories. Nietzsche was handicapped in this regard, ironically for someone who was a philologist, by his lack of fluency in the Indian languages–Sanskrit and Pali–essential for reading original Buddhist texts; he had to rely, perforce, on indirect access to the Buddhist corpus. Some of this indirect access, notably, was provided by Schopenhauer, who extracted from Buddhism a pessimism that Nietzsche ultimately found untenable and defeatist.

Second, Nietzsche and Buddhism share points of resonance or ‘affinities’ at several points: they both are committed to: a no-self theory of the self that denies the substantiality of an enduring self, a theory which they describe as a ‘delusion’ and which serves to underwrite many other species of pernicious theorizing; a metaphysics that eschews ‘substance‘–indeed, the no-self theory of the self serves to underwrite a no-object theory of objects or no-substantiality theory of substance (Buddhism employs the notion of “co-dependent arising” to deny independent, non-contingent existence to any thing or substance); a rigorous practice of self-overcoming or self-mastery, a key component of which is the mastery of perspectives that are free of the various illusions and delusions that contribute to ‘world weariness’ or ‘pointless suffering.’ Moreover, both can be understood in ‘medical’ or ‘therapeutic’ terms; they both aim, through their philosophizing, to ‘cure’ a certain kind of perplexity that has led to intellectual and physical ill-health. And they both do it with an emphasis on practice, on modifying and altering the very ways in which we think and live.

Both Morrison and Panaioti know the relevant literatures exceedingly well; they’ve clearly mastered the Nietzschean corpus, and engaged rigorously with original Buddhist texts. (They both seem to be fluent in Pali and Sanskrit and often contest older translations of technical terms in these languages.) They write clearly and do a wonderful job of making difficult Buddhist material more accessible. Morrison does this to a greater extent as he engages in several attempts to provide new interpretations to Buddhist terms and theses–not all of which will find approval with scholars of Buddhism, but they will applaud the attempted rigor of his interpretations anyway.

Much academic writing these days is sterile and unreadable; these two books provide a much-needed counterpoint to that claim.

Babies and Personal Identity

As a professor of philosophy I have taught personal identity several times; almost always in introductory classes; mostly via John Locke, David Hume, and the Buddha, and by relying on standard examples in the literature (the Ship of Theseus for instance). Invariably, I begin my class discussions of  personal identity by saying something along the lines of, ‘We are used to pointing to a photograph and saying “Hey, that’s me when I was three years (or six months or six weeks) old” and our listeners will believe us in most cases. But what is it that licenses such a claim? The entity we are pointing to doesn’t look exactly like us; it sure doesn’t behave like us; its physical composition is entirely different. So what gives?’ And then, we’re off and rolling. Brain transplantation, teleportation, and the movie Big (among others) follow. I have much sympathy for the ‘forensic’ aspects of personality that Locke alludes to, and for Buddhist and Humean no-self theories, and some of my students, gratifyingly, do cotton on to what it is about these theories that is simultaneously insightful and perplexing. Teaching personal identity allows me, most pleasurably, to delve into topics that are the most close to our hearts but which are often condemned to the margins in the more rarefied regions of philosophy; it is where metaphysics and ethics come together.

These days as I spend most of waking–and sometimes half-awake–hours with my almost-seven-weeks-old daughter, I’m reminded–again and again–of that introductory example of the baby in the photograph. I am aware of her changing, rapidly, all too rapidly. I marvel at her transformation from just-more-than-fetus to infant, as pounds and inches add on, as she starts to respond to more environmental stimuli like sound and light and touch, dishes out ‘social smiles’ when confronted with the cooing expressions of her father, mother, and aunt, and emits sounds, which in the grand imaginations of a hopeful parent, are not just stifled cries but genuine attempts at communication. And I wonder what she will ‘turn into,’ what she will ‘grow up to be’, what she will ‘become.’ I try to extrapolate, sometimes, from her current features, to what she might look like a year from now or even later. I speculate about the friends she will make, and how they will ‘transform’ her so that the girl who leaves home in the morning for school will come back a ‘different’ one in the afternoon.

These speculations run out soon enough, and I urge patience on myself. For I am dimly aware that the girl I play with now, whose crying sometimes almost reduces me too to tears, will not be the ‘same’ girl years later. The one I play with now, who has a nickname I dare not share for fear of being considered soft in the head, will be replaced by someone else. That other girl will look at the gigantic collection of photos her parents put together and perhaps say the same thing: ‘Lookit me – I was kinda cute, wasn’t I?’ She’ll be right, of course. But for now, I want to make sure I make the most of my limited time with this special guest, one who will soon be replaced by another one, as yet another stage of the inevitable process of ‘her growing up’ comes to be.

Note: Here is a post in which I describe a childhood thought experiment with personal identity.