Buddhist Philosophy 13: Buddhism, Existentialism & Postmodernism
In this lecture, we will cover the similarities between Buddhism and the thought of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bataille, Sartre, Lyotard and Baudrillard. For this lecture, read Nietzsche’s Beyond Good & Evil , Preface & Chapter 1, and Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, sections 1-5.
Before Existentialism: Schopenhauer, Nietzsche & Bataille
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860), who looked a bit in his established years like a cross between a cranky grandfather and Wolverine of the X Men, took Kant’s philosophy and radically inverted it, making reason a manifestation of will and desire. Schopenhauer, more pessimistic about the use of reason than Kant, saw the gulf and gap between the world and our ideas as a stormy abyss that forever frustrates our idealizations. He agreed with Kant that the mind works categorically and mathematically, but the gap between our conceptions and the ‘thing-in-itself’ turned Schopenhauer from Kant’s Rationalism to Buddhism and the ecstasy of art. Schopenhauer was a big influence on Nietzsche and Wittgenstein in their youth, two of the most important later European philosophers and two of my favorites.
Schopenhauer openly referred to himself as an atheist and a Buddhist, two firsts for European philosophers and to many a puzzling contradiction. Schopenhauer did believe that the world was alive, but did not believe that it was rational. Schopenhauer’s solution to the problem of evil was to reject the idea that a living world is a rational world. While he believed that the world shared a single will, he believed that rationality had turned the world against itself, each part striving against the other parts. Schopenhauer was deeply influenced by Indian thought as it was becoming available to Europeans, specifically the Upanishads, Vedanta and Buddhism.
As a boy, Schopenhauer received a Latin translation of the Upanishads, the distillation of the philosophical meanings of the Hindu Vedas, and he was so impressed with them that he continued to read them every night before bed, leaving the book open on his desk for much of his life. He wrote that they were the most sublime philosophy of world history, the product of “the highest human wisdom”, and that, “it has been the consolation of my life and will be the consolation of my death”. He predicted that the philosophy of the Upanishads, orthodox Hindu texts, would replace Christianity as the religion of Europe. One of the central ideas of the Upanishads is Tat Tvam Asi, “That is you“. Underlying all distinctions of self and other is the unity of the cosmos.
Schopenhauer only learned about Buddhism after he had already come to his philosophical convictions, but he saw deep parallels between the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha and his own conception of existence as will and suffering. The first three of the Four Noble Truths are 1) existence is suffering (unrest/anxiety), 2) the cause of suffering is desire, and 3) there is a way out of suffering. The last of the four is 4) the way out of suffering is the Buddhist eight-fold path. Schopenhauer wrote that if his own philosophy was correct, it would make sense that it agreed with the most popular system of thought in human history. While there are more Christians and Muslims in the world today, Buddhism may still have the highest headcount, with at least a half millennium head start. Schopenhauer received instruction in meditation from a friend, though it is unknown whether he practiced with any regularity.
Schopenhauer argued that our fundamental experience of ourselves is not as abstractions of understanding and reason, but as embodied will. We are, at base, a striving. Schopenhauer was critical of other philosophers for focusing on abstractions of reason and ignoring love, friendship, sexuality, and artistic passion, which are central to our existence. The subject that recognizes itself as willing still sees itself as a self, what Schopenhauer calls the “knot of the world”, the mystery par excellence, the only event purely for and in itself. Linji said that all he does is untie knots.
For Schopenhauer, freedom is found in the assertion of will through action. Schopenhauer considered the freedom of reason to be an illusion, as the mind is compulsive relative to the body. Thoughts appear free, but the purest part of our freedom is not in the channeling of abstractions, but in the self-recognition of volition, of will. Much like a Zen master, Schopenhauer would say we are most free when we are least thinking. Just as the Buddha taught that it is obsession, not feelings, that are the problem, our thoughts are abstractions that can separate us from our true self and leave us with the delusion that we are completely separate from the world and each other. While the great single will of the cosmos is selfless, it is thought that individuates the world, breaking it up into individuals, and this is the cause of the selfishness often associated with will and desire. The world is a battleground because of abstractions and ideas, which mislead the will into conflicts with itself. It is will that unites us with the will of others and the world as a whole.
Schopenhauer did not see human civilization as a progression, but rather as the same old mess it has always been. The world’s wars and social conflicts, such as the uprisings that contributed to German pessimism, convinced him humanity remains the same, while Hegel, who Schopenhauer called a lunatic, wrote that science and reason were bringing completion to history. Schopenhauer cynically wrote that the history of a village is the history of an empire, with both teaching us the same thing. Is civilization a vehicle for progress, or for the progression of much of the same that we see throughout history? Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, who read Schopenhauer when they were young just as Schopenhauer read the Upanishads, shared Schopenhauer’s pessimism about modern progress, with the hope that individuals can always develop wisdom beyond the scope of this or any era.
Schopenhauer’s central great work, The World as Will and Representation (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, 1818 CE), famously opens with the words, “The world is my representation”, about as succinct an expression of Idealism possible, particularly standing next to the long-winded works of Kant and Hegel. Both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche rejected Kant and Hegel’s approach of writing exhaustive systems, preferring to have several clear and deep ideas expressed in aphorisms, short focused passages, often somewhat unsystematic. This has made both more popular and enjoyable to read than Kant and Hegel for non-professionals, including artists and authors.
For Schopenhauer, the mind represents and idealizes the world, which is essentially will. All things, including the concrete self and abstract conceptions, are manifestations of will. The world is full of perpetual striving for ideals that never come to perfection. The classic metaphor he uses is the ship bobbing on a stormy sea, far less anchored than the metaphor Kant employs of the lonely island of logic and reason amidst the sea of changing chaos. Schopenhauer argued that we must recognize our human condition and have the courageous will to hold our courses in spite of endless hardship. Developing sea legs and a tough stomach, recognizing oneself and one’s world as striving without hope for a Hegelian resolution by reason, is virtue and true strength.
There is for Schopenhauer one escape from will and the self, not Buddhism as the fourth of the Noble Truths says, but art, through which we can temporarily escape ourselves and our desires through ecstasy and identification with others and the whole. Nietzsche followed Schopenhauer in arguing that creativity is the highest form of life, but Nietzsche argued that it was not the loss of self and escape from will but rather the highest activity of the individual, self-assertion expressing power and accomplishment. For Schopenhauer, it is not standing out as an individual but identification with the world beyond representation, feeling unity with the other that transcends conceptualization. Other than this authentic recognition, human existence is self-denial, a “pendulum between boredom and pain“.
Schopenhauer argued that music is the highest form of art, the form that embodies pure will itself, because unlike visual arts it represents no particular things or ideas. In this way it is similar to American Abstract Minimalist painting and sculpture that became popular in the wake of WWII and with the beatniks, art which goes beyond Cubism, Futurism and Surrealism in representing no particular things but striving to give shape to pure emotion and sensation, a famous example being Jackson Pollock drizzling paint on a canvas. Schopenhauer compared the ‘should’ of the will, its purpose and drive, to the melody of music, and compared music to the numbers of the Pythagoreans and the Chinese Yi Jing, a favorite of Leibniz’s, the deep underlying essential form and representation of fundamental existence. The greatest art after music is tragedy, as it shows us the unified will divided painfully against itself. Consider the works of Shakespeare, and the suffering undergone due to ignorance and passion.
Like much of Indian thought, Schopenhauer saw animals as intimately related to human beings, similar manifestations of will, striving and suffering. Schopenhauer even believed that crystals display will, much like the ancient Greek philosopher Thales believed that magnets have souls, and that crystals are halfway between earth and vegetation. In one passage near the end of The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer speaks of sea lions and the way that they form a circle around their young. Whenever a pup tries to escape the circle, it gets a bite from the elders to teach it to stay where it is safe. Clearly he is drawing a comparison between the way sea lions and humans learn through suffering and restricting the will in themselves and others. Fichte might have admired the example.
Schopenhauer was a major influence on Freud, who saw civilization and human behaviors as repression of desire and will, as the super-ego putting the ego’s endless search for pleasure in check. In his Civilization and its Discontent, Freud argued that religion is a hopeless attempt to regain the “oceanic feeling” that we had in union with our world before we left the womb. Schopenhauer would agree, but disagree with Freud that regaining this feeling is a hopeless illusion. Nature is blind to its own striving, does not represent itself as a self-concept, nor does it plan its activities through reason. Schopenhauer argued that animals and people can conceive of themselves, representing themselves to themselves as selves, as animals are able to recognize their own names unlike minerals and plants. For Schopenhauer, animals live in a simpler, continuous present moment, much as Buddhism teaches, incapable of the abstractions needed to harm others through elaborate technologies.
Schopenhauer believed in compassion for all beings, unless they are human, lower class, and rioting. Schopenhauer said he preferred to be ruled by a lion than a fellow rat, clearly a conservative and authoritarian in spite of his radically unique philosophy. Yet, Schopenhauer was opposed to the slave trade and the mistreatment of any people based on ethnicity. Unlike many of his day he believed that the ancient Egyptians and Indians were equal to Europeans. He wrote abolitionist works supporting the movement in the United States, writing, with an unfortunate choice of words, that “our black brothers” were receiving treatment, “belonging to the blackest pages of mankind’s criminal record”.
Ethically, Schopenhauer argued that in harming other things, we harm ourselves. While the world is a Darwinian struggle, there is for Schopenhauer a temporary Buddhistic release in art and recognizing the other as ourselves, such as we do in tragic fiction. Schopenhauer lived alone except for a series of pets, mostly poodles, who apparently often responded to Schopenhauer when he called their names. He wrote that he could see the immortal will of the cosmos in the eyes of his dog, so what really dies or passes away? Schopenhauer himself died sitting on his couch, next to his pet cat. Hopefully the cat, if not the Upanishads, was a final solace for Schopenhauer.
Schopenhauer had a great influence on many, including Nietzsche, Wagner and Wittgenstein, but his work first caught on with artists rather than scholars. Freud read Schopenhauer and found it remarkable how much his own ideas were prefigured in Schopenhauer’s work, as did his student Carl Jung, as did the Jungian Psychologist Joseph Campbell. The scientists Einstein and Schrodinger both approved of Schopenhauer. Camus, who befriended but later broke with Sartre, was influenced in his Absurdism by Schopenhauer, as was Tolstoy. Borges, the great Argentinian surrealist author of the Ficciones, wrote that he never bothered to systematically present his own philosophy because it had already been written by Schopenhauer.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844 – 1900 CE), the great mustachioed one, came from a long line of protestant Lutheran preachers, five generations deep on his father’s side. Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s father died when he was five years old, suffering physically and mentally from debilitating insanity. Nietzsche as a boy wondered why both his father, a passionate preacher loved by the community, and older brother suffered and died for no apparent reason in spite of being Christian. Though his family sent the boy to school to become a preacher and theologian, Nietzsche rebelled and turned to philosophy after a brief period of interest in mathematics. Nietzsche studied and taught philology, a forgotten subject similar to social and anthropological linguistics. As a youth, Nietzsche admired the leaders of the world’s religions such as Zarathustra, Jesus, Confucius, and Mohammed for changing the world courageously. While Nietzsche argued that Buddhism is too passive, he embraced Schopenhauer’s idea that the world is a dynamic struggle of will while young as Darwin’s theory of evolution was taking the world by storm.
In 1869 Nietzsche was a professor of philology at the University of Basel, Switzerland’s third largest city bordering both France and Germany. He was close with many of his colleagues and frequently visited the composer Wagner and his wife in nearby Lucerne. At first Nietzsche revered Wagner, writing that he was one of the great geniuses of the age, and the two bonded over a love of Schopenhauer. Wagner read Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, and wrote to Nietzsche that he was the closest person by far to Wagner himself, along with his wife. Then Wagner became increasingly Christian, German-nationalist, and antisemitic and Nietzsche, quite opposed to tribal identities as an individualist, wrote to Wagner imploring him to see the light. Wagner replied with silence, and the friendship ended to Nietzsche’s great sorrow.
Nietzsche argued in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), that the ancient Greeks did not simply celebrate the rational as was often said in Nietzsche’s time and still is today. He argued that there were two opposite strains in Greek society, the Apollonian (order, reason and law) and the Dionysian (chaos, emotion and revolt). Apollo was the ancient Greek god of knowledge, and Dionysus was the god of ecstasy, intoxication and transformation. These opposite gods are similar to Kant and Hegel’s conception of understanding, which orders, and reason, which is free, however the freedom of Dionysus is less the use of logic and more the use of other things. Nietzsche suggests that both are quite human, and societies that flourish do not simply become rational and reasonable but struggle to both restrain and escape restraint, to categorically understand and transcend categorical understanding, engaging in both science and art.
Nietzsche did not particularly admire Buddhism, though he did study it to the degree that a German could in his time, but he did particularly admire Heraclitus of the ancient Greek philosophers, who he said was closer to his own thought than any other thinker and whom several Germans argued was possibly the Buddha due to similarities between philosophies. In Nietzsche’s philosophical autobiography Ecce Homo (“Behold the Man” in Latin, the words of Pontius Pilate as he reveals Jesus to the crowd who condemns him), Nietzsche writes, “In (Heraclitus’) proximity I feel altogether warmer and better than anywhere else… The affirmation of passing away and destroying, which is the decisive feature of a Dionysian philosophy; saying Yes to opposition and war; becoming, along with a radical repudiation of the very concept of being – all this is clearly more closely related to me than anything else thought of date.” Nietzsche also identified Heraclitus’ thought with that of Schopenhauer, and quoted Schopenhauer in explaining the philosophy of Heraclitus.
Nietzsche, like Heraclitus, enjoyed comparing humans to apes, to humble us and encourage us to evolve beyond what we are, writing, “If God created the world, then He made man His ape, to provide constant amusement during His overlong eternities.” Heraclitus wrote, a favorite quote of mine, “To a god the wisdom of the wisest man sounds apish. Beauty in a human face looks apish too. In everything we have attained the excellence of apes.” While many have compared Nietzsche’s philosophy to Pyrrhonian skepticism, Nietzsche only rarely mentions ancient skeptics, by which he means Greek Pyrrhonians. Like Nietzsche, the Pyrrhonians believed that truth is perspective and appearance, and that this view was not nihilistic but rather life affirming, much like Jains and Buddhists of India.
Nietzsche was often sick with stomach problems and other health matters which would plague him for the rest of his life, and in 1879 he resigned his professorship. Nietzsche wrote that sickness was “the teacher of great suspicion”, and was well aware that, as a philosopher who argued that all philosophy is personal interpretation, he wrote in praise of strength and independence as a sickly individual. For the next ten years, until 1889, he traveled largely in France and Italy, seeking a warm climate in winters for his ailments, and wrote several books which are celebrated today but in their time went almost entirely unnoticed, including Human All too Human, The Dawn, The Joyful Science (often misleadingly titled “The Gay Science”), Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, The Genealogy of Morals, and The Twilight of the Idols, subtitled: How to Philosophize with a Hammer.
Tragically in 1889 at the age of forty five, just as he was beginning to gain some fame and popularity, he had a period of great bliss and happiness followed by a lapse into increasing catatonic insanity. According to the story, Nietzsche saw a fallen horse being beaten in the street, and threw his arms around its neck, weeping uncontrollably. After this, he said and wrote very little. While some opposed to Nietzsche’s skeptical thinking have argued that insanity was the result of his philosophy, others who embrace Nietzsche’s thought, including Karl Jaspers, one of Nietzsche’s first major interpreters and also a psychiatrist, have argued that Nietzsche’s eventual insanity was the result of a genetic condition he inherited from his father.
Nietzsche saw himself as the beginning of a great awakening to a new world where truth is neither religion, science nor politics, but individual interpretation and perspective, destroying the myth of the objective system. He hoped that those who understood him would transform reality and themselves as they saw fit, having the courage to make leaps of faith once they saw that it can be done. An emotional and entertaining author, Nietzsche makes bold judgements, often involving great praise or condemnation, but he was not making pronouncements about final answers but demonstrating the ability to continue to question and see new perspectives. This is why, as Nietzsche himself wrote, he had earned the right to be wrong as well as contradict himself in countless ways. Rather than defend truth as a final form, he had hoped to inspire a great will to truth and the creation of meaning in others, a courage to plum the depths and kick the tires.
Nietzsche did not want his texts to be read like newspapers, available to all regardless of ability. There is no one way, so find your own way, Nietzsche implores the reader. Nietzsche encouraged his readers to distrust him as he distrusts himself. Truth, in the individual or society, should not need to be defended, but rather put into conflict, forcing it to rise to the occasion or perish. Nietzsche wrote that if he was to pronounce a law that should not be broken, it would only be for the purposes of testing the individual who would be courageous enough to strengthen themselves by breaking it. Suffering, error and contradiction are necessary in every great development, which Nietzsche argued the great must embrace and cherish. This is quite like Linji’s style of Zen, with no need for reverence.
Nietzsche argued against the two extremes of morality and nihilism. He saw Europe as entering a crisis after the Enlightenment, in which all objectivity, authority and morality were called into question. Most would turn to morality and objectivity, giving their individuality to religion, science or politics without criticism in the hope of security. Others would lose all faith and motivation, turning to nihilism and renouncing the ability to believe and create. Between these two extremes, Nietzsche argues, is the tightrope walker, the one who faces the void, the absence of complete security and certainty, and decides to create meaning, to give their life some meaning needing no authority other than their own individuality. Nietzsche distinguished himself from nihilists, saying he had never feared failing to find the way out of the hole of nothing and arrive at something.
Nietzsche often compared humanity to animals, as did Schopenhauer. Nietzsche wrote that humanity is the most refined beast of prey, founding nations and making war, deceiving and trampling more effectively than any other beast, more courageous and cruel than any other animal. When we cannot be beastial in act, we are beastial in thought. However, unlike all other animals, humanity shows a far greater capacity for change and evolution, if not so much in physiology then in thought and technology. Nietzsche viewed the human individual much as Schopenhauer viewed the world, as a will divided against itself, as an ecosystem of drives. Our various drives, which resemble those of every other human individual but also vary between any two individuals, help each other, fight each other, conceal each other, redirect each other, and invoke each other.
We advance by way of errors and illusions. False beliefs evolved over long periods, committing countless mistakes, to arrive in modern times. Humanity considers itself the center of creation, the meaning of the cosmos, the most free being in spite of imposing the most restriction, capable of working miracles in defiance of physics, and then convinced that it holds the key to physics itself. The idea of complete understandings, what Nietzsche regarded as a fundamental error, still drives much of human thought today as it has for thousands of years. Nietzsche was worried that in modern times humanity would celebrate its rise while it was falling, praising security while losing ingenuity, gaining incredible knowledge while losing inspiration and meaning.
We are constantly deceiving ourselves about ourselves, as we are about others and the world. We must view everything, including the thing which most matters to us, our self, through “the fictions of language and logic”, as Nietzsche said it. We forget and conceal in creating meaning. While there are no complete and exclusive distinctions between any two things in life, we inscribe things as self-identical and distinct from all things in order to make sense of our world. Recall that Schopenhauer saw self-conception and individuation as a basic problem, the knot of existence, the thing that turns the primal will against itself. We interpret ourselves in light of how others have interpreted us, which we must interpret for ourselves based on the incompleteness of what they say and what they do. We can overcome others with our opinions, and they can overcome our innermost understandings of ourselves with theirs. We are and are not ourselves, just as Heraclitus wrote. The selves and truths that we construct are both fictions and fact, intertwined.
Suppressed drives find means of release. Often they turn inwards, and can become poisonous, life-denying rather than life-affirming. Unlike hunger, most drives can subsist and be satisfied, if temporarily, like hunger, through ideas, judgements, and dreams. Nietzsche loved and hated superiority. Individuals can be superior, but when individuals seek superiority in groups, they can discourage individual creativity thinking beyond the herd mentality. Nietzsche feared the revenge of the herd, which he labeled with the French term, ‘resentiment’, resentment with an ‘i’ in the middle. The herd fear the new, individual and nonconformist, as these call “objectivity” and its authority into question. We can always blame others, rather than ourselves, for our situation, avoiding individual responsibility for making our lives meaningful.
While Nietzsche argued that it is good to be acquainted with the sciences, the study of science should pave the way towards renouncing objectivity, absolute knowledge and universal facts. Nietzsche feared in the late 1800s that science and politics were replacing religion, becoming the new dominant forms of dogmatism. Nietzsche wrote, “He who is willing to dismiss God clings all the more firmly to the belief in morality”, in an objective view. Nietzsche points to the problematic ways that interpretations, moralities and understandings justify themselves as law and thus disguise the joy in causing pain, the celebration of truths that persist as lies, the vengeance of what is labeled impartial. This is what has been understood for all of history but is rarely challenged. Cultures set themselves apart from others through ideology, including the internal divisions of class and ethnicity, and claims of objectivity, authority and morality are always directed by one group of people against another.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1885) that sound like they could come from the mouth of Linji and other Zen masters. Nietzsche believed that the Persian prophet Zarathustra, one of the first monotheists, was the first dualist to exclusively separate good from evil in his thinking, so Nietzsche has Zarathustra as a character become the first to see beyond exclusive distinctions of good and evil and the error of dualism to see the interdependence and totality of the whole. Like Wuzu’s water buffalo, suspended absurdly in midair, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra preaches to the crowd that existence is always a work in progress.
Truly, man is a polluted stream. One must be a sea, to receive a polluted stream without becoming impure.
Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the superman, a rope over an abyss, a dangerous crossing.
What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal.
Beyond Good and Evil (1886) is considered to be one of Nietzsche’s greatest books, one of the best expressions of his thought. In this book, Nietzsche attempts to push thought beyond categorical understandings of good and evil and of true and false to show the complexity of human meaning and life. He starts this work asking: Why do we want pure, objective, absolute truth or suppose we can obtain it? Nietzsche says that asking this question is perhaps the greatest risk. If we question our ability to gain truth, it becomes possible that we will lose all hope for truth and turn to nihilism, which Nietzsche argues is equally as dangerous to human creativity and the process of life as the belief in objectivity. Typically, thinkers have assumed that there must be absolute pure truth apart from or hidden within the messy world and various human opinions. He writes:
This way of judging constitutes the typical prejudgment and prejudice which gives away the metaphysicians of all ages; this kind of valuation looms in the background of all their logical procedures; it is on account of this ‘faith’ that they trouble themselves about ‘knowledge’, about something that is finally baptized solemnly as ‘the truth’. The fundamental faith of the metaphysicians is the faith in opposite values. It has not even occurred to the most cautious among them that one might have a doubt right here at the threshold where it was surely most necessary. (BGE 2)
The falseness of a judgment is for us not necessarily an objection to a judgment… The question is to what extent is it life-promoting, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-cultivating, and we are fundamentally inclined to claim that the falsest judgments (which include the synthetic judgments a priori) are the most indispensable for us, that without accepting the fictions of logic, without measuring reality against the purely invented world of the unconditional and self-identical, without a constant falsification of the world by means of numbers, man could not live, that renouncing false judgments would mean renouncing life and a denial of life. To recognize untruth as a condition of life, that certainly means resisting accustomed value feelings in a dangerous way, and a philosophy that risks this would by that token alone place itself beyond good and evil. (BGE 4)
What provokes one to look at all philosophers half suspiciously, half mockingly, is not that one discovers again and again how innocent they are, how often and how easily they make mistakes and go astray, in short, their childishness and childlikeness, but that they are not honest enough in their work, although they all make a lot of virtuous noise when the problem of truthfulness is touched even remotely. They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic (as opposed to the mystics of every rank, who are more honest and doltish, and talk of ‘inspiration’), while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of ‘inspiration’, most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract, that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact.
It is perhaps just dawning on five or six minds that physics, too, is only an interpretation of the world (to suit us, if I may say so!) and not a world-explanation. (BGE 14)
There are still harmless self-observers who believe that there are ‘immediate certainties’, for example, ‘I think’, or as the superstition of Schopenhauer put it, ‘I will’, as though knowledge here got hold of its object purely and nakedly as ‘the thing in itself’, without falsification on the part of either the subject or the object…I shall repeat a hundred times, we really ought to free ourselves from the seduction of words! (BGE 16)
With regard to the superstitions of logicians, I shall never tire of emphasizing a small terse fact, which these superstitious minds hate to concede: namely, that a thought comes when ‘it’ wishes, and not when ‘I’ wish, so that it is a falsification of the facts of the case to say that the subject ‘I’ is the condition of the predicate ‘think’. IT thinks. (BGE 17)
In what strange simplification and falsification man lives! One can never cease wondering once one has acquired eyes for this marvel! How we have made everything around us clear and free and easy and simple! How we have been able to give our senses a passport to everything superficial, our thoughts a divine desire for wanton leaps and wrong inferences! How from the beginning we have contrived to retain our ignorance…and only on this now solid, granite foundation of ignorance could knowledge rise so far, the will to knowledge on the foundation of a far more powerful will: the will to ignorance, to the uncertain, to the untrue, not as its opposite, but as its refinement! Even if language, here as elsewhere, will not get over its awkwardness, and will continue to talk of opposites where there are only degrees and many subtleties of gradation…here and there we understand it and laugh at the way in which precisely science at its best seeks most to keep us in this simplified, thoroughly artificial, suitable constructed and suitable falsified world, at the way in which, willy-nilly, it loves error, because, being alive, it loves life. (BGE 24)
Take care, philosophers and friends, of knowledge, and beware of martyrdom, of suffering ‘for truth’s sake’, even of defending yourselves…as though ‘the truth’ were such an innocuous and incompetent creature as to require protectors! (BGE 25)
In all seriousness, the innocence of our thinkers is somehow touching and evokes reverence, when today they still step before consciousness with the request that it should please give them honest answers.
A philosopher has nothing less than a right to ‘bad character’, as the being who has so far always been fooled best on earth. He has a duty to suspicion today, to squint maliciously out of every abyss of suspicion… Why couldn’t the world that concerns us, be a fiction?… Shouldn’t philosophers be permitted to rise above faith in grammar? (BGE 34)
A man’s maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child at play. (BGE 94)
A people is a detour of nature to get to six or seven great men. Yes, and then to get around them. (BGE 126)
George Bataille (1897 – 1962 CE) was the philosopher closest to the Surrealist art movement in Paris of the twenties and thirties, an outlying member as Breton, author of the Surrealist manifestos and “Pope of Surrealism”, disliked him and his interpretation of Surrealism. Like Nietzsche, Bataille’s father went insane when he was a young boy. Bataille was fascinated with the obscene and its mystical identity with the sacred, with transgression and violation. The individual self is a rupture, a thrusting out from and tearing of the world. Bataille was talented at inventing violent and sexual metaphors, comparing self-conception and assertion of the ego to an ape erection, an orgasm, ejaculation, a fascist revolution, and a blood spurt from the heart of an Aztec sacrificial victim.
Nietzsche argued that the great thinker should encompass all without exclusion, subsuming all contradictions. Bataille believed in including and encompassing the most reviled of things in order to achieve mystical visions, much as some ancient Shamans would cut themselves to achieve ecstatic states of consciousness and Linji would tell us to decapitate the Buddha. In one passage, after arguing that science had overturned mythology, and so the modern mythology of science and reason would have to be overturned, Bataille compares civilization to an orgy, in which the participants bind an ape, bury it headfirst in the ground and celebrate its death spasms. Clearly, he has the earlier passage of Zarathustra in mind, and is mocking the way that humanity wallows in decadence while celebrating itself as the superior opposite of the ape. Bataille also argued that Salvador Dali’s painting The Lugubrious Game was the most beautiful painting ever because it had succeeded in including a shit stain as beautiful.
Like Nietzsche, Bataille rejected nationalism, fascism and racism, arguing that no one should befriend a racist and that Nietzsche’s sister was possibly worse than Judas for betraying her brother’s work to the Nazis. Bataille identified fascism with an obsession with cleanliness and purity, an obsession with boundaries, exclusion, and repression of the self, the very things that Nietzsche sought to overcome and Bataille sought to encompass. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche wrote that he was not a man, but dynamite. Jaspers wrote that Nietzsche had dynamited the mountain, such that now we can freely construct what we wish out of the pieces. Bataille wrote that Nietzsche was a star, so in the end he had to explode, as only such a tragic end was fitting for so great an individual.
Jean Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980), pronounced, ‘Sart’, coined the term Existentialism to describe his own philosophy. In response to Heidegger’s Being and Time, Sartre argued in his Being and Nothingness that the basic condition of humanity is anxiety in the face of the unknown, and that much of the time we avoid this deeper state by seeking what we like and avoiding what we hate. In the process, we become ignorant of ourselves, of the world, and of our relationships with our fellow human beings.
Sartre argues that there is a consistent way that we try to avoid the dynamic life of our open-ended and transformative relationships with others, both those with whom we are intimate (family, friends, partners) and those whom we pass on the street or encounter in a shop. Sartre uses the example of a cafe waiter to illustrate, as Sartre did much of his writing in the cafes of Paris and describes the scene as he is witnessing it firsthand. The waiter in a cafe plays his role, over-emphasizing the rigidity and seriousness of the gestures, the bows, the distribution and collecting of menus, the seriousness with which orders are taken, to define himself as a waiter, filling his role. We and he come to see him as a waiter and not as a human being.
The waiter becomes a robot, and his individuality disappears, both for our and his comfort. We find it easier to interact with a role than with the actor as a person, and the actor finds it easier to lose themselves in the role than to try to retain individuality while serving in their position. For Sartre, it becomes easy for us to lose sight of the situation as a whole, that this is not a waiter in essence but a human being playing the role of a waiter. While it would be tiresome to say, “Excuse me, authentic human individual playing the temporary role of a waiter. May I have another espresso?” each and every time we wish to authentically interact with others enacting social roles, our substitution of the word ‘waiter’ for the individual diminishes our awareness of the situation.
In his play No Exit, Sartre’s main character famously exclaims, “Hell is other people!” in frustration after being questioned in a strange limbo room by two women, possibly living in some sort of hell designed for him. We are constantly faced with others who do and do not know themselves as we do and do not know ourselves. The Other threatens to give us new strange meanings that take our old familiar meanings away. To face this authentically is to have a good and positive faith in life and the creation of meaning. To have what Sartre calls “bad faith” is to trust that meanings are closed and dead, that the waiter is nothing more to oneself than a waiter, that the Jew, Arab or African is nothing more to oneself or one’s French nation than simply Other with no relation. Sartre, like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, believed that art can liberate us from the common human condition, however all three would agree that most art is inauthentic, reinforcing our prejudices and ideas, giving us a shallow and false substitute for meaning in an increasingly mechanized and commodified world. Sartre sought to write and entertain in ways that opened up audiences to examine themselves, their world, and each other with new possibilities of meaning and activity. This is as true of the individual, who could come to identify with the waiter as a friend, as it is of society, which could come to identify with the marginalized and oppressed.
Postmodernism: Lyotard & Baudrillard
Postmodernism is a movement in philosophy characterized by a free play of ideas, forms and influences in the wake of Nietzsche and Existentialism’s criticism of universal structures and systems. Like Nietzsche, Postmodernism embraces self-contradiction, often in the form of hybridization, mixing and matching formerly opposed forms, ideas and cultures, embracing the Other as Sartre would have wanted. Specifically, Postmodernism reverses conceptions that arose with the European Enlightenment and modernity about the progress of reason and the exclusive identity of Western culture. The accelerating development of science and technology which originally supported exclusive understandings of Western identity is also simultaneously undermining the distinction via counterculture. In the 1980s, this included the use of video technology, and then in the 1990s it was extended considerably by the explosion of the internet.
Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924 – 1998, pronounced “leo-TAR”), is of the same family as the famous trapeze artist known for his one-piece gymnastic garb, for whom the song The Man on the Flying Trapeze was composed and from whom the gymnastic wear gets its name. Lyotard taught in Algeria, Brazil and California before settling back in Paris in 1968, the year of the New Left student protests in Paris, an event that had a major impact on most of the French Postmodernists. Like other Postmodernists, Lyotard argued that there will be no grand final revolution that paves the way to utopia, so the best political strategy for progressives is to offer alternatives to the dominant culture and system that do not seek to become dominant.
Lyotard argues in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), one of the central works of Postmodernism, that all cultures legitimate themselves through the telling and retelling of narratives, stories that give each culture purpose and meaning. At a time when computer technology was just beginning to bring vast changes to communication, thought and culture, Lyotard argues that the training of critical minds is being eclipsed by storage of data and governments are being replaced by multinational corporations. All of this continues to be legitimated by the narrative of the European Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, separating Europe and the West from the rest of humanity, a story that has become so central to Christianity, science and politics that it becomes a super-story, central to the creation of multiple forms of meaning, a metanarrative. Lyotard compares this story of salvation, with European civilization saving the world from itself, to similar metanarratives found in Christianity and Marxism. Without the faithful retelling and circulation of this metanarrative, Moderns, as Latour would say, would have little idea what this culture means.
Unfortunately, Lyotard argues, the metanarrative was unmasked for many by the horrors of WWII, particularly the highly mechanized genocide at Auschwitz, which spawned the countercultural attacks against the metanarrative of the fifties and sixties. Counterculturals begin wondering aloud if the story of progress is merely a mask for brutality and whether the West is merely like the rest, wallowing in ignorance and authoritarianism. The beatnik youth of the 1950s turned from American conformity, tired and disillusioned after WWII and unfaithful to the Korean War and consumerism. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s called for revolutionary changes to the American practice of democracy which openly excluded and oppressed many Americans who were seen as Other due to ethnicity and gender.
Lyotard argues that Postmodernism is a playful engagement with multiple conflicting micro-narratives that have emerged in the space created by the questioning of the grand metanarrative. He was predictably attacked by critics who argued that Postmodernism and the end of the metanarrative was itself a new metanarrative, much as some right-wing folks argue that now it is the mainstream that is oppressed. Lyotard countered that the metanarrative of the progress of the West is not dead, but actively contradicted by some countercultures in various ways. For many, the dominance of First World, the environmental impact of technology and the supremacist nature of the metanarrative is unquestioned, either out of ignorance or with regret that has no faith in an alternative. Critics of Lyotard and Postmodernism continue to ask whether this is a cure for the condition or merely another symptom. Is Postmodernism, like the narrative of modernity, genuine liberation, or is it merely a safety valve to accommodate hip scholars and gallery-goers who are disenchanted but still require entertainment?
Jean Baudrillard (1929 – 2007, pronounced “bo-dree-YAHR”) was a French philosopher, sociologist and photographer who died only a decade ago. Barthes and Bourdieu were both on his doctoral thesis committee. In the seventies, he made many trips to America and Japan, fascinated with consumerism, mass communication and advertising and the effect these were having on culture and the production and consumption of meaning. Against Marx, Baudrillard argued that society is not ultimately about production, but consumption. Baudrillard is much like Nietzsche, if Nietzsche had wandered through malls, Disneyland and Vegas until he had given up hope in individual creativity and given in to nihilism. Baudrillard is known for being the most pessimistic of the major Postmodernists, and accepts that he is effectively a nihilist who believes that meaning is impossible. Unlike typical nihilists, Baudrillard argues that meaning isn’t simply impossible, but becoming increasingly impossible as we increasingly produce it.
The Wachowskis, who wrote the Matrix movies, were clearly influenced by Baudrillard, their Matrix an attempt to fuse the Deceiving Demon of Descartes and the simulated hyperreality of Baudrillard. In one of the first scenes of the first movie, Neo the protagonist uses a book by Baudrillard to hide a disk containing mysterious contents on his desk. For Baudrillard, cultures seek a full closure for meaning and truth which always escapes their grasp. The meaning of the thing is never the thing itself, the sign and its significance always beyond its signification. Following Nietzsche, Baudrillard argues that we are seduced by meaning, and that all acceptance of interpretation is seduction.
While seduction is not necessarily the worst of things, in modern commercial society the seduction has become a sickly, unfulfilling hypnosis, the dull lull offered by hours of television and endless consumption of manufactured products. Baudrillard argues that we no longer live in what can be called mere reality, but rather in a simulation, a virtual reality, what he calls the Hyperreal. Our manufactured hyperreality is reality, but mass produced, much like the art of Andy Warhol in the sixties, such as his screen prints of Marilyn Monroe and tomato soup cans, which Warhol displayed in galleries on shelves as consumer goods.
The more we try to manufacture reality to complete it and enclose it, the more hyperreal it becomes, both less than and more than real, and thus unreal. Baudrillard says that pornography is hyper-sex. Similarly, fast food can be called hyper-food, television and video games can be called hyper-experience and hyper-socializing, and advertising can be called hyper-seduction, the mass production of desire. Baudrillard calls these simulacra (each a ‘simulacrum’ singularly), simulations or copies.
The copy is real, but it is also, in reality, a knock-off. I cannot help but think of an experience I had in LA that I can still see quite clearly many years later. I flew down to visit my friend who moved to LA for college, and on his TV I saw news coverage of the Laker Girl tryouts (Baudrillard would be amused to know that ‘Laker Girl’, is apparently a term in spell check!). In a gymnasium, thousands of young women, all wearing the same outfit, did a side-stepping dance, forming a horrifying conveyor-belt of the beauty-image feminists discuss, fifty feet deep and with no end to length in sight, moving past the camera as if without end. That is what I think of as a living simulacra, a manufactured culture of repetition.
Baudrillard controversially argued that the First Gulf War never happened, in that the public saw little to nothing of it and the military massive bombing campaign was more of a ruse to convince itself and the public that there was a great enemy to oppose. Some critics compared this to Berkeley’s idealism, a denial of the physical reality of the event, but Baudrillard responded that, insofar as reality is a social construct, our reality is determined by mass media its method. In contrast to the Gulf War, September 11th was framed as an absolute confrontation between the West and Islam, between the hero and the villain, but this is actually globalization, unable to speak of itself, criticize itself or offer any meaningful alternative.
While Nietzsche saw all great meaning as individual creation, Baudrillard argues that genuine individuality is increasingly impossible in a self-referential mass-produced culture. Following Mauss, who argued that cultures are based on exchange, Baudrillard argued that when everything exchanged is mass-produced, including families and sexual partners, things are more symbolic than they are real. Drinking a Pepsi can be somewhat satisfying, but it is more about the signification that it satisfies than the actual satisfaction of the individual drinking it. It signals to others that you are satisfied more than it satisfies. Culture is driven by consumption, and the hyper-consumption of unnecessary products creates a reality and life experience that is more symbolic and mythological than real and significant.
Baudrillard agrees with Lyotard that without the metanarrative of Western progress many would not know what life means, but Baudrillard argues that this has already happened, and history, insofar as it is projected into the future, is over. This does not mean nothing will happen, but that each event that happens will increasingly lose individual significance. Much like Schopenhauer and unlike Nietzsche, Baudrillard has no faith in individuality, in starting a hipster pickle boutique to plug the widening semantic gap, but rather advocates passive ecstatic acceptance of the spectacle, in all of its meaningless grandeur.
Fittingly, Baudrillard, who calls himself a Nietzschean, reluctantly embraces what Nietzsche feared, rightly or wrongly, in Buddhism. Like Schopenhauer the Buddhist, and much like Zhuangzi the Daoist, Baudrillard would caution us to leave the insanity of the world largely as it is, or at least in what it is coming to be. I am, myself, divided on whether Schopenhauer is identifying the inevitable or merely the latest phase, with no single end for humanity in sight.