Reviewed by Nandita Biswas Mellamphy, University of Western Ontario
Antoine Panaïoti’s Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy is an interesting comparative interpretation of certain important aspects of Nietzsche’s thought in relation to Buddhist philosophy. The book explicitly aims to bring the Indian Theravadan Buddhist concepts of suffering and enlightenment into dialogue with Nietzsche’s concepts of nihilism, decadence, and self-overcoming. Overall, the book’s project to bring together Nietzschean concepts and non-western philosophy is a welcome addition to the handful of monographs produced in the past few years on what remains an under-represented topic in the overall literature in Nietzsche Studies: other studies that come to mind are Katrin Froese’s 2006 Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Daoist Thought (SUNY Press, 2006), the 2004 special edition of The Journal of Nietzsche Studies, based on Graham Parkes’ edited anthology Nietzsche and Asian Thought (University of Chicago Press, 1991), and André van der Braak’s Nietzsche and Zen: Self-Overcoming Without a Self (Lexington Books, 2013).
Structured in three substantial parts (“Nihilism and Buddhism,” “Suffering,” and “Compassion,” in addition to introductory and concluding chapters), the first part lays out the groundwork for the argument that Nietzsche’s psychological diagnosis of nihilism (which is fundamentally based on dispelling the Platonic distinction between true and apparent worlds, and which involves a strong condemnation of the Christian appropriation of this dichotomy) undergirds “Nietzsche’s complex relationship to Buddhism.” (26) The book is careful in showing that Nietzsche both did and did not see himself as a kind of European Buddha (see especially Chapters 1 and 2), thus engaging head-on with Nietzsche’s various and often contradictory comments about Buddhism and its relations to nihilism. Instead of correcting or dispelling contradictions, the author shows how Nietzsche’s writings portray Nietzsche as a kind of Buddha (17–54) that develops into an anti-Buddha (55–87). But rather than use contradiction as a methodological principle for interpreting Nietzsche’s philosophy—as does, for instance, Wolfgang Müller-Lauter in his 1971 study translated into English as Nietzsche: His Philosophy of Contradictions and the Contradictions of His Philosophy (University of Illinois Press, 1999), and as post-structuralist interpretations often highlight—Panaïoti argues instead that “[f]rom Buddha, Nietzsche turns Anti-Buddha.” (54) Drawing parallels between Nietzschean and Buddhist therapeutics (49–54) on the one hand, and reconciling Nietzsche’s criticisms of Buddhism as life-negating and decadent by way of Schopenhauer, on the other, this study proposes that Nietzsche recognized Buddhism as the “most mature expression of life-negation” (82), and that as such, Nietzsche uses “Buddhism as a counter-model for his ethics of life-affirmation.” (82) Part Two of the book follows up this the viewpoint with a defense that “Nietzsche inverts the role of compassion in his counter-Buddhist therapy” by examining the concept of amor fati in relation to the Buddhist concept of nirvana. (85) Part Three focuses on distinguishing between Nietzsche’s psychological and cultural critiques of compassion, suggesting that “there is room in Nietzsche’s philosophy for a healthy form of compassion” (187) because “Nietzsche’s entire attack on morality is not really concerned with what actions are carried out, but with how and why they are[.…What] distinguishes the healthy from the sick type is not what he does, but his way of feeling his way around the world” (191). This is a tenuous claim, to be sure, especially in light of Nietzsche’s famous declaration that there was no “doer” lurking beneath the “deed”; in fact, it is precisely the act that is primary, not the moral judgments and justifications of actors (see for example Section 13 of Essay 1 of On the Genealogy of Morals). The healthy type, in other words, is precisely one who defines herself in terms of what she does; not as a doer, but by the act, the deed itself, thus undoing the moral and ethical suture that normally and normatively binds the subject (the “I”) to “objects.”
In the end, the book’s strategy is not to simply draw heuristic connections between Nietzschean and Buddhist philosophies; it is, in fact, to suggest that the philosophy of the future reveals a “Buddho-Nietzschean ethics” that is meant to be “a new response to the challenge of nihilism” (a strong interpretation which is only taken up in the concluding chapter):
If Nietzsche wished to push his ship resolutely beyond good and evil, the ultimate purpose of the present study is to explore the seas that lie beyond life-affirmation and life-negation[.…] At stake, ultimately, is the formulation of a human ideal in and for a world of evanescent becoming and pure immanence—an ideal that stands beyond the bankrupt dichotomy that forms the spine of Nietzsche’s attempt to respond to the challenge of nihilism. On the horizon lies a new, hybrid vision of great health. (212)
Ultimately, what prevents the author’s argument from being completely convincing is an analysis of Buddhism in relation to Nietzsche’s concept of the “ascetic ideal”; for instance, the reader is left wondering to what extent Buddhism (and its version of the healthy type as offered in the book) is complicit with the ascetic ideal and ascetic impulses? In The Antichrist, Nietzsche suggests that the superiority of Buddhism over Christianity lies its offering “a religion for the end and fatigue of a civilization” (§ 22), and it is unclear how a Nietzchean-Buddhist fusion of ethics would constitute a real overcoming of nihilism as Nietzsche had intended it to be.
For a reader who is well acquainted with scholarly debates about ethical versus political perfectionism in Nietzsche’s thought, or with controversies as to whether or not Nietzsche should be considered a moral philosopher at all given the role played by immorality in his philosophy, the book does not adequately contextualize its main arguments and assumptions within the established literature in Nietzsche Studies and nowhere are the various arguments for or against the perfectionist reading mentioned. For instance, as I have argued elsewhere, Nietzsche’s view of the overcoming of nihilism and the actualization of a new philosophy of the future cannot be wholly assimilated to moral or even political perfectionism insofar as the strongest morality, according to Nietzsche, always affirms its own radical contingency and immorality. The highest type, the one who embodies great health, would have to experiment both with perfection and imperfection, truth and deception, humaneness and inhumanity. Behind the philosopher’s “virtue” lies a profound use of and experimentation with vice. In this regard, a Nietzschean future philosophy would be described less as “perfectionist” and “ethical” than as “aesthetic” and “political.” Although praiseworthy in its attempt not only to take seriously Nietzsche’s vision of future philosophy but also to go beyond it by way of the corrective of Buddhist philosophy, in the final analysis, the book’s claim to present a new vision of great health remains unconvincing and perhaps too ambitious given the book’s reliance on a very specific, limited, and ultimately contestable interpretation of Nietzsche as a proponent of “virtue-ethics” and “perfectionism.” While the specific attempt to articulate a “Buddho-Nietzschean ethics” would probably appeal more to those who already subscribe to perfectionist readings of Nietzsche, this book nonetheless is of value to all readers of Nietzsche insofar as it draws strong and detailed correlations between Nietzsche’s philosophy and non-western philosophical concepts.