September 18, 2008

Buddha and Nietzsche spar in the Court of Heaven

The long quote that follows is from Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, published in 1945 – which, one source tells me, was the best-selling book of philosophy in the English-speaking world during the 20th Century. According to Wikipedia, Russell (1872 – 1970) “was a British philosopher, historian, logician, mathematician, advocate for social reform, and pacifist.…

“A prolific writer, Russell was a popularizer of philosophy and a commentator on a large variety of topics. Continuing a family tradition in political affairs, he was a prominent anti-war activist, championing free trade between nations and anti-imperialism.”

Here, Russell discusses sympathy as a matter of ethics and imagines a confrontation between Friedrich Nietzsche and Buddha before Almighty God in the Court of Heaven:

Sympathy, in the sense of being made unhappy by the suffering of others, is to some extent natural to human beings; young children are troubled when they hear other children crying. But the development of this feeling is very different in different people. Some find pleasure in the infliction of torture; others, like Buddha, feel that they cannot be completely happy so long as any living thing is suffering. Most people divide mankind emotionally into friends and enemies, feeling sympathy for the former, but not for the latter. An ethic such as that of Christianity or Buddhism has its emotional basis in universal sympathy; Nietzsche’s, in a complete absence of sympathy. (He frequently preaches against sympathy, and in this respect one feels that he has no difficulty in obeying his own precepts.) The question is: If Buddha and Nietzsche were confronted, could either produce any argument that ought to appeal to the impartial listener? I am not thinking of political arguments. We can imagine them appearing before the Almighty, as in the first chapter of the Book of Job, and offering advice as to the sort of world He should create. What could either say?

Buddha would open the argument by speaking of the lepers, outcast and miserable; the poor, toiling with aching limbs and barely kept alive by scanty nourishment; the wounded in battle, dying in slow agony; the orphans, ill-treated by cruel guardians; and even the most successful haunted by the thought of failure and death. From all this load of sorrow, he would say, a way of salvation must be found, and salvation can only come through love.

Nietzsche, whom only Omnipotence could restrain from interrupting, would burst out when his turn came: “Good heavens, man, you must learn to be of tougher fibre. Why go about snivelling because trivial people suffer? Or, for that matter, because great men suffer? Trivial people suffer trivially, great men suffer greatly, and great sufferings are not to be regretted, because they are noble. Your ideal is a purely negative one, absence of suffering, which can be completely secured by non-existence. I, on the other hand, have positive ideals: I admire Alcibiades, and the Emperor Frederick II, and Napoleon. For the sake of such men, any misery is worth while. I appeal to You, Lord, as the greatest of creative artists, do not let Your artistic impulses be curbed by the degenerate fear-ridden maunderings of this wretched psychopath.”

Buddha, who in the courts of Heaven has learnt all history since his death, and has mastered science with delight in the knowledge and sorrow at the use to which men have put it, replies with calm urbanity: “You are mistaken, Professor Nietzsche, in thinking my ideal a purely negative one. True, it includes a negative element, the absence of suffering; but it has in addition quite as much that is positive as is to be found in your doctrine. Though I have no special admiration for Alcibiades and Napoleon, I too have my heroes: My successor Jesus, because he told men to love their enemies; the men who discovered how to master the forces of nature and secure food with less labour; the medical men who have shown how to diminish disease; the poets and artists and musicians who have caught glimpses of the Divine beatitude. Love and knowledge and delight in beauty are not negations; they are enough to fill the lives of the great men that have ever lived.”

“All the same,” Nietzsche replies, “your world would be insipid. You should study Heraclitus, whose works survive complete in the celestial library. Your love is compassion, which is elicited by pain; your truth, if you are honest, is pleasant, and only to be known through suffering; and as to beauty, what is more beautiful that the tiger, who owes his spendour to fierceness? No, if the Lord should decide for your world, I fear we should all die of boredom.”

You might,” Buddha replies, “because you love pain and your love of life is a sham. But those who really love life would be happy as no one is happy in the world as it is.”

For my part, I agree with Buddha as I have imagined him. But I do not know how to prove that he is right by any argument such as can be used in a mathematical or a scientific question. I dislike Nietzsche because he likes the contemplation of pain, because he erects conceit into a duty, because the men whom he most admires are conquerors, whose glory is cleverness in causing men to die. But I think the ultimate argument against his philosophy, as against any unpleasant but internally self-consistent ethic, lies not in an appeal to facts, but in an appeal to the emotions. Nietzsche despises universal love; I feel it the motive power to all that I desire as regards the world. His followers have had their innings, but we may hope that it is coming rapidly to an end.
Now, I don’t think that Russell quite has Buddha right. Buddha would not spar in such an ordinary, worldly way, nor would he baldly make heroes of some at the expense of others. Also, Buddha would love the world as it is; only with a change in attitude towards it and appreciation of it. Also, Russell's imagined Nietzsche is wrong to believe that Buddha's cure is one of non-existence [Woe, is THAT ever a complex tangent I won't go into here.] But Russell’s overarching point is sound, it seems to me: that the reasons for sympathizing with or loving the world are hard to justify using cold logic alone. Only someone who has the complete toolkit of emotions could begin to understand.

Living in Homeless World, as I now am, I sometimes see stark instances of people not having the complete toolkit, such that they enjoy the passion play of physical fighting, or other instances where the pain of others is cause, in them, for pleasure. Being Buddhist, I have great hope that folks who are acclimated to the mean streets can and will, one day, find the angels of their better natures and see changes in themselves as the flowering of their true Selves.

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