Review of ‘Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy’ by Antoine Panaioti

Antoine Panaioti: Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy
Cambridge University Press, 2013

Review by Ryan Smith

 “I could become the Buddha of Europe … though frankly, I would be the antipode of the Indian Buddha.” – Nietzsche

Inquiries aiming to compare Buddhism to Nietzsche’s thought have for some time abounded on the fringes of the academic landscape, and the intellectual basis for comparing these two strands of thought has always been somewhat elusive. Whether that nietzsche_and_buddhist_philosophy-panaioti_antoine-20243102-3819521764-frntintellectual basis has now been found remains to be seen, but with the recent publication of Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy by Cambridge University Press, studies comparing Nietzsche to Buddhist can no longer be thought of as a mere fringe project.

These endeavors to compare Nietzscheanism with Buddhism are in a sense the philosophical equivalent of what goes on in psychology when people purport to compare Freud’s doctrines to those of Jung. Such endeavors, while praiseworthy, are also fraught with pitfalls, as authors are usually prone to be either more well-acquainted with one than with the other, or more  sympathetic to one than to the other, or both.

In the case of Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy, it would seem that the author’s adherence is primarily to Nietzsche, at the expense of both East and West. For example, the author posits that static Being is a ‘myth’ to both Nietzsche and the Buddhists. Nietzsche certainly saw Being as a myth at times, but to Buddha and Nagarjuna the illusory nature of Being is not the result of any myth, but rather the root delusion of human cognition.

Similarly, in positing a unique relationship between Buddhism and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (p. 46) the author treats himself to a lionization of Nietzsche by sacrificing other Western thinkers. Thinkers like David Hume who (like the Buddha) did not believe in a self. Who (like the Buddha) relied remorselessly on direct experience as a guide to the good life. And who (like the Buddha) refused to answer the ultimate cosmological questions. In positing any “unique relationship” between Buddhist and Western thought, then, the dramatis personae should at least be a ménage à trois, consisting of the Buddha, David Hume, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

The downplaying of David Hume’s accomplishments in order to posit a special kinship between Nietzsche and Buddhist philosophy is especially unfortunate since Hume and the Buddha, qua their desire to leave metaphysical questions unanswered, actually resemble each other more than either of them resembles Nietzsche.

Similarly, with regards to analogies between Western philosophy and Buddhist thought, there are other avenues of inquiry which are left untouched. For example, in The World of Parmenides, Karl Popper sets out to document how even our foremost physicists – Newton and Einstein – did not believe in the notion of a static Being when push came to shove. Thus to depict Nietzsche as having a kinship with philosophical Buddhism possessed by no other European thinkers is a dubious endeavor. Fortunately for the reader, Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy can be consulted without taking this alleged exclusive kinship between Nietzsche and the Buddha as a premise.

Buddha and Anti-Buddha

But on to the comparison between Nietzsche and Buddha. One reason that studies that aim to synthesize Nietzsche and Buddhism have been on the academic fringes to this day is probably that, while there are some ostensible similarities, there are also some rather grave differences between these two modes of thought.

Most notably, while the Nietzsche of the Twilight of the Idols was indeed opposed to the idea of static Being, he nevertheless appeared to believe in the notion of a discrete subject, which of course sets him apart from one of Buddhism’s most central ideas.

Even on the delusional plane, where one still erroneously believes in discrete subjects, the Buddhist’s attitude to the subject is still radically different from Nietzsche’s: Nietzsche’s attitude to the subject is often summed up as an amor fati – “love thy fate.” In psychological terms, there is still an introversion of libido here where the subject’s self-assertion emerges from the inside – from the subject’s own instincts (which are thought to be superior in the Overman’s case). By contrast, and as Panaioti correctly notes, the Buddhist notion of self-identity is a cognitive delusion that is augmented by the nature of language, culture, and convention – in other words, from the outside.

Thus, while the overall descriptive assertions of Nietzsche and the Buddhists may sound very similar on the surface of it, their underlying premises will be found to be exceedingly different when examined in depth. To give another example, Nietzsche denounced both Christianity and Platonism – the twin pillars of European civilization in his day. But the Buddha accepted karma, reincarnation, etc. – in other words, while the Buddha was unquestionably a reformer, he still accepted and maintained many of the conventions that were preeminent in the classical India of his day. Simply stated, Nietzsche was one to revel in iconoclasm, whereas the Buddha was not.

To the author’s credit he does address many of these point head-on, noting for example that there is a significant life-affirming streak in Nietzsche’s philosophy while the corresponding streak in Buddhist philosophy is actually life-negating. But the differences in temperament and premises are not resolved satisfactorily in the book. Though F.T. Stcherbatsky famously noted that Plato was an inverted Buddha, the fact remains that Plato and Buddha are far more similar to one another in temperament, outlook, ethics, and disposition than either of them is to Nietzsche.

Missing Links: Hume and the Stoics

The larger point here is that Greco-Roman philosophy is a sort of “third man” that is missing in this depiction of Nietzsche’s tete-a-tete with Buddhist philosophy (Nietzsche wrote several book-length manuscripts on Greek philosophy). Consequently, Greco-Roman philosophy appears as an awkward “elephant in the room” in which the author’s relative disinterest is obvious.

For example, the author proposes that there is no essential difference between the Stoic doctrine of amor fati and Nietzsche’s version (pp. 84-85). But if, indeed, what Nietzsche detests about Buddhism is the “passive resignation that is a sign of weakness,” where does that place ancient Stoic philosophers like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius and their fondness of reminding themselves that “you are a little soul, dragging around a corpse.” (Meditations, 4.41.1)

Likewise, where Nietzsche’s version of amor fati entails that the subject should love whatever happens in his life so much that he should not flinch if it were to recur eternally, the ancient Stoics took quite another view of the matter:

“Consider when, on a voyage, your ship is anchored; if you go on shore to get water you may along the way amuse yourself with picking up a shellfish, or an onion. However, your thoughts and continual attention ought to be bent towards the ship, waiting for the captain to call on board; you must then immediately leave all these things, otherwise you will be thrown into the ship, bound neck and feet like a sheep. So it is with life. If, instead of an onion or a shellfish, you are given a wife or child, that is fine. But if the captain calls, you must run to the ship, leaving them, and regarding none of them. But if you are old, never go far from the ship: lest, when you are called, you should be unable to come in time.” – Epictetus: Enchiridion, 3

Therefore, when the author calls the Stoic version of amor fati an “anti-nirvana” (pp. 84-85), he is flat-out mistaken. Amor fati was indeed a credo of life-affirmation for Nietzsche, but not for the ancient Stoics. On the matter of attachment to life, the ancient Stoics were as least as passive and will-less as the Buddhists. Indeed, when Marcus Aurelius learned of his wife’s infidelity he reacted with acquiescence, where Nietzsche would certainly have found the Caesarian stance that “the wife of Caesar must be above suspicion” more to his taste.

On the other hand, the author does an excellent job of relating Nietzsche’s thought to the work of Arthur Schopenhauer and throws his support behind a nonstandard, but worthwhile, Nietzschean interpretation of Schopenhauer that places stress on the naturalistic elements of the human condition in Schopenhauer’s thought at the expense of the animistic and idealist ones (p. 69). On that same topic it is also worthy of note that the author advances an interpretation of Nagarjuna that improves somewhat upon Westerhoff’s interpretation in Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka (2009). Panaioti proposes an interpretation of Nagarjuna where there is no static being, where everything is becoming, and where there are no substantial entities. And unlike Westerhoff, Panaioti manages to advance his understanding of Nagarjuna without losing sight of the radical nature of Nagarjuna’s propositions – a welcome rarity in the literature on Nagarjuna to be sure.

However, the author also posits that what is unique to Nagarjuna and Nietzsche is the perception of substance as conditioned by a psychological disposition in the human cognition. According to Panaioti, “what is unique to Nagarjuna’s philosophy – and puts it in a category apart from any Western discussion of metaphysics (apart from Nietzsche’s) – is that it … adds that the attribution of ‘own existence,’ which characterizes our intuitive intake of the world, has deep roots in human psychology” (p. 46). This claim, however, is simply not true, as evidenced by the following statement of David Hume’s:

“When we gradually follow an object in its successive changes, the smooth progress of the thought makes us ascribe an identity to the succession …When we compare its situation after a considerable change the progress of the thought is broken; and consequently we are presented with the idea of diversity: In order to reconcile which contradictions, the imagination is apt to feign something unknown and invisible, which it supposes to continue the same under all these variations; and this unintelligible something it calls a substance, or original and first matter.” – David Hume: Treatise on Human Nature, I.III.IV (emphasis added).

In other words, Hume’s idea that it is experiential habituation and the mind’s illusions that are jointly responsible for the experience of substance is just as psychologically founded as Nagarjuna’s and possibly even more so than Nietzsche’s. Hume’s contribution to the psychologization of substance in the Western tradition is significant and cannot be ignored or shut out.

Against Transcendence

The author is of Nietzchean leaning and as such, it should come as no surprise that he opposes the notion of a transcendent aspect of reality. Yet considering the topic under scrutiny here, the author’s rhetoric is a bit too polemical at times. For example, belief in a Kantian noumenon is dismissed as a “naivety” without further ado (p. 68).

By maintaining a tenor of referring to all transcendental notions as a ‘wahre Welt’ – a German expression implying that the transcendental must also somehow have existence apart from the mundane – Panaioti effectively fetters his opponents to a dualistic ontology, even when these authors plainly assert that their transcendental doctrines are not dualistic (i.e. transcendence does not have to be something tangible or ulterior, but could be this same world viewed differently – indeed as a Buddhist might say, the transcendent could be this world viewed from the viewpoint that is entirely beyond viewpoints and that is not itself a viewpoint).

If the author believes, with Nietzsche, in “the lie of thinghood,” that is, if he is positing a world without finite objects on the one hand and without any transcendental aspect to it on the other, does this latter part of the claim not imply that he regards the totality of the world as a finite object? If he does, then how can there be a “world without thinghood”? If he doesn’t, how can he know that there isn’t a transcendental aspect out there somewhere? The double-barreled doctrine of no-thinghood and no-transcendence is leaking, and it cannot be plugged without a good dose of arbitrariness.

It is furthermore questionable whether the Buddha was really as much against the notion of a transcendent realm as is implied by the author (p. 219). For example, the author attributes to the Buddha a thoroughly empiricist and non-metaphysical doctrine, but the Buddha said several things that would imply the contrary belief:

“There is, monks, a domain where there is no earth, no water,
no fire, no wind, no sphere of infinite space, no sphere of
nothingness, no sphere of infinite consciousness, no sphere
of neither awareness nor non-awareness; there is not this
world, there is not another world, there is no sun or moon.
I do not call this coming or going, nor standing nor dying,
nor being reborn; it is without support, without occurrence,
without object. Just this is the end of suffering.”
– The Buddha, Udana 80

If these are indeed the Buddha’s words, then by the same token it would seem foolhardy to dismiss the Kantian noumenon as merely “naive” and not worthy of discussion, given that Buddhist philosophy constitutes one half of Panaioti’s study. Perhaps the noumenon cannot be dismissed so easily after all.

Nietzsche Lost and Found

However, the reader who is out to learn more about Nietzsche’s aphoristic and seemingly self-contradictory philosophy will find much to be pleased with in Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy. Although Panaioti does perhaps make Nietzsche’s thought a bit more comprehensive than it actually was, he remains psychologically faithful to Nietzsche and the Nietzschean project of self-affirmation throughout the book.

Panaioti’s more faithful reading of Nietzsche vis-à-vis Buddha excellently serves to show why Walter Kaufmann’s interpretation of Nietzsche as a harmless and benign softie who donned masks and lost himself in an intellectual hall of mirrors as a way of coping with suffering can never be the real Nietzsche (pp. 154-155). Although Panaioti does appear to be patting Kaufmann’s Nietzsche on the back in one place (p. 168), the overall impression of Nietzsche that the book gives us is far more offensive and contentious than that, and though Kaufmann undoubtably saved Nietzsche from unfair allegations of Nazism with his portrayal of a “gentle Nietzsche,” it is now high time for the academic world to move on. Panaioti makes us move on.

By the same token, Panaioti’s reading makes us see why C.G. Jung, who on more than one occasion claimed to be of Nietzschean temperament, was certainly no Nietzschean. The intellectually abrasive Nietzsche, who raged against all décadents “too weak to will a positive ‘good’ in the world,” would hardly have stood for Jung’s quest for an integrative, blissful wholesomeness. Everything that Nietzsche disliked about the Buddha he would have found in multiplication in Jung.

Unresolved Tensions

Finally, the book appears to end on a frustrating note: Though the author does pay due compliments to Nietzsche’s “spirit of contradiction,” he nevertheless aims to bring Nietzsche into concord with Buddhist philosophy. The book proposes to wash away the apparent tensions between Nietzsche and Buddhism by redefining the concepts used by each. For example, the Buddhist quest for the cessation of suffering is espoused as “enabling to the individual,” which ostensibly aims to showcase that the Buddhist endeavor has “underlying affinities” with Nietzsche’s concept of the Overman’s loving his fate (p. 193).

Similarly, the Buddhist concept of compassion is construed as something like the Overman’s conscious means with reference to the story of Kisa and the Mustard Seed. However, while the story of Kisa and the Mustard Seed can indeed be read that way, one could easily contend that the story is not representative of the greater body of accounts of the Buddha’s compassion. Likewise, even if the story of Kisa and the Mustard Seed was representative of the type of compassion that the Buddha exerted, there is still the awkward fact that to Nietzsche, not all beings are worthy of compassion, whereas the Buddha plainly said that he was out to teach the truth of non-suffering to all beings.

Through the procrustean efforts of the author, then, the conformity between Buddhism and Nietzscheanism are posited to be “very close indeed” (p. 211). However, the present reviewer disagrees: Rather than being superficially dissimilar but foundationally alike, these two doctrines are superficially similar (in preaching that wanting things to be other than as they are is what brings unhappiness) but foreign to each other in terms of the groundwork that underpins each.

The book proposes a final thesis: Through the synthesis of Buddhist and Nietzschean ethics, an individual can embark on a quest that the author calls a “great health perfection.” Under this mode of thought, the individual will be completely free to use any means at his disposal to further the ends that he deems worthwhile. He will also be free to contradict himself in order to suit his message to individual listeners (and indeed, he does not even believe in such a thing as static Being – only becoming). His exercise of health in the world is a mission to free the “sick” of the illusions of selfhood and static Being. He does not judge others for remaining trapped in these delusions, but ironically participates in the play of selfhood, all the while dropping hints to the illusory nature of the play.

This final synthesis certainly has some appealing elements to it (not least because of its commitment to helping others) but reading it, one feels unconvinced that Nietzsche himself would ever have bought into it. The commitment not to judge others for their faults certainly seems far from the gist of his writings, as does the commitment to make others realize the truth (it was, after all, Nietzsche who asked: “Granted that we want the truth, why not rather, untruth?”). Indeed, there is little indication why the man who strives to attain “great health perfection” needs Nietzsche, as opposed to being merely some form of neo-Buddhist with a flair for irony.

Even the sympathetic elements of this last synthesis notwithstanding, then, the present reviewer remains unconvinced that Nietzsche and Buddhism make for an evident or fruitful coupling. No doubt, an interest in both fields can be combined in the same person, and no doubt, there are some ontological similarities between the two modes of thought. But with regards to the ethical and metaphysical constructs that underpin the two, it is hard to see how any uncontrived and authentic reconciliation is possible.


  1. This is the second best review on a book comparing Knee-cha-cha and Boo-ism I’ve ever read! (There was a slightly better one by Dr. Seuss, because it rhymed.) The parts on Boo-ism were especially scary! However, the reviewer shows time and again he doesn’t understand some of the central beliefs of the Knee-cha-cha. So overall, 6.5/10.

  2. Since both traps have to be transcended in the Ch’an view, it would be interesting to see more comparatives with *that* strain in mind. Since to be trapped in ordinary language or bliss can hardly be called the ineffable.

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