Thursday, 7 June 2012

Nietzsche, Buddha, Marx

For all his vanity, grandiosity and offensiveness,  in my view Fiedrich Nietzsche had some profound insights. It may seem incongruous at first glance to suggest common threads between his philosophy, that of his compatriot Karl Marx, and the work of the Buddha.

However, I think the common ground where all three of these intersect concerns the nature and realisation of freedom. Here are some musings (albeit crude and undeveloped) and quotes on this theme.

For Marx, freedom was essentially self determination beyond the contingencies of external conditions, as discussed by Eugene Kamenka in  The Ethical Foundations of Marxism (some brief quotes below but the book is worth reading in its entirety):

"Marx’s rejection of Hegel’s attempt to straddle the issue between immanent self-realisation and external necessity has one fundamentally important result: it brings out even more clearly the Rousseau-Kantian strain in Hegel, the emphasis on freedom as self-determination and on the free will as the universal and universalisable will. To the youthful Marx, the goal of human history is the free society — the universal kingdom of ends — and men and institutions are judged by the Kantian criterion of universalisability, with self-determination strongly emphasised and the concept of duty entirely omitted."

"Here then is the ‘rational society’ which Marx sees as the solution to the riddle of history. It is not merely the society in which private property has been abolished; it is above all not a society in which property has simply passed to the control of the State or to ‘social’ control. It is the society in which any opposition between individual and social demands has disappeared, in which wants and enjoyments lose their egoistic nature, in which utility becomes human, universal, social utility. Man appropriates Nature, makes it part of himself; his senses thus become true, truly human senses; man himself becomes the true, truly human, man."

Kamenka argues that with this emphasis on freedom there is a continuity between the earlier and later Marx, although the sphere of concern changes:

"For the social conditions that would produce the free man Marx was to struggle for the next forty years. In the intensity of the struggle he never again turned to ask what the ‘realm of freedom’ might mean. That problem, he thought, he had solved before the struggle began. From 1844 onward Marx’s primary interest was not in the nature of freedom, but in the developments by which it would come about."

Turning to Nietszche and the Buddha, in this article by Robert Morrison (author of Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities), the two are juxtaposed and common ground is found in the notion of self-overcoming. Morrison says:

"Nietzsche viewed the person as a constellation of various fluctuating forces whose individual and collective nisus was expressed in terms of a striving to overcome all resistance and accumulate more power, i.e., the will to power. Man is 'the totality of his drives' or, as Nietzsche puts it elsewhere, is 'subject as multiplicity'.  For Buddhism, also, man is 'subject as multiplicity', he is also 'the totality of his drives'. Buddhism sees man as a complex, psycho-physical continuum of vying drives and passions. What we call our 'self' is no more than a label for whatever particular configuration of these various psycho-physical energies happen to be manifesting at any particular moment."

"... if mankind is to have any kind of future spiritual quest to replace the old one, it is only by consciously working on and with the forces within us-our drives, emotions and passions-through a process of 'self-overcoming' (Selbst√ľberwindung), that we can achieve this. We are free to re-create ourselves and release the potential that we each have. It is only by following such a path that we can once again find more meaningful and deeply satisfying lives. We will come to experience ourselves as living life as it should and can be lived."

Whilst Nietzsche does not provide much of a methodology and ultimately failed in his attempt, Morrison argues that an ancient path for the overcoming of self and also of nihilism had already been laid out:

"Nihilism means that life has no real meaning and purpose apart from the immediate satisfaction of our animal-like drives and passions, but Buddhism says that life does have a much greater meaning and purpose than we ever thought it had-from its perspective, we in the West have simply failed to discover it. So, when Nietzsche says: 'One can dispose of one's drives like a gardener... but how many know we are at liberty to do it?', Buddhism replies: 'We have known this for the past 2,500 years: it is you, Friedrich Nietzsche, who are only just beginning to catch on". "

There may seem to be a disparity between Marx's notion of freedom as self-determination and that of self-overcoming, but I think this difference is terminological more than anything. Both concern a realm in which one's actions are, in some sense, free. Of course, there are mountains more that could be said about this.

In the realm of freedom which is the concern of all three of these visionaries, as Morrison puts it:

"... not only are we 'free from', we are also 'free to': we are now free to enter what one Buddhist scholar (H. V. Guenther) has termed 'the open dimension of Being', within which the possibilities for ways of being are endless: the possibilities for what 'we' can become are infinite. "
To bring things back down to earth, a question that then arises is how this realm of freedom might  potentially be made achievable for all.

 Marx lays out an essential part of the answer to this question in the third volume of Capital:

"Beyond it [the realm of necessity] begins that development of human power, which is its own end, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can flourish only upon that realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working day is its fundamental premise".

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