Sunday, May 01, 2005

A debate between Nietzsche and Buddha

by Bertrand Russell

The ethical, as opposed to the political, question is one as to sympathy. Sympathy, in the sense of being made unhappy by the sufferings 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 would create. What could either say? Buddha would open the argument by speaking of 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 sniveling 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 quiet as much that is positive as it 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 greatest 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 unpleasant, and only to be known through suffering; and as to beauty, what is more beautiful than the tiger, who owes his splendour to his fierceness? No, if the Lord should decide for your world, I fear we would 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 can be 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 him 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 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.

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