Lecture Twelve: Action 12.1

12.1 Introduction

Faced with uncertainty, the most obvious and natural reaction is to find a way to master it. In these lectures, we have explored some of the main strategies that can be developed for this purpose, and some of the problems that they entail. We observed how this attempt at mastering uncertainty is the source of the sense of self. The self is not a thing, something ‘given’ that can be pointed to. The self is something that is done, it is a way of acting, something that must be constantly enacted to be experienced. Since the self is a process, it also has a direction, a purpose: it aims at dealing with uncertainty and diminishing its threat, by controlling and managing insofar as that is possible. What is established as ‘myself’ is the result of this process: ‘I am’ all that has been rescued at this point by the tide of uncertainty. And depending on the strategy that one has adopted (depending on where one operates in the spectrum of possible ways of conceiving of the self), the content that is rescued changes significantly. Perhaps it is just this fragile living body and its drives, perhaps one’s embeddedness in a community, perhaps a pure intransitive awareness of nothing in particular, or perhaps something else.

However, no form of mastery can absolutely remove uncertainty. Uncertainty is the mark of conditionality, relationality, dependence. Only the Absolute (the Transcendent, Being, God, call it what you like) can be absolutely certain. But such an Absolute, being completely cut off from any sort of relation whatsoever (by definition), cannot be part of any experience either since experiencing involves being in relation with something. If the Absolute is, nobody could ever know anything about it, nor experience it, nor could the Absolute know anything or experience anything at all (as Plato’s Sophist illustrates). If we remain faithful to relationality, if we resist the leap into imagining an escape towards an envisaged absolute reality, we are left here, on earth, amidst conditionality, in the domain of uncertainty (as Nietzsche demands). And since even mastery is a way of relating to the contents of experience, mastery too is conditional, and thus uncertain. Life on earth (and we could not really live anywhere else) is uncertain.

Uncertainty is a dissonance, a contradiction, a complexity, a dynamic. What is uncertain is not simple and static, identical to itself but is something on the verge of becoming something else. What is present, could be absent; what exists in a certain kind of way, could be otherwise. At the most fundamental level, uncertainty is a denial of simplicity. What is simple is just in one way, it could be only this, it does not know difference or becoming. What is uncertain always exists in more than one way, it is this but it also carries within itself a promise (or a threat) of being or becoming something else. The attempt at mastering uncertainty always boils down to an attempt to defuse this complexity, either by stripping apart and keeping separate its components, or by establishing some hierarchy or order of priority among them. What is uncertain exists both in one way and in another, and is also neither. To avoid this dissonant contradiction, one needs to take a choice, to cut it in pieces, retain one and drop (or hide) the other. Mastery seeks simplicity, coherence, homogeneity, unity, consonance, certainty. But what if one drops the very endeavour of seeking mastery?

A contradiction sounds dissonant because it seems to bring together elements that repel one another, and yet neither can simply dominate or exclude the other. Mastery tries to adjudicate between them to dismiss their dissonance. What is retained will be appropriated as ‘me’ or ‘belonging to me’ and what is rejected will fall in the domain of the ‘other’ outside. Drop mastery and withstand the dissonance, look at the contradiction. It is impossible to adjudicate between one or the other pole, both are manifest, neither can be retained alone or dismissed altogether. The contradiction is meaningful, and yet its meaning is not reducible to any of its constituent elements. Withstand the contradiction as a contradiction, listen to the dissonance as a dissonance. You cannot dismiss what appears, despite its contradictory and dissonant appearing, because the effort of mastering it has been dropped. And yet you cannot identify with what appears either, you cannot be what appears, because its contradictory and dissonant appearing defies identity and identification. You are neither what appears, nor different from what appears. Not being what appears, you are something else. Not being different from what appears, you are not above, beyond, behind, elsewhere from what appears. If instead of trying to fix this paradox, you can face it, the effort of grasping at what you are will simply cease to make sense. When this happens, the problem of mastery, the problem of being oneself, vanishes. The sound of dissonance has no more struggle in it.

Over the last three lectures, we have explored Nietzsche’s project of revamping a tragic culture. Tragedy can be one way of facing uncertainty without attempting to master or dissolve it. We noticed, though, that Nietzsche maintains that the dissonance and contradictoriness of life is inherently painful. The task, for him, is to find a way saying ‘yes’ to this pain, withstanding it and without fleeing. But we also observed that a dissonance is not inherently painful. Pain and suffering are ways of experiencing contents under certain circumstances.

Nietzsche sees the contradiction of life as painful because he remains attached to a sense of duty towards a certain project; a certain way in which human beings should be. The overhuman points to how humanity should become, and this entails that the overhuman is at odds with other ways in which humanity could be and actually is. The overhuman is a way of solving a certain contradiction, an escape from it. Nietzsche’s thought is important because it acknowledges that this attachment to duty is the problem. Nietzsche is lucid and sincere enough to tell himself that he should let go of all these ‘shoulds’. And yet, he can’t, Zarathustra can’t. He envisages something that he cannot reach. Why? Because he actually does not know how to abandon this fundamental restlessness that incessantly reminds ‘you should do this, you should do that.’ His best solution is the meditation on (the performative thought of) eternal recurrence. This weakens one’s aversion to pain, and helps one to realize that wanting something new, inevitably sets in motion the conditions for the re-occurrence of the old, of what one was running away from. But you can’t run away. Nietzsche’s attitude is to bite the bullet and accept the possibility of creating even if what is created is something that will have to be overcome in due course. We can only give birth to someone doomed to die.

The eternal recurrence is the solution to a problem. The problem is how the will to power can genuinely create while it is also constantly determined and caged by its own past. From this perspective, the way the past conditions the will and limits its power to create is the ultimate form of uncertainty, since it is what makes any new or potential creative act doomed to fail. Eternal recurrence is thus yet another way of mastering uncertainty, once uncertainty has been rephrased and reconceptualized from the point of view of the will to power. This is why the overhuman (the way of being human that is tempered in the understanding of eternal recurrence) remains a should, something that must be realized, because the whole discussion is predicated on a soteriological view that seeks an escape from a certain condition (the imprisonment of the will in its own past) and thus necessarily ought to regard a certain condition as preferable against any other. For this reason, Nietzsche’s project remains firmly within the spectrum of possible ways of conceiving of the self (of mastering uncertainty) that we have mapped so far.

Nietzsche is aware of how traditional attempts to dismiss the contradictory nature of life by resorting to a metaphysical and transcendental God entail an emptying of the empirical self through some sort of anaesthetic process. He openly rejects this move, which is perhaps why he became more famous in the West, as the preacher of the ‘death of God.’ But as we saw, Nietzsche also rejects the opposite pole of the spectrum, hard naturalism and materialism. Embracing life does not mean reducing human life to biological processes, although there is no human life without a biological ground. The sort of reductionist and materialist science that would explain the human predicament away by pointing to some physical-physiological cause plays the Socratic game of silencing dissonance or doing away with it. Nietzsche opts for the revamping of a tragic culture, which in our narrative stands in the middle of the spectrum, in the same range in which we encountered shamanism in small-scale societies, the struggles of the Vedic seers in ancient India, and the Dionysiac cults of classic Greece.

Nietzsche shared with all these and analogous instances the fascination for poietic practice, the ability to cultivate and use the power of imagination to create meaning. Leaving behind Plato’s dismissal of imagination as something at best capable of creating copies of reality, Nietzsche joins the other players in the middle range of the spectrum in advocating for the use of imagination as a reality-builder, something that creates new ways of seeing, understanding, and living. But from the vantage point of our narrative, which has now explored to some extent the whole spectrum of possibilities, we can see that this solution is not a solution to the problem of selfhood as such (the paradox of mastery), but rather a specific way of making that problem apparent. Nietzsche rejects specific forms of enacting selfhood (the transcendent and the materialist one), but only for the sake of embracing another form (the poietic one). And yet, all forms of selfhood are affected by the same flaw: they seek to achieve what cannot possibly be achieved. It is thus not surprising that the over-human too shares the fate of remaining an ultimately unaccomplished project.

But why stick to a defence of selfhood at this point? If selfhood is entrenched with the mastery of uncertainty, and if mastery is foregone, selfhood can be relinquished as well. This means stepping outside of the spectrum altogether. Taking this step back is a delicate move, and it can go wrong in various ways. In Lectures One and Two we discussed how the relinquishment of selfhood can be conceived in such a way as to lead to some form of alienation from experience. This depends on conceiving of the relinquishment in ontological terms, as an issue of whether or not the self exists in its own right, if it is a genuine entity or just an illusion or epiphenomenon. Given the problems associated with this approach, a proper relinquishment of selfhood should not be conceived in terms of an ontological proof of the non-existence of the self. After all, if the self is something we do, the relinquishment of the self must be conceived as primarily a practical move, as a way of operating and dealing with experience such that selfhood is no longer needed or enacted. However, this option has dangers too. The non-enaction of selfhood can be understood as an absolute foregoing of all action, as a running away from the world towards some form of intransitive experience of the ultimate, or even just as a process of alienation of oneself from oneself. Any of these directions is problematic, not least because it fails to genuinely withstand uncertainty and dissonance. Seeing the self as a doomed project, one wants to get rid of it, to be freed from its uncertainty. Seeking this sort of dissolution of the self is thus still within the spectrum of possible ways of conceiving of the self; it comes with its own distinctive performative contradiction, but it is far from constituting a genuine relinquishing of the self (namely, a genuine overcoming of the very intention of mastering uncertainty).

In this lecture we shall explore how the early Buddhist teachings discuss the possibility of relinquishing the self. In particular, we will focus on the way this relinquishment is conceived in relation with uncertainty, and how it is rooted in a specific view of action. In the final lecture, we shall then look in greater detail at the sort of practice that is supposed to bring about this relinquishment.

But to begin with a few historical qualifications are in order. Early Buddhism arises around the fifth century BCE in North-East India out of the teaching of an individual master, whose family name was Gotama. According to the tradition, after six years of intense quest as a wandering ascetic (samaṇa), at the age of thirty-five, Gotama declared himself to have reached full awakening, and thus be a ‘Buddha.’ In relation to the sources discussed in Lecture Six, the Buddha was active somewhere in between the early Upaniṣads (which likely pre-date the Buddha) and the Bhagavad-Gītā (which likely post-date him). As we saw, this was a period of socio-political, cultural, and intellectual effervescence, dominated by issues connected with ritualism, ascetism, and consociation, all of which are taken up and explored in original ways by the early Buddhist teachings. From the point of view of the Greek context covered in Lecture Seven, the historical Buddha might be roughly a contemporary of Parmenides and Aeschylus.

The teachings of the historical Buddha were first transmitted for three or four centuries through oral tradition only, very much like all other teachings in the Indian tradition, including the Vedas. Various groups of reciters were entrusted with the duty of memorizing and preserving specific selections of discourses. It is reasonable to trust the reliability of this tradition, at least in its macroscopic dimension. Comparative studies on various surviving versions of the same discourses attributed to the Buddha show that, despite differentiations among various schools, there was a large overlap and agreement concerning the core teachings.[1] Controversies arose more explicitly at the level of the scholastic commentaries developed within each school (what is known as Abhidharma, which flourished around the third century BCE).

The compilers of the discourses were already editing and organizing materials in a particular way. To some extent, it is possible to distinguish earlier and later aspects or elements not only among different discourses, but also within individual discourses. Moreover, memorization relied heavily on the use of standardized formulas (pericopes), and it is likely that this eventually led to the standardization of less common passages, and thus to a smoothing out of the corpus, if not to loss of information. While historians might continue to debate about the possibility of recovering the pristine teaching of the historical Buddha, we can leave aside this debate by simply taking as our interlocutor not the historical Buddha himself, but rather the literary character that is enacted in the discourses attributed to him, focusing in particular on the recension of these discourses preserved in the Pāli canon of the Theravāda tradition, which is agreed to be the most extensive surviving witness preserved in an ancient Indian language. Hence, from now on, any claim attributed to the Buddha will be attributed to the character of the Buddha that we encounter in the discourses preserved in the Pāli canon.

Despite the superficial uniformity, heterogeneity remains an irreducible aspect of the Pāli corpus of discourses. Its range spans from a mere diversity in phrasings of the same core insight, to a proper diversity of intended meanings. Often enough (e.g., SN 41.7), we encounter discussions of whether certain elements in the Buddha’s teachings should be regarded as different both in phrasing and meaning, or only in phrasing but equivalent in meaning. One discourse (AN 4.180) mentions that various teachings were circulating as attributed to the Buddha himself, but that discourse encourages followers to check whichever teaching is thus presented with the established or received body of discourses already accepted. This suggests that (unsurprisingly) the problem of sorting out original from spurious teachings arose quite early. The potential heterogeneity of the historical materials also has a number of cultural and even political overtones, since depending on how one constructs the Buddha’s teachings it is possible to see them more or less at odds with this or that Buddhist sect or tradition, or even claim that certain Buddhist lineages or groups drifted away from the original message or somehow corrupted it. As we discussed in Lecture One, for instance, Buddhist modernism represents one way of constructing the Buddhist teachings, which is markedly different from other traditional interpretations.

Interpretation is not dispensable and there is no way of presenting ‘what the Buddha taught’ as a sheer historical fact, independent from any context, agenda, or pre-comprehension on the side of the interpreter. We inevitably see also what we want to see. What follows is thus a specific interpretation of the early Buddhist teachings preserved in the Pāli discourses, which aims at illustrating how the Buddha’s insistence on the relinquishment of selfhood can be understood as a way of withstanding uncertainty without aversion towards it. This interpretation is at odds with two other rival interpretations. One is the sort of Buddhist modernism that has been already discussed in Lecture One. The other is the attempt, among both historical approaches and today’s traditions and lineages, to construct the Buddha’s teaching as moving towards the transcendent pole of the spectrum we described.[2] The Buddha can be presented not only as operating within the broad project opened by the Upaniṣads (which is, historically speaking, quite accurate), but more specifically as roughly sharing their goal of moving towards a form of ontological transcendence (which is a more debatable interpretation). As we discussed in Lecture Eleven, this is how the Buddha’s teaching was introduced to Nietzsche by nineteenth-century scholars and why he rejected it. The following interpretation shows that it is possible to construct the Buddha’s teachings otherwise.

  1. Considering the discourses themselves, see for instance Anālayo’s A Comparative Study of the Majjhima-Nikāya (2011). Anālayo carefully collects the Middle-length Discourses as preserved in the Pāli canon and with their parallel versions surviving in other traditions and languages, the most part of which is preserved in the Chinese translation. Anālayo stresses how the specificities of the Buddhist oral tradition (which differs from the Vedic one, for instance) naturally led to the introduction of variations, including the change in the sequential order of elements, and occasionally the osmosis between canonical and commentarial texts. Anālayo concludes (vol. 2, p. 888-891): ‘Radical changes would in fact have been difficult to implement practically, since this would have required influencing an oral tradition passed on communally by groups of reciters spread out over various parts of India. Such gradual change, reflecting changing circumstances and times, would have been nearly inevitable, given the nature of human memory and the specific characteristics of the early Buddhist oral transmission. Instances of change would at first probably have manifested in explanations given alongside the recital of a discourse. Over time, such a commentary could then have become so much a part of the oral tradition of the discourse to which it belonged that sections of it ended up becoming part of the discourse itself. […] Discourses would have been recited with variations, with one detail becoming lost here and another detail being corrected there during a communal recitation, etc. With increasing geographical separation, the variations to be found would have increased correspondingly. […] My comparative study of the Majjhima-nikāya discourses also shows that it would be a gross oversimplification if one were to side with one particular tradition as the more authentic one. […] At the same time, rather than giving us a completely new picture of early Buddhism, what my comparative study of the parallels to the Majjhima-nikāya discourses yields is a reconfirmation of the essentials, with occasional divergence in details.’
  2. From a historical point of view, Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought (2002), chapter 13 and 25, presents early Buddhism in the context of Indian movements that tended to reject traditional lore and develop more naturalistic accounts. The root of these movements would be represented by the Cārvāka school, later opposed by both Jains and Buddhist for its emphasis on determinism and fatalism (hence, no room for the individual to alter the course of rebirth based on their actions or ascetic practices). McEvilley then emphasizes how the ideal of ‘imperturbability’ gains traction among these schools and offers several parallels with a similar development among Hellenistic schools, Epicureans and Stoics in particular. As discussed in lecture two, a doctrine of karma seems at odds with a naturalistic outlook, at least as it is conceptualized by today’s Western philosophers. However, as we shall see in the following lecture, it is possible (i) to interpret early Buddhism by presenting its soteriological goal as aimed at a form of happiness that is based on a proper emendation of action, behavior and cognition (vs. the more transcendentalist goal of the Upaniṣads, for instance); and (ii) to consider the early Buddhist engagement with the doctrine of karma in polemical terms, as a device needed to both steer neophytes in the direction of the right way of thinking, and react against the claims of other sects with which the Buddhist apologetics was competing.


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The Tragedy of the Self by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.