Lecture Eleven: Relations 11.1

11.1 Introduction


We began to challenge the idea that uncertainty is best addressed through the attempt at mastering it. Since the self is constructed in this attempt, if mastery is abandoned then selfhood should be seriously reconceived. Uncertainty is inherent in conditionality. Insofar as any entity or reality depends upon certain relations, it is essentially uncertain because that entity or reality cannot be established on its own, but necessarily relies on something else. However, the idea that uncertainty needs mastery requires one further premise: uncertainty is somehow a problem, something felt unpleasantly, something from which one wishes to be relieved. If we seriously challenge the idea that mastery is the best way to face uncertainty, we now need to look deeper into this association between uncertainty and painfulness. What are the conditions under which uncertainty can be felt unpleasantly? In a relational ontology (such as that delineated in Lectures One and Eight), nothing can have intrinsic properties, and hence even uncertainty cannot be inherently painful on its own.

We have seen how Nietzsche, reinterpreting Attic tragedy, phrased the problem of uncertainty in terms of dissonance. Life is structurally bound to combine contradictory drives. This paradoxical nature, which is proper to the structure of becoming, makes life appear like the joint enaction of contrasting elements, like in a musical dissonance. We can now ask: what does it take for a dissonance to be felt painfully? Much of Nietzsche’s discussion relies on the assumption that this is just how dissonance feels. Dissonance is naturally painful. But is this true?

Nietzsche’s assumption arguably comes from Schopenhauer, with whom he agrees in concluding that life is suffering, or that suffering is a real and inherent feature of life resulting from its ontological and structural uncertainty. Moreover, in using a musical phenomenon (dissonance) as a philosophical heuristic tool, Nietzsche takes for granted that the musical system of his time is something natural or relatively unproblematic. In the first half of this lecture, we shall thus explore in greater detail the musical notion of dissonance to show how the way dissonance is felt and understood depends on its musical context. Translating this back into philosophical discussion, we can conclude that life is suffering only under certain premises, or from a certain perspective. What are the consequences, for Nietzsche’s project, of rejecting the idea that dissonance is inherently painful?

Nietzsche advocates for a revamping of tragic culture, capable of supporting an attitude of acceptance towards the painfulness and contradictory nature of life. If life is inherently dissonant and painful, Nietzsche’s proposed solution is to say ‘yes’ to the whole of it, embracing the pain rather than attempting to master or mask it. Nietzsche’s discussion highlights that metaphysical escapism aimed at the Transcendent is doomed to fail. The quest for another heavenly world is poisoned by resentment for this life and this world. The ascetic who seeks Transcendence is a sick one, who hates their own sickness and tries to transform or sublimate it into something liberatory. Nietzsche contrasts this conservative strategy that faces the pain of life with a quest for an afterlife, with the teaching of the eternal recurrence, which encourages us to withstand and welcome pain itself. Notice: in both cases the idea that pain is inherent to life is taken for granted, even if the solutions offered diverge diametrically.

However, if life (dissonance, contradiction, becoming) is not inherently painful, then we can envisage a somewhat different strategy. First, we should ask: what are the conditions under which life becomes painful? We should then investigate whether these conditions are anything necessary or avoidable. If it is indeed possible to face the dissonant uncertainty of life without activating the conditions for experiencing it as painful or suffering, then we can face dissonance without being troubled by it. As we shall see in the next two lectures, this is precisely the strategy adopted in early Buddhist thought and practice. In bringing this Buddhist perspective into dialogue with Nietzsche’s problematization of nihilism, we are going to answer a Nietzschean question with Buddhist tools.

The Buddha’s teaching has been like the ghost at feast in several of the lectures outlined so far, lurking in the background of some of the ideas discussed. In Lecture One, Buddhism was invoked as a potential conversation partner for contemporary cognitive science, especially insofar as it both provides philosophical arguments to expose the constructed nature of the self (and thus the problem nestled in the attempt at conceiving of the self as a substantial entity), and a disciplined practice capable of reshaping habitual cognitive and affective patterns. We also mentioned that this involvement with Buddhism needs contextualization. For instance, we discussed Thompsons’s reasons for challenging today’s dominant Buddhist modernist approach (both qua theory of Buddhism as exceptionally rational and scientific, and qua practice of introspective mindfulness).

On some historical accounts, both external and internal to the Buddhist tradition, the goal and practice of Buddhist meditation can be construed as a form of anesthetic trance aimed at dissolving the self in some sort of transcendent ultimate reality. As discussed in Lecture One, this ‘non-dual’ interpretation resurfaces in Buddhist modernist accounts of ‘Enlightenment.’ We are now able to say that if Buddhist thought and practice are constructed in this way, then they would not fit Nietzsche’s bill of providing a way out of nihilism. And since this interpretation was well-established among early nineteenth-century scholars who popularized the first Western accounts of Buddhist thought, Nietzsche had several reasons to consider Buddhist thought still inevitably entrenched with nihilism.

Nietzsche himself mentions Buddhist thought several times, albeit mostly in passing, throughout his works and unpublished notes. His judgment about Buddhism is overall negative. Buddhism is akin to Schopenhauer’s philosophy: it acknowledges the problem (life is suffering), it avoids metaphysical escapism, and yet it fails to provide a positive creative answer. The Buddha was a lion, not yet a child, to use Zarathustra’s metaphor. This judgment is shaped by the fact that Nietzsche’s acquaintance with Buddhism was mostly second-hand and very dependent on mid-nineteenth-century secondary scholarship aimed at popularizing Buddhist ideas for the European audience. In Lecture One we briefly mentioned how mid-nineteenth century scholars aimed at presenting the historical Buddha through Protestant and rationalistic lenses. Nietzsche’s understanding of Buddhism was conditioned by this presentation. However, if we depart from this interpretation of early Buddhism, new options become available and the confrontation between Nietzsche’s thought and early Buddhism, in particular, can bear fruitful results. Setting the stage for exploring this possibility takes up the second part of this lecture.



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

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.