The Buddha, Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche: A Personal View
For a long time, I’ve been wondering how these thinkers can be put into dialogue. I have seen Freud and Marx combined in Herbert Marcuse, and, after I did a basic Google search for Freud and the Buddha, I found a number of articles on the subject. But no one to my knowledge has written on the Buddha, Freud, and Marx, let alone adding Nietzsche to the mix. What I’ll do here is to sketch out some ideas very informally, with the hope of starting a discussion, as I feel it’s important that public intellectual discussion should be open to all and not left to experts. If it’s not already clear, let me state that I’m far from being an expert on any of these thinkers.
My first encounter with Buddhism was the Dhammapada, which was provocative and fascinating. A few of the aphorisms remain with me, such as “there are no chains like hatred.” I had never seen over-attachment (or clinging, craving) analyzed and criticized so thoroughly. After reading this book, I was consumed by Buddhism; ironically, I was over-attached.
In my early twenties, I read Nietzsche. Again, I was captivated. Nietzsche’s critique of morality was liberating; I read the concept of the overman as an encouragement to each of us to overcome our previous selves and create our own values, the values by which we live. Also, Nietzsche gave me an idea of what it would be to live non-metaphysically – that is, without a sense of a larger meaning to existence. For Nietzsche, the meaning in human life is limited to humans; there is no God figure. Pema Chodron, too, claims that the Buddha avoided questions about the afterlife or gods. He didn’t see such questions as relevant. In this vein, Joseph Campbell recounts the story of the flower sermon. When the Buddha was asked what the meaning of life was, he lifted a flower. Clearly this action can be interpreted in many ways. One way is that the meaning of life involves flowering, flourishing. But the meaning cannot be spoken or articulated, is not separate from life itself.
“Before one reads Nietzsche,” Martin Heidegger said, “one should study Aristotle for fifteen years.” Not everyone has that kind of time. But Heidegger makes the influence clear; Nietzsche addresses Plato in his writings far more than Aristotle, but the latter’s notion of eudaimonia (often translated as “flourishing”), as well as his views of ethics, friendship, community, tragedy, and art were often incitements to Nietzsche, spurs to the later philosopher’s thinking. Thus Nietzsche absorbs Aristotle, responds to him, and often opposes him, though he may not mention him; the earlier thinker is present as a strong interlocutor.
To this day, I have read more about Freud than Freud himself. However, when a thinker’s writing style is not as important as his ideas, this approach becomes more acceptable. Nietzsche was supposed (by Walter Kaufmann, among others) to have had a deep effect on Freud, though Freud did not acknowledge the debt, if there was one. The impact of Freud for me was in part similar to that of Nietzsche: you are not bound by another’s values; live according to your own. Freud withheld moral judgement of his analysands; what they did was not labelled right or wrong. According to Kaufmann, when asked about morality, Freud replied that it was a matter of course. Perhaps this means that morality is a given. If so, Freud would seem not to have read Nietzsche, for whom morality was highly constructed, taking shape over centuries. But Freud’s concept of the super-ego (or “over-I,” in literal translation of the German) owes much to Nietzsche: the super-ego, to put it perhaps oversimply, is our inherited morality: what we believe we should do, according to the influence of teachers, parents and others, whose words and actions we invest with value. Another aphorism from the Dhammapada that Freud seems to have absorbed – perhaps from another source – is that “the mind without judgement watches and understands.” An analyst can understand her client better when considering the latter’s actions as “beyond good and evil” (to quote the name of Nietzsche’s book). Moral judgement in this sense impedes understanding; moralizing puts another’s actions into our terms, seeing them from the perspective of our values; withholding judgement generates empathy.
I read Marx first while in my early twenties, starting with The Communist Manifesto and going on to excerpts from Capital. I was drawn to his idealism and his passion. The principle “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” is beautiful and reminds us of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” To leave Marx out of a discussion of key modern thinkers would be egregious; Marx has taught us that our lives are not lived in a vacuum. We live under a man-made economic system called capitalism that enslaves us as completely as any empire has. There is a financial hierarchy that involves power and control, and there are economic requirements that we are born into, depending on our class. To claim that ideology is unimportant is another ideology. To have the time to think and write involves a certain position within capitalism – a certain education, sufficient leisure time – which are privileges and are paid for with the labour of others. It is because of the goal of unlimited corporate growth that we are facing climate change. Rather than putting environmental ethics first – and thus, valuing humans, plants, and animals above profit – making money continues to be the engine of industries based on fossil fuels, with their highly damaging pollutants. The prioritizing of profits led to colonialist genocide even before the highly interconnected system of capitalism that now exists (as globalization), but the intensity of the current system has put the long-term survival of large numbers of human beings at stake. Marx thus showed the many ways that capitalism profoundly shapes us, including how much we sleep, what we eat, and how we feel.
Freud and his students – many analysts, but also therapists in general, and pop psychologists – can help with the current ecological situation and the excesses of capitalism, as can the Buddha and his students. Through psychoanalysis and Buddhism, we can get a better understanding of what we desire and what we need, of addiction and craving, of sexuality and empathy. Nietzsche shows us how all of our actions occur within a framework of values, involving ethical, political, emotional, and aesthetic dimensions. Every choice we make is a reflection of our values. Pitting Marx against Nietzsche involves a rich, exciting debate.
These four thinkers respond to each other in subtle ways, and it seems worth exploring their points of intersection, worth imagining a dialogue between them.