What to Make of Nietzsche’s Critique of Religious Morality Insofar as it Concerns Suffering.
It is not my intention in this paper to offer a real assessment of the correctness of Nietzsche’s attack and description of religious morality in regard to the ascetic priest, the ascetic ideal, and the way the former uses the latter to give suffering meaning. However, I will say a few words concerning the extent to which Nietzsche’s critique is applicable to Buddhism. A majority of Nietzsche’s remarks are aimed at Christianity, though he does address Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. But given Nietzsche’s childhood and initial studies in theology, the religion he was most familiar with was Christianity. So, while his criticisms of religious morality in general may be applicable to religions other than Christianity, we can still ask whether his remarks concerning the ascetic priest’s redirection of ressentiment apply to religions other than Christianity: for example, Buddhism. Nietzsche’s psychological remarks about ressentiment and those that suffer seem quite plausible. That is, it is reasonable that many—it need not be all—people when suffering do develop a desire to find the cause of their suffering and often they look for the cause in the form of another person: someone they can hold responsible for their suffering. The question, then, is whether in Buddhism we can find a version of the ascetic priest who redirects the ressentiment of the sufferer back onto himself and makes the sufferer feel guilty for transgressing the ascetic ideal in such a way that the sufferer’s pain is deadened. It turns out that the notion of guilt found in Judeo-Christian ethics is not found in Buddhism. In Buddhism we find, rather, the notion of regret. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso writes:
it is important not to misunderstand what it means to regret our unskillful actions. We should not view the suffering we experience as an externally applied punishment for our sins; nor is it necessary to feel guilty, thinking we have offended some authority or force that is prepared to take revenge upon us. True regret is not concerned with such extraneous attitudes.114
Guilt is a self-centered emotion that actually interferes with changing one’s ways. It is true that the Buddha is a kind of ascetic priest; but while the Buddha says that we are ultimately responsible for our own suffering, and while he may be seen as teaching the first innocent means of easing suffering—that which Nietzsche calls a kind self-hypnotization—concerning the cause of man’s suffering, the Buddha does not say that, “he must seek it in himself, in some guilt, in a piece of the past, he must understand his suffering as a punishment.”115
Suffering for the practicing Buddhist could perhaps be seen to be meaningful insofar as it shows the practitioner that his actions and thoughts are still unskillful, i.e., they lead to suffering because one has not sufficiently developed the right view of desire and impermanence, for example. So, though the Buddhist does not feel he is being punished for the transgression of the ascetic ideal, he still feels that the suffering is his own doing: it is caused by his continued ignorance. While this recognition should bring regret in the form discussed by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, it is doubtful that this recognition produces the narcotic effect that Nietzsche sees guilt producing in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
It may be that Buddhism is a counter example to Nietzsche’s argument that through the ascetic ideal all suffering was placed, “under the perspective of guilt.”116 Unfortunately my exposition of Buddhism, and to a certain extent Nietzsche’s thought, has been too superficial to say for sure. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that Nietzsche would consider Buddhism to be an ascetic religion, if for no other reason than that its main goal is to allow people to end the cycle of rebirths, for with each rebirth one must suffer another life. This notion of ending rebirths, while not exactly opposite, is nearly antithetical to Nietzsche’s treasured idea of affirming life through the whole hearted embracing of the idea of the eternal recurrence.
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