As I continue to study nihilism and its effects, I came across a book titled Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities. In my younger days, I was attracted to Buddhism, especially in its Zen varieties. Since my metanoia back to Christendom, and my journey from modern Catholicism to traditional Catholicism to Eastern Catholicism to Orthodoxy, I have kept Buddhism in a special place in my heart. However, I am ever distrustful of nihilism. This book forced me to come to terms with some latent prejudices. As Nietzsche was formulating his works, he was introduced to East Asian thought (therefore Buddhism) by works by Arthur Schopenhauer. He made up his mind that Buddhism was a "passive nihilism," a nihilism that ends the search for meaning upon reaching the conclusion that past beliefs and traditions are meaningless and empty. This is in contrast with "active nihilism," where upon reaching the same conclusion, destroys the past and moves forward with a new belief system. The logical conclusion of active nihilism is "complete nihilism," where nihilism itself is rejected, and man can finally move forward with a deeper understanding. It was the active nihilist, Nietzsche claimed, who was the freest, for the passive nihilist never reach complete nihilism. Nietzsche, philosophically, disapproved of Plato, and he passed off Christianity (among a many other reasons) as "Platonism for the people," where the Platonic Forms are the thoughts of God, and the Platonic true world is the Kingdom of God. He also claimed that Kant is the true beginning of the end of "truth," as Kant made the claim that the limitations on knowledge are to the material world. This signalled to Nietzsche the end of metaphysics. Then enter Buddhistic thought. Like himself, he read that Buddhism progressed from "God is truth" to "all is false." Since all is false, one rejects all to achieve nirvana, or complete nothingness. With this nothingness, one empties himself of desire, which achieves honest happiness. This strive towards emptiness is not a struggle against sin; it is not a system of morals or believes. Instead, this strive is a struggle against suffering. This is not a metaphysical belief system, but instead a psychological and physiological one. Yet, since this strive of emptiness does not pass onto an understanding that even emptiness is meaningless, and one should move on with a new set of morals based on himself, Buddhism fails to be active, but instead passive, nihilism. However, was Nietzsche correct in this analysis? Is nirvana truly a weakness? A systemic depression caused by understanding that our morals and desires are utterly meaningless, only to be overcome by achieving emptiness of life and desire? In short, the answer is no. Nirvana is not absolute nothingness, nor is it Buddhistic teaching that all is suffering. Rather, nirvana is culmination of the Eight-Fold Path. Nietzsche was correct in identifying desire with suffering, and that is the goal of achieving nirvana: an emptiness of desire. In Buddhistic eschatology, life is seen as a wheel. Life is born, dies, and is reborn anew. It is a seemingly endless cycle. Nirvana is a break from this cycle. Instead of being reborn, when one has become enlightened and emptied of desire, free from all karmic debts, then he passes into nirvana. What happens is something unintelligible, but the goal in Buddhism is not oblivion, but instead impermanence (not subject to destruction or change). Please see a true Buddhist for further information. Nihilism is only possible in a post-Christian society. Buddhism started well before Christ's earthly ministry by 400-600 years and about 3000 miles where the Jews lived. The two philosophies (though Buddhism is more than a philosophy) are just not compatible. To accuse Buddhism of being nihilistic, even passively, is grossly misunderstanding what Buddhism is.
The dialogue opens with a friend of Socrates visiting with him, and Socrates explaining that states that he has just visited with Protagoras, a Sophist, who is in town. The dialogue tells the story of his visiting. Socrates went to a gathering with Hippocrates, who wants to meet with Protagoras and pay him to teach him what virtue is. Protagoras states that he can teach virtue to Hippocrates, and what he teaches will make him a better citizen. This starts the question of the dialogue: is virtue teachable? Socrates argues that virtue is not teachable: that any citizen of Athens can participate in the public decision making, instead of deferring to an expert. Also, if virtue were teachable, the sons and pupils of virtuous men would be virtuous themselves. Protagoras counters by retelling the legend that Prometheus taught practical wisdom to humans, and Zeus then taught them shame and justice. Therefore, it is understood that virtue can be taught. He then pointed to the system of punishment: punishment would be illogical if it were simply retributive, for that does not correct a past crime. Instead it is used to look forward, to teach the wrongdoer correct action. Also, it is more than just fathers who teach children virtue. It is all of society. Some are better at virtue than others, and some are better at showing the way to virtue than other. Protagoras holds the idea that the five
virtues (wisdom, courage, piety, justice, and temperance) are five differing components of virtue, as parts of the face are
components of a face, whereas Socrates holds that all are indistinguishable and
indivisible. Socrates then gets Protagoras to hold that all the virtues are
indistinguishable, except he still holds that courage is different.
Protagoras states that not all courageous
people are wise, but Socrates counters that people can be bold, but that is
different from being courageous without wisdom. Socrates argues that being
courageous involves being bold, but boldness can also occur with madness.
Socrates turns to pleasure and evil to
make this argument. Pleasure cannot be evil. He admits that this is
counter-intuitive, and that many people do seemingly bad things for the sake of
pleasure, but this is only because their calculations of pleasure are off; they
go for immediate lesser pleasures instead of working for greater future
pleasures to get immediate gratification. He draws this comparison to courage
and boldness: those who are bold without courage have a wrong calculation of
danger, and those with courage have a well-ordered calculation. Wisdom knows
the difference between what is dreadful and what is not, and ignorance of what
is dreadful and what is not is cowardice. The opposite of cowardice is courage;
therefore, courage is wisdom. With this, Protagoras agrees.
However, at the end of the dialogue,
Socrates secedes to Protagoras that virtue is indeed teachable.
Euthyphro defined piety as something that is loved by
the gods, but has to further define piety as something loved by all the gods,
because the gods often disagree amongst each other. This brings Socrates to
ask: is it pious because it is loved by the gods, or is it loved by the gods
because it is pious? Something cannot be liked by someone without reason,
therefore piety should come before the action of the gods liking it, and
therefore it is loved by the gods because it is pious. This weakens Euthyphro’s
definition of piety here. It also turns the definition of piety into circular
logic: the love of all the gods must only be an attribute of piety, and cannot
be the definition itself. Euthyphro then defines piety as sacrifice and prayer,
not out of economic exchange, but out of honor. That, however, brings us back
to: it is pleasing to the gods, therefore it is pious.
Crito opens up with the
titular character visiting Socrates in his prison cell awaiting execution just
before dawn. Crito has implied to have bribed the guard and said that there was
a ship in the harbour waiting to take Socrates to exile. Socrates declines, and
Crito was upset. He stated that Socrates is betraying his followers, and that
he is not any good to them dead. He can teach them more if he stays alive and
49 starts, Socrates begins his reply by connecting back to Apology stating that one must never do wrong. Even if the majority
of the actions taken against you are immoral, one must still act morally. It
would be immoral to commit an injustice on another, therefore no one can knowingly
do wrong. He made an agreement with the state to be in prison and be executed,
which he considers to be an immoral action and an injustice, but it is still
his moral obligation to remain in his prison cell and not escape, and only
leave if he persuades the state to let him go.
then goes on to say that the laws are what hold together the state, and without
the laws, the state will fall into chaos. If one chooses to stay in Athens
instead of move away when he becomes an adult, then he has chosen to submit
himself to the laws of Athens. One must accept or reject all the laws and not
pick and choose which ones to obey or disobey. Just as a son cannot destroy the
father simply to preserve one’s self, a citizen should not try to destroy the
state. To respect and honour the laws, Socrates doubles down that it would be
better, and morally right, to persuade the state that executing him would be
unjust than to flee.
chose to stay in Athens rather than move away, and thus has agreed to submit
himself to the laws of Athens. Also, since he rejected exile in his trial in Apology when it was legal for him to
have chosen exile, it would have been out of character for him and inconsistent
to then escape and go into exile now that is illegal to choose that.
Plato's Apology depicts the trial of Socrates, who has been charged with corrupting the youth of Athens and impiety: either bringing in new gods not worshipped in Athens, or straight up atheism. Please note, Apology means to defend one's position, not in the modern sense of apologising. Think of religious apologetics.
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1787)
In responding to the charge that Socrates was
corrupting the young, he turned the charge back at Meletus. Not only did
Socrates deny the charge, he accuses Meletus of being frivolous over serious
matters and, in short, wasting the Athenian’s time with this farce of a trial. He
also states that it is illogical for someone to deliberately corrupt another
person, because this keeps the corruptor vulnerable to the corrupted seeking
revenge for being corrupted. He then states that it was not him that corrupted
the youth of Athens, but the playwright Aristophanes who wrote a play
lampooning himself who actually corrupted the youth.
Some points are more successful in demonstrating
Socrate’s guiltlessness of this charge. Accusing the trial to be a red herring
and a farce does not actually answer the charge. It may be pertinent
information, but it does not respond to the truthfulness of the charge. The
same for stating that it is illogical for someone to deliberately corrupt
another person. The charge is not whether it is logical or not to deliberately
corrupt another person, but whether he corrupted the youth or not. However, it
is true to Socrate’s character to live logically, so that point is only useful
when one knows this character trait of him. The point about Aristophanes is the
most successful point to counter the charge. To show that he is not guilty of
saying something, but rather it was the lampoon who said those things to make
the audience laugh, makes it clear that he is not guilty. Think of SNL and
Sarah Palin. She did not actually say that she can see Russia from her house,
but yet is still accused of saying such.
We meet with two men, Lysander and
Wendell, who are dialoguing together over Immanual Kant, and his view on the
WENDELL: Any conversation concerning Immanual Kant
should state his two categorical imperatives: the first categorical imperative
states that one should “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the
same time will that it should become a universal law (Groundwork 30)”, and the second categorical imperative states that
one should “act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own
person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but
always at the same time as an end (Groundwork 36).”
LYSANDER: Seems simple enough at face value. So much so, I am willing to grant those, and
accept them without debate for the rest of the dialogue.
WENDELL: Wonderful! Then we should jump straight to our
conversation of Kant and his views on the death penalty.
Kant holds and argues for the law of
retribution: the punishment for a crime should fit the crime. This follows directly from the first
When you commit a crime, you will that
the crime committed be a universal act, therefore, you will that the crime be
committed against you as well. When you
burgle, you will to be burgled. When you
murder, you will to be murdered. Therefore, if
you have murdered, it is the duty of society to be sure that you are executed. Note, the punishment of the crime should come
from the courts and not the wronged individuals (Right to Punish).
LYSANDER: Similar to eye for an eye? To quote Exodus:
strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the
woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if anymischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for
tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound,
stripe for stripe (King James Bible, Exodus21:22-25 [emphasis in original]).
WENDELL: Kant would agree with this, but denying to
do so because of obedience to God. The law of retribution would be arrived to
purely on human reason.
LYSANDER: Is that not unsustainable? After all, to repeat the quote commonly
attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” If we followed that logic, would not the
executioners also will to be killed? If
by following the first categorical imperative, killing another means you will
to be killed yourself, that it would be natural law to kill others, and
eventually be killed? Does this not lead
to a world without people? Or at least
the strongest left alone, to die alone as the last human being? That is definitely not a world worth living in.
WENDELL: No, definitely not. That would also be a too simplistic view on
role of punishment in society. The role of
executioner is done by the state, an impartial arbiter of law and enforcement. If the executioner was done by vigilante
justice, then, yes, I would agree with you. But it is the duty of the state to ensure that
laws are enforced, including with use of punishment for crimes.
LYSANDER: I am not denying the role of the state in
punishment; I am just saying that the death penalty is not logical obligation
by using the first categorical imperative. It is contradictory to say that a killer
should be killed.
That would make the executioner someone
who wills to be executed as well. The state has other means to punish criminals.
Furthermore, not only
is it logically inconsistent with the first categorical imperative, it is not
logically consistent with the second categorical imperative either. When a criminal is killed, the autonomy of
that human being has been taken away. Taking away the criminal’s ability to repent
of his crimes makes him a means to an end, instead of an end himself.
WENDELL: But then what is your alternative? Setting a monetary punishment allows for those
with the means to afford the fine allows them to avoid punishment, and traps
the poor unable to make the payment. This is insulting to the poor. Does the criminal sell himself out for medical
research in order to mitigate his sentence? That would make a farce of the judicial
system, and allow the criminals to buy their way to freedom without punishment. Life in prison? That would be a shameful existence.
LYSANDER: No, a fine or giving himself for over for
medical experimentation is not at all what I would suggest. Life in prison, however, is exactly what I
Shameful existence? At least the criminal would have an existence. What would be so wrong in having a criminal
live in shame? Especially since we have
been discussing only the crime of murder. The criminal killed another human. I think shame would be the least of his
problems. Plus, it allows him to stay alive to feel shame. Killing the criminal would remove his shame,
but also his guilt of the crime, and his ability to make reparations. With the way technology has progressed, a
criminal can have a future behind bars, held away from the rest of law abiding
citizens, and serve out his sentence without death.
WENDELL: Life imprisonment sounds humane, but it is
in fact is not a humane response at all. Anyone who could be ashamed would prefer death
to prison, while the lives of those who do not have dignity or shame are
useless. Punishment has to have a suffering component,
or it is useless.
If a criminal is willing to undertake a
punishment, then the punishment has no meaning. Since the punishment must fit the crime under
the law of retribution, the only punishment fitting for murder is execution.
LYSANDER: Does this turn the criminal into a tool of
the state? If demanding the death of a
murderer use the murderer as a means towards public surety? That is a direct violation of the second
This keeps ending up
violating one or both of the categorical imperatives.
Killing those who kill reduces to having to kill executioners, since
those who kill will for every one to kill, eventually to be killed themselves,
this leads to an unsustainable society of executioners being executed.
That violates the first categorical imperative.
Demanding the death of a criminal turns him from someone as an end to a
means to the expected end of public surety.
Also, by removing any future of repentance, you remove the criminal’s
Those violate the second categorical imperative.
Under Kant’s own imperatives, the death penalty is logically
inconsistent, and undesirable.