The Self as Journey, Obstacle, or Destination:
A Comparison of Augustine, Buddhism, and Nietzsche
A defining characteristic of every philosophy is its approach to the notion of the human self and its place in the world. Many of the world’s religious philosophies, and even some secular philosophies, advocate a denial of the self in favor of participation in a higher existence. In the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche condemns this attitude as rife with “powerlessnessâ€¦anxietyâ€¦submissionâ€¦and cowardice” (1.14). He has particular disdain for the Christian tradition as embodied by Augustine and the Eastern tradition as embodied by the Buddhist philosophy. He sees in them the same strain of passiveness, and even implies that they are at root the same philosophy: “the desire for mystical union with God (unio mystica) is the desire of the Buddhist for nothingness (nirvana) — and nothing more!” (1.6). However, there are differences between Augustine and Buddhism in their conception of the self and the will — differences that to some extent ally Nietzsche more closely with Augustinian Christianity than with Buddhism.
Christian theology has had a turbulent past when it comes to explaining the function of the human will and the consequent sense of self. In the Biblical tradition, it was an act of Eve’s will that constituted the fall of man. This willfulness resulted in two important changes: the birth of human nature as separate from the nature of God, and the birth of human self-consciousness. Because of the will’s implication in the depravity of man, many early Christian philosophers saw the subjugation of the will as the key to redemption in the eyes of God. This idea was reinforced by the influence of Classical philosophy, which also recommended the denial of the will in favor of intellectual contemplation.
In his Confessions, Augustine recounted his struggles with this conception of the will, citing many occasions in which his simple desire to subjugate his will to the will of God was not sufficient to keep him from sinfulness. In his search for salvation, Augustine discovered in himself two wills, “one carnal, the other spiritual” (130). His difficulties with his faith could be traced in every way to the battle within him of these two competing selves. Ultimately, his conversion rested not on the denial of his entire will, but on the triumph of his spiritual will over his carnal one. Redemption for Augustine was in the end a form of willfulness and an expression of self, not an abdication.
Buddhist philosophy is fundamentally different from the Christian tradition in that it does not espouse a human self. In the Buddhist doctrine of anatta (“no-soul”), humans do not possess individual souls. The Buddha taught that the idea of the human self is “an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding realityâ€¦and produces harmful thoughts” (Rahula 51). Not only does the self not exist in the Buddhist tradition, but the delusion of the self is the foundation of “all of the evil in the world” (Ibid). Because the self does not exist in a real way, the will does not function as an expression of the self, but only as an expression of a temporary and relative state of being. There is no such thing as “free will” springing from a pure place and setting itself up in opposition to the external world.
Both the Christian tradition and the Buddhist tradition envision an eventual human destination of unity with a higher existence that in some way negates the singularity of corporeal existence. But the similarity ends there. For Augustine, the path to this existence involves not only a recognition of his unique spiritual will, but an active exercise of that will (with the help of divine grace) to achieve union with the will of God. For the Buddhist, the path to nirvana involves the disintegration of the false sense of individual self and the dissolution of boundaries between singular being and the eternal Self. It is a realization of the irrelevance of the will, not an act of subjugating or elevating it.
Nietzsche can be seen as nearly the polar opposite of the Buddhist philosophy. For him, everything but the human will is illusory, irrelevant, and dangerous. The ultimate destination of man is not an existence of incorporation into a seamless whole or the joining of a creation with its creator; instead, it is a vigorous exercise of the active, living, powerful will in pursuit of freedom and expansion. For him, the self is not a combatant that must be subjugated on the way to salvation, nor is it an illusion that must be dismantled on the way to enlightenment — in Nietzsche’s philosophy, the self itself is the destination and highest achievement of man, and the unfettered expression of that self must be man’s goal.
Because Augustine acknowledges the existence of the soul and the will, and because his theology rests on a supreme action of the individual will, it can be said that Nietzsche and Augustine do have some common ground. They are at least speaking in the same terms. The Buddhist, however, denies the validity of the very concepts at the core of both Christian and Nietzschean philosophy, and cannot be reconciled with either.
Nietzche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemical Tract, trans. Ian Johnston. Vancouver: Vancouver Island University, 2009. Web.
Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. New York: Grove Press, 1974.
Saint Augustine. The Confessions of Saint Augustine, trans. Edward Pusey. Rockville, MD: Arc Manor, 2008.