THE PARADOX OF LIFE AND DEATH: A Literary Analysis of Juxtaposition Present in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Death and the Fool

Death and the Fool – one of the most profound pieces of German literature that still sits vividly in my mind years after I first encountered it. It beautifully brings together all aspects of present, past, and future. To say I love this piece is an understatement. You can read the full play here:


The desire for existential meaning is a recurring theme in German literature during the eighteenth century. In Death and the Fool, Hugo von Hofmannsthal utilizes contrasting notions of life and death to further illustrate the universal human desire for meaning and fulfillment. Through subtle references to Nietzschean philosophy, the play addresses the paradox of pre-existence and the inevitable demise all humans face, while simultaneously serving as a critique of the aestheticism movement of the late eighteenth century. In this essay, I argue Hofmannsthal utilizes the dichotomy of life and death to conclude the necessity of forgetfulness in escaping simultaneous pre-existence in the realms of past and future.

My scope of analysis focuses primarily on Claudio’s internal dilemma, rather than that of other characters within the play. Firstly, I explore Hofmannsthal’s contrasting conceptions of “inside” and “outside” within the play, rendering further analysis of Claudio’s morbid self-detachment and inability to live authentically in the present. Secondly, I offer a reading of the play in reference to Nietzsche’s philosophy, and consequently deduce the inability to forget as a primary factor of Claudio’s deep sorrow. Lastly, I derive parallels between Hofmannsthal’s work and the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, thus revealing the underlying irony and paradox of Claudio’s life through death.

The beginning of Claudio’s monologue consists of his internal longing for what is out of reach. He vividly describes the “lustrous meadows” and “wild morning wind” while describing nature as “the spring of all desires” (Hofmannsthal, 46). As Claudio fantasizes about a lifestyle beyond his attainment, he exclaims that he is “filled with longing” by the “purpose and blessing” spread before him (46). His objectification of the nomadic mountain people allows him to romanticise what is beyond reach. This is evident as he exclaims how “near to [his] heart’s desire” these people have become (47).  Hofmannsthal’s emphasis on Claudio’s longing for the outside creates a dichotomous parallel with the concept of an inside and outside. Martens argues Claudio’s placement at his window is indicative of the profound emotional border between him and the outside, which further proves Claudio’s innate discontent with his enclosure (35). His name itself is derived from the Latin word “claudere” meaning ‘to close’, as synonymous to his spatial distance from what is beyond. This is evident as Claudio’s secluded home establishes a physical barrier between him and the outside world.

A deeper reading of the text uncovers the dichotomy Claudio faces between the inside and outside realms as analogous to the human condition of constantly living in the past or future. Similar to the outside Claudio longs for, the characterization and objectification of life itself acts as a barrier to living fully in the present moment. The conception of pre-existence “renders past and present mysteriously simultaneous” therefore overcoming time (Bennett, 71). Claudio experiences life solely through past and future as supported by his claim that as “a thousand resemblances rushed/ To the mind…all happiness [is] gone” (Hofmannsthal, 47). He claims he knows nothing of human life as he merely “stood in the midst of it” and at best has merely comprehended it (47). By experiencing life solely through past memory or mere anticipation of the future, Claudio is trapped in an existentialism that is only reflective of human experience. It is “only afterwards the mind seeks out the breath of life” which further illustrates the desire for raw experience only after it has been lived (49). By existing in an abyss of past and future, Claudio is denying himself authentic participation in life, thus resulting in his intellectual detachment (Bennett, 72). He describes this entrapment from unadulterated existence as analogous to standing paralyzed “before the trellised gates of life” overpowered by “a curse which does not end” (Hofmannsthal, 56).

While Claudio understands there exists a world and a way of life different from the one he experienced, the awareness is not sufficient. Claudio’s romantic longing for emotional participation in life is not fulfilled by sheer realization of his condition. He exclaims that he has comprehended life, and thus understands his position clearly (47). Therefore, he is not a fool in the conventional sense.  In fact, Siefken argues that it is his thorough reflection of existence that has left Claudio “an over aware outsider” where reality was “destroyed through this process of analysis” (80). Hence, this renders the thesis that Hofmannsthal is not asking the reader to simply become aware of their pre-existence, but to rather to embrace a central concept of forgetting, as derived from Nietzsche’s critique of the ‘historical man’.

Hofmannsthal’s play was released nearly ten years after Nietzsche’s The Madman, where he makes the famous claim that “God is dead” (16). The anti-Enlightenment movement of the eighteenth century, as championed by Frederich Nietzsche, began a wave of anti-foundational sentiment throughout Europe that exposed the hollow reality of human life. Hofmannsthal’s play showcases the universal desire for meaning and purpose in a fundamentally anti-foundational world. Claudio’s excessive self-awareness and analytical nature removes the spark from life as he enters a psychological dread where he only desires what he cannot have. According to Nietzsche, for a man to live authentically, he must possess the ability to copiously forget.  In On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life he exclaims:

“He who cannot sink down on the threshold of the moment and forget all the past, who cannot stand balanced like a goddess of victory without growing dizzy and afraid, will never know what happiness is…. Forgetting is essential to action of any kind, everything organic” (9).


Similar to Claudio, Nietzsche’s ‘historical man’ possesses no trace of the power to forget. Nietzsche asserts that “without forgetting it is quite impossible to live at all” (10). Throughout his monologue, Claudio frequently refers to his “ever restless reason, unable to forget” (Hofmannsthal, 47). Claudio questions “What should [he] know of human life?” if he has “never lost [himself] to it” or if he was “never wholly unaware” (49). Evidently, Claudio is unable to forget. He claims his spirit is “buried deep, so sealed from consciousness…. Bringing only the stale flurry of remembrance” (64). In order to live life usefully and vigorously, one must therefore possess the ability to copiously forget the past and exist in the present. Through the process of forgetting, one deliberately escapes living life in a blank present – in absence between memory and anticipation (Martens, 35). Hofmannsthal’s usage of juxtaposition reemerges as Claudio is condemned to “live without knowing or to know without living” (36). I conclude, therefore, that it is Claudio’s restless reason and inability to forget that primarily contributes to his deep unhappiness.

Lastly, I focus on the play’s emphasis on life and death. Death is not experienced or created instantly, but is rather created in every moment of self-conscious existence. Claudio perpetually exudes this reality as he exclaims he “saw the sun with lifeless eyes” and “heard no longer but with lifeless ears” (Hofmannsthal, 49). Specifically, the sun represents life, energy and rebirth. For Claudio to see the sun with lifeless eyes establishes the ever-present obstacle between life and death. His active characterization of life itself causes his senses to be paralyzed and for a “senseless nameless fear” to take control of him (54). Hence, it is demonstrated that Claudio’s morbid self-detachment robs him from genuine human experience and life.

As Death encompasses Claudio, he exclaims “Since my life was death, then Death, be my life!” (Hofmannsthal, 65) This speaks to a greater philosophical ideology, as championed by Heidegger, that reflection upon death is necessary in enabling humans to live fully. Similar to Nietzschean conceptions of death, Heidegger asserts that man becomes aware of his finitude only through comprehending the reality of death. Thus, in order to live as an authentic human being, it is critical to constantly project life onto the horizon of death, which Heidegger famously labels “being towards death.” Since human existence is finite, Claudio’s confrontation with death is what allows for authenticity as he attempts to create meaning out of it. Claudio goes as far as to claim that he finally experienced life in his one-hour encounter with death in comparison to his entire life. Subsequent to his death, he exclaims that “For only as I die I feel that I am” (65).

The idea of death overwhelms Claudio “with a sense of wonder at existence” as he is “suspended between the infinite and finite aspects” of human nature (Bennett, 84). He is confronted with the awareness of death; but death, along with “an astonishing and terrifying knowledge of the unfoundedness of existence in a gaping abyss of truth”, enables Claudio to commit to human life (85). Hofmannsthal’s satire lies within the irony that it is through the process of death that Claudio is able to finally feel “alive.” The excruciating fear Claudio experiences upon encountering death doesn’t allow ample time for him to fully analyze the situation, therefore causing him to experience it.

Thus, it is through Claudio’s final encounter with death that Hofmannsthal grasps at the paradoxical human condition. Death itself is deeply embedded into the concept of life, and with each moment of existence, a paralleled presence of death persists. Consequently, death as a reality cannot merely be “understood” as an idea, but eternally endures as a mystery – a country from “which no traveler, once he has truly entered it, ever returns” (Bennett, 73). The reader, therefore is confronted with the recognition that a shallow understanding of death is utterly useless (74). Hofmannsthal’s characterization of death offers a medium of understanding to the reader, however, it also insists that true understanding is impossible at a theoretical level. It is precisely this dilemma where the unsolvable mystery of death – along with the cyclical labyrinth of human existence – is revealed within Hofmannsthal’s work.

In conclusion, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s dichotomous juxtaposition of life and death, inside and outside, and past and future furthers a deeper understanding of Claudio’s intellectual detachment from life. The play addresses the paradoxical reality of life towards death, whilst revealing the hollow reality of human existence.  I have presented an analysis of the primary irony between life and death, however, further literary discourse may reveal juxtaposition evident between simplicity and aestheticism, or between Claudio’s past ghosts (mother, former lover and friend) and Claudio himself (Hofmannsthal, 63). By blurring the lines between life and death, past and present, inside and outside, Hofmannsthal emphasizes the Nietzschean theory of possessing the ability to forget in order to fully experience the moment. It is presence of careless forgetfulness which allow one to live fully with no prior attachment to the past or future. Additionally, the dichotomy of an inside and outside realm, where Claudio is unable to attain what is ‘outside’ his reach, further highlights his enduring romanticization of genuine human experience. It is through the protagonist’s encounter with death where he realizes the value of the life he actively rejected. Claudio’s tragedy subsists as he grasps at life’s impermanence only when it has become far too late. Upon the climax of Claudio’s dying reflection, he exclaims “So now, in an excess of feeling, I seem to awake / From life’s dream in death’s wakefulness” (65).
















Bennett, Benjamin. Hugo Von Hofmannsthal: The Theaters of Consciousness. Cambridge University Press, 1988.



Heidegger, M., Macquarrie, J., & Robinson, E. Being and time. Malden, MA: Blackwell. 1962.



Hofmannsthal, Hugo Von. Der Tor Und Der Tod (Death and the Fool). 1893. Print.



Martens, Lorna. Shadow lines: Austrian literature from Freud to Kafka. U of Nebraska Press,       1996.



Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Gay Science; with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of       Songs. New York: Vintage Books, 1974.



Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.”  Cambridge    University Press, Cambridge, 1997.



Siefken, Hinrich. “Hugo Von Hofmannsthal’s ‘Der Tor Und Der Tod’the Paradox Of The ‘Nahe   Ferne’.” German Life and Letters 24.1 1970.


Persepolis: An Analysis of the Role of Identity During the Iranian Revolution

Although cinema is often seen as entertainment rather than a work of art, Marjane Satrapi’s film Persepolis beautifully captures the rhetoric of the Iranian revolution in an artistic demeanour. Her comic-inspired film follows the life of Marjan, a young girl struggling for truth during an era where the lines between human sincerity and strict government policy are blurred. The aim of the movie, however, can be argued to be the unification of the Western and Eastern public ideology regarding Iran – based on the fundamental issues of assimilation. Members of the Iranian diaspora can deeply resonate with Persepolis as a whole, but more specifically relate with Marjan’s personal endeavour for meaning in a binary world of culture. In addition to this, the movie drew a deep parallel with Marjan’s struggle with truth, and the journey for the entire nation of Iran in a society of deeply rooted political conflict. Although a wide variety of the film’s themes and ideas are solely rooted from Marjan’s personal identity, it should also be noted that a wide variety of the sub themes follow the socio-political conditions in Iran, such as women’s issues, social constructs and Western intervention. Therefore, this essay aims to explore Marjan’s emphasis on self identity, in addition to the storytelling of Iranian history and conflict. I will use Saparti’s choice of animation as aid for my thesis with an emphasis on imagery juxtaposition.

         Firstly, I will trace the origins of the root of the title and meaning behind Saparti’s choice to call the film Persepolis. Beginning with the analysis of the film title, the world Persepolis quite literally means the ancient land of the Persians. The Persian Empire was found by Cyrus the Great and was renown at the time for its strong reign.[1] Once Alexander the Great took over the capital, the people were left impoverished and their country in ruins.[2] I argue that Satrapi chose the title Persepolis as a parallel to the events that occurred during the era. The merciless overthrow of the government combined with the excruciating torture that many Iranians felt at the time are both parallels with the film.  Before the war in both circumstances, it can be argued that Iran was prosperous and free-spirited. Saparti aimed to show how dictatorship can dangerously harm a society that was once so well reputable. Throughout Persepolis it was evident that the political strain can affect nearly all interpersonal levels of Iranians throughout the revolution. This is evident in the way the Iranian revolution shaped the path of Marjane’s life; from her personal relationships to her drive for life. Furthermore, the powerful state before the war was a symbol for the utopia that the Iranians thought they were going to have. For many Iranians, the revolution was meant to be an event that altered their state for the better; to free them from the chains of totalitarian regime. However, this was clearly not the case.

         I will lay out the framework to further prove that using animation in Persepolis was a tool for Saparti in order to create an artistic portrayal. The use of animation meant an acceptance of the impossibility of perfect representation of such traumatic events. In other words, it became an accessible means of dealing with difficult content of Saparti’s life. The issues that Saparti aims to explore are often ‘grey’ and not black-and-white. This allows surplus room for the viewer to self-interpret the complex emotion that Saparti aims to express. Although it can be counter argued that animation lacks a particular element of realism, it immerses the viewer in narrative and aesthetic art. In this way, the use of animation offers a medium where memory, dream, and fantasy can be intertwined; without the burden of realist depiction. In a way, the lack of clarity and realism leaves furthermore to the imagination, which allows the viewer to grapple with meaning to the point of resolution.

Saparti monochromatic palette beautifully uses the juxtaposition of light and dark in her film. The contrast aims to represent the innate emotions and experience of each character within the film, whilst outlining their inner motivations. The gloomy silhouettes represented the lives of sorrow that the Iranian people felt, while the bright lights aimed to signify the sense of hope they felt as they clung onto the memory of freedom. A beautiful example is when Marjane learns that her Uncle Anoosh was re-arrested by the regime troops, and she is seen in front of a texture-less background with no sense of depth. The outline of her black hair and clothing contrast within frame as her figure is seen hovering through a vacant, black void. This image, although animated, depicts the sense of deep isolation and resentment Marjane faced towards the revolution. Furthermore, the use of dense black frames is used during the scene of the bombing occurring in Iran. The dark silhouette of the stairs combined with the black empty screen during the bombing ignite a sense of fear and mystery within the viewer. This is used many times throughout the film, most notably when depicting the false dream that the Iranian government sold to young men embarking off to the war. Saparti was able to, once again, draw a parallel between the young men of Iran fighting in the Iraqi war (often promised the “key to paradise”), causing the viewer to ask if these young men are any different than the youth of the American wars. In this way, Saparti uses universalization to appeal to both Iranian and Western viewers.

As the film commences, it is evident from the very opening scene that Marjane is dissatisfied with her contrasting cultures. This scene was one of the very few in colour; further punctuating the film. Marjane is seen in solitude waiting at the Paris airport in a familiar flashback. She shines a look of disapproval upon putting on a head scarf before her arrival in Tehran whilst smoking a cigarette. Immediately, we see that the complex and deeply rooted themes of identity, exile and return emerge in the introduction. Throughout the movie, the recurring theme of solitude and identity emerge as thousands of Iranians left Iran during the revolution. The relocation to another country left colossal gaps in the streams of identity amongst those individuals. Furthermore, Persepolis captures the sense of loss when Marjane’s family members dwell on the question of whether they too should leave or stay behind. In this way, the film depicts the struggles of those individuals that choose to stay, whilst placing emphasis on the severed ties with those that choose to stay behind. An example is Marjan’s Uncle Anoosh, where the theme of exile is embodied in his character’s decisions. His exile to Russia and attempt to sneak into his homeland signified his deeply rooted ties to his Iranian identity. Although he was a revolutionary that fought against the ordeals of the Shah, Uncle Anoosh served as a role model for Marjane; embodying hope, strength, and passion. He shares his stories of imprisonment with Marjan, which serve as a medium for inspiration. In addition, the toy swans carved out of the prison bread serve as a symbol for hope. Upon Anoosh’s execution, the white swans are surrounded by black water – once again the use of dark and light to represent Marjan’s deep feelings of loss and hopelessness. In this way, the perceptive genius used by Saparti illustrates the anguish Marjane faces as she is also ‘exiled’ to Vienna during her youth.

Upon moving to Vienna, we see a stark contrast with the quaint depiction of Tehran. Although in Western eyes, Iran is often seen as the foregin ‘other’; in this turn around of events, Vienna was depicted in the light of “otherness”, with Viennese tams and sidewalk cafes, along with ringing church bells. In this way, the viewer was placed directly in Marjane’s perspective; engulfed in a sense of wonder and foreignism. An overarching scene in which consumerism and Western industrialism is well depicted in one where Marjane is in the bounds of a modern-day grocery store – shining with branded product. This generates a stark contrast with the poverty that many Iranians faced during the revolution, and due to this a fundamental and underlying guilt is developed in Marjane. While her family is faced with the darkness of war, Marjane is blessed with the Western opportunities and frivolous life. Unable to live with the guilt and lack of external support from her friends in Vienna, Marjane is later diagnosed with depression. There is uneasiness with her friends’ ease of philosophy and the dark realities of war that Marjane faced. This internal struggle aims to show how the revolution creates deeply embedded memories in the Iranian diaspora, in which it is carried with them throughout all their experiences. The internal struggle within Marjan also runs parallel with the struggles of Iranian across the globe, which further attributes to the universality of the film. In addition to her struggle into assimilation, Marjan also experiences various romantic relationships that also contribute to her shaping of her adolescent identity.

As the attempts to find understanding and sympathy in her friendships, the same is apparent in her strive for love. As she strives to find meaning in these relationships, Marjane loses a piece of herself. In a scene where she lies about being French from fear of being seen as a “barbaric” Iranian, Marjane imagines her grandmother following her trail and catching her in her lie. Through the act of dishonesty, it is clear that Marjane still possesses an innate dissatisfaction with her identity. Upon her return to Tehran, she also sees the socio-political effects that the revolution had on the people. As her grandmother famously quoted that “fear lulls us to sleep,” Marjane sees fear manifesting in the actions of her fellow Iranians. In a way, the revolution had normalized people to be savage and this is evident in the distinct scenes of her mother at the grocery store or swearing at other drivers. Furthermore, her decision to turn in an innocent man also shows how fear had caused everyone in Iran to resort to a “survival” and “state of nature” instinct. The Iranians became stripped of their pride, nationalism and meaning, therefore the country had evolved into a cold society, where all individuals only possessed the will to survive.

It is evident that Saparti effectively used animation as a means of portraying the harsh realities of the Iranian revolution. Saparti was able to beautifully capture the binary world of Iranian and Western culture, and the deeply rooted conflict that many individuals like Marjan felt during this era. It is also evident, however, that the Iranian diaspora today also feel disconnect when approaching the fragile world of cultural clash. Furthermore, Saparti was able to go beyond the physical bounds of Iran and travel beyond into the universal world, where her film can be applied to individuals of nearly all cultures. That is the beauty of universality that lies in the fundamental roots of Persepolis. No matter what culture one may originate from, the internal conflict with the “traditional” and modern will always persist. The outcome, however, will not always be positive. Although Marjane was able to undergo multiple external identity alterations, in the end, she was still the carefree and curious soul. Her drive for justice is evident at a young age and is manifested later in her life. This is evident when she is seen standing up for her classmates in university regarding dress code.  Marjane’s early life and her exposure to her parents’ activism instilled determination for justice and a desire for freedom.

Through the use of animation and contrasting depictions of dark and light, Saparti is able to tell the story of Marjane’s coming of age during the violent birth of the Iranian revolution. Through this, Saparti also universalizes the ideology of binary culture and sheds light on the day-to-day victims of the Iranian revolution that are often ignored in Western portrayal. Persepolis acts as a beacon of hope where cross-cultured individuals can reconnect with meaning, and a desire to discover identity through Saparti’s rich, inky black and white illustrations. Marjan’s dissatisfaction with revolutionary promise for freedom, and with totalitarian rule is manifested in her acts of defiance throughout the film. In conclusion, Saparti’s story-telling monochrome palette reveal throughout Persepolis that the deep socio-political issues it highlights are anything but black and white.

Nihilism and Self-Overcoming: Interpreting Nietzsche and Buddhism

Upon a deeper analysis of Buddhism and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, subtle similarities emerge in their understanding of self-overcoming. Both philosophies assert that human life is characterized by suffering and the notion of ‘self’ as a mere construction. Through deeper analysis of the notions of ‘self-overcoming’ present in Buddhism and Nietzschean philosophy, this paper uncovers realms of philosophic agreement between the two, while providing a critique of Nietzsche’s misinterpretation of Buddhism as passively nihilistic. I also provide clarification on the disparity between early Buddhist philosophy and Buddhism as interpreted by Nietzsche; the latter being deeply affected by colonial forces and the limited European exposure to Eastern philosophy. I explore Nietzsche’s misunderstanding – and consequent rejection – of Buddhism as a form of “passive nihilism” and nirvana as a practice of denying reality. In spite of their divergences, I conclude that Nietzsche’s existential philosophy is ironically close to the Buddha’s, as their prescription to a meaningful life requires overcoming of the self.

While Nietzsche’s early mentor, Schopenhauer, was a great admirer of early Buddhism, Nietzsche scarcely stands alone in his misunderstanding of Buddhism as a nihilistic religion. With Buddhism’s primary teachings surrounding concepts of no-self and nonexistence, it is understandable why nineteenth century Europe held a predominantly negative conception of Buddhism. More importantly, however, Nietzsche’s criticism of Buddhism reveals his own misinterpretations and shortcomings at the time; predominantly due to Europe’s limited – and colonial -understanding of Eastern philosophy. It is important to note that Eastern philosophy was beginning to appear in the West during the early nineteenth century. The true meaning of Eastern ideologies – like Buddhism – was often lost in translation, and as a result, Buddhism was often misinterpreted through second-hand sources.

Nonetheless, Nietzsche was one of the first Western pioneers to explore Buddhism.  His work On the Genealogy of Morals categorized early Buddhism as fundamentally life-denying, aimed at nothingness, and standing antithetical to human existence (Nietzsche, 1994, 61). In The Will to Power, Buddhism is described as passively nihilistic with the purpose of acting as a temporary salve for those suffering (1968, 18).  According to scholars, Nietzsche’s misconceptions were connected to the general view of Buddhism during his time, and such portrayals were more of a reflection of what was happening in Europe – the complete collapse of traditional values, the menace of atheism, and the ‘death of God’ –  than an accurate description of Buddhist philosophy (Van Der Braak, 2010, 6).

Nietzsche thus understood early Buddhism as a form of “passive nihilism”; indicative of a “decline of the power of the spirit” (1901, 22). He contrasts this to active nihilism – an ‘increased power of the spirit’– which pushes for the conscious destruction of all beliefs that previously held meaning. For Nietzsche, the passive nihilist succumbs to his despair and delves blindly into herd mentality, while the active nihilist faces the realities of existence and human suffering.

Still, Nietzsche’s appraisal of Buddhism is nothing short of utterly complex. In one of his notebooks he wrote: “I could become the Buddha of Europe though frankly I would be the antipode of the Indian Buddha (Panaïoti, 2013, 2). Nietzsche’s description of himself as a type of “Anti-Buddha” illustrates the distinction he makes earlier regarding passive and active nihilism. Throughout his writings and teachings, he recalls nihilism as a plague permeating European culture; a hatred for life and a rejection of action. When discussing the Buddha’s encounters with a sick man, an old man, and a dead man, Nietzsche writes in Thus Spake Zarathustra:

‘There are those with consumption of the soul: hardly are they born when they begin to die and to long for doctrines of weariness and renunciation. They would like to be dead, and we should welcome their wish. Let us beware of waking the dead and disturbing these living coffins! They encounter a sick man or an old man or a corpse and immediately they say, “Life is refuted”. But only they themselves are refuted, and their eyes, which see only this one face of existence.’


Nietzsche was quick to reject European Buddhism as a life-negating and innately pessimistic philosophy. One of his early mentors, Schopenhauer, had been greatly exposed to Eastern philosophy in comparison to his Western counterparts. Nietzsche’s fear, however, was that the rise of pessimistic philosophy would result in the triumph of passivity and decadence within Europe; steering men away from the world and leading them to nothingness. Also, it was during this era where Nietzsche renounced the ‘death of God’ and the collapse of Europe’s traditional value system.

In many regards, Nietzsche viewed the Buddha as a physician prescribing a cure for the fundamental human condition of suffering. Both Nietzschean and Buddhist philosophy and grapple with the idea of nihilism, while rejecting the notion of revealed truth. Nietzsche’s primary project was revealing the errors in Christianity, and rejecting the idea of ‘morality’ itself. For him, morality was the greatest plague; limiting people from transcending to the highest version of themselves, and thus inimical to self-actualization. In this regard, Nietzsche viewed Buddhism as superior to Christianity, and went further to directly compare the two in The Anarchist (1968). From his comparisons, he concludes that Buddhism is far more “realistic” than Christianity – accredited to Buddhism’s understanding of suffering and the Buddha’s ‘prescription’ to eradicate it. Moreover, Buddhism eliminated the concept of a monotheistic God, and continued as a positivistic religion. Nietzsche paints a far more positive picture of Buddhism in the Anarchist, however, many scholars believe this is merely due to the comparisons he was making with Christianity – a religion he despised and often described as “a degenerate religion” founded on “a rancor against everything well-constituted and dominant” (Elman, 1983, 689).

Paradoxically, Nietzsche utilizes the notion of “active nihilism” as a tool in his own project against Western nihilism. His philosophy contends that the self-overcoming of nihilism is essential to becoming a “true” version of yourself. Furthermore, in The Will to Power, Nietzsche describes himself as the “perfect nihilist of Europe”, who has lived through the “entirety of nihilism, to the end, leaving it behind, outside himself” (Nietzsche, 1968, 3). In this view, overcoming the “great nausea” of nothingness allows Nietzsche to emerge as a victor.

Nietzsche aimed to overcome nihilism by affirming the unconditional embrace of existence. For him, life was not to be denied but rather created by one’s own value system, and built on the foundation of understanding that there is no inherit meaning in the universe. Nishianti describes this process as “dying the great death in the abyss of nihility and coming back to life again” (1983, 233). In doing so, active nihilism becomes a transitional stage rather than an end in itself. It is the abyss into we must descend, “the darkest night before the dawn” (Nietzsche, 1968, 12). It is through the experiential stages of active nihilism that an individual strives for the heights of the ideal being, the übersmench. He asserted that living by one’s own ‘noble morality’ is characterized as a vigorous, free and joyful existence, ruled by an innate “will to overpower, and will to rule” (1968, 16). From his works, it is evident that Nietzsche detested the weak and humble man who sought to escape the realities of life.

Ironically, Buddhism aims to release from the wheel of samsara (cycle of life and death) instead of affirming its eternal revolution. For Nietzsche, he interpreted this as a mere negative release of the karmic world of samsara. However, liberation of nirvana, as understood by Buddhism, is the removal of the ego and attachment to worldly desires. The mere idea that one could escape the state of life, described by Nietzsche as eternal reoccurrence, was illusory to Nietzsche at the time; often described as “the fable song of madness” (1968, 12). An excerpt from his personal notes reveals that human existence, as it is, “without meaning or aim, yet inescapably recurring without any finale in nothingness” is the most extreme form of nihilism (55). For Nietzsche’s interpretation to sustain, the Buddha must preach an eternally recurring samsara. Not only this, the Buddha must also prescribe no possibility of freeing oneself of samsara, or achievement of Enlightenment. In juxtaposition, the middle path – madhyama pratipad – found by the Buddha is the death of the ego, and the end of cyclical birth; an exertion of nihilism’s will towards freedom from samsara. After further examination, it seems that the Buddhist advocates precisely for the opposite of an empty nihilism – one that Nietzsche feared and aimed to alleviate Europe from.

One may also turn to the four noble truths of Buddhism when analyzing Nietzsche’s initial critique of Buddhism. The first, dukkha, asserts that life is suffering. The eternal samsaric life is clouded with existential intolerability (Nishitani, 1983, 169). The second, samudaya, attributes this suffering to the craving or aversion as the cause of suffering. The third and fourth truth, nirodha and magga, reveal the way to end suffering and the truth of the path. Detaching oneself from these cravings leads to liberation from cyclical death, thus leading to nirvana. The final noble truth further asserts this idea by illustrating the Noble Eightfold Path. As part of the eightfold path, samma vayama, or “right effort” advocates for a powerful will, parallel to Nietzsche’s concept of the will to power. This energetic will aims to alleviate one of all craving, which leads to suffering. Evidently, Buddhism advocates for a positive sort of willful action, rather than a pursuit of passivity that Nietzsche initially believed.

Furthermore, an analysis of Theravada Buddhism reveals that Buddhism’s primary goal is a radical transformation of the self through action. The arahant, the highest form of a human, does not accumulate karma according to Theravada Buddhism, since he has already transcended cyclical rebirth. Free from the ego, and fabricated idea of the self, the arahant is free from samsara. Nietzsche’s critique targets the notion of passive nihilism and the complete negation of existence. Similar to passive nihilism, the metaphysical extreme of absolute discontinuity and nothingness, ucchedavad, is forbidden by the Buddha. The Buddha also rejects the notion of vibhava tanha, which is the human craving for non-existence. This may also mean the craving for non-becoming, and complete aversion towards the unpleasant suffering of current or future life. These teachings by the Buddha emphasize Buddhism’s negative viewpoint on the negation of life itself, and his emphasis on an energetic will.

Ironically, Nietzsche’s prescription for self-overcoming allures to many parallels with Buddhist philosophy. Buddhism advocates for transcendence beyond the condition of society, maya, and creating an individual path for oneself. This “path” reflects the famous eight-fold path; reflecting greater awareness and compassion. Nearly forty-five years following Buddha’s enlightenment, he spent his life spreading wisdom with compassion and love for others around him – indicative of the importance of this Buddhist precept.

Lastly, the notion of the perfect and most ideal being, as presented by Nietzsche and Buddhism strike subtle similarities. Both philosophies assert the importance of individual will, and reject the notion of a true morality. In Buddhism, the arahant is one that has transcended beyond samsara. A passage from Mulapariyaya Sutta the Buddha discusses the root cause of enlightenment from suffering. He tells his disciples what exactly an arahant, or ideal human constitutes:

A monk who is a Worthy One, devoid of mental fermentations—who has attained completion, finished the task, laid down the burden, attained the true goal, destroyed the fetters of becoming, and is released through right knowledge— directly knows earth as earth. Directly knowing earth as earth, he does not conceive things about earth, does not conceive things in earth, does not conceive things coming out of earth, does not conceive earth as ‘mine,’ does not delight in earth. Why is that? Because he has comprehended it, I tell you. (Thanissaro, 1998)


This passage illustrates that the monk is the worthy one, who has freed himself from the bonds of suffering which traps one in the cycle of birth. The arahant must achieve enlightenment by becoming ‘devoid of mental fermentations’ – not necessarily free from any thoughts – and viewing the world as it truly is, without the distortion of craving and suffering.

For Nietzsche, the übersmench, or ‘overman’, creates his own values out of his utter freedom. The term overman refers to the kind of people that are greater than an ordinary human being. However, for the übersmench the ultimate goal is not to merely overcome suffering, but rather overcome the passive and ordinary condition of a human. This contrasts with the arahant, who avoid mental fermentations as a way to overcome the bond of suffering. The arahant is also freed of the sense of self when attaining liberation. For Nietzsche, by transcending into the übersmench, the self is affirmed rather than denied. The notion of self is re-created in the overman, as the fundamental, defining quality of the overman is to create his own values. However, this seems to contradict what Nietzsche affirms in his later works. In a key passage from On the Genealogy of Morality Nietzsche exclaims:

There is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming: the ‘doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed [or doing: Thun]—the deed is everything … our entire science still lies under the misleading influence of language and has not disposed of that little changeling, the ‘subject’.


Through this reading of Nietzsche, it may strike many similarities with Buddhism. The self in Buddhist philosophy is merely an array of mental and physical components that create a person. These are known as the five ‘aggregates’ of form, feeling, mental formation, perception, and consciousness. The self is a function of these five aggregates working together. While Nietzsche affirms the self through self-overcoming, he also asserts that there is no ‘being’ but rather an action carried out from the subject. Through analysis between Buddhism and Nietzsche’s notion of self in the concept of self-overcoming, these subtle similarities emerge.

In conclusion, this paper demonstrated Nietzsche’s misinterpretation of the notion of passive nihilism present in Buddhist philosophy. Furthermore, I offered an account of self-overcoming present in both philosophies, and where areas of agreement emerge. Through engagement with one’s suffering, Buddhism aims to remove the causes and condition of suffering by detaching oneself from the cravings for fulfilled desires, and for the desire for permanence in an impermanent and transient world. Similarly, Nietzsche warns of the danger of primarily seeking happiness and worldly pleasures, while rejecting the other extreme: passive nihility. It is through this interpretation that subtle similarities emerge. This paper also opens up new avenues for increased research, such as the differences in Buddhism and Nietzsche’s metaphysical notion of rebirth. Given the discussion presented, Nietzsche may have found areas of agreement with Buddhism if he had correctly interpreted notions of active nihilism, rather than rejecting it as another verse in the ‘fable song of madness’.

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