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.



While the question of “life” after death is one that is greatly disputed, the premise that death is the definitive destiny for all humans is universally accepted. Due to the nature of human finitude, German philosopher Martin Heidegger views death as a fate that allows one to find meaning, and thus be our most authentic self. Heidegger depicts death as closely linked to personal authenticity, and therefore selfhood. To be authentic in Heideggerean terms is to live “true” to oneself. Since Heidegger asserts that truth can be lived, and one may subsequently fail to live their truth, he therefore asserts that there is a fundamental way of being, or existence. Thus, he claims “the ‘essence’ of human beings lies in its existence” (42). He uses the term ‘Dasein’ (directly translated as “being there”) to describe the experience of being that is peculiar to humans. It describes the agent that exists towards death as their own most possibility. (This also may be interpreted as Heidegger’s technical term referring to us – not as individual human beings – in reference to a way of being of all human beings). Heidegger indirectly splits the idea of being a self and being alive as varying human experiences. He asserts that there are certain qualities, traits, and activities that represent more than what we merely enjoy doing. Therefore, when we engage in activities that do not fit our “essence”, we are living an intrinsically unauthentic life. As Dasein, life possess a structure of an accomplishment, or “wholeness”, that exists because of death. Through this understanding, he differentiates between being alive, and being an authentic self.

In order to better comprehend Heidegger’s theory, one may imagine a scenario where they only have a few days to live. Upon this discovery, if one feels deep regret on the current projection of their life, then they are living an unauthentic life. In contrast, if one expresses pure contentment at the direction of their life, despite the possibility of death around the corner, then they are being true to themselves. For Heidegger, the imaginative projection of death is essential in determining who you are. Upon realization of death as the inevitable, “one is liberated in such a way that for the first time one can authentically understand and choose among the factical possibilities lying ahead” (308).  Humans enter a state of anxiety where the endless possibilities of life become apparent, therefore our choices are guided by making these possibilities factuality. In turn, the choices we make define us, give meaning to our lives, and ultimately foster authenticity.

Although Jean-Paul Sartre follows a similar line of reason, he has a slightly different perception on the meaning of death. Both Sartre and Heidegger assert that the choices we make define us. Sartre’s work echoes Heidegger’s when he claims “man is nothing else but what he makes of himself” (28). Therefore, his works represent the firm viewpoint that existence precedes essence. Our collective actions and decisions illustrate who we are as humans, and thus we are ultimately responsible for how we conduct ourselves in this world. To acknowledge the freedom of choice – and the consequent responsibility we face – is to live an authentic life. Sartre argues that Heidegger’s view gives too much power to death in shaping the direction of one’s life. Since death is the end of us, it is the end of our freedom to give meaning in our lives. Far from Heidegger’s premise that death allows for meaning, he concludes that death takes this very meaning away. Similar to Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir views death as a pall over the meaning of our lives, and goes as far to claim death as an “unjust violation” (106). After death, Sartre believes that the meaning of one’s life is merely what others make of it, and therefore we sacrifice control in affecting that meaning. Therefore, we cannot wait for death to occur “not because death does not limit my freedom, but because freedom never encounters this limit” (Sartre, 700). Death is not an event to dread and ponder because it deems insignificant while one is alive. Thus, upon further analysis of Sartre’s text, the dichotomy between Heidegger and Sartre becomes ever clear.

In finality, I will argue that Sartre overlooks the importance of death in realizing life’s meaning. Sartre illustrates death as an entirely independent event that has no existential repercussions on how one should lead life. In contrast, Heidegger claims that humans exist towards death as their ‘ownmost possibility.’ We exist as agents capable of recognizing and striving for meaning by recognizing our undeniable mortality. Hence, Dasein is confronted with death as a possibility of being, and it “stands before itself in its ownmost potentiality-of-being” (Heidegger, 232). By recognizing the potential of death, we illuminate the meaning of alternate possibilities because they exist within the constraints of our mortality. Similar to Heidegger, I assert that it is our mortality that allows for such meaning. The possibility of death, which lingers indefinitely throughout our lives, imposes a sense of urgency and anxiety on the choices we make. Sartre fails to address the significance of death because he views it as a contingent occurrence, while Heidegger uncovers the underlying reason why our freedom matters to us in the first place. The significance Heidegger places on death is valid because our time on Earth is limited, and the choices we make are solely our responsibility.  Through awareness on our mortality, Heidegger claims that ‘being-towards-death’ grounds the temporality of Dasein. Thus, this very temporality is foundational for the meaning we give our lives. We can imagine an immortal life where one possesses the possibility of infinitely repeatable choices and pleasures. The immortal may pursue infinite endeavors throughout their life, as their time on Earth is infinite. The contrasting mortal cannot afford to do so. Thus, it is through the recognition of our mortality where one is able to comprehend the temporality of their existence, and therefore the weight of their decisions.

Following my personal confrontation with death, I copiously comprehended the fragility of existence. Heidegger’s notion of ‘being-towards-death’ outlines the life I led subsequent to my final trip to the cosmos. While Sartre’s emphasis on personal responsibility and freedom deem fruitful at first, it is the finitude of death in itself the underlies the condition needed for meaning. The limited time I have on this planet dictates the choices I make, and thus the life I choose to manifest. As death is the final “ownmost possibility”, it becomes apparent that the most suitable way to lead my life is to make decisions based on my personal desire, rather that of others around me. While my young days exemplified a deeply complex desire for acceptance, I soon realized my contentment with life is manifested from within the Self, and not through acceptance of the Other. By becoming face to face with death, I grasped the finitude of my being and the fact that all of life’s possibilities will never be fully actualized. There exists something outstanding beyond my existence. The potential of death allows me to grasp my existence in its totality and thus focus my existence as it belongs to me (the individual) rather than the inauthentic “they” (the other). Though confrontation with my grandfather’s death was a deeply personal grievance that greatly altered my life, it was still the death of another human being. Experiencing his death, although an excruciating painful experience, was still ‘objective’ in the sense that I was still avoiding confrontation with my own mortality. Heidegger claims when death is faced as an individual, a possibility which is Dasein’s own is recognized.  The external world, which acquires meaning based in Others is eclipsed, and one may overcome absorption into others. Thus, facing mortality allows human existence to focus fully on itself as its own Self. Martin Heidegger’s work has become analogous to my personal confrontation with the fragile temporality of life. It has served as an existential awakening – surging a desire for meaning in a fundamentally hollow world.









Beauvoir, Simone de. 1965. A Very Easy Death. Trans. Patrick O’Brian. Pantheon 102 Books:      New York.


Heidegger, Martin. 1996. Being and Time. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. State University of New           York Press: Albany.


Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1956. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. Washington Square         Press: New York.


Sigrist, Michael J. Death and the meaning of life. Philosophical Papers 44.1 (2015): 83-102.

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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