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.

“Canada is open for Business Again” – Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (1984)

The economically turbulent era of the 1970s marked a shift in bilateral relations between Canada and its primary trading partner, the United States. By the early seventies, escalating concerns regarding Canadian economic dependence became the forefront theme of Canada’s foreign policy agenda. Attempts to bolster and diversify Canada’s domestic economy were actualized through the implementation of the Foreign Investment Review Agency (FIRA) and the National Energy Program (NEP) during the Trudeau era. Despite these regulative measures, the triumph of the conservative party of Canada – under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney – in the 1984 election altered the trajectory of Canadian economic policy. Mulroney’s political agenda was characterized by an inclination to mend relations with the U.S. through economic deregulation and the revision of preceding policies, which had posed as a consistent source of tension. Shortly after his election, Mulroney staunchly declared “Canada is open for business”. This momentous statement – although frivolous at the time – became a guiding maxim for consequent economic measures. Through analysis of Canada’s foreign policy during Mulroney’s reign, this paper uncovers the stark shift in Canadian approaches to foreign investment and trade. I begin by laying the economic and political climate of the 1970s, characterized by the establishment of regulatory measures. Comparison of Trudeau’s restrictive economic policy and Mulroney’s counter regulation illustrates Canada’s shift in foreign investment attitudes. Furthermore, I uncover how Mulroney’s strategies propelled Canada towards free trade and deregulation; leaving behind a lasting legacy on Canada’s economy.


In order to fully grasp the significance of Mulroney’s victory and subsequent policies, it is vital to understand the increasingly complex bilateral relationship between Canada and the United States during the 1970s. The stage is best set by Peter Dobell, who highlights the United States’ growing concentration on domestic issues combined with “a disenchantment with foreign involvement” during the 1970s. In Canada, Dobell emphasizes the growing issue of economic independence and the growing desire for distinction from the United States. The establishment of a new economic policy under Richard Nixon – also known as the “Nixon shocks” – proved to be a catalyst in exacerbating already severed ties (Dobell). The Nixon measures were designed to revive the national economy, and tackle their “balance of payment” issues. More importantly, Canada was not exempt from Nixon’s proposed import surcharge. This violated the Canadian perception that “a special relationship existed between the two countries” and after Ottawa’s failed attempts at renegotiation, the new American doctrine propelled Canada to re-assess its relations with the US. As part of this reassessment the minister of national revenue, Mr. Gray, tabled a task force report called Foreign Direct Investment in Canada. At the time, Gray’s report appealed to the radical factions of the Canadian government, namely the “Waffle faction” of the NDP. In short, the report outlined a significant and rapid growth in the degree of foreign ownership within Canadian industries, especially in the area of manufacturing and natural resources (Dobell, 252). More critically, it called for a cohesive industrial strategy for Canada to control foreign capital. Lastly, it proposed a review agency which could screen foreign takeovers and new foreign direct investment in Canada, in an effort to “obtain the maximum benefits possible for Canada from FDI” (Ibid., 253).


Gray’s latter proposition marked the birth of the Foreign Investment Review Act (or ‘FIRA’) in 1974. In sum, the act prohibited foreign takeover of Canadian companies without the direct approval of the Canadian government. FIRA screened each corporation by analyzing their product, the Canadian market, their source of income, and domestic job opportunities. The most important factor, however, was whether the foreign investment provided substantial contribution to Canada. As a result, a centralized investment screening mechanism was created; limiting the degree of foreign investment and ensuring Canadian economic protection. The coordination of a unified mechanism complemented the centralized aspirations of then-PM Pierre Trudeau. The fear, however, was the potential decline in inward foreign investment due to the restrictive nature of FIRA. In retrospect, FIRA did not mark a drastic reduction of FDI within Canada. Instead, it served as a symbolic display of Canadian nationalism and foreign investment strategy. Ironically, it also served as a source of tension with the United States.


Similar to FIRA, the National Energy Program (or ‘NEP’) became another major source of friction between Canada and the U.S. in the late seventies. According to Leyton-Brown, the NEP was designed to achieve domestic security of supply, increase Canadian participation in the petroleum sect, and alter revenue sharing among governments (19). Like FIRA, the NEP was also signed into power by the Liberal Trudeau government, in response to the fluctuating conditions of the global oil market. The goal for revenue sharing deeply angered the oil-producing province of Alberta, who was already in political deadlock due to provincial-federal clashes. The controversy surrounding the NEP triggered bitter protests from the U.S., involving their appeal to the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) shortly after NEP’s implementation. By 1981, global oil prices had fallen and the initial motives for the NEP slowly evaporated. However, it was not until the election Brian Mulroney where the final remnants of the NEP were symbolically shattered.


As demonstrated in the preceding paragraphs, the period prior to Mulroney leadership presented serious challenges in mending Canada-US ties. While components of government regulation, such as the NEP and FIRA, were motivated by mere Canadian domestic interest, they proved to further injure economic diplomacy with the United States. Mulroney’s famous statement, that Canada is “open again”, indirectly points to the barriers posed by previous regulative economic policies. In keeping to his campaign promises, Mulroney announced a series of new initiatives for economic reform grounded in market liberalization. His determination was reaffirmed, when FIRA was terminated and replaced with Investment Canada in 1984. This new agency aimed to encourage FDI within Canada, rather than regulate and restrict it.  Additionally, the National Energy Program was formally terminated by Mulroney during the same time. Thus, Mulroney’s statement that “Canada is open for business” was subsequently backed by these immediate actions.


In the following decade, Canada was surely “open for business”. The Mulroney government’s foreign policy focused on enhancing multilateral initiatives, especially with the United States. In 1989, Mulroney launched a “going global” initiative by increasing investments within Europe and Asia. The Pacific 2000 Plan targeted Japan as a main country to strengthen FDI relations with; resulting in a dramatic increase in Japanese investment. During this time, the growing integration between Japan and the US increased Canadian incentives to trade globally. Mulroney’s de-regulatory economic strategy manifested during free trade talks with the U.S. in 1989, which marked the birth of the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement. It is critical to note that while Mulroney’s pro-US & pro-free trade attitudes accelerated market liberalization in Canada; the global super powers – Britain under Thatcher and US under Reagan – were also heading in this direction.  The global progression towards market liberalization and decentralization demonstrated that states were finally willing to “hold hands with the devil” (Churchill).  This age of ‘new pragmatism’ countered the confrontational period of the 1970s with a deeper recognition of the value of multinational corporations. The mentality of this new era is best captured by Susan Strange in the late 90s, who famously quotes: “the one thing worse than being exploited by multinational corporations is not getting exploited by multinational corporations.”



In the end, however, the global influences of market liberalization combined with Mulroney’s foreign policy altered Canadian economics for the decades to follow. Likewise, it shaped bilateral relations with Canada’s most critical trading partner: The United States. While Canada today does not possess a formal industrial policy on inward or outward FDI, a constant trend seen in every era is the increase in U.S. FDI.  The regressive economic policies of the Liberal government during the seventies immensely hindered Canada-US bilateral relations. Mulroney’s landslide victory and “open for business” attitude fostered the foundation for the Canadian market today. The overarching global direction towards market liberalization also played a critical role in altering Canada’s economic trajectory. This paper juxtaposed the restrictive era of the 1970s with Mulroney’s economic pragmatism. Quite literally, Mulroney “opened” Canada for business. He halted the National Energy Program, and encouraged FDI through the re-establishment of Investment Canada. His personal ties with U.S. president Ronald Reagan helped to secure Canada’s first comprehensive free trade agreement with the US.  More prominently, Mulroney’s famous statement ‘Canada is open for business again’ proved to be convincing and substantial by the end of his leadership.



Susan Strange (1991) “Big Business and the State,” Millennium, 20, 2 (1991)

David Leyton-Brown, “Canadianizing Oil and Gas: The National Energy Program, 1980-83,”

Peter Dobell, “Reducing Vulnerability: The ‘Third Option,’” from Don Munton & John Kirton.eds., Canadian Foreign Policy: Selected Cases.

Kenichi Miyashita and David Russell (1994) chapters 1 and 2, from Keiretsu: Inside the
Hidden Japanese Conglomerates, New York: McGraw Hill.

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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Elman, Benjamin A. 1983. “Nietzsche and Buddhism.” Journal of the History of Ideas 44, no. 4 : 671-686.

Hongladarom, Soraj. 2011. The overman and the arahant: Models of human perfection in Nietzsche and Buddhism. Asian Philosophy. no.1:53-69.

Lincourt, Jared. 2010. “If Nietzsche Only Knew.” Stance: An International Undergraduate Philosophy Journal. 3:62-68.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Keith Ansell-Pearson, and Carol Diethe. 1994. On the Genealogy of Morality. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Walter Kaufmann, and R. J. Hollingdale. 1968. The Will to Power. New York: Vintage Books.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Walter Kaufmann. 1963. The Anarchist. New York: Vintage Books.

Nishitani, Keiji. 1983. Religion and nothingness. Univ of California Press.

Panaïoti, Antoine. 2013. Nietzsche and Buddhist philosophy. Cambridge University Press.

Thanissaro, Bhikkhu. 1998. Mulapariyya Sutta: The Root Sequence. New York: Vintage Books.

Thomas, Richard Hinton. 1983. Nietzsche in German politics and society, 1890-1918. Manchester University Press.

Van der Braak, André. 2011. Nietzsche and Zen: Self-overcoming without a self. Lexington Books.


Contending Theories: Realism and Liberalism in the Nuclear Twenty-First Century

Upon witnessing detonation of the first nuclear bomb on July 6, 1945, Robert J. Oppenheimer uttered the famous words: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”[1] The development of nuclear weapons capability ushered the end of World War II and propelled history towards a nuclear era characterized by fear and multipolarity. Since the bombing of Nagasaki in August of 1945, however, nuclear weapons have not been officially utilized in combat. Despite the challenges of modern nuclear proliferation, the non-use of such weapons remains a central phenomena on the international stage.

Rationale for the non-use of nuclear weapons capabilities are greatly debated among international relations theorists, and require thorough analysis of the complex roots of the state system. On one side of the debate, structural realists (or “neorealists”) would explain this non-use as natural to the study of “power politics.” Driven by an innate fear of death, they argue states seek nuclear weapons technology in order to promote security through active means of deterrence. In contrast, liberalism theory places significance on the international treaties, diplomacy and transparency among states. Through contending mechanisms of realist vs. idealist theory on nuclear non-use, I argue for the prominence and relevance of realism in the contemporary nuclear epoch. I begin by providing discourse on the neorealist account for the non-use of nuclear weapons, while examining the complex origins of realist methods of thought through Thomas Hobbes and Kenneth Waltz. Secondly, I offer the contending idealist critique of realist theory, and sketch the idealist theory of nuclear weapon non-use which renders illusions of peace. Discourse will be provided on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and anti-nuclear peace movements following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I conclude, ultimately, that nuclear attainment is in the interest of modern nation-states given the Hobbesian political climate of the twenty-first century.

Realism and the Deterrence of Nuclear Weapons

 For realists, the basic logic follows as such: if a state possesses a large nuclear arsenal, the adversary is less likely to attack due to fear of massive retaliatory action. By making the cost of war “frighteningly high”, states are discouraged from making the first strike against nuclear armed states.[2] Deterrence theory can be used to explain why the United States built approximately 70,000 nuclear warheads, more than all other nuclear-weapon states combined, during the Cold War. This sent a message to the adversary, in this case the Soviet Union, that attacking the US would undoubtedly result in mass destruction. During this era, the nuclear arms race between the US and USSR is said to have induced instability and eliminated the possibility for a nuclear war to break out due to second strike retaliation capability. Kenneth Waltz champions the idea of nuclear peace and concludes “more may be better.”[3]  For realists, it is not the particular difficulty of launching an attack, or normative philosophies that prevent nuclear war but rather the expected counter reaction that will result in “one’s own severe punishment.”

Historical roots of realist way of thought are deduced from prominent thinkers Thucydides, Machiavelli and Hobbes. In particular, deterrence theory  occurs from the act of balancing power capability. Pursuit of self interest within the Hobbesian state of anarchy is analogous to to the current nature of state interaction. Written in 1651, Thomas Hobbes asserted that the lack of international authority fabricates a “state of nature” where the life of man is “solitary, poore, nasty, bruttish, and short.”[4] The continual fear and the looming danger of violent death pushes man to constantly seek self-interest, such as material gain, self security, and ultimately, survival. Given the lack of global governance today, I infer that nuclear weapon attainment increases security for a state by inciting fear in opposing nations.

Cover of the Leviathan, 1651. (Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, 1651 . Menston: Scolar P.)

For realists, the anarchic nature of humans (and thus the international system) is presented as the foundation affecting all behaviour and thus largely accounts for the structural logic of state interactions. Hobbes’ creation of Leviathan, a sovereign power possessing ultimate control, offers an escape from the state of nature. The lack of such a sovereign in the international realm today forces states to pursue security through material capability, such as the possession of nuclear weapons. The disproportionately immense levels of funding invested in military and weapons capability among great nation-states is attributed in their strive for security and survival. Adoption of the realist viewpoint, in sum, inexorably leads to the conclusion that all states that can go nuclear, should go nuclear – and the sooner the better.[5] Nuclear proliferation, through the lens of realism, is thus inevitable.

It is for similar reasons Kenneth Waltz argues Iran should be allowed to possess nuclear weapons capability. For realists, states are analogous to billiard balls interacting with one another. What occurs within the billiard balls themselves (domestic or internal politics) are of little concern to realists. The reasoning follows: If states such as Israel, US, and France can possess nuclear weapons, why shouldn’t Iran? With nuclear weapon attainment, Waltz argues Iran can effectively put an end to Israel’s regional monopoly and achieve stability in the Middle East.[6] Neorealist theory rests primarily on three assumptions: all states are rational actors, states operate in a state of anarchy, and the international arrangement begets a self-help system.[7]

Although intuitive and forthright, the realist perspective runs into trouble as they are often accused of offering nothing “but a naked struggle for power.” [8] They also fail to account for the numerous states that have the ability to go nuclear, but still have not made the transition. It is estimated that only one-fifth of the states with the capacity for building nuclear weapons have done so.[9] Moreover, the pace of nuclear proliferation has been essentially unaltered since the 1950s, begging the question of the deterrence rationale behind nuclear non-use.

Liberalism and Nuclear Weapon Non-Use

In this regard, liberalism in International relations offers an optimistic account of the international system by emphasizing the significance of joint cooperation and non-state actors.  Thus, liberals (or “idealists”) do not see it as a given that states will significantly benefit from nuclear weapon attainment. [10]On the international stage, idealists stress the importance of international norms of nuclear nonproliferation while grappling with the concomitant difficulties of dealing with norm rejecting rogue regimes.[11] Liberalism understands that human beings may act in self interest, however, they place emphasis on cooperation between non-state actors through reasoning. Similar to how neorealists turn to Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes to explain the nature of the state, liberals utilize thinkers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant.

Immanuel Kant particularly focused on the rational qualities of individuals, as he possessed an undeniable faith in human progress. Kant argued human reason can transpose into the international sphere, eventually overcoming war and conflict through vigorous changes in the domestic and international structures of governance.[12] Thus, idealists are primarily concerned with normative philosophies on how the world ought to be, and ways in which cooperation can devise such a world. Similar to Kant, John Locke offers a state of nature where humans are born with a natural right to life, liberty and property. In contrast to Hobbes’ Leviathan that uptakes our rights (except our inalienable right to life), Locke contends that government must not violate these rights based on a social contract. Moreover, Locke argues for the intrinsic virtue of human being, drawing attention to our duty to take care and respect the rights, property, and well-being of others.[13] Through propitious thinkers such as Locke and Kant, liberal international relations theory refute the idea that nuclear capabilities render long term peace, but rather the establishment of norms ensure international lawfulness.

While the realist camps attribute nuclear non-use to theories of deterrence and mutually assured destructive capabilities, idealists would emphasize the role of international organizations in their efforts to stop nuclear proliferation and use. States are part of a “community” where common norms, and values are shared, leading to stability and peace through ongoing negotiations. This fosters a reduction of uncertainty by providing information and generating narratives of mutual identification.[14] The nuclear counter culture that followed in the 1950s, resulted in procession of anti-nuclear weapon treaties suggesting success of idealist theories of cooperation.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, America saw an upsurge in protests against nuclear weapons testing. The looming fear of the outbreak of a nuclear war persisted and ushered the beginning of a counterculture era. It wasn’t long before the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock in 1947, which illustrated that the “closer to midnight” we were, the higher the risk of a nuclear war breakout. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Nuclear Freeze Movement, the Nevada Desert Experience and Russell-Einstein Manifesto were all parts of a colossal effort to eliminate nuclear weapons.

In particular, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) gave social movements a platform to operate upon. Established in the 1970s, the NPT aims to control nuclear proliferation through active verification, transparency, and irreversibility.[15] In efforts to promote disarmament, international relations theorists suggest the NPT has successfully established the non-use of nuclear weapon as a norm. While realists and idealists alike recognize the harsh realities of the anarchical world, liberals place emphasis on treaties like the NPT, contending that states are able to cooperate and reach mutual gains. Through the obedience of norms and institutions that promote collective security, the NPT aims to stabilise the relationship between nuclear and non-nuclear states.

Liberals also turn to other nuclear weapons treaties to verify the utility of cooperation and peace. As addressed previously, Iranian nuclear attainment was extensively promoted by Waltz, championing the idea of “peace through strength.” The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or “Iran Deal’), however, offered an alternative to nuclear proliferation, and devised a multilateral treaty between Iran, the five permanent members of United Nations, and Germany.[16] Still seen to this day as one of the greatest triumphs of international peace talks, The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action ended a deeply complex stalemate between United States and Iran, whom have not had “formal relations” since 1979. Prior to the Iran deal, a political unrest loomed within the international community, and it was deemed highly unlikely that Iran would cease its enrichment programme altogether. Thus, the JCPOA created a framework where the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) routinely ensured Iran was in compliance, while the international community successfully contained an international nuclear arms race. Liberal theorists may point to instances such as the JCPOA, and conclude it offered a fruitful and unprecedented opportunity for healing and mutual peace.

Upon surveying the success of such international peace talks, one may be inclined to lean towards an optimistic idealist vision, such as seen in Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion, endorsing the notion that it is an “economic impossibility for one nation to destroy or seize the wealth of another [state].”[17]. For Angell’s and idealists alike, the rise of globalization and interdependence contends that war possesses no commercial advantage. While this manner of thought is regarded as optimistic and progressive in contemporary society, there are potential dangers of idealist thinking.

The Realities of Liberalism

At first glance, nuclear weapon treaties such as the Nuclear non-proliferation treaty and Iran Deal may appear pioneering and fruitful. However, upon deeper analysis, the NPT only binds its signatories, therefore, non-signatories such as India, Pakistan, North Korea, and South Sudan are not bound by the treaties provisions.  Additionally, since coming into force in 1970, the NPT has been unable to restrain non-nuclear weapons states from developing nuclear weapon capability. A prime example is North Korea, Iraq, and Iran prior to the JCPOA. Article six of the NPT states “all states party to pursue negotiations in good faith toward three specified ends: (1) ending the nuclear arms race at an early date; (2) achieving nuclear disarmament; and (3) achieving a treaty on general and complete disarmament.”[18] However, the reality of the nuclear stalemate persists: no nuclear armed states have fulfilled their commitment to disarmament. To date, the nuclear weaponized states that signed the NPT still possess the same amount of nuclear weapon arsenals, if not more. Although the IAEA has a legal right to inspect suspicious countries, subsequent UN action is uncertain. In conjunction with weak enforcement mechanisms and little change in current arsenals, the regressive realities of the NPT only become clear upon consideration of the minimal effects it has on nuclear proliferation in the long term.

While idealists sought solace in the success of the 2015 Iran deal, the withdrawal from the JCPOA by the Trump administration in May 2018 shattered hopes for a non-nuclear Iran.[19] Trump adopted Gunboat diplomacy involving threats of military action, compelling unilateral concessions from Iran and muscling Iran to win the “survival of the fittest” game. International theorists attribute Trump’s withdrawal to fulfillment of his campaign rhetoric, ongoing pressures from Middle Eastern allies and active demolition of previous administration successes. This suggests Washington is less concerned with specific terms of the JCPOA, but rather the possibility of regime change within Iran.  Despite efforts from previous administrations to contain Iranian nuclear attainment, the Trump administration’s adoption of Machiavellian Realpolitik has left looming uncertainty within the international realm.


 Through investigation of the idealist and realist camp, I concur that realism is still of great prominence today. While I accept the notion that norms rendered a role during the counterculture era of the 1960s, I assert that the Hobbesian state of nature requires states to primarily seek their own security. Moreover, nuclear weapon attainment increases security for a state by establishing legitimacy in bureaucratic power relations. Recent action of the Trump administration reflects realist modes of thought, most notably, the significance of national sovereignty and security. The lack of global governance, therefore, renders a political climate where utopian ideals of peace fail to endure. I buttress these claims with the failures of the NPT and JCPOA as aforementioned. I conclude, therefore, that it is no longer a battle between contesting theories, but the realism of an atomic twenty first century.





Angell, N. (1911). The Great Illusion: A study of the relation of military power in nations to   their economic and social advantage. Toronto: McClelland and Goodchild.

Carr, E. H. (1930). The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939: An introduction to the study of   international relations. London: Macmillan and Co., Limited.

Dunne, Tim, Kurki, Milja, and Steve Smith (2013). International Relations Theories: Discipline    and diversity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Freed, Fred, and Len Giovannitti. (1965) The Decision to drop the bomb. Wilmette, Ill: Films Inc.

Hobbes, Thomas. (1969) Leviathan, 1651. Menston: Scholar P.

IAEA. “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.” April 21, 1970.

Locke, John. 1823. The works of John Locke. London: Printed for Thomas Tegg.

Meyer, Stephe. The Dynamics of Nuclear Proliferation (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

Nasr, Vali. “Iran among the Ruins: Tehran’s Advantage in a Turbulent Middle East,” Foreign Affairs 97, no. 2 (March/April 2018): 108-118.

Schelling, Thomas. ‘‘An Astonishing Sixty Years: The Legacy of Hiroshima’’ (Nobel

Prize Lecture), Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103 (April 18, 2006) 608993; Miroslav Nincic, Renegade Regimes: Confronting Deviant Behavior in World

Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

US Department State. (2015)  Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Washington: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.

Waltz, Kenneth N. (1981)The spread of nuclear weapons: more may be better. London:     International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Waltz, Kenneth. (2012) “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb.” Foreign Affairs 91, no. 4 : 2.


[1] Freed, Fred, and Len Giovannitti. 1965. The Decision to drop the bomb. Wilmette, Ill: Films Inc.

[2] Kenneth Waltz. 1981. The spread of nuclear weapons: more may be better. London: International Institute for Strategic Studies.

[3] Kenneth Waltz. 2012. Why Iran Should Get the Bomb.

[4]Hobbes, Thomas. 1969. Leviathan, 1651. Menston: Scholar P.

[5]Jacques E. C. Hymans. 2006. THEORIES OF NUCLEAR PROLIFERATION, Nonproliferation Review.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kenneth Waltz. 1979. Theory of International Politics.

[8]  E.H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis. 1919 to 1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relation

[9] Stephen M. Meyer, The Dynamics of Nuclear Proliferation. University of Chicago Press. 1984.

[10] Note: I utilize liberalism and idealism interchangeably. It is critical to note that liberalism is an international relations theory that is widely influenced by idealist ways of thought and theory.

[11] Thomas Schelling, ‘‘An Astonishing Sixty Years: The Legacy of Hiroshima’’ 2006.

[12] Dunne, Tim, Kurki, Milja, and Steve Smith. 2013. International Relations Theories: Discipline and diversity. P. 95.

[13] Locke, John. 1823. The works of John Locke. London: Printed for Thomas Tegg. pp. 106-107.

[14] Dunne, Tim, Kurki, Milja, and Steve Smith. 2013. International Relations Theories: Discipline and diversity.

[15]IAEA. “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.” 1970.

[16] US Department State. Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Washington: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, 2015.

[17] Angell, N. The Great Illusion: A study of the relation of military power in nations to their economic and social advantage. 1911.

[18] IAEA. “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.” 1970.

[19] Vali Nasr, Iran among the Ruins: Tehran’s Advantage in a Turbulent Middle East. 2018.

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