Nietzsche and Taoism
Both the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the Taoist text the Tao The Ching question the foundation of knowledge that the Western world has taken for granted since ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle established this foundation over two thousand years ago. Nietzsche takes exception both to the doubting of the senses ability to give us accurate knowledge about the world that many philosophers hold and also to the idea that reason alone provides us with the ability to evaluate the world in a superior manner. The Taoist text is much slipperier in its reluctance to commit to any standard of knowledge other than a subjective one in which to view the world. To the Taoist, the essential value is that of what is “natural” and to respect that which is natural both in the world and in us. The purpose of this paper will be to compare these two views of knowledge examining their similarities and differences and critiquing the ability of these perspectives to provide useful knowledge about the world as it appears to human beings using the specific examples of moral knowledge found in both.
It is essential to the understanding of what Nietzsche means when he is applying skepticism to reason that we talk about Nietzsche’s views toward the senses. Nietzsche thought that it was an enormous error to believe that the senses were “lying” to an individual simply because they presented things in a way that was subjective to the experience of that individual. He charged other philosophers as using this as an excuse to ignore history and separate knowledge from the mass of human experience. “Let us be mummies!” (1) was Nietzsche’s charge to this philosophical viewpoint.
“Today we possess science precisely to the extent to which we have decided to accept the testimony of the senses.” (2) Nietzsche points out that a human sense organ such as the nose is an instrument that he feels that philosophers should be proud to have at their disposal and this one organ alone has contributed much to human knowledge. It is Nietzsche’s charge that if an error has been made it is not the senses that have made them. The senses present the world as they were meant to present it and are doing so in a way that would be useful to a human being and the way human beings collect and process knowledge. If there is an error in the process it is in the step that most philosophers revere, reason, that this error takes place.
Nietzsche sees two essential objections with the rejection of the senses. The first is that that philosophers who reject the senses are rejecting the way in which our minds reconfigure the information the senses process to us to give it meaning and substance beyond what the senses are giving us in raw sensory data. The data itself is not false, even in the case of a hallucination because this data is being acted upon by a real agent from the outside world. The interpretation of this sensory input by the brain is what can lead to falsity and this is what is dangerous about rejecting the senses as a genuine source of knowledge because our minds are capable of deceiving us so much more easily than our senses can.
A second objection comes from Nietzsche’s mission to reject nihilism in all of its forms. Nietzsche sees the rejection of the senses as coming from the belief that this world is a “lower world” and that we can find greater knowledge by appealing to a “higher world” that is beyond this one. This is a similar objection to Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity, “Thus they arrive at their stupendous concept, ‘God’.” (3) To Nietzsche this amounts to merely another form of nihilism that rejects that concrete reality of the real world in favor of an idealized world that in all likelihood is a fiction that has been concocted by the human mind.
We already see both the basic idea of what would be called “Perspectivism” and Nietzsche’s insistence that absolute truth may be unknowable. This does not however mean that Nietzsche would accept the idea that all perspectives would hold equal validity. We see a similar but different viewpoint when we read Taoist texts. The Tao The Ching begins with chapter one that “The Way that can be told is not an Unvarying Way,” (4) and this seems compatible with Nietzsche’s views toward knowledge and truth.
One aspect which can make an interesting comparison is concepts involving free will and goodness. Both the Tao and Nietzsche have a reverence for the natural state of man. While both of these concepts do not mean the exact same thing when applied to both schools of thought we do see some striking similarities. To the Tao what is natural is what is spontaneous and allowed to flourish in its own way without interruption. An illustration of what value the Tao places on naturalness comes from Chapter Eight of the Tao The Ching, “The goodness of water is that it benefits the ten thousand creatures; yet itself does not scramble, but is content with the places that all men disdain.” (5)
Nietzsche sees a similar virtue in naturalness in order to establish what he sees as good. “Every naturalism in morality, that is, every healthy morality, is dominated by an instinct of life” (6) Nietzsche rejects the herd morality of society that forces man to adhere to a kind of moral law that goes against his natural drives and instincts. This is not dissimilar to how Taoism views man’s place against the greater society and also encourages a life in which an individual struggles to retain their natural essence and preserves the naturalness of the world around him. In this way, neither view is a nihilistic one since they do in fact attach a value to something and create a standard by which a morality may be established.
Both the Tao and Nietzsche reject the idea of reason forming a foundation of what a man should be. It is the essential essence of human beings that defines what they ought to be and what they should strive to achieve. Nietzsche finds the idea that a moralist would demand change from a person in order to achieve something higher to be a ridiculous notion. “’Change yourself’ is a demand that everything be changed, even retroactively,” (7) Nietzsche says. This is to point out the absurdity of expecting the natural world to conform to an idealist standard that Nietzsche sees herd morality attempting to force people into.
In the Tao, a passage stands out, “If we stop looking for ‘persons of superior morality’ to put in power there will be no more jealousies among the people.” (8) This and the words that follows calls the idea of idealized morality into question and shows how such a standard may cause harm while trying to conform human beings to a standard that they were never meant to conform to. The similarities between Taoism on this issue and the philosophy of Nietzsche are certainly striking.
Despite this seeming agreement on the re-evaluation of values and the importance of naturalness as a standard to establish human moral knowledge there is a disconnect between these two philosophies. Firstly, while the Taoist demands naturalness as a standard for a life that is lived in virtue it also demands a respect for the naturalness of those that exist along with this individual. For the Taoist part of being natural is the ability to co-exist with the rest of nature and humanity without robbing others of their naturalness and spontaneity as well. “Those that Tamper with, it harm it,” say the Tao The Ching. “Therefore the Sage discards the absolute, the all-inclusive, the extreme.” (9)
While Nietzsche would not see a harm in this kind of life for those who are suited for it, he would not think it was the only life for one who wished to create value. An irony is that the more inclusive viewpoint of the Tao, where respect for the naturalness of the world that exists around oneself is key, may result in a more absolutist viewpoint. The majority of human beings would be well suited to live their lives in a way that the Tao advices and Nietzsche would justify this by not only preserving their essential natures but also by the fact that living such way would most likely be to a person’s advantage. For certain people this may not be true and for them Nietzsche has entirely different advice.
“Self-interest is worth as much as the person who has it,” (10) Nietzsche states in Twilight of the Idols. This is an endorsement for those who have greatness in abilities and the natural inclination to use these abilities to seize for themselves a higher place within the world in which they were born. This is Nietzsche’s idea of the higher man and seems to be in sharp contrast to the seemingly humble life that is held up as the highest virtue in the Tao. The sage that is held up as the ideal man of the Tao is to, “Fulfill his purpose but only as a step that could not be avoided,” (11) and this does not seem to at first mix well with Nietzsche’s “Will to Power”.
While this seems to have driven a wedge between the two viewpoints it is Nietzsche who could perhaps most effectively argue that he has stayed truest to the principle of naturalness. Nietzsche does not endorse greed, ruthlessness or dominance for their own sakes but sees them as natural parts of the human struggle. “The Will to Power” is to Nietzsche the highest and most primal of human drives and it exists as a celebration of man and his virtues not as something to be fought against. Only through conflict and struggle can greatness be achieved and this is an essential part of what could be argued is natural and spontaneous in human nature. In this way Nietzsche might dismiss Taoism as another form of Nihilism that inflicts a humble life or the standard of such a life that is incompatible with humankind’s natural inclinations.
Nietzsche does not see the higher individual as standing apart from society in this way but as a chain of inevitable ascension that has led him to this destiny. “He is a whole single line of humanity up to himself,” (12) Nietzsche declares. In this way Nietzsche rejects the relativism of the Tao and creates a kind of moral knowledge not based on egoism but on the will to be a part of something greater than oneself. Such greater goal is not based on the empty idealism of those religious and philosophical thinkers that Nietzsche has rejected but on man’s greater place in the natural world.
1. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols. In The Portable Nietzsche edited by Walter Kaufmann (Viking Penguin, 1982) 480
2. Nietzsche, 481
3. Nietzsche, 481-482
4. Tzu, Lao. Tao The Ching. (Wordsworth Classics, 1997) 1
5. Tzu, 8
6. Nietzsche, 489
7. Nietzsche, 491
8. Tzu, 3
9. Tzu, 30
10. Nietzsche, 533
11. Tzu, 31
12. Nietzsche, 534