Category Archives: Historie

America Universalis: A Republic in Concord with Nature and a Model for all Mankind

The title of this chapter is an allusion to the feeling of exceptionalism that seems to have permeated the Founding Fathers as they laid down the foundations of the American constitution. Sentiments that have been outlined in Isaac Kramnick’s essay on the Federalist Papers (Kramnick 1987). It was thought that the establishment of the American republic would finally free man from the “long shadows of feudalism” and permit him to live in accordance with himself and nature. Thus it was thought that America would be a Republic in Concord with Nature and Model for all Mankind.[1]

The view of the American Revolution taught to me as an undergraduate student of History was that the American Revolution was the philosophy of liberalism brought to political fruition. However the study of republicanist sources and the writings of professional historians, Pocock’s Machiavellian Moment above all, have made it clear to me that republicanism had just as big a part to play in the discussion surrounding the founding of the American state.[2]

Early republicanism in the United States drew heavily on the ancient Roman precedence as well as on the discussion from seventeenth century England.[3] As such, it can be said that there was a common educational and philosophical frame inside which the discussions of the founding fathers took place. The contents of this shared intellectual baggage were, of course, the precedence of the Greco-Roman world, Machiavelli, and the political philosophers of seventeenth century England.[4] To this end, we shall hopefully have made the case for the intellectual continuities outlined in the present paper. But even beyond the Federalist Papers it would be no exaggeration to say that the republican views studied in the following chapters would be representative of figures such as Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, George Washington, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson.[5]

The American Constitution and the Federalist Papers

Since the time of the Roman Republic itself, no state has come as close to the ideal set fourth by republicanists as the United States of America. Even the framing surrounding the discussion about the American discussion is teeming with references to Roman history. Indeed the United States of America was the first realization of a large republic since the time of Rome itself and it is hard to overlook the symbolism of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay writing under the pseudonym of Publius Valerus, the founder of the Ancient Roman Republic,[6] or the iconography of America having a “Senate” on “Capitol” hill overlooking the “Tiber”,[7] just as there are numerous mentions of Rome in the Federalist Papers.[8]

The American Constitution: A Victory for “Checks & Balances”

In the overall design of the American republic the American federalists did not follow Machiavelli’s call for regal power to any notable extent (the presidency was endowed with only very few political powers). Conversely, in their on rigid insistence of checks and balances, no doubt a contributing factor to the 200 years life span of the American constitution, the American federalists not only emphasize but break with Machievalli’s notion of adaptability and dynamism.[9] As such, they were far sterner in their attitude towards the (lack of) flexibility they would permit with regards to checks and balances, certainly sterner than Machiavelli.[10] Thus the consecutive presidencies of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe were characterized by a championing and an understanding of the principle of checks and balances as an instance that served to limit the nature of government. – In regards to the historical precedence, we may thus note, that John Adams felt that while Greeks may have thought of the principle of checks & balances they had never mastered it. [11] Likewise, the founding fathers disagree with Machiavelli that the framing of a Republic’s constitution should be determined by checks and balances, rather than by the political dynamism generated by a conflict of the orders. Thus the apex of this spirit of checks and balances might be said to be embodied in the Tenth Amendment of the American Constitution:

“The powers not delegated to the United States [i.e. Federal Government] by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”[12]

The introduction of a Senate as well as a house of congress reflects the conflict of orders as it was explicitly stated to represent an aristocracy, albeit not one bestowed by birth but by merit. Thus Thomas Jefferson made his voice known saying they there existed a ‘Natural Aristocracy’.[13] This was thought to be an aristocracy of the spirit, rather than one of heredity which they – along with Machiavelli and others – condemned as harmful. Instead, the image of this ‘natural aristocracy’ seems to have been shaped by another antique idea, namely the humourism of Hippocrates and Galen.[14] Jefferson and Madison wanted for their senators men who could deliberate coolly on matter of state and act as a check against the ‘heated’ mass of public opinion that would surely gain access to the house of representatives.

The Ideal of the Yeoman

Early republicanism in the United States had a strong, somewhat idealistic focus on the Yeoman as the political citizen-ideal. This idea permeated the minds of even great thinkers like Thomas Jefferson who has been called the “philosopher sphinx” of America.[15] The Yeoman was defined as a self-owning farmer, in possession of practical common sense, and perhaps armed as the Roman farmers had been under the Republic, and as Machiavelli had envisioned it for his ideal Republic. In stressing this, the founding fathers aligned themselves clearly with both Harrington’s Oceana as well as with the historical Roman Republic.[16] The self-ownership was seen as the anti-thesis to the oppressing feudalism of the Old World, and as a bulwark against unrestrained majority rule, the maxim being that if the citizens risked loosing their personal property they would naturally be conservatively inclined politically and think twice before enforcing the political oppression of their neighbours.[17] – Thus political theorists such as Thomas Jefferson feared that American political virtue would run out along with the supply of land on the western frontier and that the eventual urbanization of the United States would ultimately lead to a strengthening of the democratic element, on behalf of the more aristocratically-aligned republicanism, as did in fact happen. But these developments could not be regarded as finalized until somewhere in the 20th century and the Yeoman-voter would remain the dominant ideal political discourse throughout the entire debate surrounding the constitution.

To this end we can compare the position of civic virtue as envision by Madison, mostly a reflection of Machiavelli’s vivere civile to the tenets of the French revolution:[18] As the latter was more of an urbanized phenomena it naturally downplayed the republican yeoman-ideal and with it the expectations of common sensical, conservative civic virtue and favoured solidarity and (attempted) fiscal equality instead; – ideals truly foreign to America’s founding fathers. In fact, Jefferson, Madison and others tended to view the American Republic as founded on Nature and thereby as constituting a break away from the artificial, inherited, feudalistic state of the Old World. To them the Republic functioned in accordance with natural law and the nature of man, whereas the French revolution set out to create a better version of man.[19] The Aristotelean/Machiavellian equality of the republic is understood as equality before the law or equality before the republic. Machiavelli recognized the dangers inherent in the extrapolation of a political mindset where the people believe that men should be equal in all respects.[20] This is undesirable as it ultimately leads to a despotism of the opinion of the majority which was also clearly recognized by Tocqueville.[21]

In relation to this view we may note that also Tocqueville observed the brisk aggression of the westward farmers. As has been described by Fernard Braudel and others, these men were not truly farmers but entrepreneurs living on the harsh frontier.[22] They did not wait for the state to approve of their fiscal aggression and lonesome ventures but took their chances and risked everything in pursuit of happiness. This, amongst other things, was what fostered American Exceptionalism.[23]

[1] Kramnick, Isaac: Commentary on The Federalist Papers, Penguin 1987 p. 13

[2] Pocock, J.G.A.: The Machiavellian Moment p. 507

[3] Ibid.

[4] Also of course the Founding Fathers shared a common background of deism and Puritanism, knowledge of French thinkers such as Montesquieu and so on.

[5] Shalhope, Robert E.: Toward a Republican Synthesis, William and Mary Quaterly, 29

[6] Hansen, Mogens Herman: Den moderne republicanisme og dens kritik af det liberale demokrati p. 76

[7] Flower, Harriet I. et al: The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic p. 347

[8] Madison, Jay & Hamilton: The Federalist Papers: Federalist V, VI, XVIII, XXXIV, XXXVIII, XLI, LXIII, LXX, LXXV

[9] For a discussion of Machiavelli’s flexibility regarding checks and balances, see Discourse III.9

[10] Harrington does not as much deliberate on the issue of the optimum degree of rigidity regarding checks and balances as he simply over-expounds every detail of the republic’s workings.

[11] Although it lies outside the scope of this paper an interesting observation for the reader interested in the American revolution would be the parallel of the French revolution and its disregard for the principle of checks and balances and the consequences that such a republican attitude spawned. See also: Flower, Harriet I. et al: The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic p. 347

[12] Various Authors: The Constitution of the United States of America (1787)

[13] Madison, Jay & Hamilton: The Federalist Papers (Penguin 1987) p. 21

[14] Kramnick, Isaac: Commentary on The Federalist Papers, Penguin 1987 pp. 45-55

[15] Amongst others see, Joseph J. Ellis, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997: ‘American Sphinx’ as well as Kelley L. Ross, 2006: ‘The Great Republic: Presidents and States of the United States of America, and Comments on American History’ in The Proceedings of the Friesian School, Fourth Series.

[16] The Romans of Antiquity appear to have honoured the rural castes and their imagined unspoiled rural past and mistrusted civilization and urbanization which they saw as the root of Rome’s political corruption.  See Millar, Fergus: The Roman Republic in Political Thought p. 89 – Furthermore, the alignment with Harrington is no accident as American politicians, such as John Adams, had read Harrington and were familiar with his thoughts. See: Flower, Harriet I. et al: The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic pp. 348-349

[17] Madison, Jay & Hamilton: The Federalist Papers: Federalist X See also: Pocock, J.G.A.: Journal of Modern History 1981

[18] Hansen, Mogens Herman: Den moderne republikanisme og dens kritik af det liberale demokrati p. 43

[19] Pocock, J.G.A.: The Machiavellian Moment p. 537

[20] Machiavelli, Niccolò: The Discourses I.34

[21] Pocock, J.G.A.: The Machiavellian Moment p. 538

[22] Pocock, J.G.A.: The Machiavellian Moment p. 537

[23] See Schmidt, Regin: American Exceptionalism. Nationale Myter, historiografi og virkelighed og Braudel, Fernand: A History of Civilizations pp. 458-480

Nazi Germany’s Characterization of the Danish People

(1) The Dane possesses a strong national feeling. … Therefore, avoid everything that can hurt his national pride.

(2) The Dane is liberty-loving and self-conscious with regard to his own standing. He resists the use of compulsion and attempts to command him. He lacks a sense of military hardship and authority. Therefore: Tone down attempts to subordinate him; do not shout, such things only fill him with resentment and are without effect. Enlighten and convince him in an impartial manner. A humoristic tone comes out ahead. …

(3) The Dane possesses much peasant-cunning and unconventionality bordering on the unreliable.

(5) The Dane loves a cosy mood and home life. You win him over by friendliness and small acts of consideration and attention; by recognition of his person.

Om den buddhistiske filosof Vasubandhu

Vasubandhu var en fremtrædende buddhistisk lærer og en af de vigtigste skikkelser i udviklingen af Mahayana-buddhismen i Indien. Selvom han især er beundret af senere buddhister som medstifter af Yogacara-skolen sammen med sin halvbror Asanga, er hans præ-Yogacara værker, såsom Abhidharmakosha og hans kommentar til dette værk Abhidharmakoshabhshya, de frembringelser, der almindeligvis anses som mesterværker.

Vasubandhu Vasubandhu skrev kommentarer om mange emner, som f.eks. logik, poesi, Abhidharma-klassifikationer af fænomener, samt originale og innovative filosofiske afhandlinger. Nogle af hans skrifter har overlevet i deres oprindelige sanskrit-form, mens mange andre kun er bevaret i kinesiske og tibetanske oversættelser.

Vasubandhu var en mangesidet tænker, og hans personlighed, som det også fremgår af hans værker og hans livsførelse, viser os en mand, der ikke kun var et stort geni og en stor filosof, men også et menneske, der var fyldt med stor medfølelse.

I årene umiddelbart efter sammensætningen af hans ​​Abhidharmakoshabhashya synes Vasubandhu at have brugt meget tid på at rejse fra sted til sted. Efter at have brugt en del tid i Shakala (det moderne Sialkot i Pakistan) vandrede han sammen med sine lærere Buddhamitra og Manoratha til Ayodhya (nu Uttar Pradesh i det nordlige Indien). Dette var en by langt fra Kashmir. På dette tidspunkt i sit liv var Vasubandhu stolt af den berømmelse, han havde erhvervet på grund af sin filosofi, og han klyngede sig trofast til Hinayana-doktrinerne, hvori han var velbevandret. Han lader ikke til at have haft nogen tro på Mahayana overhovedet og benægtede, at Mahayana var en buddhistisk lære.

Vasubandhu havde op til dette tidspunkt ikke haft megen kontakt med de Yogacara-belæringer, der blev givet af hans ældre bror. Han havde måske set det omfangsrige værk Yogacarabhumi blive udarbejdet af Asanga, men dette værk synes simpelthen at have frastødt ham ved sin længde. Ifølge rapporter skulle han have sagt:

“Ak, Asanga, som er bosiddende i skoven, har praktiseret meditation i tolv år uden at have nået noget gennem denne meditation. Han har grundlagt et system så vanskeligt og besværligt, at det kun kan bæres på ryggen af en elefant.”

Asanga hørte om denne holdning og frygtede, at Vasubandhu ville bruge sine store intellektuelle evner til at underminere Mahayana. Ved at fingere sygdom var han i stand til at tilkalde Vasubandhu til Purusapura, hvor han boede. Her fandt omvendelsen af Vasubandhu til Mahayana sted.

Vasubandhu bad Asanga om at forklare sig Mahayana-belæringerne, hvorefter han straks indså, hvor overlegne Mahayana-doktrinerne var. Efter yderligere studier af disse doktriner siges det, at dybden af ​​Vasubandhus erkendelse kom til at ligne hans brors. Han kom til at skamme sig noget så grusomt over sine tidligere nedsættende bemærkninger om Mahayana. Vasubandhu ville skære sin tunge af, men afholdt sig fra at gøre dette, da Asanga fortalte ham, at han i stedet skulle bruge den til at undervise i Mahayana.

Vasubandhu kom med tiden til at anse studiet af den enorme Shatasahasrikaprajna-Paramita-sutra som værende af allerstørste betydning for buddhismen. I betragtning af at det var de tekster, der havde konverteret ham til Mahayana, kan Vasubandhus kommentarer have været hans tidligste tanker om Mahayana. Disse blev fulgt op af en række kommentarer til andre Mahayana-sutraer og afhandlinger om disse, herunder Avatamsaka-sutra, Nirvana-sutra, Vimalakirtinirdesha-sutra og Shrimaladevi-sutra. Vasubandhu komponerede også en afhandling om vijnaptimatra (Yogacara)-teori og kommenterede Mahayanasamgraha, Triratna-Gotra, Amrita-Mukha og andre Mahayana-afhandlinger.

Ifølge de tibetanske biografier om Vasubandhu var hans foretrukne sutra enten Shatasahasrikaprajna-Paramita-sutra eller Ashtasahasrika. I betragtning af at disse tekster afslører nogle de mest dybdegående indsigter i Mahayana-tænkning, er det ikke overraskende, at Vasubandhu syntes godt om dem. Da ​​Vasubandhus produktion af Mahayana-værker er enorm, skrev han efter al sandsynlighed nye afhandlinger hvert år.

Roger Scruton om Lighed og Sindelagskontrol

“Det er et ejendommeligt faktum, at et samfund, som er meget optaget af at gøre sine borgere ens, meget hurtigt giver anledning til en kaste, der flyder ovenpå, og som består af de af dets indbyggere, hvis anliggende det er at påføre det øvrige samfund denne enshed,” skriver den konservative britiske filosof Roger Scruton i en af sine bøger. I en konservativ optik har socialisme, socialdemokratisme og socialliberalisme alle det til fælles, at lighed i et vist omfang også er lig med enshed, og at enshed har det med at medføre sindelagskontrol.

Dette ses f.eks. på arbejdsmarkedet, hvor man forsøger at udskamme og kontrollere de parter, der fuldt ud lovligt når til aftale uden om de retningslinjer, som visse parter synes bør gælde for andre. Men det ses også i værdipolitikken, hvor man forsøger at udskamme og udstøde eks. islamkritikere og modstandere af indvandringen.

I sin yderste konsekvens medfører denne tilgang til politik, at det er illegitimt for individet at have holdninger, der går mod fællesskabets. Skulle en arbejdstager hellere ville tage et job hos RyanAir end sidde derhjemme på kontanthjælp, så må han regne med repressalier fra fagbevægelsen. Og skulle en offentlig intellektuel eller kommunalt ansat afsky islam som idé eller modsætte sig ikke-vestlig indvandring (men i øvrigt opføre sig pænt over for muslimer og medborgere af anden etnisk oprindelse), kan vedkommende ligeledes se frem til en opsang fra dem, hvis anliggende det er at påføre andre de rette holdninger.

Det konservative svar er i dette henseende at træde et skridt tilbage og holde en national kernekultur i hævd, som alle kan være fælles om, og som derved danner et fundament for al videre uenighed inden for landets grænser. Sagt på en anden måde: I en konservativ optik er nationalkulturen selve det fundament, der tillader individer at have modsatrettede interesser.

Western Quotes on Islam

“It is a misfortune to human nature, when religion is given by a conqueror. The Mahometan religion, which speaks only by the sword, acts still upon men with that destructive spirit with which it was founded.” – Montesquieu (1689-1755), Fransk oplysningsfilosof


“But that a camel-merchant [Muhammad] should stir up insurrection in his village; that in league with some miserable followers he persuades them that he talks with the angel Gabriel; that he boasts of having been carried to heaven, where he received in part this unintelligible book, each page of which makes common sense shudder; that, to pay homage to this book, he delivers his country to iron and flame; that he cuts the throats of fathers and kidnaps daughters; that he gives to the defeated the choice of his religion or death: this is assuredly nothing any man can excuse, at least if he was not born a Turk, or if superstition has not extinguished all natural light in him.” – Voltaire (1694-1778), Fransk oplysningsfilosof og forfatter


“Consider the Koran, for example; this wretched book was sufficient to start a world-religion, to satisfy the metaphysical need of countless millions for twelve hundred years, to become the basis of their morality and of a remarkable contempt for death, and also to inspire them to bloody wars and the most extensive conquests. In this book we find the saddest and poorest form of theism. Much may be lost in translation, but I have not been able to discover in it one single idea of value.” – Arthur Shopenhauer, tysk filosof (1788-1830)


“We do not know whether Hitler is going to found a new Islam. He is already on the way; he is like Muhammad. The emotion in Germany is Islamic; warlike and Islamic. They are all drunk with a wild god.” – Carl Jung (1875-1961), Schweizisk psykoanalytiker


“[E]xamine the Koran, I know that beyond any question every Mohammedan is insane; not in all things, but in religious matters.” – Mark Twain, amerikansk forfatter (1835-1910)


“The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities – but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith.” – Winston Churchiill (1874-1965), Britisk statsmand


“Qur’an… an accursed book… So long as there is this book there will be no peace in the world.” – William Gladstone (1809-1898), Britisk statsmand


“The ambassador answered us that [the right] was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.” – Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Amerikansk præsident og forfatter til den amerikanske uafhængighedserklæring


“…he [Muhammad] declared undistinguishing and exterminating war, as a part of his religion, against all the rest of mankind…The precept of the Koran is, perpetual war against all who deny, that Mahomet is the prophet of God.” – John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), USAs sjette præsident


“The civilization of Europe, American and Australia exists today at all only because of the victories of civilized man over the enemies of civilization because of victories through the centuries from Charles Martel in the eighth century and those of John Sobieski in the seventeenth century…There are such “social values” today in Europe, America and Australia only because during those thousand years, the Christians of Europe possessed the warlike power to do what the Christians of Asia and Africa had failed to do — that is, to beat back the Moslem invader.” – Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), Amerikansk præsident


“Bolshevism combines the characteristics of the French Revolution with those of the rise of Islam… Those who accept Bolshevism become impervious to scientific evidence, and commit intellectual suicide. Even if all the doctrines of Bolshevism were true, this would still be the case, since no unbiased examination of them is tolerated…Among religions, Bolshevism is to be reckoned with Mohammedanism rather than with Christianity and Buddhism. Christianity and Buddhism are primarily personal religions, with mystical doctrines and a love of contemplation. Mohammedanism and Bolshevism are practical, social, unspiritual, concerned to win the empire of the world.” – Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), Britisk filosof


“The pope gets ridiculed every day, but you don’t see Catholics organizing terrorist attacks around the world.” – Salman Rushdie (1947-), Britisk-indisk forfatter


“I must [translate the Qur’an] into German so that every man may see what a foul and shameful book it is. … One is able to do nothing more grievous to Muhammad … than to [translate his] Qur’an … [so] that people may see how entirely cursed, abominable, and desperate a book it is.” – Martin Luther, tysk reformator


“It has been our misfortune to have the wrong religion. … The religion of … Muhammad would have been much more compatible with us [than] Christianity with its meekness and flabbiness.” – Adolf Hitler

A Discussion on Hayek’s Epistemology

A: What do you think about F.A. Hayek’s criticism that economic models can never “exhaust” societal problems and therefore that we cannot rely on them overmuch?

B: Well, Hayek does allow for what he calls “pattern predictions” in some cases, but it’s true that his epistemology often leads him into the position that “we can never say anything about anything.” Overall, I actually agree with him that there’s a lot that we cannot know, but on the other hand, I also think he goes too far sometimes. See, if you’re really a die-hard Hayekian, you would say that thinks that were have evolved “bottom-up”; by having been discovered over time should not be tampered with. – Since we cannot know their full epistemological import, we cannot know that society won’t collapse if we start altering them too radically. But slavery and racism also fit these criteria – they were also discovered over time and evolved “bottom-up.” Personally, I think we can say something about these things and that, no, society won’t collapse because they are abolished. That’s where things can get a bit precarious and I think that Hayek loses himself in his own skepticism.

A: On the other hand, though, isn’t it true that unquestioning faith in economic modelling has caused considerable society damage over the years?

B: Oh yes, it’s very true. Economists have done a lot of damage over the years. But I think it has gotten better. I actually think that modern economics has absorbed a lot of Hayek’s thought, even though his name is rarely mentioned in the textbooks.

A: That may be so, but then again, modern economics has also absorbed some of Keynes’ thought, so couldn’t you argue that the two balance each other out?

B: No, I don’t think so. Intellectually, there’s very little left of Keynesianism in mainstream economics. Even modern Keynesians openly tend to say that they have no theory; no intellectual leg to stand on. Why, last December, one of them wrote a piece entitled “Try Anything”! – it’s not so much that they are Keynesians, as that they simply don’t believe in the present course.

A: That is not my impression. When you had the huge stimulus packages under Obama, and when certain European countries try to “kick the economy into gear” through short term spending increases, isn’t that in the spirit of Keynes?

B: Well, the stimulus packages in the USA could be regarded as a series of gigantic experiments in Keynesianism. And most economists I talk to say that the lesson from those moves was that it didn’t work and that monetary policy is far more important when it comes to handling a depression. It is true that some European countries have followed suit, even after it was clear that the American stimulus did not work, but that has far more to with the way laypeople perceive economics than what economists think: A lot of people approach economic crises with an unfortunate mixture of amateur philosophy, amateur psychology, and amateur economics where they think that public spending will raise everyone’s faith in the economy and get the wheels rolling again. Most of the really high-ranking economists I talk to know that it doesn’t work that way. But on the other hand, the politicians and central bankers can’t be seen “doing nothing” while people are hit by a crises that puts them out of a job, so they tend to throw some “stimulus” out there, even though they know it won’t work. In a way you could say that stimulus spending is like the bright lights and window dressing that people think is the heart of economics while monetary policy is the greasy engine room that really runs the ship.

Epicurus, Poststructuralism, and Nāgārjuna as Sources of Eudemonia

By Ryan Smith

1 Reason: An enemy and enslaver or a friend and helper?

The ”destabilization” of facts, the resistance to categories of knowledge, the cult of the immediate, the ”non-hierarchical communities” (Foucault) all point towards a common poststructuralist project, namely the dismantling of classical humanism and the philosophical notion of the individual subject: As a phase in the “emancipation” from bourgeois norms, the individual must cast off all conceptions of identity, as these are just the machinations of an external bourgeois discourse that have been forced upon the individual. As Deleuze and Guattari would posit in Mille Plateaux (1980): “[We should aim to] reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves.”[1]

This project of de-subjectification is but philosophical flotsam from Nietzsche’s “Dionysian impulse” as originally depicted in Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik (1872) as well as from the subject-less Dasein of Martin Heidegger which simply just is.[2] This subjectlessness stands in the starkest possible contrast to the philosophical project of Socrates which constantly underlined the importance of continuously greater sophrosyne (wise self-insight) which is attained through critical introspection and gnōthi seauton (knowledge of the self).[3]

This approach to philosophical practice, however, would not reach its zenith with Socrates, but rather with Epicurus’ development of the original Socratic position. As we shall see, the Epicurean philosophy possesses an epistemology and an elaborate psychology of the subject which directly opposes the poststructuralist precept that the existence of the individual is derogated when tied up with rational categories of knowledge.[4] To the extent that the poststructuralists depict themselves as philosophers it seems quite odd that there does not exist a single poststructuralist refutation of Epicurus, for even in spite of the poststructuralist “de-centralization” of facts, the philosophy of Epicurus is at heart a unison of exactly the two things that poststructuralists believe to be irreconcilable: Rational knowledge and sensory happiness.[5]

According to Epicurus, man experiences happiness by understanding the material world rationally. Earthquakes are not the wrath of the gods, planets are not omens, and death is not eternal pain. Rationality is not the nemesis of human nature, but a friend and a helper.

2 Liberating the soul: Transgression versus Ataraxia

As an applied philosophy, and a way of life, Epicureanism, like poststructuralism, aims to liberate the individual by uncovering the hidden forces that coerce it. For Foucault, these are the so-called “techniques of knowledge and subjectification”[6], while for Lyotard ”The notorious universality of knowledge […] [is] a mark of the destruction of personal identities.”[7] Common to each of these approaches is the fact that they endeavour to challenge the primacy of the singular, cognizant individual (often called ‘the subject’). For Lyotard, dispassionate analysis is the arch nemesis of the subjective, sublime feeling that cannot be analysed and cannot be shared with others in the least.[8] While for Foucault there was the Bataille-inspired ‘Limit-experience’:[9] Experiences so intense that they scramble all individual cognisance and reveal analytical modes of thought as unreal derivatives of reality, rather than true reality. The sensation generated by the limit-experience, then, is what Foucault referred to as transgression.[10]

Common to each of these approaches, however, is that they are epistemologically untenable: For without the notion of a subject, how can Foucault and Lyotard know that the subject is curtailed by knowledge-categories and analytical modes of thought? Likewise, how can poststructuralists know that individual identity exists when there is no subject on which to pin it?

So according to poststructuralism impersonal knowledge restricts and fetters the individual and compels it; governs it to be inauthentic. (As Lyotard said, only the self that is free of contact with knowledge-categories is in fact a self.)[11] Faced with exactly the same problem, Epicureanism argues instead for a synthesis that makes use of knowledge-categories as a way to liberate the subject:

”Just as there is no use in medical expertise if it does not give therapy for bodily diseases, so too there is no use in philosophy if it does not expel the suffering of the soul.”[12]

According to Epicureanism, expelling the suffering of the soul will lead to ataraxia, that is, a state of mental ease which – ironically enough – corresponds extremely well to the sensation described in Foucault’s account of transgression. So while Epicureanism and poststructuralism could not be further from each other with regards to means, they are essentially the same with regards to ends: The existential condition craved by each of these philosophies is ultimately very similar.

Where they differ, however, is that ataraxia is achieved through rational and calm contemplation of the human conditions and the often harsh terms of life on Earth, whereas transgression is instead facilitated though extreme and destructive experiences: Crime, drugs, sexual and political violence. As Foucault said, everything short of the extreme is nothing:

”Those middle-range pleasures that make up everyday life … are nothing. … A Pleasure must be something incredibly intense. … Some drugs are really important … because they are the mediation to those incredibly intense joys.”[13]

Or as the very same thought was sloganistically expressed in Surveiller et punir (1975):

”The soul is the prison of the body.”[14]

Meaning essentially the soul as the reflecting Cartesian cogito and the body as immediate, unreflective modes of existence: Thus according to poststructuralism, the more the cogito reflects on impersonal, identity-compelling knowledge-categories, the more the immediate and subjective is coerced into objective inauthenticity.[15]

An argument along the same lines can also be found in Foucault’s earlier work,

Folie et déraison (1961): Having subjected madness to science (and dubbed it déraison), the West no longer fears folkloric madness (called folie) as a force with the potential to erupt into a pandemonium that can possess us all.[16] According to Foucault, science has dispelled the tenseful duality between sane order and mad chaos that had persisted from ancient times.[17] And consequently, life in the scientific episteme, that is, in the West, has become a bland and sterile unity.[18]

Such themes evoke parallels to Nietzsche’s early Die Geburt der Tragödie (1872) as well as the later Götzen-Dämmerung (1889). In Nietzsche’s rendition of events, the Apollonian and the Dionysian impulses are poised in equilibrium; they constantly curb and check each other, until sometime in the fifth century BCE the Apollonian gained the upper hand.[19] In Nietzsche’s narrative, the Apollonian without the Dionysian heralds the decline and decadence of Greek culture[20] and culminates in the perverse, ”wrong” Socrates who curtails Der Wille zur Macht (the Will to Power).[21] And what, according to Nietzsche, was the cardinal sin of Socrates’ philosophical endeavour? It was precisely that he sought to equip the Greeks with a self-consciousness that made use of objective knowledge-categories.[22]

Confronted with these same problems, the Epicurean posits instead that the greatest threat to ataraxia is the irrational fear that results from holding irrational beliefs.[23] (For example, believing that the reason that your house burned down is that Zeus is angry with you; this irrational belief leads to a constant irrational fear.) According to Epicurus, such irrational beliefs are best eradicated by the subject becoming acquainted with logic and material science and especially physics. Through an insight into science and epistemology the subject will eventually come to know that the celestial bodies above are not gods waiting to rain their wrath down upon you, but rather clouds of atoms; worlds such as this one.[24] To the poststructuralists discussed above such an approach to epistemology would lead to a convoluted Cartesian life, but to Epicurus it leads, fundamentally, to a life in accordance with nature.[25]

”What produces the pleasant life if not continuous drinking and parties of pederasty or womanizing or the enjoyment of fish and other dishes of an expensive table, but sober reasoning which … banishes the opinions that beset souls with the greatest confusion.”[26]            (boldface added)

Rational knowledge and categories of knowledge do not just compound with human happiness and the wise self-knowledge that is sophrosyne. According to Epicurus, rational deliberation and introspection is the very precondition for human happiness and thus an unbending affront to the central premise of the supposed need for the poststructuralist emancipation-project. For according to the poststructuralist view, the very rational deliberation that Epicurus would have us engage in, in order to set us free, provokes “existential anxiety” and prohibits the delight in the senses that leads to true happiness.

3 Which Position is more Epistemologically Tenable?

Finally, leaving the question of happiness, we will look into which position is more epistemologically tenable. To this end we will need to define what kind of knowledge we are inquiring into. To this aim, I will present a theory not entirely unlike that of Karl Popper’s classical Three-world Theory to help us discern which kind of knowledge we are talking about.[27] The three kinds of knowledge that I will posit for this purpose are Immediate knowledge, Existential knowledge, and Objective knowledge. We will now look into each in turn.

Immediate Knowledge: By ‘Immediate knowledge’ we mean somatic, subjective and phenomenological knowledge. For example, how do you subjectively experience the phenomenon of thirst; what personal psychological connotations do you attach to it; what unconscious associations does thirst whirl up in you? This kind of knowledge is profoundly personal to the point where it cannot be communicated onto others; indeed even if it could, doing so would border on meaninglessness as the knowledge is both idiosyncratic and so inwardly richly textured that any recounting of the experience onto the other would be but a pale shadow of one’s own Immediate knowledge of it.

Hence, with regards to the domain of Immediate knowledge, Epicurean epistemology falls rather flat: To Epicurus, fear of phenomena is always lurking around the corner; a rainbow may be beautiful, but it could also be an omen; a particular dish may be delightful, but it may also sow the seeds of avarice and obesity.[28] Thus the Epicurean ‘cure’ is always to distance oneself from subjective and personal experience and seek a rational, trans-personal explanation to put in the place of personal meaning.[29] Thus, Epicurean epistemology is the enemy of Immediate knowledge.

By contrast, however, Immediate knowledge is the stated soteriological goal of poststructuralist epistemology.[30] It is through the intense and boundary-absolving experience of immediate reality that one can really live as a subject-less, emancipated, indefinable agent.[31] As we have seen, crime, drugs, sexual and political violence are all acceptable (and at times, recommended) as means to the end that is the poststructuralist conception of Immediate knowledge. Indeed, as we saw from Foucault above, anything short of the extreme is nothing.[32] By the same token, that is also why, when Foucault was asked to characterize Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical project, with its somber system of personal ethics, the former had but one word for it: “Terrorism”.[33]

However, when examining the poststructuralist recipe for inquiring into Immediate knowledge, we should be aware of a crucial critical interjection: Why are the extreme limit-experiences perceived as holding the key to an immediate understanding of reality when the brunt of reality plainly does not consist of such experiences? Of course, as the poststructuralists would no doubt posit, this touting of the limit-experience as a source of truer knowledge is due to the fact that our everyday notion of reality is to some degree socially constructed, wherefore we should seek out experiences that are not associated with our everyday lives in order to steal a peek at what lies behind the web of social constructs – to de-construct it, so to speak.

Yet a pertinent rejoinder presents itself in the face of this response: How can reality be defined by marginal experiences that are not central to it? Indeed in other sciences, researchers are often encouraged to discard outliers, while poststructuralists would seem to accord value only to outliers. In the same vein, if one wanted to say something about human cognition, one would get a skewed picture if one only used the exceptionally bright and the exceptionally dull for data. There is a fundamental misnomer at work here, which is how and why it becomes reasonable to the post-structuralist to inquire into a thing solely by virtue of its extremes all the while ignoring the bulk of it. And after all, even in a life filled with limit-experiences, the everyday sensations of thirst, hunger, sleep, fiscal ruminations and sex will remain largely the same with regards to Immediate knowledge.

Existential knowledge: By ‘Existential knowledge’ we mean extant knowledge of reality as it exists and the psychological self-knowledge that can be derived from this type of knowledge in order to allow man to find a personally meaningful place in the universe and a sense of purpose in life. This knowledge is not entirely rational, but nor is it entirely irrational. Existential knowledge is not impersonal (like Objective knowledge; to which we will turn shortly), but nor it is entirely personal (like Immediate knowledge, with which we have just dealt). Naturally this “middle of the road” quality makes the exact properties of Existential knowledge hard to pin down, but in making the attempt, we will posit that Existential knowledge is a kind of psychological knowledge or insight into reality. It is the type of knowledge that we all use when we decide whether to pursue one prospective partner over another, or deciding whether to have (more) children or that the family is now of an adequate size. It is the type of knowledge of which the fruits are sophrosyne (wise self-insight) which is attained through critical introspection and gnōthi seauton (knowledge of the self).[34]

Now at first glance it might seem like poststructuralist epistemology would be a good source of Existential knowledge (after all, several of most prominent poststructuralist philosophers were the intellectual scions of the great French existentialists). But, inspired by the Indian philosopher Nāgārjuna (ca. 150–250 CE), we will argue that limit-experiences, of the kind trumpeted by poststructuralists, in fact constitute a hindrance to Existential knowledge.

According to Nāgārjuna, intense emotional experiences will not at all allow you to conceive reality any clearer than adherence to the rational cogito.[35] Both the insistence on rational knowledge (as trumpeted by Epicureans) and a familiarity with limit-experiences will, according to Nāgārjuna, ultimately distance your mind from the true nature of reality. But the poststructuralist approach will be the worse of the two, and for two reasons:

(1) Limit-experiences are so intense that they will tie your experience of reality to your own emotional life, whereas reality is far vaster than the personal subject. The poststructuralists claim that limit-experiences are so intense that they will dismantle the personal subject, but indeed, who has ever seen a shell-shocked soldier experiencing sudden bursts of universal empathy or an inexplicable experience of the vastness of the cosmos? Thus, limit-experiences will dismantle a person’s rational notion of his or her subject, but limit-experiences will not at all dismantle a person’s practical focus or groundedness in his or her own subject, quite the contrary; being shell-shocked, raped or cut with a knife (all examples of limit-experiences) will only serve to preoccupy a person all the more with his or her own well-being. Thus, as existence is obviously larger than one person’s pain or pleasure, limit-experiences will actually serve as a diminishment of Existential knowledge.

(2) By its very definition, a limit-experience is so intense that it will flood a person’s cognition with the derived effects of that particular experience. But a limit-experience is not something vast and multi-faceted; indeed it is usually of a quite singular nature. Conseuently going through a limit-experience will again diminish one’s ontological outlook. For example, let us say that a person is suspended in space, looking over Times Square in New York City: If he is stuck in the Epicurean cogito, he will see knowledge-categories walk by: Young/old, male/female, rich/poor, human, pigeon, dog and so on. If he is a follower of Nāgārjuna, he will see no categories, as he will pass no rational judgment (having relinquished the Epicurean cogito), and yet he will be keenly observant – he would indeed experience something like the transgressory state that limit-experiences supposedly lead to. However, if our observer is undergoing a limit-experience while watching the activity at Times Square – if he is simultaneously being subjected to intense physical pain, for example – our observer will surely not notice much of the activity in Times Square, as he will be completely overwhelmed by the limit-experience and thus attached to a narrow corner of existence rather than to existence itself.[36]

Thus poststructuralist epistemology is most certainly not a good source of Existential knowledge.

What about Epicurean epistemology as a source of Existential knowledge, then? As Nāgārjuna would have it, rational knowledge and knowledge-categories would also be a hindrance to existential knowledge yet not one that is nearly as bad.[37] If one’s primary approach to reality is through knowledge-categories (such as young/old, male/female, rich/poor, human, pigeon, dog etc.), then one is indeed depriving oneself of Existential knowledge as one would naturally miss all the idiosyncrasies and in-betweens that are present outside of the subject’s pre-conceived mental pigeonholes. But, as opposed to the limit-experience which, as we have seen, is a tyrant of the psyche, knowledge-categories at least constitute a reductionist model of reality and thus a broader outlook than the one provoked by the the limit-experience.

Thus, while poststructuralist epistemology as a source of Existential knowledge is decidedly poor, Epicurean epistemology is simply ok.

Objective knowledge: By ‘Objective knowledge’ we mean much the same as what Karl Popper meant by his Third World, that is, the state of our scientific and objective knowledge as it exists in books, letters, on discs, hard drives etc.[38] Without going into it here, we shall also assume, as did Popper, that the epistemology of the Third World is possible, even without a knowing subject.[39] This condition is not central to our argument, but it will help us unite our inquiry into Objective knowledge with the subject-less philosophy of poststructuralism.

4 Conclusion

While poststructuralism may indeed surpass the traditional Epicurean-Cartesian system with regards to auiring self-knowledge of one’s everyday persona, the poststructuralist adherence to the limit-experience is flawed as a source of Existential knowledge, and regarding objective, scientific knowledge, only the Epicurean-Cartesian system of rational knowledge will ultimately do.

Immediate Knowledge Existential Knowledge Objective Knowledge
Epicureanism Poor Ok Good
Poststructuralism Good Poor Poor

Ansell-Pearson, Keith: An Introduction to Nietzsche as Political Thinker: The Perfect Nihilist (Cambridge University Press 1994)
Bülow, Katharina von: Contredire est undevoir (Le débat September-October 1986)
Dean, Michell: Critical And Effective Histories: Foucault’s Methods and Historical Sociology (Routledge 1994)
Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F.: Thousand Plateaus – Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Continuum International Publishing Group 1994)
Dews, Peter: Logics of Disintegration: Post-structuralist thought and the claims of critical theory (Verso Books 2007)
Ferry, L. & Renaut, A.: French Philosophy of the Sixties (University of Massachusetts Press 1990)
Foucault, Michel: Abnormal: Lectures at the College De France 1974-75 (Verso Books 2003)
Foucault, Michel: Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Vintage 1995)
Foucault, Michel: Madness and Civilization (Routledge 1995 ed.)
Foucault, Michel: Madness and Civilization (Routledge 2006 ed.)
Foucault, Michel: Religion and Culture (Manchester University Press 1999)
Foucault, Michel: The order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences (Routledge 2004)
Gutting, Gary (ed.): The Cambridge Companion to Foucault (Cambridge University Press 2005)
Heidegger, Martin: Being and Time (Blackwell Publishers 1974)
Kelly, Michael: Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault / Habermas Debate (The MIT Press 1994)
Lyotard, Jean-François: Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime (Stanford University Press 1994)
Lyotard, Jean-François: Libidinal Economy (Continuum 2004)
Lyotard, Jean-François: The Postmodern Condition (Manchester University Press 1984
Miller, James: The Passion of Michel Foucault (Harvard University Press 2000)
Nāgārjuna: Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend: With Commentary by Kyabje Kangyur Rinpoche (Snow Lion Publications 2005)
Nietzsche, Friedrich W.: Writings from the Early Notebooks (Cambridge University Press 2009)
Nietzsche, Friedrich W.: Writings from the Late Notebooks  (Cambridge University Press 2003)
Nietzsche, Friedrich W.: The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (Cambridge University Press 1999)
Nietzsche, Friedrich W.: The Will to Power (Random House 1973)
Nietzsche, Friedrich W.: Twilight of the idols, or, How to philosophize with the hammer (Oxford University Press 2009)
Oksala, Johanna: Foucault on Freedom (Cambridge University Press 2005)
Popper, Karl R.: Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach (Oxford University Press 1979)
Rabinow, Paul (ed.): Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth, ed. (The New Press 1997)
Scott, G.A.: Does Socrates Have a Method?: Rethinking the Elenchus in Plato’s Dialogues and Beyond (Pennsylvania State University Press 2004)
Simons, Jonathan: Foucault and the Political (Routledge 1995)
Warren, James: Facing Death – Epicurus and his Critics (Oxford University Press 2004) pp. 155-6

Ancient Sources
Epicurus: The Four-Part Cure
Epicurus: The Letter to Pythocles
Epicurus: The Letter to Menoeceus
Epicurus: The Sage as an Ethical Role Model
Nāgārjuna (attributed): Hymn to the Dharmadhātu
Nāgārjuna: Letter to a Friend
Plato: Apology
Plato: Symposium
Plato: Theaetetus
Porphyry: The Letter To Marcella


[1] Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F.: Thousand Plateaus – Capitalism and Schizophrenia pp. 3-4

[2] Heidegger, Martin: Being and Time p. 150, pp. 165-6, cf. Ferry, L. & Renaut, A.: French Philosophy of the Sixties p. 214

[3] Plato: The Theaetetus 210bc, cf. The Apology 29b, cf. The Symposium 218bc, cf. Scott, G.A.: Does Socrates Have a Method?: Rethinking the Elenchus in Plato’s Dialogues and Beyond pp. 204-7

[4] Foucault, Michel: Madness and Civilization (Routledge 1995 ed.) p. 287

[5] Dews, Peter: Logics of Disintegration: Post-structuralist thought and the claims of critical theory p. 259, cf. Foucault, Michel: “Michel Foucault: An Interview by Stephen Riggins“, featured in Rabinow, Paul (ed.): Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth, ed. p. 129

[6] Foucault, Michel: Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison pp. 127-131 cf. Dean, Michell: Critical And Effective Histories: Foucault’s Methods and Historical Sociology pp.164-167, cf. Kelly, Michael: Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault / Habermas Debate pp. 269-271

[7] Lyotard, Jean-François: Libidinal Economy p. 249

[8] Lyotard, Jean-François: The Postmodern Condition, §15. The full quote will convey the author’s intent: “A self does not amount to much, but no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before. Young or old, man or woman, rich or poor, a person is always located at ‘nodal points’ of specific communication circuits, however tiny these may be.” That is supposedly to say: Only through the relinquishment of analytical knowledge-categories can the individual truly be himself. For further examples, see: Lyotard, Jean-François: Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime pp. 238-239

[9] Foucault, Michel: The order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences p. xxvi cf. Foucault, Michel: Religion and Culture p. 23, cf. Miller, James: The Passion of Michel Foucault p. 32

[10] Foucault, Michel: A Preface to Transgression in Foucault, Michel: Religion and Culture pp. 57-72, and Foucault, Michel: Madness and Civilization (Routledge 2006 ed.) pp. 249-254, and Foucault, Michel: Abnormal: Lectures at the College De France 1974-75 pp. 173-4, cf. Gutting, Gary: The Cambridge Companion to Foucault p. 22, cf. Simons, Jonathan: Foucault and the Political pp. 69-70,

[11] Lyotard, Jean-François: The Postmodern Condition, §15

[12] Porphyry: The Letter To Marcella, 31

[13] Foucault, Michel: “Michel Foucault: An Interview by Stephen Riggins“, featured in Rabinow, Paul (ed.): Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth, ed. p. 129

[14] Foucault, Michel: Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison p. 30

[15] In Foucault’s rendition of the scientific episteme, van Gogh would supposedly need doctors’ permission to paint paintings. Foucault, Michel: Madness and Civilization (Routledge 2006 ed.) p. 203, 273

[16] Foucault, Michel: Madness and Civilization (Routledge 2006 ed.) p. 223

[17] Foucault, Michel: Madness and Civilization (Routledge 2006 ed.) pp. 100-101

[18] Foucault, Michel: Madness and Civilization (Routledge 2006 ed.) pp. 263-4

[19] Nietzsche, Friedrich W.: The birth of tragedy out of the spirit of music §22

[20] Nietzsche, Friedrich W.: The birth of tragedy out of the spirit of music, An Attempt at Self-Criticism §1, cf. Appendix, §2

[21] Nietzsche, Friedrich W.: Twilight of the idols, or, How to philosophize with the hammer, cf. Nietzsche, Friedrich W.: The birth of tragedy out of the spirit of music, §13 cf. Nietzsche, Friedrich W.: Notebook Entry, KSA 8.97, 6: “Socrates … I am constantly doing battle with him.”, cf. Nietzsche, Friedrich W.: The Will To Power, §432

[22] Ansell-Pearson, Keith: An Introduction to Nietzsche as Political Thinker: The Perfect Nihilist pp. 67-68

[23] Epicurus: The Four-Part Cure (“Do not fear God / Do not Worry about death / What is good is easy to get / and what is terrible is easy to endure.”), cf. Letter To Pythocles, 110, 111, cf. The Letter to Menoeceus, 124, 132, 133, cf. Warren, James: Facing Death – Epicurus and his Critics pp. 155-6

[24] Epicurus: Letter To Pythocles, 88, 89, 96, 97, 112

[25] Epicurus: The Letter to Menoeceus, 128, 133, cf. The Sage as an Ethical Role Model, 118-120

[26] Epicurus: The Letter to Menoeceus, 131

[27] Popper, Karl R.: Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach, chapters 3 and 4.

[28] Epicurus: The Letter to Pythocles, 98, 109, cf. Letter to Menoeceus, 132-133

[29] Epicurus: The Letter to Pythocles, 85

[30] Foucault, Michel: The order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences p. xxvi cf. Foucault, Michel: Religion and Culture p. 23, cf. Miller, James: The Passion of Michel Foucault p. 32

[31] Foucualt, Michel, quoted in Oksala, Johanna: Foucault on Freedom p. 129

[32] Foucault, Michel: “Michel Foucault: An Interview by Stephen Riggins“, featured in Rabinow, Paul (ed.): Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth, ed. p. 129

[33] Foucault, Michel, quoted in Bülow, Katharina von: Contredire est undevoir p. 177

[34] Plato: The Theaetetus 210bc, cf. The Apology 29b, cf. The Symposium 218bc, cf. Scott, G.A.: Does Socrates Have a Method?: Rethinking the Elenchus in Plato’s Dialogues and Beyond pp. 204-7

[35] Nāgārjuna: Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend: With Commentary by Kyabje Kangyur Rinpoche p. 33, 93, 96, 150

[36] As we have seen, the poststructuralists claim that you cannot be free whilst experiencing the world through the rational cogito, but they fail to explain how one can be free while undergoing an arbitrary limit-experience. In the world of knowledge-categories there are at least several different categories to choose from, whereas in the world of limit-experiences there is only one limit experience at a time. The poststructuralist might argue that one can choose what type of limit-experience one would subject oneself to, thereby constituting a similar multitude of options, but how could a person choose between different types of limit-experiences without relying on knowledge-categories in the first place?

[37] This will be my argument, but I believe it fairly evident from passages such as Nāgārjuna’s Hymn to the Dharmadhātu, verse 6, trans. Donald Lopez in Lopez, Donald S., Jr. (ed.): Buddhist Scriptures (Penguin Books 2004) p. 466

[38] Popper, Karl R.: Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach p. 107

[39] Popper, Karl R.: Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach pp. 115-117

Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha

By Shunryu Suzuki

Because I have been practicing zazen for many years, some people may say, “He will not catch cold. He will not suffer from flu . . . but it was funny for him to stay in bed for so long.” We may believe that zazen will make us physically strong and mentally healthy, but a healthy mind is not just a healthy mind in its usual sense, and a weak body is not just a weak body. Whether it is weak or strong, when that weakness or strength is based on so-called “Truth” or “Buddha Nature,” then that is a healthy mind and a healthy body.

My voice may not be very strong yet, but today I’m testing it. Whether it works or not, or whether I speak or not, is a big problem for us. Whatever happens to us is something which should happen. So the purpose of our practice is to have this kind of complete composure.

In the Blue Cliff Record is a koan which concerns Baso Doitsu. Baso was big and physically very strong, a man of great stature. Once when Baso was ill, the monk who took care of the temple came to visit and asked him, “How have you been? Are you well . . . or not?” And Baso said, “Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha.”

The Sun-faced Buddha is supposed to live for one thousand eight hundred years. And the Moon-faced Buddha lives only one day and one night. So, when I am sick, I am like the Moon-faced Buddha. When I am healthy, I am like the Sun-faced Buddha. But neither the Sun-faced Buddha nor the Moon-faced Buddha has any special meaning. Whether I am ill or healthy, I am still practicing zazen. There is no difference. Even though I am in bed, I am Buddha. So, don’t worry about my health.

This is quite simple. It is actually what we are doing every day. The difference is that whatever happens to Baso, he can accept “things as it is, as it happens.” But we cannot accept everything. Some thing we think is good, we may accept, but some thing which we dislike we don’t accept. And we compare things. We may say, “He is a true Zen Master, but this other one is not,” or, “he is a good Zen student, but I am not.” That kind of understanding may be quite usual, but actually you cannot say say for sure.

To attain enlightenment means to have complete composure in our life, without any discrimination. But if we stick to the attitude of non-discrimination, that is also a kind of discrimination. The point is to attain complete composure, and ordinary effort associated with comparative thinking will not help you.

When I was still in Japan, I had some Zen students. Some of them were very rich and influential people, and others were students, carpenters, or people who did other kinds of work. In Japan we still respect or treat some people, a mayor or a teacher, in a different way. We have a special way of speaking to them. But I always told my students, “If you are a Zen student you should forget all about your position, work, or title. Otherwise we cannot practice zazen in its true sense.”

When you sit I say, “Don’t think.” “Don’t think” means not to treat things in terms of good or bad, heavy or light. Just accept “things as it is.” Even though you do not think, you may still hear something; and usually, the moment you hear it your reaction is, “What could it be?” “That is a car,” or “That’s very noisy. Maybe it’s a motorcycle.”

In zazen you should just hear the big noise or the small noise and not be bothered by it. This may seem impossible, especially for the beginner, because the moment you hear it, some reaction follows. But if you practice zazen, if you continuously just accept “things as it is,” eventually you can do it. The way you can do it is to be concentrated on your posture and your breathing.

In Japan a samarai practiced zazen to master the sword. As long as he was afraid of losing his life, he could not act with his full ability. Only when he was free from “to kill or to be killed,” would he react just to his enemy’s activity, and win. If he tried to win, he may lose. So practicing how to act without fear, which limits his activity, is the most important thing. Although it was a matter of whether or not he could survive on the battlefield, he fought his fight in the zendo.

We don’t have that kind of need in our everyday life, so we don’t feel the same necessity to practice. But our human problems are created because we make an effort to achieve something in a materialistic sense, and this limits our activity. Then we cannot achieve anything. That is what it means to achieve nothing.

We should understand our everyday activity in two ways, and be able to respond either way without a problem. One way is to understand our life dualistically: good or bad, right or wrong. And we should try to understand things in these terms. Also we should be able to ignore this dualistic understanding. Then everything is one. That is the other understanding: the understanding of oneness.

So at first you should be able to understand or accept things in two ways, but this is not enough. It is still dualistic. Without being attached to one of the two understandings, you should have the freedom to move from one to the other. Then you will not be caught by your particular understanding. Whatever you do will be the great activity of practice.

The Sun-faced Buddha is good; the Moon-faced Buddha is good. Whatever it is, that is good–all things are Buddha. And there is no Buddha, even. But usually when you say “no Buddha,” it means you are sticking to one way of understanding. When you do not stick to one understanding, then whatever you say is all right.

When you do not understand Buddha, then you will be concerned if I say there is no Buddha: “You are a priest, so how can you say there is no Buddha? Why do you chant? Why do you bow to Buddha?” There is no Buddha so we bow to Buddha. If you bow to Buddha because there is Buddha, that is not a true understanding of Buddha. Whatever you say, it is all right. “Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha”–no problem. Whether I am at Tassajara or San Francisco, no problem. Even though I die, it is all right with me, and it is all right with you. And if it is not all right, you are not a Zen student. It is QUITE all right. That is Buddha.

If I suffer while I am dying, that is all right, that is suffering Buddha. No confusion in it. Maybe everyone will struggle because of physical agony or spiritual agony, but that is not a problem. We should be very grateful to have a limited body like mine or like yours. If you had a limitless life, it would be a great problem for you.

On my wife’s favorite TV program there are some ghosts of people who lived long ago. They appear in this world, and create many problems for people and for themselves. That is what happens. We are reaching to the moon now, but we cannot create a human being in its true sense. A human being is a human being. We can enjoy our life only with our limited body. This limitation is a vital element for us. Without limitation nothing exists, so we should enjoy the limitation: weak body, strong body; man or woman. The only way to enjoy our life is to enjoy the limitation that was given to us.

“Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha does not mean to be indifferent: “I don’t care whether it’s the Sun-faced Buddha or the Moon-faced Buddha.” It means whether it’s the Sun-faced Buddha or the Moon-faced Buddha, we should enjoy it. This is also beyond non-attachment, because when our attachment reaches the point of non-attachment, that is real attachment. If you are attached to something, you should be attached to something completely. SUN-FACED BUDDHA, MOON-FACED BUDDHA! “I am here, I am right here.” This kind of confidence within ourselves is important. When you have this kind of confidence in yourself, in your being, you can practice true zazen, which is beyond perfect or imperfect, good or bad.