Bertrand Russell on the Budda’s and the Christian’s Ideal, and Nietzsche’s ‘Pathology’

By | October 16, 2012

Juan Bernal

In his book, A History of Western Philosophy,*  Bertrand Russell makes some rather surprising statements about love as definitive of two great religions, Christianity and Buddhism.   It is in the process of contrasting what he sees as advocacy of love by Christianity and the Buddha with what he takes as Friedrich Nietzsche’s ethic, that Russell contrasts the Christianity’s and Buddhists love for humanity with Nietzsche’s complete lack of sympathy for others. In the process Russell effectively misleads us both with regard to the religious ideal and Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Near the end of his section on Nietzsche (** pp. 760-773), Russell takes up what he calls the “ethical, as opposed to the political question.”

“The ethical, as opposed to the political, question is one as to sympathy. Sympathy, in the sense of being made unhappy by the suffering of others, is to some extent natural to human beings; … But the development of this feeling is very different in different people. Some find pleasure in the infliction of torture; others, like Buddha, feel that they cannot be completely happy so long as any living thing is suffering.” (p. 771)

Since he will eventually contrast Buddha’s ethics with Nietzsche’s, Russell here insinuates that the Buddha sought happiness, which he could not realize as long as others were suffering; whereas others –Does he mean to include Nietzsche here? -  find pleasure in the suffering of others.  Why mention this contrast unless it is to insinuate that Nietzsche is one who finds pleasure in the suffering of others?  Where is there any textual basis for this view of Nietzsche?   Moreover, did the Buddha seek complete happiness?

Russell continues:

“Most people divide mankind emotionally into friends and enemies, feeling sympathy for the former, but not for the latter. An ethic such as that of Christianity or Buddhism has its emotional basis in universal sympathy. Nietzsche’s [On the other hand] in a complete absence of sympathy. (He frequently preaches against sympathy, …he has no difficulty in following his own precepts.)” (p. 771)

He imagines an argument in which the Buddha speaks

“..of the lepers, outcast and miserable; the poor, toiling with aching limbs and barely kept alive by scanty nourishment; the wounded in battle dying in slow agony; the orphans, ill-treated by cruel guardians; and even the most successful haunted by the thought of failure and death. From all this load of sorrow, he [Buddha] would say, a way of salvation must be found, and salvation can only come through love.” (p.771)

Russell characterizes Nietzsche in starkly opposing terms:  He sees Nietzsche as disdaining all concern and compassion for the suffering of ordinary people, who only suffer trivially; whereas the suffering and pain endured by great men always serves a higher, artistic purpose. (see page 772)

Russell imagines that Buddha would refer to Jesus as his hero:

“I too have my heroes: my successor Jesus, because he told men to love their enemies, ….”

Furthermore, Russell’s Buddha charges that Nietzsche “loves pain” and that his love of life is a sham.

“But those who really love life would be happy as no one can be happy in the world as it is.” (p. 772)

Russell then states that he “agrees with Buddha as [he] has imagined him” and that he dislikes Nietzsche because he [Nietzsche]

“likes the contemplation of pain, because he erects conceit in to a duty, because the men he most admires are conquerors, whose glory is cleverness in cause men to die. But I think the ultimate argument against his philosophy … lies not in an appeal to facts, but in an appeal to the emotions.  Nietzsche despises universal love; I feel it the motive power to all that I desire as regards the world.” (p.772)


In his contrasting the proponents of universal love (Buddhism and Christianity) and Nietzsche’s ‘ethics’ rejecting sympathy for others as desirable,  Russell commits three basic errors.

  •  He greatly oversimplifies the message of the Gospel’s Jesus, ignoring those aspects that do not promote love.
  • He seems to mis-characterize the mission of the Buddha, which does not appear to be one based on love for his fellow human beings.
  • He oversimplifies and distorts one rather minor aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Let’s briefly take each in turn.

Jesus:  Admittedly, there are passages in the Gospels which show Jesus as preaching love for everyone, including one’s adversaries.  Some of this actions and teachings emphasize that one must not only return loving acts with loving acts, but even respond to violence and hatred with love for the perpetrator.  Christians like to emphasize this aspect of Jesus’s teachings.  But if we think that the essential teaching of Jesus is the message of love for humanity, we oversimplify the messages of the Gospel.  For the Gospels also include plenty of passages and utterances which diverge significantly from the message of love for all humans.  Jesus often directs hostility and venom toward the Pharisees, the Scribes, and other Jews who did not accept his message of salvation.  He even spends some time talking about the dire consequences (eternal fires of Hell) awaiting those who reject his doctrine.  This is hardly a message of love.  Furthermore, the main theme of the Gospels is that of salvation; what one must believe and what one must do in order to achieve eternal salvation, that ultimate reward of heaven.  In short, much of the message of the Gospel is one of a prudent ethics: One that teaches that we must change our lives and do what is required in order to be saved. This is more a message of faith in a religious doctrine and obedience to the teachings (of the Christ) than it is a message of love for humanity.

The Buddha:   Did the Gautama Buddha, of the earliest form of Buddhism, Theraveda Buddhism, teach love for humanity?  It is not obvious that he did.  Some people bring up the alleged fact that the Buddha acted out of a great compassion for the suffering humans. But can we equate compassion with love?  Maybe we can at least in the sense of love as agape, which the dictionary characterizes as divine love or God’s love for humanity; and also as a spontaneous, altruistic love.  Supposedly, when the Buddha was exposed to the suffering that most humans experience, he felt great compassion for humanity, and hence took on the task of bringing an end to this suffering.  However, when we read accounts of the Buddha’s path to enlightenment, it is not obvious that love for humanity motivated him to seek enlightenment and eventual release from the cycle of existence (hence, the cycle of suffering).  He associated suffering with attachment to illusion and the things of the material world; and he sought enlightenment and release from material illusion and the endless cycle of suffering, death and reincarnation. To the extent that he taught others or guided others to follow his example, most probably it was because he wanted to put them on a path to freedom from error and illusion, and the consequent suffering, a path that would enable them eventually to realize enlightenment and release from existence.  Along with Russell, one might see the Buddha’s mission as one expressing love for his fellow humans.  But most interpretations of Theravada Buddhism do not so characterize the Buddha’s actions.

Nietzsche:  Even someone who is only moderately familiar with Nietzsche’s work will be skeptical about Russell’s characterization of Nietzsche’s philosophy.  This is not the place to get into much detail, but one could start by noting that Nietzsche does not develop an ethics in which he preaches or teaches a particular view of ethical good or advocates ethical principles.   He does not teach a philosophy of disdain for the ideals of a Buddha or even those of an ethical Jesus.  He does not teach that we should reject sympathy for others, as much express skepticism about those who claim ‘universal love’ as the motive for their actions.   He does not love pain and suffering, as much as try to see pain and suffering as sometimes motivating achievement and artistic excellence.  To the degree that Nietzsche deals with issues that Russell brings up, it is as a social critic, as an advocate of the re-evaluation of traditional values, and a questioner of what he sees as bad faith.  It is false that Nietzsche admires the politically powerful and holds them up as ideals to be followed.  Readers are often misled into this error (Russell’s error) because of Nietzsche’s ironic style and his occasional statement of preference for some powerful villain over a deceptive, dishonest hypocrite who pretends to practice high ideals.

Russell offers a caricature of Nietzsche’s work, which can not at all be accurately characterized as advocating a specific ethical position or political position.   In so characterizing Nietzsche, Russell makes the same mistake that the Nazi did in characterizing Nietzsche as a prophet of totalitarianism.  Both are mere distortions, as can be readily seen from a basic study of man’s work.


*  Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, 1945 (A Clarion Book, by Simon and Schuster,  New York, New York)  -  thirteenth paperback printing 1967

**  page references are  to the Simon and Schuster 1967 paperback printing


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