The cessation of suffering is Buddhism’s end goal. The Buddha has discovered how to do it, according to Buddhism and Buddhists who have achieved the goal. A supposedly central requirement for achieving the goal is to realize the truth of no-self: there is no substantial self that endures over time. Leaving aside what exactly this means, an important question regards why one should accept the doctrine of no-self. The Buddha gave arguments for the view and later Buddhists gave still more.
Here is the important point: these arguments are philosophical arguments just as susceptible to objections and problems as any philosophical argument. Faced with such a difficulty, faced with the wide morass that is the debate about no-self, a Buddhist practitioner may claim that the convoluted metaphysics of persons is not what matters. What matters is whether the Buddha’s method of ending suffering works. Belief in no-self can come through practicing selflessness over time—by seeing the results of selflessness, i.e., the lessoning/ending of suffering. It needn’t come as the result of an argument.
Here is the problem: belief in no-self may lead to less suffering, may even lead to its complete cessation, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a substantial self. It just means that belief in a substantial self likely leads to suffering. If giving up the belief in a substantial self did help to end suffering, then that would certainly give credence to the overall method of the Buddha. That is, it would mean that he was right that his eightfold path will bring an end to suffering. But, again, that doesn’t mean that he was right about there not being a self. Again, it only means that he was right that giving up the belief in such a self will help end suffering.
But perhaps that’s only a problem if we hold truth above suffering. If we think that the cessation of suffering is worth leaving aside the truth, then it won’t matter whether we have reason to believe that the doctrine of no-self is true. But why hold the cessation of suffering above truth? What is the value of truth? This is a question that Nietzsche asked:
The will to truth which will still tempt us to many a venture, that famous truthfulness of which all philosophers so far have spoken with respect—what questions has this will to truth not laid before us! …We asked about the value of this will. Suppose we want truth: why not rather untruth? and uncertainty? even ignorance?
The problem of the value of truth came before us…. (Beyond Good and Evil, Part I, Section 1. Kaufmann’s translation.)
From this point we are lead to another thing that Nietzsche questioned, namely, the value of suffering or rather the question of whether suffering is really an objection to life. Buddhism clearly sees suffering as something that needs to be brought to an end (and, of course, Buddhism is not alone in this. Other religions seek the same). But is such an attitude necessary? And is it perhaps a hindrance to living well? For example, in the Gay Science, Nietzsche writes:
… if you refuse to let your own suffering lie upon you for an hour and if you constantly try to prevent and forestall all possible stress way ahead of time; if you experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation, and as a defect of existence, then it is clear that besides your religion of pity you also harbor another religion in your heart that is perhaps the mother of the religion of pity: the religion of comfortableness. How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable and benevolent people, for happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together or, as in your case, remain small together. (Part of section 338. Kaufmann’s translation.)
And earlier in the same book:
Evil.— Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and peoples and ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favorable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible. The poison of which weaker natures perish strengthens the strong—nor do they call it poison. (Section 19. Kaufmann’s translation.)
It is clear from these remarks that Nietzsche takes suffering to have value. Great happiness requires great suffering and greatness in general requires great suffering and resistance. In these ways suffering has instrumental value, value as a means, and perhaps what Ramon M. Lemos calls contributory value. “To have contributory value is to contribute in some way to the value of some whole of which that which has contributory value is a part” (The Nature of Value: Axiological Investigations. Page 41). But can it have some other kind of value? In his notebooks later published as the Will to Power we find Nietzsche elaborating on a response to nihilism. That response consists in a radical affirmation of life:
…a Dionysian affirmation of the world as it is, without subtraction, exception, or selection—it wants the eternal circulation:—the same things, the same logic and illogic of entanglements. The highest state a philosopher can attain: to stand in a Dionysian relationship to existence—my formula for this is amor fati.
It is part of this state to perceive not merely the necessity of those sides of existence hitherto denied, but their desirability; and not their desirability merely in relation to the sides hitherto affirmed (perhaps as their compliment or precondition), but for their own sake, as the more powerful, fruitful, truer sides of existence, in which its will finds clearer expression. (Part of section 1041)
I understand “those sides of existence hitherto denied” to refer to those aspects of life that are usually devalued and avoided, e.g., suffering. Further, for Nietzsche, part of what it means to affirm life in the face of nihilism is to embrace every aspect of one’s life. This requires the radical (impossible?) idea of desiring every aspect of one’s life, including the suffering. But not as a “compliment or precondition” (as he suggests in the passages above from the Gay Science), “but for their own sake.” Here Nietzsche seems to insist that suffering can have a kind of intrinsic value, not merely instrumental or contributory. This does not, of course, contradict the earlier remarks about the value of suffering, but it does go far beyond them.
Each of these passages from Nietzsche provokes a plethora of questions, and likely resistance, for we are wont to deny the value of pain and suffering. And Nietzsche makes clear in other places that he does not think that amor fati is an option available to all. Nietzsche is the arch-unapologetic elitist. Concerning profound suffering, Nietzsche writes that, “it almost determines the order of rank how profoundly human beings can suffer….Profound suffering makes noble; it separates” (Beyond Good and Evil. Part Nine. Section 270. Kaufmann translation.) Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss what he says because of that. My own response to such claims is to try to understand what exactly he means, at which point I can begin to assess the truth of it. But that is not my purpose here. The point is that there may well be good reason to question the value of the cessation of suffering. And it is, thus, a mistake simply to assume the disvalue of suffering.
A final note: there is a certain danger in all of this. It may be easy to romanticize here or to fall into the same problem facing Buddhism. That is, as much as we may despise our suffering, we do unavoidably experience pain (and suffering, unless we’re good Buddhists or stoics). And it can be tempting, as it must have been to Nietzsche (who suffered so profoundly from ill health), to try to convince ourselves of suffering’s value. This is Buddhism’s opposite, but it amounts to the same (a response to suffering), and it faces the same problem. Where we can question the truth of the claims underlying Buddhism’s way of ending suffering, we can question the truth of Nietzsche’s claims. Perhaps convincing ourselves of suffering’s value will enable us to stave off nihilism, but the question remains: Does suffering really have, can it have, the value Nietzsche claims? Just as we can ask: Is it really true that there is no substantial self? Even when believing it helps end suffering.