Water, Fasting, Seneca, and Nietzsche

Full Version—(All 43 DFW style Footnotes, which contains a narrative within itself, is there.)

This was written 2 months ago as a school essay, but it grew out of control.

Water, Fasting, Seneca, and Nietzsche

Consider these: Gandhi fasted for 21 days to protest against British rule of India; Soviet prisoners fasted for freedom in the gulags; recent medical science has revealed that the health benefits of fasting are just short of being divine. 

What came to the author’s mind as the author was reading the statements were Nietzsche and Seneca (namely, their philosophies). Of course, fasting has been employed by many religions, the most well-known being Islam’s Ramadan, along with Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and (certain sects) of Christianity. There is perhaps enough anecdotal evidence, considering how widespread this kind of voluntary abstinence from food is, to make it worthy of consideration as something with philosophical significance.

The author went on a three-day fast and experienced the whole thing for himself. It was decided rashly, although the author has little regret for the three days, despite how miserable it all was. The author managed to appreciate the fast more once it became the past; when his way of addressing the event shifted from “I am fasting”, to “I have fasted”. ((The author proposes that this is mainly from the fresh feeling of superiority over anyone who had not fasted before, and the myriad opportunities to brag and impress, which is partly why the author has decided to write an essay on this topic.)

This essay was the result of these three days of agony. For the author had learned much from his pain, viz., a renewed awareness of the tastes and smells of various things, and an appreciation, a much more penetrating one, of Seneca and Nietzsche’s philosophy of life and death.

***

Stoics believe in fate. All events are predestined, stemming from the eternal fire (pneuma) or reason (logos) that created the universe. What is virtuous is to live in accordance with nature, and thus, with reason. In the stoic’s view, humans have no control over the external world or the events which occur to them inside it. We are more an object than a subject, Helen of Troy than Eve. Things just unfold before us, and we are more or less a plaything of fate. However, Stoics also believe that there is one thing which we can, in fact, control in this predestined world. That is, ourselves: how we react—our subjective response as an object—to all the events that are imposed upon us. Much like Buddhists, Stoics see emotions as something ephemeral, a thing that we can control if one only learns to see the world through the lens of reason. Passion and reason are antithetical, would be the soundbite for a stoic, and reason is the more virtuous of the two. Everyone can achieve this state, to live in accordance with reason, so long as one seeks after knowledge (namely, to learn and follow the teachings of various stoics). This state of supreme reason is also the state of supreme freedom. The less one is blinded by one’s passion and the more one acts according to reason, the freer does one live, since, in a sense, only actions according to reason are ‘voluntary’; since what agency can we claim if we’re acting according to our passions? Seneca, in his letters, declared: only virtuous action is voluntary (Letter 66.16). One of the differences between Buddhism and Stoicism is that whilst the supreme state for a Buddhist is equanimity, to be away from “the wide world and all its fading sweets”, so as to avoid attaching and therefore cease the pain of loss—the enjoyment of material goods is permissible to a stoic. A subtlety that is worth noting is that in Stoic ethics wealth is an ‘indifferent’—it is neither good nor bad; this is because the stoic criterion for the good is a thing that benefits its owner irrespective of his/her circumstances. However, wealth is a ‘preferable’—although it is not in itself good, it has value. Everything equal, a stoic would rather live in wealth than poverty, only that the stoic would be willing to give the preferables up (if the circumstance demands it), or to lose these preferables, without hesitation nor pain. This definition, perhaps the reader has already realized, also extends to life and death. Both are ‘indifferent’, although life is ‘preferable’ to death. The ability to use reason instead of passion to perceive the world and make one’s decisions, to a stoic, is the only way one can be free. The perfect stoic is not necessarily one who does not respond to anything, but responds based upon their reason instead of their emotions/passions—because Emotions are irrational.(Letter 85.8)

This, then, leads to the topic of fasting. As seen by a stoic, fasting is first an exercise in reason; reason battling against the irrational passion of the appetite. In fasting, one confronts one’s fear of hunger, acquiring gradually the ability to see appetite as merely a passion. By gaining an understanding of how irrational it is to react negatively to hunger, one may perhaps finally perceive the fallacy in all the other passions that normally dictate one’s actions. Here is a break from the drudgery of an unexamined life steered by passion. One may begin to see through the illusion that one is a free agent, and this is the first step towards the replacement of passion by reason as the helmsman of the psyche. By this, one may be able to live a more rational life, a life more ‘good’, a life more worth living. 

There is also another more banal sense that one is free, though not without importance: one can choose when one wishes to eat, for one can accept, even enjoy, not eating a meal, without all the anxiety and distress that comes with it. A use that comes to mind would be on economy airplane rides. Frankly, though, it really does save a lot of time to skip some meals from time to time, especially if one has to cook for oneself—which one may spend on more meaningful activities, for example, writing an essay like the author. 

The author submits that fasting serves a more important function: it is an accessible way to familiarise oneself with death, since part of the pain in hunger is the implicit fear of death that may come with it if, perchance, the fast is prolonged. Seneca believed that the fear of death is paradoxical: it wants to preserve life, but it spoils life (6.32.9)—death, as discussed above, is ‘indifferent’ in Stoic ethics. Following the tradition of Socrates in the Phaedo, Seneca argued that death results in either a better afterlife or complete, sleep-like silence. Neither are to be feared. The aversion to death is only due to our lack of knowledge and is not based on any rational calculus. Death had always been portrayed by Seneca as a liberation, a way to cease one’s life if it becomes too unbearable. Fasting is a route for one to exercise one’s choice of death, and in a sense, only when one can confront death steadfastly, to look at it with equanimity, is one completely free—free to participate, and free to leave, the game of life. 

***

A phenomenon that fascinated Nietzsche was asceticism, and an important aspect of asceticism is fasting. Nietzsche saw asceticism as the manifestation of sickness, of hatefulness towards the world and one’s position within it. It makes it impossible for us to rejoice in our world and our life, as the Ascetics, by rejecting suffering and interpreting it (the ascetic acts) as a path towards transcendence and a far better life to be.  The self and life-denial in Asceticism makes the self-affirmation, which Nietzsche prized so highly, impossible. Nietzsche, despite claiming that a certain degree of Asceticism was at the root of all philosophical and intellectual thought, by increasing the degree of power the philosophers of antiquity had, asserts that it is now (that is, 19th century Germany, but the author presumes that his statement would be similarly applicable to the 21st century), in fact, hindering human progress (through the self-denial as explained above). However, despite his polemics against Asceticism, Nietzsche acknowledged that it sometimes is the only way for a person to express their power in a wretched situation, albeit a perverse way to do so; we can see this vis-á-vis the Gulag prisoners or Gandhi. In this sense, he agrees with Seneca—that the ability to confront death in equanimity is extremely admirable. Death is not only a form of liberation, but also an instrument for power when the darkest hours have arrived. 

In light of Nietzsche’s critiques of Asceticism, we can see that the aim of a truly beneficial fast should, perhaps, not be the denial of the world, but done to affirm it, by not sugar-coating hunger as anything other than the pain—naked, harsh, unbearable—that it is, but still to embrace it and affirm it, to look at the suffering and say: “Yes. This is very painful. But this is life. I love life, so should I affirm the suffering that comes with it.” 

If the reader is remotely familiar with Nietzsche’s work,  then one may perhaps already have the sense that Nietzsche is a champion of pain and suffering; it is the ability to endure suffering that is the most important way for one to prove one’s worth. In Nietzsche’s words: 

“To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities—I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not—that one endures.”

Suffering is prized as the single most valuable force for human progress. The greatest humans, to Nietzsche, are ones who do not diminish one’s suffering by, for example, the promise of a blessed afterlife—that results in the degradation of the present, and this is one of Nietzsche’s major critique against Christianity; but instead who stares suffering right in the eye, and despite the pain and discomfort, saying Yes, affirming life. If Nietzsche’s right. Then a problem emerges: we are not suffering as much as  generations before us. Without suffering, would progress stop too? Do we only care about technological progress, or do artistic achievement matter also? Even if technological progress is enough, without struggle, will it cease? 

Perhaps fasting. Or, more broadly, the voluntary confrontation with suffering that lies at the essence of suffering—as a sort of exercise for the mind and the will (or power, as Nietzsche would say)—is a way out of the loneliness and purposelessness that is increasingly more common in well-to-do families, an antidote to the feckless and lost and frivolous cycle that one may easily fall into, in the comfort of the modern consumer society. For, as Nietzsche perhaps had realized: I live, therefore I suffer; I suffer, therefore I live. 

Q. 

If Athletes practice their sport, Musicians, their instruments, Writers, their sentences, why shouldn’t we, as a living human being, practice suffering? If, that is, we concede that Nietzsche is correct, and accept that phrase which is self-evident-almost-to-the-point-of-trite, that: life is suffering?

***

Here, a tension can perhaps be felt, between Nietzsche’s call for a renewed recognition of one’s confrontation with suffering’s unpleasantness; and the freedom that Seneca sought for—that equanimity despite the raging currents of passions through the use of reason (corollary to the freedom: the disappearance of pain). How to reconcile these two very reasonable (and profound) positions that Seneca and Nietzsche have taken?

The author submits that there is a middle ground.

Consider this parable : 

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?””

How can that fish not see? Why is the story at once so funny and so sad? Is it because of its absurdity, or its truth (or both)? Are we like that fish?  If we concede that we are like that fish, then…

“What the hell is water?” Anyway? 

Is it not Seneca’s irrationality—us, Homo sapiens existing, breathing, yet are blinded by the drudgery of life so as not to be able to perceive the world clearly with reason? Is it not Nietzsche’s condemnation against Christianity and Stoicism, for framing suffering as something other than what it is, and through beautifying it, the suffering, obscure reality? If we realize that Seneca and Nietzsche were both preoccupied with a kind of ‘dis/unawareness’, perhaps we may be able to see what really lies under all the discussions around fasting and suffering. 

It is simple awareness; the ‘Know Thyself’ that Socrates talked about; the ‘freedom’ and ‘rationality’ that Seneca so stressed; the ‘suffering’ that Nietzsche so prized. And it is this awareness that fasting fosters, exercises, and renews. It is the ability to see life, trivial and naked and ugly, right in front of us like the water around the fish—for it is not such an easy task after all, to see it—because if we don’t make an effort to perceive what lies before us every day, every minute, every second, it will fade into the background, as if it’s never there at all. Even if we are existing, we are not being, thinking, living. There is no difference, then, between us, and a machine. What Seneca and Nietzsche wanted, was only for us to be human.

In fasting—this voluntary confrontation of suffering—what we gain is a brief moment of clarity, where we’re able to see, to register, to feel, the water inside and around us. For us to be reminded of the simple thing which, because it is so right in front of us, ends up so hard to see. To wit: “This is water. This is water. This is water.”

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