Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Vita Contemplativa

“We have to learn to think differently – in order that at last, perhaps very late on, we attain even more: to feel differently.” (Daybreak, from Aphorism 103)

Nietzsche’s self-creation, the triumph of Becoming in an amoral universe indifferent to human Being, has some universal characteristics. First of all, it is not universal in the sense of being exactly the same for every person. Each individual must find their own way, as long as that way does not rely upon certain misguided traditions.

Insofar as the individual is seeking happiness, one ought not to tender him any prescriptions as to the path to happiness: for individual happiness springs from one’s own unknown laws, and prescriptions from without can only obstruct and hinder it.” (from Aphorism 108)

Secondly, as we have seen, self-creation takes place within a complexity of pre-conscious, instinctual drives that motivate human behavior.

Thirdly, self-creation is inherently an intimate path of reflective living that shuns the influences of common economic, political, and social life. In Daybreak, Nietzsche refers to this path as vita contemplativa. Happiness and fulfillment are not to be found in the ways of the ignorant masses or in the activities of business or politics or in any aspect of existing culture. A new culture must come forth. Its foundations are in human beings properly discovering the contemplative life.

Aphorism 440 stresses, however, that this does not mean that the contemplative person abandons the world. On the contrary, the self-creator is to transform the world and find happiness within the world. “Do not renounce: - To forego the world without knowing it, like a nun – that leads to fruitless, perhaps melancholy solitude. It has nothing in common with the solitude of the vita contemplativa of the thinker: when he chooses that he is renouncing nothing: on the contrary, it would be renunciation, melancholy, destruction of himself if he were obliged to persist in the vita practica: he foregoes this because he knows it, because he knows himself. Thus he leaps into his element, thus he gains his cheerfulness.”

The self-creation from vita contemplativa is the foundation for true happiness.

A fourth universal quality to self-creation is to have an experimental (not “fixed”) approach to living.

“Who would now be in a position to describe that which will one day do away with moral feelings and judgments! To construct anew the laws of life and action – for this task our sciences of physiology, medicine, sociology and solitude are not yet sufficiently sure of themselves: and it is from them that the foundation-stones of new ideals (if not the new ideals themselves) must come. So it is that, according to our taste and talent, we live an existence which is either a prelude or a postlude, and the best we can do in this interregnum is to be as far as possible our own reges and found little experimental states. We are experiments: let us also want to be them!” (from Aphorism 453)

It is particularly revealing of Nietzsche’s mind that he held “experimental states” (of awareness and expression in life) in high esteem. It is a specific quality of vita comtemplativa to experiment with experience of Being and to Become in that way.

Towards an evaluation of the vita contemplativa: - Let us, as men of the vita contemplativa, not forget what kind of evil and ill-fortune has come upon the man of vita activa through the after-effects of contemplation – in short, what counter-reckoning the vita activa has in store for us if we boast too proudly before it of our good deeds.” (from Aphorism 41)

Nietzsche lists four primary segments of western developed society that are most likely (but not necessarily) to exhibit the qualities for the contemplative life. Those who have “religious natures”, those who live artistic lives, those who study philosophy, and those who devote themselves to scientific research. Each of these “paths” are potentially contemplative but can be corrupted by such things as, in the case of science for example, the potential for “utility” within vita activa.

Vita activa is the life of commerce, politics, activity in the world toward the world is the antithesis of vita contemplativa. “Political and economic affairs are not worthy of being the enforced concern of society’s most gifted spirits: such wasteful use of the spirit is at bottom worse than having none at all. They are and remain domains for lesser heads, and others than lesser heads ought not to be in the service of these workshops: better for the machinery to fall to pieces! But as things now stand, with everybody believing he is obliged to know what is taking place here every day and neglecting his own work in order to be continually participating in it, the whole arrangement has become a great and ludicrous piece of insanity. Our age may talk about economy but it is in fact a squanderer: it squanders the most precious thing there is, the spirit.” (from Aphorism 179)

Remarkably, Nietzsche here makes it quite clear that he acknowledges a “human spirit” precisely because he finds the ways of vita activa, which obviously exists, worse than nothingness in spiritual terms. You cannot be “wasteful” of something that does not exist. Clearly, Nietzsche recognizes the spiritual aspect of life and means to link that to vita contemplativa.

This is not to suggest that Nietzsche thought there was such a phenomenon as “pure spirituality.” In Aphorism 39 he labels such thinking as “a prejudice.” He states that a purely spiritual expression of Being “has taught deprecation, neglect or tormenting of the body and men to torment and deprecate themselves on account of the drives which fill them.” Nietzsche clearly believes everything has a fundamental physical, drive-related, basis. Spirit rests upon the body which is clearly finite.

His critique of vita activa reveals itself in every way in opposition to vita contemplativa and, therefore, we can learn much about the latter through the criticism of the former.

Fundamental idea of commercial culture. – Today one can see coming into existence the culture of a society of which commerce is as much the soul as personal contest was with the ancient Greeks and as war, victory and justice were for the Romans. The man engaged in commerce understands how to appraise everything without having made it, and to appraise it according to the needs of the consumer, not according to his own needs; ‘who and how many will consume this?’ is his question of questions. This type of appraisal he then applies instinctively and all the time: he applies it to everything, and thus also to the productions of the arts and sciences, of thinkers, scholars, artists, statesmen, peoples and parties, of the entire age: in regard to everything that is made he inquires after supply and demand in order to determine the value of a thing in his own eyes. This becomes the character for the entire culture, thought through in the minutest detail and imprinted in every will and every faculty: it is this of which you men of the coming century will be proud: if the prophets of the commercial class are right to give it into your possession! But I have little faith in their prophets.” (Aphorism 175)

Business people. – Your business – is your greatest prejudice: it ties you to your locality, to the company you keep, to the inclinations you feel. Diligent in business – but indolent in spirit, content with your inadequacy, and with the cloak of duty hung over this contentment: that is how you live, that is how your want your children to live!” (Aphorism 186)

Young sees the signifcance of Nietzsche's advocacy of the contemplative life within the context of Fritz's concept of 'higher culture', revealing fundamental, theoretical characteristics of such a culture. "...the new culture will place a high value on 'idleness', will make a great deal of space for the 'vita contemplativa'. Active men are 'generic creatures', herd types: since they act rather than think, they have no chance of thinking, in particular, that there might be something wrong with the culture which they inhabit and which shapes their actions." (page 260)

The goal of vita contemplativa is to give proper focus toward the inner workings of the individual human being. It is Nietzsche’s firm feeling that such a posture toward Being leads to important insight and revelation about who we are as individuals. This inner work and particularly the discovery inherent in self-creation form the basis for lasting joy.

The contemplative life, rather than the “active” life, is particularly inspirational and uniquely beneficial as we interact within society. It brings about spiritual “pregnancy”, the conception and birth of happiness through “ideal selfishness.”

“Is there a more holy condition than that of pregnancy? To do all we do in the unspoken belief that it has somehow to benefit that which is coming to be within us! – has to enhance its mysterious worth, the thought of which fills us with delight! ‘What is growing here is something greater than we are’ is our most secret hope: we prepare everything for it so that it may come happily into the world: not only everything that may prove useful to it but also the joyfulness and laurel-wreaths of our soul. This is ideal selfishness: continually to watch over and care for and to keep our soul still, so that our fruitfulness shall come to a happy fulfillment! Thus, as intermediaries, we watch over and care for to the benefit of all; and the mood in which we live, this mood of pride and gentleness, is a balm which spreads far around us and to restless souls too.” (from Aphorism 552)

There are references to happiness sprinkled throughout Daybreak. Nietzsche had good reason to include these in his most profound thoughts. He was entering what would prove to be the happiest time of his life.