Tuesday, November 30, 2010

"Life as a means to Knowledge"

Many of the more contemporary translators of The Gay Science prefer to use Nietzsche’s other intended title for the work, The Joyous Science. This is in some measure due to how the word “gay” is now commonly accepted in western culture, as homosexual.

Regardless of which word you use, however, part of Nietzsche’s intent was to contrast the title against Thomas Carlyle’s famous phrase (at the time) in classifying economics as "The Dismal Science". This in and of itself can be seen as rather humorous and I’m sure Fritz chuckled at his parody.

Rudiger Safranski offers another interesting glimpse by a prominent Nietzsche scholar into The Gay Science. His perspectives integrate Nietzsche’s thought with his private life, thus reinforcing the important distinction that Nietzsche’s rational thinking was actually applied to his manner or style of Being. (Nietzsche doesn’t use the word “being,” that’s my projection.)

“He composed it in a state of bliss. Weeks would pass that were free of physical pain and oppression. Sunny strolls took him to the outlying areas of Genoa. The book is replete with references to the varied coastal landscape, the cliffs, the villas, and summer houses that dotted the hills, and the vistas of the sea. This scenery, in which success in life was revealed to Nietzsche, crops up time and again in The Gay Science, as in the following passage: ‘This area is studded with images of bold and high-handed people. They have lived and have wanted to live on – they tell me this with their houses, which are built and decorated for centuries to come and not for the fleeting hour; they were positively disposed to life, however angry they often may have been with themselves.’” (Safranski, pp. 233 – 234)

Many scholars contend that Nietzsche is not really a philosopher at all. He did not logically develop arguments and often his thinking is ambiguous and/or poetic. Not strictly philosophic in the traditional sense of Plato or Kant. But, Nietzsche did much of this intentionally, to turn the reader back upon their own thoughts and feelings. To read Nietzsche is to find aspects of Nietzsche within, but with a different voice since, as persons, we are not Nietzsche.

“Nietzsche was well aware of why he did not present it in a pure and simple form, but instead, as a master of circuitousness, dropped hints and clues – usually from the sidelines. He organized his gardens of theory in such a way that anyone on the outlook for their central arguments would almost inevitably fall flat on his face. Nietzsche hid out in his labyrinth, hoping to be discovered by means of long, winding paths. And why should we not lose our way on the search for him? Perhaps it would even be the best thing that could happen to us. Later Nietzsche had his Zarathustra tell his disciples: if you have yet to find yourselves, you have found me too soon. Hence he arranged his books in such a way that the ideal outcome of a reader’s search for ideas would culminate in an encounter with the reader’s own ideas. Discovering Nietzsche in the process was almost beside the point; the crucial question is whether one has discovered thinking per se. One’s own thinking is the Ariadne to which one should return.” (page 234)

The animal aspects of our nature are to be emphasized in order to gain a proper perspective on ourselves in the scheme of existence. As such, reason is not necessarily the most important, or even most appropriate, aspect of our Being.

“Thus, although the world of nature is dominated by an imaginary teleology, the original ‘instinct to preserve the species’ is still very much intact, and continues becoming more refined, subtle, roundabout, indirect, and imaginative. Human life increases in sophistication and invents ways and means to render itself interesting. It would be foolish to long for a return to primitive nature. Man is an inventive animal that promises something to life in order to get something from life in return. Man is also an ‘imaginative animal’ whose unique sense of pride originates in the human penchant for fantasy. Humans have one more ‘condition of existence’ to fulfill than any other animal” ‘the human being needs to believe, to know, from time to time, why he exists; his species cannot thrive without periodic confidence in life! Without faith in the existence of reason in life!’

“There is less to ‘reason in life’ than meets the eye. It considers itself absolute, but is actually only one thing among many. In the great ‘musical mechanism,’ it is a mere cog of bolt. It feels free, but remains tied to the apron strings of nature. It regards itself as an achiever and yet is merely an effect. Isn’t that a laugh! But reason, for the sake of its self-esteem, does not wish itself or its creativity to be laughed at. When Nietzsche chimed in with his own laughter, he did not wish to mock reason. The laughter in The Gay Science is not denunciatory. It recognizes and even celebrates human imagination, but keeps in mind that the products of the imagination are in part pure invention. Nietzsche was not out to attack, but to seek comic relief.” (p. 235 – 236)

Collective human consciousness remains an unfinished work in progress. It is not so much a product of evolution as it is a limitation, discovering our errors in experiential understanding.

“We should not overestimate the power of consciousness and overlook that fact that it is still in the process of development and growth. For the time being, consciousness is not fully prepared to ‘incorporate’ the enormous reality and its cyclical flow, which is devoid of any purpose, substance, and meaning, Nietzsche was taking up the notion of incorporation again here, as he had in 1881 in a series of notebook entries. We see the sun go up as we always have and fail to notice that we are living on a shifting foundation. We do not absorb the end and the new beginnings in our sense of life. We construct an imaginary horizon of time around ourselves, which is not the actual one, but it allows us to remain convinced of our own importance. Although we may have a Copernican worldview – and in our era and Einsteinian one – when it come to incorporation, we are still Ptolemaists. Nietzsche wrote that we need to understand ‘that as of now only our errors have been incorporated into us and that all our consciousness is based on errors!'” (page 237)

Ultimately, we cannot escape the fundamental reality of our instincts. Being is primarily instinctual and “truth” is merely what we choose to culturally accept. Being is inescapably instinctual.

“…when we judge things to be ‘true’ or ‘false,’ there cannot be a standpoint outside of this instinctual behavior; only varying degrees of overwhelming strength, feelings of pleasure and displeasure, sufficiency and force of habit can be differentiated. Nietzsche reviewed the complex history of truth once again from this perspective. When new knowledge enters the picture, a ‘vortex’ throws the usual and accustomed truths into question. This situation remains relatively benign as long as it stays on the level of purely intellectual uncertainty and innovations. But when it becomes the kind of knowledge that intrudes on the life and customs of a culture, and when people have incorporated aspects of previous knowledge to contend with, a struggle arises for new incorporation. In the process, the new insights can be regarded as ‘madness’ (The Gay Science, aphorism 76) and face adamant opposition because they blatantly challenge the conditions of life of an entire culture without offering an appealing alternative of being strong enough to accomplish incorporation on their own. Thus, incorporation implies that the truth of truth is its strength to render itself true. Truth is confirmed in the process of incorporation.” (pp. 240 – 241)

“Nietzsche always maintained an indisputable standard for judgment. For him, the formation of ideas was a matter not just of creating images but of forging paths to (self-)knowledge. An idea struck him as ‘true’ if it brought together meaning and style to constitute a unit that was sufficiently strong and lively to endure his often unbearable pain and provide a vital counterbalance to it.” (page 242)

“Aphorism 324, a virtually programmatic explication of the title The Gay Science, declares: “No! Life has not disappointed me! Quite the contrary; with each passing year I find it truer, more desirable, and more mysterious – ever since the day when the great liberator came to me, the idea that life could be an experiment for the seeker of knowledge – and not a duty, not a disaster, not a deception! – As for knowledge itself: for others it may well be something different, for instance, a bed or way to a bed, or a form of entertainment, or leisure – for me it is a world of dangers and victories in which heroic feelings also have their dance floors and playgrounds. – ‘Life as a means to knowledge’ – with this principle in our hearts, we can not only live boldly, but even live joyously and laugh joyously.” (page 243)

Safranski’s summary of The Gay Science comes back to its beginning. From its composition in a “state of bliss” to its declaration to “live joyously” Nietzsche was plumbing the depths of human existence. And he was happy. For me, this is a fundamental Nietzschean understanding of human reality. The yawning abyss meets “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Find that in yourself and you will have found the still developing mind of Friedrich Nietzsche.