Sunday, October 31, 2010

The First Hammer Blow

The final proofs for The Gay Science were completed mid-June 1882 at Naumberg based upon Nietzsche’s work in Genoa and Messina. The book was published in August. It is traditionally seen as a transitional work, while remaining grouped with HH and Daybreak overall. But, in this work Nietzsche is much bolder and extravagant with his expression, reflecting the happy freedom in which he felt himself enwombed. Here is the first large-scale example of Nietzsche being outrageous in his acclamations, what he would call philosophizing “with a hammer” in a later work.

“God is dead.” (from aphorism 108) There is probably no more famous quote or idea in all of Nietzsche’s writings. It easily ranks with Rene Descartes’ assertion “I think, therefore, I am” as one of the more commonly known contentions among those comparative few of us that know anything at all about the history of western philosophy. Nietzsche’s most infamous formulation in the book is also one of his most misunderstood.

“Nietzsche is not saying, as it were: you have been told that there is a God, but verily I say unto you, There is no God. What he does say is that ‘God is dead.’ This is the language of religion; the picture is derived from the Gospels; and Hegel had also spoken of the death of God. Nietzsche infuses new meaning into this old image, while still implying that God once was alive. It seems paradoxical that God, if he lived, could have died. But ‘God is dead’; ‘we have killed him’; and ‘this tremendous event…has not yet reached the ears of man’ – that is an attempt at a diagnosis of contemporary civilization, not a metaphysical speculation of ultimate reality.” (Kaufmann, page 100)

Nietzsche is not tearing established perceptions of human realty apart (that is a by-product of the Nietzschean method). Rather, he is openly questioning everything and then criticizing aspects of alleged reality that simply do not offer clearly objective foundations. As we have seen in his earlier works, he wants to build something new, something more solid and relevant to the experience of modern humanity.

Of course, Nietzsche was an atheist in a strictly Christian perspective but it is incorrect to assume that his lack of belief is inherently a lack of spirituality. Far from it. This is an important point. Nietzsche did not strive to “overcome” living a spiritual life. Instead, he wanted to discover an uncompromising new spirituality (and live vita contemplativa) that addressed the specific needs of modernity. “We will never understand Nietzsche if we do not realize that for him ideas possessed actual spiritual and physical reality on par with passions. He might have said: How could his thoughts not be ‘true’ if they engaged him, as he wrote in The Gay Science, in an extraordinary activity, a ‘perpetual stair climbing-like motion and at the same time a feeling as though resting on clouds’?” (Safranski, page 242)

Nietzsche began The Gay Science with more or less a summary of his fundamental philosophy to date. “…the unusually long paragraph he devoted to the subject in the opening section…was as subtle and complex as he ever wrote. Its basic propositions may be summarized as follows:


"1) There is no basic, unquestionable teleological purposiveness to human existence, for in the cosmic context of the universe the human being is ‘boundlessly wretched’ as the fly or the frog.
2) For this reason life is essentially tragic.
3) Human beings, by exhibiting a desire to live, have helped to perpetuate the species.
4) Even ‘evil’ men have contributed to the survival of the species – by fighting, using guile to overcome enemies, force, craft and cunning to tame certain animals, etc. If, from the very beginning of their history, human beings had been uniformly ‘good’, the human species could not have possibly have survived.
5) Because of their need to believe that there must be a sense of purposiveness to their brief lives – in which respect they differ from other animals – human beings at all times have heeded the founders of moral codes and religions, even though such persons have regularly kindled religious wars and battles over moral evaluations. In getting people to believe that they were serving the interests of God, they were in fact promoting a belief in the value of human life and thus helping to preserve the species, which might otherwise have yielded to the suicidal extremes of pessimistic despair.
6) Even better than religious dreaming, however, is Man’s capacity to laugh at the vanity of human existence – an ability which in the long run has invariably eroded and undermined the doctrines of the Zwecklehrer (final-goal teachers).
7) Given Man’s need to believe in the purposiveness of existence, ‘serious’ faith-dispensers keep popping up and imperiously declaring: ‘There is one thing that must absolutely not be laughed about any longer!’
8) There thus results a permanent conflict between the comic and the tragic. Or, as Nietzsche put it, ‘not only laughter and joyous wisdom but also tragic, with all of its sublime irrationality, belong to the means and necessities of the preservation of the species’.
9) All religious beliefs consequently have their day, but also experience a rebirth, according to what Nietzsche called ‘this new law of ebb and flow’.

“Most human beings, he pointed out, do not worry too much about matters of final ends and morality. They take life as it comes. In other words, they are intellectually lazy – as he has already indicated at the start of his third ‘Untimely Meditation’, devoted to Schopenhauer. To this vast majority even the ‘most talented of men and noblest of women’ belong. But at this point Nietzsche let fall the hammer that was already beginning to make him famous. What, he roundly declared, did he care about the kind-heartedness, the delicacy, even the genius of such persons if they harboured but tepid feelings about faith and moral judgments, and above all were not possessed by a deep-seated longing for certainty – which, in the final analysis, is what ‘separates superior from inferior persons’? After which he added - and this must have come as a surprise to those of his readers (the vast majority) who had given his books a superficial reading – that he personally preferred a ‘hatred against Reason’, which he had found among certain pious persons, to the indifferent lukewarmness of the rest; for among the haters could at least be found ‘a bad intellectual conscience’. (Precisely the kind that had been so splendidly and pathetically exemplified by that sublimely anguished, scientifically minded, passionately despairing Catholic, Pascal.)” (Cate, pp. 356-357)

Once again, Nietzsche is not seeking to destroy anything. That is merely the consequence of his primary drive toward a truth that transcends commonly accepted values. He wants to build the foundation for a “higher culture.” He primarily wants to construct not obliterate. In this regard, The Gay Science is the cornerstone for all his future work. Hollingdale makes plain that Nietzsche is slowly developing his more mature philosophy. All the basic building blocks are present. The “hammer-like” quality of his thinking was more or less required given the catastrophically profound nature of the questions with which Nietzsche wrestled.

“In The Gay Science Nietzsche continues the experimentation of the preceding works, but his final conceptions – the will to power, the superman and eternal recurrence – are all present in embryo. In addition, the ultimate basis of all this experimenting, the disappearance of the metaphysical world, is kept clearly in mind.” (Hollingdale, page 138)

“Morality, deprived of any metaphysical origin or supernatural sanction, cannot have any ‘everlasting worth’ but must be the consequence of a ‘necessity’ felt by those who frame and live by it: there are, in fact, moralities but there is as yet no morality. That this may lead to the nihilism against which Nietzsche was trying to fight is a new instance of the ‘true but deadly’: he speaks of 'the dreadful alternative’ of the coming generation: ‘…either do away with your venerations or with yourselves! The latter would be nihilism, but would the former not also be – nihilism? – This is our question mark.’ Not until he had formulated his theory of the will to power was he able to venture an answer to this question.” (Hollingdale, pp. 140-141)

“In an early aphorism called ‘Towards a theory of the sense of power’ he suggests that good and ill actions both derive from the power-drive.” (Hollingdale, page 142) “The superman and the eternal recurrence also make preliminary appearances in The Gay Science. The picture of the superman is as yet vague, but certain traits are distinctive: Nietzsche is feeling his way towards an ‘image of man’ which embodies the power-impulse and somehow employs it as a creative force.” (Hollingdale, page 143)

“Nietzsche arrived at the theory of eternal recurrence as a consequence of two requirements: the need to explain the world and the need to accept it. The former is a general requirement of all philosophically-inclined minds, the latter a special requirement of a philosopher whose inquiries seemed to be leading to nihilism: to understand the necessary character of all phenomena – even, or especially, the ‘evil’ – would be to avoid the logically absurd posture of ‘rejecting’ a world that cannot be other than it is.” (Hollingdale, pp. 145-146)

“It provided Nietzsche with a new picture of a non-metaphysical reality, a reconciliation of ‘becoming’ with ‘being’, a goal for mankind. As it appears in The Gay Science the idea is simply a suggestion, a ‘what if?’: its full implication could be established only after the theory of the will to power and the superman had been clearly formulated.” (Hollingdale, page 147)

To a large extent, then, The Gay Science is the end of Nietzsche’s formulation of the central problems with modernity. The problem of antiquated morality. The problem of inferior or decadent culture. The problem of economic influence upon Being. The problem of expressing humanity within an indifferent universe. The problem of human motivation and psychology. And so on.

The problems are now defined, clarified and articulated in a sense that the end result of it all, nihilism, is known to Nietzsche. The question then becomes how to respond, what to do about it, how to find a genuinely relevant way of Being and Becoming that can bear the weight of the effects of this emerging nihilism and overcome the challenges of it. As Hollingdale points out, that answer is a process, a journey, just beginning, to which Nietzsche would devote the rest of his productive life.