Monday, January 31, 2011

To Live in Heroic Style

In January 1882, as we now know, the weather was beautiful in Genoa. Fritz, always so psychosomatically affected by atmospheric conditions, felt jubilant. He had developed his version of eternal recurrence of the same just a few months before but had not yet fully comprehended his intent. His philosophy was taking on a wider view with more expansive ideas and he enjoyed expressing himself in a provocative fashion, perhaps reflecting the sense of joy and freedom he personally experienced at this time.

He began the first three books of The Gay Science while still in the mountains at Sils-Maria the previous summer. Book Four was written entirely in Genoa and was subtitled “St. Januarius” in honor of the new year. Since it was conceived separately and specifically in the month of January I wanted to explore it first, coming back to the other books next. Book Five was written more or less as an addendum and placed in the 1887 edition of the work. I won’t consider it until much later in this blog, when I address Fritz’s life at that time.

Nietzsche mentions amor fati in the “St. Januarius” section, the aphorism quoted at the end of my previous post. But, amor fati is presented within the context how best to live one’s life. Significantly, Nietzsche is discussing “style.” It is a question of style that allows one to tell the difference between the “strong” members of high culture who teach and the “weak” who simply acknowledge amor fati yet create nothing.

One thing is needful. – To ‘give style’ to one’s character – a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses that their nature has to offer and then fit them into an artistic plan until each appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye. The strong and the domineering who experience their most exquisite pleasure…in being bound by but also perfected under their own law; the passion of their tremendous will becomes less intense in the face of all stylized nature…they have palaces to build and gardens to design, they resist giving nature free rein. Conversely, it is the weak characters with no power over themselves who hate the constraint of style…For one thing is needful, that a human being should attain satisfaction with himself – be it through this or that poetry or art; only then is a human being tolerable to behold!” (from Aphorism 290) Style, obviously, is an art form, living artfully (skillfully) with one’s strengths and weaknesses one might say, and this is presented as not just discovering but attaining self satisfaction with life.

Nietzsche complains that there is “so little nobility among human beings” but “for a few individuals” it is possible to become “higher human beings” that are “spectator and listener before the great visual and acoustic play that is life; he calls his nature contemplative and thereby overlooks the fact that he is also the actual poet and on-going author of life.” These are the “free spirits” to which Nietzsche is writing.

But, “higher human beings” can only come about through “a more viral, warlike age…that will above all restore honour to bravery!” Nietzsche writes metaphorically of the coming of “a still higher age…that will carry heroism into the search for knowledge and wage wars for the sake of thoughts and their consequences.” Nietzsche’s hero knows “how to be silent, lonely, determined, and satisfied and steadfast in invisible activities; human beings profoundly predisposed to look, in all things, for what must be overcome; human beings whose cheerfulness, patience, modesty, and contempt for great vanities is just as distinctive as their magnanimity in victory and sharp and free judgment concerning all victors and the share of chance in every victory and glory; human beings with their own festivals, their own working days, their own periods of mourning, accustomed to command with assurance and equally prepared, when called for, to obey – in each case, equally proud, equally serving their own cause; more endangered, more fruitful, happier human beings! For – believe me – the secret to harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is – to live dangerously!” (from Aphorism 283)

Nietzsche does not tell the reader how to live dangerously, per se. Unlike in Daybreak, there is no prescribed technique in The Gay Science for accomplishing the distinguishing characteristics of “higher” human behavior. He generalizes about the nature or “style” of it. Of course, his version of the style is not the same as yours and mine. But, yours and mine should include the characteristics of a reserved, thoughtful, passionate, and in some form creative life that freely takes risks with experiences and interpretations of truth and reality.

Nietzsche’s heroic vision is his style. It is obviously a fundamentally romantic-era vision about human society, by his own admission sentimental (“melancholic happiness”) and emotional. It also strikes me, as I have said before, to be rather naïve. Young makes it clear that in this case Nietzsche is a social thinker, albeit by this time “social” specifically to “free spirits” alone. The higher culture will be attained through art and artful living by human beings who live in Nietzsche’s style; that is the primary arrogance and prejudice of Frederich Nietzsche.

At best, free spirits may lead or teach broader society, but there is no promise society will care – which it doesn’t. The very nihilism Nietzsche seeks to avoid engulfs his social theory completely. Not the strongest aspect of his philosophy. But in terms of the individual style of living Nietzsche is far more explicit.

“There is no avenger for you anymore, no final corrector of the text of your life; there is no more reason in what happens, no love in what will happen to you; no more resting place stands open for your heart in which to find and no longer seek; you arm yourself against any ultimate peace; you will the eternal recurrence of war and peace.” (from Aphorism 285) Nietzsche uses “war” metaphorically throughout the work. He isn’t talking about military battles. He refers to the internal struggle of self-creation.

This heroic style is beyond religion, or rather builds upon a religious phase toward higher human beings. “…perhaps to a distant age the whole of religion will appear as an exercise and prelude. Perhaps religion could have been the strange means of making it possible one day for a few individuals to enjoy the whole self-sufficiency of a god and all his power and self-redemption.” (from Aphorism 300)

Such style of living transcends the understanding of “our dear religious ones” who “thirst for things that are contrary to reason and do not want to make it too hard for themselves to quench it – so they experience ‘miracles’ and ‘rebirths’ and hear the voices of angels! But we, we others, we reason-thirsty ones, want to face our experiences as sternly as we would a scientific experiment, hour by hour, day by day! We want to be our own experiments and guinea-pigs.” (from Aphorism 319)

The “great liberator” that causes one’s style of living to be “truer, more desirable and mysterious every day” understands that “life could be an experiment for the knowledge-seeker – not a duty, not a disaster, not a deception! And knowledge itself: let it be something else to others, like a bed to rest on or a way to one, or a diversion or a form of idleness; to me it is a world of dangers and victories in which heroic feelings also have their dance – and playgrounds.” Nietzsche is serious about the “play” of such style. “…one can not only live bravely but also live gaily and laugh gaily!” (from Aphorism 324) Nietzsche thinks a light-hearted sense of humor is a characteristic of higher human beings.

Once again, there is tension between the truly heroic and modern life. Nietzsche makes this argument into his own but, as noted before, the idea originates with his old friend Wagner’s critique of capitalism. “For life in a hunt for profit constantly forces people to expend their spirit to the point of exhaustion on continual pretence or out-smarting or forestalling others: the virtue today is doing something in less time than someone else. And thus hours in which honesty if allowed are rare; during them, however, one is tired and wants not only to ‘let oneself go’ but also to lay oneself down and stretch oneself out unceremoniously to one’s full length and breadth. If sociability and the arts still offer any delight, it is the kind of delight that overworked slaves make of themselves. How frugal our educated and uneducated have become concerning ‘joy’! More and more, work gets all good conscience on its side; the desire for joy already calls itself in ‘need to recuperate’ and is starting to be ashamed of itself. ‘One owes it to one’s health’ – that is what one says when caught on an excursion to the countryside, Soon we may well reach the point where one can’t give in to the desire for vita completiva (that is, taking a walk with ideas and friends) without self-contempt and a bad conscience.” (from Aphorism 329)

Nietzsche’s naivety is showing a bit here again. He frames labor (manufacturing culture actually) in terms of Christian guilt. You will feel guilty if you take too much leisure and do not work, if you spend time in contemplation instead of doing. Indeed, this is probably true of much of human Being. But, as things turned out, this guilt is not as strong as Nietzsche believed. The masses of “slaves” to “work” have formed a leisure (consumer) class of their own; not a contemplative class. Leisure (consumption) is valued over vita contemplativa to the detriment of higher culture, broadly speaking. But, once again, by the time of The Gay Science, Nietzsche has narrowed the scope of his audience to genuine “free spirits”. Higher culture has become something a few attain and yet still influences society to a significant, powerful degree.

The heroic style cannot fully escape the influence of the soup of deep intimate drives that dictate so much of our behavior. “…we suppose that understanding must be something conciliatory, just, and good, something essentially opposed to instincts, when in fact it is only a certain behavior of the drives towards one another. For the longest time, conscious thought was considered thought itself; only now does the truth dawn on us that by far the greatest part of our mind’s activity proceeds unconscious and unfelt; but I think these drives which here fight each other know very well know to make themselves felt by now and hurt each other. Indeed, there may be many hidden instances for heroism in our warring depths, but certainly nothing divine, eternally resting in itself, as Spinoza supposed. Conscious thought, especially that of a philosopher, is the least vigorous and therefore also the relatively mildest and calmest type of thought; and thus precisely philosophers are most easily led astray about the nature of knowledge.” (from Aphorism 333)

The traditional basis for human morality is once more assaulted by Nietzsche.

“Your judgment, ‘that is right’ has a prehistory in your drives, inclinations, aversions, experiences, and what you have failed to experience; you have to ask, ‘how did it emerge there?’ and then also, ‘what is really impelling me to listen to it?’ You can listen to its commands like a good soldier who heeds the command of his officer. Or like a woman who loves one who commands. Or like a flatterer and coward who fears the commander. Or like a fool who obeys because he can think of no objection. In short, there are a hundred ways to listen to your conscience….that our opinions about ‘good’ and ‘noble’ and ‘great’ can never be proven true by our actions because every act is unknowable….Let us therefore limit ourselves to the to the purification of our opinions and value judgments and to the creation of tables of what is good that are new and all our own: let us stop brooding over the ‘moral values of our actions’! Yes, my friends, it is time to feel nauseous about some people’s moral chatter about others….leave such chatter and such bad taste to those who have nothing to do but drag the past a few steps further through time and who never live in the present – that is, to the many, the great majority! We, however, want to become who we are – human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves!” (from Aphorism 335)

Self-valuation and self-creation are specifically the foundation of Nietzsche’s posture toward living, his attempt at shaping a life-narrative, and of each one of us finding our unique style in modern life. As ‘free spirits’ our styles ultimately coalesce into a higher culture. Nietzsche remains naïve about the broader social aspects of his thought. Certainly, communities of free spirits guided by art and contemplation are possible within the postmodern reality. But, the contribution of these cults toward a higher Being of society as a whole remain, to me, questionable. Can higher culture be a true force in society today? It seems romantic to think so. But, so is heroic style itself a romance with Being.