Monday, February 28, 2011

In Virtuous Stupidity

Nietzsche completed The Gay Science at his mother’s home in Naumberg where he arrived by train in May 1882. “…there remained the irksome problem of preparing a legible manuscript. Elisabeth’s ‘girlish’ handwriting seemed to her brother ill-suited to the adult seriousness of the contents. She then hired the services of a Naumberg shopkeeper, who had recently gone bankrupt, Elisabeth and Fritz took turns dictating the text to an unsatisfactory and often shocked ‘scribe’.” (Cate, page 335)

The work is shocking to the extent that it is groundbreaking and outrageous philosophy. Whereas “St. Januarius” deals with how best to stylistically express oneself in a world without God, the first three Books of The Gay Science deal with, among other things, the “death of God” and some of the consequences of the death of God.

Nietzsche begins his book with 63 short poems. Once more, these strike me as mediocre. Perhaps they are more interesting and clever in German. What is noteworthy, however, is that, suddenly, Nietzsche is writing numerous poems. His poetic muse would erupt from time to time throughout his life. It was somewhat more subdued while Fritz composed music in younger days. Number 27 is entitled “The Solitary One.”

“Despised by me are following and leading.

Commanding? Even worse to me than heeding!
Who does not scare himself can friethen no one:
The one who causes fear can lead another.
But just to lead myself is too much bother!
I love, as do the sea and forest creatures,
to lose myself awhile in nature's features
to hide away and brood in secret places
until, lured home at last from distant traces,
my self-seduction lets me see - my features."

After the poetic introduction, Nietzsche addresses human consciousness itself; stressing once more its immaturity and tendency to commit errors. He contrasts consciousness with human instinct, which has better served humanity than rational thought to this point in our history.

“Consciousness is the latest development of the organic, and hence also its most unfinished and unrobust feature. If the preserving alliance of the instincts were not so much more powerful, if it did not serve on the whole as a regulator, humanity would have to perish with open eyes of its misjudging and it fantasizing, of its lack of thoroughness and its incredulity – in short, of its consciousness; or rather, without instincts, humanity would have long ceased to exist! The task of assimilating knowledge and making it instinctive is still quite new; it is only beginning to dawn on the human eye and is yet barely discernible – it is a task seen only by those who have understood that so far we have incorporated only our errors and that all of our consciousness refers to errors!” (from Aphorism 11)

Nietzsche demonstrates how consciousness has led to errors within society as a whole. In addition to the usual attacks on the “error of morality” Nietzsche rather idealistically considers the development of industrial culture to be a substantial error compared with the traditional (at the time) aristocratic and military ordering of society.


“Soldiers and leaders still have a far higher relation to one another than do workers and employers. So far at least, all cultures with a military basis are still high above so-called industrial culture: the latter in its present form is altogether the most vulgar form of existence that has ever been. Here it is simply the law of need operating: one wants to live and has to sell oneself, but one despises those who exploit this need and buy the worker. It is strange that submission to powerful, frightening, yes, terrifying persons, to tyrants and generals, is experienced to be not nearly as distressing as this submission to unknown and uninteresting persons, which is what all the greats of industry are: the worker usually sees in the employer only a cunning, bloodsucking dog of a man who speculates on all distress and whose name, figure, manner, and reputation are completely indifferent to him. So far the manufacturers and large-scale commercial entrepreneurs have apparently been much too lacking in all manners and signs of higher race that alone enable a person to become interesting; if they had the refinement of noble breeding in their eye and gesture, there might not be any socialism of the masses. For the masses are basically prepared to submit to any kind of slavery provided that the superiors constantly legitimize themselves as higher, as born to command – through refined demeanor.” (from Aphorism 40)

Work for the sake of wages alone is considered an error, especially when contrasted with a “higher” motivation for labor. “Now there are rare individuals who would rather perish than work without taking pleasure in their work: they are choosy, hard to please, and have no use for ample rewards if the work is not itself the reward of rewards. To this rare breed belong artists and contemplative men of all kinds, but also men of leisure who spend their lives hunting, traveling, in love affairs, or on adventures. All of them want work and misery as long as it is joined with pleasure, and the heaviest, hardest work, if need be. Otherwise they are resolutely idle, even if it spells impoverishment, dishonor, and danger to life and limb. They do not fear boredom as much as work without pleasure.” (from Aphorism 42)

Nietzsche seeks the “counter-drives” to the drive of industrial labor for wages alone (the birth of consumer culture). He argues for what he calls “virtuous stupidity; what is needed are unwavering beat-keepers of the slow spirit,” the counter-balance of the speed and haste of industrial culture (from Aphorism 76). The counter-drive is to connect with oneself through art and the example of art even within this culture of wages. “Only artists…have taught us to value the hero that is hidden in each of these everyday characters and taught the art of regarding oneself as a hero, from a distance and as it were simplified and transfigured – the art of ‘putting oneself on stage’ before oneself. Only thus can we get over certain lowly details in ourselves. Without this art we would be nothing but foreground…” (from Aphorism 78)

Remember, once again, Nietzsche is writing a call to action to “free spirits” not to the herd of humanity. “As an aesthetic phenomenon existence is still bearable to us, and art furnishes us with the eye and hand and above all the good conscience to be able to make such a phenomenon of ourselves. At times we need to have a rest from ourselves by looking at and down at ourselves and, from an artistic distance, laughing at ourselves or crying at ourselves; we have to discover the hero no less than the fool in our passion for knowledge; we must now and then be pleased about our folly in order to be able to stay pleased about our wisdom!” (from Aphorism 107)
The discovery of the hero and the fool in each of us, both necessary components to overcome the many errors of human consciousness made manifest in human economic society, morality, and the multitude of other mistakes, takes place in a war among inner drives. “The course of logical thoughts and inferences in our brains today corresponds to a process and battle of drives that taken separately are all very illogical and unjust; we usually experience only the outcome of the battle: that is how quickly and covertly this ancient mechanism runs its course in us.” (from Aphorism 111)

The multitude of drives seem for Nietzsche to be a reality in itself, apart from human awareness, undergoing their own processes for discovery and learning at a non-rational level of human experience. “…the doubting drive, the denying drive, the waiting drive, the collecting drive, the dissolving drive. Many hecatombs of human beings had to be sacrificed before these drives learned to grasp their coexistence and feel the functions of one organizing force in one human being!” (from Aphorism 113)

The infamous “madman” passage announces the death of God. But, it must be remembered, that God is murdered by those who don’t even realize they have done so, by those who in fact worship Him; murdered through errors in consciousness, the herd’s desire for wages with mere material purpose, and the functional nature of commercial culture and errant morality. “’God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How can we console ourselves, the murderers of all murderers! There was never a greater deed – and whoever is born after us will on account of this deed belong to a higher history that all history up until now!’ Here the madman feel silent and looked again at his listeners; they were too silent and looked at him disconcertedly. Finally, he threw his lantern on the ground so that it broke into pieces and went out. ‘I come too early,’ he then said; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder need time; the light of the stars needs time; deeds need time, even after they are done, in order to be seen and heard. This deed is still more remote to them than the remotest stars – and yet they have done it themselves!” (from Aphorism 126)

For Nietzsche, the murder of God will result in nihilism in the near future. It is a complete misunderstanding of Nietzsche to believe he celebrated the death of God or took joy in the resulting meaninglessness of life. Nietzsche sought to find meaning, to avoid the consequences of the death of God even before the effects of this death were widely experienced.


The relevant, mature response to this death is to recognize the multiplicity of human reality. Here, Nietzsche first introduces his true hero concept. “But above and outside oneself, in a distant overworld, one got to see a plurality of norms; one god was not the denial of or anathema to another god! Here for the first time one allowed oneself individuals; here one first honored the rights of individuals. The invention of gods, heroes, and overmen (Ubermenschen) of all kinds, as well as deviant or inferior forms of humanoid life (Neben- und Untermenschen), dwarfs, fairies, centaurs, satyrs, demons, and devils, was the invaluable preliminary exercise for the justification of egotism and sovereignty of the individual: the freedom that one conceded to a god in his relation to other gods one finally gave to oneself in relation to laws, customs, and neighbors.” (from Aphorism 143)

It is this self-created and self-claimed freedom, developed not through morality nor through the monetary schema of industrial culture, but rather through the discovery of skilled, creative living, that Nietzsche begins to attribute to the Ubermenschen. This is something he explores in greater detail in his next work, a work destined to become his most famous philosophical effort.

But, before we can appreciate that work we have to understand the profound motivation behind it. Much of that motivation had to do with his best friend, Paul Ree and a special woman that entered Fritz’s life upon his return from Messina, weeks before the drafts of The Gay Science were completed.