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Why did Nietzsche admire Emerson?

2014/08/08 3 comments

I have asked, and attempted answers to, this question before. Yet it returns to me, why two of my closest companions should themselves have been friends. How could Nietzsche, the arch-anti-idealist, find himself drawn irresistibly to an avowed idealist such as Emerson? And the answer is, perhaps, that Emerson was no idealist. Let me explain.

“Considerations by the Way,” the modestly titled seventh chapter of The Conduct of Life, finds Emerson in a curious place. On the one hand, he would provide rules for the conduct of life. On the other hand,

That by which a man conquers in any passage, is a profound secret to every other being in the world, and it is only as he turns his back on us and on all men, and draws on this most private wisdom, that any good can come to him. What we have, therefore, to say of life, is rather description, or, if you please, celebration, than available rules. (1079)

The essay perhaps never overcomes this ambivalence, structurally: at times it seeks to provide such rules, yet it never commits fully to the task. Similarly, it is at times celebratory, but sometimes, perhaps, a bit weary. When Emerson suggests, in one of his rules, that cheerfulness is the most important element of health, one wonders whether he was fully cheerful in writing this essay. Yet the vigor of his thought comes through, and nowhere more than in his celebration (of sorts) of vice. It is in this respect that Emerson was no idealist.

In what is already a quite Nietzschean turn, Emerson lambasts the masses:

Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need not to be flattered but to be schooled. I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them. The worst of charity is, that the lives you are asked to preserve are not worth preserving. Masses! the calamity is the masses. (1081)

Emerson does soften his tone, in a way that Nietzsche perhaps would not have:

To say then, the majority are wicked, means no malice, no bad heart in the observer, but, simply, that the majority are unripe, and have not yet come to themselves, do not yet know their opinion. That, if they knew it, is an oracle for them and for all. (1083)

The reason for this is that the masses do not think, or to rephrase the point, are not self-reliant. “The mass are animal, in pupilage, and near chimpanzee.” (1082) Kant made it a categorical duty of reason to treat all rational beings as ends in themselves, and not as means. Emerson is more or less Kantian, only he is stingier about whom he will consider rational: the thinker is an end, the masses mere means. “The rule is, we are used as brute atoms, until we think: then, we use all the rest.” (1082) That is why Emerson would break up masses, and find individuals in them. If many are lost, so be it: “Nature makes fifty poor melons for one that is good. […] In mankind, she is contented if she yields one master in a century.” (1081) “This is bold practice, and there are many failures to a good escape.” (1085)

The lesson to draw from this wastefulness of nature, and from the unripe state of the masses, is “the good of evil.” (1083) What follows is a several-page discussion of the good effects that are can be brought about only by “evil”, cruel, harsh means – the bleeding heart could never manage them. This lesson, writ large, also proves true of the individual:

In short, there is no man who is not at some time indebted to his vices, as no plant that is not fed from manures. We only insist that the man meliorate, and that the plant grow upward, and convert the base into the better nature. (1086)

In this, Emerson shows his willingness to see vice as the origin of all virtue. This is his anti-idealism. Here Nietzsche must enter. In Daybreak, his book on “the prejudices of morality,” Nietzsche begins with the ultimate prejudice: the purity of the good:

Supplemental rationality. – All things that live long are gradually so saturated with reason that their origin in unreason thereby becomes improbable. Does not almost every precise history of an origination impress our feelings as paradoxical and wantonly offensive? Does the good historian not, at bottom, constantly contradict? (§1, Hollingdale translation)

This lies at the heart of Nietzsche’s thought: that virtue originates in vice, that everything we now call good grew out of something we would call evil, and that the creation of new goods requires something evil. Nietzsche mature works deal extensively with tracing out lineages of such origin – of course in On the Genealogy of Morality, but really in every work from Daybreak on, except perhaps Zarathustra.

It is the prejudice of morality to deny such origins, to take them as basically contradictions. To take the good as pure as unmixed, as incapable of originating in the base materiality of this world – that, for Nietzsche, is idealism (one form of it, anyway). And it is just this form that Emerson rejects. I have noted before that Emerson preferred not to transcend dualisms, nor to quite embrace them, but to “reconcile” them without losing their antagonism. He prefers to see the virtuous grow out of the vicious, but would take pure vice before pure virtue.

Of course, Emerson never analyzed these origins in the same detail as Nietzsche. That is, perhaps, part of why Nietzsche lamented that Emerson had never “gone through some strict discipline, a really scientific education. As it is, in Emerson we have lost a philosopher.” (Quoted in Kaufmann’s introduction to his translation of The Gay Science.) Yet he could still call him “the author who has been richest in ideas in this century” and claim that “I may not praise it, it is too close to me.” (Same)

If I am right, one of the ideas that Nietzsche found (I do not claim for the first time) in the rich well of Emerson, was the low origin of all high things.

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Daybreak meditation, §103

In an earlier post, written as I was reading Nietzsche’s Anti-Christ, I was perplexed by an apparently social strand in his thought—something about his project seemed to re­quire the modification of social institutions, seemed to suggest that such institutions had a role to play in creating the “higher type” of human. My recent purchase, from a used bookstore, of Morgenröte—a much more pleasant way to practice my German than rather mindless online studying—has led to the renewal of these perplexities. That seems as good an excuse as any to write.

§35 of Morgenröte lays out Nietzsche’s intellectualist view of feelings (cf. this post for my reflections on that passage). He writes: “Aber Gefühle sind nichts Letztes, Ursprüngliches, hinter den Gefühlen stehen Urteile und Wertschätzungen” (But feelings are nothing final, original, behind feelings stand judgments and evaluations)—that is, feelings are secondary to judgments. But what is most interesting to me, at least today, is not the mere fact that feelings follow judgments, but that for Nietzsche feelings are something inherited.

I find this especially interesting in light of my recent semi-immersion in ancient Stoicism, who also take an intellectualist standpoint. Behind every sense of being harmed or benefitted lies a judgment. Remove the judgment, and the harm itself is removed. Thus Marcus Aurelius: “How easy it is to repel and wipe away every disturbing or inappropriate thought, and recover at once a perfect calm” (Meditations, bk. 5, ch. 2) and “Do away with the judgment, and the notion ‘I have been harmed’ is done away with; do away with that notion, and the harm itself is gone.’ (Meditations, bk. 4, ch. 7). But on this Stoic picture, the relationship between judgment and feeling is immediate, or nearly so: I can effect the change within myself.

What Nietzsche adds to this picture is inheritance, which applies only to feelings. The starting point for §35 is the phrase, “vertraue deinem Gefühle!” (trust your feelings!). Nietzsche undermines this by arguing that feelings are the inheritance of someone else’s (often false) judgments, and not the result of one’s own judgments. To trust my feelings, then, would be to trust the judgments of, most proximately, my parents, since their judgments I have inherited as feelings. Where the unified mind of the Stoic gives me complete control over my feelings, or nearly so, Nietzsche makes me more beholden to my past, my genealogy. His intellectualist view spans generations.

It is this temporal aspect to his intellectualism that underlies §103. This passage is devoted primarily to distinguishing two ways of denying morality. The first denies that the moral motivations people ascribe to themselves are what is truly motivating them; the second denies “daß die sittlichen Urteile auf Wahrheiten beruhen” (that moral judgments are based on truths). Nietzsche clarifies that he is of the second sort, though he grants that in many particular cases the first sort is also right. This is all well and good, but the most interesting portion of the passage comes at the end, when Nietzsche writes:

Wir haben umzulernen, — um endlich, vielleicht sehr spat, noch mehr zu erreichen: umzufühlen.

This doesn’t translate smoothly. A rough, very literal translation goes: “we must relearn, in order, finally, perhaps very late, to achieve still more: to re-feel.” The Hollingdale translation runs, “We have to learn to think differently – in order at last, perhaps very late on, to attain even more: to feel differently.” I cannot do better.

Nietzsche’s suggestion of the practical upshot of his denial of morality is that we need to think in a different, new way about what we traditionally considered in moral terms. Just before this suggestion, he makes it clear that he does not think that all of the content of morality is wrong (i.e. the things we should and should not do)—rather, the moral framing is wrong, and those bits of the content that we preserve, we should preserve “aus anderen Gründen als bisher” (for other reasons than hitherto). The “relearning” consists, then, of learning these new grounds, and the end result, which will come “perhaps very late,” is a new array of feelings, distinct from the moral feelings we have felt hitherto.

This suggestion at once raises two thoughts in my mind. First, I run up, again, on the notion that Nietzsche is making a fundamentally social proposal. If the final benefit of the relearning is a modification of our feelings, this benefit will not lie with those (e.g. Nietzsche) who overthrow moral judgments. Instead, it will come “perhaps very late”—that is, many generations down the line. Nietzsche’s proposal is a large-scale, long-term project. Earlier I was perplexed by the thought that Nietzsche seemed to require social institutions that promoted the development of the higher type—here that perplexity takes on more definite content. One specific aspect of these institutions must be that they teach, not morality, but the new judgments. Since judgments are inherited as feelings, that will lead, eventually, to the inheritance of new, non-moral feelings—a condition I take it Nietzsche thinks is conducive to the development of the higher type.

At the same time as the shape of the requisite institutions comes into clearer view, however, the perplexity deepens. For what §35 makes clear is that our inherited feelings are not to be trusted—will this not be so as well for those beneficiaries of our new judgments? Should they not equally mistrust their non-moral feelings? And if they cannot trust the feelings they inherit from our judgments, why are we so concerned about this inheritance?

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Addendum

A perceptive commenter on my earlier post about The Anti-Christ challenged my taking this intellectualist interpretation of Nietzsche. I have not addressed his criticisms here. I ought to, and may perhaps devote a post to this task soon. But I will say now that, at least in the two passages I have looked at here, Nietzsche does take the view that judgments are inherited as feelings, and does, in a way not free of internal tension, seem to want to use this relationship between judgment and feelings to enact a shift in the feelings of future generations via a change in the judgments of this one. Does this sit uneasily with Nietzsche’s critiques of intellectualism pointed out by my commenter? I cannot yet say.

Daybreak meditations, §35

2014/01/07 2 comments

The spring semester has started, hence I am walking to campus again, hence my Daybreak meditations have begun anew. I am using the Cambridge edition, translated by R. J. Hollingdale.

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The Nietzsche passage, to begin:

Feelings and their origination in judgments. – ‘Trust your feelings!’ – But feelings are nothing final or original; behind feelings there stand judgments and evaluations which we inherit in the form of feelings (inclinations, aversions). The inspiration born of a feeling is the grandchild of a judgment – and often of a false judgment! – and in any event not a child of your own! To trust one’s feelings – means to give more obedience to one’s grandfather and grandmother and their grandparents than to the gods which are in us: our reason and our experience.

Nietzsche has, alongside Emerson, been the primary inspiration for my conception of experiment, and here he illustrates on aspect of that basic idea. What I deem by the term ‘experiment’ is a form of moral perfectionism that insists on honesty to oneself above all else—but does so while questioning the very existence of a self to which one could be honest. Nietzsche in this passage is defending a form of skepticism of the body: our feelings and inclinations are not properly our own, but only the inherited judgments of our ancestors. They are not properly our own; obedience to them is not honesty to ourselves but to others.

We have spontaneous, uncontrolled reactions to things, immediate feelings about them—but we should not trust these feelings. For, if we look to their origin, we find that they come from past judgments made by others. Nietzsche has, at times, antiquated views about inheritance, but this one, I believe, sticks. Our parents judge that something is bad, and then this sense of badness is inculcated in us without our ever arriving at the judgment for ourselves—and perhaps we must in fact look even further than our parents to find the original judgment. An example from my own history: my mother abhors southern accents, and while I do not share the judgment, I do share the feeling. My initial distaste for the sound is fading with time, whether in part due to my rejection of the judgment I do not know, but is still present. There is a tendency of my body to feel in particular ways, and it comes from a judgment made by another.

If we let our feelings, birthed in this fashion, determine our judgments, then we are letting the reason of another, the experience of another, the job of determining our own selves. And this is quite contrary to the experimental injunction to be honest to oneself. In my last Daybreak meditation (link above), I looked at Nietzsche’s distinction between customs in their first generation—when they are motivated by some benefit—and in their second generation, when their force derives from their being the customary thing to do.—This is, incidentally, quite similar to the acquaintance/description distinction I drew in my previous post.—This provides a useful way of thinking about feelings: they are, in effect, customs of thought, received via inheritance and not via any first generation processes of judgment.

That Nietzsche is motivated by the injunction to honesty in this passage is shown by his revealing comment that feelings are not “a child of your own”—it is to one’s own children that one should be loyal, not the children of one’s parents. What counts as a child of our own? Nietzsche suggests that we have something divine, godlike within us: our own reason and experience. As for Emerson, what divinity is possible is nothing other than self-trust—but at the base of this self-trust is a very great mistrust of our bodies. This is not a revulsion of the body as merely material—after all, where else shall we find anything divine, if not in the “merely” material, as there is nothing else?—but it is a recognition that what shapes our bodies is so often foreign to us. And, at the risk of jumping ahead of myself, I cannot help but look to §49, the subject of my next Daybreak meditation, where Nietzsche describes the motto of the last man as follows: nihil humani a me alienum puto—nothing human is foreign to me.

Though my conception of experiment has been brewing since last summer, its development was jolted by Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”. Nietzsche provides the necessary flipside to Emerson’s title: self-distrust. The one is cheap without the other.

Daybreak meditation, §32

2013/12/04 1 comment

Over the past month or so, I have taken advantage of my daily walk to and from cam­pus to reflect on passages from Nietzsche’s Daybreak, after which I record some trace of my reflections. This is a record of one such meditation.

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Nietzsche is here discussing a problem of mechanics: there is a brake on our acquiring a new understanding of morality, and we must solve the problem of removing it. This brake is a certain pride that takes pleasure in suffering for the sake of a higher, exalted world. This pride is gratified to be able to suffer for morality, for the soul is thereby itself exalted. When informed that this supposed exaltation depends upon an error, a false understanding of morality, this pride shows the reaction typical of wounded pride: indignation. Pride, thus wounded, resists the new understanding. (§31 shows a similar effect of pride—a different pride? The same pride?—it resists the theory that says that man descended from the animals.)

Nietzsche does not much elaborate a solution to this problem. Instead, he offers a hint in the form of a question. “What force, therefore, will have to be employed if this brake is to be removed? More pride? A new pride?” I take this as a positive suggestion: a new pride is needed. But I am not strongly committed to the need being for pride specifically, it is enough that it be for some attitude like pride.

This raises a question: what sort of knowledge is Nietzsche’s new understanding of morality? Today, the word ‘knowledge’ calls to my mind a certain sort of description of how the world is. Applied to this case, Nietzsche’s new understanding of morality amounts to his description of the true nature of morality. Perhaps the essential feature of such descriptive knowledge is its objectivity: it can be passed on, verbally, to anyone, regardless of who they are.

Regardless of who they are—this means independent of what they feel, how they act, etc. Independent also of whether they are proud or modest. Perhaps Nietzsche’s new understanding of morality is of this sort. After all, Nietzsche says of this new pride only that it is needed to remove a certain brake on the understanding. Once this brake is removed, perhaps the new understanding may carry itself, simply because it is true. Truth may meet resistance from pride, to be sure, and may need a different pride to overcome that resistance, but once the resistance is removed, it needs no further support from that pride.

I worry about this reading of Nietzsche. My worry may be expressed succinctly: I do not think Nietzsche wants his understanding of morality to become a mere custom of thought. Let me explain. Nietzsche earlier reflected on the foundation of custom: “In its ultimate foundation – in this case that means: in its first generation. For when the habit of some distinguishing action is inherited, the thought that lies behind it is not inherited with it.” (§30) Nietzsche’s new understanding of morality, in its first generation, is wrapped up in the entirety of Nietzsche’s project, with its vision for the future, its moods, its pride, its modesty. This is the first generation of the new understanding. To acquire this understanding one needs a certain pride that can overcome a different, resisting pride.

But if this understanding is merely descriptive, then when it is inherited, all of this context is lost. All that is inherited is the description, accessible to anyone. It is faceless knowledge. If it is mere descriptive knowledge about morality, then it is inherited divorced from all moods, virtues, and vices. It ceases to be first generation knowledge, as it were; it becomes a custom of thought, followed for different reasons and with different feelings (hence also accompanied by different actions) than in the first generation.

The alternative is that Nietzsche’s new understanding of morality, insofar as it is valuable, is valuable in its first generation. Here, “first generation” is untimely. Nietzsche, in The Anti-Christ, remarks that a primitive Christianity will always be possible—I take “primitive” here to be akin to “first generation”: he means a Christian life that is not inherited but discovered for oneself, with all the moods, virtues, and thoughts that are not inherited with Christian customs. Does Nietzsche exempt his own understanding of morality from this same process of impoverishment via inheritance? When, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he says he does not want disciples, is he not calling for his “followers” to possess his truths as first generation truths only, else not at all?

Perhaps Nietzsche’s understanding of morality is descriptive knowledge. But I worry.

Skepticism at the margins V: On the possibility of pure zoomorphism

[My human/animal seminar met for the final time today. These thoughts were occa­sioned by a discussion therein. I will miss it dearly.]

John Cage apparently related the following story about Morton Feldman. Reflecting on the phrase “free as a bird”, he went to a park to observe them. Upon returning, he remarked, “You know? They’re not free: they’re fighting over bits of food.” (The story may be found, I am told, in his Silence: Lectures and Writings.) I wish to understand this as a zoomorphic experience.

I obtained this concept—which I am now perverting—in a discussion in my human/animal seminar. One student distinguished anthropomorphism—placing human characteristics onto animals—from zoomorphism—using animals to learn about humans. I was perplexed; I found it difficult to see how we could use animals to learn about humans without anthropomorphizing. The context of the discussion was the use of animals—actual animal bodies and representations of animals alike—in art, so I ran through works of art I find particularly successful at using animals to teach me something about what it is to be human. In every case, I found human interests guiding the treatment of animals. Animals were viewed not as they are, but as they are for humans. And so, I expect, is how it must be. What we wish to learn about ourselves from animals, we first place upon them. Then we extract them back out, perhaps with remarkable artistry and great insight, but this still does not amount to a pure zoomorphism.

Is zoomorphism that does not collapse into anthropomorphism possible? I think it is, in the form of a skepticism that creeps in at the margins. What I am envisioning is a visceral, direct experience of animals that brings us to the realization of just how distorting our anthropomorphisms are, how much we humanize animal life in order to learn from it. In such an experience, we are forced to confront the fact that animal lives do not exist for us, that what they are for animals is no doubt wholly distinct from what they are for us, and that we have very limited access to what animal lives are for animals.

Joyce’s conception of epiphanies might serve as a model for such an experience. I conceive of it as transformative. We have a dominant mode of relating to the world, one in which we treat of animals insofar as they are useful to us, whether materially or conceptually. These experiences crystallize a skepticism about this dominant mode. They compose, as it were, a minor strain moving below the surface, occasionally rising into view. They make us realize—and force us to reflect upon—the differences between animal life for animals and animal life for humans. They bring us to see our everyday anthropomorphism as something truly imposed upon animals.

Cage’s story about Feldman is an example of such thinking. Birds as a model of freedom is a well-worn trope, one that is inherited and taken for granted, more or less unquestioned. Yet Feldman took it upon himself to investigate directly, and found it lacking. Birds fighting over food are not free. Certainly they are not concerned with serving as an inspiration for humans. They are concerned about getting food, though this still gives us little insight into what it is to be a bird fighting for food. This is a zoomorphic experience.

I think there is an even better example of zoomorphic experience: that of Montaigne, playing with his cat. At some point, playing with his cat, Montaigne realizes that he is treating the cat as a partner in his play, as something with whom Montaigne is playing. But then he asks: “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” (This may be found in his “Apology for Raymond Sebond”, the longest by far of his Essays.) This amounts to a realization, not at an abstract level but quite concretely, that he has taken for granted his cat as a thing for him to play with, and that he is equally as much something for his cat—though what this something is, neither he nor anyone else can say. The only individual capable of saying is the cat itself, and it cannot speak. The experience Montaigne records is the purest instance of zoomorphism I have encountered.

I have praised experience over thought. Why is this? It comes down to my expectation that a genuine zoomorphism will be transformative, will change, for however brief a time, the way one relates to animals. And, in brief, I distrust the ability of pure thought to effect such a transformation. I call Nietzsche to my aid. In Daybreak §30, he makes an insightful comment about the inheritance of customs: “In its ultimate foundation – in this case that means: in its first generation. For when the habit of some distinguishing action is inherited, the thought that lies behind it is not inherited with it.” [Cambridge edition.] It is easy to inherit a sort of zoomorphism as a habit of thought, a custom one follows as it were thoughtlessly, without connection to direct experience. In praising zoomorphic experience over zoomorphic thought, I am praising zoomorphic thought in its first generation, and not as mere habit.

I lack faith in thought. Speaking for myself only, though I am sure I am not alone, thought without a direct connection to experience, to its instances of application, is effete. It spins frictionlessly, making no contact with action or the world. Or, as Nietzsche puts it in another place, “The most confident knowledge or faith cannot provide the strength or the ability needed for a deed, it cannot replace the employment of that subtle, many-faceted mechanism which must first be set in motion if anything at all of an idea is to translate itself into action.” (Daybreak §22) By contrast, I expect experiences of the sort I have countenanced to possess that power.

With such experience, an old thought becomes original. I do not believe in progress for the simple reason that I must go over the same ground as those before me, must grapple with the same enduring problems. I cannot much trust my inheritance until I have made it my own through experience. Zoomorphism as thought is nothing new, and it is easy to think. But to really experience it is to accomplish something new and original, in the only sense of originality one can countenance in a world where the sun shines each day on the nothing new (my gratitude to Samuel Beckett). What is so remarkable about Montaigne’s essays in general is the manner in which he applies his experiences in order to work on himself. He is not merely thinking, he is going over the ground of thought with the aid of his individual set of experiences. Because of that, he achieves, at least once, a pure zoomorphism.