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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.

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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.

Doubt and Climate

2013/09/07 5 comments

The material in Emerson’s “The Transcendentalist” is too personal, cuts too deeply, for me to talk about seriously here. So instead I shall follow a safer path, and use Emerson to resolve some of my doubts about Nietzsche’s Hyperboreans. Page references to Emerson are from the Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures (E&L); those to Nietzsche are to: (a) TSZ: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Adrian del Caro (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy), (b) BGE: Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Penguin Classics), (c) AC: The Anti-Christ, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Penguin Classics, combined with Twilight of the Idols).

Emerson’s essay begins abruptly: so-called “new views” (i.e. Transcendentalism) are not new at all; they are simply old views adapted to the times. This lets Emerson cast the issue as, fundamentally, the old disagreement between materialists and idealists. Transcendentalism is just a new incarnation of idealism.

The materialist insists on facts, on history, on the force of circumstances, and the animal wants of man; the idealist on the power of Thought and of Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture. (E&L 193)

Emerson then goes on to characterize the way the idealist relates to the materialist.

He [the idealist] concedes all that the other affirms, admits the impressions of sense, admits their coherency, their use and beauty, and then asks the materialist for his grounds of assurance that things are as his senses represent them. (E&L 193)

The idealist grants to the materialist that, indeed, the appearances are as he says, but inquires after the veridicality of these appearances. And here Emerson, in a very cursory manner, raises old skeptical doubts.

But ask him [the materialist] why he believes that an uniform experience will continue uniform, or on what grounds he founds his faith in figures, and he will perceive that his mental fabric is built up on just as strange and quaking foundations as his proud edifice of stone. (E&L 194-5)

It is not Emerson’s interest to enter this debate, nor mine. What we should recognize is simply that, to a great extent, the materialist today concedes this point to at least some degree. It is a familiar point that science “proves” nothing, that it deals only in probabilities that never quite reach 1 or 0. (This is codified in Bayesian epistemology, which generally forbids attaching a prior probability of 1 or 0 to any hypothesis. I take no stand on the viability of Bayesian epistemology.) Scientific inquiry is not built on the firm foundation of certainty; it always leaves space, however slight, for the skeptic. Now, this is not a full concession, for to renounce certainty need not be to admit of “quaking foundations”. But it is at least a partial concession, and it is enough to make room for a crucial move in Emerson’s essay.

Immediately after the idealist’s concession to the materialist (two quotes above), Emerson continues,

But I, he [the idealist] says, affirm facts not affected by the illusions of sense, facts which are of the same nature as the faculty which reports them, and not liable to doubt; facts which in their first appearance to us assume a native superiority to material facts, degrading these into a language by which the first are to be spoken; facts which it only needs a retirement from the senses to discern. (E&L 193)

What is striking in this passage, to me at least, is the five-word phrase preceding the first semicolon: “and not liable to doubt.” That is to say: the idealist’s truths, as opposed to the materialist’s facts, are built on a firm foundation; they do not admit of doubt, however slight. And by this I think Emerson means precisely epistemic doubt, the sort of doubt that is codified by Bayesian epistemology in the refusal to allow probabilities to reach either extreme—nothing is conclusively accepted or rejected.

This understanding of ‘doubt’ as specifically epistemic doubt is crucial, for without it nothing much makes sense. For one thing, Emerson’s journals are full to the brim with doubt. Doubt is almost compulsive for Emerson: he hardly makes one joyous leap that is not followed by an episode of crippling doubt. So when Emerson says that the idealist position does not admit of doubt, he cannot be using the word in its fullest sense—unless he is lying.

This is confirmed when, later in the essay, Emerson moves from describing the materialism-idealism conflict to describing the incarnation of idealism that is called the transcendentalist. And when he does this, what characterizes the transcendentalist but doubt. At this point there is a path into Emerson’s essay that explores its incredibly rich and resounding portrait of the solitude of the transcendentalist, but it is just here that I want to swerve off into a new path, the one that leads me into Nietzsche.

Let me preface this by saying that what I will be doing is simply noting a few intriguing parallels between Emerson and Nietzsche, and suggesting on this basis a possible purpose for which Nietzsche invented his Hyperboreans. I am not claiming that Nietzsche was influenced by the specific passage in question in Emerson—though perhaps he was—nor that the parallels I draw make my reading of Nietzsche inevitable. Moreso even than most of what appears on this blog, the reading of Nietzsche I shall produce is tentative, to be justified by its fruits in making sense of his corpus. I shall only accomplish only a small portion of this task in this post.

With those caveats out of the way, we can return to the issue of doubt in Emerson. What form does this doubt take? Emerson describes it at length, and I quote it in full:

But, to come a little closer to the secret of these persons [the transcendentalists], we must say, that to them it seems a very easy matter to answer the objections of the man of the world, but not so easy to dispose of the doubts and objections that occur to themselves. They are exercised in their own spirit with queries, which acquaint them with all adversity, and with the trials of the bravest heroes. When I asked them concerning their private experience, they answered somewhat in this wise: It is not to be denied that there must be some wide difference between my faith and other faith; and mine is a certain brief experience, which surprised me in the highway or in the market, in some place, at some time,—whether in the body or out of the body, God knoweth,—and made me aware that I had played the fool with fools all this time, but that law existed for me and for all; that to me belonged trust, a child’s trust and obedience, and the worship of ideas, and I should never be fool more. Well, in the space of an hour, probably, I was let down from this height; I was at my old tricks, the selfish member of a selfish society. My life is superficial, takes no root in the deep world; I ask, When shall I die, and be relieved of the responsibility of seeing an Universe which I do not use? I wish to exchange this flash-of-lightning faith for continuous daylight, this fever-glow for a benign climate. (E&L 205)

In this dazzling passage, we see the full shape of the idealist/transcendentalist’s doubt. It is the doubt that the grasp of truth is sustainable. Of the truth itself, there is no doubt. But that it may be consistently lived and felt, that is doubted. For the truth is grasped in a flash, a lightning strike. It is feverish and unstable. It is not the characterized by continuous daylight and a mild climate, but by flashes of light in a storm. In the space of an hour, it is gone. And that is the doubt.

What I want to do now is to suggest that this same doubt is implicit in Nietzsche, and that Nietzsche’s Hyperboreans are an invention designed in part in the face of this very doubt. And what I think is remarkable, and what strengthens me in my doubt-ridden conviction that there is something to this line of thought, is that we see that this doubt appears in Nietzsche accompanied by precisely the same metaphors as are used by Emerson in the passage just quoted.

At the start of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in the section titled “Zarathustra’s Prologue”, Zarathustra delivers his famous speech to the marketplace, which begins, “Ich lehre euch den Übermenschen” (rendered by del Caro as “I teach you the overman”; TSZ 5). Zarathustra uses two metaphors to characterize the Übermensch: first, he is a sea, and can “take in a polluted stream without becoming unclean” (TSZ 6); second,

Where is the lightning that would lick you with its tongue? Where is the madness with which you should be inoculated?

Behold, I teach you the overman: he is this lightning, he is this madness! – (TSZ 7)

It is this lightning that “shall be the meaning of the earth!” (TSZ 6) And so here we see the first parallel between Emerson and Nietzsche: the likening of the highest of moments to a lightning strike, something very intense but equally brief. The madness of the Übermensch comes only for an instant, and then it is gone. And Zarathustra later makes it explicit that this lightning strike implies stormy weather: “I want to teach humans the meaning of their being, which is the overman, the lightning from the dark cloud ‘human being.’” (TSZ 12)

Now I am not sure if the doubts that Emerson raises about this “flash-of-lightning faith” are found explicitly in Nietzsche—that is, I do not recall any passages where Nietzsche explicitly comments on this feature of the Übermensch as a source of doubts. But I do think we can see that the tension is implicitly operative in Nietzsche when we juxtapose that description of the Übermensch with one of the brief sayings from the “Maxims and Interludes” section of Beyond Good and Evil.

§72. It is not the strength but the duration of exalted sensations which makes exalted men. (BGE 91)

The contrast between this thought and the description of the Übermensch could not be starker. The Übermensch is intense but brief, yet the exalted man’s sensations are long, yet perhaps not so intense. In Emerson’s metaphor (which I want to suggest is Nietzsche’s as well), better a constantly gentle climate than the momentary explosion of energy that comes with a storm. So now I want to express the doubt that I think this passage raises: if the Übermensch is what gives meaning to the earth, and the Übermensch “comes down to earth”, as it were, only briefly (but very intensely), then we have to worry about whether the exalted man is truly possible. For exalted sensations—the sensation of being licked by the lightning of the Übermensch—seem to be quite brief.

Now I arrive at the fruits of this labor: an understanding of why Nietzsche needs to create the Hyperboreans. Recall from the 1886 preface of Human, All too Human (quoted in the “Nietzsche’s People” blog post linked above) that Nietzsche invented his free spirits to remain in good cheer in the midst of “bad things”. Among these bad things, Nietzsche lists: illness, isolation, foreignness, sloth, inactivity. (I note in passing that all of these except illness may be found in Emerson’s description of the conditions of the transcendentalist with whose doubt we began.) The invention of the Hyperboreans, whose relation to the free spirits remains unclear (to me, at any rate), we might expect to occur under similar conditions.

Who are the Hyperboreans? Nietzsche begins The Anti-Christ’s main body (I am excluding the foreword), “– Let us look one another in the face. We are Hyperboreans – we know well enough how much out of the way we live.” (AC 127) So it includes Nietzsche, as well as the readers of his book—those readers for whom it is intended, that is. The helpful footnote to my text describes the Hyperboreans as “a race dwelling beyond the north wind (Boreas) in a country of warmth and plenty.” So what characterizes the Hyperboreans is that they live beyond the north wind, in a gentle climate. That is what is set down in their very name. Lest there be any doubt, Nietzsche makes it quite clear that he intends to emphasize this fact about them: “Beyond the North, beyond the ice, beyond death – our life, our happiness…” (AC 127).

So we have a perfect correlation with Emerson’s metaphor. The Hyperboreans are beyond storms, beyond harsh climates. They come from a land in which the climate supports something more constant, more solid, than the lightning-flash of the Übermensch. The land beyond the Boreas is thus exactly the sort of place where the tension between the brief intensity of the Übermensch and the value of long-lasting exalted sensations over intense exalted sensations does not arise. To count himself as a Hyperborean, then, is for Nietzsche to resolve this tension, or at least to attempt to do so. It is a response to a doubt within himself. The Hyperboreans serve, for Nietzsche, as an attempt to prove poetically (I take this notion from the preface to Human, All too Human) that exaltation such as he dreams of is possible.

Lingering Questions regarding Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ

2013/08/07 4 comments

I had hoped when I finished reading Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ that I would be able to answer some of the worries that I raised in previous two posts on the book. In the end, however, I am only left with more questions, and so my summation post will be less conclusion than confusion, less closure than an opening of unresolved issues. But perhaps there is something Nietzschean in this all the same.

First question: As with most of these questions, this one turns on an ambiguity in Nietzsche’s text (in this case, it reaches out to others of his books), one that makes it seem as if Nietzsche is going to catch himself in his own critique. In §8, Nietzsche critiques everything that looks down, that elevates the spirit to a plane of self-sufficiency over against the body. But what does Nietzsche say of his higher types: that they are distant, far, remote, that they look down, that they inhabit mountains. Hence the question: How does the looking down of the higher type differ from the pseudo-self-sufficiency of spirit that is nothing more than illusion?

Second question: This question concerns the relationship between naturalness and value. Nietzsche at various points in the text seems to conflate being natural with worth: he loves what is instinctual, what is of the body. Yet his project in relation to Christianity substantially consists in showing how Christianity stems from a certain sort of instinct (as of course he must). Moreover, in his praise of scientific intellectual methods, he frequently remarks on how these have to fight against nothing other than our natural human tendencies, and thus how they are attained only through great struggle. Nietzsche seems to want to have it both ways: to affirm what is natural against what is Christian and to naturalize Christianity. In doing so he seems to fall into that most elementary of circles: to use what is “natural” as the benchmark of what is “good”, but only by defining what is “natural” with reference to what is “good”. Hence the question: To what extent does Nietzsche’s project get caught up in this circle, and to what extent can his critique escape it? Is this mere carelessness of expression, or does it signify a deeper carelessness of thought?

Third question: Now for a question about metaphysics. Nietzsche at various points seems to take a realist stance about causality (§49) and laws of nature (§43). In the latter he seems to take the view of laws of nature that makes of them little gods, to be obeyed. In the former, he critiques Christianity and its moral notions as having warped the “causal sense” of man. But in The Gay Science (§112) Nietzsche critiques the very notion of cause and effect as misguided: what we take to be causal explanation is really just description with added, unreal elements. Hence the question: Is Nietzsche rejecting his earlier critique, or is he merely expressing himself too hastily? Does Christianity warp our sense of cause and effect or only our sense of description? Can his point survive if we “revise” it in light of his earlier critique?

Fourth question: Nietzsche offers as a critique of Christianity the way in which it valorizes suffering. Pity for those who suffer, Nietzsche argues (§7), works as a “multiplier of misery.” In summing up his critique (§62), Nietzsche condemns Christianity in part for creating states of distress in order to “eternalize itself.” Nietzsche sees Christianity as itself arising from a suffering from reality. And yet Nietzsche critiques as “funny” those freethinkers who have not suffered from Christianity (§8), and much of Nietzsche’s philosophy outside of this text critiques the idea of abolishing suffering. Hence the question: Does Nietzsche want to have it both ways? Or is there a more complex means of differentiating Christianity’s relationship to suffering from the ways he values? If it is the latter, as I suspect it is, where is this to be found in The Anti-Christ?

Fifth question: In §3, Nietzsche clarifies the problem of the work: not what should succeed mankind, but what sort of man should be willed. As part of this, Nietzsche states, “the human being is a conclusion.” Yet Nietzsche wants to show how humans, as a species and as individuals, are the results of untold numbers of accidents and coincidences, that there is no special reason for mankind, etc. Again and again, he critiques teleological thinking—precisely the sort of thinking where the notion that humanity is a conclusion is most likely to arise. Hence the question: If this is so, how can the human being be a conclusion? If it is a conclusion, who is making the argument?

Sixth question: In The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche has a fruitfully and frustratingly ambiguous relationship toward the notion of God(s). In §16, Nietzsche discusses the ways in which peoples create their own gods, national gods, and compares this to Christianity’s cosmopolitan God. Later, in §47, Nietzsche critiques Christianity not on the basis of its belief in God, but on the grounds that it has created a God that is not at all “godlike”: “If this God of the Christians were proved to us to exist, we should know even less how to believe in him.” All of this points to Nietzsche leaving space for a positive use of God, a role for the creation of Gods. But thereupon we find the question: Just what is this positive use of God, which Nietzsche never fully makes clear? How is a God to be created: in what way, to what end?

Seventh question: Finally, I want to look at the most interesting and most difficult section of The Anti-Christ, §57, which will bring me back to the preoccupation of my first two posts: the relation Nietzsche takes to the various peoples he invokes in the book. In this section, Nietzsche discusses the manner in which law books establish a tripartite caste system: first is the spiritual type, second is the muscular type, and third is the mediocre type. Nietzsche’s description of this function of law books, and of the spiritual type, is thoroughly ambiguous. Nietzsche introduces the law books by discussing how they summarize the “experimental morality of long centuries”: they create nothing new themselves, but simply harvest the fruits of past experiments and, consequently, serve to prevent “the continuation of experimenting, the perpetuation in infinitum of the fluid condition of values, tests, choices, criticizing of values.” This is clearly a negative description, for Nietzsche clearly values this experimentation above just about everything. Yet he soon switches to showing how these law-books establish a caste system that is thoroughly natural (used in—I think—precisely the normatively loaded sense addressed in my second question), a caste system to be found in “every healthy society.” Moreover, in describing the spiritual type, Nietzsche’s tone is glowing: they find their happiness “in severity towards themselves and others, in attempting.” Furthermore, “they rule not because they want to but because they are,”—he explicitly calls them “the most venerable kind of human being.” At the same time, he says of them that asceticism is an instinct for them—and Nietzsche’s critique of asceticism is famous (though thoroughly ambiguous). Furthermore, he says of them that they find the distance between man and man as something beneath them—though just 14 sections earlier (§43), Nietzsche critiques Christianity for having “waged a war to the death against every feeling of reverence and distance between man and man, against, that is, the precondition of every elevation, every increase in culture.” Thus, at the same time that Nietzsche showers this caste with praise, he seems to bring it under his earlier critiques. This ambiguity can perhaps be understood if we look at what Nietzsche calls this “highest caste” (back to §57 now): “I call it the very few.” Here we must recall the foreword of the book, which begins: “This book belongs to the very few.” Thus Nietzsche addresses himself as talking to this highest caste. But now we seem to run into a block. Nietzsche has said that the higher type of man arises only by chance, has never been willed before, represents a lucky hit (§3, §4)—yet it is supposed to characterize every healthy society not as a product of chance but as a flourishing (if small) caste. Furthermore, the book is also addressed to the Hyperboreans, who are not obviously the same as this higher caste (though perhaps they are): they are apart, remote; they are physicians who are to breed this higher type—is it then to breed itself? Nietzsche is frustratingly indirect on these points, and so my initial question, the question underlying my first two posts, returns with a vengeance. We must ask: To whom is Nietzsche talking? To whom is his book addressed?

Nietzsche’s People

2013/08/04 15 comments

Yesterday, I began reading Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ, a non-trivial lacuna in my Nie­tzsche reading to this point. I have not finished it, but I want to look at a movement that is already occurring in Nietzsche’s text—a movement I do not fully understand yet. This post is my attempt to go some way toward making sense of it. Specifically, I want to understand the relation between the private and the social in The Anti-Christ. I am using the Penguin Classics edition of Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ, which contains the Hollingdale translation of both works.

I want to start, not with Nietzsche, but with a fascinating suggestion by Gilles Deleuze, in his essay “Literature and Life” (found in Essays Critical and Clinical). He writes:

The ultimate aim of literature is to set free, in the delirium, this creation of a health or this invention of a people, that is, a possibility of life. To write for this people who are missing… (4)

The reason I start here is that I think, on this point, Deleuze is not all that far from Nietzsche’s own self-understanding of his project. Nietzsche’s 1878 book, Human, All Too Human is subtitled, “A Book for Free Spirits”. When the book was reprinted in 1886, Nietzsche wrote a new preface discussing this subtitle. A lengthy quote from this preface (from the Faber translation, University of Nebraska Press):

Whoever guesses something of the consequences of any deep suspicion, something of the chills and fears stemming from isolation, to which every man burdened with an unconditional difference of viewpoint is condemned, this person will understand […] why, when I could not find what I needed, I had to gain it by force artificially, to counterfeit it, or to create it poetically. (And what have poets ever done otherwise? And why else do we have all the art in the world?) What I always needed most to cure and restore myself, however, was the belief that I was not the only one to be thus, to see thus—I needed the enchanting intuition of kinship and equality in the eye and in desire, repose in a trusted friendship… (§1)

Thus I invented, when I needed them, the “free spirits” too, to whom this heavyhearted-stouthearted book with the title “Human, All Too Human” is dedicated. There are no such “free spirits,” were none—but, as I said, I needed their company at the time, to be of good cheer in the midst of bad things (illness, isolation, foreignness, sloth, inactivity); as brave fellows and specters to chat and laugh with, when one feels like chatting and laughing, and whom one sends to hell when they get boring—as reparation for lacking friends. That there could someday be such free spirits, that our Europe will have such lively, daring fellows among its sons of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, real and palpable and not merely, as in my case, phantoms and a hermit’s shadow play: I am the last person to want to doubt that. I already see them coming, slowly, slowly; and perhaps I am doing something to hasten their coming when I describe before the fact that fateful conditions that I see giving rise to them, the paths on which I see them coming? (§2)

Here we see Nietzsche explicitly admit that the “free spirits” to whom his book was addressed were non-existent, were his own creation. They are a people who did not yet exist, though Nietzsche saw them coming. (Nietzsche is careful to cast their coming as inevitable, and to minimize his role as, at best, a hastening of their coming, but we might wonder whether or not this is a false modesty. And yes, Nietzsche was capable of modesty when he needed it.) This may also help us understand his claim that he was born posthumously (from the foreword to The Anti-Christ: “Some are born posthumously”)—Nietzsche will not be born until after he dies, for his people will not be born until then, the free spirits that he invented.

The foreword to The Anti-Christ begins, “This book belongs to the very few. Perhaps none of them is even living yet.” In the first section of the book proper, Nietzsche begins, “Let us look one another in the face. We are Hyperboreans.” A helpful note to my edition states that the Hyperboreans were, in Greek mythology, “a race dwelling beyond the north wind (Boreas) in a country of warmth and plenty.” In these two quotes, I think Nietzsche is making it clear that he is addressing his book to a specific people, a people opposed to “modern man,” the man who sighs, “I know not which way to turn; I am everything that knows not which way to turn” (§1). It is an interpretive question I am not qualified to answer whether or not the Hyperboreans of The Anti-Christ are the same as the “free spirits” of Human, All Too Human. What I can say with some confidence is that Nietzsche is here again in the business of inventing the people to whom his book is addressed.

The book takes as a negative task the condemnation of Christianity: this task is emphasized when, in the book’s final section, Nietzsche writes, “– With that I have done and pronounce my judgment. I condemn Christianity, I bring against the Christian Church the most terrible charge any prosecutor has ever uttered” (§62). But, it seems to me, this negative task is not the sole task of the book, and possibly not even the main task—a possibility we should take very seriously given Nietzsche’s continual stressing of affirmation over negation, and of the value of looking away from what is ugly. If Nietzsche in this work does not look away, there must be some positive task, and I take that positive task to be the creation of his Hyperborean people.

Throughout the portion of the book I have read, Nietzsche consistently highlights that he is critiquing Christianity from a particular perspective—in this sense, the very act of critique reveals not just the flaws of Christianity, but what the critical perspective takes to be virtuous. The negative and positive tasks are thus inseparable, and so the final act of pronouncing judgment is equally a positive affirmation of the perspective from which the judgment comes. In condemning Christianity, Nietzsche sets himself and his Hyperboreans positive tasks. It is these that I wish to understand, though here I may achieve only the asking of a few pertinent questions.

I will proceed by looking first at what speaks to privacy in the first 18 sections of the book (what I have thus far read), and then I will look to what seems inherently social. Following that, I shall try to make some sense of where things stand.

In §4, Nietzsche suggests that a “higher type of man”, a type that stands opposed to collective humanity, has at times been realized by particular individuals, but only by chance, as a “lucky hit.” Nietzsche then characterizes the depravity/décadence of an individual as the loss of instinct, as the preference of what is harmful to it (§6). In §11, against Kant as a moralist, Nietzsche writes,

A virtue has to be our invention, our most personal defence and necessity: in any other sense it is merely a danger. […] The profoundest laws of preservation and growth demand the reverse of this [= “impersonal and universal” duty & virtue]: that each one of us should devise his own virtue, his own categorical imperative. […] What destroys more quickly than to work, to think, to feel without inner necessity, without a deep personal choice, without joy? as an automaton of ‘duty’? It is virtually a recipe for décadence, even for idiocy…

Here, then, is the personal aspect of Nietzsche’s view: individual higher men are to be produced; décadent individuals have lost their instinct for life; individuals must create their own virtues. These are the classic individualist themes in Nietzsche. But there is a more social side to the work as well, which is first seen in his very need to address it to a group of kindred spirits.

Thus Nietzsche speaks of the “formula of our happiness” (§1), of the “first principle of our philanthropy” (§2), and he characterizes a collective task: “To be physician here, to be inexorable here, to wield the knife here – that pertains to us, that is our kind of philanthropy, with that are we philosophers, we Hyperboreans!” (§7). Theologians are characterized as “our antithesis” (§8). Intermixed with what I (quite selectively) quoted from §11 is the following: “A people perishes if it mistakes its own duty for the concept of duty in general.” The whole of §14 is dedicated to illustrating the ways in which “we have learned better” what are the criteria for reality and unreality.

Thus we have, on the one hand what is personal and individual, and on the other hand what is institutional and social. How do these relate? Specifically, what is the relation between a people and a person: what is their relation in terms of values especially? In §3, Nietzsche sets out his primary problem:

The problem I raise here is not what ought to succeed mankind in the sequence of species (– the human being is a conclusion –): but what type of human being one ought to breed, ought to will, as more valuable, more worthy of life, more certain of the future.

This more valuable type has existed often enough already: but as a lucky accident, as an exception, never as willed. He has rather been the most feared, he has hitherto been virtually the thing to be feared – and out of fear the reverse type has been willed, bred, achieved: the domestic animal, the herd animal, the sick animal man – the Christian…

This goes some way to illuminating the relationship. Let me start by looking at what Nietzsche wants to take down: Christianity. As I read this passage, Nietzsche is suggesting that Christianity as an institution has served to breed Christians as individuals—sick individuals. Christianity as an institution is thus inimical to the cultivation of higher types of individuals—though of course Nietzsche recognized that the higher type had been achieved at times within Christian culture, despite having never been willed.

This suggests some clarification of the relationship between the Hyperboreans and the higher type. The Hyperboreans, as physicians, have the task of setting up social institutions that will breed the higher type. They are to create a context in which the higher type will be willed rather than feared. Nietzsche’s view is thus not solely for individuals: he really does wish to see the arising of a particular people.

But a tension still remains. Nietzsche seems to slide back and forth between peoples and persons. Thus, in §11, he suggests that each individual must have find his own categorical imperative, but then speaks of a people mistaking its particular duty for duty-in-itself. He moves from virtue as something fundamentally individual (think of the private virtue of Zarathustra) to something that characterizes a people. He extends this thought in §16, where he discusses the creation of Gods: “A people which still believes in itself still also has its own God.” The Jews have their God, for which they are the chosen people; Christians by contrast have a cosmopolitan God—a degeneration of the Israelites’ God. Gods are something social; they reflect the belief of a culture in itself—or the loss of that belief in a “perishing” people.

Another complication ensues when we look at §13, where Nietzsche writes:

Let us not undervalue this: we ourselves, we free spirits, are already a ‘revaluation of all values’, an incarnate declaration of war and victory over all ancient conceptions of ‘true’ and ‘untrue’. […] We have had the whole pathos of mankind against us – its conception of what truth ought to be; every ‘thou shalt’ has hitherto been directed against us…. Our objectives, our practices, our quiet, cautious, mistrustful manner – all this appeared utterly unworthy and contemptible to mankind.

In my prior understanding of Nietzsche—in keeping with what I quoted earlier about each individual having his own categorical imperative—I understood the revaluation of all values as an individual task. Here, however, Nietzsche sees it as a social one, one incarnated in all Hyperboreans.

What am I to take away from this? On the one hand, Nietzsche is an individualistic philosopher, but there seems to be a social element to his thought that I did not previously appreciate. Is this to be understood as the need to create a culture with institutions that promote the development of the higher type, that will the higher type? Is it to be seen as recognition that the highest creative movements that Nietzsche recognizes can be instantiated at the level of peoples and not just in individuals? Are Nietzsche’s Hyperboreans themselves individuals of the higher type, or mere breeders of the higher type? How does the duty of a people relate to the duty of an individual? If Gods are creations of peoples, then they reflect public, shared virtues—how do public and shared virtues interact with private virtues? What is the implication of the Hyperboreans being a creation of Nietzsche the individual have for all of this?

I do not know the answers to these questions—I hope that when I have completed the book I shall have gained some insight. I would, of course, appreciate any suggestions from readers familiar with Nietzsche’s thought.