Posts Tagged ‘nietzsche’

This post is an attempt to draw out some of my implicit beliefs on the nature of reality. My main sources are my experience of the world, which consists in an ever-developing and reveloping, exveloping and enveloping faith in the God of Jesus to whom the Bible attests; my piecemeal reading of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Buber, all of whom in their irreducibly individual ways helped me see the validity of individual experience as a scientific category and all sciences as experiential categories; and every blessed contribution, intentional or no, from the conversations I’ve participated in in person, on the Internet, or passively through reading Wikipedia articles and book reviews on Amazon. I have not read the relevant literature, something which is neither to be celebrated nor can it be avoided.

The nature of language and comprehension is often highlighted in discussing the limits of our ability to interpret the world around us. We might say that (A) I have my own thoughts, which (B) I write up in a blog post, and then (C) my audiences interpret according to their own categories. Effectively, everyone is perpetually misunderstood. Between A and B I need to translate my metarational, metalinguistic experience of an idea into the rational, linguistic vernacular. Already something of the idea is lost because it is translated into that which is not the idea. At the most basic level, A is related to B but not identical to it. The “same” happens between B and C. A static text is comprehended in different ways by different people according to their histories of experiencing various words, word combinations, genres, etc. No one comprehension of an “etc” is the same. They are all related in that we could say a similar comprehension is happening, wherever it happens, but everyone interprets their “etc”s in the context of their history of having read “etc”s and the various places in which those “etc”s have appeared. To comprehend an “etc” is to call to mind a whole history of comprehension in which other “etc”s have occurred.

This is simple and indisputable. But it is too simple. For example, A, B, and C do not exist as discrete stages, instances, etc. This is an interpretation of a common occurrence. But it does not take into account (1) what takes place before A and after C, (2) the further infinite divisions between A, B, and C, and (3) the connections, sameness, and basic unity of the instances A, B, and C. I have deliberately posited another three with which to engage to hint to the ultimate arbitrarity of isolating anything. 1 is patent. The origin of a text stretches infinitely before an author and continues infinitely after them. There is no need here for recourse to a deterministic understanding of cause and effect, nor even a linear one. Regardless of the truth of such understandings, here we can at least see that A-B-C, in whatever way, is fundamentally related to that which occurs, exists, etc, outside of A-B-C so that our identification of A-B-C is again arbitrary. 2 follows the same insight. If we can isolate A, B, and C, then we can isolate say Ai, Aii, and Aiii — maybe three discrete thoughts which contribute to an idea. We can also say that every moment, which again is just an interpretation and does not exist, destroys the unity of the thing so that a text is not the same in one moment as it is the next moment because it occurs in an infinitely different world. Nonetheless, this discretion is infinite. This leads easily to 3, which requires a clarification of infinity. 3 means not only that A-B-C take place in a wider, “infinite,” context, but that their basic discretion, and the discretion of “parts” within A, B, and C, threatens the truth that they constitute a single whole (within a whole). “Infinity” is thus invoked to underscore the paradoxical (?) nature of unity and distinction with reference to any thing. Everything is related to another thing. There is something common they share, which might be called being because they all be. They are thus finitely related. But because no thing which we identify is the same, all things take place in infinity ((in)finity?). That is, all difference is infinite difference.

Moreover, all difference manifests in identity and all identity manifests in difference. In light of the foregoing, this, to me, appears paradoxical. We might ask what the relationship between the categories of identity and difference is — what identity do they share? However, we would soon find that whatever identities these categories, and the infinite particularities and generalities which they represent, share, these identities are compromised by difference. The uncovered fossil in the dormancies of deep earth is infinitely different from the “same” fossil which it is three seconds later. It occurs in time, a time in which everything is constantly changing so that, despite the fossil’s basic sameness its relation to every around it, including that of which it is made up, consists in infinite difference. Conversely, we might ask what the distinction between the categories of identity and difference is. But we would soon find that there is too much the same between the fossil and itself, the fossil and itself a year ago, a century ago, centuries ago, its infinite past in the food it ate and the genes it shared, and its infinite future in the renewal of all being. Identity and difference thus become two opposed categories with which we need to make reference to understand the infinity of being.

At this point, this affirmation and denial must be transferred to human interpretation. Our interpretation of the world is an interpretation. Numbers do not exist. They arise from our wonder, fear, greed, and love for the world, among infinite other things. Other species probably have their own use of some kind of numbers or meta-numbers but that should be no surprise because we share a common origin with them and a common world. Yet, numbers and every interpretation exists. Everything is true in the sense that every interpretation of the world arises within the world, as a product of the world, and in response to the world. The world is such that it responds to itself. Even falsities must be affirmed as truths because they are true insofar as they are related to that which they falsely attest and perform particular functions in the world. To say that human beings are faster than cheetahs is to, while obviously untrue according to the whole, affirm the truth of the concept “human beings,” “faster than” and “cheetahs.” To say the opposite, while obviously true according to the whole, is to rely on the false concepts of “human beings,” “faster than,” and “cheetahs.” Which human beings, which cheetahs? Which measure of speed and which definition of speed does this rely on? Such a statement inevitably excludes the whole world in which they categories take place and open-endedness of all categories, however stubborn they may be. It is true then, but only in the sense that it functions in a particular context, a function it will never be able to fulfil “perfectly,” that is with complete, one-sided identity, because such perfection does not exist. Numbers are true in this sense, then, that they make reference to the world (i.e., themselves), in a particular way and fulfill a particular function in the world (again in relation to themselves), but are utterly false and depraved in the sense that they attempt to swallow all being in one humanistic, hubristic movement which purports to attest to the eternal unalterable “truths” of the world. Yet they are also completely true in that they arise in response to particularities in the world.

That’s all for now. I need to get back to study and this post is probably more for my own benefit than for others’. These are thoughts which are still developing and ones I would like to explore further when I have time.


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I said to the oceans,
“I will swallow you.”

I said to the mountains,
“I will crumble you.”

I said to the sky,
“I will suck you up.”

I said to the sun,
“I will put you out.”

I looked to every place
and defied it.

I exceeded all existence and spat,
“You sourced me but now I source you.

“I am my kingmaker.
In me you are no more.”

The oceans revolted
and scorned their beginning.

The mountains lunged
and seized their origin.

The sky swelled
and smothered all reality.

The sun blazed
and consumed all being.

And though I looked to every place
I did not see God.

He surrendered to the ocean
and did not move for mountains.

He yielded to the sky
and allowed the sun to take him.

And when I one day sought to end him
he did not fight, nor even speak,
but walked on, silently.

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Sonnet 29

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

* * *

I haven’t read Shakespeare for a while but I rediscovered this one recently. If you’re unfamiliar with Shakespeare, not only did he write an impressive set of plays with piercing psychological and existential insights into humanity, he also wrote 150 sonnets on love, 150 alluding to the number of psalms in the Bible. Above is sonnet 29, which asserts the narrator’s consolation in love when jealously despising what other people have.

The first line determines the problem: The narrator lacks some fortune (possibly material wealth, or even basic means), and is somewhat looked down on by others around him.¹ This leads to sorrow (2), prayers with the accompanying feeling of being unheard (3), self-debasement (4), and jealously assessing those around him (5-8). There’s possibly a pun on ‘rich’ (5; cf. ‘wealth’ in line 13), although I’m unsure to what extent Shakespeare’s use coincides with our modern association with material affluence. The narrator is jealous of others because of their friends (6), and skills and freedoms (7), to the point that it undermines everything he himself enjoys (8).

When the narrator thinks on his love (9-10), he is like the lark (a type of bird) who sings to heaven in the midst of an imperfect world (11-12). To get to the depth of the metaphor here, Shakespeare’s classical sense of earth = imperfect (bad?) and heaven = perfect (good?) needs to be felt. The sonnet ends with an affirmation of the narrator’s love over the utmost of material and social capital in the metaphor of the king.²

This sonnet is in keeping with Shakespeare’s others which contrast worldly imperfections with the perfection of love. In Sonnet 66 the narrator desires death in light of social evils such as the poor having nothing and the rich having everything, rape, censorship, and general abuses of power, yet concludes he couldn’t because “to die, I leave my love alone.” Peter Rollins said it like this:

“If one believes that the world is meaningful, yet does not love, they cannot help but experience the world as meaningless. Yet if one believes that the world is meaningless yet loves, that person cannot help but experience their world as meaningful.”

Here, love is not affected by any externalities but is of primary importance when assessing life’s value. Regardless of what the narrator experiences, nothing can take away his sole joy, which is love. But maybe this is too simplistic a way of reading the sonnet, and especially assessing love. Here love is reduced to a consolation. Everything else sucks but at least you have love. Compare Sonnet 130: The narrator, quite humourously, and  in defiance of the history of poetry, humanises his female subject by denying her any deific qualifications:

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground

Just on the side, I looked up 'Aphrodite' on Google Images and one of the recommended searches was 'Aphrodite with clothes on.'

Just on the side, I looked up ‘Aphrodite’ on Google Images and one of the recommended searches was ‘Aphrodite with clothes on.’

Yet after this he concludes she is just as good as any woman whose devotee has cast elaborate, poetic, ‘false’ constructions upon. What becomes apparent is that the humanity, even imperfection, of the narrator’s subject is an essential component of their love. She is still ‘as rare’ as any woman who ostensibly commands goddess-like features. The same idea can be found in sonnet 29. Such is the ‘wealth’ of the narrator’s love that the narrator would not swap his state for that of kings (13-14). Of course, ‘state’ here can be read as the state of love removed from any other which-ways of material or social circumstance, but who’s to say the exact nature of the narrator’s relationship would improve or at least remain if he had ‘fortune’ and the attention of other ‘men’s eyes?’ In this sense the narrator’s love is not a just a mere consolation to his circumstances but his circumstances are essential to that love itself. His love becomes a reflection on his circumstances which would not be possible without them.

* * *

¹This quick analysis provides possible parallels from Shakespeare’s life.

²Probably primarily material. Although kings would have enjoyed all the pomp and ceremony of the court they would have had to deal with their subjects! Additionally, being a king did not necessarily meant you had any special ‘art’ or skill (7), but then again Shakespeare may be only construing ‘art’ as valuable as it is a means to freedom.

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It may be a little indulgent but this post is intended to be a reference point regarding the conversations I have with people on ethics after metaphysics¹. Perhaps more indulgent is that this post is predominantly critical, contra my earlier resolution to do more positive up-building. Hopefully the critical nature will in some way be uplifting?

* * *

Firstly, with the end of metaphysics there is no objective basis for ethics. Metaphysics posited something beyond ourselves as a basis for ethics, traditionally God, although as thinkers got more critical of this tradition they came up with a non-theological, metaphysical basis for ethics (eg. Kant) before metaphysics was done away with completely. Whatever the objective reality beyond our physical selves was, it held some pattern for ethics, like loving others because they are made in the image of God or following actions through because in abstract terms they are right or wrong. Now, via science, what separates us from the animals has been relativised so that we are essentially no different from them. Further, what separates life from non-life, the animate (breathing) from the inanimate (breathless) has been relativised so that in the grand scheme of things we’re all just collections of atoms arranged uniquely. The laws of the universe are fundamentally a power-play, struggle for existence and survival of the fittest. There is no right or wrong. Why should we consider anyone beyond our own will to survive?


* * *

Secondly, ethical behaviour can be explained through evolution but evolution cannot provide a basis for it outside of itself. So (and this is crass because I don’t know my stuff) but say we care for others based on an instinct to preserve our species (Actually I couldn’t think of a good example, so critique it if you will but alternatively find me a replacement). We can say this is the case but we can’t say this should be the case. In our current, individualistic context, what interest do we have in something our instincts lead us to do when we can quite happily do otherwise than our instincts?

* * *

Thirdly, is there not a practical basis ethics? Just because we lack an objective basis for ethics we cannot dismiss that the operation of ethics, what it does, may be the real deal that all those airy-fairy metaphysicists missed with their heads in the clouds. Or maybe we can define it hedonistically: Because I have a desire for the good of others then it is good for me that I attend to that desire. The main problem I have with this is the subjective nature of a practical ethics. And if there are different ethical stances then the dominant will be sustained by power. Those who believe in equality will be fighting against those in power with antithetical interests. And if these egalitarians ever succeed then their vision will need be sustained by a continued power-play: Those opposing will have to submit to the laws of equality unless they can sway whatever power they have to do otherwise. If practicality is the basis for ethics then let those who wish to do unethically do so for their practical advantage! The other problem I have with practical ethics is that self-interest or other-interest, etc (whatever the basis for practical ethics), not rooted in a metaphysics, cannot go beyond itself. That is, if I do good for others in response to my own desires, for what reason do I respond to my own desires? I have a practical reason for ethics but I cannot call that reason itself good or meaningful. What stakes do I have in becoming happy? Because it is interesting and fills in time until I die?

* * *

In conclusion, this is just a statement of the way things are (as I see them) and I’d love to hear further thoughts on why we/you do ethics. It is not my aim saying there is no basis for ethics to criticise people for acting ethically regardless. People who reject a foundation for ethics may rightly choose to act ethically. I just want to encourage an honesty behind this acting ethically. And if life lacks meaning so what? I admire those who continue in it anyway out of curiosity or interest, even some unacknowledged affirmation of the value of life. Neither do I intend this critique to be an apology for metaphysics or Christianity, etc. I cannot say that someone who does not have a basis for ethics should have a basis and therefore should convert. My faith exists for greater reasons than a desire for a basis for ethics.

* * *

¹That is the general acceptance in Western academia over the last 200 years that there is no objective reality beyond material existence: What we have is what we have. There is no God, soul, spirits, afterlife, Beyond, etc…

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“I am here to tell you that in time, the mutator gene will activate in every living human being on this planet. Perhaps even your children, Senator” — Jean Grey

“I can assure you, there is no such creature in my genes” — Senator Kelly, X-men (2000)

* * *

People love progress. Progress is widely accessible in pop culture, for example X-men where certain mutant genes have allowed some people to develop superhuman abilities. Eighties movies like Terminator (1984) and Blade Runner (1982) imagine a future where we advance so far technologically that technology becomes independent and takes advancement into its own hands. Progress is found in the scientific world (which I know little about), in evolution where animals ‘progress’ from single-celled organisms to not-so-single-celled organisms and then they learn to live on land and they grow legs and some get wings and then finally some lucky guys and girls start finding out that they can access abstract thinking or whatever it is that separates the peoples from the animals. It is after crossing this point of separation that we can imagine the future possibility of the likes of invisibility or even, recently, immortality, and movies like Gattaca (1997) can imagine a society where only the best genes are passed onto the next generation through some technological interpolation.

But does a materialist perspective in any way allow for such a notion of progress? Is it possible to say that Homo sapiens is more evolved than Homo erectus? Is it possible to say that a domestic cat is more evolved than a bacterium? Is it even possible to say there is something which separates humans from the animals?¹ No to all the above. There is no point in evolutionary history where humanity steps outside its animal bounds. Technology does not provide humanity with an abiological means to a post-biological or post-evolutionary ends. If it did, then at what point did we transcend our biology? Use of tools/technology is contained within our biology so technology escapes ostracisation as abiological.

What is more, progress assumes an invisible universal measuring stick. All organisms can be measured against this to determine who is the most ‘advanced’. But the evolutionary measuring stick is not located in the universal but the particular, the environment. Species adapt not according to what is universally awesome, but specifically to what allows them to survive and pass on their genes in a particular environment. Thus X-men, which takes advantage of the relatively random process of mutation, falls prey to the same concept of universality. Mutants in X-men may have problems controlling their powers, and then there are far-reaching social consequences of their genes, but according to the universal measuring stick they have progressed not because they are adapted to their environment in such a way that secures survival and positive reproductive ends but they receive the possibility of mastery over the universal environment. Thus in the third movie, Xavier can refer to Jean Grey as a ‘level five mutant’. To this we can say with Senator Kelly, “There is no such creature in my genes”.

* * *

There are various ways in looking at progress in theology. Kierkegaard famously introduces his Fear and Trembling with a comparison between faith and philosophy:

In our time nobody is content to stop with faith but wants to go further. It would perhaps be rash to ask where these people are going, but it is surely a sign of breeding and culture for me to assume that everybody has faith, for otherwise it would be queer for them to be . . . going further. In those old days it was different, then faith was a task for a whole lifetime, because it was assumed that dexterity in faith is not acquired in a few days or weeks. When the tried oldster drew near to his last hour, having fought the good fight and kept the faith, his heart was still young enough not to have forgotten that fear and trembling which chastened the youth, which the man indeed held in check, but which no man quite outgrows. . . except as he might succeed at the earliest opportunity in going further. Where these revered figures arrived, that is the point where everybody in our day begins to go further.

(Retrieved online here).

Fighting the good fight

Kierkegaard is attacking the idea that we can start where others have left off. But we are in reality not a part of some external framework where this is possible. Yes we can learn and build on the discoveries and theories of those who have gone before us, we can consider ovens and then make microwaves, but these are external to what it means to be human. There is an a-temporal core to human existence. Thus Nietzsche can address his work within his work at the end of Beyond Good and Evil, “You have already taken off your novelty and some of you, I fear, are on the point of becoming truths: they already look so immortal, so pathetically righteous, so boring!” (Penguin Classics, 2003, p.221). Whereas he experienced and lived his philosophy, now it was overtaking him to exist in the external world of truth, the world where philosophical progress supposedly exists. Faith on the other hand, or Nietzsche’s existential struggles, exists between the subject and God, or existence. The subject, though a part of space and time, ignores any progressive meaning contained in the spatio-temporal to interact with the infinite/eternal, etc which transcends it.

* * *

¹If no, then you could probably also say that this inevitably leads to monism or, more familiarly, a kind of pantheism, where unity precedes difference. If there is nothing which separates a person from being a jellyfish from being a fungus from being the Loch Ness Monster (I swear she exists) because we are all contained under the category of ‘living’, then further there must be nothing to separate the animate from the inanimate, unless life is to be accorded some transcendental value.

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It’s like how they used to swallow whiskey before bed so they could sleep better. Maybe that was why I used to read my bible before bed. Sometimes it even worked.

* * *

I’m still pulling quotes out of Zizek’s Violence left, right and central because there’s a bit of profundity times infinity contained within those pages. Here’s what he has to say on suffering:

Opposite such a violent enforcement of justice stands the figure of divine violence as unjust, as an explosion of divine caprice whose exemplary case is, of course, that of Job. After Job is hit by calamities, his theological friends come, offering interpretations which render these calamities meaningful. The greatness of Job is not so much to protest his innocence as to insist on the meaninglessness of his calamities.

(p.152, Big Ideas series, 2006).


This legacy of Job prevents us from taking refuge in the standard transcendent figure of God as a secret Master who knows the meaning of what appears to us as meaningless catastrophe, the God who sees the entire picture in which what we perceive as a stain contributes to global harmony.


Zizek here presents suffering not as a question that we look for answers to, but as a question of which answers are unworthy¹. Job asks God a whole lot of questions. God asks a whole lot back. Contrast this with a couple of verses from the New Testament. Paul writes to persecuted Christians and helps them deal with their suffering by attributing some eternal meaning to it: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2Corinthians 4:17 NIV). Jesus warns his disciples of martyrdom and in the inevitability of the death of sparrows must attribute it to God’s purposes: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care” (Matthew 10:28-29 NIV). How seriously should we take Job’s existential struggle with suffering?

Peewee Herman is no fool

If we view suffering in this guise, as a question, then the answers which diminish its value are shown to not actually be answers at all; the person who answers the question of suffering immediately negates it. To give an answer to the question of suffering is to attempt to say “Suffering doesn’t exist” because now the word suffering holds a meaning entirely different to that which we first understood it as. To suffer is, with regards to Paul, to brighten the light of eternal life by providing an earthly contrast. To suffer is, with regards to Jesus², to accept the will of God. We no longer read suffering as it is, a question. That there are answers actually says something fundamentally different to the answers themselves. Whereas the answers themselves by implication say that suffering doesn’t exist, the existence of the answers, and the need for the answers in response to a question, show that the question does exist, that suffering is a reality as a question without answers.

Right about now it would be meet to engage Zizek in the classic critique of nihilism, as his understanding of suffering is literally nihilistic, that is, without meaning. The critique goes that to say our existence is without meaning is to actually make a meaningful conclusion regarding existence. Therefore, to say suffering is meaningless overlooks the fact that you’re actually saying something about suffering — by designating it as a question you’re actually providing an answer.

This is my way of doing justice to Zizek, by misunderstanding him. The only authentic engagement with suffering is impossible, because it requires that sufferer only suffers, without reflecting at all on their suffering. This too, is the problem with Nietzsche’s amor fati, which although a central idea in his philosophy has probably not exerted as much influence on contemporary thought as his other ideas. Nonetheless, I’ll make use of my liberty and attack it. Amor fati, to love fate, that is to accept everything in life as your lot and not just bear it, not bemoan it, but embrace it and love it, including suffering, is in this sense also impossible. You can have your amor or your fati; you cannot have an amor fati though. To love necessitates a subject that loves; fate necessitates no freedom on part of the subject, and therefore no subject. You can have your amor by ceasing to live according to fate and deciding you embrace all that you have no control over, a kind of limited conception of fate, or you can have your fati by engaging with fate as fate dictates you. Already the words amor fati are pure tautology because they introduce a reflection into an existence that depends on the absence of reflection. To live literally according to this philosophy we must be as rocks coming down a landslide who are subject wholly to physical factors. Conscious rocks, somewhat hurt by the landslide, yet deciding to embrace the suffering regardless, are no longer subject wholly to physical factors because of their decision to embrace. Their reflection, amor, destroys their fati.

Carpe diem.

So I’ve pointed out how every reflection upon suffering, every answer to the question of suffering, is fundamentally the same. To avoid further caricatures of great minds, there remains the possibility that all reflections we impose on suffering, though fundamentally the same, are functionally and qualitatively different. I cannot yet say anything authoritative regarding philosophy, but please humour me. What if all misunderstandings, all accusations of a circular argument, have rested on a confusion of the terms fundamental and qualitative. There has been some universality in what everyone has said at any point in time because they speak through the medium of language, but that everyone has said something different at any time is also assumed. If all truth is subjective and I cannot say ‘truth is subjective’ because I am subjectively presenting a truth as objective can I then really not say it? What if my truth is fundamentally subjective, but qualitatively objective? And with this assumption, Nietzsche and Zizek can put forth alternative readings on the nature of suffering, even claim that they are not readings at all, despite fundamentally being readings, because qualitatively they are different readings.

To illustrate the point further, a few posts back I wrote on Nietzsche’s critique of selflessness: True selflessness is impossible because your desire to help someone is always a response to a desire within yourself. But Nietzsche misses an important distinction. Although every action is fundamentally selfish, slapping someone with a fish and cooking them a fish are qualitatively different.

With these thoughts in mind we approach suffering. Whether you define it as an opportunity for anxious engagement with meaninglessness or hope, either choice inevitably acts as an opiate or a crutch, only that each is qualitatively different.

* * *

¹I think Zizek’s point in his reading of Job nonetheless stands, but it is a little wishful. Although God doesn’t give Job direct answers, he still rebukes him, and when I read the text I get the feeling that it assumes there are answers behind suffering, only that they are unintelligible to us.

²Neither the quote from 2Corinthians nor from Matthew should be seen as a statement indicating Paul or Jesus’ overall interpretation of suffering; these are just examples.

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If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have Nietzsche, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

* * *

Recently I’ve been tucking into Nietzsche’s Beyond good and evil. I first read Thus spoke Zarathustra, but found it quite riddlesome and esoteric. Nietzsche seems to speak a lot more straight-forwardly here, and with a lot less righteous decrying against humanity’s stupidity to this point (his critique is a lot more peaceful and shows some understanding).

One particularly seductive piece of insight Nietzsche employs is his term ‘will to power’, by which he interprets existence. Basically he’s saying that everything we do is done out of a motivation, a will, if you will, for power, which is more important to beings than mere self-preservation. The popular example (which I know not whether it has its origins in Nietzsche or the commentators) is that a martyr gladly embraces death out of a will to power, the will to eternal life. But maybe this isn’t an accurate enough example. If a martyr really believes they will live eternally then this is still an expression of will to self-preservation. Will to power can be examined more surely in someone who has no hope of life after death, say someone who believes they will cease to exist in their entirety, bar a lifeless body, on the point of their death yet chooses to give their life for the sake of another. If Nietzsche were to read into this situation the will to power, I’m guessing he would say something about how in the last few seconds of that person’s life they gained a sense of power in knowing that their sacrifice would preserve another’s life just that little bit longer. This, then, is what Nietzsche says on Christian love:

There is nothing for it: the feelings of devotion, self-sacrifice for one’s neighbour, the entire morality of self-renunciation must be taken mercilessly to task and brought to court[…] That they give pleasure — to him who has them and to him who enjoys their fruits, also to the mere spectator — does not yet furnish an argument in their favour, but urges us rather to caution. So let us be cautious!

(Beyond good and evil, p.64, 2003 Penguin edition, emphasis original)

It really depends what you mean by power… The word translated here as ‘pleasure’ is just another way of terming the benefit of love for the one who loves, which Nietzsche points out. Whatever word you may use, pleasure, power or something else, the crux of this German’s point cannot easily be overlooked, and this is the interpretation to which I can reduce it: Complete selflessness is impossible as it is always in response to a desire within the self. And with this emphasis, Nietzsche summarises the history of morality with a vision for a new morality. His vision seems somehow to prophetically herald modern psychology:

Throughout the longest part of human history — it is called prehistoric times — the value or non-value of an action was derived from its consequences: the action itself came as little into consideration as did its origin[…] Over the past ten thousand years, on the other hand, one has in a few large tracts of the earth come step by step to the point at which it is no longer the consequences but the origin of the action which determines its value[…] men became unanimous in the belief that the value of an action resided in the value of the intention behind it[…] today, when among us immoralists at least the suspicion has arisen that the decisive value of an action resides in precisely that which is not intentional in it, and that all that in it which is intentional, all of it that can be seen, known, ‘conscious’, still belongs to its surface and skin — which, like every skin, betrays something but conceals still more? In brief, we believe that the intention is only a sign and a symptom that needs interpreting, and a sign, moreover, that signifies too many things and which thus taken by itself signifies practically nothing.

(pp.62-63, emphasis original)

Link confronts his extra-moral intentions

I’ve made some omissions because the passage is quite lengthy. This means you’ve missed out on the terms: ‘pre-moral’ for actions evaluated by their consequences, ‘moral’ for their intentions, and ‘extra-moral’ for the complexity behind the intentions. If you didn’t get that, Nietzsche seems to me to be basically saying that there is such a range of forces acting upon us and within us that to judge an action by its intentions is a gross oversimplification. As he contemplates the will, “Willing seems to me to be above all something complicated, something that is a unity only as a word” (p.48). When we are loving towards others, there seems to be an almost infinite amount of factors acting with us to bring about that love. This means not just factors within ourselves but also physical/environmental factors acting upon us. If they are lovable, yes that helps; if they are especially unlovable then that may be the very factor that makes them lovable, as a kind of challenging response to Jesus’ words “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matthew 5:46-47 NIV)¹

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Now that Nietzsche has so eloquently pooed on the Christian campfire, how can love still be possible? But to that I say, to what extent have you stuck your theological crowbar between the poles of love and individuality? In other words, why do we necessarily need to have pure motives to love? A year or so ago I undulated into some spiritual despair regarding not actually wanting to spend time in prayer and other devotional activities. I was disillusioned with my own depravity. How could I be a Christian if my natural desires overpowered my spiritual ones? Why not be true to myself and face who I really was? A good friend (who will remain nameless) gave me some words of wisdom that resonated with me. Reflecting on a relationship with a pretty special person, my friend told me, “We have a lot of great times, but we also have not so great times. Sometimes when my partner wants to spend time together, that person is the last person I want to see at that moment, but I know I need to do it for the sake of our relationship”². And this is the honesty with which we must approach love.

In the wake of Nietzsche’s critique on morality, it wouldn’t be completely smart to attempt an evaluation of every single factor acting upon our each and every action. This only shows our desire to justify ourselves. What would be smarter would be to acknowledge the inherent selfishness and introspective mystery in everything we do, and then to go beyond it, to make a double movement back to the pre-moral, where actions are evaluated by their consequences. In so doing we embrace all three stages of Nietzsche’s morality: We act humbly as we do now and acknowledge that we have good intentions and bad intentions, all the while confronting these; we examine ourselves as the bearers of a complex will in a world of complex forces; and finally, we self-defeatedly seek consolation from our selfish intentions by focussing now on what our actions produce.

I don’t want to undermine the challenge to spiritual introspection and a pure heart that Christianity poses,  but I do want to note that this is sometimes disarming. Whether your work for the kingdom is in part motivated by an interest in the light at the end of tunnel, your societal image, or a desire to prove to your parents that you’re something rather than nothing, etc, all you can do is acknowledge. Yes, seek to overhaul your desires, but yes, also soldier on in spite of the knowledge your selfishness.

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¹Jesus’ appeal to rewards, which seems to be so often overlooked, possibly as a response to the negative conceptions of Christianity as a selfish practice to ensure your own eternal life, can be read with a kind of Nietzschean irony: We can’t escape our desire for rewards so why not embrace it?

²It might sound awkward because I’ve removed all references to gender

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