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Friday, 31 January 2014

The Greater Stress: Nietzsche’s Test of Affirmation vs. Christ’s Test of Renunciation


"...for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life."
- Rilke, "Archaic Torso of Apollo"

A while ago I was struck by the need for someone to write a Christian parody of Nietzsche’s famous and most haunting passage, “The Greatest Stress,” in which he spells out the psychological implications of his doctrine of eternal recurrence (the idea that the universe will forever replay itself and your life will be caught in its eternal cycle). This parody, being the Christian reverse of Nietzsche’s original parable, must naturally be based on a linear cosmology, in which the demon whispers to you in the liveliest hour of the day, and the highest point of your soul: “is your desire something you could live with for all eternity?” (or something along those lines). This test, I thought, seemed to be a test of the same, if not greater, existential intensity. Could you imagine proceeding through eternity on the trajectory you are on?

I was, of course, simultaneous struck by the awareness that this parody would likely go unwritten for a long time… unless I wrote it. This was less than ideal, since it would take an equal of Nietzsche for this parody to have the force I would like. Nonetheless, I could not spend my life in wait of a genius to accomplish the task. So below is my attempt. But first, the original parable, and then some background.

The greatest stress.

How, if some day or night a demon were to sneak after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you, “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything immeasurably small or great in your life must return to you-all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over and over, and you with it, a grain of dust.”

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or did you once experience a tremendous moment when you would have answered him, “You are a god, and never have I heard anything more godly.”

If this thought were to gain possession of you, it would change you, as you are, or perhaps crush you. The question in each and everything, “Do you want this once more and innumerable times more?” would weigh upon your actions as the greatest stress. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal Confirmation and seal?

(Nietzsche, The Gay Science)

Contained in this passage is Nietzsche’s doctrine of Eternal Recurrence. Nietzsche was fond of none of his ideas as much as this one (insofar as it is possible to be “fond” of the sort of ideas that Nietzsche had). The idea came to him, Nietzsche tells us, when he was taking a stroll through the woods by lake the lake of Silvaplana. He stopped by a magnificent boulder and – “this idea came to me.” Eventually the idea embodied for Nietzsche the ultimate test for his Übermensch. At that moment in front of the boulder he had stumbled on (what he believed was) the hardest worldview to affirm. Here was a stone that even Sisyphus could not roll up the hill – but could the Übermensch? The one who could, at his lowest point, still find the resources to will it all, and not only that but to will it all again and again: that one is worthy of life. Thus this most difficult of affirmations became Nietzsche’s “formula for the greatness of a human being” (Ecce Homo).

In his book, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, Walter Kaufmann explains that the meaning of the doctrine of eternal return is not simply that of a introspective test you might perform on yourself while waiting for the bus – and then (upon a negative answer) work on it with all the diligence of one engaged in “personality improvement.” It is an introspective test, yes, but its power ought to rattle you to your foundations.

So, says Kaufmann, while many believe that the doctrine was intended to require man to ask himself constantly: ‘Do you want this once more and innumerable times more?’ [t]hat, however, is not the meaning of Nietzsche’s conception of ‘the greatest stress.’ As ever, he is not concerned with particular actions but with the individual’s state of being. Man is to ask himself whether his present state of being is such that he would have to answer the demon with impotent anger and gnashing of teeth, or whether he could say: ‘Never did I hear anything more godlike!’ If he is one of those who are still imperfect and unredeemed, if he still finds that the demonic doctrine all but drowns his soul in dread, then it might serve him as the greatest possible stimulus to his ‘will to power’ and to his yearning for that joyous affirmation of himself and life which would enable to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation. (325)

The idea is certainly a powerful one; what is so interesting, though, apart from its inherent power to seize a soul, is that in it we have a distillation of Nietzsche’s essential stance towards life, the universe, and everything. What is the nature of this stance?

Nietzsche’s basic posture towards life can be viewed best, I think, if set alongside another, paradigmatically different stance. For instance, Christianity. (In what follows some Christians may be surprised at what I am calling a “Christian stance.” I apologize, in a half-sincere sort of way, for using this label if you disagree with its content and desire to brand your own approach with it – though I do try to represent the essential content of the spiritual approach of the large and varied Christian tradition[s]). 

Kaufmann describes the one who affirms the eternal return as one who, “instead of relying on heavenly powers to redeem him, to give meaning to his life, and to justify the world, he gives meaning to his own life by achieving  perfection and exulting in every moment” (324). Simply put, Nietzsche’s idea of the perfect man truly and sincerely “wants nothing to be different – not forward, not backward, not in all eternity” (Ecce Homo).

How is this different from a Christian approach to one’s life, all of history, and the future of the universe and all things in it? I believe the two approaches face opposite directions, though they do contain the same raw energy, the same spirit of affirmation. I will get to that similarity later, for the more concerning antagonism must be addressed first. Nietzsche’s ideal human poses one of the most direct challenges to the heart of Christ’s message and the entire spiritual tradition of Christianity. While the key virtue for Nietzsche is amor fati, a total and perpetual yes-saying, the key virtue in the Christian tradition is renunciation. (True, love is “the greatest of these,” but at least vis-à-vis one’s fallen life, renunciation is prior to and more immediate than love. One might call it a “movement of love,” but the point stands.) Because our natures are tangled in untruth and our desires distorted, the Christian “ideal” is always grounded in the ability – the incredibly difficult ability – to want everything to change, to want one’s self to change, to want the universe to reverse is basic orientation. The kind of repetition Nietzsche advocates celebrating is the epitome of hopelessness in the eyes of a Christian, whose life is built on the foundations eschatological hopefulness.

So, for Nietzsche the point is an unqualified affirmation – an ecstatic embrace of this world, one’s own life and the entire history of things and events that made it possible – amidst a decadent European environment of ressentiment and other-worldly desires. We might say that, for Nietzsche, affirmation is the ultimate good, because it is only affirmation that redeems life (not some promise of a future life). For this reason, says Kaufmann, “the eternal recurrence was to Nietzsche less an idea than an experience – the supreme experience of a life unusually rich in suffering, pain, and agony. He made much of the moment when he first had this experience because to him it was the moment that redeemed his life” (Kaufman, 323). So, insofar as the idea of eternal recurrence is affirmed, it is redemptive. The embrace of the idea stimulates one to an enhanced existence: “The weak, who are able to stand life only by hoping for kingdom, power, and glory in another life, would be crushed by this terrifying doctrine, while the strong would find in the last incentive to achieve perfection” (325). Stimulus to life? Nothing wrong with that! … Right?

In fact, I would not quibble with the phrase “affirmation is the ultimate good.” Christianity, however, would just like to put in, “yes, but before affirmation there must be a rejection.” And in this difference whole worlds are contained. As far as affirmation goes, Nietzsche does not differ with the best of the Christian tradition, which is far from “other-wordly.” But affirmation must be rightly orientated, rightly placed in time, and have as its content only the best. 

Augustine also made much of the moment that redeemed his life – writing one of the greatest works in the western tradition: Confessions. But this moment was not a moment of pure affirmation: it was characterized by a renunciation, a conversion from one way of life to another, a destruction of himself, a death – and a resurrection. Here was a man whose life might be used to demonstrate Aristotle’s magnanimous man. Affirmation was easy for him – but renunciation? Could it not be that he also discovered a worldview impossibly difficult to affirm – perhaps even more so than that of the eternal return? What a thing to do, at the height of life, to suddenly turn around and renounce it! “Is it that I’ve known bliss?” asks O’Siadhail in his poem “Pond”. What a startling question to ask oneself of one’s own happiness.

But there is an incredible seed of affirmation contained in this rotten fruit of renunciation. It is the longing for a higher possibility in the self breaking out like a solar flare. For, in truth, we never know what is best, what is highest, what is worth affirming, by some default of our nature. “We are without understanding of ourselves,” says Teresa of Avila, “we are at an infinite distance from our desires.” If we are honest, we find it intensely difficult to say what exactly is for our own good.

In the final page of the Ultimatum of his Either/Or II, Kierkegaard puts the meaning and purpose of renunciation like this: “In relation to God we are always in the wrong.” But instead of a resulting in despair or passive obedience, “this thought puts an end to doubt and calms the cares; it animates and inspires to action… Would you wish, could you wish, that the situation were different? Could you wish that you might be in the right; could you wish that that beautiful law which for thousands of years has carried the generation through life and every member of the generation, that beautiful law… could you wish that that law would break” (341)? Wishing that we might be in the right would mean wishing that there were in fact nothing better than what we know and that we could never be more than what we are. It is, then, profoundly life-affirming to wish that we are in the wrong, profoundly life-affirming to wish to renounce what is not life – and to wish to have eyes that can see the difference.

At the height of life, then, what if the demon came to you? Could you wish it for yourself, certain that this is your highest fulfillment? Or would you tremble to think – standing there with your fancy drink amidst the din of another party, or perhaps sitting there on the couch reading a favorite book in front of a fire, or perhaps in the very moment of winning the lottery or a promotion – that there might be something greater out there which you neglect?  Could you possibly stomach the thought that you will have in eternity what you desire most in this life, that everyone will hit precisely the target they are pointing themselves towards when death’s gun fires? This is the great terror contained in Matthew 8:5-13: “Be it done for you, as you believed,” says Jesus to the centurion, and so it is. Kierkegaard, expounding these words in Works of Love, says, “God’s relationship to a human being is the infinitising at every moment of that which at every moment is in a man” (352). This is the Christian paradigm, which phrases the question thus: What if in the end, our desire, our interpretation of things, the direction of our life and the framework that allows that direction, are (graciously or horrifyingly) real.

A Christian parody of Nietzsche’s test of the Übermensch, then, might look something like this…

The greater stress.

How, if some sunny day an angel were to push past the noise and the pleasure and the people, were to catch you in your relentless, exhilarating forward motion at the peak of your life’s bliss, and yell to you, “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will continue living, for eternity, it becoming increasingly more itself, rolling into itself more of the same goodness, more of the same joys, that you experience only in embryo even now. The trajectory of bliss you have set for yourelf – with all the money and sex and power, or all the comfort and pleasure of mildness and stability, or all the gratitude and recognition and personal gratification of immense learning, or all the vague titilations of entertainment and travel and dilettante experience – you will have and never, never lose.

Would you not say in exultation, “you are a god, and never have I heard anything more godly”? Or did you once experience a tremendous moment when you would have thrown yourself down and gnashed your teeth and cursed the angel who spoke thus? Ah, who would apprehend what the angel speaks of as hell?

But if you did, if you discerned in the angel something tantalizing, attractive perhaps, disturbing certainly, but compelling – if you let the angel’s words take possession of you, they would change you, as you are, or perhaps crush you. For who could be certain, if they allowed themselves to step back a moment, that the bliss they experience here on earth is of the highest sort, is their final fulfilment? The question in each and everything, “Do you want this now and forever?”  would weigh upon your actions as the greatest stress. “What if you get exactly what you desire? What if…?”  How strange would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than that you do not get what you want, that your bliss might not carry on into eternity but be transformed for something unknown, something you have never seen, but something you are told is better, higher… holy?

Friday, 24 January 2014

Postmodern Night

Last night made the fields heavy,
rolling vapor into water-beads
on the ghosted grass, a condensation 
of spectres. Nothing deadly.

It came with the dark’s slow slaughter;
now everything denser than itself with data,
burdened by over-knowing,
all the useless clarity and angles in water…

Ah, with words grow the weary;
transcendence, never more a burden
than now – and the postmodern search
for emptiness finds its next vessel for theory.

As the weight is brought down into dew,
the drinking is deepless for the waking;
all sip the shallow cups of the morning
and lap a thousand plateaus to make do.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

A Reminder for Self-Doubting Philosophers

What is the value of philosophy? In response to reductive pragmatic critiques of philosophy (“what’s all that insulated ivory-tower hyper-reflective self-indulgence good for?”), here is Aristotle’s deliberation from the Nichomachean Ethics – which I found surprisingly agreeable and unsurprisingly superior to my own deliberations. It is an important reminder to all those who are subject to apocalyptic self-doubt, as I am, in regards to the worth of pure thinking (called various things by Aristotle, including 'intellectual virtue', 'prudence' and 'wisdom', all of which have more specific content). Interestingly, his argument is not the standard, "because without thinking we would never know what the good is in the first place." It is more slippery. Take note.

The Critique:

Here an objection may be raised. “What is the use of the intellectual virtues?” it may be asked. “Wisdom does not consider what tends to make man happy (because it is not concerned with any kind of process). Prudence indeed does this, but why do we need it? Prudence is the faculty which deals with what is just and noble and good for man, i.e. with those things which it is the part of the good man to do; but the knowledge of them no more makes us apter to do them, if (as has been said) the [moral] virtues are habits, than it does in the case of what is healthy and wholesome—healthy and wholesome, that is, not in the sense of conducing to, but in the sense of issuing from, a healthy habit; for a knowledge of medicine and gymnastics does not make us more able to do these things.

“But if it be meant that a man should be prudent, not in order that he may do these acts, but in order that he may become able to do them, then prudence will be no use to those who are good, nor even to those who are not. For it will not matter whether they have prudence themselves, or take the advice of others who have it. It will be enough to do in these matters as we do in regard to health; for if we wish to be in health, we do not go and learn medicine.

“Again, it seems to be a strange thing that prudence, though inferior to wisdom, must yet govern it, since in every field the practical faculty bears sway and issues orders.”

Aristotle’s Rebuttal:

We must now discuss these points; for hitherto we have been only stating objections.

First, then, we may say that both prudence and wisdom must be desirable in themselves, since each is the virtue of one of the parts of the soul, even if neither of them produces anything.

Next, they do produce something.

On the one hand, wisdom produces happiness, not in the sense in which medicine produces health, but in the sense in which health produces health; that is to say, wisdom being a part of complete virtue, its possession and exercise make a man happy.

On the other hand [in the sphere of action], man performs his function perfectly when he acts in accordance with both prudence and moral virtue; for while the latter ensures the rightness of the end aimed at, the former ensures the rightness of the means thereto.

The fourth part of the soul, the vegetative part, or the faculty of nutrition, has no analogous excellence; for it has no power to act or not to act.

But as to the objection that prudence makes us no more apt to do what is noble and just, let us take the matter a little deeper, beginning thus:—

Just as we say that some people who perform just acts are still not just (for example, those who carry out the requirements of the law unwillingly, or through ignorance, or for some ulterior purpose and not for what they are, and yet are actually doing what is right and all that a good man is bound to do); so, it seems, there is a state of mind in which a person can perform the various kinds of act in such a way as to be a good man: that is, when he does them from choice, and for the sake of the acts themselves. It is virtue that makes the choice correct.

In this last paragraph Aristotle makes his strongest point. Rather than finding the worth of virtuous actions to be only in the actions themselves (an externality), he looks for another dimension of worth and finds it in the consciousness of the moral agent: “there is a state of mind in which a person can perform the various kinds of act in such a way as to be a good man.” This “state of mind” is the crux. But what is this “state”? For Aristotle, it is not some “inner kindliness” or “sweet and benevolent disposition” - this is a political philosopher we are dealing with here, after all. So, rather, this state of mind is not within people by nature but is acquired through effortful thought.

Aristotle is suggesting that, without thought (deliberative prudence), individual moral acts are dry and empty, lacking the existential passion that thinking through these thoughts adds. You can be good, but it is better even to think through one’s goodness, to understand it. This is an invisible quality, adding nothing to one’s goodness externally; but, precisely for the reason that it, in its immateriality, cannot defend itself, we must be careful not to forget the worth of its presence. To do so might lead to a facile anti-intellectualism, the kind which thinks it is doing a favor to morality, love and human fellowship by rejecting the distracting complications of cold “theorizing”.

This may be a controversial point, since I know plenty of people who for whom the meaning of religion and the height of spirituality is love and the struggle after justice, both through small and big acts. They say, “kindness, benevolence, and compassion – these don’t need philosophy!”

There is nothing horribly askew about this. It is true that “knowledge without action is useless.” Only, I think when philosophy is done right – and I try to be the first to say (at the cost of exposing my own guilt) that it is often done very poorly, without the end of living a good life in mind at all – it can add immense value to the embodied actions of love and compassion; not the same kind of value as action, of course, but that “invisible value.”

For those of us who have done serious philosophizing, this is self evident. We only need to be reminded. At least, I need to be constantly reminded. I am far too attracted by the quietism of the likes of Wittgenstein, and the various versions of “anti-philosophy” out there. It is too easy to fall into self-deprecation when I realize how irrelevant philosophy is to most people in the world. But, it only takes a little more philosophizing to realize that it is not philosophy but the hypertrophy of philosophy which is destructive and life-sapping. 

And besides, philosophy is here to stay. No one can defend themselves against the question "why don't you philosophize?" without answering philosophically... 

Saturday, 11 January 2014

To be at Home in the World…

The world its own doorway, wide as itself,
Welcomes the wanderer, a world away:
“Put your pack down, stay, stay,
My threshold comes to you today.”

Wait, wanderer, what welcome, this?
A home everywhere: nowhere;
Any may knock, any sleep there;
Entering, entering the air…

“You do not look but find the knob,
Wanderer: what more to do?
To live, to knock: my door follows you,
Your walking your walking through.”

Wait! Where the knob, where the bell?
An eternal search; torment, it meant,
As under the door, in inviting scent,
It emits your discontent. 

“How, I, more open? Any wider than me?
The message of that fragrance:
Having too much and wanting your presence,
I have become an entrance.”

Wait! The world a door, wide as itself?
Then your eyes must be wider than this!
Looking for it, all else must miss:
The world wants your eyes an abyss.

“The tongue never tasting cheek,
The eye blind to lids, air unfelt to trees…
Why should you have more sense than these
Of your life? I come with too much ease.”

Wait! Would you enter then, be “at home” –
A sixth sense, nothing other than unease…?

“Only the feeling most natural to me,
Where anything enters, needing no keys...”

Wait! From ease, unease? It, too much a home,
        Welcomes too silent and invisibly...

“But this, wanderer, the way of me:
I, the world, very gesture of letting be.”

What is a welcome one cannot flee,
O monstrous hospitality?

“Ah, again: that, not in me – in thee.”