I just finished Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality. While I digest the book for a longer write-up, here are some passages I found thought provoking:
We modern men are heirs to the ancient practice of vivisecting our consciences, and inflicting curelty upon our animal selves. This we have practices for the longest time, and it has perhaps become our characteristic art; at any rate it represents our refinement, the indulgence of our taste. Man has for too long regarded his natural inclinations maliciously, and thus eventually, they have become in his mind associated with ‘bad conscience.’
Except for the ascetic ideal, Man, the animal man, has had no meaning. His existence on earth had no purpose; ‘what is the purpose of Man at all?’ was a question without an answer; the will for man and the world was lacking; behind every great human destiny rang, like a refrain, a still greater ‘in vain!’ The ascetic ideal simply means that something was lacking, that man was surrounded by a tremendous void – he did not know how to justify himself, to explain himself, to affirm himself; he suffered from the problem of his own meaning. He suffered also in other ways; he was in the main a diseased animal; his problem was not suffering itself, though, but the lack of an answer to that crying question, ‘Why do we suffer?’…. The senselessness of suffering, not suffering itself, was the curse which lay upon humanity… any meaning is better than no meaning… man will desire oblivion rather than not desire at all.
My book club read Beyond Good and Evil last month, and I’ve been meaning to write it up for a while now. It is a complicated book, and contains passages that span the full spectrum from disgust to inspiration. That being said, I enjoyed it.
His philosophy is deeply individualistic. This is borne of necessity, not choice. Modern science and skepticism have destabilized traditional reference points like God and the philosophical belief in Capital T truth; we can no longer assert confidently that there is something true or real. The individual and their confused experience of the world is all we possess. Meaning, values, and morality are therefore personal. There is only that meaning which the individual can construct from the cacophony of experience; individuals must create themselves and their values.
Nietzsche is unsparing in how difficult – nigh impossible – he thinks this task is. It is a road filled with suffering, loneliness, and doubt. There is no benchmark or reference point which is not self-referential, no salve you do not have to prepare yourself.
So, we oppose ourselves in conspiracy with the world. We shrink from the task, and would rather conform to the social world around us. We crave the reassurance of conformity.
This helps contextualize Nietzsche’s infamous antagonism to Christianity. He saw Christianity as teaching a denial of the self, of individual identity, of freedom. It sought to subsume the individual into another identity – consider the words “become more Christ like.” For Nietzsche this was a kind of suicide.
He is remembered for his attacks on Christianity but he reserves equal venom for democracy and socialism, which he also saw as stultifying the individual by venerating the masses. In fact, his broadsides against Christianity are historically contingent. They reflect an antagonism to all conformist social beliefs, Christianity just happened to be the most dominant in his time. Today he would be writing long polemics against New Age spiritualism and consumer culture.
With these temptations within and without, Nietzsche thought true independence was only possible for a select few, his creative, meaning making elite. The vast majority of humanity was doomed to the herd. Contrary to later Marxists, Nietzsche was most concerned that elites would be subjugated from below. The common man and his homogenizing instincts threatened to drown the few independent spirits under waves of mediocrity.
Here him and I part ways.
Independence does not demand antagonism to others, anymore than social life need always undermine our independence. His insight – that individual’s must make their own identity and meaning in a creative process always threatened by self-deceit and conformity – can be married to a social ethic which seeks a world where all of us can do so.
It is possible – I think necessary – to believe that kind of independence is available to us all.
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If anyone finds what is written here obscure or unintelligible, I do not think that the blame should lie upon me. The meaning should be clear enough to any reader who has first read my previous writings carefully, without sparing himself the effort needed to understand them, for that is not, indeed, a simple matter.
And a little later
There is certainly something which is essential in order to practice reading as an art, something which has nowadays been forgotten – that is why it will take quite some time for my writings to become ‘readable,’ and for this it is necessary to become almost a cow, and under no circumstances a ‘modern man’! – rumination.
We all suffer, but is it anything more than a sensation to be avoided or grudgingly endured? In different ways, both Nietzsche and Nassim Taleb have something useful to say.
Nietzsche thought suffering was vital, so vital in fact, that he wished it on his friends (it is unclear how many he had).
From Beyond Good and Evil, part 225:
You want if possible – and there is no madder ‘if possible’ – to abolish suffering; and we? – it really does seem that we would rather increase it and make it worse than it has ever been! Wellbeing as you understand it – that is no goal, that seems to us an end! A state which soon renders man ludicrous and contemptible – which makes it desirable that he should perish! The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that it is this discipline alone which has created every elevation of mankind hitherto? That tension of the soul in misfortune which cultivates its strength, its terror at the sight of great destruction, its inventiveness and bravery in undergoing, enduring, interpreting, exploiting misfortune, and whatever of depth, mystery, mask, spirit, cunning and greatness has been bestowed on it – has it not been bestowed through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?
Poetic as it sounds, how might ‘the discipline of great suffering‘ help in practice?
Let’s fast forward to The Black Swan, where Taleb argues that the non-linear nature of the modern world condemns people in many professions or pursuits to years, even decades, of labour with few results to show for it.
Positive lumpy outcomes, for which we either collect big or get nothing, prevail in numerous occupations, those invested with a sense of mission, such as doggedly pursuing (in a smelly laboratory) the elusive cure for cancer, writing a book that will change the way people view the world (while living hand to mouth), making music, or painting miniature icons on subway trains
Our emotional apparatus is designed for linear causality. For instance, if you study every day, you expect to learn something in proportion to your studies. If you feel that you are not going anywhere, your emotions will cause you to become demoralised. But modern reality rarely gives us the privilege of a satisfying linear, positive progression: you may think about a problem for a year and learn nothing
How does this connect to what Nietzsche was saying?
Well, one of Nietzsche’s central points is the importance of individuals pursuing their ‘will to power,’ an ambiguous phrase that refers to those drives which originate in the core of an individual’s identity and emerge in its free, creative, expression. He thought society, religion, and our own weaknesses conspired against us, offering easy truths and pre-packaged alternatives to the terrifying task of becoming a self, becoming oneself.
This task requires us to silence the doubts within and without, reject social conventions, and strike out alone. As a consequence, the creative flowering of the individual’s identity often goes with (and through) profound loneliness and suffering. For Nietzsche, learning to endure suffering is essential because suffering is an inherent part of living as an independent human.
Taleb seems to agree: suffering is the price we pay for pursuing non-linear pursuits, whether creative, intellectual, or personal:
“Believe me, it is tough to deal with the social consequences of the appearance of continuous failure. We are social animals; hell is other people.”
Where Nietzsche advocated we become true iconoclasts, Taleb’s recommendation is more attractive and realistic alternative:
It may be a banality that we need others for many things, but we need them far more than we realize, particularly for dignity and respect. Indeed, we have very few historical records of people who have achieved anything extraordinary without such peer validation – but we have the freedom to choose our peers. If we look at the history of ideas, we see schools of thought occasionally forming, producing unusual work unpopular outside the school… A school allows someone with unusual ideas with the remote possibility of a payoff to find company and create a microcosm insulated from others. The members of the group can be ostracized together – which is better than being ostracized alone.