Tag Archives: Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche on Inadequate Studies of Morality

In section 7 of The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche is astonished at how lacking the studies of morality seem to be, portions of morality that appear as eternally powerful:

All kinds of individual passions have to be thought through and pursued through different ages, peoples, and great and small individuals; all their reason and all their evaluations and perspectives on things have to be brought into the light. So far, all that has given color to existence still lacks a history. Where could you find a history of love, of avarice, of envy, of conscience, of pious respect for tradition, or of cruelty?1

But I wonder how eternal these things are—at least in terms of how important each of them has always been in terms of its influence upon societies. This inward turn to the problems of individual morality might be a new gesture in the consciousness of individuals, given the changing form of the personal in bourgeois society.

1 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974 [1887]), 81.

Nietzsche on Evil, Kolakowski on Change

Jacques-Louis David,  Le Sacre de Napoléon [Coronation of Napoleon] (1805-1808), oil on canvas, 6.21 m x 9.79 m.

Jacques-Louis David, Le Sacre de Napoléon [Coronation of Napoleon] (1805-1808)

In section 4 (“What preserves the species”) of The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche brings up the way in which the categories of good and evil function for the sake of encountering the new:

The strongest and most evil spirits have so far done the most to advance humanity: again and again they relumed the passions that were going to sleep—all ordered society puts the passions to sleep—and they reawakened again and again in the sense of comparison, of contradiction, of the pleasure in what is new, daring, untried; they compelled men to pit opinion against opinion, model against model. […] What is new, however, is always evil, being that which wants to conquer and overthrow the old boundary markers and the old pieties; and only what is old is good.1

Before bourgeois society, the opportunism coinciding with the status quo has no wish to see novelty arise, nor would novelty be seen as the work of subjects, but rather as aberration. With the affirmation of the status quo delivered by God himself, any change appears as heretical. History up till then is understood, and retold, as inevitably leading up to the present: “The good men are in all ages those who dig the old thoughts, digging deep and getting them to bear fruit—the farmers of the spirit”.2 Nietzsche confronts utilitarianism as a phenomenon of ethics rejecting improvement, by putting forward the idea that maintaining the world, as utilitarianism implies, could be just as dangerous as its change.

The idea of progress as improvement in the world will no doubt remind one of politics, of the distinction of the Left and the Right. Here, Leszek Kolakowski’s essay “The Concept of the Left” (1968) is helpful in defining progress: “The Left is free of sacred feelings; it has no sense of sanctity toward any existing historical situation. It takes a position of permanent revisionism toward reality, just as the Right assumes an attitude of opportunism in respect to the world as it is. The Right is the embodiment of the inertia of historical reality—that is why it is as eternal as the Left.”3

1 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974 [1887]), 79.
2 Ibid.
3 Leszek Kolakowski, “The Concept of the Left”, in The New Left Reader, ed. Carl Oglesby (New York: Grove Press, 1969), 152-53.

Nietzsche as Philosophe on the Body

In the preface for the second edition (1887) of The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche poses the problem of the body in the wake of the high-reaching philosophical systems of his predecessors:

The unconscious disguise of physiological needs under the cloaks of the objective, ideal, purely spiritual goes to frightening lengths—and often I have asked myself whether, taking a large view, philosophy has not been merely an interpretation of the body and a misunderstanding of the body (34-35).

Using words like “ideal” and “purely spiritual”, Nietzsche seems to be referring to philosophers like Immanuel Kant, and G. W. F. Hegel, in that they appear to eschew the body in their philosophical systems which thus encourage an ascetic view of life. In this regard, it seems Nietzsche might be somewhat unfair to them. By opposing what might be called “philosophy” proper, Nietzsche, is rather a philosophe. I use this term in the way that Louis Menand uses it—in his introduction (2003) to Edmund Wilson’s To the Findland Station (1940)—to describe Marx and Engels as “philosophes of a second Enlightenment.” One could include Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the category of philosophes of the first Enlightenment, in that he too resisted what he considered philosophy affirmed the status quo. In Rousseau’s case, he was resisting the Catholic Church’s narrative that ordered all of society as determined by a great chain of being descending from God and the Church.

Reason and Flesh in Bondage

Detail of Caravaggio's Martirio di San Pietro (1601)

Detail of Caravaggio’s Martirio di San Pietro (1601)

A few times in Critique of Pure Reason, Kant points out that reason is stupid, that it needs knowledge and the Understanding to guide it. Given reason’s penchant for veering wherever it wishes, Kant mentions different ways in which it must be restrained. This might not always be a bad thing: Max Horkheimer’s Critique of Instrumental Reason is an indictment of the ways in which reason can be used for the justification of awful things, for example: the reasoning behind genocides as a purification of the human race. In his lecture on knowledge in Critique of Pure Reason, Adorno points out the strangely old-fashioned way that Kant restrains reason for the sake of morality, when Kant writes, “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” I’ll quote Adorno’s lecture at length here:

You perceive here a very different side of Kant. This is the side that wishes to impose restrictions on reason on the grounds that because reason is natural it can be concerned only with the natural, and must therefore detract from the dignity of everything supernatural.

This places Kant in a tradition that is of extreme importance for his practical philosophy. I am speaking here of the tradition of German Protestantism, in which, as you know, the concept of reason is narrowly circumscribed in favor of faith. The emphasis placed on faith, which puts it in sharp contrast to Catholicism, was gained by downgrading knowledge and natural reason […]. You will all have heard mention of Martin Luther’s reference to ‘that whore, reason’, and its echo can still be heard here. Incidentally, this Lutheran description of reason as a whore reminds us how frequently the language of philosophy has recourse to erotic metaphors when it wishes to set limits to reason or to rebuke reason for its arrogance. In the Critique of Pure Reason, when Kant desires to impose limits on reason and restrict it to the world of appearances, while declining to extend it to the Absolute, he uses the expression about ‘straying into intelligible worlds’. It is as if the speculative inclination of mind to go in the direction of the Absolute, to refuse to allow oneself to be cut off from the Absolute by a wall, went hand in hand with a kind of sexual curiosity from the very outset. Later psychologists homed in on this particular point by showing that there is a profound link between the impulse to know and a curiosity that is ultimately sexual in nature. […] Moreover, the same kind of metaphoric language is to be found in Hegel when he is discussing Kant’s view of this problem. He says there that if philosophy does as Hegel wishes and thinks the Absolute, it will be moving into a region where, as he puts it, there are ‘houses of ill-repute’ (71-72).

The tradition of self-denial within western culture makes its appearance even in Critique of Pure Reason-a work of philosophy which attempts to cast off theological, ascetic strictures upon metaphysics. Adorno points out that Kant holds reason itself back in such a manner because its characteristic of being natural is grounds for claiming its unreliability to think beyond nature. Reason’s proximity to natural indulgences, according to Kant, hinders its abilities. Perhaps Kant is worried that reason, in the realm of the human body, might linger indefinitely on the island of lotus-eaters. And as Adorno points out, this restriction on reason mirrors those placed on human pleasure.

Nietzsche attempts to philosophically trace the sacred ascendency of asceticism. In doing so, he writes of slave morality, which is a deification of powerlessness, a lack of the sensual, and a lack of happiness. Thus, the religious act of giving up such things is based rather in an envy for a life full of them. Is it any wonder that the institutions most known for their devout abstention are also known for their obsession with all indulgences? Human bodies have long been relegated to a position inferior to the spirit in matters of knowledge and happiness. The painting above of Saint Peter’s crucifixion points to the total self-abnegation in death that then becomes deified in the tradition of martyrdom. The New Testament demands a kind of faith that makes the flesh worthless, for example when Jesus is contemplating his impending death in the garden of Gethsemane with his disciples: “And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:40-41).

In his essay “On Hedonism,” Herbert Marcuse ponders this divide between idealistic and materialistic happiness. As is to be expected, he finds a more dialectical than polar answer to this conundrum: since happiness has been so strictly tied within subjectivity, it is currently difficult for such personal happiness to be the grounds on which citizenship in society can rest. The future, however, Marcuse hopes, is one in which personal happiness properly coincides with a happy society. As it stands today, it is sometimes too easy for one to fall into the offered pleasures of a culture that is complicit in the status-quo: “If happiness is no more than the immediate gratification of particular interests, then eudaemonism contains an irrational principle that keeps men within whatever forms of life are given. Human happiness should be something other than personal contentment. Its own title points beyond mere subjectivity” (120). Marcuse points out how the history of philosophy has its own ascetic strain in which happiness is not to be found in the subject’s material self. He notes that hedonism’s material happiness is also shared by the interests of critical theory:

It is against this internalization of happiness, which accepts as inevitable the anarchy and unfreedom of the external conditions of existence, that the hedonistic trends of philosophy have protested. By identifying happiness with pleasure, they were demanding that man’s sensual and sensuous potentialities and needs, too, should find satisfaction—that in them, too, man should enjoy his existence without sinning against his essence, without guilt and shame. In the principle of hedonism, in an abstract and undeveloped form, the demand for the freedom of the individual is extended into the realm of the material conditions of life. Insofar as the materialistic protest of hedonism preserves an otherwise proscribed element of human liberation, it is linked with the interest of critical theory (121).

In the goal of true human happiness, critical theory shares something with hedonism. It is due to our existence in a realm of pleasures and drives that Frankfurt School thinkers became interested in what psychoanalysis might be able to offer to the struggle for a happy, human future.

The Guardian on Horkheimer’s Critique of Instrumental Reason

Here is a short video with Esther Leslie of Birkbeck College, London—where I visited for a conference earlier this year—in which Leslie briefly describes some of Max Horkheimer’s thoughts in his book Critique of Instrumental Reason, such as the titular concept, in which Horkheimer sees the slow twisting of reason into just another tool of domination, stripped of its emancipatory capabilities in the realm of ideology.

Although differing in much of their philosophical thought, Horkheimer shares this concern for the future of reason with Friedrich Nietzsche. This concern may be the origin of Nietzsche’s book Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben [On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life] (1874). It is not that Horkheimer and Nietzsche reject the idea of truth, but rather the way in which abstractions gain traction as a pseudo-religion. With regard to this development in the study of history, Nietzsche begins his book with the following:

“I hate everything that merely instructs me without increasing or directly quickening my activity.” These words of Goethe like a sincere ceterum censeo, may well stand at the head of my thoughts on the worth and the worthlessness of history. I will show why instruction that does not “quicken,” knowledge that slackens the rein of activity, why in fact history, in Goethe’s phrase, must be seriously “hated,” as a costly and superfluous luxury of the understanding: for we are still in want of the necessaries of life, and the superfluous is an enemy to the necessary. We do need history, but quite differently from the jaded idlers in the garden of knowledge, however grandly they may look down on our rude and unpicturesque requirements. In other words, we need it for life and action, not as a convenient way to avoid life and action, or to excuse a selfish life and a cowardly or base action. We would serve history only so far as it serves life; but to value its study beyond a certain point mutilates and degrades life: and this is a fact that certain marked symptoms of our time make it as necessary as it may be painful to bring to the test of experience.

This reminds me of the steady, almost naïve gaze I appreciate and think can be required in human activity, and which I wrote about earlier with regard to narratives and music.