We finish Solomon’s Spirituality for the Skeptic today. I find much to admire in his approach, though I’m not so willing to spin “poor Nietzsche’s antipathy” as sympathetically as he. [review... Pigliucci]
“I am dynamite!” is more than simply the announcement of an audacious new brand of spirituality, it is the defensive ego-blast of a lonely, insecure hermetic misanthrope. But it’s still fun to read:
I am not a man, I am dynamite. And with it all there is nought of the founder of a religion in me. Religions are matters for the mob ; after coming in contact with a religious man I always feel I must wash my hands; I require no “believers,” I am too full of malice to believe in even myself. I am horribly frightened that one day I shall be pronounced “holy.” I refuse to be a saint, I would rather be a clown. Maybe I am a clown… and the mouthpiece of truth. But my truth is terrible; for hitherto lies have been called the truth. The Transvaluation of all Values, this is my formula for mankind’s greatest step towards coming to its senses– a step which in me became flesh and genius. My destiny ordained that I should be the first decent human being… I was the first to discover truth… Ecce Homo
And the next thing we know, he’s hugging a horse and proclaiming himself Jesus and Alexander. You can call it spirituality if you like, I call it syphilitic madness. A fruitful madness, though, with plenty in it worth talking about. But this guy should be nobody’s role model, pasted on no disaffected teenager‘s bedroom wall.
Consider: as Nietzsche scratched out those lines in his Swiss garret, announcing his unique superiority to all other members of his species, James was wrapping up Principles of Psychology and delineating the common organic threads that bind us all together. What a contrast. He writes:
The mood of a Schopenhauer or a Nietzsche, though often an ennobling sadness, is almost as often only peevishness running away with the bit between its teeth. The sallies of the two German authors remind one, half the time, of the sick shriekings of two dying rats. They lack the purgatorial note which religious sadness gives forth.
And then James cites an extended passage in Genealogy of Morals, and then is moved to deplore "poor Nietzsche's antipathy." But he also adds: "but we know what he means," and acknowledges the seriousness of the issue at hand.
For Nietzsche the saint represents little but sneakingness and slavishness. He is the sophisticated invalid, the degenerate par excellence, the man of insufficient vitality. His prevalence would put the human type in danger... "The sick are the greatest danger for the well. The weaker, not the stronger, are the strong's undoing. ...as if health, success, strength, pride, and the sense of power were in themselves things vicious, for which one ought eventually to make bitter expiation. Oh, how these people would themselves like to inflict the expiation, how they thirst to be the hangmen! And all the while their duplicity never confesses their hatred to be hatred." [VRE
Solomon is spontaneously humane and compassionate, precisely where his hero is hard-hearted and insensitive and disgusted by "weakness." Nietzsche was not a great-souled man in the Aristotelian mold, nor is it clear how the "greatness" of wanting nothing different than it is can be distinguished from stoicism or resignation.
However, let us not get stuck in more small antipathies. His persevering embrace of hardship and the polemical energy of his pile-driver prose can be stirring. What I like about this book:
Following up the ch.4 aside about professional philosophers who are rational, reflective, and devoid of passion and spirituality, note my snarky invidious comparison the other day. For the record, and as James would say: I was probably missing the whole inward significance, for my classmate, of the epistemology enterprise. We don’t all wear our passions on our sleeves. Fair enough. But still, there are relatively passionless scholars out there. Lots of them, in fact, and most would happily renounce any interest in spirituality. Their perfect right.
Ch.5. Solomon says the naturalistic version of the problem of evil is marked by the insufferable “why me” whining of those who consider themselves entitled to the universe’s particular solicitude. Good point. But is it really true that there is no problem of evil at all for those who hold low or no expectations for the world’s goodness? Evil and suffering are existential problems for us all, and an added challenge for those meliorists who seek meaning and purpose in their progressive diminution.
Solomon likes James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis and notes with approval its affinity for the Taoist quest to harmonize with (and as part of) nature. Dawkins, we saw in Unweaving the Rainbow, considers the whole thing too New Agey, and now Lovelock apparently agrees with him. But isn’t there some sense in developing this metaphor, so long as we don’t imagine Mother Earth literally to have a mind of her own? Aren’t we it, in fact, the only developed consciousness on the planet? Earth has an ecological intelligence, we can say metaphorically. But we have the brains, and we’re the only ones with a vested stake in the continuance of human beings on this rock.
Nietzsche’s declaration that he was an “atheist by instinct” srikes an interesting contrast to those (like Michael Shermer in the Wall Street Journal last week) who contend that we’re hard-wired to seek God. There are instinctive atheists for whom the God hypothesis entirely fails to resonate, no? Whole cultures and traditions of them, in fact. Didn’t we learn that from Jennifer Hecht?
Time and space grow short. Some stubs:
Ch.6. Dennett, Vonnegut, determinism vs. fatalism, luck, chance, scientism, eternal recurrence… “People die before their time.”
Ch.7. Socrates hated life? Or was it Plato? In any event, Solomon is right (isn’t he?) to say that the meaning of death comes down to the meaning of life. That’s the better frame, as James and Spinoza would agree. And death indeed is not the end, if we can transcend our narrow little selves and identify with the species. Why can’t we?
Ch.8. Curiously, Hegel and Nietzsche are teamed to make a case for the wider self of “Geist, ” for a compassionate community of souls together breathing life into Spirit and the zeitgeist. Sure looks like Fritz is being bent over backward to fit the kinder, gentler dimensions of this program (caring, love, reverence, trust).
But if that’s what survives his dispatch of “soul atoms,” maybe it’s not so important whether he gets with the program in all its details. Or if his “hypersensitive nature” throws up a rhetorical smokescreen behind which lurks a hidden pussycat. It’s too late, under the moving finger of fate, to worry much about Nietzsche’s status and legacy. The more pressing question: can you and I enjoy a naturalized spirituality as we live forward in our time, and cultivate a thoughtful love of life?
What have we got to lose by trying? The tremendous effort to discover or realize our better selves is what spirituality is all about. This naturalized notion of spirituality is, in this narcissistic and materialist age, something well worth striving for.
Superman, though, is not.