Posts Tagged ‘Nietzsche’

Pascal, Spinoza, Locke & Reid, multiculturalism

February 12, 2013

Dwan Adams of the Peace Corps made such a terrific pitch, I’m expecting half the class to have run off and joined when I get to Bioethics tomorrow. I’m half considering it myself. I don’t know how she made life in a tent in Mongolian winter sound appealing but she did. So, you want to join?

peacecorps

Today in CoPhi it’s Pascal, Spinoza, Locke & Reid, and a Philosophy Bites interview with Anne Phillips on multiculturalism.

There’s more to Blaise Pascal than his famous Wager [SEP], there are all those thoughts (Pensees) and there’s also his antipathy for his fellow  philosophe FrancaisMontaigne. I usually compare-&-contrast Montaigne and Descartes, so this makes for a nice new menage a trois (without an accent). Blaise is hostile to both Rene and Michel but is a cautious gambler, finding Descartes’ God too antiseptic and too, well, philosophical. And he finds Montaigne a self-absorbed, trivia-mongering potty-mouth.

But Montaigne would not at all disagree that “the heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” And isn’t it funny to think of Descartes philosophizing in his hypothetical armchair, asking if his fire and his body (etc.) are real, pretending to speculate that all the world and its philosophical problems might be figments of his solipsistic or dreamy or demon-instigated imagination? And then funnier still to come across this quote from Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”  But look what happens when a philosopher sits quietly in a room alone: you get the Meditations!

Pascal also said

“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” And “It is man’s natural sickness to believe that he possesses the Truth.”

And

“There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”

And

“The nature of man is wholly natural, omne animal. There is nothing he may not make natural; there is nothing natural he may not lose.”*

And

“The weather and my mood have little connection. I have my foggy and my fine days within me…” [Or as Jimmy Buffett says, carry the weather with you.]

And all military veterans especially should appreciate this one:

“Can anything be stupider than that a man has the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of a river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarrelled with him?”

And this will be an epigraph for my Philosophy Walks (or its sequel Philosophy Rides):

“Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.”

But Pascal does finally blow the big game of life, for betting too heavily on self-interest. He’s obsessed with “saving [his] own soul at all costs.” That’s a losing proposition.

[*That statement about us being "omne animal" sounded flattering, to me, being a philosophical naturalist and a friend to animals. But later epigraphs indicate Pascal's platonist perfectionism and his derogatory attitude towards humanity and its natural condition. Without God's grace, he writes, we are "like unto the brute beasts." He doesn't seem pleased about that, but I'm with Walt Whitman: "I think I could turn and live with animals, they're so placid and self contain'd... They do not sweat and whine about their condition... They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God..."]

Julia Sweeney, donning her no-god glasses, gets to the nub of what’s wrong with Pascal’s Wager:

So how can I come up against this biggest question, the ultimate question, “Do I really believe in a personal God,” and then turn away from the evidence? How can I believe, just because I want to? How will I have any respect for myself if I did that?

I thought of Pascal’s Wager. Pascal argued that it’s better to bet there is a God, because if you’re wrong there’s nothing to lose, but if there is, you win an eternity in heaven. But I can’t force myself to believe, just in case it turns out to be true. The God I’ve been praying to knows what I think, he doesn’t just make sure I show up for church. How could I possibly pretend to believe? I might convince other people, but surely not God.

Spinoza believed in Einstein’s God [Tippett], and vice versa. Gambling with your soul?  Einstein famously said God does not play dice with the universe. God doesn’t play at anything, or listen to anyone, or save or punish or forgive. God just is.

They were pantheists, Spinoza and Einstein, a lot less tormented by the vast and starry universe than Pascal (“all these stars frighten me”) with his personal and possibly punitive God. As Jennifer Hecht notes, there’s a howling statistical error at the heart of Pascal’s specious reasoning: “We may be struck by lightning or not, but that doesn’t make it a fifty-fifty proposition.” And his bad wager underscores something more to appreciate about Spinoza.

What Pascal decried as the misery of man without the Biblical God, was for Spinoza the liberation of the human spirit from the bonds of fear and superstition.

[Descartes to Deism... Tlumak on free will...Descartes before the horse (& Spinoza/Einstein slides)...]

Locke said the key to personal identity is memory. Oh-oh! But Thomas Reid, Mr. Scottish Common Sense, helpfully said you can get there from here: if you remember  yourself in (say) 1998, and that Self remembers itself in 1980, and that one remembers version 1975, and so on… well, you’re the same person you were back in the day. Whew! That’s a relief. The Ship of Theseus may be seaworthy, after all. (But see below.*)

Cesar Kuriyama told the TEDsters the other day that he intends to record, splice, and archive a second of every day of his life. He wants never to forget. What would Locke say? Or Nietzsche?

“Consider the herds that are feeding yonder: they know not the meaning of yesterday or today; they graze and ruminate, move or rest, from morning to night, from day to day, taken up with their little loves and hates and the mercy of the moment, feeling neither melancholy nor satiety. Man cannot see them without regret, for even in the pride of his humanity he looks enviously on the beast’s happiness. He wishes simply to live without satiety or pain, like the beast; yet it is all in vain, for he will not change places with it. He may ask the beast—“Why do you look at me and not speak to me of your happiness?” The beast wants to answer—“Because I always forget what I wished to say”; but he forgets this answer, too, and is silent; and the man is left to wonder.”

Gayatri Devi says if you want a better memory you must make yourself forget more.

Anne Phillips says one of the smartest things I’ve heard anyone say about the niqab, the Islamic full face veil, and whether it has a place before the faces of those who most directly influence our children:

“…it’s a bit problematic sending a message to 11-year old children that it’s impossible for men and women to engage in face-to-face communication.”

And J&M note other problems

Walter Cronkite used to ask “Can the world be saved?” Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. But I think William James had it right, long ago, when he wrote:

*“The world may be saved, on condition that its parts shall do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.”

So there’s our challenge: to do our best. Push that stone, and push it again. And be happy. Sail on, sail on, sailor. Watch out for those shoals, those rocks and bergs. Be safe. Prepare the rafts.

And consider the Corps.

Slow and steady

July 26, 2012

Thanks to my friend Dean for reminding me of a quote I can use in Philosophy Walks:

A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.

Mark Twain is commonly credited with this, though it has “never been verified.” Like Yogi Berra, he probably never said half the things he said.

But no matter, the point for my purposes is: philosophy must lace its shoes with care, while careless popular opinion, dogmatic religion, and sloppy ideology race ahead. Falsehood moves faster, but philosophy wins in the long run. It gets the benefit of a good walk.

Don’t know if this one’s been verified, but Nietzsche (whose own view of truth is complicated) may have said:

“If I feel well, I will walk, sometimes for hours. I scribble as I walk and often do my best work, have my finest thoughts, while walking “

“The Swerve”

December 23, 2011

The Swerve may sound like another baseball book, like a secret hidden pitch, but in fact it’s the story of the “hidden natural explanation for everything that alarms or eludes you,” namely atoms: it’s all “atoms and void and nothing else.”

But “nothing else” is very misleading. Stephen Greenblatt‘s account of how the fifteenth century rediscovery of LucretiusDe Rerum Natura modernized and humanized the world is chock full of unexpected atomic configurations. One of them is Montaigne‘s cosmic speculation about going around the wheel more than once. It’s an intriguing, demystified, naturalistic intimation of Nietzsche’s version of the ancient hypothesis of eternal recurrence:

“Since the movements of the atoms are so varied,” he wrote, “it is not unbelievable that the atoms once came together in this way, or that in the future they will come together like this again, giving birth to another Montaigne.”

And if you can believe that, is there much you can’t believe?

But it’s far truer to the spirit of Lucretius’ hero Epicurus (and to his heroes Leucippus and Democritus) to recognize the incredible improbability of the swerves that resulted in you and me. The fundamental humanist insight is that we probably go around just this once and had better grab our gusto while we can.

I do love the way Greenblatt concludes, with Thomas Jefferson’s proud, fearless, under-sung declaration: “I am an Epicurean.”

Where to, humanity?

October 3, 2011

Cards & Phils are all tied up, 4-4, in the 6th inning of Game #2 (we’ll not talk about Game #1), as I sit down on Sunday night to think about Monday’s class. Mill, Darwin, Nietzsche, Emerson, Thoreau, Peirce, Dewey, James… they were all evolutionists, but were any of them baseball fans? Well, Mill was a cricketer, Nietzsche a “footballer.” Dewey praised the “tense grace of the outfielder.” One of James’s students tried to interest him in the game once, without success:

Morris Rafael Cohen records, “When my revered friend and teacher William James wrote ‘The Moral Equivalent of War‘ I suggested to him that baseball already embodied all the moral value of war, so far as war had any moral value. He listened sympathetically and was amused, but did not take me seriously enough. All great men have their limitations.”

And that’s a good segue to Mill, Darwin, and Nietzsche. All were concerned, in one way or another, with the prospective greatness of humanity. A common misunderstanding of Darwin’s evolutionary hypothesis had him defending the “survival of the fittest” ethos as social policy. But Darwin was no Social Darwinist, preferring instead the cooperative liberal vision of his countryman Mill.

And then there’s Nietzsche, heralding the Ubermensch (“I teach you the Overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?”), aspiring to a personal future “beyond good and evil,” heaping scorn and abuse on comfortable “couch potato” English values (like democracy and “utility”), and insisting that hardship is the cost of greatness.

Nietzsche liked Emerson, and his “self-reliance.” The “Divinity School Address” must have pleased him too, with its repudiation of Judeo-Christian(-Islamic) supernaturalism and “monstrous distortion” of Jesus’ message that our life is a natural miracle, “one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”

Nietzsche read German translations of Emerson’s essays, copied passages from “History” and “Self-Reliance” in his journals, and wrote of the Essays: that he had never “felt so much at home in a book.” Emerson’s ideas about “strong, overflowing” heroes, friendship as a battle, education, and relinquishing control in order to gain it, can be traced in Nietzsche’s writings. Other Emersonian ideas-about transition, the ideal in the commonplace, and the power of human will permeate the writings of such classical American pragmatists as William James and John Dewey. SEP [affinity]

Thoreau reputedly lived a lot like Nietzsche, in (relative) hermetic isolation. But did you know that during his sojourn at Walden pond, on property owned by Emerson, he made regular town-rounds and dropped his laundry off at Mom’s? [pics]

Peirce imagined the ideal end of intellectual history, defining truth as the view destined to be agreed upon. “Agreement” is not a term often associated with Nietzsche.

And what did James think of Nietzsche? Lumped him with Schopenhauer as a pair of rats, and pitied “poor Nietzsche’s antipathies.”

(5-4 Cards in the  7th…)

Are We Still Evolving?… Darwin & friendsEvolution & cooperationbest idea evermeanings evolvebest way to begin each day (Nietzsche?!)… nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach yainto thin air (Nietzsche on hardship)…recurrence (“When N. Wept”)… “I am dynamite

NOTE TO STUDENTS: We’ll finish PW this week. On Monday & Tuesday,

M 3 PW 104-113. Mill & Darwin, Nietzsche, Emerson & Thoreau, Peirce & Dewey, James.

And note: next week it’s time to declare your report intentions: solo or collaborative, presentation or essay, and what’s your topic? Signups on the 10th & 11th.

See you all in class.

PostscriptCards win!

I wonder: does an interest in spectator sports help or hinder the evolution of our species? This morning my feeling is, if the future has no MLB postseason I don’t want to go. “If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie…”

Nothin’ Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya

April 5, 2011

Or so he said.

In first approaching Nietzsche there are misconceptions to conquer, and misinterpretations to correct. The big one: he was not a Nazi, obviously, having died in 1900 but actually checking out mentally a decade before.

A commonly-noted deep irony about this very chaste iconoclast is that he ended up being felled, probably, by tertiary syphilis contracted during his brief military career. But that’s speculation, and there’s somereason to doubt it. [Quashing rumors]

No matter, the ironies abound in this unique philosopher’s story. He was a solitary thinker who’s now accumulated generations of followers, an exponent of personal power who exerted very little control over the circumstances of his own existence. He cultivated a reputation for hardness, but was actually very soft-hearted and sentimental — even before his decline-heralding, sobbing breakdown in the street over an abused horse.

It’s been noted, in a very different context, that for devout Muslims jihad is all about self-discipline and restraint. That’s the ultimate Nietzschean irony. He trumpeted will to power, but was almost exclusively preoccupied with self-overcoming.

Richard Schacht pins a lot of the blame for Nietzsche’s bad reputation not on German fascists but on unsympathetic western commentators like Bertrand Russell, whose unflattering portrait of Nietzsche Schacht repudiates as “absurd.” Russell wrote things like this:

It is obvious that in his day-dreams he is a warrior, not a professor; all the men he admires were military. His opinion of women, like every man’s, is an objectification of his own emotion towards them, which is obviously one of fear. ” Forget not thy whip” but nine women out of ten would get the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women, and soothed his wounded vanity with unkind remarks.

He condemns Christian love because he thinks it is an outcome of fear: I am afraid my neighbour may injure me, and so I assure him that I love him. If I were stronger and bolder, I should openly display the contempt for him which of course I feel. It does not occur to Nietzsche as possible that a man should genuinely feel universal love, obviously because he himself feels almost universal hatred and fear, which he would fain disguise as lordly indifference…

It never occurred to Nietzsche that the lust for power, with which he endows his superman, is itself an outcome of fear. Those who do not fear their neighbours see no necessity to tyrannize over them…

And yet, Nietzsche is the guy who said philosophy (like himself) is adangerous explosive. He was always going off. His serial eruptions gained him a reputation for anarchic nihilism, but in fact that was precisely the modern problem he set himself to solve. He thought his early mentors Wagner and Schopenhauer ended up embracing nihilistic meaninglessness and life-negation. He sought appropriate vehicles of affirmation, and finally thought he had them in eternal recurrence and the Ubermensch. ["When Nietzsche Wept"]

What else is a philosopher, for Nietzsche? A walker. (“The best ideas arise during walks.”) That’s the affinity I still feel for him, long after recoiling from his self-aggrandizing bluster.

In Turin and elsewhere Nietzsche often wrote in his head while out walking, believing that ‘a philosopher [is] a man who constantly experiences, sees, hears, suspects, hopes, dreams extraordinary things; who is struck by his own thoughts as if from without’…Nietzsche in Turin

His early Birth of Tragedy celebrates the confrontation, in art and life, between order and passion. His own life was one long illustration of that wrestling match, until mental disease (wherever it came from) overtook him: outwardly ordered, spartan, sober, and habitual in his daily work and routines, but inwardly always churning and tempestuous. On the page, both sets of qualities vie for dominance. He’s fun to read, and argue with, and become alternately exasperated or invigorated by.

He’s known, this preacher’s kid, as Christianity’s sworn enemy. (“God is dead.”) [Hecht]  But he rejected most of philosophy too. Kant was a fanatic and a spider, Mill a “blockhead,” most philosophers in fact failed to win his approval. He did like Emerson and “self-reliance,” but he earned William James’s pitying repudiation for “poor Nietzsche’s antipathy.” You’re either for life or against it, on his stringent tally sheet, and if you seem to conform to anyone else’s notions of right and good– or even to tolerate them– you’re on the wrong side of the ledger.

James also said:

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.

An “Ubermensch” doesn’t really have any superpowers, just a superhuman ego and sense of self-direction.

The trouble with J.S. Mill, Jeremy Bentham, and western liberalism generally, for him, were their progressive, optimistic interest inmaximizing happiness (though he announced his own “formula for happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal”) and pleasure and minimizing difficulty and pain. These were the grindstones on which Nietzsche fashioned his ascetic personal ideal, and he had little use for pluralism in such matters.

That’s another irony. Mill’s On Liberty articulated the very principle that tolerates the Nietzsches among us, and insulates us from “harm” that goes beyond mere verbal excess. [Philosophizing with a hammer... into thin air...slides...Where to?...Harriet Taylor Mill]

And we can tolerate a few. But would a society of Ubermenschen be remotely possible? No. But he was never in it for the company.

Alain de Boton on Nietzsche “above the treeline”:

gratitude

November 25, 2010

“Gratitude is a bridge to your positive future.” [Thank Who Very Much...Thank Goodness...Thank Epic Existence]

“If given the opportunity to live your life over and over again ad infinitum, forced to go through all of the pain and the grief of existence, would you be overcome with despair? Or would you fall to your knees in gratitude?”

That question changed philosopher Robert Solomon‘s life.

One can take one’s life and its advantages for granted, but how much better it is to acknowledge not only those advantages but one’s gratitude for them.

…it involves an admission of our vulnerability and our dependence on other people. The Psychology of Gratitude

Solomon collapsed and died of pulmonary hypertension on January 2, 2007 while changing planes at Zurich airport.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Nietzsche, Mill

November 16, 2010

In first approaching Nietzsche there are misconceptions to conquer, and misinterpretations to correct. The big one: he was not a Nazi, obviously, having died in 1900 but actually checking out mentally a decade before.

A commonly-noted deep irony about this very chaste iconoclast is that he ended up being felled, probably, by tertiary syphilis contracted during his brief military career. But that’s speculation, and there’s some reason to doubt it. [Quashing rumors]

No matter, the ironies abound in this unique philosopher’s story. He was a solitary thinker who’s now accumulated generations of followers, an exponent of personal power who exerted very little control over the circumstances of his own existence. He cultivated a reputation for hardness, but was actually very soft-hearted and sentimental — even before his decline-heralding, sobbing breakdown in the street over an abused horse.

It’s been noted, in a very different context, that for devout Muslims jihad is all about self-discipline and restraint. That’s the ultimate Nietzschean irony. He trumpeted will to power, but was almost exclusively preoccupied with self-overcoming.

Richard Schacht pins a lot of the blame for Nietzsche’s bad reputation not on German fascists but on unsympathetic western commentators like Bertrand Russell, whose unflattering portrait of Nietzsche Schacht repudiates as “absurd.” Russell wrote things like this:

It is obvious that in his day-dreams he is a warrior, not a professor; all the men he admires were military. His opinion of women, like every man’s, is an objectification of his own emotion towards them, which is obviously one of fear. ” Forget not thy whip” but nine women out of ten would get the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women, and soothed his wounded vanity with unkind remarks.

He condemns Christian love because he thinks it is an outcome of fear: I am afraid my neighbour may injure me, and so I assure him that I love him. If I were stronger and bolder, I should openly display the contempt for him which of course I feel. It does not occur to Nietzsche as possible that a man should genuinely feel universal love, obviously because he himself feels almost universal hatred and fear, which he would fain disguise as lordly indifference…

It never occurred to Nietzsche that the lust for power, with which he endows his superman, is itself an outcome of fear. Those who do not fear their neighbours see no necessity to tyrannize over them…

And yet, Nietzsche is the guy who said philosophy (like himself) is a dangerous explosive. He was always going off. His serial eruptions gained him a reputation for anarchic nihilism, but in fact that was precisely the modern problem he set himself to solve. He thought his early mentors Wagner and Schopenhauer ended up embracing nihilistic meaninglessness and life-negation. He sought appropriate vehicles of affirmation, and finally thought he had them in eternal recurrence and the Ubermensch. ["When Nietzsche Wept"]

What else is a philosopher, for Nietzsche? A walker. (“The best ideas arise during walks.”) That’s the affinity I still feel for him, long after recoiling from his self-aggrandizing bluster.

In Turin and elsewhere Nietzsche often wrote in his head while out walking, believing that ‘a philosopher [is] a man who constantly experiences, sees, hears, suspects, hopes, dreams extraordinary things; who is struck by his own thoughts as if from without’…Nietzsche in Turin

His early Birth of Tragedy celebrates the confrontation, in art and life, between order and passion. His own life was one long illustration of that wrestling match, until mental disease (wherever it came from) overtook him: outwardly ordered, spartan, sober, and habitual in his daily work and routines, but inwardly always churning and tempestuous. On the page, both sets of qualities vie for dominance. He’s fun to read, and argue with, and become alternately exasperated or invigorated by.

He’s known, this preacher’s kid, as Christianity’s sworn enemy. (“God is dead.”) [Hecht]  But he rejected most of philosophy too. Kant was a fanatic and a spider, Mill a “blockhead,” most philosophers in fact failed to win his approval. He did like Emerson and “self-reliance,” but he earned William James’s pitying repudiation for “poor Nietzsche’s antipathy.” You’re either for life or against it, on his stringent tally sheet, and if you seem to conform to anyone else’s notions of right and good– or even to tolerate them– you’re on the wrong side of the ledger.

James also said:

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.

An “Ubermensch” doesn’t really have any superpowers, just a superhuman ego and sense of self-direction.

The trouble with J.S. Mill, Jeremy Bentham, and western liberalism generally, for him, were their progressive, optimistic interest in maximizing happiness (though he announced his own “formula for happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal”) and pleasure and minimizing difficulty and pain. These were the grindstones on which Nietzsche fashioned his ascetic personal ideal, and he had little use for pluralism in such matters.

That’s another irony. Mill’s On Liberty articulated the very principle that tolerates the Nietzsches among us, and insulates us from “harm” that goes beyond mere verbal excess. [Philosophizing with a hammer... into thin air...slides...Where to?...Harriet Taylor Mill]

And we can tolerate a few. But would a society of Ubermenschen be remotely possible? No. But he was never in it for the company.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: I’ve completed my first pass through your essays, and assigned tentative & approximate grades. I can tell you those now, if you don’t want to wait for comments. Presenters, you can also email me for your grade (remind me of your topic and summarize your main points, if you didn’t give me a bullet-point summary when you spoke).

Where do you want to go today?

March 29, 2010

That was Bill Gates’s old question, not unlike ours in Intro today (as posed by Bob Solomon & Kathy Higgins): “Where to, Humanity? Mill, Darwin, and Nietzsche”… and not unlike the instigating question in next Fall’s new “Future of Life” course.

I worked up a slideshow on this, after discovering the Slideshare tool over the weekend and having no trouble at all putting up my baseball shows. This morning it’s balking. I’ll keep working on it. Meanwhile, the story can be summarized thusly:

J.S. Mill (of his own free will) articulated a vision of human good as a progressive, perpetual  historical expansion of human rights and individual liberties. The only reason for limiting any person’s freedom is in order to protect the freedom of others. His “harm principle” says do your thing, just don’t interfere with anyone else’s right and opportunity to do the same. (And he meant anyone’s, women included. His friend Harriet helped him see the light on that.)

Charles Darwin‘s revolutionary account of evolution by natural selection cast that enterprise in a new light. As Dan Dennett would put it much later, freedom evolves and so do we.  That ought to bode well for Mill’s project and ours. But this suggests a momentous question: Could humans still be evolving? If so, into what? Could we be living some brief, intermediary existence between the “lower” animals and some higher, mightier, or more adaptive creature than ourselves? [Charles & Emma...Dawkins & Dennett on D...his birthday and Abe's...Scopes... BBC... PBS]

Enter Fritz Nietzsche, offering the incredible suggestion that human beings were nothing but a bridge between the ape and the Ubermensch. The future of human nature was now called into question. What will we make ourselves, what will humanity become? [Drunk on the ground]

Good question. Is the suggestion really so incredible? Some have found it inspiring, others terrifying. We’ll see if we find it instigating in class.

And we’ll wonder if, in the immortal words of CSNY, we have all been here before. Deja vu all over again, Yogi? Or do we only go around once, and need to grab the gusto while we can? Or was that precisely the point of Fritz’s gift to his shrink? Isn’t it also, btw, what “Phil” learned in Groundhog Day? (Woody in Manhattan, too…)

recurrence

November 24, 2009

Time is winding down on our course, and it keeps popping up in our reading selections. Nietzsche, whose “eternal recurrence” thought experiment invites personal reflection on one’s own meaningful relation to past, present, and future, raises the subject this time, and Sartre (remember Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion and their excellent adventure?) chimes in with his claim that since “existence precedes essence and we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves.” Time is nothing, we are nothing, until we act and choose. But when we do, we create something we can’t run away from. Scary, and– as previously noted (“renunciation“)– not so happy. Recall, too, his distinctively French- intellectual disdain for the distinctively American “myth of happiness” and Americanism generally.  Robert Solomon says Sartre said he never had a real moment of despair in his life. Huh. It was all affected, then. Sounds like “bad faith,” doesn’t it? But “Jean-Paul Sartre is currently dead,” authentically an object without possibilities. So let him be.

We’ve noted the views of at least two Taylors, Richard and James, and of Philip Zimbardo. Is time even real? Well, aging feels real enough. When time passes slowly it feels oppressively real, and when it “flows” it feels unbearably light. “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in,” said Thoreau. Meaning?

Meaning, I suppose, that we experience time as a condition of meaningful, happy-making activity. So it’s as real as happiness, happiness is as real as time, and both are real-as-experienced. We need time to unfold our projects, construct our relationships, and enjoy our lives. When we succeed, we experience them and it together as a subjective unity that closes the loop on each episode of expectation. A closed loop is a moment in time– which may or may not correspond to a conventional moment as measured by our clocks and calendars– that represents fulfillment or (in Dewey‘s language of everyday aesthetic experience, and in Nietzsche’s of self-overcoming, in the clip below) consummation. Enough moments like that will make some of us describe ourselves as happy, whether or not Aristotle would approve.

For Dewey, btw, the thing about time is not that it’s not really  real, but that it’s not just yours and mine: it’s ours. It’s the stream humanity goes a-fishing in. We still have our consummations as individuals, but our largest meanings embrace the “continuous human community.” When we affirm our place in that pan-temporal community, our inescapably-subjective relation to time trades the worst vestiges of misanthropic narcissism for the more sympathetic angels of our nature: social solidarity and species identity. My time then is your time, and our kids’ time, and theirs, and… and aren’t we glad we had this time together?

Does it help, though, to live now and into the always-cresting now of what was the future just a moment ago, to  excise big chunks of the past? Nietzsche (among many others) said happiness requires living in the now. How forgetful must we be, to accomplish that? Must we aspire to the “blissful blindness” of childhood, the animal (“dog-like”) spontaneity of the Cynic, (IEP) or the aphasia of the amnesiac?

“Forgetting is essential to action” and for “the life of everything organic.” That seems right, we accumulate too much informational dross every hour of every day for our finite minds to absorb. We can be “healthful, strong, and fruitful only when bounded by a horizon.”

But then he gives us “eternal recurrence,” the “greatest weight.” The horizon, fixed decisively to the shores of this world, seems suddenly, paradoxically infinite and dizzying. And liberating? “Be calm.”

Nietzschean consolation

November 2, 2009

With friends like this… “To those who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities– I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished.”

Thus spake Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), inevitably evoking the oft-repeated cliche that is in fact an accurate rendition of his main conviction: “what doesn’t kill me” etc. Thanks a lot, Fritz. (As a young grad student I considered myself a friend of Nietzsche, for a time, before sobering up from his distinctive brew of “will to power” and discovering better brands.)  It will surprise no one to learn that he had few close friends, during a life that consumed itself in self-serious, self-absorbed,  self-aggrandizing, self-conscious, finally self-parodying intensity. At the end (a dozen years before his death) he was writing things like Ecce Homo, “Why I am so wise, so clever, write such good books” etc., and it’s not clear all or even most of the late vainglory can be blamed on his syphilitically-deranged brain. It pretty clearly cannot be.

If we’re known by the company we keep, it is instructive to notice the company of self-avowed Nietzscheans. (Yes, this borders the ad hominem, but our boy would understand.) It includes a disproportionate number of brilliant but misanthropic types obsessed with their legacy, contemptuous of their contemporaries, certain they’d be appreciated by the ages, neglectful of the domestic side of life. Richard Wagner, H.L. Mencken and  Ayn Rand are names that pop instantly to mind. (It also includes Nazis. They misread him, of course. But if a Nazi were going to misread a philosopher, he’d be the one.) No such thing as a Nietzschean? ‘Fraid so.daily_nietzsche_web

But perhaps he wasn’t dead wrong when he criticized Christians, Kantians, Utilitarians and everyone else he perceived to be in service of ease  instead of the strenuous, difficult life from which he was convinced we gain the most. Fewer couches and beer and remote controls, more mountains to climb. (Doesn’t have quite the ring of “A yes, a no, a straight line, a goal,” but the thought is much the same.)

“If you refuse to let your own suffering lie upon you for even an hour and if you constantly try to prevent and forestall all possible distress… then it is clear that [you harbor in your heart] the religion of comfortableness. How little you know of human happiness…” You can’t be happy if you’re not prepared to suffer for it. Another cliche will not be denied here: “no pain, no gain.”

Alain de Botton: according to Nietzsche, “we all become Christians when we profess indifference to what we secretly long for but do not have; when we blithely say that we do not need love or a position in the world, money or success, creativity or health– while the corners of our mouths twitch with bitterness; and we wage silent wars against what we have publicly renounced.” On this scale, then, didn’t Nietzsche (the preacher’s kid) maintain a life-long flirtation with Christianity too?

“How would Nietzsche have preferred us to approach  our setbacks? To continue to believe in what we wish for, even when we do not have it, and may never… Resist the temptation to denigrate and declare evil cerain goods because they have proved hard to secure.” If you just invert the terms “good and evil,” you’re not beyond them.

Here’s the great sadness  and tragedy of this solitary mountain philosopher‘s life: he admired Epicurus , especially the Epicurean idea that happiness involves a life among friends. He really cut himself off, at the end of that trail. He never had the pleasure of a weekend packed with trick-or-treating,  Krispy Kreme-ing and dog-parking with a joyous 10-year old, World Series viewing,  etc. The quotidian did not map onto his “straight line” to the summit.

Too bad for him, even if good for those who are glad he wrote those books. But isn’t it selfish not to wish he’d been capable of  a more conventional happiness?

So if you go to dwell in the upper regions, be sure to keep in touch with your lowland pals.


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