Saturday, August 1

Notes on Soren Kierkegaard -1813-1855

Kierkegaard was a highly influential philosopher, and Theologian, whose ideas underpin existential psychology as practised today. He was also a literary critic and author of devotional literature. He is regarded as the father of the existential movement because of his emphasis on the freedom of the individual and we see his ideas permeate agnostic philosophers who see great merit in his ideas once you substitute the word cause in lieu of GOD in his synthesis.  The unconditional commitment in a balanced way to a cause or GOD is central to his ideas of how we can avoid falling into existential despair.  There were many pseudonymous works as he preferred the indirect method of communications.          

Early Life

Kierkegaard mostly stayed in Copenhagen, with only occasional visits to Germany and Sweden.

By courtesy of wealthy parents he was educated at a prestigious boys’ school, then to Copenhagen University. He was the last of 7 children of a deeply religious family, but only one of his siblings was to reach adulthood which had a profound negative affect on his outlook on life.

Introduction to his thinking

Initially Kierkegaard was influenced by the ideas of Hegel contained in the works entitled ‘The Philosophy of Religion’.

Little, Daniel, "Philosophy of History", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/history/>.

Hegel's philosophy of history is perhaps the most fully developed philosophical theory of history that attempts to discover meaning or direction in history (1824a, 1824b, 1857). Hegel regards history as an intelligible process moving towards a specific condition—the realization of human freedom. “The question at issue is therefore the ultimate end of mankind, the end which the spirit sets itself in the world” (1857: 63). Hegel incorporates a deeper historicism into his philosophical theories than his predecessors or successors. He regards the relationship between “objective” history and the subjective development of the individual consciousness (“spirit”) as an intimate one; this is a central thesis in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). And he views it to be a central task for philosophy to comprehend its place in the unfolding of history. “History is the process whereby the spirit discovers itself and its own concept” (1857: 62). 

But Kierkegaard later found reasons to abandon Hegel’s thinking in favour of a more basic Christianity into the Christendom of his era. He did not agree with the idea of Hegel that placed undue emphasis on Hegel spirit of thinking and it’s over reliance on rationality.    

In that respect, he believes each moment involves a judgment to go forward from a prior period of repetition and recurrence in a reference to the platonic soul. But that moment always entails a judgment and Kierkegaard poses an interesting idea in relation to freedom. He talks about the risk as many desist or are uncomfortable with accepting that freedom to make that judgment.  Hence immoral practices are given breathing space so that over time they gather momentum and acceptability.       

Ethics  

Kierkegaard concluded ethics can only be demonstrated in your action and are a nullity if confined to just desired courses of action. He felt uncomfortable telling people what they should do and favored a process of drawing out of them desired ethical outcomes. An example might be a returned soldier whose aggression and war torn character traits need to be drawn out of him in order he is able to adjust to civilian life.

Synthesis  

Possibly his most impressive accomplishment from Sickness unto Death was his synthesis that found a solution to Christendom's merger of Greek rationalism with the Jewish mysticism.

 In Part I.A., Kierkegaard talks about human beings as a synthesis of the "infinite and finite," "temporal and eternal," and "freedom and necessity."

Each one of these requires an explanation that I will elaborate on in the future but suffice to say Kierkegaard is arguing human beings (self) are both physical and spiritual. Being in the world means we relate to material things and physical forces- a world of causes and effects. But the self, according to Kierkegaard is both is a spiritual identity that feels as though it is free and is free to  make choices and a physical body involving this complex relationship with itself-the self. Kierkegaard uses very difficult phrasing as he talks about a relation (the relation of spirit and body) that relates itself (spirit/body) to itself (spirit/body).

Kierkegaard's idea of despair is based on this account of what is a human being- to argue despair arises when this relationship gets out of balance. In a similar vein to Nietzsche he argues despair can be a defiance of what a human being either doesn't want to be what it is, or wants to be something it is not. Nietzsche simply says be who you are, but the inference if not the same, is very similar.   

Thus, not wanting to be what it is (self) in the relationship must be as a consequence of some imbalances - to neglect some aspect of its spirit/body relationship.

Kierkegaard's understanding of despair is his assertion, once it takes hold, it is very difficult to overcome. But he concludes human beings are responsible and that appearances of frustration in existence are in fact an indication of frustration within oneself. Individuals can overcome despair, but it requires tremendous effort and commitment.

But when it came to moral matters Kierkegaard concluded there was nothing specific to communicate, so that mostly his writing is under pseudonyms. He developed an indirect communication’, aimed at drawing people into a more vibrant and authentic relationship with themselves as in the self.   

Gordon Marino is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St Olaf College and his article in Philosophy Now provides plenty of food for thought for us to all talk about.    

He outlines the defining characteristics of existentialism with its enormous accent placed on action and the perils of procrastination.

Kierkegaard, the original existentialist, emphasized that when we don’t act on our convictions, we don’t understand them. He writes, “Precisely this is the profound untruth in all modern teaching, that there is no notion at all of how thought is influenced by the fact that the one presenting it does not dare to express it in action” (Journals and Papers, Vol. 1). By not expressing ideas through action, “the power of the thought disappears.” So his project involves prodding people into moral action, not just thought. Here I want to look at how this relates to procrastination.

Procrastination & Self-Deception

The perils of procrastination are inherent in going with the flow so to speak until such time as the original thought that something is immoral is numbed into acceptance. From there the downslope into a kind of spiritual sickness he equates to a condition of despair. This becomes a form of self-deception  Marino puts it this way “If a person does not do what is right at the very second he knows it – then knowing simmers down. Next comes the question of how willing appraises what is known. Willing is dialectical and has under it the entire lower nature of man. If willing does not agree with what is known, then it does not necessarily follow that willing goes ahead and does the opposite of what willing understood… rather willing allows some time to elapse, an interim called: ‘We shall look at it tomorrow’. During all this, knowing becomes more and more obscure, and the lower nature gains the upper hand more and more; alas, for the good must be done immediately, as soon as it is known… the lower nature’s power lies in stretching things out… And when knowing has become duly obscured, knowing and willing can better understand each other; eventually they agree completely, for now knowing has come over to the side of willing and admits that what [willing] wants is absolutely right.”

Death & Time

In his powerful discourse ‘At a Graveside’ (1845), Kierkegaard emphasizes the existential importance of coming to a first-person understanding of our mortality. It might seem anachronistic but, to listen to Kierkegaard, earnestness (alvorlige) as opposed to happiness ought to be the ultimate aim in life. He writes, “Earnestness is that you think of death, and that you are thinking it as your lot.” He then explains a number of ways in which people go wrong in trying to walk over their own grave, for example, by thinking of death as a ‘rest’, or as a ‘great equalizer’, or by putting yourself outside of death with rote memorized phrases such as, “Where I am death is not, and where death is I am not”. However, when we achieve the bone-deep understanding that it is certain that at some uncertain time it will be over for us that understanding will give a force to life and help us avoid the temptation to procrastinate. The individual for whom the day receives high worth as being limited is not going to be inclined to procrastinate, to put off decisions with palliatives such as “I’ll sleep on it.” As Kierkegaard writes:

“Indeed, time also is good. If a person were able to produce a scarcity in the external world, yes, then he would be busy. The merchant is correct in saying that the commodity certainly has its price, but the price still depends very much on the advantageous circumstances at the time – and when there is a scarcity, the merchant profits … With the thought of death the earnest person is able to create a scarcity [of time] so that the year and the day receive infinite worth.”

Conclusion

Both Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky have very similar views to embrace a non- rational type of faith that involves an unconditional commitment, which is term underpins meaning to existence. The existentialist views of Kierkegaard are more easily translated into existerntional psychology which remains highly relevant today.   


Wednesday, July 29

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Introduction  

Soren Kierkegaard was born 10 years before Dostoevsky and both have remarkably similar views about a future world on the cusp of nihilism. 

Their philosophy differs only in the expression of how they advocate the salvic message from this anticipated descent into nihilism. Kierkegaard relies on an indirect means of communication whilst Dostoevsky confronts you in his  novels with the whole gambit of existence, be it voilence or in love and kindness. But always it is faith over doubt or indifference that is triumphant, but not without him assigning the strongest possible intellectual powers to those who are the villains. At that time Hegal was making his mark but Dostoevsky, similarly to  Kierkegaard, was not enamored with his ideas.    

Hegel rejected 

The ideas of Hegel are contained in the works entitled ‘The Philosophy of Religion’.

Little, Daniel, "Philosophy of History", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/history/>.

Hegel's philosophy of history is perhaps the most fully developed philosophical theory of history that attempts to discover meaning or direction in history (1824a, 1824b, 1857). Hegel regards history as an intelligible process moving towards a specific condition—the realization of human freedom. “The question at issue is therefore the ultimate end of mankind, the end which the spirit sets itself in the world” (1857: 63). Hegel incorporates a deeper historicism into his philosophical theories than his predecessors or successors. He regards the relationship between “objective” history and the subjective development of the individual consciousness (“spirit”) as an intimate one; this is a central thesis in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). And he views it to be a central task for philosophy to comprehend its place in the unfolding of history. “History is the process whereby the spirit discovers itself and its own concept” (1857: 62). 

In summary Hegel went on to develop a synthesis that combines the finite with the finite under the overarching idea of a thinking spirit, carrying with the implication of rationality. 

Early Period 

Dostoevsky grew up on a rural property just out of St. Petersburg in Russia, in a deeply religious family. His youthful interest in reading and early education was supported by his parents and tutors prior to attending boarding school from 13 years of age. But tragedy ensued just 2 years later, aged only 15, with his mother’s death in 1837, followed by that of his irritable alcoholic father when he was 18. His father was an aristocrat and died at the hands of serfs who exacted revenge for his cruelty, although the charges were never proven in court. His education was in a military academy where he graduated in engineering which subsequently provided a high standard of living for a few years before opting for a career as a writer. 

Initial career as a writer 

Dostoevsky initially earned a living as a journalist and magazine publisher prior to travels around Western Europe to succumb to a gambling addiction. Whilst working he published his first novel entitled Poor Folk” which was immensely popular and earnt him membership to the literary establishment. However, the initial success of his first novel  was due in no small measure to his confidant and mentor the influential art critic Belinsky. But his followed novels were flops.

We don’t know what effect the precarious nature of his new found writing career was it have on Dostoevsky, but it appears he became the anxious philosopher and writer, capable of cranking out a full blown novel in a few weeks rather than months. 

Exile 

But his youthful inclination was to left wing politics and he joined a socialist group who adopted the ideas of Fourier whose books were highly critical of Tsarist Russia. That association led to his sentencing of 4 years to be spent in Siberia, followed by 6 years in exile undertaking military service. It was on December 1849, that Dostoevsky found himself among 21 condemned men to be executed for revolutionary activities.  

He stood in the freezing square for an agonizing 20 minutes, expecting to be shot at any moment, before a galloping horseman arrived. The message conveyed was that Tsar, Nicholas 1st had commuted his execution to a prison sentence to be served in Siberia. The staging of his mock execution designed to teach him a lesson and the terror of the occasion combined with the prior murder of his father, the death of his mother and the subsequent Siberian experience, may have contributed to his ongoing epilepsy. But possibly he inherited the condition from his father. Epileptic seizures were to become his constant companion throughout the period of his life. 

Following the sentence Fyodor, in his letter to his brother spoke in glowing terms of his vitality and that he sensed a feeling he would be born again in a spiritual sense in what turned out to be a place of wretched exile. True to this premonition, sharing in the filthy conditions with those murderers and thieves, they became his comrades in chains. Consequently he found meaning in his suffering and in what he perceived as the redemptive nature of his new found faith. He was able to lift out of despair inmates whose tearful embrace at the time of his release gave expression in his subsequent writing.  

Post exile period 

Returning to Russia and following a tour of western Europe, his newly established magazine called Epoch was bankrupted accompanied by the death of his wife, brother and best friend. But notwithstanding, as an indication of his resilience, he showed steely resolve, occasioned by growing addiction to gambling fueling his debt ridden state, yet he was still able to write ‘Crime and Punishment’. 

After remarrying and despite the prior success of Crimes and Punishment his growing gambling addiction led him to divest his wife of her belongings to service his mounting debts. Those debts continued to mount notwithstanding he was able to complete ‘The Idiot’ -1869  followed by ‘The Possessed’. By then his wife, Anna Gregorian had gained control of his finances and he lived out his last 10 years in relative transquillty to produce possibly his greatest work 'The Brothers Karamazov'. 

In this epic work we are treated to the joy of the everyday miracle of simple existence, in everlasting shared golden memories, interwoven with ideas of indifference, the power of rationality, hubris and heinous crimes. I will provide a brief overlay to introduce some of themes and finally a selection of quotes.    

Overarching Theme- retaining the sacred

One of the key overarching purpose of this magnificent epic was to defend the sacred against the new age science and the new neuron man- one you walk away from because there is no shared ontology. That is portrayed as the eventual trump of faith over doubt. There are numerous references to the sacred nature of existence that can still exist alongside science. Mention is made of this in the characters by way of the descriptive baptismal light rays, to new awakenings of shared joy in memories and of redemption from the hell of societal isolation felt by the well regarded murderer Smoryakov.

Living a lie - Smoryakov

He is living a lie until such time as he finds meaning in the painful redemptive power of confession, not just to the priest, but more importantly to the community, who subsequently don't believe him.

Affirmation to goodness in characters

Whereas Zosima and Alyosha, pursue a love towards mankind of kindness, forgiveness, and goodness. But Doubt is linked to the logical scepticism of Ivan Karamazov which led to the rejection of conventional notions of morality for him to display coldness associated with a crippling despair.

A life of faith must be happier

One notices of course that Dostoevsky unreservedly is on the side of faith, to demonstrate a life of faith must be happier than one of doubt. Doubt, chaos and ensuing unhappiness is evident in  Smerdyakov’s murder of Fyodor Pavlovich and Ivan’s breakdown,

Arguments against this approach-

Notwithstanding the psychology of doubt is examined through Ivan, in the section dealing with “The Grand Inquisitor,” so that one sees the clear cut case against religion, the Church, and God, suggesting that the choice to embrace religious faith can only be made at great philosophical risk, and for reasons that defy a fully logical explanation.

The position of free will is argued as in the narrative that decides whether or not to accept or reject morality. Whether or not to pursue good or evil.

Moral Responsibility

Another theme the central lessons of the novel is that people should not judge one another, seek redemption of criminals rather than their punishment.

Chains of Responsibility 

Zosima explains that this loving forgiveness is necessary because the chain of human causation is so interwoven that everyone bears some responsibility for everyone else- for their transgressions. That is, one person’s actions have so many complicated effects on the actions of so many other people that it is impossible to trace all the consequences of any single action.

Selected Quotes 

“Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”

“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”
“I love mankind, he said, "but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular.”
“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”
“The world says: "You have needs -- satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don't hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more." This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.”

“I think the devil doesn't exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness.”

“Besides, nowadays, almost all capable people are terribly afraid of being ridiculous, and are miserable because of it.”

“This is my last message to you: in sorrow, seek happiness.”

“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

 “I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world's finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they've shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”

“A beast can never be as cruel as a human being, so artistically, so picturesquely cruel.”

 “A beast can never be as cruel as a human being, so artistically, so picturesquely cruel.”

Conclusion

His work reflected the whole gambit of human nature that he took for granted as if viciousness could equally shake hands with virtue and love. But always he centred his narrative around the human soul and the resurrection by way of a redemptive power over the malevolent or that of indifference.  His work portrayed the way one would find meaning in faith. Freud said he could not bear to read his novels, such was the characters resemblance in every detail to his patients. Like Nietzsche, he foretold the collapse of Europe but also Russia. 


Saturday, July 25

Nietzsche's Eternal Recurrence-

Eternal recurrence is possibly best described as a thought experiment. It is the antithesis to Nihilism. I have also attempted to add in a few practical applications for us to invite discussions along the way.            

It boils down to the fact one who is able to enthusiastically face the prospect existence in an endless cycle of never ending events, that person has found the meaning in life and gives expression to the attainment of the overman. He recognises that only the few are able to overcome the difficulties inherent in loving ones fate entirely in this manner. The extent to which we are able to do this depends on our individual psyche and the multiple drivers that make up our complex minds. Another aspect to perceiving how it works in practice is it would be to live ones life in the absence of any regrets.

It first appears in the Gay Science and also in ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra” –his philosophical fictional novel based on the great Persian prophet.

But firstly to recap. You will recall I talked about how Nietzsche's health was always a continuing problem all of his life and resulted in his resignation aged only 34, in June, 1879, from his tenure as Professor, at Basil University, due to worsening migraine headaches, eyesight problems, depression and severe stomach complaints. He was granted a modest pension, which was to be the mainstay of his income for the rest of his life, supplemented by gifts from friends.

In an attempt to give himself more free working days to be in fit state to complete his work he subsequently spent the summers in the Swiss Alps and the winters along the coast in Italy staying in rented cheap rooming houses.   

He began writing about the subject in 1881, which no doubt was the result of many years of prior dark questioning which gave  rise to his joyful conclusion in “The Gay Science” where it is first mentioned.    

The concept behind the idea first came to him whilst walking along the woods in Switzerland. The concept went something like this: the sum total of energy in the universe is determinate and not infinite, so that the number of positional changes and combinations must also be finite, whereas the Universes exercisement of its energy is infinite. So that whether forwards and backwards in a never ending circle, everything has already been in existence innumerable times. Put another way it proposes the universe and existence, driven by a finite energy is represented in a reoccurring circle. Of course at that time scientists believed in a steady state universe, so that today there are many objections to his ideas. Nietzsche never published any scientific papers on his concept and we need not concern ourselves with the modern day more viable alternatives.   

One partial analogy in explaining what he means concerns the waterways or our water and the finite matter of those rivers whose individual molecules flow out to the sea and return to the sky with evaporation. That in turn forms the rain in far off distant lands so that those molecules will eventually return from whence they came in a never ending cycle.      

So we need not become embroiled in his initial concept which distracts us from the idea he sets out, which in a nutshell invokes a new form of immortality attributable to humanity. This idea, as a form of re incarnation is not new and Nietzsche had studied such ancient ideas as they related to Persia and India. But his concept has a few novel twists to it. According to Nietzsche our present life existence represents a tremendous quality (divine) of which nothing is trivial as there is no aspect that is unimportant.

Nietzsche was uneasy in his attitudes to science but favourably disposed to what was then described as the new science of psychology – so it became the tool he used to rescue the world from nihilism. To Nietzsche that becomes the healing balm to suffering.     

So that if one is to live one's life fully one does so on the basis that one would wish to live it all over again and again.

His concept first appeared in the Gay Science under aphorism 341 which I have listed below. What if a demon crept after you into your loneliest loneliness some day or night, and said to you: "This life, as you live it at present, and have lived it, you must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in thy life must come to you again, and all in the same series and sequence - and similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself. The eternal sand-glass of existence will ever be turned once more, and you with it, you speck of dust!" - Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth, and curse the demon that so spoke?

Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment in which you would answer him: "You are a God, and never did I hear anything so divine!"

To reiterate this might be reasonably regarded as a sort of thought experiment as in the affirmative answer introduces the idea of a spiritual heath that carries with it a transformative power to stoically embrace his life. Nietzsche sees the human psyche as the living history of all that has happened before it and from which the enquirer can intuitively become the overman or superman as depicted by Zarathustra. To recap on my earlier narrative, but now with this added information, one might understand how Nietzsche perceived that a person capable of accepting recurrence in the absence of self-deception or evasion is one who becomes the overman or superhuman being (Übermensch).  His philosophy might also be described in terms of a psycho/spiritual amalgam as he talks about the multiple drivers of the soul- a reference back to platonic (Philosophy of Plato) influences.

There remains some debate however as to the character traits defining this overman as one who embraces eternal recurrence.

Let me digress slightly as I think it is worthwhile to examine briefly what attributes he most admired in terms of the virtues which are listed by scholars Solomon and Higgins on pages 178-179 in “What Nietzsche Really Said”

In Daybreak:

Honesty – to ourselves and whoever else is friend to us.

Courage- towards the enemy,

Generosity – towards the defeated as in mercy

Polite- always.

In Beyond Good and Evil

Courage

Insight

Sympathy

Solitude

We need not be surprised, as we also find elsewhere, that Nietzsche is not consistent in his views. That trait continues as his purpose is to prompt one into self-analysis rather than to be overly definitive as to what virtues must be considered ideal.  A much more comprehensive list evolves on pages 181, taking into consideration later references with an ensuing explanation of each for those interested in a more fulsome explanation.

Aestheticism, Courage, Depth, Egoism, Exuberance, Fatalism, ‘The Feminine”, Friendship, Generosity, Hardness, Honesty, Integrity, Justice, Playfulness, Presence, Pride, Responsibility, Solitude, Strength, Style, Temperance. 

But clearly Nietzsche wants to avoid becoming overly prescriptive as he is critical of prior philosophers. Put another way people will have more affinity to certain traits and virtues to become who you are. Rather than laying down specific virtues that are universally acceptable, (an approach he detests) he seeks to point to the overarching role of humanity in terms of the need for introspection. That is to become who you are from the lessons of history that lie deep within your psyche and allow one to achieve excellence and a higher morality that is beyond good and evil.  What sort of meditative or thought process Nietzsche has in mind is not clear, but he leaves us some clues which involve a brutal quest for the truth about oneself and the instinctiveness that allows for intuitive style thinking which I have talked about in the first paper.   

His fierce anti-Christian stance for instance was in respect to the unhealthy actions he saw as injurious to ones spiritual health that he rallied against, whilst still retaining many of the attributes of his Lutheran tradition. He admired the early Christians but saw the church becoming corrupted, decadent - consumed by power, cruel, having a loathing for the body etc. to exercise control over the masses, to stifle the inherent divine attributes of humanity. They have become enslaved under the yoke of its other world doctrine.

So, let us assume, for the purpose of this discussion that there is also a metaphysical concept, additional to the thought experiment in the Gay Science in “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. , Assuming that is correct, Zarathustra wants to explain to his onlookers its meaning by way of this parable, extracted from the novel:                       

Behold this gateway it has 2 aspects, 2 paths comes together here and no one has ever reached their end. This long lane behind us goes on for an eternity, and the long lane ahead of us that is another eternity. They are in opposition to one another, these paths, they abut one another and it is here at this gateway that they come together. The name of the gateway, “Moment” is written above it. Behold this moment from this gateway moment a long eternal lane runs back and eternity, lies behind us. But must all things that can run have already run along this lane. But must all things that can happen are already happened - been done, run past. For all things that can run must also run once again forward along this long lane. This slow spider that creeps along in the moonlight and is moonlight itself and I and you at this gateway whispering together. Whispering of eternal things, must we, not all, have been here before, and must we not return and run down the other lane not before us, down that long terrible lane. Must we not return eternally? 

Rather obviously the parable speaks to us in a familiar tone as in Déjà vu – but what are we to make of it?  

We don't know for sure if Nietzsche really intended the idea of the eternal recurrence as a serious Metaphysical theory, as most favour the idea he is only proposing a thought experiment.

But to reiterate on my prior idea of not having any regrets what now is clear, to take his concept seriously, one would never harbour regrets as you will endlessly repeat those regrets to allow that form of misery to impose its negativity on your life. 

For the destructive idea of dwelling on regrets can be avoided if one sees meaning in those choices - however badly those choices turned out to be. On a more practical note maybe the mistakes made in one’s youth become corrected in ongoing maturity to give meaning to existence.  

I don't think the parable was meant to be taken literally, but rather serves to underpin Nietzsche's conviction that all other world theories are of human construct and the only true world is the one we inhabit, through endless circulating different pathways that repeat, stretching out to infinity. Notice also that Nietzsche talks about the intersection to different pathways.  There is an inherent ambiguity element to this as it is not clear how this fits in with self-realisation, which implies a kind of freedom.   

He prided himself as the first Philosopher who was also a psychologist and maybe that’s how we can best interpret his work. Live Life as if you always have that choice to live heroically even though you don’t, as in the joy in finding power in seeing meaning in everything we do.          

Conclusion and discussion

The narrative provides plenty of room for discussions- whether or not you believe he intended it as a doctrine of sorts or more as a psychological test to measure you spiritual health?

Another question might be: could a secular humanist tied to serving humanity, aimed at doing so in the best way possible, find meaning and fulfilment in the absence of any such beliefs?

How do we retain our values and what do we believe might be the so called transvalues for the superman? 

Is there a danger such a thought experiment would render life meaningless?  To what extent could a Buddhist or theist or other religious faith or anyone guided by a positive ethical cause adopt all the principles of living life to the fullest but need not hold such a view.

What life lessons does Nietzsche hold for us and to what extent has idea of Eternal recurrence permeated our thinking today?         

Wednesday, July 8

Nietzsche’s grand vision – beyond good or evil.

This paper seeks to explore his life and thoughts to support discussions on his themes and relevancy to modernity.

Any comments are always welcome as it is intended as a future discussion paper.       

       Introduction and observations

Frederick Nietzsche was a highly regarded German philosopher and cultural critic impacting the late 19th and the 20th century. 

His influence continues given the large number of books and different opinions that continue to impact on western philosophy and culture.

His overarching position for the western world was that the scientific age would result in a loss of religious faith. 

Already he saw ominous signs which led him to prophesize future chaos and conflict on a massive scale. According to Nietzsche, that was analogous to the death of GOD. By way of example there would be no need for one to consult the Bible or its interpreters to tell you what to do as the realization sunk in you were free to decide of your own volition.

Nietzsche foresaw, as the army of non-believers grew, nothing existed to fill the gap and the inevitable descent into nihilism- the absence of any defining values. The values that permeated every facet of western cultural system over many centuries must collapse under the weight of an ever increasing loss of faith in GOD as it took hold.  

He was not only a pessimist but optimistically saw an emergent higher valued culture would arise ultimately from the ashes of destruction.  Those values- beyond good and evil are represented in the doctrines and his works culminating in the visionary overman.

He did not live long enough to quantify properly what exactly these transvalues as he calls them, would be, but we have plenty of clues along the way. Most of his narratives are tied up with tearing down the old idols, ideas and philosophies so that practically nothing is spared.

He draws a parallel in the diversity and abundance in nature to equally apply generously to humanity. The underlying theme he proposes is to accept diversity just as we see in nature, as free spirits. According to Nietzsche religion has become corrupted and decadent - to propose humility only so one might be exalted, to loathe the body, to engage unnecessarily in an unhealthy collective guilt and to exasperate suffering.  

He sees Christ as a free spirit, speaking in parables in a vain effort in order to be understood, whilst rejecting the prior idols and controlling institutions. He was the only true Christian but he was killed – but what has followed on is decadence. This decadence impinges on the more noble form of existence, resplendent in contrast to his so-called overman –the superman- the vision of what in the future humanity can become.

The contrast seems clear enough that Nietzsche was against any form of utilitarianism applying to today’s institutions, aimed at serving a common good. Increasingly in modernity in determining what is good or bad we seek to determine the consequences beforehand to achieve the best possible outcome.

Nietzsche on the other hand wants to return to antiquity and the free spirits of the Homeric Greeks. This is the old world of appeal because it relies on instinctiveness and an inherent freedom, of inner lights and life affirmation to exemplify the joyful here and now. It encompasses aristocratic ideals that are not subject to the mediocrity of democratic governance.       

However the question arises as to how practical is it to rely on the noble spirit and instinctiveness?

By instinctiveness Nietzsche doesn’t use the word as in nature. Rather, that which makes us human and allows us to intuitively avoid becoming slaves within one ideology. For Nietzsche personally there was also a crisis in his faith as he believed all religions were unable to provide the truth. That truth he believed was that it is the responsibility of humanity who must discern for themselves what is true and good. The point is of course that Nietzsche does not pinpoint any system of governance he envisages other than the vision of the overman and his accompanying works.      

 

One did not have long to wait after his death in 1900 for his prophecy to be realised, given the mass slaughter of the First World War. But the question now is how much can be fairly attributed to his reasons?           

 

Remarkably his vibrant style was in marked contrast to the poor state of his health which was to be an affliction for all of his life. He experienced firsthand the terrible brutality of war as a 25-year-old hospital attendant in 1870 in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). He cared for traumatically affected or wounded soldiers to then contact diphtheria and dysentery.

During his life, pain would increasingly become his constant companion and subsequently the total of his productive work was only to span 20 years up until the point of his complete mental breakdown in 1889. He never recovered and died in 1900. Ironically it was only during the later period of his mental incapacity that his works began to flourish. 


However, his work was also subsequently misinterpreted or corrupted by his sister Elizabeth in support of the Nazi party of which she was a member. Certainly in his work it is a straightforward matter that he specifically is against any form of racialism as we would use the word in the more negative modern context. Rather Nietzsche sees diversity and strength in the Jewish perspectives and any ideas inherent in the nationalism integral to the Nazi party would have been abhorrent to him. 

These thoughts and others such as his doctrine of eternal recurrence and the will to power will be explained more fully in the ensuing narrative to support what I envisage can be interesting discussion.    

 

Upbringing and early influences  

To better appreciate Nietzsche’s perspective I think it is useful to delve into his upbringing and early development. He was born in 1844 in the small Prussian town of Rocked, in Germany, the son of a Lutheran pastor who died when he was only 5 years of age. The family then moved to Naumburg where he grew up with his mother, sister and two maiden aunts. He was regarded as a talented pupil known to his friends as the little pastor.

Both Nietzsche grandfathers and his uncle were Lutheran ministers, as was his paternal grandfather, Friedrich August Ludwig Nietzsche (1756–1826) - a distinguished Protestant scholar.

 

Nietzsche commenced his primary education at a boy’s school to progress to a private institution, at Pforta in Naumburg.

Later on he was admitted to the prestigious boarding school, Schulpforta in recognition of his accomplishments in music and language. During this period from 1858 to 1864, he undertook studies in ancient Greek, Roman literature and composed poems and music.  After graduation he enrolled in Bonn University in 1864 as first a theology student but dropped out after the first semester to switch to philology. 

Inspired by Arthur Schopenhauer in 1865, Nietzsche was enthused to then study philosophy, and read all of his works and studied others such as Kant’s -anti- materialistic theories.

The following year he enrolled at the University of Leipzig, to follow his favourite professor Friedrich Ritschl. The Professor was highly impressed by Nietzsche and published his essays in academic journals. Nietzsche was subsequently offered a position as a Professor of Greek Languages and Literature at the University of Basel in Switzerland. During that time he had avoided the 3 years mandatory military service in the Prussian army due to an exemption to continue his academic studies. This allowed him to opt instead for one year’s voluntary service. However, this involvement was cut short by a severe accident whilst attempting to leap-mount into the saddle of a horse. He incurred a serious chest injury which meant he was placed on sick leave as his wound refused to heal.


Returning to the University of Leipzig he met the composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883), to whom he admired and they developed a close friendship and he frequently visited him in his home in Switzerland.

There he met Hermann Brockhaus (1806–1877), who was married to Wagner’s sister. Brockhaus was an authority on Sanskrit and the Zoroastrian religion, whose prophet was Zarathustra (Zoroaster).  

The meeting with Brockhaus was to ignite Nietzsche interest in the Zoroastrian religion and paved the way for his later works – ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra ‘(1882- 1885).

 

University Life at Basel

Nietzsche was only 24 years of age when he took up his professorship at Basel and was yet to complete his doctorate. He admired both Ricard Wagner and similarly continued to enthusiastically support Schopenhauer’s Philosophy. His first major published work, the ‘Birth of Tragedy’ in 1872brought high praise from Wagner, but harsh criticism from academia.    

In this work Nietzsche examines artistic creation as being dependent on the tension between the “Apollonian” and the “Dionysian” forces. Those forces are respectively the Greek GOD of light and reasons and the GOD of wine and music.

In this work Nietzsche favours Dionysus to be an uplifting alternative to religion, which he contends focus excessively on heaven. Nietzsche’s “Dionysian” energy, which he favours, dates back to the pre Socratic ancient Greek culture which he regards as a more creative and a far healthier force. He feels this dynamic element of Dionysian influence has lost ground to the “Apollonian” forces of light and reason.

But the flowery language, concepts and historical inaccuracies did not sit well with those who were considered authoritative Philologists. The fierce criticism severely dented his reputation to the extent there was a reduction in the student enrolments in his classes.  Much later on Nietzsche himself attempts self-criticism as he notes the work bore the fruits of his adolescence.

In his later work we see him become more of an “Apollonian” who relies increasingly on the forces of light and reason.

Towards the end of his university tenure Nietzsche began to write Human, All-Too-Human (1878)—which turned out to be a pivotal moment which served to end his friendship with the anti-sematic Wagner following his attack on his artistry. For the remainder of his time Nietzsche was a highly respected figure at Basel, until his resignation in June, 1879, aged only 34, due to his deteriorating health, evident in worsening migraine headaches, eyesight problems, depression and severe stomach complaints.   

He had been a university professor for only ten years, and as it turns out had only another ten years of productive life left. 

Later major work and style 

After his early retirement Nietzsche published Human only to Human (1878-1880), The Dawn of Day ((1881) The Gay Science (1882), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1882- 1885), Beyond Good and Evil (1886) Genealogy of Morals (1887) and Twilight of the Idols (1889).     

Nietzsche style for most of this latter work uses aphorisms as a means to mount a critique of conventional philosophical wisdom and to write in such a manner to appeal to the widest possible audience. Although there are critiques of his work who argue it is a never ending narrative of disjointed or disorganised aphorisms, Scholars Solomon and Higgins ( What Nietzsche Really said – argue on pages 49- 50) such a style ensures his work is more easily digestible- freed from the chains of metaphysical forms of thinking that Nietzsche despised.Nietzsche’s use of the aphorism builds during his works to demonstrate his perspective, to facilitate a logical progression.

His continued poor physical health led him Nietzsche’s use of the aphorism builds during his works to demonstrate his perspective, to facilitate a logical progression. His poor physical health led him in his quest for spiritual health - in what he describes as a constant state of becoming which sustains him. Possibly this is why he sees no room for compassion. But the question arises si this a valid point ?    

A brief summary of most of his works is as follows:

Human only Too Human

This marks Nietzsche's first lengthy contribution to literature, since as his previous works comprise only philological treatises. Nietzsche, in this work addresses his concerns of the ensuing crisis he sees for mankind that I talked about in the introduction. 

You read the complete book which is available free of charge online.  Click here 

The Dawn of Day

The title might represent Nietzsche's work when he principally is no longer under the influence of Schopenhauer or Wagner. It is a critique of morality and suggests the need for a “revaluation of all values.” Nietzsche talks about the problems associated with Christianity and that it is power which principally underpins human behaviour.

You read the complete book which is available free of charge online.  Click here 

Gay Science

This work represents a polemic against rationality as he favours the instinctive approach I talked about in the introduction. That is in the sense of an intuitive style to embrace vitality, artistry and visions that take humanity out of its present state of enslavement. Nietzsche detests any authoritative set of values and champions the idea of the free spirit.

It is in ‘The Gay Science, that Nietzsche declares God is dead.

He is the first philosopher to talk about the death of GOD, which  means ( according to Nietzsche) that as people give up the idea of understanding GOD and that reading the bible will tell you what to do, religion will lose its grip on the culture. There are some people who will continue to believe but fewer into the future.   

The purpose of this provocative statement is to unshackle thinking from enslavement to religion that he asserts incorrectly attributes man as flawed and assigns to him false virtues that risk exasperating human suffering.

He introduces the idea of eternal recurrence—a doctrine that speaks to the various perspectives of how people of differing circumstances would react to the prospect of continual re birth in a replay of prior existence exactly as before to encompass all prior pleasure and pain.

One cannot be sure whether he intended doctrine is a testing of a desirable psychological strength – as in the love of fate to stoically  face life with gusto or whether he intended it as a serious   metaphysical theory. The doctrine is also talked about in ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ to follow. 

Even so the topic warrants the further detailed separate explanatory paper, which is now available on my drop box. It will invite plenty of interesting points for discussion. Let me know if you would like to have access.      

Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Plot Summary


Zarathustra from high in the mountains descends from 10 years of solitude, now in a ready state of wisdom to teach humanity about the overman. At the town of Motley Cow he explains the meaning of life – the overman (superman) is one who is free from all prejudicial concepts or moralities - who thereby creates his own values and a purposeful life.

The people are bewildered by Zarathustra and have no interest in the overman. But there is one exception who is the tightrope walker. But he falls and dies. Zarathustra decides it is best to try to convert the few individuals who are willing to stand out from the crowd. He explains to these few who are willing to come forward the doctrine of eternal recurrence which means all events will repeat themselves again and again eternally. None of the followers fully attain the position of the overman, although they grow in stature. But they all enjoy a feast and a joyful songful exchange with Zarathustra. They joyfully embrace the idea of eternal recurrence. For all joy wants deep eternity.

 

Here we see how Nietzsche, in an unusual parable-like style, sees meaning in the existential struggle as the road taken by the overman is one demanding an immense amount of sacrifice. His depiction of this struggle is analogous of the overman symbolically scaling mountains, whilst remaining hearty, full of laughter and gaiety- to exemplify the free spirit of the overman. This is his answer to the looming chaos facing the western culture as he sees it, but is it too vague a notion to really take hold? Do we see elements of his ideas in modernity?  Do we need something more definite such as an unconditional commitment to a cause or GOD as was suggested by Kierkegaard?   

Beyond Good and Evil (1886)

This is ambitious work that tempts to discern what is true and good. The crux of his analysis is to distinguish between truth as in scientific truth) and value which he links to the will- by will we mean the faculty of the mind. He criticises philosophers who are reliant upon “self-consciousness, “and “free will. Rather, he takes us beyond the concepts of good and evil and introduces us to the notion of the will to power, as a psychologically derived drive from all of the other existential drivers we experience through the senses to constitute one's overarching will.

In a nutshell Nietzsche proposes the concepts of good and evil are not the opposing forces as one might think of them. Rather, he proposes there is only the will to power that is the driving force to our existence and enables one to discern what is true and good. When we understand this factor it will allow not to be judgmental but to aspire paradoxically to a higher morality.           

Twilight of the Idols, or How One Philosophizes with a Hammer-1888

Nietzsche revisits prior criticisms of Socrates, Plato, Kant and Christianity and German culture. He again contrasts their alleged cultural decadence and reaffirms his positivism to Thucydides and the Sophists.  The phrase “to philosophize with a hammer” appears in his work and invites his audience to test the idols of the past to allegorically tap on them- “sounds them out” so to speak to determine if they are hollow, just as a physician would use the percussion hammer.

You read the complete book which is available free of charge online.  Click here 

‘Death Knell’ - On the morning of January 3, 1889, while in Turin, Nietzsche experienced a mental breakdown which left him an invalid for the rest of his life.

Conclusion

Despite suffering terribly throughout his life, his prodigious work provides a testament to his own will, to leave to us a legacy of immense material to ponder, about which continues to be subject to countless interpretations. I have attempted to shed some light on such thoughts, not least being Nietzsche’s hope that as free spirits one can be unbounded by the shackles of dogmatism to embrace hardships in a constant state of becoming as part of that circle of eternal recurrence.