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Top 10 "Nietzsche Tweaks"
Q: What is your approach to Nietzsche?
This is a good question. My Nietzsche may-or-may-not resemble anyone else’s idea about the philosophy of this famously opaque character. Fortunately for you, I will not be indulging my notion of a possible history (in which Frederich was an untutored alpine yogi whose spiritual breakthrough was misunderstood as madness by his fascist family, the brutal German state & the administrators of a notoriously creepy 19th-century “sanitorium”) but rather I will simply list my top ten takes on his work. This will hopefully provide the questioner with at least a more clear sense of what it is that I think when… I think “Nietzsche.”
Top 10 Ways that I Tweak Nietzsche
W2P. I think of the will-to-power (w2p) as the entire spectrum of wills-to-empowerment. Nietzsche is not envisioning “power” narrowly as the special prerogative of those who have privileged social status, official political clout or command of violence. Most of that would score rather low on his ranking of experiential empowerment. The flowing feeling of enhanced power shared by tantric lovers is far in excess of that experienced by the agitated rapist. Likewise, the artist or philosopher in the moment of integrating vastly diverse emotions and ideas is more full of empowerment than a shallow, stressed & reactive president or king. The notion of the w2p is very close to what it called the universal shakti in Hindu mysticism. It emerges as his attempt to describe the subjective correlate of energy itself. He is providing a new languaging of the intention-like aspect of all processes that occur at all scales in the cosmos. The experiential and intentional description of the basic structure of energy flow — a number of flows or potentials are integrated into a coherent new flow that surrenders itself (self-overcoming) in relationship to existing structures and thereby creates a new patterning. The urge to experience this integrative flow leads energy structures down a long evolutionary path of increasing complexity and depth — wherein each new layer is capable of feeling greater enhancements of empowerment because they blend more and deeper forces in their flows of self-overcoming. Thus he achieves a naturalistic and evolutionary hierarchy of values in which all beings have the same motivation but accomplish it at different quantities (which we then associate with different qualities). Jesus has the same motive as the deadly serpent and the selfish sinner but he is doing it more, doing it better. A bodhisattva is an intense example of w2p but so too, temporarily, was Cesare Borgia (to use one of Nietzsche’s counter-intuitive examples). Everything is placed on the same scale relative to the intensification of the self-transformation and self-transcending degree of becoming that is experienced as enhanced authentic beingness. Integrative, coherent & creative overflow as the orienting telos of all processes and all intentions. Armed with this universal notion, he can then begin to “philosophize with a hammer” (ie to test all values & ideals to see whether, and to what degree, they facilitate the generic value process). The political-cultural agenda extended from this approach is a planetary wisdom-civilization that maximizes the depth, distribution & assimilation of peak experiences.
Nihilism is Idealism. Famously, Nietzsche did not declare that God is dead — instead, he wrote a parable in which he mocks atheists for not understanding the consequences and causes of the fact that they consider themselves unbelievers. The problem of nihilism, for Nietzsche, is not primarily that lots of people proclaim themselves as believing in nothing. To experience the meaning crisis that directly and deeply is a late & rare form of nihilism that, in fact, may indicate the problem is already starting to heal slightly. It is not that we stopped believing in our highest ideals. Those ideals, he says, “devaluated themselves.” The problem was baked into our cultural values. When we locate/project maximum valuation onto unreal & anti-life phenomenon, then we — as living beings — create a culture that has “nothingness” as its secret goal. Over time, this will-toward-nothingness will erode our sense of meaning and lead to a kind of flat, exhausted, trivial and hyper-ambiguous world (the “coming of the last man”) in which we know about everything but cannot connect with or do anything. This is the result of self-nullification within our personal and cultural ideals. When the highest thought (“divinity”) is unthinkable, the best thing about life occurs after death (“heaven”), our emotions are trained to evade or suppress our feelings, our minds treat absences as presences, our food desires are in opposition to the flourishing of our bodies, the “supreme thing” is invisible, changeless & impossible — it means that our value-capacity has aimed itself toward the antithesis of thriving. Result: personal & collective self-nullification occurring, primarily, under the guise of positivity, idealism, truth, beliefs & values.
The Dionysian Ethos. Why is Nietzsche so cheerful after writing Thus Spake Zarathustra? He has discovered something for which he long sought — a source of great buoyancy & confidence. What was he seeking for in the ecstatic pessimism of the pre-Socratic Greeks and la gaya scienza (the name of a book he wrote) of cavalier natural philosophers? A redemptive and naturalistic fusion of art & thinking. His last cycle of books, from Beyond Good & Evil to Ecce Homo, in addition to their startling use of multiple perspectives and depth-oriented revaluations, are brimming with (a) confessions of joyfulness & gratitude (b) the sense of being in possession of a world-historical secret that can overcome the nihilistic consequences of traditional, modern and postmodern attitudes (c) ecstatic claims to be the spiritual disciple of Dionysus. The transcendental spirit of naturalness (Dio of Nysus, Divinity of Forests) is not properly understood if we confine it to the Apollo/Dionysus complementarity discussed in Nietzsche’s first book The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. We must follow the journey from his searching and his intuitive hints toward the point as which he begins to rejoice as though he has attained. We must track him from his early claims that cultural revitalization requires a “musical Socrates,” onward through his constant advice to treat the rhythm and tempo of philosophy as more important than the propositional content, and finally into the dancing hybrid of cognitive, aesthetic and musical intelligence that is expressed in his later works. This mood or spirit is not merely the confession of his Dionysian awakening but the embodied example of a style, an ethos, that he thinks must characterize the regenerates the quality of divinity on the far side of science, relativism, nihilism and metaphysics. My Nietzsche sounds like Groucho Marx dancing and sword fighting in a jungle bathed in golden light. A redemptive mood has been discovered which is organic, complex, depth-oriented, seductive, wise, trans-human, joyous, embodied and transformative — dionysian.
We enjoy tragedy. Aristotle claimed that people watch dark, upsetting entertainment in order to experience and then purge their negative emotions. Catharsis. Nietzsche considered Aristotle to be a spokesman for the degraded epoch of Hellenic culture and offered his own explanation — we enjoy tragedies. The feelings are positive. If we actually experienced fear and terror while watching horror films we would flee from the theatre but instead we seek it out and pay for the privilege. Analysing the nominal categories of the content does not reveal the lived experience of art and entertainment. We do not become violent because we see murders on television. Nietzsche was a deep scholar of Mediterranean antiquity and he believed the post-Socratic Greeks had lost their healthy instincts and misunderstood the dynamic traditions of their own tragedy-loving ancestors. The sacred gatherings and improvisational music festivals organized around the god-who-survives-being-torn-to-pieces slowly formalized into popular theatre organized around the tragic death and inevitable madness of the protagonist. Losing contact with the source of dramaturgical ritual left people like Aristotle puzzled and speculating about why people would value “upsetting content.”
He who despises still honors himself as the one who despises. Julia Roberts quotes that to Sam Rockwell in the film Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. For me, it expresses the core of Nietzsche’s way of thinking. It means that a negative evaluation is still based on a positive capacity for evaluation. Value is present — and can be actively located — within devaluation. If your compass says you are facing South, you immediately know where your North pole is located. Likewise, negative Celsius temperatures may feel cold but they are actually still a measure of how much heat is still present. Nietzsche, in a sense, is shifting from a scarcity-mentality toward a flexible plenum. Our connection to goodness, truth & beauty (which he is always careful to note does not imply that your society’s notion of good behavior is necessarily based in truth or leads to beautiful outcomes) is our connection to the valuableness present in our evaluative capacity. That quality is active even when we dislike something. If this could be deeply understood and embodied, we would be like saints — constantly engaged with the living experience of Value Itself despite our circumstances. That is a very Nieztschean description of enlightenment…
Complex feminism. Although Nietzsche is clearly skewed by the common gender roles of 19th century Germany and his own lack of satisfying emotional and sexual contact with intelligent women, he exhibits a complex mixture of support, challenge & humor. The introduction to the section of probes into the nature of the feminine in Beyond Good & Evil begins with Nietzsche insulting himself, by insulting philosophers, by insisting that social and biological biases distort the attempt to make philosophical proclamations… and then begging permissions to also begin making philosophical proclamations that may prove insulting to women. Since I have insulted myself, might I not also insult you, m’lady? It’s preposterous! Among his many dubious remarks, he also opines that men and women have the same needs and capacities but simply different “tempos” or proportions in which they are expressed. That’s actually a pretty progressive and insightful remark. What interests me the most, however, is his friendship with a number of the women who helped initiate the feminist movement in continental Europe. He is both supportive and challenging — gently suggesting a more complex inquiry in tandem with the social efforts. In particular, in his letters with these women, he comes back to two points that are open for investigation, saying (a) if your goal is to empower women then ponder deeply on what the successful historical styles of female empowerment were like — do not simply adopt the attitude of the oppressed and assumed that “the vote” and the right to work in shops (being added into the capitalist economy) are necessarily and obviously an improvement. Think carefully first. Is it the case that “equality with men” is a step… up? (b) Why do you want all other women to be like you? Why do you not enjoy the unique distinction of being socially prominent and intellectually accomplished? Are you sure that your interest in persuading social change is truly altruistic and not motivated by a perverse compulsion to intervene and homogenize? — The issue is not what conclusion one draws from these questions but that a more robust, more complex, less naively idealistic feminism stands on the other side of many revaluations and strangely nuanced self-inquiries.
Amor Fati. The “love of fate” symbolizes Nietzche’s key spiritual teaching relative to the so-called Eternal Recurrence. In endless time, every sequence of events will occur infinitely. Put the physics aside and try to feel what it would be like to live in a context of eternity — not an disemboded eternity in heaven but the utter endlessness of every high & low thing in this life. How can we live as creative participants in a world of indefinite duration? His suggested principle is that of cultivating ourselves to be active affirmers of the eternity of the given. The transfiguration of every element of life through intentional indefinite extension. That means an aspirational goal of feeling that this moment, this thing, that person, this experience is exactly what I would choose to have happening forever. It is a principle with three aspects. Firstly there is the psychological growth that is possible when we treat all our actions and feelings as if they were intentional. Secondly, there is the sacralizing art of willing every act to reverberate in eternity. Think of the shaman lifting a sacred object into the view of the tribe — as if it were happening (to use Nietzsche’s term from his essay The Use and Abuse of History) “supra-historically.” And thirdly, to liberate our creative intention in the next moment by gathering it completely into this moment. To “say of every ‘it was’ that ‘i willed it thus’.” Nietzsche is critical of the mentality that believes everything happens for a reason or that God has a plan for you BUT he also thinks that you are only living correctly when you experience life as if that were the case. Breath as if this very breath occurred beyond time and required all cosmic and human history exactly as it was. That is a good breath…
Postmetaphysical spirituality describes Sri Zarathustra in Nietzsche’s work. Thus Spake Zarathustra is the tale of a man who becomes spiritually illuminated through pondering and practices but does so without any need for classical metaphysics, religious cosmological or conventional belief in God. Instead, he begins teaching a pragmatic spirituality that is centered on health, somatic intelligence (“return to the body”), ecology (“true to the Earth”) and the cultivated evolution of human beings toward an ultra-human condition of overflowing value beyond all certainties. This is the gospel of Zarathustra which he first tries to bring before the public, then to a trained collection of adept disciples & finally as a consultant to the wisest and most developed human beings thus far. Although the difference between spiritual praxis and “beliefs” is ancient, nonetheless Nietzsche’s writings make this explicit, health-based and future-oriented. I have a great deal of respect for that.
The pathos of distance plays a huge role in Nietzsche’s thinking. This is the uncomfortable or “charged” sense of being differentiated. He wants us to lean into this feeling and learn to affirmatively assimilate it. Although we certainly wish to grow a civilization that is not stupidly limited by the hierarchies and categories we have inherited, nonetheless we should not, therefore, be unable to tolerate the relational qualities of distinction & separation. I want society to prioritize the raising of the minimum conditions of well-being for all citizens but — can I also accept that I get something that someone else is denied? Is it okay to put my family first? Or to recognize that the opinions of someone else might express more understanding and competence than my own? Nietzsche thinks we all inherit a mixed moral history from which we have acquired both the instincts of conquerors and the conquered. To integrate these and make our own instincts coherent again (to regain “the Great Health”), we must take the virtues of both and unlearn the weakness of each. We have gained many things from those who revolted against their oppressors but we do not wish to be trapped in resentment or victim-mentality. Nor do we wish to be unable to enjoy the awkward sense of difference that exists between any two people or groups. Members of a vulnerable population are rightly worried when they are singled out for discrimination but primitive aristocrats (who took edifying pleasure in being socially abnormal and in beholding the signs of rank, separation and enforced specialization) are also singled out for discrimination. It is not the sheer differential itself that is the problem and we must regain a good conscience about feeling distinguished from others. It is said that bones evolved from cells extruding toxic (for them) calcium deposits into the intercellular space. It became tightly packed into little barriers. A painful, mutual differential evolved into the bone system that allowed animals to become upright and mobile. Emergent complexification through the assimilation of the pathos of separation. Nietzsche claims it is the initially difficult gap between lordly, horse-riding people and lowly multitudes that creates the sense of inner superiority that later prompts the saints and yogis to pursue a “higher” consciousness. Can we alchemically convert the problematic feeling of an unbridgeable gap into an enlivened source of new insights and capacities? Can we discover the nonduality within duality? The sameness of non-sameness?
Health & pathology in music has consequences for culture generally. This is one of the least studied aspects of Nietzsche’s work. In The Wagner Case, he contrasts the musical geniuses of Wagner & Bizet. He profoundly enjoyed both their musical styles and had known Wagner personally — considering him to be an authentic genius and the greatest composer of the age (although also considering him to be an overbearing, racist asshole whose early revolutionary moves camouflaged his deeply puritan, conformist, nihilistic and un-natural instincts that surfaced more and more in the later operas). Wagner — perhaps comprehensible today as a combination of Kanye West & George Lucas with the face of John Wayne — had a definite theory of music which, Nietzsche believed, was bad for people. Great music does not necessarily have good effects. Nietzsche was appalled that the early Bayreuth festivals, dedicated to Wagner’s operas, seemed to attract and encourage anti-semitism, reactionary thinking, nationalist psychosis, manic-depression & romantic irrationalism. He slowly concluded that although Wagner was a great genius in creating riffs and prosodic moments, that the lack of overall coherence, authentic optimism & classical constraint (present notably in Mozart and Bach) created a horizon of meaning in which explosive angst, self-abnegation & immature emotionalism took the place of organic vitality. This great music was bad. By contrast, Nietzsche took Bizet, composer of Carmen, as an example of an emerging alternative that could evolve toward a healthier form of great music. Bizet’s work is described as being warmer, more subtly malicious, more southern, more African, more martial (drum-like mobilizing) and more rooted in folk sensibilities. A transgressive, drum-like, mobilizing & invigorating extension of folk music inspired by African beats? It is not difficult to read that as a prophetic anticipation of Blues, Jazz and Rock’n’Roll — the necessary medicine for a symphonic and operatic culture that had lost its way. For Nietzsche, there is a philosophy of the health of culture that almost exactly the opposite of the fragile religious “concern” about the effects of music, art & entertainment. The trans-moral philosophy of the health or pathology of culture is perhaps a field that has barely yet begun to exist…
So — how similar or different is that from what you think of when you think of Nietzsche? Or when you think of what you think people probably think of when they think of Nietzsche?
While he was still a young professor, deeply immersed in the problem of how to provide a vital education, he wrote the essay Schopenhauer as Educator. In his autobiography, he admits that the principles in that text are not really found in Schopenhauer — that is was really Nietzsche as Educator all along. Thus, if you find my take on this alpine yogi-philosopher too different from your own then, please feel free to regard all this as Layman Pascal as Educator — a projection of myself onto Nietzsche’s philosophy.
A perverse act, certainly, but one that I heartily recommend…