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What Does Energy Want?
A Contrarian Reading of Nietzsche's Will-to-Power as the Evolution of the Good
The intellectual critics of postmodernism have accused it of a strange and dangerous sin — the sin of making our sacred values merely “relative” and, thereby, reducing human reality to nothing but a socially-constructed power game.
And, frequently, they finger Frederich Nietzsche as a prime philosophical culprit in these proceedings. From my own point of view this is a suspiciously superficial understanding of both power & relativity.
My Nietzsche is rather like Albert Einstein — a man confronted by the obvious, inherent and ignored relativity of the world and seeking to transcend that condition. Just as Einstein used the invariant velocity of light to integrate all the different perspectival contexts of physical measurements, so also did Nietzsche propose a universal feature that could be used to connect and evaluate different values. Our scholars have translated this as the will to power. However we must be careful (as Heidegger warned us to be in his essay on this topic) not to think only of a narrow, pejorative definition of power-seeking. Perhaps we should be thinking instead about the powering of electrical devices.
Perhaps we should be thinking of empowerment.
Values are not reduced or flattened when we analyse them as power dynamics unless we are subscribing to a reduced or flattened concept of power. Unlike many popular and academic thinkers, Nietzsche is not privileging the idea that power uniquely describes the motives of ambitious sociopaths, thugs, interest groups and politicians whose wish to climb social hierarchies and exert their status over other people in some kind of generalized, degrading, sadomasochistic scenario. We are correctly wary of assholes and dominator hierarchies but we must also consider that these may be minimums rather than maximums of empowerment.
The theory of the will-to-power does not collapse human activity into meaningless power games. It maintains distinctions and degrees. Although this is the common cosmic “drive” exhibiting by predator & prey alike, poet & warrior, liar & truth-teller, it does not simply treat them all equally. Generally speaking, Nietzsche treated saints, philosophers, lovers and artists as superior in power (in their ability to access the experiential peaks of empowerment flow) to bullies, brigands and bombastic authoritarians. In fact he was very critical of that sense of powerlessness and reactivity that seems to fuel so many of the crude aggressive attempt to snatch up social status and kick downward.
The Nietzschean empowerment impulse, like the esoteric Hindu notion of “shakti,” is an attempt to describe what all beings are doing at all levels — more or less successfully. It aligns all purposeful acts on a single jeweled thread of evaluation.
He was, of course, in dialogue with his two great mentors — Socrates and Schopenhauer. It was Schopenhauer who tried to add a subjective correlate to the Darwinian evolutionary model that was emerging. He described a singular will-to-live that is active at all levels of being. And this is wonderfully similar to the idea that history has been carved out by the self-replication imperative of the selfish genes. They wish to survive, to live, to persist. Yet this was, for Nietzsche, a near-sighted and insufficient formulation. Many beings will sacrifice survival. Not just for their genetic kinfolk but for anything that promises a sense of superlative empowerment that exceeds their current form of survival. Yes, of course, the forms of life that have reproductively persisted on this planet are the ones whose feelings of power-enhancement happen to also be pro-survival habits but even though these predominate we should think of them as secondary side-effects of the root-impulse.
To attune his mind toward a universal root-impulse, Nietzsche sought for a subjective intentional analogy to the most basic activity in the physical universe. He asked himself, in effect, what is the most apt “purpose” that describes what energy is always doing at the heart of reality?
What does energy want?
He imagines a generic flow of power at any scale of the cosmos. A lightning bold. A subatomic flux. A moment of poetic inspiration. What is going on? We find a diverse set of potentials who stream together into a convergent flow. The flow is adequately coherent and polarized. This flow unites, transfers and discharges the amplified power. The discharge occurs in relationship and causes changes to the patterning of its context.
It is “as if” energy intends to do this. It looks as though it “wishes” to enfold multiple streams into a uniquely amplified coherent stream and release itself in relationship to other patterns.
This flow of power feels empowering. It feels good. It defines the experience of value. This is the behavioral or dynamic image of how the experience of valuableness comes to characterize any given value. It is how they get the soft, creamy caramel inside the Caramilk bar.
And this image of value as power-enhancement correlated to energy flow also implies a development trend. Over time, if possible, the universe will “try” to integrate more flows into higher degrees of convergent discharge. A sudden stream of coordinated electron flow feels GOOD but not nearly as good as when you are able to coordinate all your limbs and organs, your heart, mind and body, your conscious and unconscious intelligence, your social and instinctive understandings, your sense of self and other, your organism and your environment, into a glorious, genuinely spiritual, flow of energy that relationally repatterns your circumstances.
Wherever one form of empowerment is stabilized there is a probability of starting to work on the next level of empowerment. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs does a fairly good job of grasping Nietzsche’s thought — including his moral commitment to a civilization that maximizes the intensity and distribution of peak experiences.
Maslow’s attempts to clarify the priority and degree of different needs is an example of the real work of a philosopher in Nietzschean terms. We are told repeatedly in his collection of essays called Genealogy of Morals, that the work of a philosopher is to “establish the rank and order of values.”
Now that we know, in theory, where values comes from and what makes them valuable then we can go onto (creatively and critically) evaluate all values. We can judge their health and efficacy. At least in principle. Some values generate more valuableness than others. And some values promise empowerment but create devaluation in practice. We must begin to philosophize with a hammer — which means to test the structural integrity of our values while we are also weighing them to see how much value they can provide.
For example, if we valued impossible and unproven worlds more than our own planet then we would proceed to do things that sabotaged the roots of our actual value-experience. If we idealized toxic dietary habits we would become less and less capable of enacting flows of empowerment. If we imagined that the supreme concept of value (“God”) wanted us dumber, sicker, more superficial, more anxious, more resentful, worse at relationships, unable to feel our emotions and arousal fully then… this would be nihilism. That is the condition in which “our highest values devalue themselves.”
So the philosophers have an extremely important job. It is to move the project of evaluation forward. All our existing authentic values are downstream from billions of years of empowering convergent flow events. And our great philosophers have the twin task of (a) integrating multiple values into coordinated sets (b) refining the experience of meaningful action into an evolutionary spectrum of increasing existential valuableness.
One famous philosopher was Socrates. He advocated for an integrated set of Goodness, Truth, Beauty & Justice. He also taught a spiritual methodology by which personal contemplative practice and intersubjective dialogue could be used to clarify and bring forth abstracted super-intensities of refined value. We could move from any personal instance of attraction or any particular form of expertise toward direct experiential contemplation of Value Itself. Worth. Empowerment. The Good, per se.
Although Nietzsche struggled to understand his own ideas by critiquing and inverting the conventional image of Socrates, his actual complaint — for which Socrates is only a personal symbol for him — is very nuanced.
He argues that the post-Socratic traditions, up to and including monotheism & atheistic secularism, have tended to politically exploit the conflation of values in nihilistic or degenerative ways. The idea is that reason, fact, conformity, ease and vanity regress into a toxic misapplication of values. We end up saying that all reasonable people agree that it is good to sabotage your own growth in order to conform to socialized habits that orient themselves around smooth, easy, low-level attractiveness and anxiety. Crude social conformity is GOOD. Good people learn the TRUTH. Truth is always something BEAUTIFUL that we recognize and like. Living like this is JUSTICE.
The urge to evolve the Good through the integration of values must distinguish itself from the regressive conflation of values. It is normal and healthy to have appetites, to have sexual drives, predatory instincts and self-protective instincts — but if you try to kill, eat, fuck & flee in one obscenely fused response to the same stimulus then you’re a serial killer. Pathological fusion creates degeneration rather than refinement of values at a higher/deeper form of integration.
The history of interpretive warfare between oppressors (trying to convince the oppressed that all values are based on subservience) and the oppressed (trying to convince everyone to oppose the oppressors) has weaponized and contaminated our highest articulations of value to the point that we must radically re-examine each of them to determine how well it might actually cultivate the intensification and distribution of empowerment.
So that’s the postmetaphysical (Nietzschean) description of cosmic history as the evolution of the Good…
And the refinement, extension and intensification of the inherently valuable convergence-flow events (peak experiences) is the Nietzchean agenda. The will-to-power IS about the evolution of the Good.