Wednesday, December 12, 2007

My award-winning philosophy paper about Nietzsche*

(Probably not my best work, but considering the vagueness of the assignment (find a text that's confounding, make sense of it, and tell the professor about how you made sense of it in less than 40 pages and make it intelligent), I think I did all right.)

The falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it: it is here, perhaps, that our new language sounds most strangely. The question is, how far an opinion is life-furthering, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps species-rearing; and we are fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest opinions (to which the synthetic judgments a priori belong), are the most indispensable to us; that without a recognition of logical fictions, without a comparison of reality with the purely imagined world of the absolute and immutable, without a constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, man could not live – that the renunciation of false opinions would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life. To recognize untruth as a condition of life: that is certainly to impugn the traditional ideas of value in a dangerous manner, and a philosophy which ventures to do so, has thereby alone placed itself beyond good and evil.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Coming from a place of extreme nominal understanding regarding Nietzsche and his works, the idea of the Will to Power so prominent throughout them is interpreted by myself as the rising up of the oppressed. That is the first thing that comes to mind, though it also represents the power of the powerful. It means, to me, that within every human being lies not only the desire, but a desperate need (indeed, one’s life depends on it) to, at the very least, be in control of their own destiny. At its worst, it is the idea of dominance over growth, moral law enacted simply for the sake of control, not for the sake of personal growth, discovery, or revelation. Or, put another way, it is the enacting of the control of your own outcomes against the dominance of others.

While watching footage of the World Trade Centers’ collapse six years ago, and individuals jumping to their deaths to escape the fiery hell of the burning buildings, I heard a psychologist on the news say that the suicides of those people was in fact a very healthy reaction to an inevitably life-threatening situation. By assessing the crisis rationally, and understanding that they were doomed no matter what, they chose, probably with some combination of panic and level-headed matter-of-factness, their own method of death. Granted, their options were limited, but when faced with the agony of melting, or with the certainty of falling, they chose the certainty. They took control in a hopeless situation where their options were limited, and nonetheless willed themselves to have the smallest modicum of power in a powerless situation. I don’t know why, but while reading the passage by Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil, this is what came to my mind.

Robert Cavalier, of the Carnegie Mellon philosophy department, describes the “will to power” as a necessary simplifying of the chaos of nature, and by extension, the chaos of man. He argues that it is precisely this simplification, or “structuring,” that gives individuals power, whether real or perceived. A common psychological theory is that human beings create a narrative for their lives; they take events of their lives and structure them to tell a story that makes sense to them. It is not uncommon, the theory goes, to slightly modify and reinterpret reality so as to make sense in the larger “story” and stream of plot that has been created. Events that confound the storyline, or don’t fit into the larger picture, or are simply unwanted, are often discarded, either consciously or unconsciously, if it makes the story too complex or too untidy. Thus, in the most rudimentary, but also complex way possible, a person has taken control of their life and molded events to fit their own larger picture.

This non-reality is something that I think Nietzsche understood a long time ago, and is largely what he is attacking in Beyond Good and Evil. For something to be “beyond” what it is a part of (such as Nietzsche arguing that evolved morality is beyond both conventional good and evil) that “something” must transcend what it is a part of. To Nietzsche, at least in my interpretation, conventional religion and morality (particularly Christianity) is part of this false story, this created myth, that people tell themselves to feel powerful in a chaotic and scary world. For Nietzsche, I think, this is what “conventional morality” amounts to: a gross simplification in the face of overwhelming ambiguity. For to embrace that ambiguity, or uncertainty, the individual has to come to terms with what they could lose: a solid foundation of assuredness, and possibly even themselves. Some say that faith itself, particularly religious faith, is an acceptance of the uncertainty of the world of the divine, but that may only be true for the most spiritually evolved among us. More often than not, religious “certainty” supplants faith, in order to create a rigid ideology, the mortal enemy of true spiritual evolution and faith. Ideology exists only in the face of insecurity; dogmatic devotion to an impossible ideal replaces genuine seeking. Real answers can only be discovered if one is willing to risk experimentation and questioning without ever discovering a truth, or certainty. This openness, this freedom, is the exact opposite of fundamentalism. Nietzsche disdains these self-perpetuating and stifling lies, but concedes that they are perhaps necessary for society as a whole to continue to function. For without them, he says, “…the renunciation of false opinions would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life.” But why?

Children generally grow up absorbing the beliefs and behaviors of those around them, especially parents or caretakers, rarely questioning the script and role they’ve been delivered since the day of their birth. Traditions are passed down and expectations are expressed, either overtly or indirectly. Until they know better, children see their parents as God, and everything they do, from their language to behavior, is taken note of and digested by children. Some people continue on through life indefinitely drifting, never truly questioning anything, or repressing doubts, for fear of upsetting the status quo, or unprepared for the strength it might take to become autonomous. Others, however, through choice or circumstance, make a resolute decision to embrace uncertainty and the falling away from, or “dying,” if you will, of their old or comfortable life. Some don’t have a choice: they’re given their script as they’re about to walk out onto the proverbial stage, and their script is written in an indecipherable language. Try as they might to learn the new language, quickly and without error, they simply can’t. So they’re pushed on stage, and they either flounder or they improvise.

When a person throws away their script in order to write a new one, they make a deliberate choice. They’ve taken what they see as false opinion and renounced that life, negated its worth, at least to them, and effectively killed it. This is the death that Nietzsche refers to. In order to evolve, old ways must die. Usually the script is never complete unless one prematurely pronounces it so; true “being” is an endless becoming, a never-ending journey for truth and self. The “they-self” concept of how one has created an identity in relation to what others expect of them is gone, replaced by a resolute choice to become, or create, something new.

Growing up, I always felt different, from day one. It was difficult for me to relate to other kids, especially boys, and I had no interest in sports. Friends came and went, and the majority of my relationships with other kids were short-lived. It wasn’t until puberty, really, and the budding of sexual desires, that I began to fully understand what it was that set me apart. Despite my growing attraction to other boys that was both confusing and exciting, and my growing disinterest in girls as anything other than companions, I still held on to my prescribed script for dear life. Letting go of my future storyline was too scary, too unknown. I fell into a vicious pattern of self-deception: still told myself I would get married someday, I would have children, and a family, and I would live the life that I was expected to live. I mean, what else was there? Despite being an avid reader with a huge imagination, the only world I truly knew was rural Arkansas. I knew there was more out there, but I didn’t understand it. Falling in love with my best friend at 16, and having him return those feelings, was the final nail in the coffin of my old life. It took another good 5 years to become comfortable with the idea of letting the old life truly die, and to have the courage to construct a new one in the way I saw most appropriate, but with that final decision, the new world was created, and my own moral and intellectual limits of my effective freedom were killed.

In many ways, I continue to define myself by what I am not, by my opposition to what I find most distasteful: complacency, blind religious faith, a denial of the true self. I seek to see reality in everything, and to view any adherence to mythology as a weak-willed embrace of a false certainty in the face of a vague and scary uncertainty. But the uncertainty is the reality, multiplicity the true liberator of the human psyche. Without a recognition of “logical fictions,” Nietzsche claims, man would die in his own meaninglessness. To have to discover your own path, and create your own destiny, as the existentialist believes we must all do in the absence of God, would provoke too much anguish and self-doubt in all of mankind, and surely lead to the death of life. But what I believe Nietzsche is arguing is that, if mankind as a whole could abandon these false notions, this “constant counterfeiting,” then as a species, we could evolve beyond our conventional and tired notions of morality, of even viewing morality in terms of good and evil. A transcendent morality might take its place, one in which all beings were equal and autonomy could be prized and strived for, instead of feared, denigrated, and eventually murdered.

*By "award-winning," I mean I got an A.


Tom Drew said...

Your approach here - picking a paragraph to respond to, rather than the whole work (or at least that's what you said you were going to do) - reminded me of something I occasionally had to do. One of my professors would have us write these "journals," in which we'd respond to a sentence or two (or a short paragraph) from the assigned text, writing either ten lines or for ten minutes, whichever came first. (As you might imagine, I frequently overwrote.) The response could be whatever we wanted, but the point was that it was a response to something very specific. I thought that was a neat writing assignment.

The Fire Next Time said...

Yeah, despite the vagueness of it, I enjoyed it, since it could be whatever we wanted. And we could respond however we wanted.