Friday, July 24, 2015

On Nietzsche

I have been thinking about Nietzsche of late, in the process of editing a submission.  He is one of three philosophers whose work was expressed largely through poetry.  Plato, obviously was the first and Heidegger the last.  I think it is true that Nietzsche was one of the greatest opponents of Socrates in the canon.  His work should be considered alongside the poet Aristophanes, who was not an enemy of Socrates but a well-meaning critic.  Another poet, Wallace Stevens, was more hostile. 
Nietzsche’s point of departure was a rejection of a basic assumption that the Socratics (Plato and Aristotle) shared about the motive for philosophizing.  What is it that drives some human beings to depart from the common wisdom and begin to ask genuine questions about being?  The Socratics had supposed it was a desire to know.  Nietzsche thought otherwise.  From Beyond Good and Evil 4.77:
With his principles a man seeks either to dominate, or justify, or honour, or reproach, or conceal his habits: two men with the same principles probably seek fundamentally different ends therewith.
This is a typical N-aphorism, digesting a big argument into a pithy few lines.  We might read “principles” here to be restricted to moral principles.  The idea here is that principles are weapons deployed in order to advance one’s position vis-à-vis other human beings.  The fundamental motive for all moralizing is not the will to know but the will to power, the desire to bend other human beings to one’s own will. 
Extend that insight to include all systems of thought, including the whole of philosophy and the sciences as well as all religions, and you have pretty much grasped Nietzsche’s work.  The second part of the aphorism means that we have to ground each argument in a particular historical circumstance.  Biblical morality, for example, becomes a brilliant (if pernicious, in Nietzsche’s view) stratagem to maintain their political integrity under slavery. 
One a personal level, I am reminded of a young man I knew when I was a young man.  I’ll call him Pete.  He had converted to Christianity.  The longer I hung around him the clearer it became that his religion was just a way of condemning other people.  He was a profound misanthrope.  Religion gave him one more standard by which to convict pretty much everyone he encountered.  I suspect a lot of people come to religion because they want to be loved, to fit into some community, and so adopt the same principles that Pete adopted.  Hence Nietzsche’s point. 
Consider aphorism 150 from the same chapter:
Around the hero everything becomes a tragedy; around the demigod everything becomes a satyr-play; and around God everything becomes--what? Perhaps a "world"?
The power of this gem cannot be overstated.  Human beings tell stories.  The stories work by bringing actors and events into orbit around some central figure.  See Oedipus the King or Hamlet, or, I dare say, Aristophanes Clouds. 
Nietzsche’s brilliance here is displayed in extending literary interpretation to grand history.  What is a god?  Lots of peoples have them.  Some have one; others have many.  Nietzsche is assuming that gods, like heroes, are literary creations.  He gives us a way to distinguish a god from a hero or anything else.  Heroes turn the chaos of particular events into a coherent story.  A god turns the chaos of the earth, sea and sky, and other people, into a coherent world.  A god is an artifact.  It is created in order to make sense of the world in such a way as to make it possible for the creator to impose his will on it. 
It has to be said that there is a lot to this.  When someone begins to prophesize or philosophize, he or she will by that very fact be trying to organize listeners and thinkers into a coherent community that accepts that basic theological or philosophical doctrine.  There is always some measure of self-esteem involved.  There is a big payoff for the person who comes up with the next great idea. 
For a case in point, see Barry X. Kuhle’s article “The Social Construction of Evolutionary Biology.” 
When I was a graduate student in the 1970’s, the big names in ecology, evolution, and behavior included Robert MacArthur, Larry Slobodkin, Richard Levins, Richard Lewontin, and E.O. Wilson. Their books and articles commanded attention because they were trying to place ecological and evolutionary theory on a mathematical foundation. Little did I know that these giants in the eyes of someone just entering the field were deliberately trying to construct their disciplines, although not always in agreement with each other.
In this sense, science is political and Nietzschean. 
Nonetheless, I think that Nietzsche’s fundamental position rests on a fundamental mistake.  Just because some human activity has a specific function doesn’t tell you what the motive for that activity is.  A mother’s love for her children has a biological function: it promotes the reproductive success of the mother.  That doesn’t mean that the mother’s motive in nurturing her offspring is to secure her genetic heritage.  Her motive is love. 
Likewise, a great philosopher may gain status and wealth from his success in bringing others around to his point of view.  That may explain some of the satisfaction of academic success.  Nonetheless, his basic motive may well be (and usually is, in science and philosophy) the desire to know what is really going on in the world.  By way of analogy, a great painter may gain wealth and fame through his art, but that has nothing to do with painting.  In so far as he paints, he is concerned with understanding the beauty in what he sees.  Aristotle made this distinction in regard to medicine.  In so far as a doctor is concerned with profiting from his practice, he is an entrepreneur and not a doctor.  In so far as he is a doctor, he is concerned with health.  Nietzsche is worth reading, but the Socratics were closer to the truth. 

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