Fragment 176, word count: 895.
Tags: embodiment, spirituality, nihilism, Christendom, Copernicus, Darwin, creativity, culture, individuality.
Christianity taught, and European Christendom accepted for centuries, that the human spiritual drama, our unique opportunity for ethical elevation by coming to know and align with the transcendent deity, is the purpose of all existence. Humans were thought to be the primary achievement of the all-creating God. Born as an exile into an initial state of disgrace within the lusts, pains, and thrills of a mortal body, each human is capable of recognizing its existence as more authentically one of transcendent spirituality and changing its way of life to express that spirituality. The worldly society of Christendom, controlled at all levels by the hierarchy and laws of the Roman Church in partnership with the secular military aristocracy, was accepted as the means by which individuals were guided to the spiritual life, a state of grace whose reward was blissful immortality. In the sixteenth century, within a broad advance of science, Nicolaus Copernicus discovered and revealed that the human home planet was not the centre of God’s cosmos, suggesting a more marginal status for human being. In the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin presented findings suggesting that humans are indistinguishable from animals, just naked apes, driven by instinctive drives and passions beyond individual control, with no qualitative specialness placing us in a uniquely elevated category. For much of the educated stratum of nineteenth century Europe, this apparent loss of human standing in the great scheme of things was a revelation of nihilism, a catastrophic loss of purpose and value. This was the context in which Nietzsche conceived his mission of thinking.
With God removed from the human situation, the Christian drama of existence faded out and with it the sense of meaning and purpose derived from that drama. Reflecting on human history soon reveals that no eventual outcome of biological evolution can give value and meaning to human existence, since it is unknowable, nor can the historical progress of human civilization do it since that reveals no verifiable arc toward a fulfillment. In the absence of these large structures as navigational guides the problem of meaning and purpose becomes entirely the individual’s problem and actually defines, on Nietzsche’s view, the monadic singularity of the human individual, the loneliest loneliness. As it happens, however, the fundamental nature or quality of individual spirit, the will to power, contains within itself a dramatic dynamic capable of achieving happiness, and so defeating nihilism.
For Nietzsche, the universal ethical and existential imperative for every individual is self-perfection, though that achievement is possible only for strong domineering spirits. Only the strongest spirits are capable of the happiness of self-perfection because only the strongest are capable of self-domination or self-overcoming by sublimating the instinctive animal impulses (Dionysian) into products of a dominant personal rationality (Apollonian), imposing a unifying form and style on all expressions of that sublimated energy. This Dionysian – Apollonian dialectic is the intrinsic dynamic of the will to power, the fundamental living force. Culture that is elevating to behold and appropriate is created from the sublimation of bestial impulses and instincts. Even though those impulses and instincts originate in and always declare the body, without them there is no energy to be sublimated into high art and culture. Strong and passionate impulses require an even stronger force of rationality to impose form and style on them. Artists and philosophers, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Socrates, are typically the people who discipline themselves to sublimate their great passions into creative activities. Nietzsche calls such spirits ubermensch, higher men, the only people of value in his estimation because in the ecstasy of their original creation they uniquely manifest authentic individuality. Specimens of higher men are rare and occur unpredictably in various times, societies, races, and ethnic groups, and it seems that for Nietzsche they are “The Elect”, forever predetermined for blessedness. The rest of us are a herd of doomed beasts of no interest or value, sometimes spiritualized to some extent by encountering the achievements of the higher ones.
There are striking similarities between Nietzsche’s conception of the drama and tragedy of existence and the previously dominant one from Christendom. Nietzsche was the son of a Lutheran clergyman and the apple didn’t fall very far from the tree. Separation of people into The Elect and the damned is one similarity. Both dramas involve a tension or dialectic between animal embodiment and some version of a transcendent spirituality which exerts itself against animality and offers a happier and more authentically meaningful life. In Nietzsche’s version, however, the impulses of the body are never left behind but always remain the source of life’s energy. In addition, Nietzsche’s spiritualizing, sublimating, force is militant rationality, giver of expressive form, stability, and style, replacing the poor Christian spirit of meek obedient submission, self-denial, mortification of the flesh, and altruism.
Such was Nietzsche’s revaluation of all values. It is philosophically unusual in recasting the Christian drama by eliminate a commanding and controlling deity while still finding a way to divide blessed from damned. That vision clearly doesn’t defeat nihilism for everyone, only for the precious few his message was apparently designed to reach. However, if we discount Nietzsche’s peculiar aristocratic exclusivity, we can appreciate his “Yes” to embodiment as inseparable from the ecstasy of personal creativity, his close attention to the interior experience of creativity and its independence from any conformist herd mind.
Sources and Inspirations
Walter Kaufmann’s book was the source for the sketch of Nietzsche’s philosophy included in this posting.
Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, written by Walter Kaufmann, published by Princeton University Press (1950), foreword by Alexander Nehamas (2013), ISBN 978-0-691-16026-9.
Zarathustra’s Secret, written by Joachim Kohler, translated from German by Ronald Taylor, Published by Yale University Press (English edition June 2002), ISBN-10: 0300092784, ISBN-13: 978-0300092783.
Copyright © 2021 Sandy MacDonald.