Monday, April 26, 2010
There's a lot of this sentiment in existentialist and hermeneutic accounts of experience. Consider, for instance, the hermeneutic circle as articulated by Heidegger, Gadamer, and others. Because we are always already experiencing the world, we cannot know the world as it exists outside our experiences of it. Rather than moving through life and encountering alien objects, which are then added to a sort of permanent “library” of understanding, we encounter alien objects (or concepts or people) and come to understand them through our preexisting understandings of other things. The catch, though, is that our new understandings may obfuscate or change our previous understandings; experience consists of a constant process of learning, unlearning, and relearning—of interpretation.
Now, without a foundation for experience that exists beyond experience itself, ethics becomes more complicated, and that's really what Nietzsche is getting at with his Genealogy; because words like "good" and "evil" don't really mean anything in a concrete or universally definable sense, the task of determining right action becomes much more complex. That is, unless we happen to be ubermenschen, in which case we simply do what we want to do and call it right. But Nietzsche admits that none of us are ubermenschen, nor is he himself. That being the case, we have to figure out how to be moral beings in a world where morality is simply a concept, agreed upon by groups of people. And that's nebulous and confusing, but it's what we've got. It seems to me that attempts at making existence simple (read: religion) are dangerous because they convince people that there is only one way of being that is "correct," and this sort of sentiment leads us down the path to hatred, bigotry, and oppression.
Sunday, April 25, 2010
The Genealogy of Morals presents us with an alternate possibility for being. Once before, human interaction was very different according to an ethical model that we find oppositional to our current understanding. But we are only reconceptualizing what seems to be, for Nietzsche, ready made ideas. It seems to me that while morality takes on a non-essential stand, citing Nietzsche's emphasis on the human will to power, it is found in the world in a malleable but separately existing way. As if "evil" or "bad" and "good" could be real things that we just move around conceptually but exist separately from us as historically necessary kinds of behaviors and ideas. But, yeah, this is a stretch for Nietzsche maybe.
To extend the idea further, the individual can only affirm this active life in a context. This makes me very interested in creativity as a kind of ever-present recreation of self. This individual, herdish slave or otherwise, is evident in the material and content of their behavior as one is herdish or not according to their behavior.
First, I will define both the bad and the evil so that we do not misinterpret each other. Prior to the slave revolt in morality, the bad were composed of people who were more topically “bad.” That is, these people were ugly, poor, weak, etc. After these slaves revolted, they became the new good, while the old good became evil. Evil in this sense involved an internal necessity for values (as opposed to an external necessity), self-affirmation, good being determined first and evil being determined as an afterthought, and generally those who were beautiful, wealthy, and strong. While these definitions are meek, they will stand as a mutual understanding throughout the rest of this post.
To begin, the qualities that identified what was bad were qualities that weren’t necessarily feared by the good. The noble spirit was not ever threatened by what was bad; rather they simply were better and insurmountable. While the nobles may have distanced themselves from the bad, there is something particularly special about this idea of fear. To clarify what I mean, I will begin talking about the evil that was the good in light of fear. The evil, which is present today, is something that is arguably frightening to what is now good. In being a part of the herd, I find myself in the present ‘good’ category. This means, according to Nietzsche, that I am nay saying and life-denying. As a part of the good, I can’t help but feel a bit frightened by those who may fall into the evil category. These are people who enact physical revenge and are life-affirming. I am afraid that these people, if I encounter them, will dominate me in any sort of interaction, but I do not want to see it that way. This denial forces me to assign to them the name ‘evil.’
In essence, the main difference between the two (at least from what I can tell) is fear. The pre-revolt-good did not fear the bad, but the post-revolt-good most definitely is afraid of the evil. Perhaps this fear stems from us, the herd, acknowledging (subconsciously or consciously) that we are in fact weak and unable to make life-affirming decisions. But we cannot externalize these thoughts, because if we do the noble spirit will dominate us again.
Let us first begin by trying to define “strength”. From an evolutionary standpoint strength could be viewed as the ability of an individual or species to ensure their own survive and successful propagation of their offspring. Evolution has granted different species different tools to accomplish this task. Snakes have speed and poison, bears have claws, teeth, and brute force, but when the “top of the food chain” is considered, a new element is introduced: intelligence. Lions, wolves, what little we know of raptors, all possess physical force, claws, teeth, the tools of all other predators, but what sets them apart, what sets them on top, is intelligence. Lions, wolves, and raptors all hunt in packs and use tactics, ranging from basic to complex, to trap and kill their prey. If one searches for a definition of strength in nature, one will find it replete with examples of intelligence.
Perhaps one might disregard nature, or claim that humans are wholly above it. whatever the reason, if nature does not suffice, we must only look to our own culture for definitions of strength. The English language is full of sayings, proverbs, and clichés that contemplate the nature of strength. The first saying that comes to mind is “he is strong like an Ox”. How does an Ox compare to a human? An Ox many times outweighs a human, it can generate many times more force than a human, and an Ox possess natural weapons in the form of horns. Despite all of these advantages or “strengths” over humans, haven’t Oxen been used as beasts of burden by humans for centuries? What is the difference? What is that “strength” that allows humans to subdue virtually anything? Intellect. I have heard some people referred to as hard like an oak, but though oak trees last for many human lives and their wood is far stronger than flesh and bone, what tree cannot be cut down?
Another example of strength that comes easily is seen in war. What is a weapon? A weapon is the result of cunning. Technology is key aspect of waging war. impenetrable castles were shattered by advent of cannons. How can swords and shields stand up to guns and tanks? The Spartans are held up as some of the strongest warriors of antiquity, but would a phalanx of Spartans stand any chance against a lesser force of Navy SEALs? Technology is the results of cunning, tactics are the results of cunning, and both are an inseparable part of strength. Knowing all this, how can one even question whether cunning is separate from strength?
The point I wish to make is how troublesome the reality of an ubermencthe figure truly is. While I admire Nietzsche’s challenge to moral conventionalism, I find his solution ultimately flawed and too extreme. If people adopted the mindset of an ubermensch, then individuals who push their own values would ultimately limit others from asserting their own values too. Surely there’s a more moderate alternative; one that includes a subject approach to morality while discouraging the over-assertion one’s own system of values.
Throughout his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche asks, “what is the value” of many different things. These include most obviously morals, but also various tenets of or actors within morality, such as the self, guilt, and the conscience. Morality, Nietzsche says, is the instrument by which the weak suppress the strong. The self, guilt, and the conscience are the tools by which this swap of roles is made possible.
With all of this value assessment, might we not apply the same to our author and his ideas? When we ask, “What is the value of Nietzsche,” I think some interesting aspects of his philosophy are brought to light.
This question, “What is something’s value,” presupposes a system of valuation. Nietzsche’s own seems to lie somewhere between utility, truth, and reality. We see value as utility in Nietzsche’s general consideration of morality. This is evidenced by his portrayal of slave morality as a tool of the weak. However, Nietzsche’s criticism of this morality suggests that he values something like reality. The ascetic hero is not stronger than the Olympic hero. This Nietzsche would say with certainty. But where does this certainty come from? I sense a belief in nature or reality, the existence of something real and true. This is a certainty I do not share, so perhaps I am misunderstanding what are clearly another man’s thoughts. Should I be so fortunate as to have had legitimate insight into the man behind our text, let us continue.
Nietzsche also displays a great respect for context, something I greatly applaud. In this regard, he reminds me of my favorite elements of the French philosopher Henri Bergson. In Bergson’s consideration of both life and time, he stresses context, continuity, and looking at things in their entirety. I find a similar care taken by Nietzsche. Nietzsche stresses that you cannot isolate the self from a human, a statement I find similar to Bergson’s crusade against looking at time like cinema (as a collection of “moments,” which he holds do not exist).
All this talk of separation led me to think of something far less serious- my favorite Jim Henson film. The Dark Crystal tells the tale of Jen, who must restore the Dark Crystal. In doing so, he brings back the urSkeks, a race of beings that had been divided into two other types of being when the Crystal was damaged. What I think the movie does well is show how different things appear when they are split apart (or wrongly divided). I encourage any of you who have not seen this film to check it out. It’s a pretty cool story, fodder for your imaginations and critical minds, and a splendid vehicle through which to explore identity and morality (which it admittedly handles with rather heavy hands).