The universe must be splintered apart and respect for it unlearned; what we have given the unknown and the whole must be taken back and given to the closest, what’s ours. Kant said, ‘Two things remain forever worthy of admiration and awe’ [the starry sky above us and the moral law within] – today, we would rather say; ‘Digestion is more venerable’. The universe would always bring with it the old problems, ‘How is evil possible?’, etc. Thus, there is no universe, there is no great sensorium, or inventory, or storehouse of forces….
I regard Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) as the greatest philosopher of the modern period. We are still working out Nietzsche’s revolutionary ideas and attempting to be equal to them. Many of us today live as Nietzscheans even if we are not explicitly aware of this (we have a moral liberality and we are proud of our complex natures).
In the course of the next few days I want to provide a set of terse but instructive insights into Nietzsche’s project.
This is a project that amounts to nothing less than an attempt to reconstitute humanity. His project – which takes him several years and a great deal of intellectual development to work out and finesse – has two main aspects: a purification (of our values, opinions, and feelings) to be followed by a new dedication.
For the first time perhaps in human history we – free spirits, Nietzsche calls them – are to live cheerfully without God and without all the baggage of ‘the first and last things’ of metaphysics and the immodesty of a morality of good and evil.
There is no longer any ‘true world’ to be faithful to and to aspire to, that is, no realm of pure being that would give us permanence, bliss, peace, unity, harmony, etc. Rather we are to affirm terrestrial life – becoming, change, multiplicity, plurality – as our only life and in all its complexity and difficulty.
This is the challenge of willing the eternal recurrence of the same, and for which we need to become well disposed towards existence and ourselves. For Nietzsche, the One (the universe) does not exist: monism is dead, and there is only plurality and becoming. Nietzsche is a naturalist who accords priority to science, and wants us to make of knowledge our most powerful passion.
For him, science means not only natural science but also history and philology (the arts of reading and interpretation). However, Nietzsche is not reductive in his approach and the charge of reductionism that is so often levelled at naturalism is poorly made.
Nietzsche thinks that through naturalism – what he calls the task of translating the human being back into nature – we will, in fact, enrich and potentially expand our conceptions of the possibilities of human existence. To do this he thinks we must be brave, honest, and patient: the free spirit must learn, he says, the value of keeping its energy and enthusiasm in bounds.
So what drives the project of naturalism for Nietzsche is a concern with authenticity- that is, how we can become truly free and sovereign agents – and within the context of cultivating and dedicating ourselves to genuine knowledge. To ‘become what one is’ one must know what one is and that one is free to become it. For Nietzsche, nature is a fate but so is freedom or the perfecting of nature.
So, for example, in aphorism 335 of The Gay Science Nietzsche speaks of our becoming the ones that we are – new, unique, incomparable, the ones who legislate for themselves and create themselves – and yet this aphorism is entitled ‘Long Live Physics!’ Autonomy or sovereignty for Nietzsche is our aspiration, but it is not to be lived as a fantasy but as a task, especially of knowledge.
Nietzsche will sometimes personify nature by speaking of what it permits and sanctions us to become and what it does not. For him it permits us to become sovereign individuals: strong, proud, confident, masters of a free will (an unbreakable will), standing firm in the face of fate, ready for action and equal to the challenges life will throw at us.
What it doesn’t permit, Nietzsche says, is what has dwelled on the earth for the last two thousand years with the dominance of ‘Christian-moral’ culture:
The human as a sick animal that cannot digest its own animality, cannot cope with life, transforms the earth into what he calls ‘a madhouse’, denies and curses natural life, and seeks escape through various metaphysical fictions and dangerous moral fantasies of good conquering evil and the final triumph of the good.
To live like this is to deny one’s real conditions of existence and ones’ real human nature. We should let go of all these metaphysical aspirations (the desire to go beyond physics) and cultivate this nature. Maybe we don’t know what is possible from it, that is, what new and superior forms of existential and social life can be created. It is this possibility that Nietzsche understands by the word ‘superhuman’ or ‘overhuman’ as he utters it.
There is little that is fantastical to it. It is, in fact, a very modest proposal if we properly understand it. It may come as a surprise to learn that Nietzsche calls for a new virtue for us moderns and free spirits, and names it ‘modesty’.