To what extent do our moral “truths” really hold up to scrutiny? What if all the values we think we adopt as our own turned out to be illusory? What if the beliefs, moral explanations, and guidelines for how we lived our life were just….false?
Nietzsche once said that “there are no facts, only interpretations.” Most people would reject a claim denying the existence of facts as completely asinine. But I think Nietzsche here is less interested in convincing us by sound arguments and logical reasoning, and more so in getting his readers to start thinking, and in particular, questioning their own “facts.”
What I think Nietzsche is getting at is essentially a type of moral skepticism. In the world or existence, individuals act; they do things. This much we are relatively certain. Some of these actions we judge as “good,” and others, “evil.” If a man donates half of his pay check to charity, we say that his action was morally “good.” If, on the other hand, he steals from the collection pot, we say his actions were morally “bad.”
But by whose standards are such actions judged? Notions of “good” and “evil” didn’t appear out of nowhere. We inherited them. Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals is an attempt to trace contemporary Judeo-Christian morality to its roots among the oppressed classes in the Roman Empire. He calls Judeo-Christian morality, with all of its egalitarian motifs and rejection of this life for a transcendental afterlife, as slave morality. Accordingly, slave morality was a “revolt” against the dominant “master morality” among the Roman aristocracy. Whereas slave morality prioritized those values conducive to the oppressed classes, master morality emphasized a corresponding set of values
Aside from the specific content of our moral valuations – the manner in which we come to adopt our values as our own is also taken for granted. Generally speaking, our values tell us more than right from wrong, good from bad, praiseworthy from objectionable; they tell us what’s meaningful to us as members of that particular community; they provide guidelines for how we are to relate to others and ourselves; and they provide a certain structure for what it means to become a full-fledged member of the community. Values make up a big part of our “world,” our shared background practices that make intelligibility possible. When we’re born, we’re always already born into a “world,” and thus, from the world we derive a great degree of what will later be incorporated into our individual personality; for example, our native language, our customs, our ways of being-in-the-world, as well as our values. The world constitutes those practices and ways of giving meaning to being that enable us to participate in a shared community of others.
As members of a given culture, we inherit the same horizon of all that is made intelligible on account of our “thrownness” into a world. Thus, just as I didn’t “choose” my parents, to be born a male, or to have green eyes; I also had no say in being born into a country with these particular values over any other. Thus, I may have just as easily been born into a country with diametrically opposed values to those upheld in this particular culture. If this were not the case, then any understanding of “morality” as we know it, and value judgments on a cultural or national level generally, would be impossible.”
As always, it helps if we look to the phenomena to illustrate what we’re talking about here. Every moral interpretation begins by mis-interpreting a perceived fact. Imagine you’re in the library, and you notice someone remove a book from the shelf. Rather than put it in their basket, they look to see if anyone is noticing, and they discreetly place the book inside their back-pack with the clear intent of stealing the book. Assuming that our observer has been sufficiently socialized into the dominant norms and valuations of his culture, and assuming that he is generally capable of making value judgments, in an instant, he will recognize that (a) this is a situation in which at least two established moral norms apply; (b) the moral norms are: “it is wrong to take someone’s property without their permission,” and “it is wrong to take someone’s property with the intention of not returning it.” (c) the person who removed the book from the shelf and placed it in his bag did so without going through the proper channels for checking the book out; and (d) by not checking it out, he most likely does not intend to return it.
All of this, of course, takes place at a pre-conceptual level. Our observer does not process this information in the same manner in which he’d process a mathematical or reading comprehension problem; only later, when he makes an attempt to articulate his observation, does he raise his perception to the level of discourse and understanding. But even before we reach that level, there are many things involved at this stage.
Again, we have an observer making a judgment about an observed phenomena; in his judgment of the situation, the observer invokes at least two moral norms; next, he judges that the actions observed constituted a violation of those norms; and finally, he assigns blame (responsibility) to the actor for whom he perceives to be violating the moral norms. All of this, however, rests on a number of broad and indefensible assumptions.
First, it assumes the existence of moral norms;
Second, it assumes that moral qualities inhere in actions;
Third, it assumes that people act freely, and thus may be held accountable for their actions.
Let’s now imagine the same facts as above, except this time there is no observer to witness the person removing the book from the shelf and placing it in his bag. Without an observer to make the value judgment, how sure are we that what’s going on is wrong? To be certain, we can imagine ourselves in a culture in which private property is not generally respected, or that removing items from libraries without checking them out first is not “stealing” in the way in which that word is normally understood.
Are we prepared to make the argument that, under these circumstances, an immoral act has taken place? Without an active observer to impose moral blameworthiness, is the person who removed the books really acting immorally? To what extent can value judgments exist without an existing individual to make them?
What if we knew that the person who took the book was from a culture that discouraged respect for private property? Or a culture in which libraries operate on some version of an “honor system” in which patrons remove books and are expected to bring them back when they’re done. Does his ignorance of our culture’s way of doing things render his actions immoral?
Who’s to say which interpretation is better? What seems practical and plausible to the observer may be completely different than that which seems appropriate to the person removing the book. In this sense, there may be a breakdown in terms of which norms hold in the given situation. To our observer, this appeared to be a blatant case of stealing; but to another observer, it may appear morally neutral.
To what extent are we sure that his actions are free? Is it not plausible that we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that inside all of us is a rational free agent capable of being held accountable for his actions in the world? What if “free will” was nothing more than an invention of moral reformers hell-bent on imposing their views of what’s “good” on the rest of us? This is all the more possible when one takes into consideration the sizeable degree to which most of our life is already determined for us (our genetic make-up, our culture, our heritage and traditions, our language, our parents, our personality/character, etc.).
What about the fact that our moral values aren’t genuinely our own, but are inherited? What’s left for morality if we have no reason to believe that our value judgments are any more “real” than those of any other culture on this planet, or any other culture that has existed throughout history, for that matter?
Consider another example outside the usual confines of “morality.” In most countries, we celebrate life and mourn death. We take for granted that life is “good,” and death “bad.” But what if death isn’t so bad? After all, we know absolutely nothing about what happens to us when we die; but, we know a lot about life. We also know that, generally speaking, life tends to be a particularly difficult and exacting task, rife with misery, suffering, and disappointment.
How do we know that the Judeo-Christian tradition, which abhors suicide, is more correct than the opposition conclusion drawn by many ancient cultures in which, at least under certain circumstances, suicide was an honorable and noble thing to do?
What if life were not a gift; but a curse? What would it mean if, in the end, Sophocles was correct…what’s best for us would be to have never been born; and second best, would be to “die soon.”
In short, the norms by which we evaluate the criteria for moral behavior are themselves derived directly from the background of social practices. These practices, in turn, constitute all intelligibility for a given community and culture, and every individual member therein. Insofar as individuals apply these norms, this is the background upon which moral phenomena is made possible.
In the same vein, the background social practices are never absolute, but only find relative authority for the community who posits them. In this sense, all morality and normative evaluations generally are wholly customary.
The doctrine of the “eternal recurrence of the same” (also known as eternal return of the same) remains one of the most peculiar and enigmatic features of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Indeed, commentators and Nietzsche scholars have published dozens of books, articles, and essays speculating as to how seriously Nietzsche took the doctrine to be a literal metaphysical understanding of reality, as well as how it fits into the broader scheme of Nietzsche’s body of work, particularly in relation to the Ubermensche and the Will to Power.Among the more popular, and somewhat banal, interpretations of eternal recurrence is that of an existential thought experiment. One is supposed to imagine that he or she will repeat this life exactly as it is over and over again — with all its pain, sorrows, tragedies, and disappointment. The point of eternal return as thought experiment is to induce us to examine our lives and take control. If we’re doomed to repeat this life exactly as it was and will be forever, then we ought to take responsibility for living our life as an experimental aesthetic narrative. Presumably, only the Overman would be strong enough to affirm the continuous recycling of this life — for only he is capable of looking at life square in the face and proclaim, “yes!” This interpretation can be seen as an extremely important part of Nietzsche’s overall project of developing a philosophy that would both overcome the nihilism of the modern age AND at the same time bring about the affirmation, rather than denial, of this life. Under this view then, the doctrine of eternal recurrence represents Nietzsche’s ultimate break from his predecessor and “educator” Arthur Schopenhauer, despite the heavy influence the latter played on Nietzsche’s development and thought.
The doctrine of eternal recurrence may also be understood as a means of bringing into question our preconceived notions of progress, universality, and objectivity as byproducts of a linear conception of time. Modern man takes for granted that he understands (ontic) time as a linear progression of “nows” leading from past, to present, and future. Even contemplating time as cyclical casts a shadow of doubt over our unquestionable commitment to progress and objectivity. If time is cyclical, then the very notion of “progress” as we understand it becomes necessarily impossible. The very notion of progress assumes time as linear. Only if we see time as occurring as a “stream” from then-to-now, and from now-to-yonder can such evaluative change take place. Yet, if everything were to exist in complete transience only to begin again — the idea of permanent progress is untenable. What is perceived as an overcoming of the past (say, scientific or technological advancement) is only tentative and ephemeral: for if it is all to end and begin again, there can simply be no constancy. Without constancy then, the notion of overcoming and ascending beyond what was, along with the hope of transcending the now with the hope of an even better tomorrow, must be cast aside. So too would our belief in objectivity. Objectivity presumes something eternal; it deals not in substance but form — specifically, a form that exists beyond the realm of time and space. Something that is, in and of itself, existing eternally and thus always in a static state of being. Cyclical time renders the static state of being an impossibility, as well, for if everything that was is to come again, and the now for which I see myself as experiencing will again recur, the very grounding for the “objective” is stripped away. Cyclical time undermines being in favor of continuous becoming. The “is”, as we perceive it, is only an illusion; a derivative and mistaken experience for the perpetual “will be.” The “will be,” then, is always already what it “was,” and forever “will be”, all of which is confined to the sameness of the repetitive cycles of the ever-recurring. Even hypothesizing on the eternal recurrence raises important questions concerning that which we take for granted about what it means to “be” human. It provides grounds for questioning time as linear — and so too the correlative notions of progress and objectivity which derivative of such conceptualizations of linear time. It also forces us to question the metaphysical traditions pertaining to the constancy of the “self,” as well as the metaphysical dualism of “mind” (eternal) and “body” (temporal).
In his essay, “The Relationship Between Pessimism and Individualism, from the 1914 book, Pessimisme et Individualisme, George Palante (1862-1925) sets out to understand the “logical or sentimental” relationship between philosophical pessimism and individualism.
Below I will discuss Palante’s individualism (part I), as well as his pessimism (part II). Finally, I will offer some concluding remarks (part III).
A thorough Nietzschean, Palante envisions a new type of pessimsitic individualism, entirely separate from the optimistic and rationalistic individualism of Locke, Mill, and the like. For Palante, traditional individualism (with its political, moral, and juridical connotations) takes shape in the French Revolution, and has thus become the dominant ideology in the discourse of the individual.
Palante sums up this type of individualism succinctly, pointing to its inherent rationalism (faith in reason) and their idealism (faith in social justice):
“These individualists are rationalists: they have faith in reason, the principle of order, of unity, and of harmony. They are idealists: they have faith in an ideal of social justice, unitarian and egalitarian, they believe, despite individual differences and inequalities, in the profound and real unity of human kind.”
Thus, this type of individualism is a civic, or social individualism: one in which the individual is, ultimately, intertwined with society — and as such, they are “never in opposition to one another.”
Palante’s pessimistic individualism is something different altogether:
“The individualism we have in mind here is completely different. This individualism is not a political, juridical and moral doctrine, but a psychological and moral attitude, a form of sensibility, a personal sensation of life and a personal will to life.”
Palante’s individualism goes beyond the traditional view which reduces the individual to a participating component of society; rather, his individualism is the embodiment of “the sentiment of uniqueness, of individuality in what it has of the differential, the private, and the un-revealable.” At bottom, individualism is a desire to “be oneself,” a desire for “independence and originality.” This type of individualist is a creator; energetic — his own “builder and demolisher of ideals.”
Coupled with this creative drive to “be oneself,” Palante’s individualism is thoroughly antagonistic to the herd, crowd, and “mass man.” The individual rejects the social leveling that the herd utilizes in order to “reduce uniqueness through conformism, spontaneity through discipline, instantaneousness of the self through caution, sincerity of sentiment through the lack of sincerity inherenty in any socially defined function, confidence and pride in the self through the humiliation inseparable from any kind of social training.
Those familiar with the works of Nietzsche can’t help but recognize that Palante’s individual bears a striking resemblance to Nietzsche’s Ubermensche. From his aestheticization of existence into a series of projects, his resolute antagonism to herd values, to his lonely isolation and withdrawal — there are a few noteworthy differences.
Palante’s individualist need not be an active “creator of new values,” but is just as capable of withdrawing himself into himself in the form of “indifference and resignation,” as the “will to revolt.” Whereas the Overman battles contemporary European nihilism by utilizing active, complete nihilism to bring about the creation of new values; Palante does not seem to attach the same negative judgment with respect to passive nihilism as Nietzsche. In fact, there’s no reason to believe that Palante attributes any normative differentiation between a passive nihilistic withdrawal resignation in speculative contemplation and the active nihilist’s aesthetic “creative destruction.”
At various points, Palante even seems to emphasize the “passive resistance” of withdrawing inwards into oneself as the more preferable of the two options. In some respects, this would be appear to be a more consistent stance in light of his pessimism. Palante’s revolt is an inward revolt — one in which the pain of rejecting the outside world is accompanied by a renewed emphasis on the interior self. Here, too, Palante’s more pessimism may be contrasted with Nietzsche’s Dionysian Pessimism, which may best be described as factually, but not evaluatively, pessimistic (and thus which has led many commentators to label Nietzsche a ‘tragic optimist’ — though this itself is debatable).
In part II, I’ll discuss Palante’s notion of pessimism and its relation to the Self/individual.
One of my all-time favorite Nietzsche aphorisms:
“I did that,” says my memory. “I could not have done that,” says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually–the memory yields.
– Beyond Good and Evil, Ch. 4, §68
A great many philosophers have dedicated considerable amounts of their waking moments wrestling with the problem of nihilism; or more specifically, the problem of overcoming nihilism. Nevertheless, nihilism itself remains a mystery — least of all its consequences for mankind. To be sure, an adequate definition of nihilism is wanting. In the most general sense, nihilism refers to the absence of any objective, universal or intrinsic value. From this, it necessarily follows that our metaphysical beliefs, our moral/ethical values, and even our own existence, are completely and utterly lacking any inherent meaning.
As a direct consequence of nihilism, man is forced to see reality for what it is: a random, irrational, and chaotic existence in which our role is infinitesimal. Nihilism, in this capacity, serves to break down all the illusions, myths, and all other social, cultural constructions that have hitherto given us a false sense of security and hope.
In its active form, nihilism is likened to a hammer — used not only to chisel away all artificial meaning, but to smash them. Active nihilism paves the way for the creation of new values, the overcoming of the self by taking a new relation to oneself as an autonomous creator. In effect, this is the transformation of living as the “one-self,” into “my-self.” Thus, the end result of nihilism in its active form is nothing short of paving the way for the grounds to becoming my own self.
Passive nihilism, on the other hand, is epitomized by resignation; the prognosis that life is an “unprofitable episode,” (in Schopenhauer’s words). Nietzsche equated passive nihilism with Schopenhauer’s repudiation of life via the denial of the Will as a great threat. Nihilism in its passive form, while adopting the same prognosis of existence as active nihilism, thus nevertheless takes the opposite stance of active nihilism as to how we should respond to the problem of a meaningless, value-less, and chaotic existence.