Saturday, February 11, 2012

Wrecked Against Infinity

Giles Fraser:

It isn't a eureka moment in which Nietzsche comes to understand that God does not exist. Indeed, he is not all that interested in the question of God's existence. The Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson recently told me that he would be an atheist even if God walked into the restaurant. Similarly for Nietzsche, it's not a question of evidence or the lack of it.

He is in a completely different place to the new atheist brigade of Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling. If God walked into the room, Nietzsche would stab him – for his "God is dead" revelation is that humanity can only become free if it rejects the idea of the divine. Christianity is not a mistake. It is wickedness dressed up as virtue.

...Nietzsche's case against Christianity was that it kept people down; that it smothered them with morality and self-loathing. His ideal human is one who is free to express himself (yes, he's sexist), like a great artist or a Viking warrior. Morality is for the little people. It's the way the weak manipulate the strong. The people Nietzsche most admired and aspired to be like were those who were able to reinvent themselves through some tremendous act of will.

...Nietzsche hated Christianity with all the intensity of someone who had once been caught up in its workings, but he would have equally loathed the high priests of new atheism and their overwhelming sense of intellectual superiority. "How much boundlessly stupid naivety is there in the scholar's belief in his superiority, in the simple, unsuspecting certainty with which his instincts treat the religious man as inferior and a lower type which he himself has evolved above and beyond", he wrote. Nietzsche's big idea goes much deeper than a belief that there is no God. His extraordinary project was to design a form of redemption for a world beyond belief. And to this extent he remained profoundly pious until his dying day.

Nietzsche took for granted that most intelligent people had outgrown the need for a personal god and proceeded accordingly; that much is true, that his atheism was not the kind that's interested in amassing a collection of logical proofs for and against. But his view of morality was a bit more nuanced:

Thus I deny morality as I deny alchemy, that is, I deny their premises: but I do not deny that there have been alchemists who believed in these premises and acted in accordance with them. I also deny immorality: not that countless people feel themselves to be immoral, but there is any true reason so to feel. It goes without saying that I do not deny—unless I am a fool—that many actions called immoral ought to be avoided and resisted, or that many called moral ought to be done and encouraged but I think the one should be encouraged and the other avoided for other reasons than hitherto.

This is one of the most important things he ever wrote, and you can tell by the way he went out of his way to be as clear as possible. Are you getting this? Taking notes? There is no true reason to feel one way or the other. There is no objective, external moral authority. But - but! - this is where so many superficial readers start wailing about "everything is permitted" and rambling about how there's nothing left but raping, robbing and pillaging, and you can sense the palpable disgust in the above excerpt at having to spell it out for such dimwitted nihilists (for all the good it did). The desire to proclaim that, in the absence of monotheistic certainty, nothing has any meaning anywhere, anytime, is still a grasping after objective moral truth. Nihilists still yearn to submit to some "higher" universal law that commands them how to act, and they'll settle for Bizarro World morality if they can't have the real thing anymore.

Up to now, the moral law has been supposed to stand above our own likes and dislikes: one did not actually want to impose this law upon oneself, one wanted to take it from somewhere or discover it somewhere or have it commanded to one from somewhere.

Is all that clear? You and I may, after a period of rigorous introspection and dialogue, agree that conventional bourgeois morality suits us just fine as opposed to the alternatives. But we have to do the work to come to that conclusion; we can't just look for a surrogate authority figure to tell us so. No one else can take that responsibility from us, and weakness consists in trying to give it away. He's not urging immorality on anyone; he's trying to tunnel underneath and destabilize the very ground beneath the authority of such ideas. He's asking people to consider why they're so eager to be told how to behave in the first place.

He probably would think very little of most atheists, but not because of an anti-elitist antipathy to people who think they're soooo smart; he was an aristocrat with no love for democracy, after all. His criticism of scholars mentioned by Fraser is based on his suspicion that many secular humanists who think they've evolved beyond religion still parrot Christian precepts without having done the sort of serious examination of them we were just talking about. You might say that, as one who respected Christianity as a worthy opponent, he considered it crass for people to loot God's corpse with no appreciation of the significance of what they'd done.

It does make a certain amount of sense to describe him as pious and concerned with redemption for a world beyond belief, though. I've always found this to be a particularly stirring passage, in which he expresses, yes, a faith in the potential of heroic striving:

All those brave birds which fly out into the distance, into the farthest distance – it is certain! Somewhere or other, they will be unable to go on and will perch on a mast or a bare cliff-face – and they will even be thankful for this miserable accommodation! But who could venture to infer from that, that there was not an immense open space before them, that they had flown as far as one could fly! All our great teachers and predecessors have at last come to a stop and it is not with the noblest or most graceful of gestures that weariness comes to a stop: it will be the same with you or me! But what does that matter to you or me? Other birds will fly farther! This insight and faith of ours vies with them in flying up and away; it rises above our heads and above our impotence into the heights and from there surveys the distance and sees before it the flocks of birds which, far stronger than we, still strive whither we have striven, and where everything is sea, sea, sea! And whither then would we go? Would we cross the sea? Whither does this mighty longing draw us, this longing that is worth more to us than any pleasure? Why just in this direction, thither where all the suns of humanity have gone down? Will it perhaps be said of us one day that we too, steering westward, hoped to reach an India – but that it was our fate to be wrecked against infinity? Or, my brothers. Or - ?