Monday, March 17, 2014

Consistently Inconsistent In Insisting

Terry Eagleton:

Nietzsche sees that civilization is in the process of ditching divinity while still clinging to religious values, and that this egregious act of bad faith must not go uncontested. You cannot kick away the foundations and expect the building still to stand. The death of God, he argues in The Gay Science, is the most momentous event of human history, yet men and women are behaving as though it were no more than a minor readjustment. Of the various artificial respirators on which God has been kept alive, one of the most effective is morality. “It does not follow,” Feuerbach anxiously insists, “that goodness, justice and wisdom are chimeras because the existence of God is a chimera.” Perhaps not; but in Nietzsche’s view it does not follow either that we can dispense with divine authority and continue to conduct our moral business as usual. Our conceptions of truth, virtue, identity, and autonomy, our sense of history as shapely and coherent, all have deep-seated theological roots. It is idle to imagine that they could be torn from these origins and remain intact. Morality must therefore either rethink itself from the ground up, or live on in the chronic bad faith of appealing to sources it knows to be spurious. In the wake of the death of God, there are those who continue to hold that morality is about duty, conscience, and obligation, but who now find themselves bemused about the source of such beliefs. This is not a problem for Christianity—not only because it has faith in such a source, but because it does not believe that morality is primarily about duty, conscience, or obligation in the first place.

Dear gods, what a septic tank of fallacious reasoning. Look, I think Nietzsche's insistence on the "bad faith" of humanists in thinking that they can just carry on with business as usual after God's death is one of his weakest points, perhaps even betraying the love-portion of his love/hate relationship with Socrates (and I don't find it at all surprising that Christians like Eagleton are so fond of gleefully repeating it; it lends credence to their favorite false dichotomy of "either monotheism or nihilism!"). Think of it from a lowercase-c conservative perspective: this way of life we have, this cultural morality, however it may have developed, it just works. However bass-ackwardly we reasoned our way into it, we've kept with it because it seems to suit our most pressing needs, and we adjust it as needed rather than throw it away and start over from scratch. Why is it a problem if we don't have a consciously rational justification for every single bit of it? Isn't that what Nietzsche attacked Socrates for in a different context? For acting as if only conscious knowledge is meaningful or noble? As Auden said, we are changed by what we change — the reasons we fall in love with our spouses may not be the most important things about why we're still with them thirty years later while many other positive facets of the relationship only revealed themselves with time and experience; that doesn't invalidate the original impulses or the evolution of the project. I don't see why cultures should be any different. Maybe we originally behaved this way because we thought somebody named God said to do so, but maybe we decided along the way that there were good pragmatic reasons for it too. The world evolves, it doesn't proceed like steps in a geometric proof. Some stages will look like neither fish nor fowl, and it's only ever a small percentage of neurotic intellectuals who will tie themselves in anguished knots over the proper taxonomy. Feuerbach wasn't anxious; you're just projecting, and Nietzsche was always melodramatically distraught after a breakup, whether with a Russian blonde or a deity.

Arthur and I were sharing a laugh at Eagleton's article. I sent him the above paragraph, and he responded with this:

Yes, Nietzsche is being inconsistent, as he consistently is, in insisting that we have to take the death of God to its rigorous logical conclusion and change everything within and without to accommodate the catastrophic knowledge that we're all alone out here. Elsewhere, as you know, he ridicules rationalism and logical consistency and claims life can only be justified as an aesthetic phenomenon (and in this connection Wilde is appropriately mentioned by Eagleton). On the other hand, "Poets lie too much." Wait a minute, Freddy, didn't you just say that truth and lies are only metaphors, that the point is not to discover truth but to create values? Which is it going to be, art or philosophy, creativity or knowledge? The answer depends on which book, or chapter, or page of Nietzsche you're reading. But you gotta love the man's style. He was outrageous, and that's saying something, especially for a philosopher. He is an aristocratic anarchist, like Yeats, who was a sort of disciple. I'm fine with that, as long as the aristocratic part doesn't mean knouting poachers and running over peasants in your coach and six. There I draw the line. But on what grounds? Religious? Moral? Prudential? (I don't particularly want to spend time in jail.) Is it possible that we have stared too long into the Abgrund, the abyss over which we tightrope-walk every day while juggling philosophical interpretations of what we are doing, and the abyss has stared back, and we all now carry within us the haunted emptiness of an abandoned mansion that we used to call Soul? Naah...