Thoughts on “The Gay Science”

Several things stood out to me in this week’s readings from “The Gay Science.” One of them came from section 27, in which Nietzsche introduces the “man of renunciation,” whom he compares favorably to the “man of affirmation.” The man of renunciation breaks free of all of the constraints and preexisting conditions that would make a claim on him. The man of affirmation allows them to hold him back. In relinquishing all such attachments, the man of renunciation catapults himself to a higher plane than the “man of affirmation.” And in so doing, he can himself rightfully be called a “man of affirmation” in a deeper and more authentic sense than the desiccated man of affirmation that Nietzsche sets up as his foil.

I wonder if Nietzsche is overlooking the importance of those contingent and partial attachments that rightfully press upon us even in the absence of our consent. I’m not yet familiar enough with Nietzsche to know how he develops these ideas, but it seems to me that it is neither possible nor desirable for human beings to emulate the man of renunciation. We are not disembodied souls or unencumbered selves floating free of all contingency and therefore at liberty to latch on to whatever ends strike our fancy, but embodied, rational animals in particular times and places, embedded in networks of meaning and belonging not of our own making. We are claimed by relationships, places, and patrimonies that are not merely encumbrances to be cast aside, but inheritances that are partially constitutive of our very identities. It seems to me that to live well is to find the most creative and authentic mode of being within the contours of the existence gifted to me by forebears and fate, to carry out the duties that press upon me in the way that only I can, rather than to cover over my true identity in pursuit of some chimerical unencumbered self. I conclude with two questions: Does Nietzsche address my reservations elsewhere in his work? In what ways do Charles Taylor and other “communitarian” thinkers interact with Nietzsche’s ideas?

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