Authenticity and the Good, Expanded

“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.”

 

“He said there couldn’t be any more universal philosophers. The weight of knowledge is too great for one mind to absorb. He saw a time when one man would know only one little fragment, but he would know it well.”

-John Steinbeck, East of Eden

 

In this paper I will engage with issues pertaining to the Nietzschean theme of “the death of God.” I will delineate some of the more notable features of modern life, particularly the concept of “authenticity.” I will discuss the unique opportunities that this emphasis on authenticity presents. I will also address some of the perils of modernity, particularly its susceptibility to subjectivism. I will attempt to show that authenticity is not only compatible with but dependent on an objective good.

In section 125 of “The Gay Science,” Nietzsche tells us of a madman who causes a disturbance in the local market place. “Whither is God?” the man cries. “I will tell you. We have killed him–you and I. All of us are his murderers….Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” The listeners who had at first jeered at the madman are reduced to a stunned silence by his piercing jeremiad. He continues: “This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men…deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard” (Sec. 125).

“The death of God” is a potent metaphor for modernity. The forces that gave rise to the modern world are complex and interlocking–cause and effect blur in a tableau that encompasses Luther’s Theses and laicite, the Critique of Pure Reason and the Wealth of Nations, the sexual revolution and the spirit of 1776. But one cannot fail to acknowledge that the world in which we live, move, and have our being is not the world of the medievals. Modernity is animated by a distinctive vision of human freedom, a stance in the world with implications and reverberations that are still unfolding. As Charles Taylor points out, “Modern freedom was won by our breaking loose from older moral horizons. People used to see themselves as part of a larger order. In some cases, this was a cosmic order, a ‘great chain of Being,’ in which humans figured in their proper place along with angels, heavenly bodies, and our fellow earthly creatures. This hierarchical order in the universe was reflected in the hierarchies of human society. People were often locked into a given place, a role and station that was properly theirs and from which it was almost unthinkable to deviate. Modern freedom came about through the discrediting of such orders” (3).

Prior to modernity, the course that one’s life would take was, to a great extent, dictated by one’s social status, culture, and inherited roles with very little room for flexibility or adaptation. The world was orderly and regimented and, generally speaking, there was no sense that reflection and exploration might be required to find one’s place within it. But a revolution in outlook and attitude has taken place. The characteristic feature of modernity is its emphasis on “authenticity,” the notion that one should be, in some sense, the author of one’s life rather than simply adhering to a pre-fabricated script dictated by the circumstances of one’s birth.  Nietzsche underscores this epochal shift in section 117 of ‘The Gay Science”: “Today one feels responsible only for one’s will and actions, and one finds pride in oneself….But during the longest period of the human past nothing was more terrible than to feel that one stood by oneself….While we experience law and submission as compulsion and loss, it was egoism that was formerly experienced as something painful and as real misery….There is no point on which we have learned to think and feel more differently” (sec. 117).

One might feel a twinge of melancholy at the demise of the ancien regime. There is an enchanting stability to its routines and rhythms, a givenness and gravitas that are not entirely without appeal. As Taylor puts it, “But at the same time as they restricted us, these orders gave meaning to the world and to the activities of social life…The discrediting of these orders has been called the ‘disenchantment’ of the world. With it, things lost some of their magic” (3). The burden of freedom sometimes feels more sisyphean than promethean.  

But if there are costs to living in modernity, there are distinctive prospects and possibilities as well. To be in some sense a self-author choosing one’s ends and aims is terrifying. It is also exhilarating. Modern life is at once more chaotic and more compliant, more permissive and more demanding. Its dynamism and fluidity are intoxicating. We may occasionally yearn for the simplicity of Eden, but we know deep down that we wouldn’t choose to return even if we could.

Nietzsche often contrasts the metaphysical and moral underpinnings of the pre-modern order with the religion of the ancient Greeks. The comparison invariably places the Judeo-Christian order that supplanted paganism in an unfavorable light. As Nietzsche explains in section 139, “People like St. Paul have an evil eye for the passions: all they know of the passions is what is dirty, disfiguring, and heartbreaking; hence their idealistic tendency aims at the annihilation of the passions, and they find perfect purity in the divine. Very differently from St. Paul and the Jews, the Greeks directed their idealistic tendency precisely toward the passions and loved, elevated, gilded, and deified them. Evidently, passion made them feel not only happier but also purer and more divine” (189-190). The multitudinous preoccupations and proclivities within the Greek pantheon confer a stamp of approval on human diversity that, in Nietzsche’s view, the Judeo-Christian tradition, with its unitary Deity and inflexible vision for humanity could never countenance. Fortunately, the death of God liberates us from this moral straitjacket to live more passionately and abundantly.

Nietzsche celebrates this vision of human freedom in section 27 of “The Gay Science,” in which he introduces the “man of renunciation,” whom he compares favorably to the “man of affirmation.” The man of renunciation breaks free 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, for his renunciation of societal restraints constitutes an affirmation of life, freedom, and creativity.

It seems to me that the modern elevation of individualism and autonomy is a genuine achievement of our civilization. The old order really was too restrictive of human freedom, too dismissive of self-actualization. It doesn’t seem to be merely coincidental that the liberation of the individual has coincided with an outpouring of innovation, prosperity, and scientific and medical progress that past ages could scarcely have imagined. The modern skepticism of institutions and authority figures can be corrosive but surely it also has something to do with the gradual uprooting of unjust relationships of dominance embedded in traditional hierarchies and relationships that would not have been questioned in less skeptical ages, from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall (Obama).

We may lament the passing away of comforting certainties and clear-cut obligations, but it has made us less tribal and parochial, more tolerant of human diversity and attuned to the complexities of the cosmos. As Damon Linker puts it in a discussion of traditional religion and modern life, “the most daunting obstacle to getting the nones to treat traditional religion as a viable option is the sense that it simplifies the manifest complexity of the world. Yes, we long for a coherent account of the whole of things. But we don’t want that account to be a fairy tale. We want it to reflect and make sense of the world as it is, not as we childishly wish it to be. The tendency toward oversimplification is a perennial temptation for all forms of human thinking, but it’s especially acute in matters of religion”  (The Week). To the extent that pre-modernity imposed a single, totalizing world picture that didn’t do justice to the variability of the human condition, we should welcome its supersession.

However, we should also be aware of the unique perils of modern life, dangers that many have also detected in Nietzsche’s work. We moderns rightly look with skepticism on accounts of the good that are overly narrow and constricted–consider, for instance, Nietzsche’s derisive references to “morality.” But as a result we are perhaps more vulnerable to what Charles Taylor calls “the slide to subjectivism”–that is, the equation of the good with whatever it is that I happen to value. Subjectivism, far from fulfilling authenticity undercuts its very possibility.   

On subjectivism, all preferences are equally valid. Yet is self-evident that pushpin is not as good as poetry simply because I prefer pushpin to poetry. A life voluntarily spent in a drunken stupor and a life integrated around family relationships, the music of Chopin, and the uplift of the indigent may both be autonomously crafted, but they are not equally valuable. Clearly, some ways of life are better, because more in conformity with human flourishing, than others.

It follows that it is not the case that the object of choice becomes good in virtue of being chosen; rather, it is chosen because we perceive it to be good. So although we should tread carefully when it comes to judging other people’s choices, we should not fall into the error of simply equating genuine self-authorship with sheer self assertion. If that were truly the case, then freedom would be stripped of its dignity and drama. An authenticity reduced to subjectivism is triviality masquerading as nobility.   

To this we one might add that a vision of human freedom as entirely unconditioned, of human beings as unbound by any ties prior to consent seems more debilitating than liberating. Fortunately, it also seems to be empirically false. Even we moderns are claimed by contingent and partial attachments that rightfully press upon us prior to any act of consent on our part. After all, we are not disembodied souls or unencumbered selves floating free of all contingency. In truth, we are embodied, rational animals in particular times and places, embedded in networks of meaning and belonging not of our own making. We experience ourselves as radically situated, 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. To be is to be in relationship to others, and these relationships are not merely instrumental.

The reality of human encumbrance has implications for how the quest for authenticity should be conducted. Elements of the good, the pursuit of which grounds our quest for authenticity by forestalling the slide to subjectivism, will be embedded in the relationships and encumbrances in which we find ourselves. Our antecedent attachments and relationships cannot dictate the precise forms our lives should take–that would be incompatible with authenticity. But they do have an integral role to play in our quest for authenticity. Our self-constitution inevitably takes place against the backdrop of a language, relationships, and culture that are given. This implies an ongoing dialogue between the self and the relationships and environments in which it is embedded–a dialogue whose course cannot be fixed beforehand but in which both participants must be allowed to say their piece.

For example, perhaps Jacqueline inherited from her parents a religion in which they raised her and which they in turn inherited from their own parents. Part of living an authentic life is to take a critical and reflective stance toward the web of beliefs, practices, and traditions into which one is born, and Jacqueline may eventually come to distance herself from her family’s religion. But she should not do so lightly or cavalierly. If she does choose to pursue some other course, she should retain a salutary and respectful awareness of her connection to the religious matrix in which she was raised. She should seek ways to remain in continuity with and to carry on the legacy of her parents and even earlier generations of her ancestors.

As Charles Taylor puts it, “We are expected to develop our own opinions, outlook, stances to things, to a considerable degree through solitary reflection. But this is not how things work with important issues, such as the definition of our identity. We define this always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the identities our significant others want to recognize in us. And even when we outgrow some of the latter–our parents, for instance–and they disappear from our lives, the conversation with them continues within us as long as we live” (33). The upshot is 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 put my own unique spin on the inheritances that constitute the sources of my life.

Our modern consciousness of human diversity, the varieties of religious experience, and the follies of fundamentalism should preclude any disposition on our part to oversimplify the good. As Linker puts it, “There is a whole, and it can be grasped. But it is a complex whole. A pluralistic whole. A differentiated whole shot through with contradiction and paradox” (The Week). An adequate notion of the good has to be reflective of reasonable pluralism. It cannot be infinitely open-ended, but it must be expansive. It won’t be the sort of thing that can be pinned down in a list of commandments or captured in a catechism. Its precise contours will be indeterminate, its elaboration an ongoing process.  

I believe that Nietzsche’s criticisms of herd morality and his references to the divergent experiences associated with different ways of life can be harmonized with the view of the good that I have sketched. Interpreted this way, Nietzsche is not calling for us to simply create our own values. However, as Nietzsche takes great pains to impress upon us, “Those who want to mediate between two resolute thinkers show that they are mediocre; they lack eyes for seeing what is unique” (228). There are a diversity of sometimes mutually exclusive values and each stance we might choose to occupy in the world will inevitably realize some and preclude others.

So modernity is not a moral vacuum. The error of pre-modernity was not that it had a notion of the good but that its notion of the good was too constrictive. In truth, we inhabit a world overflowing with value, teeming with permissible permutations of the good awaiting incarnation in the lives of individual self-authors. It follows that the proper stance toward the death of God is neither despair nor elation, but cautious optimism. We should embrace autonomy and authenticity, while remaining cognizant of the truth that we are not disembodied souls floating free of all contingency and therefore at liberty to latch on to whatever ends strike our fancy. We have the responsibility to use our freedom well.

In conclusion, Nietzsche clearly grasped the immensity and the potential of the changes afoot in our society. Wrestling with Nietzsche is thus imperative for those who must live in the world that he so memorably limned. Yet if we are to navigate modernity we must chart a middle way between a unitary good that would undercut our diversity and individuality and a purely subjective good that would replace moral freedom with moral anarchy. In so doing, we can redeem the promise of modernity and avoid the slide to subjectivism.

 

Works Cited

Linker, Damon. “Why Would a Young Person Today be Religious?” The Week, http://theweek.com/articles/447742/why-young-person-today-religious. Accessed 15 April 2017.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Translated by Walter Kauffman,Vintage, 1974.

Obama, Barack. “Inaugural Address,” 21 January 2013, West Front of the U.S. Capitol, Washington, DC.

Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity. Harvard University Press. 1992.

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On Religion

In this paper I will briefly describe Nietzsche’s critique of religion. I will argue that Nietzsche’s critique is warranted, but that resources to answer it are already present both in the Judeo-Christian tradition and, to an even greater extent, in Mormonism. Nietzsche’s critique should impel us to recover those resources and resonances within our traditions, not to abandon our traditions.

Nietzsche is well-known for his scorching critique of religion, particularly of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Eminently quotable jeremiads against religion abound in his writings. He accuses the Judeo-Christian tradition of being life-denying, of promoting blind faith and mindless acceptance of conformity, of stamping out diversity and pluralism and forcing all of humanity into a stultifying moral straitjacket. Christianity denigrates human embodiment and the passions associated with that embodiment. It defers happiness and hope to an afterlife in a static, disembodied heaven, rather than affirming life and flourishing in the present. And it is obsessed with human depravity and brokenness. As Nietzsche puts it, “Sin, as it is now experienced wherever Christianity holds sway or has held sway, is a Jewish feeling and a Jewish invention….The Christian presupposes a powerful, overpowering being who enjoys revenge. His power is so great that nobody could possibly harm him, except for his honor. Every sin is a slight to his honor, a crimen laesae majestitatis divinae–and no more” (187). Furthermore, “The Christian resolve to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad” (Nietzsche 185).

Interestingly, Nietzsche has favorable words for the religion of the ancient Greeks. Ancient Greek religion avoided some of the errors of the Judeo-Christian tradition. For instance, unlike the Judeo-Christian God, ostensibly the “unmoved mover,” an ineffable being beyond space, time, and flux, the Greek gods were subject to passions and attachments. As Nietzsche explains in section 139, “People like St. Paul have an evil eye for the passions: all they know of the passions is what is dirty, disfiguring, and heartbreaking; hence their idealistic tendency aims at the annihilation of the passions, and they find perfect purity in the divine. Very differently from St. Paul and the Jews, the Greeks directed their idealistic tendency precisely toward the passions and loved, elevated, gilded, and deified them. Evidently, passion made them feel not only happier but also purer and more divine” (189-190).  The multitudinous preoccupations and proclivities within the Greek pantheon confer a stamp of approval on human diversity that Christianity, with its unitary Deity and inflexible vision for humanity could never countenance.

The upshot is that Christianity has inflicted a dessicated, hollow form of life on humanity. The dichotomies of Christianity–temporal and spiritual, human and divine, mind and body, saved and sinner–are to blame. Moving to a different vantage point will bring into focus magnificent new vistas veiled to Christian eyes. Therefore, the death of God is reason for celebration:“Indeed we philosophers and ‘free spirits’ feel, when we hear the news that ‘the old god is dead,’ as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea. Our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an ‘open sea.’–”

Nietzsche’s critique of religion is surely not without merit. His foils are present among the pious at every turn both on the pages of religion history and within the walls of our churches. But is the Christianity Nietzsche has in his crosshairs the only possible interpretation of Christianity? After all, Christians worship a God who did not hesitate to call his material creation good. Biblical man is a material being who nonetheless bears the divine image, the mammalian child of a God who entered the mud and blood of history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Christian hope, properly understood, is not to escape the world but to be co-workers with God in the work of redeeming it, not to put off sinful flesh and gain entry to some disembodied heaven but to rise again in a physical body continuous with one’s present body, yet transformed and perfected. The Christian can be no friend of the comfortable status quo, for she has received the Holy Spirit that like the wind blows wherever it pleases and taken up her cross to follow that foe of unjust principalities and powers, Jesus of Nazareth, in her own inimitable way.

If anything, Mormonism contains theological ideas and inclinations even more amenable to Nietzsche’s thought. Mormonism undercuts some of the more intolerable frameworks of traditional Christian theology and collapses many of its unhelpful dichotomies. Viewed from a certain angle, Joseph Smith was a perfectly Nietzschean prophet, proclaiming that there is no such thing as immaterial matter, that man is that he might have joy, that mortal life is an ascent, not a fall, a hero’s journey in which both the iron rod and the liahona have a part to play. Moreover, that same sociality that exists among us here will exist among us there, only coupled with eternal glory. The Zion to come, the resurrected body to come, the sanctified community to come, the godly activity to come, are already present in us, in our pursuits, and in our relationships with one another, if only in embryo and if only glimpsed through a glass darkly. Most arresting of all, we are under the tutelage of an embodied God, an exalted man, a passible being of parts and passions who weeps over his children and whose mode of existence consists of creative compassion, of eternal becoming, of unceasing increase in light and knowledge–a mode of existence into which he invites us.

It follows that Christianity and, especially, Mormon Christianity, needn’t be the opiate of the masses. On the contrary, at its best it is precisely the red pill we stand in need of, the urim and thummim that gives us eyes to see that the boundaries between heaven and earth, the divine and the human are blurrier than we have been led to believe. We must live in anticipation of the Kingdom, but live as if we were already in it, for in some sense we are. If justice will rush down like waters and there will be no poor among them in that good Kingdom, then there can be no truce between us and the injustice and poverty present in our world. And if the divine life is one of unending experience, growth, and creation, then we ought to prize the experiences, opportunities, and creative activities that present themselves to us in the here and now. Ironically, it may be that recognizing the force of Nietzsche’s critique should push us to be more religious rather than less, to return to the scriptures with new eyes rather than consign them to the flames, to renew our commitments to our religious communities rather than remove ourselves from them.

“The Gay Science” Continued

As usual, this week’s readings in “The Gay Science” provided an embarrassment of riches. One of the sections that stood out to me was section 228, entitled “Against mediators.” It seems to me that in this section Nietzsche is criticizing those who would dissolve differences and collapse distinctions in pursuit of a shared essence that isn’t really there–or perhaps that is in some sense there but is not the whole story. As Nietzsche puts it, “Those who want to mediate between two resolute thinkers show that they are mediocre; they lack eyes for seeing what is unique.” Though there is no doubt a time and place for this work of mediation, if we see things only through a universalizing monistic lens then we will miss the pluralism and particularity that give the world its texture. This is an important insight, and it connects in interesting ways to recurring themes in Nietzsche’s work–for instance, the vantage points and blind spots inherent in the paradigms by which we make sense of experience and the defects of a universalizing tendency that would have us abstract away from the business of life right here and now in all of its concreteness and uniqueness.

Nietzsche seems to have both of these themes in mind in section 233, “The most dangerous point of view,” in which he declares that “What I do or do not do now is as important for everything that is yet to come as is the greatest event of the past.” As the title of the section makes clear, one’s stance in the world, one’s orientation to existence, determines to a great extent what one sees and therefore how one acts. And Nietzsche’s preoccupation with purifying the present, with sanctifying the mundane, is on display here again. Each moment is infused with the sacred, imbued with the heroic. Every act is a sacrament. Meaning bubbles up from the business of living rather than descending from on high.

Reflections on the Death of God

In Section 125 of “The Gay Science,” Nietzsche introduces the haunting, enigmatic motif of the death of the God. In this paper I will briefly summarize this section and put it into conversation with some of the passages that precede it. I will identify what I take to be Nietzsche’s message. I will consider the merits of that message and what the proper response to it might be.

As he often does, in Section 125 Nietzsche makes use of an evocative short narrative as a vehicle for his observations. He tells us of a madman who causes a disturbance in the local market place. “Whither is God?” the man cries. “I will tell you. We have killed him–you and I. All of us are his murderers….Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” The listeners who had at first jeered at the madman are reduced to a stunned silence by his piercing jeremiad. He continues: “This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men…deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard.”

If we are to fully grasp what Nietzsche is trying to convey here, we must read 125 in continuity with prior sections. I find section 117 particularly relevant. Here Nietzsche draws attention to a peculiar feature of our present age, a feature so pervasive that we often fail to see just how radical it is: “Today one feels responsible only for one’s will and actions, and one finds pride in oneself….But during the longest period of the human past nothing was more terrible than to feel that one stood by oneself….While we experience law and submission as compulsion and loss, it was egoism that was formerly experienced as something painful and as real misery….There is no point on which we have learned to think and feel more differently.”

As Nietzsche points out, the valorization of autonomy is a recent development. The world in which we live, move, and have our being is not the world of the ancients and medievals. Theirs was a teleological universe of antecedent ends given by nature, tribe, or Deity. In contrast, ours is a universe of unencumbered selves, self-legislators pursuing their own ends in their own ways. The ethic of community has given way to the ethic of contract, the kingdom of heaven to the kingdom of ends. We have stoned the prophets, committed the scriptures to the flames as sophistry and illusion. Our creed proceeds not from the finger of God but from the pen of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”  

The death of God and the birth of authenticity are but two sides of the same coin. And tracing their reverberations is the work of generations. That project is inaugurated in section 108 with confidence and panache–”God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.–And we–we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.” But by 125, awareness dawns that the implications of this epochal event are as onerous as they are invigorating.

I agree with Nietzsche’s diagnosis of our predicament, but since I’m not yet familiar enough with Nietzsche to assess his prescription, I will instead try to give the beginnings of my own. It seems to me that the proper stance toward the death of God is neither despair nor elation, but cautious optimism. Whether His death is a gain, a loss, or something in between, it behooves us to see clearly the opportunities it affords us and the real costs it extracts from us if we are to grasp what is at stake in our present age. We should embrace autonomy and authenticity as genuine goods, while also recognizing that we are not disembodied souls floating free of all contingency and therefore at liberty to latch on to whatever ends strike our fancy. It may be 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. For better or worse, we are all gods now, called to shape the lump of unorganized matter allotted to us into something that we can call good.

More Thoughts on “The Gay Science”

In section 83 Nietzsche takes up the theme of “translations,” particularly translations of ancient texts. Intriguingly, he believes that the translator sometimes has more in common with the poet than the historian. The translator is more concerned with making the document she translates intelligible in the categories and conventions of her culture than with reproducing an isomorphic, historically precise rendering of that document. As Nietzsche puts it, “They seem to ask us: ‘Should we not make new for ourselves what is old and find ourselves in it? Should we not have the right to breathe our own soul into this dead body?’” He points to French translations of documents from Roman antiquity and Roman translations of documents from Greek antiquity as examples.

It is not entirely clear to me whether Nietzsche looks upon this approach to translation favorably or unfavorably, but either way, I found his musings provocative. To what extent when one translates an ancient text–particularly a sacred text–should one seek to accurately capture the historical forms in which the text’s message is couched? To what extent should one simply try to distill the essence of the text, its message or core, in a way intelligible to a reader of a very different culture and set of assumptions than the original author? This conundrum reminds me of Doctrine and Covenants 1:24, which explains that revelation is given “unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” Is accurate history integral to a sacred text that presents itself to us as an ancient record, or is it a decidedly secondary consideration? Is translation concerned as much with what the ancient author would say to us if he or she were present as with what he or she in fact said at some point in the distant past, shrouded in the mists of time? Does the translator have more in common with the poet or the seer than the scholar?

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?