I was sitting in a Hamburg bookstore, hunched over one of the most famous books ever written, staring down at the first paragraph. And I was dumbfounded.
The German words reached out to me, trying to be understood:
Kritisieren, verurteilen und klagen Sie nicht.
I knew what the words meant. I could understand the German. But the significance of reading them right then, at that moment in my life, hadn’t quite sunk in.
No next of kin
An hour earlier I’d been in the cellar of my Reeperbahn apartment building, practicing my singing. It was summer 2002 and I was a singer in a band — a reggae, rap and rock band. But the problem was I couldn’t really sing very well. I couldn’t hit all the notes. I could rap well. But the melodies were tough for me.
So I spent a lot of time practicing in the cellar. I’d turn out the lights, turn on some reggae, and just sing — the same song, over and over.
The cool thing about the cellar was I could sing as loud, long, and off-key as I wanted. No one would ever hear me because no one went down there. It was just me, the American from 1A. Yes, it was cramped and cold, with low ceilings (5 inches over my head) and dust on every surface. But it was the perfect place to practice.
So there I was in the cellar, locked in my storage room, crooning into the darkness, when I heard a noise outside. I switched off my music and stuck my head out into the hallway. Light was coming from the storage room next door.
When I entered the room, I found my landlord packing up boxes. He told me that the tenant there had died and that he had no next of kin — no one to pick up his stuff. Everything would have to go. I was free to take anything.
The first thing I noticed was a pile of books. I reached out and grabbed the one on top and stared at the title. It was in Hebrew.
“Der war Jude,” said the landlord. The guy was a Jew.
I felt both curiosity and a strange sadness. This man had died alone, no one to pick up his stuff. No one to pass it all on to. No one to pass on his memory.
Then I thought about what had happened the night before, and I felt angry.
The night before, my bass player, Andrew, and I were at a friend’s place drinking beers when we’d gotten some bad news. It was an email from a prospective band manager. He was out. My latest email had offended him and he didn’t want to work with us anymore. He wished us well but he wouldn’t manage our band.
Andrew wasn’t happy. He didn’t understand why I’d written such a nasty email. It was unnecessary, he said, and counter-productive. Why did I need to use such harsh language? Why be so disrespectful? The guy was just trying to help us.
This set me off. I thought it was bullshit. The guy had talked and talked and in the end done nothing. He was full of crap, and I told him that in the email. So why was Andrew so upset? I was just telling the guy the truth.
Andrew gave me a disapproving look, which made me even more angry. I had to get out of there. I took off and rode my bike back home to the Reeperbahn.
On the ride home, I seethed inside. Our band was going nowhere, I thought. Half the members were in another city, 6 hours away. Andrew and I (as a duo) only had a few gigs a month. Our latest recording sucked (mainly because of my singing). And we couldn’t even get a decent manager. For fuck’s sake, Germany was his country. Hamburg was his city. Why couldn’t he make something happen for us? Why couldn’t he get things moving?
And why was he spending all this time practicing jazz? We didn’t even play jazz! Maybe if he spent less time practicing jazz and more time getting gigs, we’d be in a better spot.
When I got to the door of my apartment building I was livid. I took out my phone and texted Andrew.
I’m leaving this city. Fuck Hamburg. You can stay here and play your shit jazz.
He wrote back almost immediately.
That was it? “Good luck”. That was all he had to say? I was even more angry than before. I started to type a reply, and then stopped.
“Fuck it, I’m going to bed.”
The self-help guy
I thought about Andrew’s text as I stared down at the Hebrew letters on the tattered book in the dead man’s cellar. I turned the book over in my hands and looked at its spine. It was creased and broken and had the same Hebrew words as on the cover.
I cracked it open and thumbed back to the copyright page, where I saw English for the first time — the only English in the book:
How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie
The name looked familiar. I’d definitely heard of Dale Carnegie. I was pretty sure I’d gone to one of his motivational courses back in the day, with my Mom. He was some type of self-help guy for salespeople, right? But I’d never read his books.
“I’ll take this one,” I told the landlord, holding the book up in my hand. When I turned to leave, I noticed two small souvenir plates sitting on an old desk. “Mount Zion” was written across them, with paintings of the Temple Mount and Moses.
“And these,” I said, grabbing the plates.
When I got back up to my apartment, I thumbed through the Dale Carnegie book, trying to decipher the Hebrew. I noticed the book started with a series of short, numbered paragraphs. I wondered what they meant. Was my dead neighbor trying to tell me something?
I threw the book in my backpack and headed downstairs to the street. Soon I was racing along the Reeperbahn toward city center and a bookstore on Spitaler Strasse.
Moment of panic
The words sank in slowly.
Kritisieren, verurteilen und klagen Sie nicht.
I had found a German copy of the Jew’s book in the bookstore, and this was the first paragraph — the first item in the numbered list I’d seen in Hebrew. I looked down at the sentence and processed the translation in my head.
Don’t criticize, complain or condemn.
So this was it. This was what the Jew was trying to tell me. This was his advice from the grave — his message to me, his ad hoc next of kin.
And it made sense. These 3 things — criticizing, complaining and condemning — these were things I did all the time. I criticized people, often to their faces. I complained about circumstances, whenever they didn’t go my way. And I condemned people and situations and all the things that didn’t fall in line with how I thought things should be.
In fact, criticizing, complaining and condemning had become my standard way of dealing with the world over the last 3 to 4 years. It had become almost a default behavior for me, an automatic response.
And it needed to stop.
It needed to stop because it was destroying all the relationships in my life. That band manager — the guy who had quit us via email the night before, the guy Andrew and I were arguing about when I took off — that guy was just the latest in a long line of people whom I had offended, insulted, betrayed, or forsaken. This line of people reached back through college friends and girlfriends and mentors and family members and even my parents and brothers. My relationships with these people lay like rubble strewn across the years. I had broken them all, one by one, with my criticism, complaints and condemnation.
I felt a knot in my stomach, and then a chill shot up through my torso and into my throat. I felt panic, and then dread — and then sadness and profound regret.
I could see now what I’d done the night before. It seemed so obvious. I had begun the process of destroying yet another key relationship in my life: my friendship with Andrew. The email from the band manager, our argument about it, my text message — I was doing it again! I was setting in motion the destruction, just like I’d done so many times before. I was wrecking it. Everything I’d spent the last 2 years building up — I was wrecking it all.
Andrew had been everything to me during those 2 years. He was the one who had discovered me on the street, rapping alone to a CD of beats. He had taken me under his wing and taught me everything he could about music. He’d taken me into the studio and given me my first opportunity to record and feel like a real musician. He had given me a roof over my head and a couch to sleep on when I had nowhere else to stay. He’d even refused to take money from our donations when we played on the street.
“I don’t need it,” he’d say. “You take it.”
Most important of all, he had believed in me as an artist, singer and performer. He had galvanized my confidence in my art. He was a mentor, an advocate, a teacher, even a father figure to me. I loved him like a brother. I admired him, both as a man and musician.
And now, that previous night, I’d chosen to abandon him — I’d chosen to betray him, to criticize and condemn him. And for what? Because he was practicing jazz? Because he was trying to become a better musician? Because he was trying to teach me how to treat people with respect? Because he was trying to do things that would help the future of our band?
I felt sick to my stomach. The tension in my temples pressed into my eyes and pushed out tears. How had I let this happen? How had I let myself behave like this? How had I become this kind of person?
Then something strange happened. I can’t explain it exactly, but it was something I’d never experienced before — a kind of transformation of the world inside me, and also all around me. It was like a burden was being lifted, and when it was done, I was sitting there in a new phase of my life — a new act in the play.
The Jew had shown me the way, and I had walked through the door.
I went to Andrew’s apartment later that afternoon and apologized. I told him about the cellar and the Jew, about the trip to the bookstore and my moment of panic. He was resistant at first, but he became more empathetic as I spoke. I think he could sense how much I’d been affected by it all.
But I could also see that he was still hurt by what I’d done. It wasn’t something he could just forget. I had broken something between us, maybe irreparably.
But he forgave me, and we spent the next 3 years playing music together, along with our other band members, David and Jochen.
Today, 12 years later, I’m working my way through new phases in my life — currently as a husband and father, and as a CEO of startup. And honestly, I still struggle to follow Dale Carnegie’s advice. I still criticize too much, complain too often, and condemn too easily. But I think about his advice daily, if not hourly. And I remember the Jew, the man who had died alone, no one to pass on his memory. And I pass on his memory, because he taught me how to not die alone.
We were once apes with big lips, mouths, teeth and guts. Then we learned how to cook our food. Now we’re apes with small lips, mouths, teeth and guts… and big brains. Coincidence? Dick thinks not.
According to him, we learned how to cook by first learning how to control fire. This allowed us to sleep on the ground at night (instead of in trees) and turned us from Homo habilus (tree-climbing, raw-food-eating dimwits) into Homo erectus (ground-dwelling, cooked-food-eating troglodytes).
Controlling fire and cooking also engendered the division of labor between the sexes and accelerated our penchant for complex cooperation. Once we learned to cook our food, men could spend their days hunting and not have to worry about lost chewing time (raw-food-eating modern apes — chimps and gorillas — have to spend most their days chewing and thus can’t hunt much– and because every ape must chew for himself, no division of labor is possible). With cooking, women didn’t have to worry about lost chewing time either and could thus spend their days gathering and cooking.
In the end, cooking gave us several more free hours per day to do other things, which led us to socialize more, think more and, with the help of easily digestable, energy-abundant cooked food, grow our brains.
This is a great book. I recommend it to all apes who eat cooked food.
This book is out of print, so you can only find it in libraries. If you can get your hands on it, it’s a great read. Ehrlich defines and describes the most fundamental cogs in nature’s machinery, and the relationships between those cogs. The final chapter on ecosystems is the creme of the book, and the creme of that creme is his discussion of how food chains are ruled by entropy (the 2nd law of thermodynamics).
Why is the total mass of top level predators a mere fraction of the total mass of lower level vegetation? Because as energy moves up the food chain, at each stop on the “energy escalator,” a portion of the available energy is (in practical terms) lost. Ehrlich writes:
Organisms at each [food chain] level do work in the course of maintaining their structure and metabolism, growing, and reproducing. The energy so used [at that level] is thus subject to the inexorable tax of the second law, and the portion taxed away is not available to the next trophic level. The significance of the second law here is that, in any ecosystem, the amount of energy available to each successive trophic level declines. Thus more energy is available to support plants than herbivores, more to support herbivores than carnivores, and so on.
In other words, were it not for entropy, our planet would have a total mass of lions and tigers equal to its total mass of trees and grasses. That would be a lot of cats. We don’t have them because, as Ehrlich makes clear, only 10% of the energy that flows into one level of a food chain is available to the next level. So if the grass on an African plain manages to capture 1000 calories of energy from the sun, only 100 of those calories will be available to support the zebras and wildebeest, and only 10 of the those 100 will be available to support the lions.
The corollary to this fact is that we humans would have far more calories available for chewing and swallowing if we decided to only chew and swallow plants. The further up the food chain we dine, the less food is available to us, all other things being equal. So…. vegetarians of the world unite! (I’m actually not one… and never will be.)
My favorite part of the book is Ehrlich’s discussion of how ecosystems become disturbed, and how seemingly tiny organisms can cause extreme changes in landscapes. For example, in the 1880s, the viral disease “rinderpest” was accidentally introduced into Africa’s Serengeti region by cattle imported from Russia. The pest quickly decimated the cattle of the local Masai and then began knocking off herds of native buffalo, wildebeest and giraffe. With less “natural” food, the lions of the region began dining on local humans instead (these were the famed Tsavo man-eaters made famous in the Val Kilmer/Michael Douglas flick “The Ghost and the Darkness”). Not wanting to end their lives as lion fodder, local farmers abandoned their fields, which soon overgrew with brush and woodland. It wasn’t until 50 years later, in the 1930s, that these woodlands were regained as plains and farmland again.
So in roughly a decade, a tiny virus, invisible to the naked eye, transformed a vast swathe of African landscape from a herbivore-filled plain and farmland into a brushy woodland forest replete with man-eating beasts. Amazing.
When someone leads us along such a path, we experience the way briefly and then forget it quickly. When we lead ourselves along it, we learn the way personally and remember it more distinctly. But if we don’t continually walk the path, treading its rut deeper and solidifying the connections between its landmarks, hollows and bends, we eventually lose the way, and are only able to regain it through pure luck– or a machete.
For recession, combine cheap money and desirable assets in free market economy. Bring to a boil. Stir occasionally to prevent foresight. Once tender, reveal reality and then smother with fear. For depression, add politicians.
FOB Salerno, Afghanistan (July, 2008)
Here in the borderlands, here in the spaces between rock and sky, here on my island of liberalism — my lonely cay assailed by the fanaticism of bearded bigots — here I teach American soldiers how to write. Every day at the beginning of Writing 101 class, I pose a question to which the students must respond with impromptu paragraphs. One of my favorite questions to ask is: “What is the worst physical pain you’ve ever felt?”
The students have to write a story in response. They have to narrate the events leading up to their most painful moment and then describe the pain precisely enough to make the reader yelp. As you can imagine, I get a lot of good stories. I’ve heard everything from stubbed toes to racked nuts to childbirths to busted bones in high school football games. I also get a lot of war stories. Iraq comes up a lot. On Monday I heard a harrowing tale that’s sure to become classic.
Zane, the storyteller, is an NCO on his fifth deployment to the Middle East since 9/11. He’s a survivor. He has sneaked his way in and out of Iraq three times now. His response when I first asked him the pain question was that he couldn’t pick just one incident. He had too many.
“I’m from southern Alabama,” he said, as if that explained everything.
Back home, Zane lives on an island off the coast of Alabama where the deer and the moccasins play. He spends his free time running barefoot through snake-filled creeks and drowning bullsharks.
“You just throw a loop around the shark’s tail” he said. “Then drag it behind the boat till it’s dead. Water goes up gills and drowns it.”
When he’s not slaying sea monsters, Zane collects poisonous serpents. He told the class about an incident a few years back when he and his brother came across a five-foot water moccasin slithering through the brush. Without thinking, Zane swiped up the tail of the creature, expecting his brother to distract it from the front. But his brother was behind him. The snake recoiled toward Zane like a giant slinky and sunk two dripping fangs into his bare foot.
“It was like a dream,” he said. “There I was, holding this snake’s tail with two fists, yanking on it with all my might, and the damn thing wouldn’t let go of my foot…”
It sounded like something out of a Greek myth.
“But that didn’t hurt as bad as getting tangled in a swarm of jellyfish tentacles!” he added.
By the time Zane got around to reading his Iraq story, he had the whole class teetering on seat-edge. The story would have to be pretty good to outdo his tales of snake-wrestling and jellyfish-tangling. Zane didn’t disappoint.
One evening about halfway through his second tour in Iraq— his second “Babylonian captivity,” as he put it— Zane and his soldiers decided a celebration was in order. They’d lasted six months in the red zone and were halfway home. In their time outside the wire, they’d established contacts with all the important locals in the nearby communities— the ones who could supply them with life’s amenities, like imported beer. That night they aimed to make use of these contacts.
Zane made the arrangements. Before night patrol he filled a huge cooler with ice, crammed it into the back of the Humvee, and he and his soldiers set off into the dusty deathscape. The evening went by smoothly— as smoothly as evenings go when every inch of road can kill. Around sunset, the gunner let out a short spray of fire, but nothing came of it. Darkness approached.
With the beige air fading to gray, Zane checked his watch and saw that everything was on schedule. The beer-suppliers would meet them on route so there’d be no need to go out of the way. They were traveling east into the darkness, headlights on, rumbling along a dirt road next to a canal when… BOOM!!
The explosion lifted up the Humvee’s passenger side where Zane sat and sent it rolling over the driver’s side toward the canal. As the vehicle rolled, shrapnel shot up through the floor pan and zinged between the feet of the passengers. Zane felt a crunch as the Humvee landed on its roof and began scraping down the embankment toward the canal. Then he blacked out.
He was awoken by a chill on the back of his neck. Water! Ice cold water! It soaked his hair and numbed his neck. By the time he figured out where he was and what had happened, the water was rushing into his ears. His body was hanging upside down from his seatbelt, his head and neck pressed into the roof of the Humvee. Worse, the cabin seemed to be filling with water. The canal! he thought. They had slid into the canal!
Ever since he was a kid, Zane had been afraid of drowning. “Being buried alive and drowning,” he said, “those were my two biggest fears.”
Drowning seemed imminent inside the rolled Humvee. Frigid canal water seemed to be leaking in through the cracks in the doors and slowly filling the cabin. When the men inside realized they were about to die, they began screaming in panic and terror. They tugged at their seat belts and pushed up on their seats from below. They punched at the doors and elbowed the windows. It was no use. They were trapped.
The gunner was the only passenger who hadn’t been trapped in the rollover. Zane ordered him to get out. As the young man pried himself from under his seat and crawled through the crushed cabin, Zane made a promise to himself: when the time came, he’d take a deep breath of water and end it instantly. He wouldn’t suffer, he told himself. He’d end it all in one deep, liquid breath.
The frigid water crawled up his temples and toward his eyes, slowly, inexorably. It reached the corners of his eyes and then a voice called from outside. It was the soldier who’d escaped:
“It’s the cooler!” he said. “It’s the fucking cooler!”
The cooler? Zane thought. What cooler? Then it donned on him. Yes! The cooler! It was the cooler! The freezing water soaking his hair and creeping up his face was the melted ice from the cooler in the trunk. It had spilt when the Humvee flipped. He wasn’t going to drown! It was the cooler!
The students laughed as Zane finished reading. It was a good story. But there was one problem: I hadn’t asked for stories about near-death experiences. I wanted stories about pain. I wanted to know the worst physical pain Zane had felt.
“What about the pain?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” he said, remembering the question. “Well, the shrapnel from the IED blew through my foot and carved a big ole’ groove up my leg bone. I was bleeding all over. But I didn’t even notice. I was giddy. I was happy I wasn’t gonna drown!”
“But if you didn’t even notice,” I asked, “then how was it the worst pain you ever felt?”
“Well sir, I noticed pretty quick after I saw the blood. The pain set in heavy after that. It hurt like hell. And they still had to pry me from the vehicle!”
“Fair enough,” I said.
It was quite a tale. The class was impressed. I thanked him for sharing it and just as I was about to move on to the next soldier, another student chimed in with something we’d forgotten, something that was apparently on the mind of every sober soldier in the classroom.
“What about the beer?”
FOB Salerno, Afghanistan (June, 2008)
I went out walking the FOB again last night. For a couple weeks now, I’ve been carving a rut in the gravel road that circles the perimeter of our base. I tread the path after dark, sharing the moonlight with the jackals and toads. They howl, they hop, and I wander among them, lost in my thoughts. I imagine the bearded warriors lurking in distant hills, and then I wait for their hell to fall from the sky. Last night, a different kind of hell fell— hell in the form of ice— hell in the form of hail.
I come from the mountains: the Rockies— so I’ve seen many a blizzard and witnessed snow banks so high they turn streets into hallways. But until last night, I’d never seen hailstones the size of golf balls.
Some say the hailstones were meteorological mortars sent by Allah to shatter the pride and windshields of the infidels. If that’s the case, then Allah certainly has better aim than the Taliban. He took out a whole base (communications, power, and internet) with a single 10-minute cloudburst. The beard-growers are lucky if they cause a couple craters in a nearby dirt field. That’s the beauty of omnipotence, I guess. When you’re almighty, you have complete control over hail.
Anyway, back to my walk. I’m walking. Suddenly a blast of thunder shatters the clouds and ice cubes start pouring from the sky. I run for cover. I get pelted. It hurts. I jump into the nearest bunker. Inside sits a lonely soldier, flashlight in hand. I recognize him immediately— it’s Gabriel, a student of mine. I say hi and comment on the weather, and then tell him he’s found the perfect spot to hide out.
“Thanks,” he says.
Gabe is always quick to thank people. He has impeccable southern manners and can’t wait to get back to his plump new wife in Kentucky. After exchanging hellos, we sat there silent for a while and listened to the clamor outside. I reached out of the bunker and grabbed one of the ping-pong-ball hailstones, holding it up between us. “Look at the size of that!” I said, shouting over the storm.
“That’s big,” Gabe shouted back.
We got to talking and Gabe told me he’d rather receive hailstones from the sky than enemy rockets. I agreed, but then added that the hailstones were probably more effective at disrupting base operations.
“Probably,” Gabe said. “But it don’t matter anyway, right? We can’t control it.” He half-winked at me. He was obviously referring to Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher we’d just read in our philosophy class. “We might as well just accept it, right?”
Excellent, I thought. Gabe was thinking like a Stoic.
“That Epictetus guy had so much discipline,” Gabe said, “I was impressed. In my opinion that’s the most important characteristic of a person.”
“Discipline?” I asked.
“Yeah, self-discipline,” he said. “It’s what gets people to work on time. It’s what makes them stay there. It’s the reason we’re not all alcoholics.”
A couple hailstones bounced into the bunker and I kicked them back out into the storm. Then I asked Gabe if he thought Epictetus’s philosophy could help soldiers like himself.
“Personally, I like how he says not to blame people,” Gabe said, “and how it’s not their fault. It’s just how you feel. Like I was on guard duty yesterday and I gave this Afghan kid a buck to go buy me some cigarettes. Once he got it, he ran off and gave me the bird. Some guys in my unit gave me shit and told me I should have shot the kid. But I didn’t blame him. I said I figured it was just a dollar and I could get another one.”
“Yeah, and you woulda got court marshaled and thrown into prison,” I added.
“That too,” he said.
The storm raged on and the hail slowly turned to rain. The puddles inside the bunker grew deeper and it wasn’t long before Gabe and I found ourselves boot-deep in frigid water. A layer of ice cubes floated on the surface, mixing with the debris and dreck.
“I like how Epictetus says no one can force you to do something if you’re not worried about it… if you can see the bigger picture, I mean.”
He paused for a moment to reflect, and then said, “It’s like in the army. If you think about it, my NCO really has no control over me as long as I just do what I’m told.”
I’d never thought of it that way.
“See,” he added “a soldier’s life, it ain’t really up to the soldier at all. It’s like a card in a deck. It’s nothing special. Alls we can do is either obey orders or not obey. If we obey, we’re pretty much free, and then we can do what we want.”
Just then, Gabe’s insight was interrupted by a flashlight shining into the bunker. A man in civilian clothes rushed in, drenched from head to toe. He cursed the weather and wiped his face without acknowledging us.
“Well lookie here!” Gabe bellowed, “look what the cat dragged in!”
The man let out a flurry of expletives and didn’t look at either of us. Gabe’s eyes turned back to me and we grinned.
“If this goddamn base had some goddamn lights,” said the man, shivering and upset, “then these (expletive) bunkers would be a lot easier to find!”
“Yeah well, we can’t turn on the lights at night on account of the rockets coming in,” explained Gabe.
“I KNOW!” snapped the man, wiping his glasses on his soaked shirt. “And it’s ridiculous. Those (expletive) rockets never come close to this base”
“Yes sir. That’s on account of the lights being off,” Gabe replied innocently. “You see, they can’t see us when the lights are off.”
“Ahhhh,” grumbled the man, cursing under his breath. He dismissed us with a wave of his hand and was gone again, back into the storm.
“Must have been in a hurry, that one,” Gabe said.
He stood up from his haunches and watched as the man’s flashlight faded into the darkness.
“He needs to read him some Epictetus.”
FOB Salerno, Afghanistan (April, 2008)
FOB life always gets more exciting once the light thickens.
Darkness brings the crickets and the rockets and the percussion of outgoing artillery. Pakistan-bound rounds rumble the ground and seek their turban’d targets in distant hills.
“We owe them violence,” the guns seem to say.
“They’ve loaned us death and we must re-pay.”
“Two IEDs, five KIAs, four legs severed, liters of blood lost: this week’s compensation. So we shoot back. We light up the night with murder and rain brutality down. We are politics by other means — lunatic scenes our specialty. You prick us and we will bleed, then we will aim, then we will force-feed you flames.”
I am no trigger puller myself. I am my brother’s keeper’s teacher. In the sentences of service between periods of pounding, I spread the word.
This week in “Intro to Shakespeare” it was Macbeth who carved his passage into our understanding. A bloody play for a bloody week. Till this week, I’d never thought to find out my blood type. But then sirens sounded during “Intro to Writing” and the blood drive for O+ was on. A couple students leapt from their desks and rushed their blood-filled bodies to the bank.
The next day I got tested: O+. Now I know.
I teach humanities to humans in a concrete building. That building just happens to sit next to a gravel run-way. That run-way just happens to supply the 101st Airborne in their fight against the Taliban — a fight that just happens to be happening tonight.
Outside my concrete classroom, across a pebbled yard some twenty feet away sits my own personal bunker. When the gods are gambling and rolling dice at night, I hide in my bunker and hope for the best. I hope that in the Kush foothills ten miles distant, a hardy mujahadeen aims his rusty mortar with too much care, giving his weapon one nudge too many.
One less caress by his dusty thumb and I’m on target. Then the bunkers and the blood banks and the billion-to-one odds are made redundant by physical laws, and my only hope becomes a microbreeze swirling in the sky.
But anticipating such misfortune only suits me in spurts. Most of the time I spend touching new thoughts into my keyboard and ignoring the helicopters and gunfire outside. It’s amazing the sense of security 18″ concrete walls give a man.
Several times a night, I forget that whole “grand struggle between good and evil” thing and instead disappear into the mundaneness of probability equations and skeptical philosophies. I picture the woman I love and, thanks to Skype and satellite internet, I talk to her and lose myself in her voice. By 3am I’m ready to bathe my sore labors in sleep: that “balm of hurt minds, chief nourisher in life’s feast.”
So I exit into night and traverse the starlit gravel between class and bedroom.
The lack of artificial light at night (for security reasons) allows the cream of the Milky Way to spill across the sky and split the heavens in two. I pause to behold the twinkling, and then continue toward my good night’s rest.
On one such dark commute last week, I had my first “incoming” experience. As mentioned above, our big “freedom” guns make regular targets of Pakistani crags, where medieval bearded men hide in cracks. These outgoing artillery rounds make a wholly different noise than the incoming rockets. The outgoing rounds let out a singular boom while the incoming ones preface their boom with a whistle. I hadn’t heard any whistles yet, only booms.
Picture it: a starry night, a crescent moon, random bird chirps, the sound of my footsteps. Then…..
It was an orgiastic moment — like the moment you step off a cliff to jump into water. You pass a distinct point-of-no-return and must endure what comes next, come what may. A soldier had told me earlier that night that if you actually hear the whistle, “you’re probably fucked.” Hearing it means the rocket’s about to greet you with all its percussive force.
With this in mind, I heard the whistle and stopped. Then…..
( ( ( ( ( CRACK!!! ) ) ) ) )
A massive explosion!!
I flinched. Then paused. Then broke into a full sprint for my concrete bedroom. Fifteen seconds later the base-wide intercom was blaring sirens and:
THIS IS NOT A DRILL…. THIS IS NOT A DRILL….. ALL PERSONNEL TO BUNKERS…. ALL PERSONNEL TO BUNKERS…
It was my first real experience with Talibani rockets, and it just happened to occur during my nightly commute.
The next day I heard tales of twenty-foot craters and just-missed buildings. I was happy to have finally learned the difference between artillery and rocket sounds. The rocket’s “CRACK!” was completely different from the artillery’s “BOOM!” — and the sound of the whistle was chilling to the core.
It was different from what you hear in the movies — deeper, slower, off-key — like a wheezing death knell.
Imagine two brothers born to compete, the elder dominating the younger. The elder brother is arrogant and manipulative, but also sincere and well-intentioned. When people ask him questions about the world, he answers quickly and often flippantly, as if he knows all. When he doesn’t know, he answers anyway, gleaning his answers from within. He never thinks to look into the world for his answers, because he’s certain he already knows everything. His younger brother agrees and admires him, repeating his answers when people ask him the same questions.
One day late in life, the younger brother decides on a whim to compare his wise old brother’s answers about the world to the world. He quickly notices discrepancies and points them out. The elder is horrified by his young brother’s disrespect and orders him to apologize and forgo any further comparisons. But the younger continues his comparisons and in short time proves most of his elder brother’s claims about the world to be grotesque, deleterious superstitions. In the face of overwhelming evidence, the elder can do nothing but retreat from his prior claims and assert that their truthfulness is insignificant when compared to the “feeling” he has in believing them. The younger brother can make no real world comparison to his elder brother’s “feeling,” and thus the fraternal competition ends, the elder left grinning in self-righteous impotence while the younger busies himself with the salvation of mankind.
For Bertrand Russell the elder brother is religion and the younger science. His book about the two makes for a great read and a devastating critique of religion. For Russell, religious creeds are little more than residue of a former age’s prejudices clung to by fearmongers and fools. Cloaking themselves in “goodness” and “righteousness,” the followers of these creeds invariably enact the most depraved barbarities upon their fellow man, and never come close to conferring upon humanity the kinds of benefits science offers.
Russell’s book has teeth. He sets forth his arguments with immaculate reasoning, plentiful examples, and centuries of history conveyed in lucid and witty prose. If you’re like me, you’ll be fascinated to learn, for example, that Darwin (the “apostle of dirt-worship,” in Carlyle’s words) was very much standing on the shoulders of geologists when he transgressed orthodoxy and declared evolution.
It was geologists of the 18th century who first proffered a theory of development in nature, speculating that mountains, seabeds, and coastlines actually change with time, and that the changes they’ve endured over millennia can be attributed to causes observable now. This was a revolutionary idea. Orthodoxy had hitherto claimed that the world and everything in it had, Venus-like, sprung to life in full form and, barring a few miracles, not changed since. Thus when French geologist Buffon claimed in 1749 that the hills one sees may not have always been there, the pathway to Darwin was sure as set.
The two most interesting chapters in Russell’s book are those on Determinism and Cosmic Purpose. In the former Russell has the audacity (and wisdom) to disavow both determinism and free will. He does so by relegating both theories to the dustbin of “absolute metaphysical theories”—theories that remain beyond what’s provable in the real world. For Russell, claiming that our lives are completely determined or that they are freely willed is something akin to claiming that life is just a dream— a point that can neither be proved nor disproved and is, in the end, moot.
Referring to the “modern doctrine of atomic caprice” (quantum physics), Russell maintains that even if a law were discovered that could determine with certainty the behavior of atoms, their subatomic parts, and everything composed of atoms and subatomic parts (in a word, everything) — something that still hasn’t happened as of 2008, by the way — that discovery would add no consequence to the claim that our lives are determined. On the other hand, Russell urges us to reject “uncaused volitions” (truly “freely” willed choices) as impossible occurrences, and to avoid lamenting this fact or feeling any less potent because of it. Power, Russell rightly claims, “consists in being able to have intended effects,” and that ability is neither increased nor diminished by discovering what causes our intentions.
Regarding the purpose of our cosmos, Russell rejects all doctrines that assert as much. To claim the cosmos has a purpose intended by God or by some creative or blind impulse in matter is to be guilty of logical fallacy. We sense order within us and we see it around us, and then we assume someone or something has intended that order. But we could just as well assume that no one intended it. And we could just as well assume that someone intended disorder, of which we’ll find an equal amount within and around us if we so choose to look for it. What we choose to look for and assume, however, will always depend upon our values, which stem from our desires. Science, as it were, has nothing to say about our values—it cannot tell us what is good or bad or right or wrong— and thus science has nothing to say about cosmic purpose.
Sir James Jeans, whom Russell quotes at length in his chapter on Cosmic Purpose, claims that life could just as well be regarded as “something of the nature of a disease, which infects matter in its old age when it has lost the high temperature and the capacity for generating high-frequency radiation with which younger and more vigorous matter would at once destroy life.” Another conception devoutly to be wished, perhaps.
For his part, Russell wonders if there isn’t something in mankind that could be described in terms worse than Jeans’ “disease.” Writing the book in 1935 at the height of the world’s most dangerous new religious creeds, those of Hitler and Stalin, Russell muses about mankind’s seemingly infinite capacity to inflict suffering upon the world. He ends the book warning of a new Dark Age that will descend on civilization if either of the murderous new creeds succeeds and prevents scientists from doing their work. “New truth,” he writes, “is often uncomfortable, especially to the holders of power; nevertheless, amid the long record of cruelty and bigotry, it is the most important achievement of our intelligent but wayward species.”
My recommendation: read this book. It cannot lead our species any further wayward and will only make you more intelligent.
In 1532, Francisco Pizarro and a band of 168 Spaniards punctured the heart of the Inca Empire and proceeded to capture its emperor, decimate its citizens, and plunder its gold. Why didn’t it happen the other way around? Why didn’t the Incas sail to Europe, capture Charles V, kill his subjects, and loot his castles and cathedrals? Jared Diamond attempts to answer this question in Guns, Germs & Steel.
Why have Europeans tended to dominate other peoples on other continents? Does it have something to do with race? Were Europeans more clever than other races? Diamond says no. It wasn’t racial characteristics that tipped the scales of fortune for the Europeans — it was their geography. Their geography gave them access to the best domestic grains and animals, which led to specialization and advanced technologies like steel and guns. Their domestic animals also helped them develop potent germs — and the antibodies for those germs.
The importance Diamond lays at the hoofs and paws of domesticated animals is actually one of the more fascinating themes of the book. According to Diamond, our animals have played an uncanny role in our cultural and economic development, both in a negative sense (human contact with farm animals facilitated the germ-exchange that produced man’s deadliest diseases) and in a positive sense (men from the Russian steppes, riding their newly domesticated horses, spread the Indo-European language both westward into Europe and southeastward into Persia and India). Diamond’s point is that people living in areas with more domesticable animals (sheep, cattle, pigs, horses, etc.) gained an important advantage over people without them.
For example, Native Americans had only three domesticated animals before 1492: llamas, turkeys, and dogs. Why only three? Weren’t there wild horses and cattle in America too? Actually, fossil records show huge populations of horses, oxen, and millions of other large mammals in the Americas until about 11,000 BC. What happened around 11,000 BC? You guessed it: man showed up via the Bering Strait. The American horses, oxen and other large mammals, having never experienced a human predator, approached the new arrivals like slobbering puppy dogs, and were consequently turned into steaks. In fact, it was steaks every night for a couple thousand years for the new immigrants, until most of the continents’ large mammals— and all but one suitable candidate for domestication— were wiped out.
Now this is fascinating enough, but then consider that because the Native Americans didn’t have any horses, oxen, pigs, etc. left to exploit as beasts of burden and domesticated food sources, they also lost the civilizational benefits those animals would have brought (and did bring to Eurasians), not the least of which is germs. Yes, germs. Because the Native Americans didn’t live in close proximity to a plethora of “farm animals” like their counterparts in Eurasia, they lacked the “petri dish” wherein deadly germs could grow and proliferate. They thus failed to develop the infectious diseases and (more importantly) the antibodies to those diseases that might have protected them from the germs of invading Europeans when Señor Columbus and his crew showed up.
It was for this reason that when the Conquistadores did finally show up, they were able to wipe out 80% of the indigenous population before ever unsheathing their swords— with germs— with small pox and influenza, both diseases generated by the passing back and forth of germs between domesticated animals and their human caretakers (small pox between cattle and humans, and influenza between pigs and ducks and humans). If that doesn’t blow your mind, your mind is blowproof.
Then again, you may well ask: “What about moose and bison? Why didn’t Cortés and his boys float up to the Mexican shoreline and find a bloodthirsty cavalry of Aztecs on mooseback, energized by the milk and meat of their plentiful herds of bison?” Diamond surmises that by the time most the large mammals in America had been digested into extinction by their hungry human friends, there was only one suitable candidate left for domestication: the llama/alpaca. Every other large mammal that remained (including moose and bison) lacked the qualities that allow for domestication.
In all of human history only 14 large mammals have ever been domesticated: sheep, goat, cattle, pigs, horses, camels (Arabian and Bactrian), llamas, donkeys, reindeer, water buffalo, yaks, and two minor relatives of cattle in southeast Asia called Bali cattle and mithrans. Outside of these, no other large mammals have been transformed from wild animals into something useful to humans. Why? Why were Eurasia’s horses domesticated and not Africa’s zebras? Why were Eurasia’s wild boar domesticated and not America’s peccaries or Africa’s wild pigs? Why were Eurasia’s five species of wild cattle (aurochs, water buffalo, yaks, bantengs, and gaurs) domesticated and not Africa’s water buffalo or America’s bison? Why the Asian mouflon sheep (the ancestor of our sheep) and not the American bighorn sheep?
The answer is simple: we tried and it didn’t work. Since 2500 BC not one new large mammal (out of the 148 worldwide candidates) has been domesticated — and not for lack of trying. In fact, in the last 200 years, at least six large mammals have been subject to well-organized domestication projects: the eland, elk, moose, musk ox, zebra, and American bison. All six failed. Why? Because of one or more of the following problems: diet, slow growth rate, nasty disposition, tendency to panic, captive breeding problems, and/or social structure.
- Diet — Why don’t we eat lion burgers? Because raising lions, or any other carnivore, is uneconomical. You need 10,000 lbs of feed to grow a 1,000 lb cow. You would likewise need 10,000 lbs of cow to grow 1,000 pounds of lion. That means you’d need 100,000 lbs of feed to produce 1,000 pounds of lion. Hence the lack of lion burgers on the Wendy’s drive-thru menu.
- Growth rate — Why don’t we eat rhino burgers? Simple, it takes 15-20 years for a rhino to reach adult size while it only takes cows a couple.
- Nasty disposition — Here’s where we eliminate zebra burgers, hippo burgers, grizzly burgers and bison burgers. These animals retain their nasty and dangerous tempers even after several generations of captive breeding. Did you know zebras injure more zookeepers per year than do lions and tigers?
- Tendency to panic — No deer or gazelle burgers either. Why? Because they take flight at the first sign of danger and will literally kill themselves running into a fence over and over to escape the threat.
- Captive breeding problems — Many animals have elaborate breeding rituals that can’t happen in captivity.
- Social structure — This may be the most important requirement for domesticates. The best candidates for domestication live in herds, maintain a clear herd hierarchy, and overlap ranges with other herds rather than having exclusive ranges. Here humans just take over the top of the hierarchy. They literally become the herd leader (think “Dog Whisperer”).
So the reason European explorers didn’t find Native American ranchers with herds of bison and bighorn sheep is because these animals can’t be domesticated. Diamond contends that if there had been any horses left in the Americas, or any of the other 13 candidates for domestication, the Native Americans surely would have domesticated them, and reaped all the attendant benefits. But alas, their great-great-grandpas had already killed, grilled and digested them all.
Diamond’s book is a great read. If you’re a student of history, it’s a must read. The way I see it, the story of man (and the story of all things, for that matter) is the story of varied states of disequilibrium moving violently and inexorably toward equilibrium. What was Pizarro’s vanquishing of Atahualpa’s empire if not an example of such violent re-balancing? The beauty of Diamond’s book is that it seems to pinpoint, with surprising simplicity, the original source of disequilibrium among men: geography. Roughly put, some got born in the right place and some didn’t. Skin color had nothing to do with it. Race has always been nothing more than an arbitrary mark to show the geographical birthplace of one’s ancestors’.
By the way, if you do read this book, take note of the way we humans first discovered agriculture. According to Diamond, it happened at the latrine. We’d go out gathering seeds, eating some along the way, and then come back to camp and defecate, all in the same spot. Guess what started growing in that spot? Yes, my friends, as crude as it may sound, we humans shat are way to civilization. Thank your ass when you get a chance.
FOB Salerno, Afghanistan (March, 2008)
Last night at 10pm I found myself walking by starlight down a deserted gravel road in eastern Afghanistan. There was no noise, no disturbance, no lights. Only silence and stars. My thoughts wandered. I thought of masked marauders and bogeymen carrying AK-47s. But they didn’t show. It was just me, the stars, and the jagged hills on the horizon.
Then…. distant gunfire and the sounds of celebration. Snap, crackle, pop! The distance made it sound like fire crackers. I stopped in my tracks and listened for something more distinct. The muffled sounds of distant cheers suddenly gave way to something much louder….
“Allaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah akbar…………….. Allaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah akbar……………..”
The after-dark call to prayer from a distant mosque, amplified and off-key. I stayed where I was, closed my eyes, and let the sound ease into my ears. When I opened my eyes again, I noticed Orion disappearing over the horizon and felt the moonlight on the back of my neck. The air was still. ‘How can life feel so peaceful in the midst of a war?’ I thought.
Welcome to nightlife on Salerno FOB (Forward Operational Base), next to the city of Khost, about 20 miles from the Pakistani border. No hustle, no bustle, no lights— they’d make an easy target for nighttime mortar fire. At Salerno, we enjoy the stars and the moon and the sounds of a distant world a couple miles away.
I arrived here last week after an epic journey through Europe and Asia. I caught up with my past in London and Hamburg, and then embraced the present in Istanbul and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. From Kyrgyzstan I flew by C-17 to Bagram Airbase and then by C-130 to Salerno FOB. Here at Salerno I’ll be teaching college classes to US soldiers for the next 4 months.
There are two kinds of things in this world:
- things we control
- things we don’t control
The things we control are our actions, opinions, pursuits, desires, and fears. The things we don’t control are the actions and opinions of others, and the body, possessions, and status we’re born with.
The things we control we control freely, without any hindrance or restraint. The things we don’t control are controlled by others, or by fortune’s whim.
If you assume you control the things you don’t control, you will be frustrated and upset. You will regret things and blame both the gods and men. But if you know the difference between what you control and don’t control, then no one will ever force or restrain you. No one will have the power to harm you. You will stop blaming people and your enemies will disappear.
Remember: if you seek greatness, you’ll need to leave moderation behind. Instead, you’ll need to give up some things completely and hold off on others. If you try to have your cake and eat it too, then you won’t even get the cake, because you try to eat it too. For example, you might have to give up the pursuit of wealth and power if you want happiness and freedom, or vice versa.
Try to develop yourself to the point where you can look at things and say: “You’re just an appearance to me, and of no substance.” Then you can ask yourself whether it’s something you control or don’t control. If you find it’s something you don’t control, you can say it is nothing to you.
When you desire something you want to gain it, and are disappointed when you don’t get it. When you fear something you want to avoid it, and are wretched when you encounter it. But if you only fear the things in your control (bad thoughts, for example), then you’ll never be forced to encounter the things you fear. But fear sickness, or death or poverty or any other misfortune you don’t control and you’re sure to end up wretched.
You must learn to detach yourself from the things you don’t control in such a way that you stop fearing or desiring them. You will end up disappointed if you desire such things. Then even the things you do control, the things you should desire, become unavailable to you. Instead, pursue certain things and avoid others, but do so lightly, gently and without straining.
When you encounter something you like, remind yourself that it is the thing in general that you like, not the particular thing you see before you. For example, if you like a specific cup, remind yourself that it’s only cups in general that you like. Then if it breaks you won’t be upset.
When you kiss your wife or child, remind yourself that you only kiss human beings. Then if you lose them you’ll be less upset.
When you are about to do some action, remind yourself what kind of action it is beforehand. If you’re going to bathe, for example, picture beforehand the things that often happen in public baths: people splashing and pushing, people cursing and stealing. If you anticipate events before you proceed, you’ll go about your action more safely.
You can prepare yourself by saying: “I’m not just here to bathe. I’m here to remain in control of myself and my thoughts.” Then if a problem arises while bathing, you’ll be ready to say, “I didn’t just come here to bathe, but also to remain in control of myself and my thoughts. If I let myself be bothered by the things I already knew might happen, then I lose that control.”
Things don’t disturb us. Rather our thoughts about things disturb us.
Death, for example, isn’t terrible. If it were, it would have appeared so to Socrates. No, the terror of death comes from us thinking death is terrible, not from the nature of death itself.
So when something frustrates you, when a person annoys you or distresses you, don’t blame the person or the thing. Blame yourself. Blame your own thoughts. A fool blames others for his own condition. A better man blames himself. A master doesn’t blame at all.
Don’t take credit for things that are not yours.
If a horse should be proud and say, “I’m beautiful,” that’s fine. But if you become proud and say, “I’m great because I own a beautiful horse,” remember that you are proud of the horse’s good, not your own.
What’s your own? Your reactions to things — these are your own. If you behave well in your reactions to things, you can be proud — for in that case you are proud of your own good.
Imagine you’re on an ocean voyage and your ship stops at an island. You drop anchor and go ashore for water. Along the way you amuse yourself by picking up shellfish and fruit. But your thoughts and attention must always be on the ship, awaiting the captain’s call. When he does call, you must be ready to drop everything and run to the boat without looking back.
So it is in life. If you pick up a wife or child instead of fruit or shellfish, that’s fine. But if the captain calls, you must run to the ship, leave them, and not look back.
Don’t demand things to happen the way you want. Want them to happen the way they do. Then your life will always go well.
Sickness may hinder the body, but it doesn’t hinder the way you react to sickness. Injury may hinder the leg, but it doesn’t hinder the way you react to injury.
Repeat these words whenever you face adversity and adversity will not hinder you.
Whenever trouble occurs, ask yourself how you can make use of it.
For example, if you’re tempted by something or by someone, see it as an opportunity to ignore your desires and to practice self-restraint. If you’re hurting because of some injury, see it as an opportunity to show fortitude. If someone offends you with their words, see it as an opportunity to show patience. Make a habit of this and external things will no longer have any effect on you.
Never say “It is lost,” say “It is returned.”
Has your son died? He is returned. Has your wife died? She is returned. Has your estate been taken away? Has it not also been returned?
“But the guy who got it was a scoundrel!”
What difference does it make who gets it next? While you have it, take care of it, but don’t think of it as your own. Think of it as a traveler thinks of his hotel room.
If you want to improve yourself, reject thoughts like these: “If I’m not uptight about my money, I’ll end up poor” or “If I don’t punish my workers, they’ll misbehave.” Remember: it’s better to die hungry and stress-free than to live rich and stressed out. And it’s better for your workers to misbehave, than for you to be bothered by it.
So start with the small stuff. Is a little oil spilt, a little wine stolen? Then say to yourself: “No problem. The lost material is the price I pay for peace of mind, for a stress-free life.” Nothing comes for free. Everything costs something.
So when you call for one of your workers, maybe he doesn’t come, or maybe he doesn’t follow your directions. But remember: he doesn’t have the power to disturb you. Only you have that power.
If you want to improve yourself, think less about your reputation. Don’t strive to be thought knowledgeable. If people say you are important, doubt such importance.
It is difficult to be cool-headed, reputed and rich all at the same time. Care about one and you neglect the others.
What? You want your loved ones to live forever?
You’re a fool. You’re trying to control things you can’t control. You’re trying to possess things you can’t possess.
What? You want your workers to make no mistakes?
You’re a fool. You’re trying to control things you can’t control. You’re trying to turn humans into something else.
What? You want your desires to be satisfied?
Okay, this you can control, because you control what you desire. But remember: the day you restrain your desires and stop fearing the things you don’t control is the day you master yourself and free yourself from others.
Act as if life is one big dinner party. Has a dish been passed your way? Then take your share with moderation. Has a dish already passed by? Then don’t try to stop it, it will return. Has a dish not yet come? Then don’t reach your desire toward it. Wait until the dish reaches you.
In life the dishes are children, wives, jobs, and riches. Behave well toward them and you will feast with the gods. Abstain even from the dishes set before you and you will be a partner of the gods and rule beside them. Diogenes and Heraclitus did so and today people call them divine.
When you see a mother weeping because her son has gone abroad, suffered or died, don’t let the spectacle mislead you. Instead, keep your cool and say “It’s not the event itself that distresses this mother. Rather it is her thoughts about the event that distress her.”
But never hesitate to help her or to offer her your sympathy or even to weep with her if necessary. Just be careful not to weep inside.
You are an actor in a play the author has chosen: if short, a short one; if long, a long one. If he chooses you to play a poor man, play the part well. If he chooses you to play a captain or a cripple or just an average man, do the same.
For this is your duty: to play well the part chosen for you. Choosing the part belongs to another.
If you break a mirror, don’t freak out. Use your head and say “Superstitions don’t affect me. They may affect my body or property, my reputation or family, but to me all omens are lucky because I make them so. Whatever happens, it is always within my power to take advantage of it.”
You will be invincible if you never fight a battle you don’t control.
When you see someone honorable, powerful, supposedly esteemed, don’t get carried away and assume the person is happy. And certainly don’t envy or emulate him. If goodness is yours for the making then why would you ever envy or emulate another?
Don’t wish to be a rich man or a general. Wish to be free. Freedom is only possible when you accept the things you don’t control.
No man can insult you if you’re not affected by his words.
If someone provokes you, remember it is your opinion that provokes you, not his. Try in the first place not to be carried away by someone else’s words. Once you gain a little time and respite, you will see things clearly and command yourself more easily.
Let death and exile and all other terrible things, especially death, appear often before your eyes. Then your base and greedy thoughts will make themselves scarce.
If you plan to be a philosopher, be ready to endure the laughter and sneers of the masses.
“He’s a wise guy now!” they’ll say, “He looks down on us.” But you don’t look down on them, nor should you. Rather, simply continue on steadily with what you know your duty to be.
Remember: if you don’t give in to them, the people who at first ridiculed you will soon admire you. Give in to them, however, and you will be twice ridiculed.
If you obsess about appearances and wish to please others then you will ruin your plan. Instead, be content being a philosopher.
If you want to appear as such-and-such to someone else, first be such-and-such to yourself and that should suffice.
Don’t be distressed by thoughts like these: “I’ll lose my honor,” or “I’ll be a nobody!” Honor isn’t a commodity to be given or taken away. And your duty is not to gain power or popularity. So how could you ever “lose your honor”? And how could you ever be a “nobody” when you are always free to be a somebody?
“But my friends will need my help!”
Need your help with what? With your money? With your connections? Are these your responsibilities? Remember: you can’t give to others what you don’t have yourself.
“Get rich!” they’ll say, “then share it with us.”
Fine, get rich. But get rich only if you can do so without compromising your honor or self-respect. If someone asks you to sacrifice your goodness to gain money, you will be a fool to agree. You should tell the person: “A trustworthy and honorable friend like me is worth far more to you than any money I could give. Help me continue being your friend by not asking me to compromise my honor.”
“But my community will need me!”
Need you for what? Will you build the community yourself? The duty of a gunsmith is not to provide shoes, nor is the duty of a shoemaker to provide arms. Just do your duty and your community will surely profit.
“But what about my place in the community?”
Just concentrate on being trustworthy and honorable. If you lose these qualities trying to be useful to the community, you’ll become useless to both yourself and the community.
Is someone preferred before you at a party, in a compliment, in a request for advice? If these things are good, then you should be glad for the person. If they’re bad, don’t worry about not getting them. Don’t expect an equal share of something if you haven’t paid an equal price to get it.
For example, why should a man who never frequents the door of a “great man,” who never attends him, flatters him and kisses his ass — why should he receive the same treatment from the “great man” as someone who does these things? Mark my words: you will be unreasonable if you refuse to pay the price for which things are sold. And you will be insatiable if you want things for free.
For example, how much does a head of lettuce cost? Fifty cents, maybe. If someone pays the fifty cents and takes the lettuce and you don’t pay the fifty cents and go without it, then don’t imagine the person with the lettuce has gained something over you. He may now have the lettuce, but you have your fifty cents.
In the case of the “great man” above, you haven’t been invited to his party because you haven’t paid the price for which the invitation is sold. It is sold for frequent visits, for personal attention, for excessive flattery and many kisses on the ass. If you want to pay this price, go ahead — enjoy the party. But if you don’t want to pay the price and still want to go to the party, you’re a greedy fool.
Remember: you still have something in place of the invitation. You have the refusal to flatter a man you don’t like. You have the refusal to bear his tedious company.
We can learn the will of nature by not distinguishing between the things that happen to us and the things that happen to other people.
For example, when a neighbor’s boy breaks a glass, you quickly say “These things happen.” Fine, but when your own glass breaks you should say the same thing, and likewise toward more important things.
Someone’s child or wife has died. We hear the news and say “These things happen.” But if our own child happens to die, it is always: “Why me? Why me?” Here we must remember how we felt when we heard the same thing happen to another.
Just as a target is not set up for the sake of missing it, neither do bad things happen in our world.
If someone handed your body over to random strangers in the street, you’d surely be upset. Why then do you feel no shame at handing your mind over to be upset by anyone who happens to insult or annoy you?
For every endeavor consider what precedes and follows it, and then undertake it. Otherwise you’ll start with a goal in mind and then when the going gets tough, you’ll give up in disgrace.
For example, if you want to be an Olympic gold medalist, you should first consider what it takes to win a gold medal. You will have to be disciplined, keep a strict diet, train everyday in good and bad weather, abstain from alcohol, and obey your trainer like a doctor. Then when the games begin, you will have to dig in, bear painful injuries, be covered with dirt and mud, and in the end, still probably lose. Consider all this, and then if you still want that gold medal, go ahead.
But fail to foresee the difficulties your endeavor entails and you will behave like a child who plays a wrestler after seeing a wrestler, then a gladiator after seeing a gladiator, then a musician after hearing a musician. You will do nothing whole-heartedly. Rather you will ape other men according to your latest whim and end up doing everything half-heartedly.
The philosopher Euphrates speaks well and impresses people when he speaks publicly. People always walk away from his speeches wanting to be philosophers themselves. But they should think about the difficulties such a life entails before they choose to follow in Euphrates’ footsteps.
If you wanted to become a wrestler, wouldn’t you examine your body — your shoulders, back, and thighs? Yes, because you know different pursuits suit different people. Is it any different with philosophers?
What? You think you can act like you do now and still be a philosopher? You think you can continue doing the same things — eating and drinking the same things, being subject to the same flurries of emotions and cravings — and still be a philosopher? Weariness, frustration, solitude, exile, humility, and poverty: these are what you can expect if you pursue philosophy. Ask yourself whether you’re willing to buy these for the price of your tranquility and freedom. Then decide.
If you still choose philosophy, then don’t act childishly and be a philosopher one day and then a tax-collector the next and then an orator the next and then a politician the next. This is inconsistent. Be one person, good or bad. Focus your abilities either on the internal or on the external, on your guiding principle or on the things outside.
Be a philosopher, or don’t.
Our duties are often determined by our relationships with other people. For example, a son’s duty is to take care of his father, obey him, listen patiently to his reproaches, and bear his blows. “But what if he’s a bad father?” Who said you’re entitled to a good father? You’re entitled to a father, that’s all.
Has your brother wronged you? Then maintain your duty to him. Consider not what he’s done against you, but what you must do to maintain your duty to him. You’ll know your duty and what to expect from others — from your neighbors, countrymen, and leaders — when you make it a habit it contemplate your relationships with other people.
And remember: a man cannot harm you unless you choose to be harmed. You will choose to be harmed when you think you are harmed.
Believe in the gods and respect them. They arrange the universe justly, and well. But also follow and obey them. For they know what they’re doing. Accept this advice and you’ll never blame the gods for neglecting you.
Start by separating the things you control from the things you don’t control. Then apply the terms “good” or “bad” only to the things you control. What’s the use of calling things you don’t control “good” or “bad”? If you do so, you will only end up disappointed.
You will blame the gods when the “bad” things happen to you and when the “good” things don’t.
All living things avoid what harms them and pursue what helps them. People are no different. A man will not enjoy or honor something he thinks harms him. In this regard, a son abuses his father when he deems “good” something his father fails to give him. Howso? By deeming “good” something he doesn’t control. In like manner, Polynices and Eteocles became mutual enemies because they deemed “good” something they didn’t control: ruling the empire.
Why do you think so many farmers, sailors, merchants, and widowers revile and blame the gods? The answer is simple. They worship according to their desires and fears and are thus frequently disappointed.
Be mindful of your piety, just as you are mindful of your desires and fears. Offer prayers and offerings as custom dictates, and always in moderation.
Know the true nature of fortune-tellers. When they speak of things out of your control, they speak of things neither good nor bad. So don’t approach a fortune-teller fearing or hoping for something she might say. Remember: it’s better to be indifferent toward the things you don’t control. Such things can’t harm you because you choose your reaction to them.
Approach the gods with confidence. They are your counselors — listen to them. As Socrates said: go to fortune-tellers only with the big picture in mind and only as a last resort.
And never abandon your duty to a friend because of what a fortune-teller says. It’s better to suffer the worst pains the world can inflict than to abandon your duty to a friend.
Develop a character and code of conduct for yourself and then stick to by always — both when you’re alone and with others.
Be silent for the most part, or speak briefly. It’s okay to make small talk, but not about common or vulgar things. Above all, don’t talk about other people, and if you must, never criticize, praise or compare them. Instead try to steer the conversation to more appropriate topics. If you happen to be stranded among strangers, just listen.
Don’t laugh too much or too often or without restraint.
Avoid swearing oaths.
Avoid vulgar engagements. If you can’t then be mindful of the company you keep there. A base man will debase his companions over time just as a sick man infects his.
Take only what you need when it comes to food, drink, clothes, housing, and services. And cut out anything showy or luxurious.
Avoid sex before marriage, and if you can’t then make sure you do it properly. But never criticize others for indulging, and certainly don’t boast about your own abstinence.
If you hear someone has spoken ill of you, don’t make excuses or get irritated. Instead say: “He obviously doesn’t know my other weaknesses or he would have mentioned those too.”
Don’t attend too many public spectacles. If you must, then just concentrate on being yourself. Wish for things to be just the way they are. Wish the winner to win and the loser to lose, and you will go well. But never shout or heckle or get caught up in the show. And avoid talking too much afterwards about what you’ve seen, unless it concerns things that can improve you. The same rules apply to public lectures. Show dignity when attending them and never appear sour or sullen.
When you’re about to meet someone important, think about what Socrates or Zeno would do in the same situation. Then you’ll know how to behave.
Before meeting with someone important, tell yourself the person won’t be there, or you won’t be let in, or you’ll be ignored. If the meeting happens anyway, then don’t leave it feeling over-confident or thinking you had nothing to worry about. These are the thoughts of a common man or someone dazed by external things.
In conversation, don’t talk too much about yourself or the dangers you’ve endured. The thrill you get in re-telling the risks you’ve taken far exceed the thrill a listener gets in hearing them.
In like manner, avoid too many attempts at comedy. Such attempts easily slip into vulgarity and will lessen you in the eyes of others. The same thing goes for foul or indecent language. If you encounter such talk, rebuke the person in private or show your displeasure in public by way of your silence or disapproving looks.
When you catch wind of a possible pleasure, don’t let your excitement carry you away. Let the pleasure wait on you. Take your time and seize every chance for delay.
In the meantime, imagine two images: (1) yourself indulging in the pleasure, and (2) yourself regretting it afterwards and chiding yourself for giving in. Compare these images to an image of yourself pleased and proud after having stood strong and abstained from the pleasure. You will then be prepared to abstain when the chance comes to indulge.
Think of the great victory you gain by abstaining and you won’t be seduced by your desires.
If you know something needs to be done, then don’t try to avoid people seeing you do it, even if they could get the wrong idea. If it’s not the right thing to do, then don’t do it. If it is the right thing to do, then you shouldn’t be afraid of someone criticizing you for it.
The statements “It is day” and “It is night” are true in the context of an “either-or” statement (“Either it is day or it is night”). But neither is true in the context of a “both-and” statement (“It is both day and night”). This also holds for certain social situations.
For example, if you’re a guest at a dinner party, you can’t both take the largest portion and be gracious. Rather you should balance the well-being of your stomach against the respect you show your host.
Try to be someone you’re not and you fail twice: first as person you’re trying to be and second as the person you are.
When walking, you are careful not to twist your ankle or step on nails. In living, you should be just as careful not to injure your guiding principle.
The body is the measure of what material fits it, just as the foot is the measure of what shoes fit it. Keep this in mind and keep to the measure. Go beyond the measure and you tread a slippery slope.
For example, in the case of a shoe, if you go beyond the measure of the foot, you’ll first get a glitzy shoe, then a fancy purple glitzy shoe, then a jewel-studded fancy purple glitzy shoe, and who knows what next? Once you exceed the measure of the foot, limits disappear.
Women become objects of desire as soon as they turn fourteen. Soon thereafter they begin thinking they have no other option but to serve a man in bed. They start decorating themselves and placing all their hopes in serving men. We should help them understand that as such, they are honored for nothing more than seeming modest and self-respecting.
It shows a lack of skill when a man spends all his time only in physical activity — always working out, drinking too much, over-eating, chasing girls, etc. These things should be done incidentally and in passing. Instead, you should devote yourself whole-heartedly to the development of your understanding.
When a man acts badly toward you or speaks ill of you, he is usually just doing what seems right to him. He doesn’t know what you know; he only knows what he sees. So if he’s fooled by some appearance, too bad for him — he’s been deceived.
Remember: when a man calls the truth false, he doesn’t harm the truth, he just deceives himself. Be mindful of this and you’ll treat your abusers more gently. Remind yourself by saying: “This poor fellow has been tricked by appearances.”
Every event has two handles: the handle you can carry it with and the handle you can’t carry it with.
For example, if your brother wrongs you, don’t take hold of his deed by the handle of his mistake. You can’t carry it with this handle. Rather, take hold of the opposite handle: that he’s your brother. Then you can carry it.
These thoughts hold no water:
- “I’m better than you because I’ve got more money”
- “I’m better than you because I’m more eloquent.”
The person who says these things isn’t better — he just has more money or better words. But a man is more than money and words.
Does someone take short baths? Then don’t say he doesn’t bathe enough. Say he takes short baths.
Does someone drink a lot? Then don’t say he drinks too much. Say he drinks a lot.
Remember, unless you know exactly why someone does something, you don’t know enough to criticize him. Be mindful of this and you won’t criticize what you don’t fully understand.
Never call yourself a philosopher or give philosophical advice when in the company of less-educated people. Instead, act according to the advice you would give them.
For example, at dinner don’t tell people the proper way to eat; just eat properly. Socrates acted this way and thus avoided ostentation. When people came to him and asked to meet certain philosophers, he assisted them and didn’t even mention he was a philosopher himself.
When you hear unlearned people talking about philosophical topics, don’t speak. Hold your tongue and listen. If you speak, there’s always the chance you might throw out something you haven’t quite digested.
Remember: sheep don’t show the shepherd how much grass they’ve eaten by vomiting it up for him to see. No, they digest it inwardly and then produce wool and milk outwardly. You should do the same with your philosophy — digest it first inwardly and then let it manifest itself outwardly in your acts. Don’t explain your philosophy, embody it.
Remember: the day someone tells you how little you know and you appreciate their words is the day you gain true wisdom.
When you reach the point where you can live comfortably on very little, don’t make a show of it. Don’t, for example, point out how you drink water while everyone else drinks wine. If you want to train yourself to endure hardship, then do it alone and for yourself. Don’t show off. Don’t cling to cold statues in the town square, like Diogenes did.
If you want to confront your thirst, then sip a little water and then spit it out before swallowing. But do it secretly, so only you know the trials you bear.
A fool lives his life expecting things from others. A master only expects things from himself.
A master doesn’t criticize, praise, blame, complain, accuse or boast. When he is frustrated, he blames himself. When he is praised, he laughs inside at the praiser. When he is criticized, he makes no defense. He goes about his actions with the caution of an injured man, careful not to move any bones that haven’t quite set. He suppresses his desires and avoids fearing things he can’t control. He is gentle. If he appears stupid or ignorant, he doesn’t care.
Above all, a master keeps a wary eye on himself — as an enemy lying in ambush.
If someone boasts about being able to understand books by Chrysippus, remember that the person wouldn’t have anything to boast about if Chysippus hadn’t written so obscurely.
What does a master want? He wants to understand nature and follow it. Maybe Chrysippus did understand nature and then happened to write an interpration you can’t understand. Should you then seek an interpreter of Chrysippus’ interpretation. What can you possibly gain at that point? Studying the interpretations of interpretations, whether of Chrysippus or of Homer, is the job of grammarians and linguists, not philosophers.
Philosophers should seek to make use of Chrysippus’ original advice, and not squabble over interpretations of it. If someone asks you to read Chrysippus’ writings, you shouldn’t take pride in your ability to interpret them. Rather, you should blush if you can’t live up to what they prescribe.
Make your own moral rules and then abide by them as if they are universal law, as if you’d be guilty of impiety for violating them. Forget what people say or might say about you. That is of no concern to you.
Accept that you are worthy of the highest improvements a man can make to himself — that you are worthy of your own reasoning.
You already know all the theorems you need. So what are you waiting for? Who are you waiting for? Are you expecting some master to come along and convince you the time for delay is over and that you can now start reforming yourself?
Grow up! Be a man.
If you choose negligence, sloth, procrastination and delay then you deserve your despicable life. You deserve what you accept.
You must decide now in this moment that you are worthy of development and advancement. You must affirm virtue to be your own inviolable law. Come pleasure or pain, come glory or disgrace, you will stand firm and be ready for battle.
No doubt, you will suffer setbacks. But if you give up because of them, you will be defeated. If you persevere through them, you will gain the world. Socrates lived this way, and though you are no Socrates, you should never stop striving to live like him.
Typically a philosopher will:
- say how we ought to live — for example: “we shouldn’t lie”
- demonstrate where such obligations come from — “we shouldn’t lie because of this, this and this…”
- make commentary about the other two
He will define terms like “demonstration” and talk about the consequences, contradictions, truths and falsehoods of his definitions. The third act follows from the second and the second from the first. But the first act remains the most essential and necessary to philosophy. It is upon the first act that we must focus the bulk of our energy and concentration.
But we don’t. We spend most our time on the third and neglect the first. For example, we go about lying all day long while simultaneously being proud of our ability to explain exactly why lying is wrong.
Keep these thoughts ready for all occasions:
Lead me Zeus and you O Destiny wherever you see fit. I’ll follow cheerfully and not hesitate, and even when I don’t want to follow because of my weaknesses, I’ll follow still.
Whoever harmonizes his life with necessity is counted wise among men, And knows the laws of heaven.
0 Crito, if it thus pleases the gods, let it thus be.”“You may indeed kill me, but you will never harm me.
* This new version of “The Handbook” was arranged & edited by Joshua Parkinson in 2007
femurspine bones and clavicle ribbone bones
weigh down floating flesh
tendon-bending breaths of body
leaps and bounds of hips touching tips of toes goes up
and then goes down
whatever goes straight soon comes back around
returning to eternity’s mansions
from out of time’s ruins come dancing expansions
muscle contraction tense tendontight action
interactions between ligament-layered attachments and fractions of spirit
speed-sparked through the nerves
from the cortex cerebral through a vortex of curves
causing swerves in the choreographed courses of forces
freefalling in fiery forms to warm torsos
tight-flexed abdominal tension in squares tightened down to skin
solid from fluids and airs
sucked and swallowed in diaphragm gusts to the gut
waves organic in gulps masticated and cut between teeth
into pulps feeding fires that flare
flames of heat from the touch of skin gleaming and bare
bearing rays of radiation
in core heated by creation
ancient cell inhabitation begets spectral inspiration
and a self to call oneself
traversed in reality itself becomes that self
ineluctably conditioned to become that self
who became and was as one received
believing I believed in me
and me (receiving I’s belief)
sank deep recesses into truth
as deep as color sinks into matter
as deep as the rhythm sinks into the words that I scatter
curves cut cross creases
in skin-stretched pieces of flexing flesh
forced into fluid forms by feelings from within
corporeal shouts and whispers
twisting and turning accounts of swifter movement
smooth like air through fingers dangling lithe and limber from limbs
gyrating pimturns again and again
spin spaces into spectacles
asymmetrical places made symmetrical
with the physical traces of the spiritual
the body is a miracle dancing with the soul of a pim
* dedicated to modern dancer, Pim Boonprakob
it hit tongue with spit
shiver and shakes where you sit
quiver and quietly quakes the core shall fall apart in feverfits
it gets you hot like gas in flames
inflammatory drops of sunshine
raindrops falling and plummets from the summits to abyss
missed steps and beats fly past like this: -now-
this: now kissed by curls in quickturns in moleculepaths
swaths cut cross the fabric of spacetime
yes now! just came! yes! went before
again yes-spinning ‘round yin-volving ‘round yang yearns for more
1 yearns for 2 seeks 3 hungers for 4
again splinters into 16ths and shards off the core
falling pastbound toward future
into time acupuncture
vibrating needles and pins of time-slivers to rupture
rhyme particles disturbed by beams of now
fall down to measure musical moments
like the te beholds the tao
the way of least resistance through existence to this instant
present moments now turn distant
systems solar burning blistering
turning planets asteroids comet tails
ice rock dust space winds gusts and gales
galactic syntactical rains and hails
from heavens in 7-note arrangements
spells spun by dark-mattered gas-scattered forces
sucking towards us
the horizon of events that transmorphs us
to sing you larity
when I’m one with gravity
bodies in beds
stretched to the zones where the breaths get said
read aloud in soft-shaking touches
repetitious tissue tension
in and outside gushes of fluid streams of language
sanguineous slurs of sliding rhymes
arranged in voices
vociferous rejoyces heard in space and time
sinewave sets of ebbs and crest climaxes
facsimiled erection elocution attractions
spontaneously fusioned pheromoneous interactions
like the tonguewaves sensed by satellite skin-contraptions
zapped through nerves insta-rhythmic hiphop fashion
passion flashing rhapsodies through my flesh like plasma
fresh orgasmic ecstasy through my text time traveling
next to touch your sex
direct effects in flexed erect context
affective lips impressed
inflected yes-obsessed lyrics in sets
instinctive scents intense
intoxicants in pants
and rinsed in sweat that slips and licks the saltslick drips
inflicts the slickskin friction lubrication diction
articulation mixed in raging fits of passion
impulsation beats of skin dilation action
unabated urges assuaged
Three weeks ago tonight I sat in a movie theater watching Robert Zemeckis’ new film Contact. The movie narrates the experiences of a scientist (Jodie Foster) who procures an alien message conveying instructions for trans- galactic, physical contact (the aliens send construction plans for a vehicle that will bring a single human to their world).
In the wake of the message, Jodie must compete with fellow scientists and astronauts for the lone seat in the transport-craft. The selection process (exercised by an “international committee”, of course) narrows to two candidates (Jodie and another guy) and the criterion of “who would best represent humanity.”
Jodie, as the prototypical scientist, doesn’t believe in God, and her competitor does (or at least he says he does). To make a long story (and movie) short, Jodie is passed over for the job because of the reason so eloquently summed up by her priest friend, committee member, and closet lover Matthew McConaughey, who says he wouldn’t feel right sending a representative of humanity who thought that “ninety-five percent of us suffer from some form of mass delusion.”
In the theater, this line effected a surprisingly loud and lengthy array of cheers and applause from my fellow audience members. And the next day my mother also made it clear to me that Matt’s line was definitely the best of the movie, and perhaps the best of all 1997’s Summer blockbusters.
The Peculiar Pride
This experience got me thinking about the peculiar pride that everyday people, religious or nonreligious, take in their belief not only in God, but in any higher truth, purpose, or meaning to their lives. In most cases, such pride — the pride of my theater companions and my mother — is not, I believe, a direct result of rigorous theological or philosophical deliberation. That is, I don’t think atheists and people like Jodie’s character are slighted because people see them as misled pagans or uneducated fools. Rather, the eyebrows of “believers” rise and sighs emit (and cheers sound in theaters) because non-believers are considered to be negative, pessimistic, and without hope.
The person who rejects the notion of a higher God, truth, or meaning to life is regarded as a nihilist — as a denier of life and refuter of humanity’s highest values. The “believer,” on the other hand, is considered (and proudly considers himself) to be someone positive, optimistic, and hopeful. The “believer” is deemed the happy affirmer of life and respecter of humanity’s highest values.
The following pages make a claim against this widespread opinion via the thoughts and writings of Friedrich Nietzsche.
Nietzsche believed the opposite to be true (and would have probably raised Matt’s number to “ninety-nine percent”). For Nietzsche, the above “believer” is the pessimist. The man who invests faith and conviction in a higher God, truth, or meaning is the nihilist — the denier of life. If one would be a complete affirmer, a complete lover of his life and world, then one must become, in Nietzsche’s words, a “perfect nihilist” — a condition that includes the complete rejection of any higher God, truth, or meaning to that life and world.
In the preface to what was to be The Will to Power, a comprehensive treatise on universal metaphysics (which we now have in incomplete and only fragmented form), Nietzsche introduces himself as follows:
He that speaks here . . . has done nothing so far but reflect: a philosopher and solitary by instinct, who has found his advantage in standing aside and outside, in patience, . . . as a spirit of daring and experiment that has already lost its way once in every labyrinth of the future; as a soothsayer-bird spirit who looks back when relating what will come; as the first perfect nihilist of Europe, who, however, has even now lived through the whole of nihilism, to the end, leaving it behind, outside himself.
Nietzsche is no mere nihilist — he is a “perfect nihilist.” Nietzsche’s “perfection” is the focus of this post.
Part 1: Nihilisms
Imagine a universe where there is nothing — or in more appropriate grammatical order, nothing is. Instead, all becomes.
In this universe, there are no separable moments, no distinguishable events, no definable things. There is no good, no evil, no causes, no effects, no facts, no knowledge, no truth, no meaning. There is no beginning from which becoming becomes, and no end toward which becoming moves. And there is no variation in the tempo of becoming because there is no tempo in accordance with which becoming can become. It is (if I must talk of “being”) a universe (if I must talk of “things”) “in flux” eternally.
If this universe must be said to “consist” of anything, it consists only of a realm of forces — a field of what Nietzsche calls “dynamic quanta” — a domain of phenomenal currents, if you will. Yet these forces, quanta, or currents must not be understood as separate and distinct entities that behave and interact as such. Rather, they are all part and parcel of a single kinetic environment of becoming.
Imagine them as one would imagine currents in the sea:
As a play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and many, increasing here and at the same time decreasing there; a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing, eternally flooding back.
Imagine such a universe.
Flux and Language
Nietzsche imagines that precisely such a universe is in fact actual — and that we live within and are constituents of it.
Reality alters continuously in an eternal “flux of becoming.” Within this flux, there are no states of being, no stasis, but only the ever-moving, ever-changing quanta of force. Put simply, everything is always changing forever.
Although this idea may seem almost obvious and common-sensical, its implications, as understood by Nietzsche, undermine over 2,000 years of Western philosophical thought. If the true state of the universe is continuous becoming and change, then it follows that any belief in a state of being or constancy is essentially false (it does not correspond to the actual universe — the universe of becoming). Arrant belief in the static entities and concepts of language is thus false.
“Thing,” “event,” “cause,” “effect,” “subject,” “object”: these and related terms are merely interpretive attempts at giving stable, communicable form to the unstable, dynamic currents of reality.
Language and its development have always been saturated with this false belief in being, according to Nietzsche. Any interpretation of phenomena via language is, in fact, a translation into being — so when it is applied to the becoming currents of the universe, such interpretation is always misinterpretation. Correct interpretation (interpretation that corresponds exactly to the universe’s phenomenal currents) is not possible through language.
Philosophy too, as the study of language’s entities and logical concepts, has been steeped in the false belief in being. Nietzsche writes:
If one is a philosopher as men have always been philosophers, one cannot see what has been and becomes — one sees only what is. But since nothing is, all that was left to the philosopher as his ‘world’ was the imaginary.
Philosophy posits the universe as always already composed of that which “is” — of things, events, causes, and effects that behave within the parameters of logic. Man the philosopher is simply trying to discover and define these permanent things and parameters. What he “discovers and defines” is instead only that which he has imagined and created before.
In Nietzsche’s words:
It is we who created the ‘thing,’ the ‘identical thing,’ subject, attribute, activity, object, substance, form… The world seems logical to us because we have made it logical.
Man has created things, logic, and himself as subject. Through philosophy he merely rediscovers his own creation, uncovering and restoring with his logical paints the philosophical fresco he created before. But the fresco, as the metaphor suggests, was always art — the creative (mis)interpretation of a becoming universe.
This doctrine functions as proof for Nietzsche that there is no objective a priori truth to the universe — thus establishing the essential foundation (or non-foundation) for perfect nihilism. Yet as a philosophical and epistemological foundation, the doctrine is not Nietzsche’s alone. Buddhism, one of several “nihilisms” that Nietzsche openly condemns, stands on similar philosophical ground. The differences between the two lie in their reactions to truth’s absence.
Because the universe continually becomes, there can be no prefixed, absolute template of truth to which our theories about life and the world can correspond or which they can contradict. Any order (or language) that claims to be such a template is merely a synthetic creation of man, and thus essentially false. Life is thus meaningless with regards to any kind of absolute meaning antecedent to that which we give it.
On this Nietzsche and the Buddhist agree. But for the Buddhist this realization becomes the grounds for a rejection of life. For Nietzsche, it becomes the most overwhelming motive for living. For the Buddhist such a realization depreciates life, while for Nietzsche it enriches living.
Passive Nihilism: Eastern Thought
Buddhism finds all existence unsatisfactory. Life entails a vicious cycle of suffering (what Buddhism calls samsara), the only salvation therefrom being salvation from living itself — salvation from the ignorant actions whose effects (what Buddhism calls karma) induce and perpetuate samsara.
The state of nirvana prevails as the ideal state of non-life and hence anti-suffering for which the Buddhist strives. Translated into the vocabulary of this essay, nirvana seems to be the point where a man is undressed of being and all its associations, resulting in a kind of re-absorption back into the becoming whole that is the universe. Because the associations of being (of language) — selfhood, thinghood, cause and effect, etc. — are the causes and constituents of the suffering cycle, man should disassociate himself from being.
In other words, through the creation and imposition of being upon a becoming reality, man has placed himself within a painful environment of his own making. Man has alienated himself from the dynamic essence of the universe, imprisoning himself in an artificial existence of suffering (consciousness). To escape from this prison, the Buddhist does away with its bars and cells by simply doing nothing at all. Through inaction, the Buddhist renounces his synthetic agency and selfhood, thereby ceasing any causes or effects, and thus running his karma dry, so to speak.
At this point, the Buddhist is existing (if I may still call it “existing” — perhaps “not existing” would do better) in the state of nirvana. Yet, given the nirvana ideal’s metaphysical structure (or non-structure), it becomes difficult to distinguish it from death itself. That is, if one believes, as the Buddhist does, that all material (so-called) is essentially part of the domain of becoming that is reality, then a corpse (or a tree or a stone) would also seem to be experiencing nirvana — although “experiencing” is problematic since it seems to require “experiencers,” none of which exist in a reality without “subjects.”
Nevertheless, Nietzsche saw no difference between the will to nirvana and the will to death. As an inquiry into the metaphysical foundations of the universe, Buddhism succeeded, but subsequently cowered before its findings, striving for death — for non-being — for the opposite of life. Hence Nietzsche’s qualified contempt for it.
In his notebooks, Nietzsche often refers to Buddhism as “passive nihilism.” In opposition to this and to what he calls “incomplete nihilism,” Nietzsche claims to be the “active,” “thorough-going,” “perfect” nihilist. The definition of and distinctions between these forms of nihilism provide an invaluable key to Nietzsche’s thought. For it is the passivity and incompleteness of traditional nihilistic values that the perfect nihilist must experience, question, and ultimately shun.
Passive nihilism is associated with the mores of Eastern religion, namely Buddhism. As stated earlier, Nietzsche saluted the religion’s metaphysical findings, at one point acclaiming “the Buddhistic negation of reality in general” as “perfectly consistent.” For Buddhism had made the laudable discovery that:
‘absolute reality,’ ‘being-in-itself’ [is] a contradiction. In a world of becoming, ‘[absolute] reality’ is always only a simplification for practical ends, or a deception through the coarseness of organs, or a variation in the tempo of becoming.
In other words, Buddhism had recognized belief in an “absolute reality” to be oxy-moronic. Because “absolute” connotes immutability, its application to “reality,” which continually becomes, is contradictory and falsifying, simplifying and deceiving. Reality, in itself, is beingless, meaningless, and eternally changing. It is Buddhism’s reaction to these findings that Nietzsche vehemently opposes.
Guilty of “doing No after all existence has lost its ‘meaning,’” the passive nihilist becomes a coward and/or a flawed logician in the face of meaninglessness (most often a combination of the two). That is, the passive nihilist’s reaction to the universe’s absence of meaning happens somewhere between two extremes. At one extreme, the passive nihilist realizes that life has no ultimate meaning — that there is no prefixed, absolute truth. Disappointed by his presumption that there ought have been one and disillusioned of his moral and epistemological foundations, he cowers before what now seems to him the utter blankness of the universe. He would rather not live than bear such suffering.
At the other extreme, the passive nihilist realizes the same truths, but determines, seemingly logically, that because there is no ultimate truth, life and its sufferings are meaningless and in vain. With the presupposition that there ought not to be anything meaningless and in vain, he concludes that life is illogical — it ought not be lived.
Again, it seems plausible that in most cases the passive nihilist reacts to the absence of absolute meaning in a way that incorporates both of the above accounts. But whether coward, flawed logician, or both, the passive nihilist’s reaction to the meaningless nature of the universe always proceeds from an ought — from the belief that there ought to be or have been higher meaning. As such, the reaction is always a “yearning for Nothing,” a will away from life and towards death — for the Buddhist, a will towards nirvana.
Nietzsche finds this reaction detestable, ill-founded, and above all, wasteful.
Incomplete Nihilism: Western Thought
Equally undesirable is the nihilism Nietzsche terms “incomplete.”
Put crudely, while passive nihilism has the right ideas but the wrong intentions, incomplete nihilism has the right intentions but the wrong ideas. Passive nihilism begins with the correct metaphysical foundation (the absolute meaninglessness of becoming) but errors (becomes passive) in its reaction to that foundation. Incomplete nihilism begins with an erroneous foundation (that there exists a prefixed, absolute template of truth to be found) and from there assaults currently accepted systems of truth (religious, moral, philosophical, etc.).
These assaults have in themselves a legitimate intention — that of exposing the fraudulence of traditional systems of truth — but remain prone to failure (incompletion) and error as long as they are dispatched from the belief that there exists an absolute truth to be found. For there is no such truth.
Incomplete nihilism is epitomized by the Nihilism movement of nineteenth-century Russia. The movement’s manifesto, as formulated by Dmitri Pisarev, proclaims:
What can be broken should be broken; what will stand the blow is fit to live; what breaks into smithereens is rubbish; in any case, strike right and left, it will not and cannot do harm.
Nietzsche would seem to agree with the counsel of Pisarev’s manifesto. The phrase “philosophize with a hammer” was Nietzsche’s coin. But the error of the manifesto and the movement it served (incomplete nihilism) is the presupposition that indeed something exists that can and will “stand the blows” — that something exists that is, in fact, “fit to live.”
In the case of Russian Nihilism, this authentic stalwart was believed to be natural science. Pisarev and his comrades believed that truth (scientific fact) had been somewhat caked with the fictional “rubbish” of religions, moralities, and traditions, and that it was up to science to remove the build-up. Once free of this fraudulent, man-made residue, truth/science could take its rightful place, so to speak, and consequently lead man into a better future.
But for Nietzsche, all truth, including the findings of natural science, is such fraudulent, man-made residue. Nothing is capable of “standing the blows.” Nothing is “fit to live” in the sense of being absolutely true and undissectable. If all of the so-called “rubbish” were truly cleared away, nothing would remain — nothing, that is, except the meaningless, becoming currents of reality.
The Russian (incomplete) nihilist’s mining pick is therefore a different kind of tool than Nietzsche’s philosophizing hammer. While the former seeks to clear away the coal that diamonds may be revealed, the latter seeks to clear away everything that diamonds may be created.
Incomplete nihilism is not exclusive to nineteenth-century Russia. Any movement or man that rejects all other systems of absolute truth for the sake of one is guilty of incomplete nihilism. A list of the culpable reads like a history of Western thought: Platonism, Judeo-Christianity, rationalism, empiricism, logical positivism, science, and likewise Plato, Aristotle, Paul, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Newton, Kant, Hegel, and so on. Each of these movements and men remains one rejection — one seemingly very difficult rejection — shy of a legitimate understanding of the universe; and consequently one rejection shy of Nietzschean perfect nihilism.
The Case of Schopenhauer
Throughout his notebooks, Nietzsche laments the pervasive nature and adverse effects of incomplete nihilism upon European thought and culture. One of the most decadent of these effects seems to be incomplete nihilism’s ability to induce (evolve into) passive nihilism. For Nietzsche, the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (what Nietzsche called “the European form of Buddhism”) epitomized this process. A more generic example would be the Christian-turned-malcontent who follows his rejection of religion and God (absolute truth/meaning) with a rejection of life in general. Nietzsche writes in Spring 1887:
Incomplete nihilism; its forms; we live in the midst of it. Attempts to escape [it] without revaluating our values so far: they produce the opposite [passive nihilism], make the problem more acute.
The “value” Nietzsche finds in need of “revaluation” is the incomplete (and passive) nihilist’s presumption that a prefixed, absolute order to the universe is necessary — that there is (or ought to be) such an order. With this presumption in mind, one will, no doubt, have tremendous difficulty arriving at what Nietzsche believes to be the correct understanding of the universe. One will have difficulty rejecting what one has hitherto believed to be the single preordained universal order, and accepting the fact that no such order exists.
Yet it is along with such rejection and acceptance that the above presumption becomes most destructive. That is, even if the incomplete nihilist succeeds in rejecting what he has hitherto believed to be the prefixed, absolute truth, he nevertheless places himself in a world that is, with regards to the above presumption, the opposite of the way it ought to be. The incomplete nihilist places himself in a deficient, illusory world that is not worth living in (passive nihilism/Buddhism):
One discovers of what material one has built the ‘true world’: and now all one has left is the repudiated world.
Nietzsche compares the sensation of this event to that “sensation by which during an earthquake one loses confidence in the firmly grounded earth.” For within this epistemological disorientation the incomplete-turned-passive nihilist becomes the coward and/or flawed logician discussed above, and death becomes the only comforting and logical solution.
So without the revaluation of this value — without the jettison of the presumption that there is or ought to be a prefixed, universal truth — any attempted escape from incomplete nihilism induces passive nihilism, and the problem becomes, in Nietzsche words, “more acute.”
Without the dismissal of his unjustified and false bias — the belief that there ought to be a preordained order/truth — the incomplete nihilist, in the legitimate questioning of his beliefs, comes to occupy yet another decadent, nihilistic state of being: passive nihilism. Nietzsche gives a brief synopsis of this process in a note written during the winter of 1887-88. Beginning with the notion of how and why incomplete nihilism originally develops, he goes on to explain how it then evolves into passive nihilism:
Given these two insights, that becoming has no goal and that underneath all becoming there is no grand unity in which the individual could immerse himself completely as in an element of supreme value, an escape remains: to pass sentence on this whole world of becoming as a deception and to invent a world beyond it, a true world [incomplete nihilism]. But as soon as man [the incomplete nihilist] finds out how that world is fabricated solely from psychological needs, and how he has absolutely no right to it, the last form of nihilism comes into being: it includes disbelief in any metaphysical world and forbids itself any belief in a true world [passive (and perfect) nihilism]. Having reached this standpoint, one grants the reality of becoming as the only reality, forbids oneself every kind of clandestine access to afterworlds and false divinities — but [the passive nihilist] cannot endure this world though [he] does not want to deny it. [italics Nietzsche’s]
Enduring a meaningless existence is difficult only for people who believe there ought to be higher meaning.
In other words, if one expects a universal masterpiece but finds instead only a blank canvas, then any further painting would seem trivial, painful, and futile. Such is the incomplete-turned-passive nihilist’s experience. But if one never expects the masterpiece (if one never entertains the above ought), and instead affirms the blank canvas as the opportunity for creation — the opportunity for one’s own magnum opus — then there would be no grounds for despair, but rather only delight at such an opportunity.
For Nietzsche, life is such an opportunity, and an amoral (oughtless) approach to life is necessity.
The Archenemy Ought
By now it should be clear that the archenemy of perfect nihilism is the above “ought”. It is this ought — this belief that life ought to have an external, higher purpose, meaning, or truth — that ultimately induces both incomplete and passive nihilism.
The incomplete and the passive nihilist are originally the same man, with this same ought. The incomplete nihilist (Christian, Western philosopher) follows the counsel of the ought and creates (or as he would have it, “discovers”) the ultimate purpose, meaning, or truth that ought to be (the true or ideal world). Pessimism follows when the actual world is devalued in comparison to that ideal world.
The passive nihilist (Buddhist, Eastern philosopher) simply finds that the world as it ought to be does not exist, and thus rejects the actual world (again, pessimism). Nietzsche’s point and the point of perfect nihilism is that as long as one entertains the ought — as long as one believes that there ought to be higher purpose, meaning, or truth — then one is destined for error and pessimism.
The man who accommodates and heeds the ought — the man who approaches himself and the world with an ought attitude is doomed to ignorance and negativity towards his life and world.
Such ignorance and negativity are certainly not explicit in every nihilist’s daily affairs. Not every Christian walks the streets cursing aloud his deficient “material” body and “worldly” surroundings. Likewise not every Buddhist spends his days under a Bo tree attempting death in the form of unconsciousness (nirvana). Nevertheless, Nietzsche believed that any amount of the pessimism demanded by incomplete or passive nihilism, any amount of negativity necessitated by the above ought, however slight, remains a strike against one’s present life and world.
Perfect nihilism accepts no such strikes. It requires instead the unqualified, complete “affirmation of the world as it is, without subtraction, exception, or selection.” Such affirmation invokes Nietzsche’s obscure doctrines of Eternal Recurrence and Amor fati, which I shall explain later.
For now it is enough to say that a key connotation of the “perfect” in Nietzsche’s perfect nihilism is that of “completeness.” That is to say, Nietzsche wanted to accept completely — and, as we shall see, love completely — every circumstance of his existence and world (an existence and world that are completely meaningless with regards to absolute a priori meaning). Any strike against that world, e.g. the pessimism produced by the above ought, is a strike against that perfection.
Seek, Find, Love
Perfect nihilism entails the perfect affirmation (and perfect love) of one’s existence in a perfectly meaningless universe. In the third part of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes:
Whoever has endeavored with some enigmatic longing, as I have, to think [nihilism] through to its depths and to liberate it from the half-Christian, half-German narrowness and simplicity in which it has finally presented itself to our century, namely, in the form of Schopenhauer’s philosophy; whoever has really . . . looked into, down into the most world-denying of all possible ways of thinking — beyond good and evil and no longer, like the Buddha and Schopenhauer, under the spell and delusion of morality [(the ought)] — may just thereby, without really meaning to do so, have opened his eyes to the opposite ideal: the ideal of the most high-spirited, alive, and world-affirming human being[.]
The man who takes nihilism to its “depths” (to its perfection), beyond incompletion and passivity — beyond the errors and pessimism of religions and philosophy — chances the opportunity for perfect nihilism. Here, “beyond good and evil,” beyond the “spell and delusion of morality,” beyond the ought, he may perceive the true nature of the universe, and subsequently create a system of values and knowledge that recognizes and affirms that universe.
This rigorous process of inquiry and creation is the experience and performance of perfect nihilism.
In summary, the perfect nihilist:
- seeks the true nature of the universe (experiencing, examining, and rejecting traditional notions of truth — traditional nihilistic values),
- finds the true nature of the universe (that the universe continually becomes and is thus incapable of substantiating any fixed, absolute theory of truth or meaning — the becoming universe is perfectly meaningless), and then
- loves completely (perfectly) that universe, and his life within that universe, through the affirmation and creation of new values and knowledge.
What the perfect nihilist “finds” in step two and how he “loves” in step three require further explanation, and engage expressly Nietzsche’s obscure doctrines of Will-to-Power, Eternal Recurrence, and Amor fati.
At this point in the exegesis, we are situated just beyond step one. We have experienced traditional nihilistic values and found them in need of revaluation. We have, from the perspective of the perfect nihilist, examined and rejected traditional notions of truth along with the errors and pessimism they induce. We have defined passive and incomplete nihilism (what Nietzsche dismisses), and must now apprehend what Nietzsche affirms — and how he affirms it.
Step two, that of determining the true nature of the universe (perfect meaninglessness), is next.
Part 2: Perfect Meaninglessness
Thinkers from Heraclitus to Schopenhauer to Zen Buddhists have considered the notion of a becoming reality. Although Nietzsche was antedated and influenced by such thought, he rendered the becoming concept to a new level of thoroughness and lucidity. Nietzsche was not the first to ask the question “Why does the universe become?” But he was one of the first to apply a precise method to its answer, and in doing so, underscore the importance of the question.
Becoming for Nietzsche was not some ineffable, dogmatic bunker behind which to hide intellectual voids (as it seems to be for various existentialists and Oriental religionists). Rather the concept penetrates and sustains every thought and doctrine he advances. For Nietzsche, the science of becoming bears the answers to the consummate workings of the universe — a universe that includes us. If we would understand ourselves (physically and psychologically), our community, and our world, we must first understand becoming.
In his depiction of becoming, Nietzsche does not distinguish between the physical and the metaphysical. The universe, in its entirety or in whatever specific portions — in its visibility or invisibility — is determinable only in relation to what Nietzsche calls “power relationships.” These relationships are responsible for and inherent in the universe’s dynamic nature. All change in the universe, sensible or otherwise, is the consequence and perpetuation of a power struggle. There are no exceptions to this arrangement.
So whether it is a snowflake crystallizing in the sky, an autumn leaf turning yellow, a red blood cell flowing through an artery, a lion taking down a gazelle, a stream running down a mountain, a man speaking, or Earth revolving around the Sun, all motion in the universe is the result and continuation of a “struggle between two elements of unequal power,” in vast multiplicity.
The identities of these “elements” remain somewhat ineffable. Nietzsche did not conceive them to be “thems.” To name the “strugglers” in the power struggles as “elements,” forces, currents, or even “strugglers,” is to endow them with a finitude, unity, and simplicity that is simply not there. Nietzsche writes:
We need unities in order to be able to reckon: [but] that does not mean we must suppose that such unities exist.
In a becoming universe, unity does not exist. Thus Nietzsche’s most apt description for the power struggle participants seems to be his term “dynamic quanta.” As dynamic quanta, they have no distinct boundaries or status. Instead, they are merely mobile quantities of power, containing and contained within multiplicities of such quantities.
In any case, one must address the nature of the single “mobile quantity of power” — the single dynamic quantum — if one is to disambiguate the general behavior of phenomena. Nietzsche had to make an attempt toward parsimony if he was to formulate the general dynamic economy of universal forces. He had to examine and explicate the behavior of the single “force” in order to clarify the behavior of a universe of forces. Such examination and explication requires the use of language, and thus assures metaphysical misconnotation.
That is to say, the language used in explaining the behavior of a single force will always (mis)connote a faith in unity. Such explanation will always resemble a kind of atomism, with its unquestioned belief in “smallest units.” Nietzsche does not conceive his dynamic quanta to be a group of smallest units — the indivisible bricks to a universal structure. They function not as the universe’s building blocks, but rather as its active ingredients.
Put simply, Nietzsche is less concerned with what the single force is than with what it does. Yet we must talk about forces, quanta, currents, et cetera, as if they are things. The words are nouns, and as such connote a kind of unity and “thingness.” In this light, please temper Nietzsche’s (and my) over-connoting words with this caveat.
In his notes, Nietzsche writes that “a quantum of power… is essentially a will to violate and defend oneself against violation. Not self-preservation… That is why I call it a quantum of ‘will to power.’”
Every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (–its will to power:) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (‘union’) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they conspire together for power. And the process goes on–
In this universe of forces, every force is a “will to power.” Every dynamic quantum of power is essentially a power center trying to exert its force outward in all directions — trying to “violate” and overcome opposing quanta of power. When the exerting force meets a weaker force, it overcomes that force. When the exerting force meets a stronger force, it is overcome by that force.
The stronger becomes master of the weaker… here there is no mercy, no forbearance.
The more powerful force always overpowers the less powerful force. There are no exceptions to this arrangement. Will-to-power is not a consciousness or decision on the part of a force, as it may be (and has indeed been) misconstrued. Nietzsche did not conceive forces to be subjects that choose to “will” power or not. Rather a force is the power itself — power that can do nothing but exert itself.
Such exertion, multiplied and communitized, results in a continuous, dynamic tension whereby exerting forces fall into “arrangements” with each other and seemingly work together and against other multiplicities of forces. All motion and phenomena (including ourselves) are essentially examples of such multiplicities of forces exerting power and working together and against each other in continual tension.
Ripples on a Pond
Perhaps the best way to understand the concept of will-to-power is to imagine the play of ripples on the surface of a pond.
Imagine picking up a handful of sand, gravel, and rocks and throwing it into a still pond. Every particle, from the smallest grain of sand to the largest rock, induces in its contact with the water a ring of ripples dilating in all directions from the particle’s contact point. The rock ripples are much larger and more powerful than the sand and gravel ripples, and as such overpower and absorb the motion and power of the smaller, weaker ripples. Where comparable (and seemingly equal) ripples meet, new ripples are induced at the meeting point, yielding and distributing the sum power of the original competing ripples, which as a result are weakened by the struggle. Ripples that begin and meet in proximity quickly weaken and distribute power in the manner just mentioned, while their outward-bound ripples combine forces and become bigger and more powerful than before.
For Nietzsche, the universe is a continuous, multi-dimensional, phenomenal rendition of such ripple play. The multiplicities of forces that we call trees, cars, rivers, planets, stars, animals, and ourselves are simply the multiplicities of dilating power centers (expanding ripples) which may compete or cooperate, but remain forever in tension and motion.
Nietzsche would not endorse entirely my ripple analogy. His universe is indicative of the ripple play, but not of the causing rocks or the still, pre- and post-rippled pond. In other words, Nietzsche’s becoming, will-to-power universe is the continuous ripple play (the power relationships) and that is all. There were never any causa prima rocks or still pond surfaces. There was never a beginning or beginner to becoming, or to the exerting, dilating, will-to-power forces that participate in and perpetuate becoming. The universe has always only been and will forever only be a kinetic medley of dilating “ripples” of power.
In Nietzsche’s words, the universe becomes as a:
monster of energy, without beginning, without end; . . . as a play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and many, increasing here and at the same time decreasing there; a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing, eternally flooding back.
The whys and hows to Nietzsche’s claim are engaged in the doctrines of Will-to-Power and Eternal Recurrence. Basically, Nietzsche believes that the universe becomes because of the will-to-power and in eternal recurrence.
The universe becomes because at every moment, and in vast multitude, “two elements of unequal power” (two “ripples”) meet and the more powerful element overpowers its counterpart. Nietzsche writes, “the degree of resistance and the degree of superior power — this is the question in every event.” The “event” that Nietzsche mentions (the encounter of two unequal exerting forces) is the most fundamental ingredient of becoming. For it is the totality of such “events” in each moment that both comprises and perpetuates the ever-moving, ever-changing nature of the universe.
The universe is simply a continuous, dynamic farrago of such “events.” Yet Nietzsche believed the “events” to have a causal necessity to them. Each moment’s “events” lead to (necessitate) the “events” of the next moment. Each moment’s combinations of dynamic quanta lead to the combinations of the next moment, and so on.
Thus the universe moves and becomes eternally. But what of “Recurrence”?
Let us return to the rippling pond. Imagine again the surface of a pond with its myriad of expanding ripples bumping and fading into one another, each ripple a will-to-power attempting to overpower and “violate” opposing ripples. Now eliminate from the metaphor the natural, physical forces that eventually flatten such ripples and make pond surfaces smooth again (the forces of gravity, underwater currents, wind, et cetera). Without such forces working against them, the ripples would continue their activity indefinitely. The ripples would meet and absorb and yield and distribute and overpower and be overpowered in perpetuity. They would play on forever, each combination of ripples leading to the next, and that to the next, and so on.
Within a finite space (the pond), with a finite amount of energy (moving water ripples), and in an infinite amount of time, every possible combination of ripples would eventually be experienced — every possible arrangement of ripples would eventually happen, and, furthermore, happen an infinite number of times.
So if one could watch this metaphorical pond long enough, one would eventually see every pattern of ripples possible, each leading to the next and so on until the original patterns began to recur and the whole process started over again. If one watched indefinitely, one would see the same process repeat itself an infinite number of times — the same ring of events and combinations of forces endlessly circling in eternal recurrence. In Nietzsche’s words:
If the [universe] may be thought of as a certain definite quantity of force and as a certain definite number of centers of force . . . it follows that, in the great dice game of existence, it must pass through a calculable number of combinations. In infinite time, every possible combination would at some time or another be realized; more: it would be realized an infinite number of times. And since between every combination and its next recurrence all other possible combinations would have to take place, and each of these combinations conditions the entire sequence of combinations in the same series, a circular movement of absolutely identical series is thus demonstrated: the world as a circular movement that has already repeated itself infinitely often and plays its game in infinitum.
Nietzsche’s account seems to beg the question: Why couldn’t this becoming universe reach a state of equipoise or stasis? Why couldn’t (or wouldn’t) the pond, at some point, stop rippling?
Nietzsche answers as follows:
If [the universe] were in any way capable of pausing and becoming fixed, of ‘being,’ if in the whole course of its becoming it possessed even for a moment this capability of ‘being,’ then all becoming would long since have come to an end . . . . If the [universe] could in any way become rigid, dry, dead, nothing, or if it could reach a state of equilibrium, or if it had any kind of goal that involved duration, immutability, the once-and-for-all (in short, speaking metaphysically: if becoming could resolve itself into being or into nothingness), then this state must have been reached. But it has not been reached . . . . That a state of equilibrium is never reached proves that it is not possible.
Nietzsche finds a state of equilibrium (being) impossible because it has not happened — the universe yet becomes. In infinite time (if an infinite amount of time has already passed), a state of equilibrium, if it were possible, would have already been reached. The pond would have already become still. Since it has not, such stillness is thus impossible.
Nietzsche’s doctrines of Will-to-Power and Eternal Recurrence are not exclusive of human life, action, and thought. The drives, instincts, behaviors, and movements of people, whether physical, sexual, intellectual, or psychological, are also instances of the Will-to-Power, and as such, operate within the Eternal Recurrence — within Nietzsche’s “circular movement of absolutely identical series.”
Whether it is an apple falling from a tree or primitive man inventing a word, a winter storm snowing or a woman becoming pregnant, a planet revolving around a star or Napoleon conquering Europe, the series of events that characterize what we call “anthropology,” “history,” “sociology,” “psychology,” “science,” and simply “day-to-day life,” are truly just multi-mechanical, will-to- power events happening fatally and in eternal recurrence.
Why do I write this paper? Why does the Grand Canyon look the way it does? Why do people have children? Why does it rain? Why do people have beliefs, passions, and dreams? Why do hearts beat, lungs breathe, and stomachs digest?
Nietzsche’s answer to all these questions: the Will-to-Power.
All the occurrences in our so-called “lives” (all the “occurrences” in the universe) are determined by (and simply are) the Will-to-Power: multiplicities of exerting, becoming forces. As such, these “occurrences” happen necessarily and in eternal recurrence — like the “ripple patterns” in our metaphorical pond. What I call my “life,” in its most specific or general forms and moments, is truly just a series of necessary, determined, multitudinous will-to-power events playing and circling within the Eternal Recurrence.
The exerting “ripples” of the universe have run their determined course an infinite number of times in the same exact manner, and will continue to do so for eternity. My life is simply a minute excerpt from that eternal, yet fatal course.
The Science of Meaninglessness
The doctrines of Will-to-Power and Eternal Recurrence ultimately function as proof for Nietzsche that the universe is perfectly meaningless (and perfectly determined in that meaninglessness). Through parsimonious demonstration and substantiation of the universe’s becoming nature, Nietzsche’s will-to-power “event” (the meeting of two forces and subsequent triumph of the stronger) relieves all phenomena of “being,” thus falsifying any language or logic that represents phenomena as such.
To paraphrase the beginning of Section Two: if the true state of the universe is that of continuous becoming, motion, and change, then it follows that any belief in a state of being or constancy is essentially false (it does not correspond to the “actual” universe–the becoming universe). Thus arrant belief in the static entities and concepts of language is essentially false. “Thing,” “subject,” “object,” “cause,” “effect”: these and related terms are merely interpretive attempts at giving stable, communicable form to the unstable, dynamic currents of reality.
Reality’s “currents” (forces) remain unfixed and dynamic because of the will-to-power — because of the perpetuity of Nietzsche’s will-to-power “event.”
Put simply, the will-to-power keeps reality in motion, and thus beyond a static, absolute truth’s grasp — beyond language’s grasp. The doctrine of Eternal Recurrence merely proves that such motion never stops — becoming continues indefinitely in a determined, eternal cycle.
The universe is eternally meaningless. A more complete meaninglessness would be difficult to conceive of. Hence the “perfection” of perfect meaninglessness:
Let us think this thought in its most terrible form: existence as it is, without meaning or aim, yet recurring inevitably without any finale of nothingness: “the eternal recurrence.” This is the most extreme form of nihilism: the nothing (the “meaningless”), eternally!
Through iconoclasm, experience, and logic, Nietzsche arrives at the “most extreme form of nihilism” — the most perfect nihilism: belief in a completely transitory reality that never ends but only circles in meaninglessness for eternity.
Part 3: Origins of the Ought
As the “first perfect nihilist,” Nietzsche considered his life and thought to be somewhat “untimely” — a fatal yet “untimely” destiny. In the final chapter of his autobiographical Ecce Homo (titled “Why I Am a Destiny”) he writes:
It is my fate that I have to be the first decent human being; that I know myself to stand in opposition to the mendaciousness of millennia. — I was the first to discover the truth by being the first to experience lies as lies.
Here Nietzsche engages and epitomizes the most obvious concern presented by this essay so far. That is, if the universe is truly just an eternal series of exerting, changing forces, and is thus incapable of substantiating any fixed, absolute truth — if the universe is perfectly meaningless — then why have men and philosophers always conceived it to be otherwise?
How is it that “millennia” of men have been “mendacious”? Why do the vast majority of us believe in or hope for (believe there ought to be) a higher truth, meaning, or God, and thus why are the vast majority of us incomplete or passive nihilists?
Why do so many of us heed the misguiding ought?
Such questions would seem to require complex and convoluted answers. Not so. Nietzsche’s answer is simple and clear: language.
The vast majority of men have been and are yet mendacious, have been and are yet incomplete or passive nihilists, have heeded and yet heed the misguiding ought, because all men have spoken and yet speak language. Man plants the seed for the ought — for “mendaciousness” — with his unwavering, unconscious faith in language, and the reason it entails.
We enter a realm of crude fetishism when we summon before consciousness the basic presuppositions of the metaphysics of language, in plain talk, the presuppositions of reason. Everywhere it sees a doer and doing; . . . it believes in the ego, in the ego as being, in the ego as substance, and it projects this faith in the ego-substance upon all things — only thereby does it first create the concept of ‘thing.’ Everywhere ‘being’ is projected by thought, pushed underneath, as the cause; the concept of being follows, and is derivative of, the concept of ego.
The Genealogy of Language
Nietzsche believed that language began ages ago when man (as simply another multiplicity of exerting forces) became conscious of his body, its movement, and the apparent, limited “control” he had over that movement. After thousands of years of cerebral development, man auspiciously conceived of his body as some “thing” of his own — as somewhat of a self-contained apparatus. He came to believe that he “was” a “self”: a unity, an “I,” an “ego.”
Man became self- conscious. Language’s first creation — and ultimately its first error — soon followed in the form of “I am.”
The “I” was created as a self-contained “unit,” “being” was created as a constant state of existence, and the “I am” grammatical construct was soon “projected” into all phenomena and happenings that man also (mis)perceived to be self-contained, unitary, and constant. In short, man’s senses misled him, and a language of “units” and “being” was the result.
What [man] made of the senses’ testimony, that alone introduced lies; . . . the lie of unity, the lie of thinghood, of substance, of permanence.
Of his senses’ “testimony,” man “made” a world of unity and constancy. Things, events, doers, doing, subjects, objects, causes, and effects entered the world thereafter, and with them the reason that “logically” determined and refereed their operation.
The universe became to the newly self-conscious man simply a conglomeration of stuff that “is,” “was,” or “will be.” The universe became communicable. Man took what were truly just multiplicities of becoming forces constituting himself and the world around him, and, with language, simplified, arranged, defined, and ultimately, misrepresented them.
Now skip ahead to civilization (Mesopotamian, Greek, or Victorian — it doesn’t make much difference). Man has now spoken, written, heard, and read language for thousands of years. Such extensive time and practice have galvanized man’s faith in “being” and “unity” (the basic presuppositions of language), and such faith has slipped, as Nietzsche says, “underneath” man’s conception of the world, and far beyond any contemplation or questioning.
Man has long forgotten (although he probably never noticed in the first place) that language, along with “being” and “unity,” were merely his original creations — his synthetic method for making the world intelligible and communicable.
In any case, and notwithstanding such ignorance, man now begins to wonder about himself and the world around him. Man begins to contemplate the “truth” about himself, things, and reason (about the “self,” “things,” and “reason” he unknowingly created so long ago). Man becomes a philosopher, and the rigorous examination of phenomena (including himself) becomes his first priority.
With the senses, he examines and contemplates phenomena, and in time finds that much of it is somewhat or wholly contrary to his original notions (the notions spawned by his use of and faith in language). Man the philosopher finds that phenomena is somewhat fleeting. It changes and alters and appears and passes away. The majority of phenomena seems to become, and is thus incapable of corresponding to language’s fixed words and categories. In Nietzsche’s words, the philosopher:
concludes that [language’s] categories could not be derived from anything empirical — for everything empirical plainly contradicts them.
In other words, man finds reality to be adverse to the metaphysical presuppositions of language.
At this point, man’s philosophical path diverges into incomplete nihilism or passive nihilism. In either case, the new path is pre-paved with the ought. Thousands of years of linguistic tradition and a lifetime of language (ab)use implant in every man — in every nihilist — the false (and often unconscious) belief that there ought to be some reality, some “ideality” (Nietzsche’s term) that corresponds to and actualizes language’s precepts (“being” and “unity”).
- The incomplete nihilist (Christian, Western philosopher) simply creates (or as he would have it, “discovers”) such an “ideality” (the reality that ought to be) and consequently shuns this reality — this deficient, non-corresponding, “apparent” reality.
- The passive nihilist (Buddhist, Eastern philosopher) finds that the “ideality” that ought to exist does not, and consequently shuns both this reality and the language to which this reality regrettably fails to correspond.
Again, both philosophical paths have already been paved with the ought — with the belief that there ought to be a reality that incarnates language. Such a belief is the sound logical conclusion to language’s presuppositions, and to a faith therein.
A man’s unwavering and unconscious faith in language and the reason it entails will logically conclude in the belief that there ought to be a reality where:
- self-contained “units” truly are forever
- the true “forms” of “things” never change, alter, or pass away
- a “thing” truly is “in-itself”
- a “cause” truly is a separate and distinct “event” from its “effect”
- “I” truly am forever
- souls (“I’s”) and truth (“forms”) are eternal
- a perfect, infinite, creating “being”(“God”) controls, knows, and is all
Such beliefs are the logical conclusions to the ought, and consequently, to language’s metaphysical precepts.
For Nietzsche it was no wonder that millennia of men had hoped for and believed in such “idealities.”
After all, every word we say and every sentence speak in [their] favor… I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.
Before Nietzsche, the history of Western philosophy (incomplete nihilism) was simply one event (man finding his language-contrary reality deficient and subsequently creating a language-friendly “ideality”) repeated over and over for three thousand years. Western thought before Nietzsche was simply three millennia of “great doubters and admirable innovators” — three millennia of new and creative thinkers heeding the ought in new and creative ways.
- Judeo-Christians found this “worldly” reality and ephemeral body deficient and creatively arrived at a belief in a permanent soul, God, and heaven.
- Plato found this reality of “shadows”and “aspiring forms” deficient and creatively arrived (through his language/logic-based “dialectic”) at a belief in eternal Truth (the realm of ideal forms).
- Descartes found this altering and possibly illusionary reality deficient and creatively arrived at a belief in only his own thoughts and rational conceptions (and a God to assure the truth of those thoughts and conceptions).
- Kant found this phenomenal, “apparent” reality deficient and creatively arrived at a belief in an a priori, noumenal, an-sich (and consequently unknowable) true world.
The Western philosopher, in response to his discovery that reality is contrary to language, instead of re-examining and re-evaluating language, refuted reality itself and embraced instead an “ideality” that (artificially) fulfilled language’s requirements. Nietzsche writes:
Philosophers have never hesitated to affirm a world provided it contradicted this world and furnished them with a pretext for speaking ill of this world.
The chip on philosophy’s shoulder (against becoming, against reality) was put there by the philosopher’s investment in language:
Words lie in our way!– Wherever primitive mankind set up a word, they believed they had made a discovery. How different the truth is!– they had touched on a problem, and by supposing they had solved it they had created a hindrance to its solution.– Now with every piece of knowledge one has to stumble over dead, petrified words, and one will sooner break a leg than a word.
Man the philosopher believed his “petrified” words, concepts, and reason to be absolutely true, when they were really just pragmatically true. He believed that language was the measure of all things, when the measure (and creator) of all “things” (and language) is truly man himself.
At the time of language’s birth, man’s senses duped him. More precisely, man interpreted his senses’ testimony falsely, and consequently created a language (and world) of ill-founded “things” and “being” (although a language lacking these would be difficult to imagine). Nietzsche writes:
What [man] made of the senses’ testimony… introduced lies; … the lie of unity, the lie of thinghood, of substance, of permanence.
The habits of the senses … wove [man] into lies and deception of sensation: these … were the basis of all our judgements and ‘knowledge.’
Man (mis)perceived and (mis)conceived his world according to the perspectival and unpolished testimony of his senses — (mis)experiencing “being” and “unity,” and thus necessitating the ought (and the future errors and pessimism of incomplete and passive nihilism).
Further examples of such empirical (mis)conception by man punctuate the history of knowledge. For thousands of years men looked to the sky and determined, with the senses, that the sun circled around the Earth. For thousands of years men looked to the horizons and determined, with the senses, that the Earth was flat. Just over five centuries ago a Pole named Copernicus and an Italian named Columbus came along and, through examination, experiment, intelligence, and courage, refuted these empirical oversights.
Experiencing Lies as Lies
Just over one century ago it was a German (or a “good European” in his consideration) whose acuity and boldness sought to correct man’s most overdue and decadent empirical misconception yet: the misconception of “being” and “unity”– the misconception of language.
As the “first perfect nihilist,” Nietzsche was “the first to discover truth by being the first to experience lies as lies.” Nietzsche experienced language as “lies” (insofar as language claims to correspond to reality). He experienced “being” and “unity” as the pragmatically true fictions that they are. But most importantly, Nietzsche discovered the origins of the ought, and by doing so, undermined the ought’s authenticity and authority.
By showing the ought to be simply a logical deduction of synthetic (and false) premises (the metaphysics of language), Nietzsche in effect destroyed the ought — and thus proved all moral conception (and rejection) of this reality and subsequent invention of an “ideality” to be unfounded and unnecessary.
Yet these discoveries, to the discoverer, were not the impetus for a rejection of language. Nietzsche is not telling us never to speak or write again, or even to invent a new form of communication. Rather, as a perfect nihilist, one must treat and utilize language as and for what it is: pragmatic art.
The perfect nihilist treats language not as some infallible treasure map leading to truth (as Western philosophy has), but rather as a consummately aesthetic and pragmatic palette. Language does not tell us the way reality is nor the way it ought to be. Instead, words, concepts, and reason are simply the collective, artistic interpretations of millennia of men, whose proper treatment and use may only enhance, facilitate, and beautify one’s life.
With faith in the ought, words will undoubtably pave a path that leads man to error and pessimism — to decadent nihilism. But oughtless, words become the bricks paving Nietzsche’s “new path to ‘Yes’” To the perfect nihilist, language (sans ought) becomes simply another opportunity for creative valuation, affirmation, giving, and beauty — and consequently, for perfect love.
Part 4: Perfect Love
Our lives are determined.
More precisely, the successive, multi-mechanical patterns of exerting will-to-power forces that we create as (that we call) our “lives” are fatal and necessary. They have already run their course an infinite number of times and will continue to do so for eternity. Our “lives” are simply brief excerpts from the continuous, perfectly meaningless, and fatal “rippling pond” that is the eternally recurring, becoming universe.
So where exactly do these facts leave us? Where does this post leave us?
Where do these facts leave us humans who have always believed ourselves to be selves — to be agents with the power of choice? How shall we continue life with the knowledge that life is not only completely meaningless, but determined in that meaninglessness? How does the perfect nihilist live on after such a realization?
Nietzsche’s prescription is elaborate yet pithy: perfect love.
Whatever the character of his fate may be — in whatever manner the events of his life fatefully play out (in whatever manner the multiplicities of forces constituting him and his world fatefully play out) — a person must love perfectly that fated character and manner. Nietzsche writes:
My formula for greatness in a human being is… that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it.
The perfect nihilist must love perfectly his life in a perfectly meaningless and perfectly determined universe.
Nietzsche’s determinism differs from traditional pre-determinism (predestination) in that the pre-determined man’s life has been pre-chosen for him by another agent (in most cases an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God). Pre-determinism involves a single supremely powerful and creative agent who withholds agency from all other would-be agents by simply pre-effecting their every choice.
In contrast, Nietzschean determinism, as presented in the doctrines of Eternal Recurrence and Will-to-Power, invokes no higher agent–no “determiner.” The events of a man’s life are not preordained by an original and supreme chooser, rather they happen according to the necessary and continuous “effects” of power struggles between (nonconscious) exerting forces. What a man calls his “life” is simply a commentary — a narrative, biographical, linguistic, and artistic interpretation of those mechanical effects and struggles.
Metaphorically speaking, a man’s life is simply one scene in a massive play that has run, runs, and reruns for eternity. Man plays his part (the same part he has played an infinite number of times before and will play an infinite number of times again) and then the scene is over (at least until the next time around). The part, scene, and play were never written or directed by any one agent or at any one time, rather they simply happen — but happen necessarily and eternally.
So according to Nietzschean determinism, man is not a pawn or puppet whose actions have been foreordained by some “Almighty.” Rather man is a “self-conscious” multiplicity of forces that believes “he” (the “self”) “effects” what are believed to be (what are called) “choices.” These so-called and supposedly deliberate “choices,” “acts,” or “volitions” are truly just necessary series of will-to-power events.
Nietzsche does not believe that man does not “make choices.” Man simply makes the same series of “choices” over and over again for eternity. More precisely, the same series of multi-mechanical events happen over and over again for eternity, and man simply (pragmatically and artistically) calls them his “choices,” “acts,” and “volitions.”
Options for the Fated
So every man performs a series of “choices,” “acts,” and “volitions” that he calls his “life.” Every man has an eternal fate — a life that has already been lived in the exact same manner an infinite number of times before and will so be lived for eternity. Such a realization presents options (or so it seems).
A man may look at his present position and the fate that has led up to that position and determine in disgust that his fate is substandard. He may curse, hate, and condemn his fate. Or a man may determine that because his fate is going to happen the way it has always happened anyway, then he shouldn’t really be too concerned with it — he should sit passively back and let his fate simply take him where it will. A man may be indifferent to his fate.
Yet, neither of these alternatives seems to be very practical.
- Condemning one’s eternal fate is, in essence, condemning oneself to not only a lifetime of pessimism, resentment, and discontent, but to an eternity of such lifetimes.
- Being indifferent to one’s eternal fate is, in essence, condemning oneself to a lifetime and eternity of passivity, tedium, and most likely, mediocrity.
Nietzsche balked at both of these alternatives, and chose instead perfect love.
No matter how he arrives at the fatal position he now holds, whether by extensive hardship, ease, tedious monotony, or constant delight, a man must love completely that position and the series of events that brought him there. He must, as Nietzsche writes:
endure this immense sum of grief of all kinds while yet being the hero who, as the second day of battle breaks, welcomes dawn and his fortune.
A man must not be indifferent to his preceding life and consequent position in life, still less despise them. Rather a man must love completely his fated presence. He must believe that he is now, and at every moment, in the best (the most perfectly “beloved”) of all possible positions (for they are the only possible positions).
Both Adore and Make Love to
Yet perfect love does not love merely in retrospect. Perfect love is more than just an adoring review and assessment. As a man loves perfectly the anterior events of his life, so must he also love those to come. Rather than curse or forget that coming fate — the life that awaits — he must love it perfectly. A man must believe that his upcoming fate shall happen perfectly — just as he believes his foregone fate happened perfectly. He must believe that he is fated to perfection — to his ideal life.
For example: my life has already happened an infinite number of times in the exact same manner. It won’t ever happen differently than this. But that does not mean that my life did not, does not, and will not happen the ideal way I want it to happen. Determinism does not mean that my fate is determined badly — that my fate is determined not to be the perfectly beautiful, interesting, and enjoyable fate I desire.
In other words, just because the play is already determined, doesn’t mean that my scene isn’t perfect.
The perfect nihilist believes that his scene, his life, his fate are perfect, and consequently loves perfectly that scene, life, and fate. The consummate events of one’s life have already played out in infinitum. The perfect nihilist simply believes that his have done so perfectly, and will do so for eternity.
Here one might argue that such an optimistic belief can make no difference in Nietzsche’s determined universe, because, whether or not he decides now to love it, a man’s life is already determined, and thus offers no opportunity for alteration.
Such an argument overlooks the fact that in an eternally recurring universe, if a man initiates a belief now (if one begins perfect love now) then one has also already done so eternally before. Such a belief (such love) is just as necessary and fatal as any other event. If one becomes a perfect nihilist now, then one has always become a perfect nihilist at the same point in the same life an infinite number of times both backward and forward.
Therefore one cannot say that a man’s optimism in perfect love is futile — that it can never make a “difference” in a man’s fated life. Rather one must concede that perfect love has always (eternally) made the exact same “difference” in the specific life it graces.
Nietzsche’s Amorous Audience
With this in mind, Nietzsche wrote for only a determined group of privileged individuals. Nietzsche wrote for the “strong” individual — for the man who was already fated to encounter his writings and consequently display the intellectual ability, strength, and courage necessary for a proper understanding and employment of Nietzsche’s ideas. Nietzsche wrote for individuals who were already fated to become perfect nihilists:
“Those who can breathe the air of my writings know that it is an air of heights, a strong air. One must be made for it.”
The perfect nihilist has always already been “made” for perfection — ”made” to experience and reject decadent nihilisms, grasp perfect meaninglessness, and exercise perfect love.
In The Antichrist, Nietzsche discusses more precisely the “strength” and necessity of such a “made” man, as well as the perfect love evinced by his necessary strength:
‘The world is perfect’ — thus says the instinct of the most spiritual, the Yes- saying instinct; ‘imperfection, whatever is beneath us . . . still belongs to this perfection.’ The most spiritual men, as the strongest, find their happiness where others would find their destruction: in the labyrinth, . . . in experiments; their joy is self-conquest; . . . Difficult tasks are a privilege to them; to play with burdens which crush others, a recreation. . . . They are the most venerable kind of man; that does not preclude their being the most cheerful and kindliest. They rule not because they want to but because the are; they are not free to be second.
The perfect nihilist can be nothing other and nothing less than what he is fated to be. Nietzsche writes:
To demand of strength that it should not express itself as strength . . . is just as absurd as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength.
The necessary strength of the perfect nihilist imparts itself in the practice of perfect love — in “the Yes-saying instinct” — and ultimately in Nietzsche’s doctrine of Amor fati: the (perfect) love of one’s fate:
I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.
Amor fati is Nietzsche’s formula for perfect love, and in his opinion, “the highest state a philosopher can attain.”
My Fate’s Only Artist
As stated earlier, perfect love includes both retrospective and prospective love. One must love “without subtraction, exception, or selection” the entirety of one’s fate — past, present, and future.
Such love involves not only affirming the fatal events that have led to one’s present position in life, but also lovingly creating (again, for the “infininth” time) the events to come. Amor fati entails both passive adoration and active (pro)creation of one’s fate. The perfect nihilist both loves and makes love to his fate.
Although Nietzsche discussed and advised often on methods of fatal procreation (how the perfect nihilist proceeds into the future — how he makes love to his fate), Nietzsche knew that the choice is, and must be, the individual’s own. As Zarathustra says:
One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil.
The knowledge, values, character, and life the perfect nihilist creates will ultimately be his own, not Nietzsche’s.
Be that as it may, Nietzsche nevertheless gave advice on everything from intellectual habits to musical taste to dietary habits to the ideal climate (“genius depends on dry air, on clear skies”). He was an avid hiker and once wrote that “only thoughts reached by walking have value.” But in the end, all such specific advice, along with the sum of Nietzsche’s philosophical doctrine, maintains a general exhortation to ars vivendi: making art out of one’s life.
All the work and experience, all the intellectual and empirical achievement, all the spiritual deliberation, all the battles against incomplete and passive nihilism, all the meditation about meaninglessness, all the struggles with language and against the ought, and all the perfect love of fate eventuate and are ultimately subsumed by a specific personal attitude and purpose that one bears and creates in every presence: that I am my life’s only purpose, its only meaning, its only God. I am creator, director, narrator, and main character.
I am my fate’s only artist. I must give it “style.” Nietzsche writes:
One thing is needful.– To ‘give style’ to one’s character — a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye.
Nietzsche most important message (and the conclusion of this exegesis) is that a perfectly giving, life-affirming, and loving attitude can only arise with the most perfect nihilism. In order be the perfect affirmer, the perfect giver, and the perfect lover, one must be the perfect nihilist, the perfect “nihilator,” the “annihilator par excellence.” The former entails the latter.
In order to be a consummate giver of style, meaning, and truth, one must first understand that everything — all style, meaning, and truth — is a gift. One must realize that the universe and the excerpt of the universe that one calls one’s “life” are perfectly meaningless until one gives them meaning.
The Gift-Giving Virtue
To repeat a metaphor used earlier: rather than clearing away the coal that diamonds may be found, the perfect nihilist clears away everything that diamonds may be created.
The perfect nihilist first discovers that everything is “clearable” — that all the “coal” and “diamonds” were simply created and “deposited” by man in the first place. Only then may he clear away everything that he alone may create and give stylistic beauty to his life and world. In Nietzsche’s opinion, such giving is the “highest virtue.” His Zarathustra speaks:
Tell me: how did gold attain the highest value? Because it is uncommon and useless and gleaming and gentle in its splendor; it always gives itself. Only as the image of the highest virtue did gold attain the highest value. Goldlike gleam the eyes of the giver. Golden splendor makes peace between moon and sun. Uncommon is the highest virtue and useless; it is gleaming and gentle in its splendor: a gift-giving virtue is the highest virtue.”
The perfect nihilist finds through his experience with incomplete and passive nihilism — through his experience with language and phenomena — that the universe and life are perfectly meaningless, purposeless, and, in the largest sense, “useless.” With such knowledge, life (conscious life), as we know it — in its most fundamental or complex forms — is recognized as a giving.
In this perfectly meaningless universe, man is by nature the heroic, ephemeral giver. To an eternally becoming world he gives order, truth, and meaning. To his fellow man he gives community, knowledge, and affection. To himself he gives identity, wisdom, and will. Nietzsche believed that the “gift-giving virtue” must permeate the perfect nihilist’s every action. In loving and making love to his fate, the perfect nihilist must become the ever-artistic, ever-affirming, ever-giving “Yes-sayer.”
Only then does he truly exercise perfection.
Wisdom is not communicable. The wisdom which a wise man tries to communicate always sounds foolish. . . . Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it. I suspected this when I was still a youth and it was this that drove me away from teachers. There is one thought I have had, Govinda, which you will again think is jest or folly: that is, in every truth the opposite is equally true. For example, a truth can only be expressed and enveloped in words if it is one-sided. Everything that is thought and expressed in words is one-sided, only half the truth; it all lacks totality, completeness, unity. When the Illustrious Buddha taught about the world, he had to divide it into Samsara and Nirvana, into illusion and truth, into suffering and salvation. One cannot do otherwise, there is no other method for those who teach. But the world itself, being in and around us, is never one- sided.
This, from Siddhartha’s final dialogue with Govinda in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, seems to me an excellent summary of Nietzsche’s opinion of spiritual instruction (including his own). No matter how intelligent, logical, inspirational, or beautiful his words read, Nietzsche was always suspicious and somewhat antagonistic toward them.
For Nietzsche, words always took something dynamic, whole, and “wise,” and “mummified” it — made it “immortal, so pathetically decent, so dull!” He writes:
Sigh.– I caught this insight on the way and quickly seized the rather poor words that were closest to hand to pin it down lest it fly away again. And now it has died of these arid words and shakes and flaps in them — and I hardly know any more when I look at it how I ever could have felt so happy when I caught this bird.
If this paper has shown anything, it has shown perfect nihilism to be logical and easily conceived. Yet, I believe that Nietzsche, although he knew the reasonableness and logical demonstrability of his teachings, considered their procurement to be a more spiritual than intellectual process.
For Nietzsche, perfect nihilism was to be thought, practiced, and felt.
Behind, Between and Beyond Words
Through words, Nietzsche may have described, logicized, and made perfect nihilism thinkable as knowledge, but it remains forever up to the reader to make perfect nihilism practicable as wisdom. Nietzsche always seemed to write with this in mind. No matter how serious the subject, Nietzsche’s tone in his writings remains conversational, assuming, and oftentimes almost fleeting. This because Nietzsche felt, unlike most philosophers, that any available spiritual wisdom lay behind, between, and beyond his words, not within them.
This doesn’t mean that Nietzsche didn’t try to make wisdom communicable. He never stopped trying to make wisdom communicable — to represent wisdom in words as sublimely as it circulated through his head and heart. But his endeavor, although responsible for some of the most beautiful German prose and poetry ever, was always destined for failure — and Nietzsche knew it.
Wisdom was and is ultimately in the hands, mind, and heart of the individual. Nietzsche’s task was simply to let his reader know this while supplying the relevant knowledge.
Now I go alone, my disciples, You too go now, alone. Thus I want it. Verily, I counsel you: go away from me and resist Zarathustra! And even better: be ashamed of him! Perhaps he deceived you.
The man of knowledge must not only love his enemies, he must also be able to hate his friends.
One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil. And why do you not want to pluck at my wreath?
You revere me; but what if your reverence tumbles one day? Beware lest a statue slay you.
You say you believe in Zarathustra? But what matters Zarathustra? You are my believers — but what matter all believers? You had not yet sought yourselves: and you found me. Thus do all believers; therefore all faith amounts to so little.
Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you.”
Only when one has “lost” Nietzsche’s knowledge –”denied” Nietzsche’s words for the sake of one’s own wisdom — will Nietzsche’s wisdom truly “return” to one.
A man may read Nietzsche’s every book, the sum of all Nietzschean criticism, and this paper a thousand times over, but not until one has denied Nietzsche for one’s own spirit — for one’s own experience and wisdom — will one truly understand Nietzsche.
One never touches perfect nihilism if one never nihilifies its teacher. One never touches the wisdom of Zarathustra if one remains forever Zarathustra’s disciple.
With that, I leave you to Nietzsche’s words and your own “wicked thoughts”:
Alas, what are you after all, my written and painted thoughts! It was not long ago that you were still so colorful, young, and malicious, full of thorns and secret spices — you made me sneeze and laugh — and now? You have already taken off your novelty, and some of you are ready, I fear, to become truths: they already look so immortal, so pathetically decent, so dull! And has it ever been different? What things do we copy, writing and painting, we mandarins with Chinese brushes, we immortalizers of things that can be written — what are the only things we are able to paint? Alas, always only what is on the verge of withering and losing its fragrance! Alas, always only storms that are passing, exhausted, and feelings that are autumnal and yellow! Alas, always only birds that grew weary of flying and flew astray and now can be caught by hand — by our hand! We immortalize what cannot live and fly much longer — only weary and mellow things! And it is only your afternoon, you my written and painted thoughts, for which alone I have colors, many colors perhaps, many motley caresses and fifty yellows and browns and greens and reds: but nobody will guess from that how you looked in your morning, you sudden sparks and wonders of my solitude, you my old beloved — wicked thoughts!
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