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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