“There are two ways to enter the domain of philosophy. One is analytical, richly in debt to Plato and Aristotle and thereafter. However, there is another way, through dark, wise, penetrating thoughts, that seem almost atmospheric. Nietzsche is of the later kind. He was a hyper-sensitive man able to write with style. He is like a canary in a coal mind, a prophet, who senses the fate of man who will not overcome himself. He sees in modern society a decline that would have us repress our animal instincts. He used aphorisms and aggressive prose to capture his reader’s attention. Many great philosophers have their own style. Socrates used Irony; Nietzsche used aphorisms. Both tools are meant for the reader to peel their eye and see what’s beneath the surface. His health was always poor, made only the worse by a syphilitic infection that may have resulted in utter madness later in life. Towards the end of his life he collapsed on the street protecting a horse from being abused by its owner. He never recovered.”
Daniel, you brought your copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Will you tell us about its opening?”
“It begins with a man named Zarathustra who is an ancient prophet. His religion had an influence on Judaism. One day Zarathustra climbed atop a mountain in solitude to attain wisdom of God. Ten years past and he rose one dawn day, weary and restless of wisdom, and says:
You great star, what would your happiness had you not those whom you shine. … I would give away and distribute, until the wise among men find joy once in their folly and the poor in their riches. For that must descend into the depths, as you do in the evening when you go behind the sea and still bring light to the underworld.” (Translated by Walter Kaufman)
Percy, an English professor steps into the fray, “The metaphors here are that the mountain resembles elevating upwards to commune with God. However, Zarathustra does not find God. Instead, he discovers the sun illuminating nature and all things on earth. This is his epiphany as he rose up and decided to descend to the depths of the earth where he belongs. The cave could be a metaphor for Plato’s cave but he flips the table over and says that the cave is that otherworldly place where nobody belongs because it doesn’t exist. Instead of living a lie, we ought to live a life in tune with nature’s plan. The depths, the underworld he speaks of, is that sublimated instinctual power man once freely expressed. Zarathustra now feels it is now his mission to share this message and bring man back to their natural state.”
Frank says to Daniel, “Do you mind going on?”
“No problem. After he descends down the mountain he is greeted by an old hermit who saw him ten years ago traveling up the mountain. Zarathustra says he has a gift for mankind, and the hermit rebuffs and says man is a wretched lot, and that he’d rather stay in the forest. There he says, “I make songs and sing them, and when I make songs, I laugh, cry and hum: thus I praise the God who is my god.” Zarathustra walks away contemplating and thinks, “He spoke thus to his heart: could it be possible? This old saint in the forest has not yet heard anything of this, that God is dead!”’
Henry, a priest, rubbing his forehead said, “His explanation for the reason God is dead will be interesting one.”
Everyone around the table knew Henry had his reservations with Nietzsche. He wasn’t grinding his axe, but still, he was sharpening his mind. The years I’ve been a part of this club, I’ve never once seem him lose control. He was a symbol of restraint. He just had this look of pained patience as he rested his right hand on the table, rhythmically tapping his fingertips.
“As Zarathustra enters town,” Daniel said, “he finds a crowd assembled where a tight rope walker is about to perform. Getting their attention, Zarathustra says:
I teach you the Overman. Man is something that shall be overcome… what is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: A laughing stock a painful embarrassment. … I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldy hopes!
Once the sin against God was the great sin; but god died…To sin against the earth is now the most dreadful thing, and to esteem the entrails of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth.
Henry then spoke, “These otherworldly hopes are handed down to us from Plato on into the Christian religion. They created this realm of forms and God’s grace promising a heaven that no wise man has ever penetrated, Nietzsche believes. He wants us to let go of these beliefs, get our heads out of the clouds and come back to earth. All these men who believes in some otherworldly beliefs, Nietzsche concludes, are laughingstocks who believe in religions of servitude and guilt, and it is the exceptional person who rises above common convention and superstition—and yes, himself too–in order to become am infamous overman. This is what I take from it. Judaism was a religion of slaves who were illiterate. The story of Christ was oral at first, and only later written down. However, should man be a laughing stock? All of mankind, I believe, has dignity within that ought not to be scoffed at.”
A moment of silence breaks as a few men take it in and drink and think about what was just said.
“God bless mother Teresa,” Henrysaid, “for seeing just that dignity which is universal to mankind. How ironic it is that Nietzsche calls this exceptional type of person the overman, yet really it seems to be to be the opposite in a way. For the overman doesn’t rise above humanity, it reaches into the underworld, in to the depths of the psyche for a primitive, earthy instinct that he wishes humanity could once again wield. Wouldn’t it be more fitting that this exceptional person be named the underman? I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. At base, that is what the overman must do to regain his will to power. He must reach for something beneath the surface of himself, and tap into something that has a dark, powerful influence that civilization has tried to tame. That descent is the catalyst; it is acknowledgement of what has been sublimated. It’s only then one can live an authentic life he believes. There’s a line from Seneca that I’ve always loved, “I touched the depths, to reach the heights.”’
Frank interjected, “Nietzsche’s style and ideas were supposed to entice the reader to overcome a life that left a void of an authentic life, a life of servitude. He entices his readers to dare to overcome their circumstances and their epoch. On the overman:
The “Ubermenschen” of optimal power do not respond to this enticement sense they do not require it. They are already endowed with the highest capacity for self-creation, and overcome even this Nietzschian enticement by creating their own perspective and values. Here the rejection of Nietzsche’s challenge does not stem from cowardliness or weakness…, but of a surplus of power and an abundance of self that requires no psychological crutches—not even Nietzsche’s. (Nietzsche and Depth Psychology, Jacob Golomb, Pg. 11)
The search for authenticity is even seen as the wish to reflect one’s own indeterminancy by spontaneous choice of one out of the many possible ways of life. Individuals are types of artists who freely shape themselves as works of art.” (Nietzsche and Depth Psychology, Jacob Golomb, Pg. 12-13)
John then raised a finger and noted, “Long, intense suffering is the means in which a fish is forced to jump out of the water of convention and superstition. Suffering almost has to be the goal to finally force us to reflect on our situations we find ourselves in. It forces us to reflect on upon ourselves, our relationships and our place on earth in society.”
“But why is God dead?” Spencer asked
John put down his drink and said, “It was the fault of the enlightenment and its scientific and philosophic achievements that Nietzsche believes put God into a coffin. To harken back to the Romanticism, Kant put a barrier between what we can know through science and what is beyond the grasp of man in the noumenal realm. God would be in the latter category of that which we cannot know.
After the “death of God” one has to adopt for oneself the Godlike role of being the originator of truth and of one’s own self. The absence of a “pre-established harmony” between our cognition and reality permits us to shift our emphasis to the creation of our own genuine selves.’ (Nietzsche and Depth Psychology, Jacob Golomb, Pg. 12)
“Furthermore,” Albert added, “Darwin’s functional teleology, its purpose, does not suppose a God. Darwin actually was asked why God couldn’t have set evolution in motion. Darwin simply responded:
I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.
What Darwin saw as nature’s purpose was survival through conflict and competition, and later in his book The Descent of Man we have a different method through sexual selection. He believed all of this to be driven instinctually.”
“Yes,” Henry said, “but what Darwin’s theory left out was the most intimate parts of our common humanity: our purely abstract thoughts not based on instincts; our aesthetic domain, which takes up so much of our time and energy; and our moral domain, where one will sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. Why would nature ever endow us with these domains? What would nature’s point be for giving us these gifts? This is a question for all seasons.”
“Maybe Nietzsche,” John said, “is fundamentally wrong. After all, it was nature that gave us these faculties, whether it be guided by the functional purpose of evolution, or given to us by a providential god. This discussion is reminiscent of a debate a man named Henry Huxley, often referred to as Darwin’s bulldog, and Matthew Arnold in the 19th century. Huxley believed that the classics were useless, and that if one wants to make a practical difference in the world one ought to study science. Arnold, after thumbing through Darwin’s book, The Decent of Man, found just the right quote within it and commented: The “hairy quadruped furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in his habits, this good fellow carried hidden within his nature, apparently, something destined to develop into a necessity for humane letters. Nay, more; we seem finally to be even led to the further conclusion that our hairy ancestor carried in his nature, also, a necessity for Greek.” (Matthew Arnold, Science and Literature) Nietzsche’s Greek influence was strong. He’s heavily in debt to the Greeks, but also towards the science of the time, which is the reason for God’s death.
“Interestingly,” Albert said, “evolution has no predictive power, It’s called the natural history method for a reason. It can only look at history and then try to explain by hindsight what has happened in nature.”
“What has evolution and history showed?” Henry asked. “Maybe something is moving its way through history, guiding us along a path that further humanizes and cultivates us progressively through time. So, with these faculties, and the difficulty of a science, that can only use hindsight, shows there are limitations and holes in evolution, as great as it is. Furthermore, there are two ways we can look at our humanity. We can start with the primitive goo and where it went from thereafter, and then there is the way through culture which guides us and gives us examples of great people and ideas that never should be forgotten.”
Albert, knocks on the table twice, “Interestingly Nietzsche believes it to be Christianity’s own fault for the death of God. Nietzsche points out this passage in the bible:
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
Nietzsche is saying that the snake bit its own tail, because Christianity gave aid to the rise of science due to its domain over the earth and its animals. Darwin was just the culmination of what Christianity started. The Darwinian evolution took away God’s providential plan. Darwin’s effect on our thought, Nietzsche believes, has us believe that we are just like any other creature, accept for the fact we deny our will to power. Darwin is saying, we are not made in God’s image but instead something more like primordial pond scum. Furthermore, the next universal historian shouldn’t first look to Babylon for our origins, but to some kind of primordial goo which we came from. Why look to pond scum? Because that’s where nature gave birth to the will to power, to ourselves.”
Henry replied, “There may be a new science which explains these three faculties someday. The enlightenment, which thankfully brought about science, can only get us so far. Philosophy can only get us so far. However, we all play in the turbid, turbulent waters of metaphysics, even Nietzsche must. The philosopher, scientist, poet, and priest all play this game whether they know it or not. Metaphysics are the underlying theoretical principles of any subject. Entering into these modes and categories of thought one must think about these things not with certainty, but with caution. To doubt is to be a rational human being. The folly is that Nietzsche has come to a conclusion that he is certain of. To be so certain without a doubt may also be an act of hubris, a Greek term that he is well acquainted with. Any man who does not have his doubts may fall into folly, for theory of evolution itself has evolved.”
–Spencer objects, “Nietzsche is only a seismograph, not the earthquake. He is the canary in a coal mine. The canary is the first to be effected by poisonous gases. He is the first to see where western civilization is headed. He’s merely connecting the dots between the science and philosophy of his age, and where it took him given the information of his time.
After the dust settles, and more rounds were ordered, Daniel finds another highlighted line in the book. Daniel continues:
What is the greatest experience you can have? It is the hour of the great contempt. The hour in which your happiness, too arouses your disgust, and even your reason and virtue too.
The hour when you say, “What matters my happiness? It is poverty and filth and wretched contentment.
Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss.” Any way he looks there is danger.
I love those who do not first seek behind the stars for a reason to go under and be a sacrifice, but who sacrifice themselves for the earth, that the earth someday become the overman’s.”
Frank nods his head, yes. “That is Nietzsche right there. Why must our greatest experience be the hour of the great contempt? He believes that one attains the key through contempt, through suffering that which unlocks the overman inside oneself. However, isn’t there another way? Isn’t there another way than looking at oneself with such hatred and suffering? Is there another way to drive us across the tight rope towards becoming that exceptional man? We’ve seen great men do this through other means have we not?”
Without hesitation John calmly says, “Yes, through love of others, of one’s attachment towards great examples and even ideas. We’ve seen it through many of the great books and stories that love leads us aloft. Love pushes us towards what elevates and uplifts. It has the power to drive us ever farther than we’ve gone ever before. Where Nietzsche believes we should go through some kind of death in order to be reborn. Plato, on the other hand, believes we ought to go through some kind of purification that begins with love, and then through the dialectic one can go from a man of iron or bronze, slowly up towards a man of gold, where his dark horse can be tamed. The dark horse, Nietzsche believes, has become blunted by the current epoch. In Plato’s Symposium we have one of the greatest lovers, Socrates, being instructed by the mysterious women from Mantinea, Diotima. She teaches him how love is to cultivated. We see this time and again in his dialogues. Furthermore, the Old Testament god may reign with fear but through the New Testament we get quite a different message, one driven by love through the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Which path is the right one? One through devotion towards love or one through the pains of suffering? I belief both may leads to a life where one is worthy of oneself. However, the questions are: which one would you rather choose or may be effective? Which one is in line with the nature of human nature? Whichever one is adopted though, that person still needs to have sight to see past the surface of life and love, or else the suffering is meaningless and the love merely superficial.”
Daniel continues with another highlighted line, ‘“I love those who do not first seek behind the stars for a reason to go under and be a sacrifice, but who sacrifice themselves for the earth, that the earth someday become the overman’s.”’
Spencer then said, “I believe this line is about embracing this world, this earth, not that Platonic or Christian otherworldly realms that Nietzsche believes is blasphemy against nature. Furthermore, that one should sacrifice or rather choose to live their life here on earth, rather than that realm behind the stars, beyond this world in heaven, which is man’s dream.”
Frank said, “Keep picking out the lines that are important to you, Daniel.”
“The time has come for men to set himself a goal. The time has come for man to plant the seed of his highest hope. His soil is still rich enough. But one day this soil will be poor and domesticated, and no tall tree will be able to grow in it. Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer shoot the arrow of his longing beyond man, and the string of his bow will have forgotten how to whir!”
A moment’s pause and Percy looked like he had an understanding and slightly raised his hand to get everyone’s attention. Being an English professor he always seemed to quickly grasp at metaphors in whatever we read. He could see past the surface into the meaning with ease.
“Nietzsche,” Percy said, “is recounting that we can no longer aim our arrows towards God, for God is dead. We must set a new goal. However, if we don’t do it soon then we may domesticate ourselves so much that no tall tree will ever grow, no overman will ever come. This is because our soil, or rather our basic impulses nature endowed us with, have been so hidden, denied, and repressed in ways that are treasonous to ourselves that we may fall off the tightrope and never have the strength to get back up and try, try again. Culture suppresses our true potential, our true natures, Nietzsche believes. Since there is no God, no heaven, then we must string our bows and aim or arrows towards the overmen and art as or salvations. That’s our new hope.“
As we drank, I could feel everyone’s brain cells warming up as we thought about that metaphor. Nietzsche is, after all, one of the most read philosophers in Western civilization, and the goal here was to put why that is on the table. Furthermore, to ask the question if his philosophy is worth living.
Daniel opens the book back up and flips through the pages to find more highlighted segments:
“I say unto you: one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: You still have chaos in yourselves.
Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give birth to a star. Alas, the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself. Behold, I show you the last man.”
“Again,” Frank said, “he is turning the table on Plato. Plato wants us to harmonize the chaos within so that we may become ever great lovers, friends and thinkers. Nietzsche on the other hand wants to hold on to that chaos, hold on to what most moves us in our psyche, this primitive will to power, so that we can overcome all obstacles and roadblocks that have put a stop to the will to power. Society, teachers, and even how our parents have raised us, has shackled us to an inauthentic life that isn’t our own. Nietzsche wants to free these bonds that have shackled us for millennia’s in order to free ourselves from fear, sloth and habit.”
Albert slightly raised his hand and asked, “What is this ‘will to power’?”
“This Chaos,” Percy said, “that gives birth to a dancing star has Greek influences. This goes back to the Greek cosmology, first there was Chaos, an abyss. Out of this abyss arose Tartarus and Eros and earth. Eros is at once a creative power and yet a destructive power. It’s behind rape and pillage, war and conquest. In turn, overmen are the courageous, curious, brave and creative. The metaphor here is that we must look inside ourselves, stare unflinchingly into the dark abyss of chaos until it stares back. It’s then that you can give birth to that dancing star that arises out of Chaos, this instinctual power we all have, which is still there. To see it, to embrace it, and to wield it is to obtain the will to power. Forget about those other unearthly realms, Nietzsche says, your place is here on earth. The exceptional few, who experience the hour of the great contempt, they have walked the tight rope to the other side. They are intimately acquainted with self-loathing, the mistrust of others, and the misery of one’s own life. Those are the few who have seen the abyss staring back at them, realizing what they’ve become and the inauthentic life they’re living. When that hour of great contempt comes they discover what truly has a grip on their life, and see all that gave way to an inauthentic life must be thrown to the waste side. This is the beginning of what is right and true. Once you do that you have overcome yourself and can finally live a life worthy of oneself. It’s a life of struggle, suffering and strife, but through the struggle you can finally live a life authentically one’s own, one with dignity.”