“Whenever explaining how a philosopher’s most far-fetched metaphysical propositions have come about, in fact, one always does well (and wisely) to ask first: “What morality is it (is he) aiming at? Thus I do not believe that an ‘instinct for knowledge’ is the father of philosophy, but rather that here as elsewhere a different instinct has merely made use of knowledge (and kNOwledge) as its tool.”
Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil
The Death of God
Nietzsche’s ‘God is dead’ is a European event, in the following two senses. First, it is a description of the state of things; a diagnosis of European culture. God was alive, and now is dead. Second, it is a philosophical event; the conquest of a particular awareness. It opens up a path for thoughts to outcrop; and ultimately it will lead to a new culture, actually, a domination of culture, once the thought is fully understood and its character is at play.
The time in which Nietzsche lived, as he sees it, is comprised between these two senses: God is already dead; yet His death is not acknowledged by the Europeans, nor are its consequences yet entirely visible. In his age remain shadows of God, that is, moral strategies that try and resist the consequences of what he calls the ‘greatest deed,’ the murder of God. Science, ethics and politics form a triumvirate of masks behind which the same metaphysical world that was sustained by the faith in God, while it lasted, remains hidden and operative as a reigning morality. The philosophical event, the awareness of the meaning of the death of God, aims at ridding the world of these remaining shadows and thereby clearing the ground for a new foundation.
Nietzsche’s work attempts to explain how it is possible to say ‘God is dead’ without falling into contradiction; God being, by definition, eternal and death an exclusive condition for mortal creatures; in order to ultimately show what this perspective implies for a life. Furthermore, Nietzsche’s work attempts to offer an alternative, the alternative, not only to the epoch before God’s death, but especially to Nietzsche’s epoch, which we can classify broadly with the term ‘modernity’.
The announcement of the death of God, as stated in Gay Science 125, resembles the structure of classical elegies structure comprised of a lamentatio and a consolatio. However, the consolatio is interrupted because the announcer, the madman, realizes that it is ‘too early.’ The section starts with the madman searching for God in the market place. The audience (“as many of those who did not believe in God”) laughs at him. In response, the madman announces the death of God; the cause of death (“We have killed him — you and I”); its meaning (“how could we drink up the sea? Who gave us a sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun?”) and its consequences (“Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up and down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?”).
This makes up the core of the lamentatio. The most terrifying things are happening, and although these laments, this feeling of falling apart and having lost all references, are common in all mournings, –because they constitute the cornerstone of the subjectivity of mourning–; in this case they have not the character of hyperbole but rather of precision. “How could we drink up the sea” implies both an impossible deed, too big for humans, as well as a swallowing of the symbol for the absolute, the sea. “Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the horizon” implies the absence of another actor, because nobody gave us such a sponge; and, also, an elimination of the idea of reference. The horizon is the indeterminate, infinite, goal. It does not matter how hard one tries to reach it, it moves away all the time, because it is an optical illusion. And “what were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun” implies both the unconsciousness with which we did this deed, and a cosmological breakdown: the chain between sun and earth is the law of nature as we have understood it hitherto. The force of gravity, the calendar, the harvest, morality, and life itself depend upon this chain. Thus, the sea-absolute, the horizon-ideal and the sun-law are all destined to die following the death of God. The consequences of this event aim at a cosmological nihilism: after the death of God we stray, that is, without purpose, accidentally, through an “infinite nothing.” Without God all meanings, all sense, are losing their vital pulse.
The next five questions of the madman’s speech are a transition to the consolatio (“How shall we comfort ourselves…”). The premise is the following: since we are the authors of this great and unthinkable deed we must also appear great and unthinkable under the axioms of the epoch before His death. This is why there are no water, no religious festivals, no cleaner that can erase the mark of this murder. These were the old ways to compensate a sin. The only consolation now comes from the affirmation of ourselves under the light of the greatness of this deed. (“Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”) The greatness of the deed transforms the terrifying consequences into arguments for our own greatness. The consolatio is then announced: “There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us –for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”
However, before the madman can tell his audience why that is so, and how being the greatest murderers can be the symptom of a “higher history,” he falls silent, and states, “I have come too early.” In this part of the speech, the madman develops one of the main themes in Nietzsche: “This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men”. This theme is in itself contains a theory of causality of culture. An event as significant as the death of God takes time to be acknowledged, heard, perceived. Before Nietzsche or the madman can proclaim the reason for the consolatio, before the higher history can be predicated, the death of God, its meaning, must be known. Even those who “did not believe in God”, his murderers themselves, remain ignorant of the event. But the “theory” is true of all events, including the event of Nietzsche’s doctrine: he expects to triumph posthumously, because the transformation activated by his doctrine, if any, will take time to appear.
Meanwhile, men live under the effects of the tremendous event but without any capacity to respond to it. The sea-absolute, the horizon-ideal, the sun-law are gone but the men who knows how to live in such a time has not yet arrived. The men of the meanwhile are armed with the abilities, structures, values and goals of the previous epoch; men understand themselves as sons of a former time. They belong to the threshold. This is why the madman interrupts the consolatio and keeps pushing the understanding of the lamentatio:
It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”
Shadows of God
Thus, the death of god is not the actual death of a supernatural creature actually existing in a supernatural world; the death of God is the falling apart of the metaphysical structure of belief, at the top of which was the Judeo-Christian figure of God. Nietzsche’s era, as he sees it himself, starts with the building up of a metaphysics of purpose, a morality in the strictest sense, where the seed of the Jewish God was able to flourish. This morality is Greek idealism. Three elements comprise these metaphysics of purpose: first, the priestly Jewish morality, with its valuation of the inner, spiritual, man over the external, physical man, that is, the priest over the soldier; second, the philosophical transformation brought by Socrates-Plato, that is, the identification of Good and Truth and the affirmation of a metaphysical world of mental realities; and third, the mixing up of both of them with the transcendental equality offered to the resented rabble by Jesus’ heirs. The result is a belittling of life and the world in favor of the afterlife and the other world. The sacred world, the world of knowledge –the truthful world–, and the world of the real –the world of Being— are one and the same. Meanwhile, the world of deception, the world of becoming and passing away and the world of the senses, (that is, life as we live it), are, at their turn, also one and the same.
The formulation and perfecting of this analysis will last Nietzsche’s entire career. The formulation of an alternative, the alternative, will be accompanied by the effort of showing the profundity of this “error.” The error is so great, so present, so part of ourselves that even before starting to announce the overcoming of it, one must first destroy it. The reason for this need for destruction is the dependence of our way of thinking and expressing to this metaphysical system that includes everything from grammar to religion. A new language based on new premises must be created, but this is impossible to accomplish without passing by a moment of absolute nothingness. Total destruction, total silence. The only available option is re-shaping the meaning of the current language so as to be able to use it in such a way that the metaphysical system behind it is not affirmed. To do so, a process of destruction of ‘culture’ is needed.
Nietzsche’s first formulations of this error are different than the later ones, but in spite of the fact that he later came to despise some of them, they are valuable to the extent that, apart from showing the path of his thinking, they already make it available for us to understand the extension and profundity of the error. Thus, in Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, the first serious encountering of Nietzsche’s philological knowledge with his philosophical attitude and imagination, he writes widely about the emerging of this system, european rationality, in the speeches and assumptions of Socrates:
“…a profound delusion, which first came into the world in the person of Socrates –the unshakeable belief that, by following the guiding thread of causality, thought reaches into the deepest abysses of being and is capable not only of knowing but also even of correcting being. This sublime metaphysical madness accompanies science as an instinct and leads it again and again to its limits, where it must transform itself into an art: which is the real goal of this mechanism.”
Three ideas are presented in this fragment. First of all, the idea of delusion. A delusion is a lie that one presents to oneself. The role that one’s will plays in this lie is unclear. At a first glance, if a delusion is successful, and it supports a belief, it would seem that the subject deluded must not be aware of its untruthfulness. And, therefore, he or she cannot will to live by a delusion, not because of its convenience, but because she or he does not know that it is a delusion. However, for this unwillingness to be at play, the goal of the individual must be truth above all other things. And, for truth to really be the primary goal it must be proven to be of some value for life. The word delusion depends on a theory of truth, a morality of truth, that is precisely the content of such a delusion. Yet, if the goal is not truth, then the deluded subject might simply not care about the accuracy of a belief. Or, otherwise stated, one can will something else so adamantly that this will overcomes the need for truth, so that one can want a delusion as such, because the role that truth and being play in the delusion, as well as the content of what truth is, make possible for the other, real goal to be closer.
The second idea is the content of the delusion, that is, a ‘belief’. It has two parts: the belief in the power of following the chain of causality to reach the truth, and the belief in the power of this knowledge of the truth to transform everything of which it can be predicated that it is. In other words: if one were to be capable of understanding the mechanism of cause-effect one would also be able to supplant the cause, and thus become the cause of being. But the mechanism of cause-effect relies on the following assumption: that something that is present, namely the effect, can only be understood through something that is absent, the cause. Primarily, the cause is absent because it belongs to the past, it was present. But secondly, and this is the core of the error, the cause can also be absent in the sense of belonging to another order of things. The other world. And this results in a reversal of the problem: the cause is always present, because it is absent
The access to this other world causes makes it possible for the human intellect to see the closer world from an outer perspective, and makes its superiority in size and multiplicity attainable by the finite and small individual. So that the flow of becoming can be understood as a decoded movement orbiting around a static absent being. Being can be corrected because the access to the cause as an intellectual image, and the belief that this image is “deeper”, truer, than the effect, (pure symptom), makes it possible for a human mind to modify this image at will. By living under the dictate of such ideas of being and truth, one can effectively change life, because what does not fit is ignored as an error, one lives in a delusion. So change gets another meaning: change within the delusion. The illusion of the depths of being is corrected in the delusion. The world of becoming, as false, becomes irrelevant: as much as the contradictions between the two worlds multiply, the argument for the illusion seems to increase in cogency. The delusion of truth allows for a illusion of lie and deception to be predicated.
The third idea is a conclusion apparently taken from the former two. This delusion, this ‘metaphysical madness’, is the instinct of science. What began with Socrates as an assumption of an error in the place of truth, and as the elevation of truth above all other goal, has ended up as the law that justifies all knowledge to be taken seriously, and the reality of scientific discourse above all other reality. Science, Nietzsche is saying, relies on a faith as much as any other form of faith. Or as he will say in the Book V of The Gay Science in 1887: “we see that science also rests on a faith; there simply is no science ‘without presuppositions.’ The question whether truth is needed must not only have been affirmed in advance, but affirmed to such a degree that the principle, the faith, the conviction finds expression: ‘Nothing is needed more than truth, and in relation to it everything else has only second-rate value.’”
But this is still the birth of tragedy, so part of this third idea is strongly influenced by Schopenhauer’s idea of art: “and leads it again and again to its limits, where it must transform itself into an art: which is the real goal of this mechanism.”
And it belongs to an epoch of his writings when Nietzsche thought, so to speak, that the solution for the decadence of Europe was that Richard Wagner wrote more and longer musical works. So the reference to “art” here, and the emphasis on “this mechanism” (the delusion) is related to the envy that Socrates and with him all rationalists and philosophers and scientists hitherto feel against the arts. They want to substitute art for their metaphysical madness. But what do they envy exactly? What is the ‘real goal of this mechanism’? A little later in the Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche says
: “To say that in life things really do turn out so tragically would be the least satisfactory explanation of the emergence of an art form, if art is not merely an imitation of the reality of nature, but rather a metaphysical supplement to the reality of nature, set alongside it for the purpose of overcoming it.” Against what these scientists and rationalists pretend, namely, to relegate art as just a form of expression, Nietzsche places it in the center of life. This evaluation of art as the motor of overcoming, as the metaphysical solution will disappear early enough in Nietzsche’s thought, but not the idea that science and rationalism, with this metaphysical delusion, pretends to be “a metaphysical supplement to the reality of nature, set alongside it for the purpose of overcoming it.”
This delusion, this metaphysical madness that leads science, produces a worldview that substitutes the reality of the world for a set of static laws. The purpose of truth masks a metaphysics of purpose that sacrifices the reality of becoming for a lie of being. Although the ‘death of God’ implies a religious event, the metaphysics of purpose behind the discourse of Science, and the purpose of overcoming life that Science itself has, remain as shadows of God, a dike guarding against the event of awareness. Nietzsche, on the other hand, asserts the world of becoming, and the purposelessness of the world as an awakening from this error. Thus, in The Gay Science he says:
“Let us beware of saying that there are laws in nature. There are only necessities: there is nobody who commands, nobody who obeys, nobody who trespasses. Once you know that there are no purposes, you also know that there is no accident; for it is only beside a world of purposes that the word “accident” has a meaning. […] Let us beware of thinking that the world eternally creates new things. There are no eternally enduring substances: matter is as much of an error as the God of the Eleatics. But when shall we ever be done with our caution and care? When will this shadows of God cease to darken our minds? When may we begin to ‘naturalize’ in terms of a pure, newly discovered, newly redeemed nature?”
From this perspective, the debate between Religion and Science becomes a fratricidal quarrel. Important, but familiar. Religion seeks to find the purpose of life and the world by a revelation from the law-maker, while science looks for the purpose in the law. The tension between causality and accident, or substance-object, belong to this same worldview that tries and finds the permanent being, a delusion, in order to appease the anxiety of the passing away of the world, and the impossibility to penetrate nature, because there is nothing to penetrate.
The alternative worldview that Nietzsche offers has at least two main characteristics: it has no common viewpoint from where agreement on ‘truth’ is possible; and it is a purposeless, impermanent flow. Rooting his model before Socrates, Nietzsche finds in both the style and the content of what is left of Heraclitus the formulation of the mystery of this flow at play. In his early essay, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, Nietzsche already explains both the extreme pessimism and fear that accompany the affirmation of this cosmology, and the extreme hope that can be found in the affirmation of the play of eons, all while paraphrasing Heraclitus. For now, he has explained this affirmation as an aesthetic attitude in front of the chaos-cosmos; later on, Nietzsche will turn this aesthetic attitude, this artistic thirst, into an existential hunger in front of the eternal return, and the artistic model will become a metaphor to explain the room that exists within necessity. However, in the next fragment I am quoting he is explaining this cosmos-chaos as the artistic attitude, ‘all in innocence:’
“And as children and artists play, so plays the everliving fire. It constructs and destroys, all in innocence. Such is the game that the aeon plays with itself. Transforming itself into water and earth, it builds towers of sand like a child in the seashore, piles them up and tramples them down. From time to time it starts the game anew. An instant of satiety –and again it is seized by its need, as the artist is seized by his need to create. No hubris but the ever self-renewing impulse to play calls new worlds into being.”
While the artistic reference will play a very diminished role in the later formulations, in both describing and treating the european anxiety in front of the randomness of everything, the fact that this ramdomnness-as-necessity, and the amor fati mirror each other at the end of his career, makes of this symmetry between artistic cosmos and artistic (a-)morality pinpoint to the core of the problem: from Socrates until the shadows of God one assumption has been always at play, namely, the identity between cosmology and ethics. Since the apparent cosmology, heraclitean fire of becoming, seems to push men towards nihilism, men decided to create a cosmology that could be said to be equal to their morality. Only under this assumption can Plato imagine in the Republic a polis that mirrors the soul. Only under this assumption does the metaphor sun-law of the madman find the common reference. While religious men preach that our soul is the mirror where their cosmology –including God– is reflected, actually the mirror is above the sky: aggrandizes the instincts of the soul. Science, as long as it undertakes a research for a permanent truth, stuffs the empty corners of the image, the delusion, reflected in the mirror with references to nature. By way of changing God for one of His adjectives, a preconditioned idea of permanent truth, with the same characteristics that poets ascribed to God, Science has brought the most powerful analgesic discourse possible: it has found a way to call everything else a lie. Nietzsche justifies this by saying that the impossibility of truth as a permanent thing causes desperation:
“The everlasting and exclusive coming-to-be, the impermanence of everything actual, which constantly acts and comes-to-be but never is, as Heraclitus teaches it, is a terrible, paralyzing thought. Its impact on men can most nearly be likened to the sensation during an earthquake when one loses one’s familiar confidence in a firmly grounded earth. It takes astonishing strength to transform this reaction into its opposite, into sublimity and the feeling of blessed astonishment.”
Besides the positives reasons that might be behind the transformation of this reaction ‘into its opposite,’ what is wrong with the consolation that the delusion of science offers? If truth is not at stake, because the real goal of science is an overcoming of reality, and reality is purposeless, why not live the lie? The inversion of the mirror, that is, making the world an image of our instinctive morality rather than making (a-)morality a mirror of the instincts of the world, plus the impossibility of believing in the God-agent, forces men to walk the path of desperation to the awareness of the randomness-as-necessity; assuming an idea of truth that does not exist ends up by concluding that ‘nothing is true’ rather than ‘truth is nothing’. Complete nihilism, instead of complete freedom. This is why Nietzsche calls it a ‘shadow of God’ and not ‘another God’; because it pertains to the dusk of an epoch, and because the current state and role of Science is a consequence of the same impulse that has killed God in a religious sense. In his notes on European Nihilism of 1887:
“But among the forces nurtured by morality was truthfulness: this ultimately turns on morality, discovers its teleology, the partiality of its view point — and now the insight into this long-ingrained mendacity, which one despairs of throwing off, acts precisely as a stimulus. To nihilism. We now notice in ourselves needs, implanted by the long-held morality interpretation, which now appear to us as need to untruth: conversely it is on them that the value for which we bear to live seems to depend. This antagonism on them that the valuing what we know [erkennen], and no longer being permitted to value what we would like to hoodwink ourselves with — results in a disintegration process.”
- the sea-absolute
The notion of ‘absolute’ is another pillar of this metaphysical structure, one of the shadows of God. This one is the most related to the idea of God in itself, and its evolution and presence, for example in modern Newtonian physics, is always related to the need for something, or Someone, able to sustain the parts as a whole. The absolute is that not qualified or diminished at all, non conditional, not conditioned, the escape from a world of infinite relations and change. At once, limitless and the limit for all other vanishing echoes. It is the opposite of nothingness, while ‘somethingness’ obtains its meaning by way of comparison between both extremes.
Notions of absolute space and time make the notion of movement to be explained as an idea, as an abstract quality, rather than as an experience. It is a source of value, a vertex that places meanings according to the notions of more and less, a sequence between zero and the infinite. The infinite contains all other quantities, this is its quality, and at the same time allows for a certain concrete amount of something to be a number, that is, to have a place of its own even amidst a wave of change and becoming.
The greatness of the absolute turns everything else relative, contingent; thus, as much as it gives value to all cases, it takes all values away, unless they become absolute as well, meaning that a case is actually thought as if it were intrinsically universal. The individual man, as a case, is here the target. The valuelessness of a life, a person, is compensated by an understanding of ‘man’ in relation to the absolute. In this way, all earthly movement of the body or the soul becomes meaningless. Nothing but the approach to the absolute as a notion or as a Person gives enough value to man to overcome the nothingness of the flow of life.
To ‘drink up the sea’ means then to have become the meaning giver, ‘the meaning of the earth.’ Not that men were not the real value-meaning givers, but the use of the delusion of absolute implied an outer perspective, God’s eye perspective, so that weaknesses could become meaningless compared to the absolute value of the abstract man.
In this sense, Religion (Christianity in particular) worked as the value ordainer, the measurer of the absolute and the relative (to obtain the power, according to Nietzsche). The force that life has had to be undermined in order to control all forces. Religion sucked up all value of life in order to distribute it according to loyalty and power. Like the idea of purpose behind the law of nature, the notion of absolute, even without its personification in a God-agent, has an effect against life, as Nietzsche says in Ecce Hommo:
“The concept of ‘God’ invented as the antithetical concept of life (…). The concept of ‘the beyond’, ‘real world’ invented so as to deprive of value the only world which exists –so as to leave over no goal, no reason, no task for our earthly reality!”
Therefore, by drinking up the sea, and fully become a value-giver, a ‘meaning of the earth’, on a case by case basis, men give back to life its reality. However, at the same time it takes away ‘man’ from his usual place in the cosmos: “By surrounding him with eternal perspectives, it [Religion] taught man to see himself from a distance and as something past and whole.”
The fact that God is dead but the event has not yet reached men’s ears, the fact that the notion of ‘absolute’ is no longer playing its part, that the fiction is already beginning to be seen as a the fiction it is, a useful fiction at the most, risks all valuations, all meanings, until all becomes an absolute lie. The wholeness of man disappears, and the relation between time and experience explodes: nothing is comparable anymore, no experience can be related to a ‘myself’ or to ‘human dignity’: comparative meanings are gone.
In his nachlass on European Nihilism Nietzsche enumerates the ‘advantages’ that the ‘Christian morality hypothesis’ offers. He is not enumerating the advantages that the existence of God offers, he is talking about what remains of that old (no longer possible) belief in God. European morality is the constructum that uses the shadows of God as bricks. The discourse of science with its will to Being-Truth; and now the notion of the absolute are two of these bricks. Both of them are in decadence –they are shadows, after all– and so far their decadence means exclusively a loss (of truth-being and value-meaning) and not a gain. However, as we have seen above, truthfulness “ultimately turns on morality, discovers its teleology, the partiality of its view point — and now the insight into this long-ingrained mendacity, which one despairs of throwing off, acts precisely as a stimulus. To nihilism.” The ultimate conclusion of one of the shadows of God, namely, the will to truthfulness, destroys another, the notion of absolute. What is lost in this process is what the ‘Christian morality hypothesis’ had to offer. Does the cancelation of these advantages lead inevitably to nihilism? If this is so, it is only because this morality, and this metaphysical madness, already had to presuppose nihilism as that against which it was to serve as guardian:
“What advantages did the Christian morality hypothesis offer?
- it conferred on man an absolute value, in contrast to his smallness and contingency in the flux of becoming and passing away
- it served the advocates of God to the extent that, despite suffering and evil, it let the world have the character of perfection –including ‘freedom’ — and evil appeared
- it posited a knowledge [Wissen] of absolute values in man and thus gave him adequate knowledge [Erkenntniss] of precisely the most important thing
it prevented man from despising himself as man, from taking against life, from despairing knowing [Erkennen]: it was a means of preservation — in sum: morality was the great antidote against practical and theoretical nihilism.”
Besides the first and the third advantage, that is, the evaluation of man as absolute and the recognition, insight, [“Erkenntniss”] of value, that have been explained above, let us see in detail the second one. First, it is worth noticing that “Christian morality” serves the “advocates of God”; that is, morality grounded the argument in favor of the existence of God and His prevalence, but, more importantly, it could serve them because it rendered absoluteness as “perfection.” The intrinsic wholeness that the notion of ‘absolute’ has, combined with an identification of Being, Truth and Goodness, complete the circle of perfection. The world of ‘passing away’, of ‘becoming’, of ‘suffering and evil’, as the present effect of the absent-present absolute, cannot be as it is by the law necessity, because as a law, it belongs to this abstracted world of permanent entities, the world of being, truth and goodness. The very affirmation of the idea of necessity implies the rest of the delusion. Thus, necessity must reflect truth, being, goodness and absoluteness. Freedom is the necessary mechanism behind the apparent imperfection. Again, the more the world differs from the delusion, the more this idea freedom becomes cogent.
However, this freedom is a moral freedom: it works as a justification of the world of becoming, the real world, so that values can be applied to what causes suffering. By rendering suffering as evil, this morality makes it irreal, a fiction in the sense that it passes away, it does not belong to the Being-Truth-Good. It is the proof of freedom, and freedom is the proof of evil. Christian morality achieved an ‘absolute’ moralization of the chaos. The Christian cosmos, by inserting freedom-purpose into necessity, transformed necessity into law, and thus substituted instinct and strength with an evaluation of purposes: the more absolutizing the more valuable. So that life could be carried on despite contingent despairs, a ‘means of preservation.’ By drinking up the sea, man negates the absoluteness of the sea: he can drink it up because it is finite, it has a greatness relative to the capacity of man of drinking it up. A possible deed. The simple possibility is already a form of nihilism, because it proves the delusion, but the image of drinking offers an image of man with an inner power of affirmation of value. ‘Inner’ in the sense of ‘of his own’, ‘proper’, ‘necessary.’ A total necessity, a necessity of life, instinct, that equals total randomness. A new form of freedom is already drafted here.
The horizon is a line. An illusory line. A lie with extension. Where the earth’s surface and the sky appear to meet. The furthest a single perception can reach. The delusion of an ‘end’ at an otherwise insignificant curve of an imperfect sphere, namely the earth (an ‘ellipsoid of revolution’). Everybody who can see, sees it. Everybody who can move, knows it does not exist as a line. Nor as a place. It only expresses direction in a movement; and only from the point of view of the moving viewer; that is, perspective. Except if one believes that it is actually a moving line. A line to chase. In this case one would believe that the movement, the chase, is caused by the movement of the line rather than the opposite, that is, ‘the chase moves the target’. Or, except if one only half-mistrusts the line, and believes that the actual cut is just far, far away. Most of the beliefs caused by perspective were solved by the outer look, the outer perspective, provided by scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. In a sense, they gave us a sponge to ‘wipe out the horizon’. It is not an end, it is not a line, it does not move. Exactly as the roundness of the earth (an ellipsoid of revolution) rendered the horizon as a matter of interpretation, of perspective, and of understanding the limitations of sensual experience — i.e. optics — as a means to explain the world; the death of God — not unrelated with the cosmological turn — renders the moral meaning that the word ‘horizon’ brings metaphorically, as a matter of interpretation, perspective and understanding of the finitude of man and its only world, the one of the senses. There is no end, there is no line to mark direction, there is no movement towards it.
The moral meaning of ‘horizon,’ [from the greek limiting], implies the limit of a person’s perception, in a psychological sense, the limit of a person’s experience, in an existential sense, and the limit of her interest, in a spiritual, value-giving sense. Now that we are not mistaken about the irreality of the horizon on a landscape, the moral horizon is the indeterminate, infinite, goal. It does not matter how hard one tries to reach it, it moves away all the time, because it is an optical illusion. Once this horizon is wiped out, duration has no meaning: there is no reason to wait, expect or sail to Ithaca. Urgency is the norm. Secular, immanent, determinate goals, –horizons –, come closer. Progress is the shadow of that old, transcendent meaning of horizon. Ultimately, like all other shadows of God, it leads to nihilism: purposeless straying through nothingness. Modern ethics and politics, that is, discourses of rational expectations for the private and the public lives, are the realms of the moral horizon; the reference that marks direction for those who still hold a metaphysical belief, the reason for revolution for those who hold a materialistic, secularized belief in progress.
In his early essay On the Utility and Liability of History for life (1874), Nietzsche says:
“And this is a universal law: every living thing can become healthy, strong, and fruitful only within a defined horizon; if it is incapable of drawing a horizon around itself and too selfish, in turn, to enclose its own perspective within an alien horizon, then it will feebly waste away or hasten to its timely end. Cheerfulness, good conscience, joyous deeds, faith in what is to come –all this depends, both in the instance of the individual as well as in that of a people, on whether there is a line that segregates what is discernible and bright from what is unilluminable and obscure; on whether one knows how to forget things at the proper time just as well as one knows how to remember at the proper time; on whether one senses with a powerful instinct which occasions should be experienced historically, and which unhistorically.”
First of all, this fragment is involved in a discussion on the convenience of historical knowledge for life. Like all his texts of the early period, until Human all too Human, it includes visions and assertions that will change dramatically. However, they are a testimony to the struggle of Nietzsche over some key problems. In this case, it shows the tension between notions of progress, goal, ideal, and notions of memory, history, horizon. Since already in the title it is obvious that the essay has a moral objective (utility, liability for life), so that historical wisdom is secondary to life, these notions will be rendered as different moral strategies.
Thus, Nietzsche proposes three types of experiencing, historical, ahistorical and supra-historical. Historical men, men who know history and seek for historical meaning in their lives, are the men who remember. Their actions, their present moments, are loaded with loyalty and commemoration. The deeper their knowledge, the wider is their horizon, the further is their goal, and the more spiritualized their ideal: they believe in progress. Ahistorical men, men who would ignore historical meanings and seek for lively moments, are the men who would forget. The sum of their actions, their lives, would be weightless and vanishing. The deeper their forgetting was, the narrower would be their horizon, the closer their goal, and the more sensual their ideal: they would not understand progress. Supra-historical men are those who overcome their historical knowledge by seeing behind it a set of necessities, always present. They understand that past, present, and future was, is, and will be ‘the same.’ They don’t believe in progress, but they are a progress. They are able to go into the moment a-historically and thus turn it historically significant. They know what to forget and what to remember. Their horizon is both the widest and the narrowest. Their ideal is the discontinuum of time. Their goals do not reflect any difference between spiritual and sensual.
Every living thing needs a horizon. Animals are completely ahistorical: their horizon is “a point.” Men cannot have such a narrow horizon because men remember and make promises. But an extremely wide horizon, the furthest ideal, atrophies men, turns them decadent, and nihilistic at last. It turns them into haters of life. It regulates so much their lives that it perverts their experience by making every moment a failed image of the future ideal. All is sacrificed –the present is so meaningless sided with the past, after all– for the ideal. The horizon is then the ideal turned context: a set of references for values. Horizons ‘segregate what is discernible and bright from what is unilluminable and obscure.’ Narrow horizons, on the other side, are very powerful in giving meaning to particular experiences. They are temporary –falling in love, for example, generates a narrow temporal horizon–and they reflect more precisely the becoming of the world. They enhance life. In a sense, men need both a wide horizon and narrow horizons: to sense with ‘a powerful instinct which occasions should be experienced historically, and which unhistorically.’
The notion of ‘powerful instinct’ is the key of this passage. An instinct, that is, a involuntary, purposeless, necessary drive that senses which occasions –that is, random moments– are to be experienced full of purpose (and therefore meaningless in themselves) and which moments have to be lived without purpose (and therefore meaningful in themselves). The will here plays no role at all: fullness of the meaning of time and fullness of the meaning of ‘the moment’ are but variations in an instinctive sensitivity. Horizons are thus references for interpretation. They define experience but they do not trigger it. Necessity does.
The wiping out of the horizon that the madman enunciates implied a uniqueness of reference: the horizon. It was a collective horizon, the ideal of God-Good-Truth-Being made context; a justification of the failure of life in giving meaning to itself. With its disappearance all meanings are out of context, and they are gone consequently. Brightness or obscurity are no longer projected unto interpreted moments. Purposelessness reigns. However, a shadow wanders about. The longing for an ideal, the delusion of a free will, tries and creates the widest possible ideal, and turns it into a context: science, ethics, politics, all shadows of shadows. Modern regulative fictions, noble lies, empty life for the sake of an impossible belief, a corpse.
Fifteen years after the On the Utility…, in Twilight of the Idols (1888), Nietzsche will say.
“No one is the result of his own intention, his own will, his own purpose; no one is part of an experiment to achieve an ‘ideal person’ or an ‘ideal happiness’ or an ‘ideal of morality’ — it is absurd to want to discharge one’s being onto some purpose or other. We invented the concept ‘purpose’: in reality, ‘purpose’ is absent… One is necessary, one is a piece of fate, one belongs to the whole, one is in the whole –there is nothing which could judge, measure, compare, condemn our being, for that would mean judging, measuring, comparing, condemning the whole…But there is nothing apart from the whole! That no one is made responsible any more, that a kind of Being cannot be traced back to a causa prima, that the world is no unity, either as sensorium or as ‘mind’, this alone is the great liberation — this alone re-establishes the innocence of becoming…The concept ‘God’ has been the greatest objection to existence so far…We deny God, we deny responsibility in God: this alone is how we redeem the world. –”
Ultimately, the death of the delusion of God drags along His shadows in tow. The race towards nihilism is both a process of awareness of the event, and a belief that the hypothesis God, with all its consequences, was the only alternative.
And with its disappearance, only non-sense remains. But the death of God is essentially an impossibility of belief. It is not a death in the sense that while God was believable He existed, it is a death of the belief itself, which shows that God actually never existed. Accordingly, all the other beliefs that were derived from the belief in God are proven to be not only another delusion, but also a delusion impossible to maintain any more. What Nietzsche says is that not only God, or eternal Goodness and Truth have become impossible, inexistent, dead ideals. The very same notion of ideal is impossible. The core of the delusion concerning ideals, the obscurity that we now call shadows of God, is the belief in purpose, the belief in one’s will and transcendental freedom to judge and choose an ideal, and order life according to it. This belief made possible a particular valuation of life, a very harsh one indeed, that tended to diminish it, but not, as humans tended to belief, a transformation of life into a mirror of the ideal. Contrary to what the established way of thinking would say, the reign of necessity, fate, is a form of liberation for Nietzsche and his new scheme. Purpose was an invention posited over existence, over fate, over necessity, in order to conceal them. The rule of necessity in life channeled by itself a relations of forces, instinctive, natural forces. The blanket of purpose, the chase after an ever-moving horizon, was meant to be a distortion of the witnessing of these relations of forces. The liberation from the delusion is a explosion of lucidity and authenticity. Although we will come back to this, as well as to the entire alternative offered by Nietzsche, here a common apparent contradiction is at play, and it is worth pointing it out because it will play a central role in the upheaval of the values: the absence, the destruction of the idea of freedom is the liberation because all the metaphysical delusions, all shadows of God, are but a chain on life. And the content of the belief is the fruit of a mis-evaluation of powers, of these forces, a confusion that overrates the influence of a decision over time, a delusion of the “exorability” of time.
“Two kinds of causes that are often confounded. — This seems to me to be one of my most essential steps and advances: I have learned to distinguish the cause of acting from the cause in a particular way, in a particular direction, with a particular goal. The first kind of cause is a quantum of dammed-up energy that is waiting to be used up somehow, for something, while the second kind is, compared to this energy something quite insignificant, for the most part a little accident in accordance with which this quantum “discharges” itself in one particular way –a match versus a ton of powder. Among this little accidents and ‘matches’ I include so-called ‘purposes’ as well as the even much more so-called ‘vocations’: They are relatively random, arbitrary, almost indifferent in relation to the tremendous quantum of energy that presses, as I have said, to be used up somehow. The usual view is different: People are accustomed to consider the goal (purposes, vocations, etc.) as the driving force, in keeping with a very ancient error; but it is merely the directing force –one has mistaken the helmsman for the steam. And not even always helmsman, the directing force. Is the ‘goal’, the ‘purpose’ not often enough a beautifying pretext, a self-deception of vanity after the event that does not want to acknowledge that he ship is following the current into which it has entered accidentally? that it ‘wills’ to go that way because it — must? that is has direction, to be sure, but –no helmsman at all? We still need a critique of the concept of ‘purpose.’”
The ‘concept of purpose’ is at its turn an invention brought about by so called ‘ethical teachers,’ for whom morality is a means to obtain leverage, since by nature they belong to the weak side of the relation of forces. What begins with an over-evaluation of one-self, based on the idea of infinite goal, of regulatory ideal, so that “purpose” and “intention” become virtues rather than superfluous vibrations in the moment of energy discharge; and a under-evaluation of health and strength, ends up with a complete reversal of the forces of nature, a delusion of good and evil, high and low. The ultimate goal is then the justification of an illusory world capable of conceal ing the misery of weaknesses, that is, the denial of necessity and his timely sister, fate. The key of these ethical teachers is the apparent rationality of their expectations, by which reason, that is, knowledge, overrules life by commanding her, as Nietzsche states in this fragment of The Gay Science:
“In order that what happens necessarily and always, spontaneously and without any purpose, may henceforth appear to be done for some purpose and strike man as rational and an ultimate commandment, the ethical teacher comes on stage, as the teacher of the purpose of existence, and to this end he invents a second, different existence and unhinges by means of his new mechanics the old, ordinary existence.”
Once the first symptoms of the death of God begin to become present in modernity, and while the idealist other world, the scientific faith in truth, and the rational expectations of ethics are still casting their shadow on Europe, a new political discourse has emerged, namely, that of socialism. By secularizing the promise of a better life, meaning both turning the final goal of the entrance into the kingdom of God into a temporarily closer goal, and conceiving it as a redistribution of matter, wealth; Europeans have found a way to keep the ideas of progress and process alive. The ‘ethical teacher‘ invents another world, and the modern socialist wants to bring that other world –with its transcendental equality
, its truth based on causality, and its reasonability– into this one. Socialization is another way of saying universalization. The erasing of weakness still is the mandate of the modern socialist. If the ethical teacher tried to despise the world that placed his nature within the weak, the modern socialist pretends to eliminate weakness. They equally harbor a hate for life. And they both trigger a morality based on sacrificing life for the sake of an ideal. The secularized form of longing and wait for that ideal to come that christians had is revolution. Ideas of progress and process have to be preconditions. Process: there is something to be made over time that causes change. Progress: the change can reach the ideal.
“The political delusion at which I smile in just the same way that my contemporaries smile at religious delusion of earlier ages, is principally secularization, belief in the world and deliberate ignoring of the “beyond” and the “afterworld.” Its goal is the well-being of the fleeting individual: which is why its fruit is socialism, i.e. fleeting individuals want to conquer their happiness through socialization –they have no reason to wait, as do human beings with eternal souls and eternal becoming and future improvement.”
There is a contrast between “deliberate ignoring of the ‘beyond’ and the ‘afterworld,’” and “human beings with eternal souls and eternal becoming and future improvement.” The first expresses the core of secularization, a substitution of the deceased God. Their opposite are the old Christians. Their fruit is socialism. But the opposite to socialism is not the old Christianity. Its opposite are those human beings linked to eternity and future improvement of the second sentence. Again, then, we are facing here the problem of the horizon-ideal. The wiping out of the horizon precipitates secularization, another shadow, which transforms the object of the belief but not the belief in itself. It seems that it narrows the horizon but it just tries to make it present, actual, closer. Human beings with ‘eternal becoming’ on the contrary, have ‘future improvement’. The do not improve the country, or society, or ‘the herd’; they are human beings –individuals– that have future improvement. The goal that Nietzsche is positing here is a personal evolution, or self-overcoming:
“Another ideal runs ahead of us, a strange, tempting, dangerous ideal to which we should not wish to persuade anybody because we do not readily concede the right to it to anyone: the ideal of a spirit who plays naively –that is, not deliberately from overflowing power and abundance –with all that was hitherto called holy, good, untouchable, divine; for whom those supreme things that the people naturally accept as their value standards, signify danger, decay, debasement, or at least recreation, blindness, and temporary self-oblivion; the ideal of a human, superhuman well-being and benevolence that will often appear inhuman — for example, when it confronts all earthly seriousness so far, all solemnity in gesture, word, tone, eye, morality and task so far, as it were their most incarnate and involuntary parody –and in spite of all of this, it is perhaps only with him that great seriousness really begins, that the real question mark is posed for the first time, that the destiny of the soul changes, the hand move forward, the tragedy begins.”
This goal will appear once the shadow of the faith in truth and the purposeful law of nature, the concept of the absolute and its value-giving consequences, and the belief in an actual existing horizon disappear. However, this three shadows and their secularizing symptoms are all related to an understanding of the experience of time linked to the old believe in God. Eternal truth against the passing away. Absolute time against the moment. Historical against ahistorical experience. Thus, before the tragedy begins, namely, the interpretation of Zarathustra, let us briefly state some characteristics and consequences of Nietzsche’s approach to time.
The idea that time advances is deeply connected with the ideas of process and progress. The fact that one thing happens after another is interpreted under the light of this idea of time as a question: was the second thing caused by the first? When this thought is projected into the future, time becomes the unfolding of evolution. If causality can be traced back until the prima causa, i.e. absolute being, effectuality can also be expected forward. The final goal and the context delimited by the horizon are as far away in the future as the prima cause is in the past. The experience of time is taken to be a part of a whole progressive time, so that an event, an occasion, obtains its meaning from its place in the process towards the final end. As with all the cases we have been analyzing so far, the moment becomes insignificant per se, an illusion of passing away in contrast to the absoluteness of the whole time.
This is related to the earlier discussion on The Utility and Liability of History of Life. A historical experiencing of life takes the wholeness of time as the reference, while an ahistorical experiencing of occasions isolates the moment and makes of its character the only pulse of the experience. The former is purposeful while the latter is purposeless. The former is time-framed, the latter is timeless. As we have seen, an ahistorical mode of experiencing life is available only to the animals, because men remember and make promises. And a completely historical experiencing sacrifices the moment for the sake of History, meaning also a final goal, a meaning. One of the main characteristics of the men of the meanwhile, decadent Europeans racing towards nihilism, is that while they have destroyed the notion of purpose present before the death of God, they have not get rid of the evolutionary notion of historical-absolute, meaningful time.
“With an ‘in vain’, with no aim or purpose, duration is the most paralyzing thought, especially when one realizes one is being duped but is powerless to prevent oneself being duped.”
Duration is the sum of moments, but it implies continuation. A time through which something continues. It is about subsistence (e.g. the latin word durare — to last — comes from durus, — hard). The moment, on the contrary, is what does not last. The understanding of time as progressive has the regulatory ideal, the longing, waiting and expecting of it, as that thing continuing. The regulatory ideal makes time endure from an absolute beginning — identified with the Cause — and an absolute transcendental end. But in a duration without goal the only thing that ‘subsists’ is the nothingness of destination. No direction, no movement: pure paralysis.
In order to overcome this paralysis every moment must gain significance in itself:
“Every fundamental characteristic at the basis of every event, as expressed in every event, would need to impel any individual who felt it was his fundamental characteristic to welcome triumphantly every moment of existence in general. It would need this fundamental characteristic in oneself to be felt precisely as good, valuable, with pleasure.”
The most important problem of this drive (“to impel” in the passage) is that it must exist “in general” to be applied to “every event.” So there is need for a frame, a horizon, a context, that is able to render every moment as significant while totally disconnecting one given moment from another. If the frame regulates every moment it hence becomes a regulatory ideal again, and the meaning of the moment becomes a relative meaning to the ideal: the moment ends up becoming devalued and the same vicious circle starts over.
Moreover, if the frame is not present and if man has to harbor “future improvement”, how can his process of improvement be carried on from isolated moment to isolated moment, while giving a god-like value to each of them?
“Would a pantheism in this sense be possible? If we remove finality from the process, can we nevertheless still affirm the process? — This could be the case if something within that process were being achieved at its very moment –and always the same.”
We have a hint here of the theme of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same. The idea of “the same” can maintain both the idea of process in the experiencing man, while not restraining any moment’s intensity for the sake of another, future, moment-goal. The affirmation of the inability to change the continuous flow of change that goes from moment to moment, in an everlasting becoming, suddenly frees the moment from the wholeness of time as an experience but maintains it tied up with life, pleasure, cheerfulness and improvement by establishing a frame of necessity –the same– that does not regulate experience, just occasions. This understanding of time opens up a breach to affirm a new form of ideal, the Overman, as we will see, one that does not work as a regulative ideal but precisely the other way around: as an anti-regulative ideal open to eternity in every becoming:
“Let us impress the image of eternity on our life! This thought contains more than all the religions that have taught us to despise this life as something fleeting and to look towards an indeterminate other life.”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra
- speeches and life (introduction)
Zarathustra is not a model, but rather a destiny. In several moments during his journey he warns his disciples not to believe in him, not to follow him, not to copy him. The tale of Zarathustra is a compound of trips and speeches. Very little is said of his historical role, even of the epoch of his wandering. We know his age and little more, a grey hair is mentioned at the end for example. Obviously, the men to whom he is directing his speech are modern Europeans in spirit. They belong to the time when God is already dead but the consequences are not fully acknowledged. Men of the meanwhile. The care with which Nietzsche describes places and situations seems to aim at not giving concrete clues that could place the action in a country or a year. Marketplaces, ships, cities, mountains, islands, people, all the sets and the interlocutors are just sketched enough to become a sufficient context for the speeches but they do not come about so determined that the speeches might have only historical or political value. So the essential aspect of the work is the sum of the speeches, and they seek for common situations and places. However, the tale-like structure of the book, the fact that it resembles a novel, that it tells a life –or at least a part of it– and the most important fact that, besides the speeches, what appears to be the motor of the story is a set of decisions taken individually by Zarathustra when he faces both internal discoveries and external responses to his speeches, imply that the goal here in describing Zarathustra is not to turn him into an ideal of man, not even an ideal of the man of the future that he himself preaches, namely, the Overman.
Even from the title we can grasp this particular characteristic of the book. “Thus spoke Zarathustra” focuses the attention on what he has to say, his teaching. “A book for everyone and no one” emphasizes the anti-modelic character of his humanity. Unlike Christ, he does not ask of us that we imitate his deeds. It is a book for everyone because the doctrine is for every individual to hear, and it is for no one because Zarathustra’s life is his destiny, not everyone’s destiny.
Zarathustra wants to influence the course of humanity. His tale begins with his solitude in a cave at the top of a high mountain. His solitude, the wilderness that surrounds him and the high perspective puts him in a position beyond human affairs. His place, where he retired 10 years earlier, is a place outside history, and it only makes sense within his particular story. But, at the same time, is not an ahistorical momentum. He is not taken by the drive of the moment. The moment does not impel him to feel the character of the event as a triumph of his humanity –like an enamored man would live his passion. Rather, he seems to be in a supra-historical spot. He has the power to make the decision of “going down,” “as a man”, as he says in the Preface, to the realm of his contemporaries and warn them about their futures, and give them hope for a change in their values. He becomes historical in this sense, but he is never dragged out by the historical circumstances. Seemingly, he finds his identity through each of his speeches; they change him as much as they can change the others. They are lived and preached not as insignificant occasions turned into significant events for the sake of a future ideal. They resonate and transform from and in themselves.
In his outline on the Recurrence of the Same in his notes of 1881, Nietzsche says:
“The new heavy weight: the eternal recurrence of the same. Infinite importance of our knowing, erring, our habits, ways of living for all that is to come. What shall we do with the rest of our lives — we who have spent the majority of our lives in the most profound ignorance? We shall teach the doctrine — it is the most powerful means of incorporating it in ourselves. Our kind of blessedness, as teachers of the greatest doctrine.”
The effect of the Eternal Recurrence is that of increasing the value of life. The infinite importance of knowing and erring, habits and ways of living implies an evaluation of the concrete as motor for the future. What one does and knows, and what one does not do and does not know, are what precipitate what is to come, rather than being an infinite future that conditions life. Consequently Nietzsche is here talking to and about himself: both the question and the answer, however, are applicable to both Nietzsche and his creature Zarathustra. The question and the importance of life ‘for all that is to come’ suggests that he is talking here to the liberated modern men after the death of God. If a new ideal, namely the Overman, is to come after them, now that they know it, what is to become of them? The transition from ignorance to awareness, the philosophical event of the death of God, what effect must it have in us if we are not yet the Overman himself? “We shall teach the doctrine” because “it is the most powerful means of incorporating in ourselves.” This is crucial.
At a first glance, this answer resembles the structure of all apologetic activity performed by preachers of all religions hitherto. It would seem as if the same damned mechanism that Nietzsche has been condemning is operating here: one must do something, teach, for the sake of a future ideal that one is not going to live in his life. However, the notion of “incorporating” offers an alternative to this first glance. We become what we teach by teaching it. The act of teaching, the moment of teaching, becomes at once historical and ahistorical. One advances the Overman by teaching the doctrine, namely The Eternal Recurrence of the Same, that makes the Overman possible. By living it one makes it real. The relation between life and doctrine is a matter of putting an interpretation at work. Life has infinite importance: the key is the value-giving activity.
Let us go then to the teaching itself, and see why is its effect like that. An entire analysis of the book would lead us far beyond the reach of this paper, and it would be partially useless since most of the themes that appear in the different sections are repetitions or reformulations of the topics we have already covered in part I. We will focus on 2 sections in order to understand the effect of the Eternal Recurrence for the Overman and for the men who teach its coming.
- The preface: the last man versus the Overman
The preface of Thus Spoke Zarathustra has ten parts. The first one describes Zarathustra’s cave (he will go and come back several times during the journey), this supra-historical place –or state– from where — or which — he makes the decision to go down as a man and give the gift of his doctrine, the Overman. A gift that will ultimately force him to teach the terrible vision of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same. In a sense, it will force him to teach it to himself, that is, to incorporate it in himself. The second one is the encounter with the old saint. Here the theme of the death of God and His shadows is stated as a presupposition for the rest of the book, for the doctrine itself. The hermit lives between the city and the cave, in the forest, a midway between the secularized men of modernity and the supra-historical state of Zarathustra. The hermit does not know that God is dead, and his belief in Him, and His perfection, his love for God, causes, as we have seen, the impossibility of loving humanity — “Man is too imperfect a thing for me. Love of mankind would destroy me,” he says — but he does not preach any doctrine anymore: the transformational effect of the belief in God does not exist anymore, and the hermit spends his time humming and singing to praise God. Like ‘a bear among bears, a bird among birds’ he has no horizon or ideal, but he lives a life of liturgy, praising God. This saint cannot live in history anymore, but he cannot live above history either. He is an empty shadow, a relic: his only interests are sentimental.
Once these two premises have been stated, Zarathustra arrives at the city’s marketplace, where a rope dancer is about to entertain the local audience. And there and then immediately Zarathustra utters his first speech. This is the purest speech of the book. Actually, it belongs to the preface and not the first book, entitled Zarathustra’s Discourses. It is the purest because it does not take into account people’s reactions. Zarathustra came down from his supra-historical standpoint because he had a gift to give away. This gift is the teaching of the Overman.
In the first few verses of the speech Zarathustra explains the meaning of Über in the composed word Übermensch. “Man is something that should be overcome” is a very strong statement. Overcoming man could mean to defeat man, to prevail over man, to rule over man, to deal with it as a problem and solve it. The Overman to come could just be a tyrant over mankind. But the second verse of the speech says: “What have you done to overcome him?” This already changes the meaning of overcoming and aims at self-overcoming. The Overman will be a product of man. Something must be done in order to create this Overman. Unlike former religion ideals the Overman is a product of man, not an external model according to which one must re-shape his life and relations until they are all transformed into a suffering longing.
The next four sentences induce the reader to see this overcoming of man as something similar to natural evolution. The distance between ape and man is equivalent to that between man and Overman. However, when Zarathustra gets into the details, this distance is not meant to be ‘genotypic’ nor ‘phenotypic,’ thus, is not the ‘essence’ or the ‘aspect’ of man that he is talking about. An ape is for a man an embarrassment –because men know that they come from that mirror of their instincts and ugliness– as much as man will be an embarrassment for the Overman. Hence, the distance is a distance of value. From the perspective of a man, an ape is embarrassing. For the man to become an embarrassment, the Overman has to be a new, superior perspective. This is a moral distance.
The second strophe of this first address introduces one of the most important characteristics of the Overman: he is an immanent ideal: ‘The Overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: The Overman shall be the meaning of the earth!’ As we have seen in section 2.b of this paper, the disappearance of the absolute –‘How could we drink up the sea?’– is one of the meanings of the death of God, which principal consequence is the loss of an outer fixed reference able to place things and events according to a value relative to the absolute. Meanings given by this tension lost their pulse. By drinking up the sea, men can become either nihilist or value-givers, meaning-givers, interpreters and interpretants. Overman’s life can contain good and evil, and give values to all things. Actually, a few verses down, Zarathustra will say: ‘In truth , man is a polluted river. One must be a sea, to receive a polluted river and not be defiled. Behold, I teach you the Overman: he is the sea, in him your great contempt can go under.” Being the meaning of the earth means to live as an interpretation of immanence and becoming. The Overman is not the transformer of the earth, the subversive challenger of necessity: he is the meaning, the value-giver, of the earth. Furthermore, the contrast between the “is” of the first sentence (‘The Overman is…”) and the “shall be” of the second (‘The Overman shall be…’), that is, the contrast between description and prescription, is mediated by the intervention of the will in a characteristic way. The Overman is the meaning of the earth is a statement of necessity. Men must let their will say that what the Overman is, the Overman shall be. This might be a formulation of the amor fati, or at the very least, it does not contradict the notion of amor fati whatsoever. The real free will –’Let your will say…’– affirms as prescription what necessity describes. But, then, by not negating necessity, immanent necessity, experiencing and value-giving become available. Exactly the opposite of the scheme under God or His shadows: necessity was negated, experiencing was forbidden, and values were all subverted and originated outside man. The Overman is the meaning of the earth, and this is his freedom. Besides, this second strophe concludes by contrasting the command of Zarathustra to clear the way for the Overman (‘remain true to the earth’) with the super-terrestrial hopes.
The rest of this speech consists in Zarathustra explaining what to do to create this Overman, but only in its no-saying version. Man must experience contempt for their current values: happiness, reason, virtue, justice and pity. To become clean of this ‘poverty, dirt and miserable ease’ one has yet to find a ‘madness’ (‘Where is the madness, with which you should be cleansed?’). This madness will be the doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same.
Since the audience laughs at his first address, Zarathustra becomes strategic: he tries to show how embarrassing is the alternative to the Overman, given that God is dead, and that all the evaluations that came from Him are also dead or about to disappear. In section 5 of the preface, Zarathustra shows them the “Last Man.” It is important to notice that Zarathustra’s contemporaries are not last men. The Last Man represents a no-turning back decadence of the current man. The Last Man is hopeless: if he were to arrive, no Overman could come out of it: “The time is coming when man will give birth to no more stars. Alas! The time of the most contemptible man is coming, the man who can no longer despise himself. Behold! I shall show you the Last Man.”
Again, we face the theme of the ‘man of the meanwhile.’ Zarathustra’s audience are not Overmen, nor they are to become one, they belong to the time after the dead of God, but they have not yet reached the most nihilistic consequences of the disappearance of all the metaphysical and moral structure of what seemed to be the only alternative to nothingness, namely, the Socratic-Judeo-Christian ideal. But the unawareness of this potential consequences and the unwillingness to destroy what is left of the system, leads this men of the meanwhile towards giving birth to the Last Man.
The Last Man is the absence of meaning. He has lost the metaphysical structure that gave meaning to the sons of the former time, when God or His shadows were present, so now he asks what is creation, love and longing, but he does not ask himself this questions seriously nor has he any answer but a blink of the eyes. His questions and his answers are unable to bring meaning to life: he has lost the possibility of a horizon, so he has become ahistorical like an animal. His worries are animalistic worries, as are his goals. The earth has become as small as his horizon is, and he has become indestructible like an insect: he lives longest –quantity being the only quality available to him. Love is just warmth: that is why the last man migrates to warmer sites and still has neighbors. Sickness and mistrust are sins to him, because both express the same kind of weakness: mistrust, questioning his beliefs, could kill him as a sickness can. And since survival is his only task, sickness must be a fault. He has a little poison now and then because it “produces pleasant dreams. And a lot of poison at last, for a pleasant death:” the Last Man leads a life of dreams even when he is awake. He blocks access to the reality of the earth and its becoming; and he negates the truth of the moment of death and with it the truth of his passing away. He knows history but he thinks that since it is entirely meaningless it only deserves mockery, and it brings no weight to his current actions and life. Last men are extremely moderate, and most importantly, they don’t have leaders — no one wants to rule –; no wealth or poverty — “too much of a burden”–; and, consequently, “everyone wants the same, everyone is the same.” There is no value, no rank-ordering, no meaning, no improvement applicable to these Last Men. They have “invented happiness” because since they have put to exile all meanings and evaluations, only their organism have remained susceptible to affect their sense of happiness, and they try and stay warm, drugged and well-digested.
- The abysmal thought and the greatest weight
The preaching of the Overman forces Zarathustra to posit the abysmal thought of the Eternal Recurrence of The Same (ERS), and thus accept the destiny of being the teacher of this abyss. The ERS is both an abysmal thought and the greatest weight. It is an abysmal thought to the extent that it is an hypothesis in the structure of time. And it is the greatest weight to the extent that it is a postulate for the (a)-morality of the Overman. In order to accept the greatest weight Zarathustra needs to overcome the disgust that the abysmal thought causes in him. Let us see this in detail.
The first section of Part III of Thus Spoke Zarathustra is entitled “Of the Vision and the Riddle.” Zarathustra is leaving the Blessed Islands where he has been teaching for some time and heads to the cave again. To do so, he takes a ship. The first two days of the trip Zarathustra remains silent, as if he were trying to ‘digest’ a very difficult thought. On the third day — like Jesus resurrected, that is, after overcoming mortality — Zarathustra opens his eyes and talks. The audience, that is, the sailors, is not innocently chosen. From the subtitle of the book, the question of who are his listeners, disciples, friends and enemies is constantly present in the book. The seeking of hears able to listen to his teachings is one of the most important factors in Zarathustra’s decisions and speeches, a seeking consistent with the problem of the ‘men of the meanwhile’. Even in the section entitled ‘Of Redemption’ in which Zarathustra speaks to a group of crippled, their spokesperson asks, ‘Why Zarathustra speaks to us differently than to his disciples?” After Zarathustra’s response (“One may speak in a hunchbacked manner to a hunchback!”), the cripple closes the section with an enigmatic question: ‘But why does Zarathustra speak to his pupils differently — than to himself?’ This ending expresses with great eloquence Zarathustra’s solitude. He has been carrying a heavy burden all alone. He cannot even utter the abysmal thought; he cannot bear it. And he suspects that nobody else is prepared to hear it, both in terms of understanding and bearing.
Thus, the audience that will hear a version of this thought are the sailors on the ship. Which characteristics do they have to deserve such an honor or damnation? As Zarathustra begins to praise them in order to explain why to them this thought is revealed, it is easy to recognize that their values are the closest to the values of the Overman, that is, they choose to life one of the most in-determined lives while being most vulnerable to necessity. They are curious and courageous people (“venturers and adventurers” sailing through “dreadful seas”); they love mysteries and thoughts difficult to understand conventionally (“you who are intoxicated with riddles”); they would rather act intuitively than rationally (“Where you can guess you hate to calculate”); and by sailing they travel unknown, undetermined, self-created ways on the sea. To them Zarathustra tells his vision, a tale than contains a riddle.
In the vision, Zarathustra walks his way up to what seems to be a sort of mountain through difficult and tricky paths. It costs him a lot of effort, and on top of that, he is carrying a creature ‘half dwarf, half mole; crippled, crippling, pouring lead-drops into my ear, leaden thoughts into my brain,’ that he calls the Spirit of Gravity. Before Zarathustra can get up to wherever he is going, he must first overcome the weight that this Spirit of Gravity adds to his quest. The Spirit of Gravity tries to discourage him to continue. Finally, Zarathustra, out of courage, faces the dwarf: “You! Or I!” A brief but significant monologue on courage follows. Courage is needed in order to affirm this abysmal thought. An attacking courage ‘destroys giddiness at abysses,’ and it ‘destroys even death, for it says: ‘Was that life? Well then! Once more!’ Hence, courage is needed first to overcome Gravity, both if this spirit reefers to seriousness or to the force with which the earth attracts a body to its center; but more importantly, attacking courage is the virtue that allows men to answer the ethical question behind the formulation of the ERS affirmatively.
In The Gay Science -341 there is the complete formulation of this sort of ethical postulate:
The greatest weight. – What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence –even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and everything, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?
This aphorism already contains the four main aspects of the abysmal thought. First, the cosmological announcement of the thought: the eternal repetition of the sequence one is experiencing, and all sequences as well. Second, the invitation to become oneself the law-maker, the judge and the law-enforcer. Third, the ethical question: “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” And fourth, the consequences for oneself that this question in “each and everything” would cause: it ‘would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight.”
Let us start with the cosmological announcement. The first implication of an understanding of time as eternally recurring is the affirmation of necessity: if all has happened and will happen exactly in the same succession and sequence, there is no room for willful change: fate is set. Progress understood as an evolution towards a temporal end is not possible. Together with progress, duration goes away too. Nothing lasts or endures because all lasts and perishes eternally in the same way. And, finally, there is no origin, so that past and future are mixed in the play of eons, and there appears room to relate oneself to the future and the past equally because both are future and were past, and both were and will be exactly the same. There is no need to wait for time to become eternity; it already is a continuum of eternity.
Concerning the invitation to become a creator of one’s own legitimacy, the key notion is that it depends on one’s experiences weather one sees this thought as a blessing or a terrifying curse. In the hypothesis of a linear time, with final goals and progress, the blessedness of the final goal is taken for granted, because it is precisely the reference for evaluation: the cosmos is good, my life is better or worse depending on how close it is to the idea of this final goal. Whereas with the hypothesis of the ERS, experiences are what they are, but from them one valuates the cosmology: experience is the meaning giver.
Third, the ethical question ‘Do you desire…?’ is meaningless in a sense: one’s desire is irrelevant in a world of inexorable repetition of necessity and passing away. But the question has an effect on the evaluation of action. It is a question that is not answered by any ideal, God, or structure of truth. It is a question that belongs to the privacy of the individual. And since it belongs to that intimate privacy with which we evaluate the world and our actions, it is the only meaning that freedom can have in this context.
Finally, the consequences: the heavy weight. The question of desire focus all the value-giving instinct on one’s actions. And this transforms our understanding -and thus our experience- of them. They belong relevant for our value-giving nature.
Let us notice that all these four characteristics combined cause a very strong effect: “how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?” The ideal-Overman that emerges from this cosmology is a willer of necessity. By willing fate, he liberates himself from the tyranny of false, external ideals, and from the need of a metaphysical structure to bridge the gap between the ideal and life. Also, it focusses his activity in evaluating each instant independently, and the only way to make such an evaluation is by commanding the intensity of the experiencing of each moment separately. Life emerges as a timely opportunity to look for values and meanings through experience and experimentation that will echo eternally. The moment rises higher than all durations and goals. If the older Christian morality projected a delusion of meaning in its cosmology at the price of despising life as a nihilistic, all-becoming valley of tears and deception; with this move Nietzsche has reversed the scheme: he has projected a meaning for life that enhances every moment, at the price of a nihilistic cosmology. Can human beings bear this?
In the section On the Vision and the Riddle after the confrontation with the dwarf, and after the dwarf has jumped out of Zarathustra’s shoulder; a gateway appears. Under the gateway passes a path. Zarathustra says, though, that it has “two aspects:” “This long lane behind us: it goes on for an eternity. And that long lane ahead of us — that is another eternity.” Above the gateway its name is written: ‘Moment’.
The image is clear: they stand on the moment, a gateway between past and present. The premise here for this hypothesis to work (once courage has liberated Zarathustra from ‘Gravity’) is: both lanes, both past and present, are eternal. Two eternities colliding in the moment. Another assumption: if the past has existed eternally, all things, all successions and sequences must have happened already. Even this moment. And similarly, if the future is eternal, everything will happen, this very moment included. The assumption is that while the sequence of time is eternal –infinite– the number of sequences and successions is finite. Therefore, this means that when Nietzsche says ‘eternity’ he means ‘a container of the whole of becoming at least one time.’ So that every becoming can com back eternally.
If Zarathustra had to overcome the Spirit of Gravity in order to have enough courage to affirm the ethical desire for eternal repetition, now he has to overcome disgust in order to overcome the abysness of the hypothesis, and overcome pity for those who will not be able to bear it in order to overcome his resistance to teach it. Just when Zarathustra is finishing the explanation of the relation of the moment with eternity, that is, its prevalence over eternity, he hears a dog howling. And that moves him to pity. The strangest image follows: the dog cries for help because there is a shepherd on the floor, ‘writhing, choking, convulsed, his face distorted; and a heavy, black snake was hanging out of his mouth.’ Zarathustra tries to take the snake out of his mouth in vain. And finally, “a voice came out” from Zarathustra: “Bite! Bite!” After a moment of impasse, the shepherd bites the snake’s head and spits it away. When the shepherd springs up, he is no longer a shepherd or a man, he is ‘a transformed being’ surrounded with light and laughing inhumanly.
The meaning of this image is really obscure: its symbolic richness makes it both impenetrable and extremely suggestive. However, some things can be stated. First, the feeling that Zarathustra has claimed so far, and will claim later on, that one has when is faced with the abysmal thought of the ERS, can be compared with a choking, disgusting, deadly experience. The ERS is an extreme form of nihilism aimed at overcoming nihilism. The first impulse of a man is to feel breathless: all the nothingness of this life of becoming eternally repeating! Second, Zarathustra is moved to pity –his most recurrent weakness–, and pity confounds evaluations of man, and the call for a rank ordering of men according to nature, power and strength. He needs to overcome pity in order to be the shepherd. Third, Zarathustra is not able to take the snake out of his mouth. The shepherd must bite it himself, so that what seemed to be a weakness –the mouth where the snake snuck in–becomes a strength. And, finally, after the episode, the shepherd is no longer a man or a shepherd. Furthermore, later on in the text, in the section called “The Convalescent” Zarathustra will refer to this image as if he had been the shepherd.
In sum, we face here an unbearable thought that as a cosmological hypothesis of time fosters extreme nihilism, disgust and feeling of dying. But, once these feelings are overcome by way of a violent act of self-affirmation, the result is a transformation of man, possibly into the Overman. What the Overman has is a particular set of meanings. They allow him to experience life at every moment as significantly as the most intense goal that eternity could bring in the former scheme of linear, progressive time. If one were to wait enough and negate his life for the sake of it.
The ideal of the Overman, under the light of the ERS, has no power to regulate any life. One is not capable of fashioning his or her life after the model of the Overman, because the Overman has no content of his own posited by himself: necessity, fate, brings the content of experience as a chaos of becoming and passing way. Necessity makes life pass through one’s body and soul, independently of the will. This sequence is just a repetition, after all. However, the Ideal Overman demands that each experience is thought in terms of our desire that it repeats itself eternally, so that every moment –isolated through one’s own perspective– bears the weight of eternity. The Overman regulates the moment out of the experience of the moment, so that he only way to have a full meaning –whatever it may be– is by experiencing it with all one’s heart. The marvel of this anti-regulative ideal is that –according to Nietzsche — by willing, loving, fate; one becomes free and joyful.