Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Gay Science: V.373–V.380

Epicurus, detail from the “School of Athens,” by Raphael, Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican City

V.373–V.380

Lest we think that with all his antireligion and antitranscendence talk Nietzsche is siding with folks like Richard Dawkins or Neil deGrasse Tyson, he reminds us that their sort of worldview is as small and uninformed as the most ardent religious fundamentalist’s:

A “scientific” interpretation of the world, as you understand it, might therefore still be one of the most stupid of all possible interpretations of the world, meaning that it would be one of the poorest in meaning. This thought is intended for the ears and consciences of our mechanists who nowadays like to pass as philosophers and insist that mechanics is the doctrine of the first and last laws on which all existence must be based as on a ground floor. But an essentially mechanical world would be an essentially meaningless world. (V.373)

Nietzsche then gives the example of a piece of music, which as nothing more than a sum of its mechanical parts (tempo, harmony, etc.) has no value at all.

So what is Nietzsche saying? Is he making movements back toward theism? That at least in our time is the set of options: materialistic atheism or theism (leaving aside the fact that there are different shades of each category). In order to answer that question, we need to begin by positioning ourselves accordingly relative to existence:

Rather has the world become “infinite” for us all over again, inasmuch as we cannot reject the possibility that it may include infinite interpretations. Once more we are seized by a great shudder; but who would feel inclined immediately to deify again after the old manner this monster of an unknown world? (V.374)

We must get away from the arrogance that says our view of existence is the only one that matters. And once we do that, we realize that there may very well be infinitely many possible perspectives out there. No doubt many of them are wrong or even foolish, but that may include our own.

What this readjusted perspective (that of our own smallness in the grand scheme of things) does is give us a new sense of the infinite. This infinite is not the personal God of scripture, and as far as we are concerned it may be totally indifferent to us, but it is still something enough larger than us that we gain meaning by being a part of it. Specifically, we become akin to the Epicureans. Once we have set aside our old prejudices, we find ourselves free to explore and discover according to all the positive drives of the human spirit:

Thus an almost Epicurean bent for knowledge develops that will not easily let go of the questionable character of things; also an aversion to big moral words and gestures; a taste that rejects all crude, four-square opposites and is proudly conscious of its practice in having reservations. (V.375)

Even death loses its sting for such people, since they realize that in their freedom their work gains meaning that will bless them in this life and will remain after they have passed (V.376).

Such individuals who have achieved freedom lose something in this world—they become “homeless.” They rise above all the “petty” movements of the day (conservatism and progressivism alike are dismissed by Nietzsche) and instead look forward to the future that will be shed of all the “certainties” of today:

The ice that still supports people today has become very thin; the wind that brings the thaw is blowing; we ourselves who are homeless constitute a force that breaks open ice and all other too thin “realities.” (V.377)

These “homeless” are creatures of no land or creed, who live only according to a sort-of philosophical self-help mantra: “The hidden Yes in you is stronger than all Nos and Maybes that afflict you and your age like a disease” (V.377). This positive embrace of life is what defines them, not ideals or romanticism or any of the other movements of the day—and yes, Nietzsche is aware that living beyond accepted good and evil (V.380), too, is a kind of “faith.”

This homelessness is not necessarily solitude, since the free are to be open to all who wish to learn from them or draw upon them. This openness goes so far as to even damage the freedom of the homeless, but that is the life such individuals are called to live (V.378).

We should of course notice the direct theft from Christianity running through today’s readings. “Believer’s freedom” is a concept Nietzsche, as a one-time citizen of a German state and the child of a Lutheran minister, would have been familiar with. (If you’re not familiar with it, this is a great place to start.) Likewise the idea of life as a pilgrim, with believers only as resident aliens passing through with good news for others but with little in the way of personal defense against attack or even corruption could easily be something out of a sermon. Which isn’t to say that Nietzsche is secretly a Christian; just that for someone who claimed to be stripping us of all old ideas, he is awfully reliant on common tropes.

 

Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.

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