In sum, the problem with philosophy—the “prejudices of philosophers,” as it were—is that they are not actually engaged in either thinking that discovers new ideas or moral reflection that reveals the basic nature of existence. Instead, they write elaborate defenses of the ideas they already hold by nature and write their preexisting moral codes in the name of free will onto the universe.
In the first place, philosophers really discover nothing new:
Under an invisible spell, they [the philosophers] always revolve once more in the same orbit. . . . Their thinking is, in fact, far less a discovery than a recognition, a remembering, a return and a homecoming to a remote, primordial, and inclusive household of the soul, out of which those concepts grew originally: philosophizing is to this extent a kind of atavism of the highest order. (20)
Specifically, what ties philosophers together in their recognition is a love of order and system and relationship between ideas. And if we object and say “but what about the similarities between such diverse bodies of thought as the ‘Indian, Greek, and German’?” Nietzsche replies that such similarities are explicable by means of common linguistic roots shared by the three languages.
The spell of certain grammatical functions is ultimately also the spell of physiological valuations and racial conditions.
So much by way of rejecting Locke’s superficiality regarding the origin of ideas. (20)
Language is what ties these philosophers together in their base assumptions, which Nietzsche believes even disproves Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. These preconceptions are then turned into systems and applied across the board and declared to be a law of nature. The problem of course is that eventually someone may come along and, in the name of that same nature and using those same systems, embrace a tyrannical worldview:
somebody might come along who, with opposite intentions and modes of interpretation, could read out of the same “nature,” and with regard to the same phenomena, rather the tyrannically inconsiderate and relentless enforcement of claims of power. (22)
At this point we have transitioned to a discussion of the freedom of the will, which is often held up as the great triumph of existence and the foundation of morality. Yet Nietzsche thinks this is
the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far, it is a sort of rape and perversion of logic; but the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense. (21)
As we’ve seen already, Nietzsche rejects most views of the will as falsely mechanistic or abstractly inorganic (and as far as he goes, he’s correct). The will must be understood as an inherent part of the whole person, which means that we must not separate it from its drives and actions, including the full responsibility for its actions:
The “unfree will” is mythology; in real life it is only a matter of strong and weak wills.
It is almost always a symptom of what is lacking in himself when a thinker senses in every “causal connection” and “psychological necessity” something of constraint, need, compulsion to obey, pressure, and unfreedom; it is suspicious to have such feelings—the person betrays himself. (21)
These individuals are trying to escape responsibility for their own actions rather than admitting that they themselves are inseparable from their place in the world.
This belief in the free will and the attempt to escape responsibility may be tied back to the basic underlying moral worldview:
The power of moral prejudices has penetrated deeply into the most spiritual world, which would seem to be the coldest and most devoid of presuppositions, and has obviously operated in an injurious, inhibiting, blinding, and distorting manner. (23)
As Nietzsche unfolds his understanding of the relationship between the will, philosophy, and morality, we begin to see hints of his proposed solution. And while I can agree with much of his analysis (free will has always been something of a metaphysical MacGuffin), his solution of kicking morality to the curb by living beyond it of course cannot be condoned.
If we are to reject the philosophers and their systems, where then are we to begin? Nietzsche argues that we are to begin with joy and delight in existence in-itself, apart from any understanding of what it is like:
One can never cease wondering once one has acquired eyes for this marvel! How we have made everything around us clear and free and easy and simple! . . . how from the beginning we have contrived to retain our ignorance in order to enjoy an almost inconceivable freedom, lack of scruple and caution, heartiness, and gaiety of life—in order to enjoy life! And only on this now solid, granite foundation of ignorance could knowledge rise so far—the will to knowledge on the foundation of a far more powerful will: the will to ignorance. (24)
There was a tree that had fallen into the stream near the house I grew up in that my cousins and I would climb on so that we could jump out into the pool that formed beside it. Had we known anything about suction and undertows formed by submerged objects and the sorts of fauna that tend to gather in such places, we never would have dared to use our impromptu diving board. But we didn’t, and as a result I had some unique moments of sheer joy in my childhood. Nietzsche would argue that in such moments I was more philosophically informed than Hegel, Plato, or any of the other great writers. I had achieved instinctively what they sought with all their thought and writings.
But, he would also warn me against trying to systematize those moments of joy, even in their defense. This merely “spoils all the innocence and fine neutrality of your conscience” (25). Once we start trying to forcibly capture that joy and put it into a system, we lose it all together. And of course he’s right. Jumping into the pool was a delight, but drawing up a daily schedule and trying to be sure to do it in the same way at the same time according to rules that I’ve written, well, that would kill the fun.
More next time.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.