On Nihilism

Posted by Anti Citizen One on January 25th, 2009

I abandoned reading Harper’s “The Seventh Solitude” because it was doing my head in by its use of nihilism which was very different from my understanding of the term. There are two main definitions of nihilism, as far as I can tell.

The first is the rejection of objective moral truth. The simplest justification of this view is the is-ought problem, which argues that “ought” statements cannot be based on “is” statements. This inevitably implies that any objective meaning of life is meaningless or undefinable. By this definition Nietzsche can be said to be a nihilist.

One must stretch out one’s hands and attempt to grasp this amazing subtlety, that the value of life cannot be estimated. Twilight, FN

Kierkegaard objected to this view and implied “the eternal” was the only escape from nihilism.

If there is no eternal consciousness in a human being, if at the bottom of everything is only a wild ferment, a power that, twisting in dark passions, produces everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lies hidden between everything, what would life be then but despair? Fear and Trembling, SK

This view also highlights the common belief that nihilism is accompanied by anomie, ultra-pessimism or “immoral” behavior. I stumbled across a strange online manifesto for nihilism which uses this form of nihilism as a positive force – and I thought is website was unorthodox…

The second definition of nihilism, as used by Nietzsche, is “depreciation of life” or “will to non-existence”. Nietzsche labels any idea that implies that non-existence is preferable to existence as nihilistic. The aim in his philosophy is to make life possible without resorting to nihilistic concepts. The act of valuing metaphysical realities as higher than apparent realities was his chief objection to religion, as this necessarily devalues the apparent/realist reality.

Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self; the heavenly by the love of God. St Augustine

Nietzsche’s view of moral relativism is interesting as it treats the various moral systems as wholly within a realist world. I think of this as a type of moral/physical monistic realism. Metaphysics is not invited to the party.

There are more idols than realities in the world […]

To invent fables about a world “other” than this one has no meaning at all […] Twilight, FN

This ironically makes Nietzsche a nihilist by one definition and an anti-nihilist by the other! I am still trying to think of catchy terminology to clarify types of “nihilism” but without success. With the use of alternative terminology, the former definition is simply moral relativism and the later is anti-metaphysical realism.

Anti Citizen One

PS I just finished reading Fear and Trembling and Tipping Point. I need to read some fiction next! Bring on the Murakami!

PPS In comedy form, nihilism is taken to an extreme in the film “The Big Lebowski”: “We believe in nothing, Lebowski! Nothing!”. This simple claim shares elements of both forms of nihilism.

Kierkegaard’s Attack Upon “Christendom”, Part 4

Posted by Anti Citizen One on January 23rd, 2009

Continuing my discussion of the similarities between Nietzsche and Kierkegaard… In this section I am primarily concerned with stylistic similarity.

Both are fond of assessing ideas in terms of their smell, taste or as healthy or unhealthy or as sane and insane or hight and low. Obviously, these are aesthetic judgements rather than any appeal to an external standard (usually known as right, wrong, good, bad, etc). I was struck with their similarity of language in the following passages describing various institutions:

This whole lumberroom of a State Church, which from time immemorial has not been ventilated, spiritually speaking – the air confined in this lumberroom has not developed poison. And for this reason the religious life is sick or has dies out. The Instant No.4, SK

Badly smelleth their idol to me, the cold monster: badly they all smell to me, these idolaters. […]
My brethren, will ye suffocate in the fumes of their maws and appetites! Better break the windows and jump into the open air! FN, Zarathusta

Both are aware of the lack of recognition they receive from the public. I was recently reading parts of The Seventh Solitude by Ralph Harper where he argues that Nietzsche was embittered by is lack of recognition – but strangely this is an integral part of both FN and SK’s view point. Mass acceptance of their views would be catastrophic! Neither advocated that everyone must agree with them but that is not an admission of error.

[…]before so illegitimate a tribunal also as the public, pass judgment upon a work so singular, it naturally will come to – well, just what it has come to[…] The Instant No 10

When Zarathustra had spoken these words, he again looked at the people, and was silent. “There they stand,” said he to his heart; “there they laugh: they understand me not; I am not the mouth for these ears.

And again, both are reluctant messengers of the truth. This is particularly evident in the writing of SK and is mentioned on several occasions.

Let me illustrate what I want to say by a parable. In one sense, I employ it very reluctantly, for I do not like to talk about such things […] The Instant No 7, SK

My taste, which may be the opposite of a tolerant taste, is in this case very far from saying Yes indiscriminately: it does not like to say Yes; better to say No, but best of all to say nothing. Twilight, FN

Both use sarcasm and wit in their writings. I am not aware of other philosophers using humour but then, I suppose, I am not well read… a project for the future perhaps. The SK quote here is priceless. 🙂 The use of sarcasm by FN would fill a large volume!

The attack on me […] is conducted by the Copenhagen Pose and the Flying Pose; and the point, the deadly sting, of their attack is that I am called … “Søren”. […] Then I must sink down, succumb before this power of the truth, which in vain I should strive to resist; for the truth is, my name is Søren. The Instant No 9

The successful termination of some enterprise does not by any means give a hypochondriac or a Pascal agreeable general feelings.

Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does.

At long last, let us contrast the very different manner in which we [philosophers] conceive the problem of error and appearance. (I say “we” for politeness’ sake.)

Both use weather metaphors, especially lightning and thunder, but FN seems to be a more(?) frequent user, notably in Thus Spake Zarathustra:

Geniuses are like a thunderstorm: they go against the wind, terrifying people, cleanse the air.
The Established Church has invented sundry lighting-conductors.
And it succeeded. Yes indeed, it suceeded; it suceeded in making the next thunderstorm all the more serious. The Instant No 6, Short and sharp, SK

If I be a diviner and full of the divining spirit which wandereth on high mountain–ridges, ‘twixt two seas,—

Wandereth ‘twixt the past and the future as a heavy cloud—hostile to sultry plains, and to all that is weary and can neither die nor live:

Ready for lightning in its dark bosom, and for the redeeming flash of light, charged with lightnings which say Yea! which laugh Yea! ready for divining flashes of lightning:— Zarathustra, FN

And as strong winds will we live above them, neighbours to the eagles, neighbours to the snow, neighbours to the sun: thus live the strong winds.
And like a wind will I one day blow amongst them, and with my spirit, take the breath from their spirit: thus willeth my future.
Verily, a strong wind is Zarathustra to all low places; and this counsel counselleth he to his enemies, and to whatever spitteth and speweth: “Take care not to spit against the wind!”- Zarathustra, FN

… and both have the concept of high and low. This might be attacked by relavists saying “high” has been implicitly assigned the label “good”. FN stated in several places that “low” is necessary for “high” to exist at all – and is neither good nor bad. In these works, readers should beware of assuming things based on “modern” ideas – relativism is implicit in these writings!

Thou plain man! The Christianity of the New Testament is infinitely high[…] Everyone, absolutely everyone, if he absolutely wills it, if he will absolutely hate himself, will absolutely put up with everything, suffer everything (and this every man an if he will) – then is this infinite height attainable to him. The Instant No 10

Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom. SK, The Concept of Anxiety

Verily, a polluted stream is man. One must be a sea, to receive a polluted stream without becoming impure.
Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman—a rope over an abyss.

A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking–back, a dangerous trembling and halting.
I love the great despisers, because they are the great adorers, and arrows of longing for the other shore. Zarathustra, FN

So that’s it. The differences between these philosophers is also profound but it is for another occasion.

Anti Citizen One

Living Alone

Posted by Anti Citizen One on January 18th, 2009

My house-mates are back from holiday, which brings the following Nietzsche quote to mind:

To live alone one must be a beast or a god, says Aristotle. Leaving out the third case: one must be both — a philosopher.

Nearly finished the book “Tipping Point”…


Mini-Review: God is Not Great

Posted by Anti Citizen One on January 11th, 2009

I few thoughts on Christopher Hitchens’s “God is Not Great”: this book has a more current affairs focus than the other atheist blockbusters by Dawkins and Harris. His style is fairly humorous with many asides. Some of them, while probably correct and funny, are really ad hominem and are not relevant to the issue being discussed. The core of the book is similar to the early debates on this blog – score counting on how many atrocities were committed in the name of religion or atheism. Hitchens appears to conclude that both sides are capable of going good and bad. He adds that followers of religion are more evil but put that thought to one side for a moment. In a realist sense, this is damning enough for religion’s case: if religious people behave no differently to non-religious people then religion loses is claim for morally improving people.

Hitchens’s approach to arguing against the religious view is limited because Hitchens keeps his scores of good and bad acts to determine if religion is harmful – as if “good” and “bad” were real things. But from within the ancient religious point of view, having thousands die as part of a crusade is “good”. Today, we call that “bad”. The point is if the labels of “good” and “bad” are subjective, we can’t meaningfully call religion “bad” or if we do, we can only mean “religion is distasteful to me”.

This use of ethics in some ways falls into the moralizing trap that religion is also guilty. Calling something “good” is again setting up an unalterable standard imposed without choice. Admittedly there a few contemporary moral standards I agree with. But to assume any good or bad is static goes to the very core of what makes religion, well, “bad” – or at least incompatible with an evolving culture.

If I seem rather harsh, I could say some nice things: being based on current affairs, it is more original than simply rehashing the ancient arguments. Being able to say something original in this ancient debate is very difficult. Hitchens references the usual skeptical classics but does not reproduce them. That is good for a jaded reader like me!

Anti Citizen One

‘No God’ campaign draws complaint

Posted by Anti Citizen One on January 8th, 2009

…organisation Christian Voice has complained to the Advertising Standards Authority saying they break rules on substantiation and truthfulness. BBC

It’s a funny old world.


Kierkegaard’s Attack Upon “Christendom”, Part 3

Posted by Anti Citizen One on January 7th, 2009

I have been broadening my reading around Kierkegaard and I have concluded that both Nietzsche (FN) and Kierkegaard (SK) wrote in the same spirit and similar style – writing as a psychological investigation rather than a traditional discussion of abstract concepts. This is not too surprising considering they were almost contemporaries and have similar biographic details. On the other hand, the conclusions they arrive at are wildly different but I am delaying that analysis until a later time.

Common Themes of SK and FN

Both tried to find some truth outside of the common prejudice. This alienation from the mainstream is fundamental to both but is a break from other philosophical systems: in that neither SK or FN desire to establish a system and the impossibility of the majority to agree with their point of view.

The spiritual man differs from us men in being able to endure isolation, his rank as a spiritual man is proportionate to his strength for enduring isolation, whereas we men are constantly in need of “the others,” the herd; we die, or despair, if we are not reassured by being in the herd, of the same opinion as the herd, etc. The Instant No 5, Christianity of the Spiritual Man

“LIFE is a well of delight; but where the rabble also drink, there all fountains are poisoned.” “How have I flown to the height where no rabble any longer sit at the wells?” 28, Zarathustra

He certainly would not at once have allowed these thousands to call themselves disciples of Christ. No, He would have held back more stoutly. Therefore in three and a half years He won only eleven – whereas one Apostle in one day, may be in one hour, wins three thousand disciples of Christ. SK, The Instant No 5, A Genius / a Christian

“Not to the people is Zarathustra to speak, but to companions! Zarathustra shall not be the herd’s herdsman and hound! To allure many from the herd – for that purpose have I come.” FN, Zarathustra
“You seek followers? Seek zeros!” FN, Twilight

Both appeared to reject making objective valuations of life. At other times, they paradoxically do just that. To be fair to SK, he wrote under various pseudonyms and probably sought to examine concepts from various angles – possibly none of which are is personal view (although I am tempted to think books under his own name are his personal view). FN’s view evolved through his writings from being clearly influenced by Hegel and Schopenhauer to rejecting their views. But apart from this he attempted to be paradoxical in the same book (e.g. his view of women ranging from highly praising to being highly critical).

… assume that we are all thieves, what the police call suspicious characters […] then to be that = 0; this is not to say that it does not mean anything much; no, it means nothing at all. The Instant No 5, When we are all Christian

…there is nothing that could judge, measure, compare, or sentence his [a man’s] being, for that would mean judging, measuring, comparing, or sentencing the whole. But there is nothing besides the whole. Twilight, FN

Based on both SK and FN’s writings, attitudes towards women where quite different in the nineteenth century (to put it mildly). Both associate women with deception. Nietzsche was specifically critical of the early feminism movement, possibly due to the implication that women were “victims” and sought the goal of “equality”. A quick hunt on the Internet on SK and feminism give me the impression that SK was critical of feminism if a superficial interpretation is used, but a more sophisticated reading reveals things are more complex.

(I am considering doing an analysis of FN’s infamous “Thou goest to women? Do not forget thy/the whip!” line but Zarathustra is like a riddle. Women are almost certainly not meant as women generally. Exercise to the reader: what does she represent?)

And the long robes – in fact that is feminine attire. Thereby thought is led on to something which also is characteristic of official Christianity, the unmanliness of using cunning, untruth and lies as its power. The Instant No 5, SK

Progress of the idea: it [idealism?] becomes more subtle, insidious, incomprehensible — it becomes female, it becomes Christian. (Twilight, FN)

An interesting parallel is the concept of the transitional nature of “human” was not lost on these writings. Both used the concept of man arising from animal (or what I prefer to called non-human) beginnings. Again, a superficial reading of this could be interpreted as a eugenics but neither writer intended to imply that human was objectively “higher” than a beast. But the difference between human and non-human were not ignored either.

In the New Testament sense, to be a Christian, in a upward sense, as different from being a man as, in a downward sense, to be a man is different from being a beast. The Instant No 7, SK

I teach you the Superman. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass man? […] What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame. (Zarathustra, FN)

As I mentioned, both were interested in psychological explanations of belief and behavior. Both realized that a maladjusted human (who is “sick”) causes him to choose self harming behavior. Popular “wisdom” says the reverse: we are “made sick” by our “vices”. SK goes further than FN and claims sickness is the natural state for humans. For FN’s view of this analysis, see “Backworldsmen” and “The Problem of Socrates” (and its not agreement!)

For it is an ordinary accompaniment of illness to desire most vehemently, to love most of all, precisely that which is injurious to the sick man. But, spiritually understood, man in his natural condition is sick, he is in error, in an illusion, and therefore desires most of all to be deceived, so that he may be permitted not only to remain in error but to find himself thoroughly comfortable in his self-deceit. SK, The Instant No 7

Instinctively to choose what is harmful for oneself, to feel attracted by “disinterested” motives, that is virtually the formula of decadence. FN, Twilight


PS I am going an audio book of the Gay Science and it is sucking up so much time. The final duration is looking like more than 12 hours. Let’s just say it takes much longer than that to record and edit it to the final version.