On a Passage from Nietzsche’s “Twilight of the Idols”

“The harsh Helot condition to which the tremendous extent of science has condemned every single person today is one of the main reasons why education and educators appropriate to fuller, richer, deeper natures are no longer forthcoming. Our culture suffers from nothing more than it suffers from the superabundance of presumptuous journeymen and fragments of humanity; our universities are, against their will, the actual forcing-houses for this kind of spiritual instinct-atrophy. And all Europe already has an idea of this – grand politics deceives no one… Germany counts more and more as Europe’s flatland. – I am still looking for a German with whom I could be serious after my fashion – how much more for one with whom I might be cheerful! – Twilight of the Idols: ah, who today could grasp from how profound a seriousness a hermit is here relaxing! – The most incomprehensible thing about us is our cheerfulness…”

– Nietzsche, from Twilight of the Idols

Dear Fred:

Yesterday, on Valentine’s Day, my plan was to read “The Free Spirit” section of Beyond Good and Evil as I was, um, really free. Went to work, slept a bit, sat in a convenience store under dull fluorescent lighting watching people buy cigarettes and liquor.

With that remarkable schedule, I confess I still didn’t get to your book, so I instead dug up a thought of yours I had put down 10 years ago.

I think I remember my state of mind then. It’s a lot like mine now. I’ve never felt, as some in the humanities do, that too many people study science and not enough the liberal arts. I’ve only worried, as I think many worry, that there’s a cult which pretends to worship science, but in reality wants to savage anyone who disagrees with them. That cult goes out of its way to kick people who study the humanities while they’re down, treating the transmission and preservation of knowledge as a given. It goes out of its way to become unnecessarily angry and petty about issues that don’t even concern it. For example, note the moralistic intonations of certain people when the topic of becoming a professor in the liberal arts emerges.

It’s a strange game. It feels like a lot of people are trying to prove everyone else wrong about life so that way they can say they’re right. It’s like they’re trying to shut down the fact that the world is a diversity of voices. You can’t help but feel that something human, genuinely democratic, maybe even spiritual is being lost in the name of a pseudo-utilitarianism. The barbarians now have the rhetoric of science and modernity and progress with which to attack people who want to think for themselves.

On that note, I want to thank you for your thoughts in Daybreak.  I’m nowhere close to finishing it, and at times, your reading of the history of thought is obscure to me. But what stands out is how personally you advocate for independent thought. The future isn’t about cleverness or knowledge in the abstract. It isn’t about thinking we have all the answers and devoting ourselves to that.

Weirdly enough, for someone who is called a nihilist by so many, you seem to be advocating for a moral rebirth. One that isn’t afraid to walk a tightrope between eternity and uncertainty. I get the impression that you want us to reconceive both notions. Eternity should be seen as the eternal recurrence, more or less. That things happened a certain way in the past and will happen again means that we can imitate the best of humanity previous or learn from our mistakes. Uncertainty lies in our very approach to the world. We fail to understand how our desires make themselves felt as moral, even rational, certainties, but we know we can ask everyone else how they know something. As a result, we get fanatically certain about the most dubious things, all the while immersing ourselves in doubt and skepticism about everything and everyone else. A little more honesty about what we want and we might be less blinded by “truth” and more humane to those around us.

That, at any rate, is my “take” on the matter. I don’t think you’re aware that this is “take” season, where various Internet commentators have offered their opinions on a variety of subjects. Here’s one by a user who think the transportation company Uber’s violation of the law is comparable to Rosa Parks’ fight for civil rights. I readily submit that my “take” on your thought is of similar quality. Maybe you do love nihilism and fascism and the like.

In any case, the thought that’s been torturing me the last couple of months goes like this: What could I possibly teach that is of worth to another person? When tutoring, improving skills happens. It’s nearly impossible not to find language to which a student can relate. That can translate into being more confident in the classroom, answering questions the teacher poses, answering prompts from a relevant perspective. Reading, responding, and writing can be improved over time, through repeated sessions of getting a student to talk and feel comfortable with the task at hand.

None of that, though, is the maturity to try to see what it’s like to seek knowledge, or, on a related note, find serious people without fancy titles or positions. No amount of improving academic skills replaces the probity, the will to curiosity, that comes from wanting to make sense of this life in which we live. I don’t think most of the students I’ve ever met have ever cared for such a mundane topic. Most of them want insight akin to a panacea, or the status that comes from being the best, or the grades simply. That last is not so depressing when contrasted with the ephemerality and artificiality of what the most ambitious want.

I can’t say I live up to my own creed. I spent most of today unpacking freight and stocking liquor. I failed to read seriously anything of any significance. I am afraid to call my best friends – the ones who understand my perspective, and are no slouches as knowers and thinkers – and work through what I’m seeing in my life with them. I don’t want to bother them when I don’t know if I’m attentive enough, when I don’t know that I’m not seeking a panacea myself.

I can’t say I live up to my own creed, because I’m in doubt about what it produces. People who know me know that I’m a nervous, awkward person. When you castigate your time for a sort of slavishness, citing “a harsh Helot condition” caused by “the tremendous extent of science,” I find it very hard to join the critique. Partly because I think you are consciously exaggerating – this ties into my discussion above. However, I do not really know what “fuller, richer, deeper natures” there are, and what education could do for them:

The harsh Helot condition to which the tremendous extent of science has condemned every single person today is one of the main reasons why education and educators appropriate to fuller, richer, deeper natures are no longer forthcoming.

Again, the problem I’m having is what good we can produce for another. Your discussion helps a bit: for a certain nature, a certain education is necessary, and we have lost it. Something about a cultish scientism – I don’t want to call it science, not at all – makes all of us incredibly unfree, even as we think we’re free in putting others down.

Fair enough. I should quit while I’m ahead, I suspect, and just say that freedom attends the mindful. You go on in a way that throws me under the bus. I know I will never be a first-rate scholar; for me, it is a struggle to be an average student, to do something solid but unspectactular. Does that make me one of the “presumptuous journeymen” or “fragments of humanity,” or should I not console myself with even ranking that high?

Our culture suffers from nothing more than it suffers from the superabundance of presumptuous journeymen and fragments of humanity; our universities are, against their will, the actual forcing-houses for this kind of spiritual instinct-atrophy. And all Europe already has an idea of this – grand politics deceives no one… Germany counts more and more as Europe’s flatland.

It does look like you are taking a direct shot at my approach to the humanities. In your defense, you are not doing so for the sake of promoting fascism or Nazi supermen or philosophers that found religions or anything like that. You seem to be worried that people like me are more New Age guru than scholar, that we water down the humanities to make them relatable while science and anything that sounds scientific simply teaches. The difficulty in the liberal arts is getting to the hard questions. Someone like me doesn’t really try to do so, no matter how much I say otherwise. With the emphasis on accessibility, I’m just offering students what might be a swim in their own opinions. “Grand politics” are a testament to our lack of thoughtfulness; we have large scale ambitions as we don’t understand how to live our lives without domination of another or utopian visions.

I will only say this, and it is really not aimed at you. Let’s say I was an actual scholar and not a hack. Someone truly adept in languages, not only knowledgeable of history but with good instincts for how to reconstruct a portrait of a time or person. Someone who could really write, conveying the difficulties I encounter in reading or thinking through something without belaboring them. Would that mean I would necessarily bring into focus the hard questions? Could I even do such a thing, with that skillset alone?

I will say that what impresses and confuses me is the freedom you celebrate. It is both serious and playful, religious and irreligious at once:

I am still looking for a German with whom I could be serious after my fashion – how much more for one with whom I might be cheerful! – Twilight of the Idols: ah, who today could grasp from how profound a seriousness a hermit is here relaxing! – The most incomprehensible thing about us is our cheerfulness…

“I am still looking for a German with whom I could be serious after my fashion:” I take this in the vein of The Case of Wagner – you are rejecting the Reich and political solutions that propose happiness. Cheerfulness comes while watching what one thinks is one’s age come to an end. Every generation thinks they are in the midst of the end of the world. Maybe one guy wrote “my life was the same as my father’s, and his father before him,” but we never read that guy. Either Athens is collapsing, or Rome is. The Church is rising to its height, converting Emperors, or being torn apart along with the European continent. Morals are always falling apart; Charles II is living at what seems to be pagan excess after years of Puritan dominance in England. And there’s always violence – men hurting other men for their invisible objects, always – and it could be cataclysmic if recognized as such. Pitch like King Billy bomb balls in until the town lie beaten flat.

To be a hermit, relaxing from or with “how profound a seriousness,” is to understand that we only work with images. We’re stuck in our own heads. It doesn’t mean we’re powerless, it doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as truth. I think it means we can enjoy a distance from some of the most powerful and most ill-evidenced assertions. There are moral issues, serious ones that have a profound impact. When not pressed urgently, we have to find our way to them. Nowadays, what has my attention is the pacifistic brush with which many thinkers paint the life of the mind. At work is a refocusing of ambition, where “do no harm” makes perfect sense as a basis for humanism. The truly human work is to relax and find good cheer while sorting the contents of one’s mind. That may sound New Agey, but that’s the spiritual instinct of a reflective, rational animal.

AK