|Avello Publishing Journal Vol. 1, No. 1. 2011
Nietzsche's Authentic Sublimity
Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge.
This paper discusses Nietzsche’s ideal of authenticity through the concept of sublimity. The initial focus is on the criticisms Nietzsche made against Vom neuen Götzen and its roots in the ancien régime. One explains the problems he perceives in religion and morality and how they contribute to an inauthentic ‘herd mentality’. Fundamental themes including ‘the slave revolt’ and the ‘ascetic ideal’ are expounded upon in order to clarify Nietzsche’s disapproval of German idealistic society. One suggests a possible connection between Nietzsche's nineteenth century warnings and our contemporary aesthetic problems. One explains how members of our society may divert their attention away from sublime1, existential questions by becoming absorbed in the banal routine of everyday life through adopting current trends without critical analysis. One addresses Nietzsche's proposal of the authentic, Goethe - esque life by examining his ‘higher’ type. Nietzsche’s model of authenticity is presented as an independent, self-assured and strong-willed individual. Concepts such as ‘the will to power’, ‘the eternal return’ and the ‘aesthetic’ mode of living are addressed as essential elements of Nietzsche’s authentic existence.
I explain how Nietzsche’s apparent denial of creativity, free-will and truth need not undermine his ideal of authentic self-hood. In presenting the controversy of Nietzsche’s ideas, one provides alternative views to many of his critics. One also shows how the objections to Nietzsche’s ideas can be sufficiently responded to. One concludes by offering means through which one might successfully utilize Nietzsche’s teachings to analyse sublimity. His perspectival approach could enable one to change ones outlook on life and become more adept at overcoming the sublime awe felt at horror and difficulties. Nietzsche’s emphasis on the necessity of challenging oneself could inspire individuals to re-consider their possibilities and acquire more fulfillment from life. Whilst personal authenticity may be argued as antisocial, one presents it as a worthwhile ideal to pursue, which does not pose any threats to the stability of society. No recourse to the Heideggerian reading of Nietzsche is needed here. Instead Goethe, as a convinced realist, is the archetype of authenticity. Nietzschean authenticity is based on the individual and how one chooses to engage with the world and find significance in life. It is an abstract term which cannot be defined by a distinctive set of actions and beliefs, however might have its spirit in that ens realissium called Napoleon. Authenticity often refers to an appropriate response to the external world, as a conscious self. ‘Appropriate’, in this context, means being true to oneself by acting in accordance with ones self-defined choices. Leading an authentic existence is commonly believed to involve a personal, reflective understanding of what life could and should be. It often involves the idea of taking responsibility for one’s actions by recognizing responsibilities inherent in the human condition. Heidegger and Arendt have dominated this line of thinking in Germany over the last century, obscuring the sublime authenticity of the last aphorism of Wille zur Macht and Goethe's Fragment über die Natur.
To be authentic is to have realized one’s individuality by engaging with oneself and behaving in a way which reflects self-awareness rather than acting out a role. This is regardless of it manifesting itself in a Napoleonic will to power or a Goethean
heroic automatism.2 Authenticity is a concept of central concern in existentialism, a branch of philosophy which arose in the nineteenth century. The existentialist movement was a reaction to a perceived neglect of the subjective character of experience, as Kierkegaard maintained: ‘In relation to their systems most systematizers are like a man who builds an enormous castle and lives in a shack close by; they do not live in their own enormous systematic building’ (The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard: 1938: 156). Existentialism shifted perspective away from questions of reason and experience, toward the inner being of the individual, such as when a Unmensch rather than a Übermensch has a sublime encounter beyond reasonable and rational explanation. In Kierkegaardian existentialism, authenticity is seen as a state which is necessary in order to experience meaning in life. Yet there are very different approaches to how one achieves authenticity and what it entails. The focus of this discussion will be the work of Nietzsche, and the insight that can be acquired from his ideal of authentic existence without the distortions of Heidegger and Arendt. The first element of this project will constitute some exegesis in order to present Nietzsche’s thoughts on humanity’s inauthenticity. The second element will analyze the relevance of Nietzsche’s philosophy to contemporary problems. The third stage of the analysis will focus on the positive, reconstructive side to Nietzsche’s thought.3 The concluding section demonstrates the significance that reading Nietzsche may have for an individual’s striving toward personal authenticity, in awe of the sublime, without being submerged into Heideggerian ontology. Nietzsche’s conception of authenticity is often interpreted as a challenge for the reader as he believes that individuals are failing to be true to themselves under the intoxicating spell of Wagnerian romanticism. This is due to the dominance of unhealthy systems of control imposed upon humanity through the ‘hollow’ concepts of: religion, morality, science, and truth (Twilight of the Idols: 1990: 31). Nietzsche believes that we can understand ourselves better if we understand the history of our culture and politics. Nietzsche therefore offers a diagnosis of society’s ills in The Genealogy of Morals, in which he describes how society operates to the detriment of the individual. Once we understand why Nietzsche believes humanity is living inauthentically we can grasp what it would mean to live authentically. In the first section of the preface to The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche tells his readers that we are ‘strangers to ourselves’ (1956: 149). A fundamental aim of the Genealogy is to allow his audience a possible psychological insight and subsequent self-awareness from which they can react positively.
Nietzsche’s polemic attack of Christianity offers a historical account of the development of the morals, values and standards of Western man. He asserts that the advent of Christianity explains the genesis of the unhealthy morality infecting Europe. Nietzsche believes that a healthy master-morality had existed in such cultures as the Roman elite. This was a noble system wherein values such as boldness, pride and strength were celebrated. The early Christians felt powerless and persecuted because they were the weak slaves dominated by Rome. Their resentment resulted in a revaluation of their masters’ concepts through a process of inversion which promoted the ascetic ideal. As such, the values previously understood to be strong and ‘good’ were re-classified as negative. This meant that health, power and confidence became evils to be punished. The idea of ‘good’ became associated with qualities which benefited the weak, such as humility and sympathy. Nietzsche attacks this tradition of Christian morality in Western civilization, claiming its whole edifice of values to be false. He explains how organized religion places self-denial at the epicentre of life: ‘From the beginning, Christian faith has been sacrifice; sacrifice of all freedom, of all pride, of all self-confidence of the spirit; it is simultaneously enslavement and self-derision’ (Beyond Good and Evil: 2002:44). Nietzsche believes that the early Christians invented a ‘good’ morality based upon weakness because they were unable to achieve the strength of their masters. The slave revolt in ethics established a morality based upon guilt and self-hatred, where success and achievement is seen in one’s ability to repress their instincts and rationalize their misfortune. Subsequently, we fail to be true to ourselves because we are constantly struggling against our nature.
Nietzsche believes that people cling to religion and the ascetic ideal because it offers consolation by explaining suffering in the context of receiving future happiness in an after-life. The Christian slave ethic may promote an easy and comfortable existence but, for Nietzsche, it is an inauthentic one because the person who follows its tenets ‘asks very little of life’ (The Genealogy of Morals: 1956: 179); their values are given to them by a God who will judge them by their failure or success to live up to these values. For Nietzsche, the success of the slave morality had made humanity a ‘herd’, because individuals unquestioningly conform to established values. Indeed Nietzsche states in Beyond Good and Evil that: ‘Morality in Europe these days is the morality of the herd animals’ (2002: 90).
Yet it is not the Romans who Nietzsche posits as the masters of the ethical sublime. For Nietzsche, we have to turn to Greek tragedy to find the free expression of the sublime in morality. Athens is the key city where Nietzsche feels the sublime to have most authentically been articulated in the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Inherent in Nietzsche’s work is a psychological critique of humanity in which he claims that we are inauthentic because our conscience conflicts with our instincts, making us turn against and punish ourselves. Contra to Wagner, the true hero of the sublime is Dionysus and not Christ. Nietzsche claims that the non-egotistical qualities which are encouraged by Christian morality, including compassion, pity and self-sacrifice, represent ‘a will that has turned against life’ (The Genealogy of Morals :1956: 154). An additional problem Nietzsche perceives is the loss of true artistic expression, which he explains in The Birth of Tragedy. He describes how the ancient Greek tragedy contained an ideal balance between the two impulses of Apollo and Dionysus. Apollonian philosophy emphasized order and reason, whereas the spirit of Dionysus insisted on revelry and ecstasy. Nietzsche believes that, in the tragedy, the Apollonian element of dialogue gave form to the Dionysian musical expression of revelry. Nietzsche valorises the ancient Greek tragedy because he believes that it expressed the tragic nature of human existence, with its Apollonian and Dionysian impulses reflecting the tendencies inherent in human beings. It therefore enabled the partaker to achieve a sense of unity with the underlying reality of the world it represented. The tragedy, for Nietzsche, expressed how the fate of everyone is subject to the ‘will’ (The Birth of Tragedy: 1956:45); the primitive power which precedes social conditioning and civilized life. Nietzsche explains that when the Greek tragic hero fell, he was absorbed back into the Dionysian primal unity. Likewise, upon witnessing the fall of the tragic hero, the audience could dissolve and reach their deepest instincts; they are ‘led back into the heart of nature’ when they experience ‘an overwhelming sense of unity’ (The Birth of Tragedy: 1956: 50). Nietzsche thinks that the tragedy epitomized the affirmation of life through art because it went beyond the rational and influenced men to lose themselves in Dionysian ecstatic joy. However, Nietzsche claims that the tragic spirit had died due to the triumph of rationalism. This emphasis on order and structure, for Nietzsche, means people are no longer able to participate fully and unite with art in a way which would enable them to live creatively amid life’s suffering. This dichotomy of Apollo and Dionysus can be juxtaposed with the Dionysius – Longinus Greek and Roman combination of names attributed to the On the Sublime treatise. This treatise is often rhythmically more Latin than Greek, yet sometimes neither Latin nor Greek. Given his psychological assessment of the state of humanity, Nietzsche perceives a crisis to be looming. One of his fundamental premises is the inevitable collapse of Christianity. This view is captured in Nietzsche’s ‘God is Dead’ parable (The Gay Science: 2001:109). This phrase is not to be interpreted literally, but refers to the concept of religion losing its meaning. Nietzsche’s madman in the The Gay Science declares to the marketplace; ‘God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him’ (2001:120). The bystanders respond with laughter and mockery, displaying characteristics typical of Nietzsche’s inauthentic herd mentality. Paradoxically, Nietzsche believes that the Christian emphasis on truth will eventually triumph over belief in God. Christianity, he maintains, contains an inherent paradox because it is driven by a ‘will to truth’ (The Gay Science: 2001: 200). Nietzsche thinks that Christian society will become too honest to deceive itself into believing in the existence of God. A more eloquent, articulate and substantiated argument to this puzzling conundrum can be found in Wakefield's The Paradox of Nietzschean Atheism and Žižek's The Real of the (Christian) illusion chapter of On Belief.
Nietzsche believes that many of Christianity’s ideals have actually been secularized, claiming that ‘given the way people are, there may still for millennia be caves in which they show [God’s] shadow’ (The Gay Science: 2001: 109). Even following disbelief in God, Nietzsche argues that there are equally harmful concepts such as: moral belief in free will; the importance of compassion; scientific belief in an ordered universe; and belief in universal truth. Nietzsche therefore challenges many secular systems, in the belief that they also represent ‘a rebellion against the principle conditions of living’ (The Genealogy of Morals: 1956:299).
For Nietzsche, moral belief in free-will is unfounded because our commitment to traditional ethical ideals, such as compassion and pity, is a result of religious indoctrination. We may believe that we have freely chosen to display such dispositions but they derive from the Christian teachings of guilt. Nietzsche believes that the attitudes promoted by Christianity are harmful because they shift the focus away from our own lives, which renders us weak and vulnerable. 'What can be more sublime than the creation of a new “liberated territory,” of a positive order of being which escapes the grasp of the existing order? This is why Badiou is right to deny the status of an Event to the enthusiasm that followed the collapse of the communist regimes' (Žižek 2008 :116). He also claims that the dogmatic pursuit of science is another destructive force remaining after Christianity’s demise. 'Christianity configures society on the basis of equality; Nietzsche configures society on the basis of inequality' (Wakefield 2009: 9). Nietzsche is skeptical about the underlying metaphysics of science because he believes that there is no single fixed truth. The ‘will to truth’ of science is inhuman and unhealthy since it encourages a negative approach to life. Philosophers and scientists withdraw from the world by standing passively back in order to contemplate, and attempt to understand, rather than directly experience life. Nietzsche tells us that ‘those who are truthful in the audacious and ultimate sense which faith in science presupposes thereby affirm another world than that of life, nature, and history’ (The Gay Science: 2001:201). The obsessive pursuit of scientific knowledge as a purpose simply represents another incarnation of the ascetic ideal for Nietzsche. This is because the scientist, just like the theist, still relies on faith: faith in absolute truth. Their commitment to truth stems from the same motivation that fuels dedication to religious ascetic values, namely, fear of life and feelings of impotence. 'Is it not the very illusory nature of their belief that makes their subjective stance so tragically sublime?' (Žižek 2008: 14). Science threatens life because it focuses on an external source as a goal rather than the self, thereby making us slaves to knowledge. Similarly, any epistemological endeavor which aims to explain the world and provide meaning is futile.
As can be seen, therefore, Nietzsche does not believe that secular morality, science and philosophy are viable alternatives to religious reactions to the concept of the sublime. Such ideals weaken us because they shift focus away from affirmation of individuality and into repressive conformism. These systems subscribe to naïve notions of universality, rather than allowing us to live by our own values. The search for sublime authenticity is offered as an alternative to this nihilism, whereby we are provided with an opportunity to embark on a project involving the ‘revaluation of all values’ (Twilight of the Idols: 1990:59). Having engaged the reader in a complete denigration of traditional beliefs, Nietzsche hopes they will realize that their moral commitments are inimical to their personal flourishing in the sublime wake of God's death. As Nietzsche explains in The Gay Science, ‘free spirits’ will feel elation and excitement at the news that ‘the old god is dead’:
our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, forebodings, expectation-finally the horizon seems clear again, even if not bright; finally our ships may set out again, set out to face any danger; every daring of the lover of knowledge is allowed again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; maybe there has never yet been such an ‘open sea’ (2001: 199).
Here, Nietzsche endorses an active nihilism in which strong individuals observe their freedom from beyond the confines of external meaning and create new, healthier ideals for themselves. Following from this, arises the question of whether Nietzsche’s aims are relevant in the post-modern world. The madman of The Gay Science says, with regard to the death of God: ‘I come too early… my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way’ (2001:120). Society and aesthetic culture have changed considerably since the time Nietzsche was writing: but has, in fact, this ‘tremendous event’, which Nietzsche predicted, occurred in a sublime variation of what Badiou posits as an Event? Many commentators believe that the criticisms Nietzsche levels at his culture are equally relevant to our contemporary world. Pippin (1999), for example, presents Nietzsche as an adept interpreter of the post-modern world and its problems. He perceives prophetic elements in Nietzsche’s works about the failures of post-modernity’s aspirations. Nietzsche believes that his culture lacked self-understanding and such awareness may still be missing today. Pippin suggests that Nietzsche’s ‘God is dead’ image is indicative of post-modernity at a loss. Whilst religion may not feature as prominently, it could be argued that we still fundamentally cling to what Nietzsche believed was an unreceptive attitude toward life. Nietzsche, Pippin contends, expresses suspicions about the inauthentic preoccupations that may exist in contemporary culture. By highlighting some of these preoccupations we might perceive how Nietzsche’s concerns could be significant. Firstly, economic considerations can be seen to impose an unhealthy intrusion on life. Secondly, it might be said that the mass media and entertainment industry have a tranquilizing and trivializing effect on an individual’s perception of life. Given this view, our interests are defined by a commercial mass culture, dominated by consumerist concerns. This is ideologically regulated by Hegelian notions of Greek religion being of beauty and Jewish religion being of sublimity. Capitalism and the promotion of a work ethic mean little opportunity for creativity and flourishing. The relationship between capitalism and religion can be found in the 'Not Only as Substance, but Also as Subject' chapter of The Sublime Object of Ideology where the logic of sublimity 'relies, of course, on Kant's Critique of Judgement, where Beauty and Sublimity are opposed along the semantic axes quality-quantity, shaped-shapeless, bounded-boundless: Beauty calms and comforts; Sublimity excites and agitates.' (Žižek :228)
Such social phenomena could be seen as deriving from resentment, or from a ‘herd’ mentality as disguised forms of repression. The fixation with our careers, for example, can be interpreted as an attempt to distract the mind from its suffering by means of hard work. This culture may subsequently contribute to a banal and stultifying life, as we are not required to test ourselves or establish our own values. Society today might therefore be seen to lack the elements essential for a ‘noble’ civilization because we are able to take solace in institutions which do not challenge us, thus we possess vague ideals. We are still victims of self-deceit because we focus our energies toward external pursuits like technological mastery of the sublime or material gratification, rather than personal development. This may ease our sense of displeasure at life but it might be said that we fail, thereby, to engage with the world in a deep, epistemological way and are therefore ‘unknown to ourselves’ (The Genealogy of Morals: 1956:149). Thus, post-modern life may be deemed sterile and unhealthy, with little potential for flourishing as we engage in conformist lifestyles. It could be concluded that Nietzsche’s accusation of an inauthentic humanity is still legitimate because we cling to security and comfort, albeit under different guises. Civilisation today might therefore be considered as living in the midst of the crisis Nietzsche predicted, unable to cope with the horrors of the sublime.
If it is to be accepted that there is still a message to be conveyed by Nietzsche’s understanding [Verstand] of capitalism and Sublimity [Erhabenheit], how should we embark on the project of non-Heideggerian authenticity and free ourselves from our false conscience? Certain treatments of Nietzsche, including those of Nehamas (1985) and Schacht (1995), privilege ‘aestheticism’ as a fundamental aspect of his authenticity. They believe that Nietzsche offers an ‘aesthetic’ mode of existence as the antidote to nihilism: once the universality of moral values has been rejected. Nietzsche’s aestheticism is often seen to derive from The Birth of Tragedy where he claims that ‘we have every right to view ourselves as aesthetic projections…and derive such dignity as art works. Only as an aesthetic product can the world be justified’ (1956: 41-42). Given Nietzsche’s view that there are no objective standards to live by, it can be argued that he believes that we should perceive life as a work of art: of which we are the artist. This aesthetic justification of existence means that the meaning of life is not obtained from any external authority but is defined by the individual. In addition, Nietzsche believes that aesthetic experience possesses redemptive power and could provide metaphysical consolation for the ‘terrors and horrors of existence’ (The Birth Of Tragedy: 1956:29). For Nietzsche, otherworldly religion and rationalistic-science offer misrepresentations of life. In contrast, tragic art reflects the fact that life is ridden with strife and suffering, which gives the individual the power to access the ‘will’ directly. Aesthetic exaltation enables individuals to transmute their pain into art and transfigure their existential suffering. Art is therefore offered as an authentic life-affirming means of coping with the suffering of existence.
Thus Nietzsche, following Kant, may approach the Sublime, as best encapsulated with an artistic attitude and representation [Vorstellung]. This ethical approach to aesthetics precedes the sublime object as found in Lacan's The Ethic of Psychoanalysis. It has been asserted, for example, that Nietzsche’s paradoxes are not accidental, but that he intends to confuse the reader. Lacan's variation being a sublime object of impossible-real Thing-in-itself. This is so that he can engage their attention and urge them to contemplate important issues in the face of contradictory assertions. This approach is supported by Janaway (2007) who claims that Nietzsche deliberately avoids writing dialectically or impersonally from premise to conclusion because he wants us to react at a level below that of conscious philosophical reflection. For Janaway, Nietzsche is more of a psychologist and his rhetoric is a fundamental device for engaging with classical philologists. Wakefield surpasses Janaway's idea in The Paradox of Nietzschean Atheism, but this would be a digression away from the concept of the sublime at hand in this paper. Given Nietzsche’s promotion of the perspectival approach to knowledge, perhaps it would be appropriate to address his doctrines in the same vein. Rather than try to assimilate Nietzsche’s many ideas in a single articulate and consistent interpretation on the sublime, we can look at each concept as one particular perspective. Accordingly, one concept may contradict another, but each is merely offering a stance which might be helpful under particular circumstances.
Many commentators object to the suggested controversial political consequences of Nietzsche’s ideas, by arguing that his doctrines have been read out of context and misappropriated. The overman for example is often taken to suggest a revolution in National Socialist society. However, there are those, like Kaufmann (1974), who consider the concept to refer to a purely personal process of self-overcoming which should not be applied, in a wider sphere, to imply mastery over others. The lack of clarity in a few lines of Nietzsche's The Genealogy of Morals and Žižek's Organs Without Bodies: Deleuze and Consequences, has lead philosophers such as Wakefield to critique the ontological political export of some aspects of Nietzsche and Žižek as being restricted by narcissism. 4 Wakefield quotes Heraclitus on the matter: 'θυμῷ μάχεσθαι χαλεπόν· ὃ γὰρ ἂν θέλῃ, ψυχῆς ὠνεῖται.' Rather than interpret the higher types as political leaders, they could be held as ‘spiritual’ leaders whose battle and struggle with herd values occurs internally. The passages in Nietzsche’s work which are often held to be politically disturbing (on grounds of catalyzing genocide) might be interpreted strictly metaphorically. Clark, for example, maintains that the will to power has ‘nothing essential to do with power over others, but is a sense of one’s effectiveness in the world’ (Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy: 1990:211). Leiter also insists that there is no textual evidence to support the claim that Nietzsche wants to establish forms of social organization. Leiter believes that those who allege Nietzsche to have a political agenda have simply missed the rhetorical context of his particular ideas. Nietzsche, Leiter contends, does not offer an outline for a political programme because he calls for an individual transformation and not a political one. We therefore should not ascribe a repressive political position to Nietzsche, but should read him on a psychological, pathological level, wherein his dogmatic pronouncements are considered more as thought-experiments for the individual.
Even if some of the Nazi-esque criticisms against Nietzsche can be upheld, this need not require us to dismiss his political metaphysics entirely. Nietzsche’s ideas may appear complex and formidable, but they can be rendered more accessible. Positive value can be found in his philosophy without the implication of social repercussions. Nietzsche can be seen to provide a revitalizing aesthetics because he focuses on life itself and the realities of the world in which we live. As Janaway argues, Nietzsche is concerned with ‘what it is to be the most excellent type of human being, to lead the best life a human being can lead’ (Beyond Selflessness: 2007:30). The final section of my paper will focus on the positive aspects of Nietzsche’s thought in its relation to the project of individual authenticity in the face of the sublime.
Nietzsche encourages us to engage with the sublime in an atheistic way, in order to free us from those ascetic ideals which deprive life of positive value. One way we could acquire more authentic dispositions toward the sublime could be through art. Nietzsche believes that art has significance for human life as a power which can ‘make life possible and worth living’ (The Birth Of Tragedy:1956:21). Art can be perceived as a medium with healing qualities, which Nietzsche interprets in terms of ‘transfiguring’ (The Birth of Tragedy: 1956:30). Our tragic existence is transfigured because art ‘inspires the most extravagant hopes and promises oblivion of the most bitterest pain’ (The Birth of Tragedy: 1956: 144). We may find that art enables us to think better of the world of ordinary experience by presenting the tragic as sublime. Despite aligning Nietzsche with his early position of tragic spirituality and Dionysian exuberance, it is clear in Nietzsche's middle period that one can misplace ones hopes in art. To be specific, the chapter on art in Human, all too Human and the need for intoxication in Daybreak 50 are significant breaks in how the youthful Nietzsche viewed the sublime in tragödie. Artistic experience could allow one to access previously unknown psychological depths by inducing contemplative consciousness. It can be seen as a powerful and curative force, one which allows us to ‘recreate’ ourselves by taking us away from the distraction of our everyday cares and concerns. We can banish all else from our minds and get in touch with our inner being, which could, in turn, lead to greater self-insight. Spending more time appreciating art and immersing oneself in artistic endeavours could therefore prove to be a cathartic experience. The feelings elicited through art may allow us to ‘lose’ ourselves, and stand outside of our everyday identity, releasing us from our suffering. Redirecting our struggle into creativity could prove to be a more constructive means of handling ill-feelings, allowing us to express our emotions through art, rather than repress them via other means.
Nietzsche’s perspective that type-facts define an individual may also be useful, since it encourages self-acceptance. We could utilize his ‘scientific’ approach to observe our nature and to discover our limitations. By accepting certain limits, and understanding what is not possible, we can focus on those possibilities which are realistically available to us. An increased understanding of our nature may allow us to genuinely change our own fortunes. Another positive aspect of Nietzsche’s authentic existence is his encouragement to develop faith in oneself. Nietzsche believes that feelings of self-respect are morally condemned by the slave ethic, with its emphasis on humility. Yet without an intrinsic sense of self-worth, our pleasures are limited, and we cannot affirm and love life fully. One way to achieve greater self-esteem might be through Nietzsche’s recommendation of an artistic reinterpretation of our flaws, so that ‘even weaknesses delight the eye’ (The Gay Science: 2001:163). To embrace imperfections and incorporate them as an essential part of the self could assist individuals to overcome feelings of insecurity. Nietzsche also teaches that one should not derive a sense of self from outside sources, such as other people and their attendant compassion, rules, regulations, laws or religion. This is because each person is unique; there is no single context for all human lives so there can be no universal principles. We can thus learn from Nietzsche not to judge ourselves by anyone else’s standards because our tests ‘can be witnessed by no judge other than ourselves’ (Beyond Good and Evil: 2002:39). As Janaway explains, Nietzsche recommends ‘a maximally positive attitude towards oneself as an individual, considered as standing apart from others’ (Beyond selflessness: 2007:253). The belief that our world and the meanings of the events in our lives derive from our unique perspective can help us to trust our judgments and teach us to refrain from comparing ourselves with other people, thereby avoiding feelings of envy, anxiety and paranoia. This potentially invigorating element of Nietzsche’s thought can encourage us to adapt our approach to life in such a way that we might dedicate ourselves to what we believe to be ‘good’, rather than to another persons perception of ‘good’. For Nietzsche, too many of our values are based on resentment against life rather than based in gratitude, such as our tendency to feel guilty. Nietzsche believes that the psychological configuration of guilt distorts life because it directs our energy away from any life-enhancing activity.5 Having engaged with Nietzsche’s critique of morality we may be able to look at our propensity to guilt from a greater distance and react differently to it. Rather than interpreting guilt as a voice of conscience which must be obeyed, we might learn to resist succumbing to it and re-configure our emotions more constructively.
There can be also be beneficial aspects to Nietzsche’s emphasis on suffering, as it could offer a more fulfilling life than the life of comfortable well-being. Nietzsche mocks society’s addiction to ‘the religion of snug cosiness’ (The Gay Science: 2001:192) because, although it may dull pain, it also dulls the energy which pain supplies to overcome difficulties. For Nietzsche, happiness is not fundamentally valuable in- itself and true fulfillment does not reside in avoiding troubles, but in cultivating them. This requires risk-taking because, as Nietzsche explains: ‘The secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is - to live dangerously!’(The Gay Science: 2001:161). Nietzsche may therefore inspire in us the courage to take the risks we had been afraid of, in the belief that we would reap greater reward than comfortable contentment. He believes that anything worthwhile in life requires an extraordinary amount of effort, so ‘We should not sidestep our tests, even though they may well be the most dangerous game we can play’ (Beyond Good and Evil: 2002:39). Taking chances may be difficult as there is the threat of failure and subsequent pain but, for Nietzsche, suffering is necessary for human excellence and progress. If life lacks challenge we may suffer the effects of under-stimulation and experience ennui. Putting ourselves in risky situations may be motivating and can encourage us to want to achieve more, which could give life greater purpose.
Ultimately, and interpreted appropriately, Nietzsche’s aesthetic philosophy could provide valuable insight for those grappling with the dilemmas of existence and seeking authenticity. The most sublime moral deeds, combined with what the Apollonian Greek calls sophrosyne,6 is what Nietzsche draws from the dialectic of the Platonic Socrates. Many aspects of modern existence may contribute to a large number of people leading inauthentic lives which they find stultifying, boring or even pointless. It is easy to fall into the trap of following ‘the herd’, in which life is lived in a mechanical, superficial way, which overlooks individual, Socratic potential. Nietzsche insists that we have a responsibility to fulfill ourselves and draws attention to the fact that we betray ourselves by leading unreflective, empty and shallow lives. He provides a set of suggestions for different ways of approaching existence, and his demand for psychological self-exploration may help us determine our individual needs. The self-inspection he recommends could result in our realization that the life we have established for ourselves does not accord with our own tastes. A more profound self-awareness may lead us away from our unreflective involvement in the routine of life. Nietzsche encourages us, in this way, to shed the masks we hide behind and cultivate ourselves using self-honesty as our guide. However, it would be a mistake to read Nietzsche for conclusions, or with the expectation of finding a panacea on how to live ‘right’. Nietzsche believes that we need to use our own intellectual resources to affirm ourselves, rather than merely follow him, as Zarathustra emphasises: ‘ “This-it turns out- is my way, where is yours?”-That is how I answered those who asked me, “the way”. The way after all-it does not exist!’(Thus Spoke Zarathustra 2002: 156). Nietzsche does not prescribe a specific scheme to follow, since he wants his readers to think for themselves and examine their own attitudes and feelings. What Nietzsche does well is to act as a critic who brings to surface what he believes to be the problems of our existence. This can enable us to look anew at our beliefs and reconsider what we might have accepted against our wiser judgment. Nietzsche encourages us to ask ourselves: ‘“who are we, really?”’ (The Genealogy of Morals 1956: 149) and to think carefully about what sort of ideals, goals and purposes we set ourselves and why. If we choose a particular path in accordance with our own interests then we can live the best possible life available to us. Aspects of Nietzsche’s vision of authenticity may therefore enable us to achieve a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment with ourselves and life.
The value of striving for personal authenticity is frequently criticized for its ego-centric nature, so in conclusion I address the wider benefits of the project of authenticity. The struggle for self-enhancement need not place us in contention with all others. An authentic person has self-respect, which allows a proper and deeper regard for others, enabling them to participate in the public sphere without conflict. If we are truthful to ourselves we can be truthful in our relation with others. In this way, fairness and decency in our dealings with other people can be seen as derivative of individual authenticity. Thus, authenticity can be understood as a social, as well as a personal virtue. A comparison can be made with those who choose not to think deeply about their existence and consequently make unthinking and unreflective commitments. These people would not be acting to benefit society. Conversely, those who hold authentically considered opinions may use their discernment to make a sublime and beautifully Socratic contribution to society. Rather then remaining objective instruments or sublime slaves, we can follow the Nietzsche of Beyond Good and Evil, acknowledge the tragic and cruel in the sublime [Erhabene] so we can have a noble transitional moment [Zwischenbegebnis] towards full authenticity.
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