By Sean Kehr
As many of you may already be aware February has been our little podcast’s anniversary. This has caused me to be a bit introspective about the nature of what we’re doing and my involvement with philosophy as a whole. While philosophy has been a rich and engaging field of study for me it isn’t always an easy path to follow. It seems in our modern world of productivity and technology the philosopher is seen as one part anachronism and one part court jester. The philosophical community is viewed as a relic of a bygone era and the practitioners within it as foolish or lazy. Despite this I have found no greater joy than the satisfaction after a hard-won debate with those fellow seekers willing to truly lay their beliefs on the line. It is not the satisfaction of winning that’s so rewards me but instead the satisfaction at overcoming the struggle. I have won arguments and lost them, I have been taught and taught others, but what is universal is that when we are fully engaged in the deeply harrowing work of puzzling out the mysteries of some problem or another the moment of understanding comes as a blaze of wonder leaving me awestruck at the beauty hidden within the intricacies of my world. It’s not unlike an explorer who sees for the first time a new land filled with strange features to explore. To me this experience and the breadth of its effect on my view of the world has been more richly rewarding than any other path I could have followed. And as I have said to be introspective on such a profound part of one’s life is to wonder how one has come to that place.
All of my life I have been an inquisitive person wondering about the world around me and so perhaps on some level I was always headed toward philosophy but the turning point of most note was most likely when at the age of 15 I received a copy of Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil” from a well-intentioned neighbor. I considered Jim Morrison a bit of a personal hero and in an attempt to counter that the neighbor gave me a copy of a book of poems from Morrison and mentioned that he had been into Nietzsche’s work so along with it he offered the copy of Beyond Good and Evil. I had no idea what it was but the title was ominous enough and the publisher had clearly gone to no effort whatsoever to avoid that feeling in the chosen cover design. The way he talked about it this book it may as well have been the Necronomicon. I have thought back to this event many times and wondered if he was merely naive or actively trying to bait a trap perfectly aligned to snare a teenage boys interest but in either case it had worked. If he was truly that naive his plan to spook me with the dark and foreboding tone of Nietzsche’s work had backfired and I was hooked.
This brings me to the real point I wish to discuss which is Nietzsche and the way he is seen in our time. Much like that neighbor it seems most people view this man as a kind of nihilistic, anti-social, madman reserved for only the most depressed and angry readers. This sense of his place is the zeitgeist is only reinforced by the associations he receives both historically and by the malcontents who love to quote him. And who could blame them he is infinitely quotable, a wordsmith of the highest caliber capable of packing in more mystery and truth per word than most would ever manage in whole volumes, but this is not the Nietzsche I know. The philosopher, philologist, psychologist, and wandering sage I have come to know over the many years of our interaction is no figure of ill repute but in fact the Celebrant.
It’s hard to see Nietzsche as a celebrant if we focus only on the quotable Nietzsche of popular fame. With such fine examples as “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” and “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” and the masterstroke “God is Dead” its nearly inevitable that most people would view him as a pessimist at best. It is however a very different man who I have found so inspirational a man who wanted us to live life and not let the moments that make us who we are and can be slip away. I see the man I admire so in a different set of quotes, some nearly as famous as the preceding set are infamous. I would like to share some of them and my interpretations of them with you.
“We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.”
Here we see the spirit of celebration that for me is true of the works in question. Live your life and do not let the weight of it keep you from enjoying it instead take joy in the struggle and make what you do a part of your joy. This is perhaps one of the most powerful messages I can think of from this great mans work and also perhaps one of the hardest to do because Nietzsche is not asking us to celebrate when it is easy and we are happy but when we are lowest and most in need of the celebratory spirit. If your burdens can not be carried with joy in our hearts then we may as well lay them down because no doing in all the world is worth sacrificing joy for.
“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’”
Here we are asked to imagine that our lives are to be lived again to this moment in eternal recurrence and asked if we would be overjoyed at the prospect or despair at the pain we must endure again. The point of this is to remind us that if we do not live in joy as a means to overcome hardship we are merely subjecting ourselves to hardship not growing in spite of it. Again we are counseled to celebrate even in the most painful of circumstance the very fact of our existence.
“I tell you: one must still have chaos within oneself, to give birth to a dancing star.”
This is probably the finest moment I can think of to highlight the celebrant in Nietzsche. We are living beings and as such we can not be stagnate but instead must always be growing or wilting and it is in our living essence that we find the inspiration to create. Without it we can not be great and it exists in the places we most often shun the darkness, the pain, the unexpected, and the unknown. This is most likely the reason why so few people ever really get to know Nietzsche. On the surface many of his sayings are dark, or gloomy, or angry, or judging, but it is these dark places where beauty can flourish and have its greatest impact. Imagine a garden where many beautiful flowers have been grown and yet there remain shaded areas filled with weeds. It is not the flowerbed we must attend to improve the garden and yet without the chaos of the world outside the garden we will never discover any new flowers there. In knowing and becoming comfortable dealing with our dark places and chaos we learn new and wonderful things and can turn that darkness into something beautiful.
I wont go on as there are too many moments from his work to handle in this format but I encourage anyone reading this to take a second look at this figure of some controversy with new eyes. I have been moved by the power of what Nietzsche has had to say and believe he has more to teach us in our modern world than any other philosopher. I should be careful to note however than while I hold his work in the greatest of esteem that doesn’t mean he’s infallible. There are many areas I disagree with Nietzsche on but they pale in comparison to what he can teach us about living the good life. But perhaps I might leave you with one more quote to ponder as it relates to what we have discussed and the endeavor we at the Philosophical Chain Gang are engaged in
“The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.”
Thanks for a great first year everyone