RE: The Prejudices of the Philosophers
II. Spelunking Our Inherited Reality Tunnels
Section eight is the shortest of the 23 sections that comprise this first part of Beyond Good and Evil. Here it is in full:
“There is a point in every philosophy when the philosopher’s ‘conviction’ appears on stage—or to use the language of an ancient Mystery: ‘The ass arrived, beautiful and most brave’” (BGE 205).
This talk of asses recalls “Chinese Music” from Aleister Crowley’s Book of Lies:
“Explain this happening!”
“It must have a `natural’ cause.”
“It must have a `supernatural’ cause.”
Let these two asses be set to grind corn.
May, might, must, should, probably, may be, we may safely assume, ought, it is hardly questionable, almost certainly—poor hacks! let them be turned out to grass!
Proof is only possible in mathematics, and mathematics is only a matter of arbitrary conventions. And yet doubt is a good servant but a bad master; a perfect mistress, but a nagging wife (Book of Lies #45).
The issue of natural vs. supernatural (and whether the distinction should be made) is outside the scope of our discussion today, but that of skepticism, of the need to keep an eye on one’s ass(es) when approaching philosophical questions if one wishes to be “honest,” is going to be central to Nietzsche’s criticism of Western philosophy up to his time. No matter how much a philosopher tries to dance around the issues and remain unattached or “unbiased,” one’s biases and attachments inevitably come to the fore as soon as the words “I think” or “I believe” or “I hypothesize” are uttered. Again I stress that everyone is inescapably caught in subjectivity and therefore full of shit, and the worst thing a philosopher concerned with “truth” can do is buy into his or her own crap. Unfortunately, as Nietzsche is about to demonstrate, the history of Western philosophy has mostly been one fertilizer blowout after another, and the philosophers have often been the ones to walk away with the most scorched of pockets.
Take Nietzsche’s criticism of the classical Greco-Roman Stoics for the first example since, as Nietzsche says, “[W]hat formerly happened with the Stoics still happens today, too, as soon as any philosophy begins to believe in itself. It always creates the world in its own image; it cannot do otherwise” (BGE 206). The Stoics believed the Universe followed a “natural law” from which all good flowed and that human experience of evil resulted from one’s will being out of sync with that law. The human will was therefore chained to a deterministic Universe, with all values determined by this supposed “nature” of the Universe, and freedom lay more in controlling one’s reactions to what happened than in directly exercising one’s will.
The obvious problem here is that the ordered, value-creating “nature” of Stoicism doesn’t exist outside the minds of Stoics. Nature is “wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purposes and consideration, without mercy and justice, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time; imagine indifference itself as a power” (BGE 205). How could one look at the everyday meaningless horrors of the natural world—the number of salmon who die in a spawning run, or the helpless struggle of an insect wrapped in a spider’s silk as its organs painfully liquify, or the mindless, random destruction of natural events like earthquakes and hurricanes—and believe 1) that this is all the result of some “natural law” and 2) that compliance with this law is somehow “good?” In claiming to have determined a “natural law” from studying nature, what the Stoics have really done is “impose [their] morality, [their] ideal, on nature” (BGE 205), re-imagining the natural world in ways that don’t fit with reality; Nietzsche charges the Stoics “have forced [them]selves so long … to see nature the wrong way, namely Stoically, that [they] are no longer able to see her differently” (BGE 206). And so, in ancient Greece as elsewhere (and elsewhence), a group’s metaphysics come to dominate their perceptions, instead of the other way around, and philosophy becomes a tool by which one understands the “truth” less instead of more.
There’s a parallel between this criticism of Stoicism and the myth of the Curse of Greyface in Discordianism. The Principia Discordia tells us on page 00042 (as I suspect Douglas Adams would have appreciated):
In the year 1166 B.C., a malcontented hunchbrain by the name of Greyface got it into his head that the universe was as humorless as he, and he began to teach that play was sinful because it contradicted the ways of Serious Order. “Look at all the order about you,” he said. And from that, he deluded honest men to believe that reality was a straightjacket affair and not the happy romance as men had known it.
It is not presently understood why men were so gullible at that particular time, for absolutely no one thought to observe all the disorder around them and conclude just the opposite. But anyway, Greyface and his followers took the game of playing at life more seriously than they took life itself and were known even to destroy other living beings whose ways of life differed from their own.
The unfortunate result of this is that mankind has since been suffering from a psychological and spiritual imbalance. Imbalance causes frustration, and frustration causes fear. And fear makes a bad trip. Man has been on a bad trip for a long time now.
It is called THE CURSE OF GREYFACE.
The Curse of Greyface is an example of the confusion of one’s subjective ideas about reality (in this case, “everything is orderly and order is good”) with what’s going on in objective reality. The Principia Discordia tells us in discussing the Sacred Chao, “We look at the world through windows on which have been drawn grids (concepts). Different philosophies use different grids. … Through a window we view chaos, and relate it to the points on our grid, and thereby understand it. The ORDER is in the GRID” (Principia Discordia 00049-50). Greyface and the Stoics have both mistaken their ideas about “order” or “natural law” for deeper truths about the Universe when what they’re really doing is brainwashing themselves to perceive reality in inaccurate ways. So it goes for these particular asses, just as all the others.
Before we move on from the Stoics, there’s a secondary criticism Nietzsche levels at them that will tie into his concept of the will later, and though Nietzsche doesn’t use the term, it has to do with entropy. The Universe, left to its own devices, is a “closed system” that gradually runs down; energy is expended, things fall apart and order decreases as chaos increases—this isn’t just philosophy, but physics as well (the second law of thermodynamics, specifically). In a sense, entropy is the “natural law” of the Universe, yet life, which the Stoics claim should be lived “according to nature,” is by its nature a temporary (always temporary) rebellion against entropy. “Living—is that not precisely wanting to be other than this nature? Is not living—estimating, preferring, being unjust, being limited, wanting to be different” (BGE 205)? Life isn’t a matter of just taking what comes indifferently and letting things run down as they “naturally” would—such inaction would lead inevitably to death as one failed to consume food and water or to protect oneself against the elements, sickness and predators. Life is “No, instead…”—life is the insertion of causes into the complex, ever-branching cause-effect chain composed of matter-energy in space-time we call the Universe, the imposition of one’s will on reality in this battle against entropy, the surrender to which we call death. But let’s not get too sidetracked—we’ll return to this subject when Nietzsche gets deeper into the concept of the will to power later.
Immanuel Kant is the next target in Nietzsche’s sights, and deservedly so; Kant’s influence on Western philosophy has only grown since the times in which Friedrich lived, to the point where that influence is often unstated, perhaps even unknown by those so influenced. Like Plato before him—one could argue as an extension and descendant of Plato—Kant has weaseled his way into our modern way of thinking. As Nietzsche suggests in section ten, Kant and his followers may represent the revenge of the Platonic dualists against the scientific sensualism of the Enlightenment: “[W]ho knows if they are not trying at bottom to win back something that was formerly an even securer possession… perhaps the ‘immortal soul,’ perhaps ‘the old God,’ in short, ideas by which one could live better, that is to say, more vigorously and cheerfully, than by ‘modern ideas’” (BGE 207)? It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine that Kant was trying to rescue reason from Hume’s dungeon of the passions, only to enslave reason again to the continued propagation of ancient superstitions. That would seem to explain the subsequent popularity and spread of Kant’s ideas across Europe: “[I]t was a delight to the noble idlers, the virtuous, the mystics, artists, three-quarter Christians, and political obscurantists of all nations, to find, thanks to German philosophy, an antidote to the still predominant sensualism which overflowed from the last century into this…” (BGE 209).
Keep in mind Nietzsche’s admonition that we must question what a philosopher is aiming at when constructing his or her philosophy and ask—in reasserting dualism and positing his Categorical Imperative, in suggesting that because we cannot prove Yahweh’s nonexistence we should thus believe in him anyway, in suggesting that the mind is magically capable of acquiring “objective” a priori knowledge, what is Kant really doing other than trying desperately to maintain the religious and moral status quo of his culture in the face of the doubt engendered to both by Enlightenment discoveries and cultural revaluations? Isn’t it likely that Kant’s major motivation isn’t so much “truth” as it is a combination of pride (for as Nietzsche tells us, “Kant was first and foremost proud of his table of categories”) and the same irrational fear of social change that motivates conservatives to this day?
Seen in this light, Kant’s philosophy is a form of apologism, a way of saving the bulk of the old while accepting what must be accepted of the new. So Kant sets out to discover a means by which what he already “knows” to be “objectively true” can be “proven” as such even in light of recent scientific upheavals—and of course he finds it, much like a Discordian searching for proof of the Law of Fives:
The Law of Fives states simply that: ALL THINGS HAPPEN IN FIVES, OR ARE DIVISIBLE BY OR ARE MULTIPLES OF FIVE, OR ARE SOMEHOW DIRECTLY OR INDIRECTLY APPROPRIATE TO 5.
The Law of Fives is never wrong.
In the Erisian Archives is an old memo from Omar to Mal-2: “I find the Law of Fives to be more and more manifest the harder I look” (Principia Discordia 00016).
Kant claims to have discovered a “faculty” by which a priori judgments could be made—in other words, judgments that were independent of the need for verifiable evidence to back them up yet could be considered “objective” and so serve as a basis for confidence in the conclusions reached via reason. If this sounds suspiciously irrational, especially when one is trying to find a basis for reason, you’re right—it’s about on the level of saying that nuclear power works because fairies tell the atoms what to do. How did Kant pull it off? Nietzsche tells us it worked because he provided his answer “so circumstantially, venerably, and with such a play of German profundity and curlicues that people simply failed to note the [German foolishness] involved in such an answer” (BGE 208). In other words, Kant threw so many words at his readers, used so much thick, at times almost impenetrable language, that people assumed he knew what he was talking about and failed to notice that his conclusion in no way followed from his premises. What’s more, his religious apologism led to conclusions, as well as the “discovery” of further pseudo-spiritual “faculties,” that “gratified the most heartfelt cravings of the Germans, whose cravings were at bottom pious” (BGE 208).
One might wonder how people were so stupid—but as Nietzsche tells us, this was “the still youthful period of the German spirit, to which romanticism, the malignant fairy, piped and sang, when one could not yet distinguish between ‘finding’ and ‘inventing’” (BGE 208). Just as with the Law of Fives, once people began looking for evidence of these “faculties,” they found it.
This isn’t too different from what Nietzsche accuses Schopenhauer of doing regarding his thoughts on the nature of will: “he adopted a popular prejudice and exaggerated it” (BGE 215). Nietzsche is the philosopher who espoused the doctrine of the will to power, so it’s not that he completely disagreed with Schopenhauer’s claim that will was central to the human experience, but he believed that Schopenhauer oversimplified when discussing the will as if it was a singular unit of operation that led to action; rather, willing is a complex system of smaller operations leading to separate actions. Nietzsche says that “in all willing there is, first, a plurality of sensations” one experiences and that thinking is also part of willing. What’s more, tied into this idea of will is the expectation of obedience, the belief that to will something will result in an action in line with that will; to use Nietzsche’s example, there is an oversimplified belief that my will to move my arm will result in my limb “obeying,” resulting in the contraction of muscle groups. “[H]e who wills believes with a fair amount of certainty that will and action are somehow one” (BGE 216). Will and action are thus conflated if we stick to Schopenhauer’s point of view.
But as Nietzsche seems to understand, and as post-Freudian psychology and twenty-first insights into the nature of the brain seem to indicate, this result of our belief in the synthesis of will and action, this “synthetic concept ‘I,’” is almost certainly illusory—the consciousnesses that we call ourselves don’t even seem to be top-level operations of the brain. My own hypothesis is that what each of us calls the “self” is closer to a sixth sense generated by the brain after it takes in and organizes sensory data; we are the process that inherits the leftovers once deeper levels of brain processes finish editing and censoring those perceptions according to the needs and biases of the brain in question, after the brain compares present perceptions to past experiences and the future expectations, evaluating our “choices” given these constraints so we can exercise what we call “free will,” which is really just our limited ability to insert causes into the complex, ever-branching cause-effect chain we call space-time. The self—that’s what’s left after the brain has processed the data of our five traditional senses, separated what it judged to be the wheat from the chaff and said, “Here, do something with this.” That isn’t to say that the self can’t be more, and hopefully won’t be more as homo sapien evolves toward the next step in evolution—but this reactory agent seems to be what consciousness is by default.
(Or so I hesitantly believe for now.)
I’ll leave the rest of Nietzsche’s criticisms of previous philosophies to his own pages; my purpose here has only been to point out that his criticisms are often valid, and to agree with him that our inherited reality tunnels have probably been harmful for our species. “The power of moral prejudices has penetrated deeply into the most spiritual world, … and has obviously operated in an injurious, inhibiting, blinding, and distorting manner” (BGE 221).
Nietzsche closes this first section by predicting a future when “psychology shall be recognized again as the queen of the sciences, for whose service and preparation the other sciences exist,” which translator Walter Kaufmann seems to take issue with (BGE 222). It seems to me that Nietzsche is right here; the Greeks, progenitors of Western philosophy, seem to have valued the study of the mind over the other sciences; if that hadn’t been true, they might have moved beyond thought experiments more often. Certainly for the Greeks, questions concerning how the mind operated were central to their ponderings about wider reality. And if Kaufmann means to argue that the study of the mind isn’t the queen of the sciences in modern times, then I have to disagree vehemently. Philosophy and the study of human thinking seems the basis for all science—our theories of truth, of knowledge, of accountability, even if these are subjective values, underlie all concepts of academic honesty, of scientific rationality, of all attempts to know, and these are philosophical ideas, not strictly scientific ones. Without philosophy as a foundation, there is no science. Indeed, one could even argue (though I’m sure many scientists would disagree) that science is a branch of philosophy, or at very least one of its most recently successful offspring.
But who are these new philosophers that Nietzsche predicts, the future thinkers who will undo these millennia of cultural damage and teach the world to think like human beings instead of dumb, pattern-obeying sheep? What will they sound like? How will we know them when we see them? The next section, “The Free Spirit,” will begin to shed light on those questions.