Sunday, 11 May 2008


Watching a documentary on the German philosopher Nietzsche put my own thoughts about life into a more explicable order. He lived at the same time as Henry David Thoreau, and they explored similar themes. Recent thought at the time, such as Darwin's On The Origin Of Species, pulled the rug out from under the ancient moral order dictated by the church. Thinking men of the time turned their intellect to the exploration of morality, and were ever pulled deeper into the greatest subject of research: what it is that makes us human.
Nietzsche lost his brother and his father, a parson, at a young age. He studied for the church but dropped out in favour of linguistics (known then as philology), writing a letter to his sister that faith returned nothing but itself; "if you want to be a disciple of truth, then search." He spent many summers in the Swiss Alps, walking the mountain trails and writing and thinking about Man and self-evident, objective morality. Like Thoreau, he needed to step away from the hubbub of society to allow the delicate skeins of first philosophies to wick together.
It cannot be ignored that the syphilis Nietzsche contracted as a young man rendered him bedridden one day in seven (and eventually led to his dementia), or that his philosophy was, in part, a wish-fulfillment restoration fantasy. But the concept of the ubermensch (superman/overcoming man) was an aspirational ideal which stood outside the fantasies of religion. The idea that we could, through self-directed activity, improve our own lives without divine assistance was revolutionary and paved the way for the therapeutic techniques of Freud and others.

In a Godless universe, we revert to first principles and the scientific process of hypothesis and observation to gauge what is good, or true, or worthwhile. We can survive by eating; we can increase by socialising; we can improve by learning. The finer points of life and society are negotiated in the crowded throng of interaction and ineptitude or luck. It is only by recognising the chaotic foundation and loose self-ordering of our lives that we may come to an acceptance of misfortune. Then, finally, we can let go of the poisonous superstitions of religion, dogma, and otherworldly paternalism.

Nietzsche believed that the individual could be self-promoting. He despised anything which disenfranchised individuals, subjugating them to a 'greater good'; it is for this reason that his appropriation by the Third Reich, three decades after his death, is particularly galling. Their recognition of the Superman was of an shining Aryan clone, not of a Rousseauean solitary walker. His 'overcoming man' was a lonely figure in the mountains, a Zarathustran ascetic who lived beyond the ken of clamouring peasants. As Hamlet has it:
...infinite in faculty, in moving and form how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in comprehension how like a god!
The death of God that Nietzsche talks about brings with it a heavy burden; we can no longer outsource our moral thinking to a man in a robe. But the tremendous journey of locating our own first philosophy is the most important part of understanding what it is to be human, of living with our eyes open and alert, curious about the world and its wonders.

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