Nietzsche and Aristotle on Gods, Humans, and Beasts

Yesterday’s post looked at Nietzsche’s relation to Hume’s view of sympathy through his comments on the Neighbour in Dawn 146.  Altruism is an underlying issue there.  We could take Nietzsche as a following a precedent in Hume that undermines selfless altruism, we could take him as breaking with Hume in rejecting an altruism based on sympathy, we could take him as reworking Hume’s ideas of values based on common experience.  I don’t believe it would be a good idea to quickly come down for any of those three options.  Rather than getting into a full discussion of that, I will move onto Dawn 147 (reproduced in full at the bottom of this post, which follows on in discussing human experience of commonality and selfishness.

Just as 146 looks very much like a comment on Hume, or more likely a Humean way of thinking Nietzsche picked up from other sources; 147 looks very much like a comment on Aristotle.  I find this particularly interesting, since there is some recent work on seeing Nietzsche in terms of Aristotle (e.g. Christine Swanton) and Hume (e.g. Peter Kail), and certainly Nietzsche needs to be situated in relation to them.  The naturalist elements may be a big sources for naturalist elements in Nietzsche, though we would also need to think about Lucretius and Spinoza here.

What 147 suggests to me is certainly that we need to think about Nietzsche in relation to Aristotle, but not by seeing him as continuous with Aristotle.  There is a very strong opposition made in 147, though that is not the end of the story either,  A full account of Nietzsche on value (moral values or values of life, there is an interesting issue here of which is more appropriate), should certainly bring in Aristotle on virtue, or excellence. (arete/άρετή); more on that, and all these issues, on other occasions.

The first thing to note about 147 is that it is directed against Aristotle’s well known statement inPolitics I, that man is a political, or social animal.  Aristotle goes on to suggest that life outside the community (polis/πόλις), is only possible for a god or an animal.  In 147, Nietzsche refers to ‘divine selfishness’ and ‘the dear animal world’ in being alone.  He brings up that possibility as a reaction to the possibility of being loved by everyone.  Being loved by everyone, instead of one person, is an unbearable burden.  In this Nietzsche might be following Aristotle.  In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle does suggest that the more friends someone has, the less value friendship has.  He also suggests that a god has a perfect live, which does not need friends, in a life of self-contemplation.  That leads us back to the god in the Politics outside the community.  However, in the Politics, Aristotle suggests a rather grotesque kind of divinity, Polyphemus, the one eyed giant, son of Poseidon.  The divine and the bestial come together.  Nietzsche provides a more positive sense of how the divine and the bestial can combine.

This divine-bestial possibility is staged as a negative reaction to the extreme of universal love, but it is not just staged as a reaction to an extreme circumstance.  Nietzsche is drawing out attention to something disturbing about the ideal of love between humans, how can we respond to universal love? How can we keep our own individuality, decisions and actions?  Love as altruism, this seems not to be eros that Niezsche is discussing, is again undermined as it was in 146.  The implicit target was Hume, or ‘English psychologists’, now it is Aristotle.

Dawn 147

Cause of ‘altruism’. — Men have on the whole spoken of love with such emphasis and so idolised itbecause they have had little of it and have never been allowed to eat their fill of this food: thus it became for them ‘food of the gods’.  Let a poet depict a utopia in which there obtains universal love, he will certainly have to describe a painful and ludicrous state of affairs the like of which the earth has never yet seen — everyone worshipped, encumbered and desired, not by one lover, as happens now, but by thousands, indeed by everyone else, as the result of an uncontrollable drive which would then be as greatly execrated and cursed as selfishness had been in former times; and the poets in that state of things — provided they were left alone long enough to write — would dream of nothing but the happy, loveless past, of divine selfishness, of how it was once possible to be alone, undisturbed, unloved, hated, despised on earth, and whatever else may characterise the utter baseness of the dear animal world in which we live.

Translated by R.J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Original version of this post as Barry Stocker’s Weblog

Fear and Trembling: Ethics of Marriage

Further thoughts while teaching Kierkegaard.

Marriage and Ethics
What is the topic of Fear and Trembling? Is it the story of Abraham and Isaac? Yes, but we should not be distracted from the other topic. This is the topic defined in the ‘Diapslamata’ of Either/Or I, in the first sentence of the section on ‘Either/Or: An Ecstatic Discourse’

Marry, and you will regret it. Do not marry, and you will also regret it. Marry or do not marry, you will regret it either way (Princeton University Press, edited and translated by Hong and Hong: 38)

Either/Or I deals with the aesthetic stage in which marriage is to long term in a perspective dominated by the interest of the immediate. Most of Either/Or II deals with the ethical stage, and that is defined by marriage. The ethical stage is presented by Judge William, the aesthetic stage in the fragments of an anonymous young man.

Marriage and the Daemonic
Fear and Trembling deals with the drama of Abraham and Isaac, but in large part it deals with relations between men and women and the possibility of marriage. There is more to be said about Fear and Trembling but will concentrate on the marriage theme which is deeply embedded. It was published in the same year as Either/Or, so we would expect some common themes. Kierkegaard deals with various ways in which the possibility of marriage, and barriers to such a possibility, are presented. In comedies, Kierkegaard gives Danish examples which seem to correspond with Hollywood Romantic Comedies in structure. A barrier to love and marriage is overcome through happy accident. In the more sombre examples, marriage is related to terrible danger. Sarah and Tobit in the Old Testament/Torah book of Tobit, are married despite the deaths of seven previous husbands of Sarah. Faust avoids marriage with Gretchen in Goethe’s poem to protect her from his daemonic side. In a very Danish touch, Kierkegaard refers to the story of Agnes and the Merman in Hans Christian Anderson, the story is non-Danish in origin but given that it was published by Anderson and that it fits with various reference Kierkegaard makes to Nordic myths and monsters, we can see it as belonging to the Danish-Nordic element Kierkegaard regularly introduces. Kierkegaard thinks of various possible alternative versions of the story of the girl seduced by a merman. They all deal with the daemonic in the merman.

Kierkegaard discusses various fictional and scriptural examples of the daemonic in the individual coming into conflict with the desire to marry, in a way which relates to Abraham’s choice between ethics and obeying God. Abraham’s solution is the paradox in which he obeys both, Kierkegaard recommends the same solution for the marriage dilemma. The ethical relation of marriage is threatened by the daemonic within the individual, the daemonic element within makes marriage apparently unethical for that person because it threatens the destruction of the loved person

Ethics and the Absolute Self
Kierkegaard recommends faith that ethics will not be contradicted in marriage, just as Abraham is a hero because he had faith that God’s command could be obeyed while remaining within ethics. Ethics must be suspended in order to preserve it. Ethics rests on the absolute, the absolute self, the absolute capacity of the individual for a decision. Ethics is always suspended in relation to that absolute, the necessity of the judging self.

Hegel
By any standards, marriage can be defined as an ethical relation because it requires two people to think of at least one other person, and because it provides a basic structure for the existence of a society based on ethical principles. This is particularly clear if we think of the way Hegel thinks of marriage, it is the first step of the ethical. For Hegel, the ethical is a social form, a form of life as opposed to nature and as opposed to purely individual morality.

In the very first page of ‘Problema 1’ in Fear and Trembling, Hegel is referred to with regard to individual conscience as evil. In the section on morality and conscience in Philosophy of Right, Hegel refers to individual conscience as evil in its results, because it is purely individual. Opposing the individual to universality can only be evil. Hegel describes a move from morality to ethical life (Sittlichkeit, which is something like the being of ethos/mores), in which individuals are part of universality through marriage, family, civil society, and the state.

Absolute Individual and Marriage
The project announced in Fear and Trembling is that of showing that the individual is higher than the universal but is not evil. That should encourage us to read the Abraham/Isaac story as referring to individuality rather than God. This is very clear with the accounts of marriage dilemmas which in their most serious refer to the daemonic within an individual.

Fear and Trembling deals with the aesthetic individual who is beneath marriage and the absolute individual who is above marriage. The individual as individual is beneath and above the ethical relation or marriage. There is no complete distinction between the aesthetic individual and the absolute individual. The absolute emerges from the aesthetic through the melancholy of mere immediacy.

Nietzsche against Master Morality

The assumption is widespread that Nietzsche’s ethics can be explained as the master morality which he diagnoses in the Essay 1 of On the Genealogy of Morality. The assumption is widespread among those who are semi-informed, and even more disturbingly among those who have some claims to expertise on Nietzsche. As a reaction to Nietzsche, it’s not totally inappropriate, the texts do provoke the reader to think of master morality as something better than slave morality. That is somewhat different from a committment to master morality as a form of ethics.

Nietzsche sometime says he is referring to a philosophy of life rather than ethics or morality. I believe it would be going to far to say that there is no ethics, or moral philosophy in Nietzsche. However, it is important toı recognise that Nietzsche is challenging (which is not the same as rejecting) the bases of ethics or morality. What he is doing is to find something like what Hegel calls immediacy, and Kierkegaard calls wonder in a reaction to nature and human nature. Though whether that means we can classify Nietzshe with contemporary Naturalists of a scientistic reductionist orientation is another thing. Nietzsche looks at the wonder, or immediacy of the master’s view of the world in the most primitive of moralities, the original master morality. That he explains particularly in relation to Homeric heroes, and in general an approach in which mutual obligations are recognised between masters, but not to those outside the relevant group of masters. From this point of view, the masters define themselves as good, beautiful, truthful and so on. The salves are those who have the opposite of those characteristics.

The slaves are not evil, because they behave according to nature in the master world view, they just behave as they do without evil intention. For Nietzsche, the concept of evil is deeply embedded in ideas of soul, strong personal identity, free will and inner intentions. It is the slaves who have a good/evil dichotomy who assume there is strong personal identity and intentionalism. For the master, there are immediate reactions There is no assumption for strong personal identity and all that might go with that: free will, intentionalism, memory over time. These aspects of master morality are clearly part of what Nietzsche advocates, but it is not what Nietzsche advocates as a whole.

Nietzsche is against a metaphysical theory free will, resting as he sees it on a strong sense of personal identity in which the self is a soul thing rather than a combination of forces as Nietzsche thinks. However, he is not against the ideas of autonomy, sovereignty of the self, or self-creation. These are all given great emphasis. Both art and science are taken as products of the creative self, which creates itself as a it creates a perspective on natural forces in nature or the creation of art. The master is not an artist or scientist. Neither of these would be a complete model for Nietzsche. Nietzsche sees value in the life that is like art, he finds that beauty is a product of the desire for happiness. Happiness comes in life led as self-creating and self-legislating. It is here that Nietzsche sees the origin of value, not in the brutishness and borrishness of the master towards the slave. He does not think that value originates in utilitarian calculations of maximised benefits, or any set of abstract principles or social institutions. Nietzsche refers to the master who forgets offence and only takes revenge where it is immediately possible, but he admires the individual with no need to punish or take revenge at all, much more.

Why do Young People Think Morality is Private?

As far as I know this is a phenomenon going back to the the 1960s when student demonstrations might feature slogans about the privacy of morality. This week when teaching Hume in an ethics class, I was inevitably faced with a student who believed that morality is just a matter of individual choice. I can give a political example from British Liberal Democrat politics. That leaves the question of how far the same thing turns up in other political traditions, I can only guess that it does in some form. The Liberal Democrat Youth and Students wing in Britain did mention this privacy of morality in a motion to the party conference once. I’ve occasionally had frustrating conversations in the past with people who think that morality is just asserting an opinion and that there is nothing to discuss. If that were true there would be no moral philosophy. That attitude did appear in academic philosophy for a period in the 20th Century when it was though that Moral Philosophy could only refer to subjective opinion in substance and language or logic in form. That partly rested on a one sided reading of Hume. There is something else there. One aspect of this is a clearly a confusion between issues of right to privacy and issues of morality. This confusion may arise from conservatives who want to interfere in privacy with regard to consenting adult sexual relations and consuming drugs. But there also seems to be a solipsism of adolescence in which things that affect our inner choices and intimate relations are seen as purely subjective. What I said in class was that people may have different moral opinions but they can agree that certain areas have moral significance, and discuss issues in those areas. The discussion is a form of communication and agreement in itself, because something has to be agreed in order to have any discussion. Adolescent solipsism may be putting it harshly. In adolescence it is important to form morally charged views in an autonomous manner, which may lead to a somewhat solipsistic attitude. This emphasis on subjectivity does have some dangers. This is subjectivity in the most gestural sense, not in the sense of a rich description of subjective consciousness. These attitudes can persist, undermining public civic discussion of important issues. There ought to be ways in which teenagers can learn something about discussing moral issues and the importance of discussion, even where opinions differ.

Why Buffy and Joss Whedon’s other work matter

Joss Whedon created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, after three series this lead to the spin off Angel. Buffy ran for 7 seasons, Angel ran for 5 seasons. Towards the end of that period Whedon made 14 episodes of Firefly before it was cancelled by the network. The sequel to Firefly was the film Serenity. All these things have sold in massive amounts on DVD, unfortunately TV and cinema have been more mixed in their returns.

I’ll be returing to the Whedonverse. First of all, why does it matter? Today we’ll concentrate on Buffy. A series with a silly sounding name. The full name of the series, as Whedon points out, combines comedy, horror and drama. The silliness already indicates an interest in combining genres and crossing boundaries. What are the themes that appear and make Buffy important 8and which appear in the rest of the Whedonverse).

Buffy is an icon of female power, often defeating patronising enemies.
Buffy is also an ambiguous character: the hero and the disturbed individualist
The apparently simple conflict between good and evil moves switches back and forth between moral ambiguity and moral absolutes.
Buffy is drawn in different ways to 2 vampire characters (Angel and Spike) who make journeys from good to evil.
Buffy, Angel and Spike finds that despite the elemental conflicts she participates in, that the world has no meaning. The only morsl perspective is what the individual brings.
These characters refer to alientated states of mind and the struggle to overcome subjective alienation.
Characters find that passion drives them and is the basis rather than moral judgement.
Spike shows a moral evolution driven first by the restraint of a violence inhibiting implant, then by love for Buffy and then by regaining his ‘soul’ (soul=conscience in the Whedonverse). Many questions arise here about what morality is and what moral motivation is.
Individual difference and liberty are promoted along with an awareness that they can become alienating and disturbing.
Buffy is drawn towards ‘the dark’, towards violence, aggression and chaos in her own struggle against them.
The struggle against demonic chaos is a struggle to impose the order that Buffy resists.
Characters go through remarkable changes from apparent good to evil, and from evil to good. This is made very material in the vampirasation of Spike and Angel, both events are shown in flashback, and in the ways in which Angel and Spike get their souls back. For Angel, a soul is a punishment, for Spike it is a reward he seeks to make him worthy of Buffy. These tranformations and many others, raise questions about the limits of personal identity and the posisbility of change within continuous identity.
It deals with different possible worlds, as do many philosophers.
It’s very funny, all serious themes are ironised and everything is ironised. This is an important message in itself. Comedy and tragedy are always close together.