Nietzsche, sight, wisdom, doubt

This post takes as its starting point some remarks concerning sight and wisdom made by Nietzsche in his early essay “On the uses and disadvantages of history for life”. In a very condensed form, I reflect on some ideas that could be unpacked from his apparently mixed metaphors. Some of these reflections are arguably rather tangential or loosely connected to Nietzsche’s own concerns in the essay and are more aligned with themes from Wittgenstein and Wittgenstein scholarship (in particular the work of Stephen Mulhall and Raimond Gaita), though I do not explicitly explore that connection here.

In Nietzsche’s essay, he sets out a metaphorical schema that recurs in various forms throughout his later works. On the one hand, his fellow moderns are associated with “wisdom”, “light” and unobscured clarity of sight, standing for knowledge (especially of history), science and theoretical reasoning. He presents the moderns as weighed down by these “indigestible stones of knowledge”, which stifle their activity, creativity and vitality. These excessively historical moderns are contrasted with an opposing side of darkness, forgetting, “blissful blindness” and “unwisdom”, with which Nietzsche himself identifies:

We will gladly acknowledge that the suprahistorical outlook possesses more wisdom than we do, provided we can only be sure that we possess more life: for then our unwisdom will at any rate have more future than their wisdom will.

Now, Nietzsche acknowledges that “not only light but darkness too is essential for the life of everything organic”, so it might appear it is simply a question of striking the right balance between two extremes.

But, on the other hand, elsewhere in the essay it is precisely the wise, cunning historical moderns who can “never [attain] to wisdom’. And it is these clear-sighted historical individuals who are blinded by a ‘too bright, too sudden, too varying light’ and “ruined for […] right and simple seeing and hearing’:

There are things they do not see which even a child sees, there are things they do not hear which even a child hears, and these things are precisely the most important things: because they do not understand these things, their understanding is more childish than the child.

Meanwhile, the passionate, unhistorical individual, with a gaze clouded by darkness and unfettered by history, perceives the world as “palpable, close, highly coloured, resounding”.

How can someone be both wise and lack wisdom, blind yet possessed of vivid sight? The answer, in short, is that there are different forms of wisdom and different forms of sight.

On the one hand, the form of wisdom and clear-sightedness cultivated by Nietzsche’s moderns consists in the indiscriminate acquisition of facts on the basis of an explicit process of calculation and theorising, and then assenting to these facts’ being true. The moderns are wise in the sense of being very knowledgeable about a vast body of meticulously verified facts.

Unhistorical individuals, on the other hand, are wise in a different sense and are sighted in respects in which the historical individuals are blind. Three ways in which this could manifest:

  • The unhistorical individuals see the world under the aspect of falsifying illusions that present the world in dazzling, fantastical colours, as seeped in values and purposefulness that it does not really contain. It is wiser to see the world this way because these illusions (even if they are known to be false, which does not necessarily loosen their hold on us) are essential in order for life to flourish. These falsifying illusions might also lead to an overall epistemic gain on balance if such illusions are in some sense necessary or instrumental to processes of knowledge-seeking.
  • The unhistorical individuals are able to acquire knowledge that eludes the historical moderns’ methods of knowledge acquisition (conscious, calculating deduction) and conceptions of knowledge (precisely delineated, atomistic facts). They can grasp holistic, narrative or uncodifiable concepts by means analogous to perception.
  • The unhistorical moderns are able to see things in a way that, while it does not lead to the acquisition of new knowledge or facts, allows them to appreciate, understand, experience or face up to aspects of the world in a (particularly vivid or immediate) way that is valuable in non-epistemic respects (i.e. valuable for reasons other than leading to a gain in knowledge).

(All three types of sight, incidentally, have been discussed under the heading of “seeing-as” or what Wittgenstein calls “aspect perception”, especially in connection with emotion, but this theme is not something I will expand on here)

Instinct and doubt

At this point, I would like to bring in another topic that Nietzsche discusses in parallel: instinct and doubt. I will then relate this back to the question of “sight”.

Nietzsche describes the historical moderns as consumed by “morbid doubt”:

They have lost and destroyed their instincts and, having lost their trust in the “divine animal”, they can no longer let go the reins when their reason falters and their path leads them through deserts.

Someone with intact instincts, by contrast, is able to act with certainty and assurance. Where we are capable of doing something instinctively, we (ordinarily) do not doubt how to perform the action and do not need to deliberate; we simply act without reflection. Importantly, this applies both to our innate instincts, but also to acquired techniques that have become “second nature”. As Nietzsche puts it: we “implant in ourselves a new habit, a new instinct, a second nature” – and if this second nature is ‘victorious’, it “will become a first”. And in a note from a later period, he says that it is a sign that “One has attained to mastery when one neither goes wrong nor hesitates in the performance”.

The moderns’ actions lack the automatic, unhesitant flow that characterises mastery in a particular domain; they are forced to deliberate and doubt over questions and decisions which would simply not even arise for someone who had attained or retained instinctive certainty in that domain. The moderns are like knowledgeable tourists who are nonetheless not instinctively at home in the cultures they observe from the outside, or people who lack automatic fluency in a foreign language but are able to laboriously produce sentences by referring to dictionaries and rules of grammar. (Or, perhaps, the analogy should be to a native speaker who has cut themselves off from their instinctive mastery of their language because they are seized by an indiscriminate, pathological impulse to doubt and deliberate until they can formulate an explicit justification, rather like Wittgenstein’s interlocutor in Philosophical Investigations, and consequently now feels unsure of the meanings of even the simplest words in their own language.).

Nietzsche expresses this using the metaphor of digestion – the moderns drag around a “huge quantity of indigestible stones of knowledge”. This undigested knowledge contrasts with a state of instinctive wisdom or assured mastery, a knowing-how-to-proceed without needing to ask or think first, a seamless responsiveness and attunement to the world.

Instinct and sight

So how does this type of instinctive wisdom relate to the forms of sight described above?

One possibility is that this kind of wisdom can be identified with a continuous form of seeing. This form of seeing is bound up with certain responses and actions that flow unreflectively from our apprehension. Those who have not mastered this way of apprehending things, who like the historical moderns merely know facts about things and people they encounter in the world, will be more stumbling and hesitant in their dealings with them. Consider, again, how the fluent reader or speaker of a language reads or hears meaning in words compared with a learner who must consciously, painstakingly deduce what the words say.

Yet equally, we might also consider how instinctive certainty can be characterised precisely by the absence of seeing; certainty or mastery of a technique consists, positively, in a disposition or ability to perform some actions automatically and unreflectively in appropriate circumstances, and, negatively, in our not experiencing certain conscious episodes – not being struck by certain things. If we know our way around our home town, we can glide around almost on autopilot, and perhaps miss things that might strike a tourist unfamiliar to the area; and certain peculiarities of our native language might be opaque to us that are more plainly visible to those less familiar with it.

But then, in turn, there will be some things that will only strike someone possessed of instinctive certainty or mastery; within the domain around which they know their way instinctively, they are capable of perceiving fine nuances and textures invisible to the mere tourist or bumbling theorist; the precise mastery or instinct that allows them to proceed without reflection or hesitation is also what allows them to be struck, on occasions, by intuitive realisations, creative epiphanies, profound passions (which can consequently open up new arenas of reasoning and reflection).

There exists, in other words, a subtle interplay between sight and blindness of the sorts described here, one which can sometimes appear paradoxical. An occluded perspective, from within which some things recede from view, may be a precondition for sight; one form of sight may preclude another; darkness may open up new vistas of light, and light may darken our gazes.

Nietzsche, myths, pictures

In his works, Nietzsche diagnosed a widespread crisis (nihilism) in European modernity. But he did not regard himself as a mere diagnostician: he also claimed to know how to cure (or at least treat) the moderns’ condition. What was needed, he thought, was a reorientation of their entire way of seeing, thinking and feeling, a reorientation that went beyond a change in beliefs at a rational, theoretical level.

Commentators often describe this project by analogy to Wittgenstein’s famous notion of freeing someone from the grip of a picture that “holds them captive”. Through this method, Wittgenstein sought to alleviate philosophical questions not by providing theoretical answers to those questions, but instead by dislodging the underlying confusions that prompted them to ask the questions in the first place – getting them to see things differently and stop asking these confused questions altogether. Nietzsche can likewise be understood as attempting to bring about a change in the picture which holds the moderns captive, though the notion of myth rather than picture predominates in his works.

In the following, I want to look more closely at the full complexity of what this analogy might involve by unpacking certain ambiguities inherent both to (interpretations of) Wittgenstein’s notion of a picture and Nietzsche’s talk of myth, and by drawing a number of distinctions that are not always clearly made: in particular, the distinction between a “picture” or “myth” as a means used to bring about a change in our way of seeing, and between a “picture” or “myth” as a way of seeing. I lay out a number of possible alternatives, though without choosing between them (or, on any interpretation, actually endorsing Nietzsche’s diagnostic or therapeutic project).

What is a picture or a myth, in this sense? In both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, there is some overlap in how the terms are used. They can vary in scope from individual “illustrated turns of speech” (PI I: 295) – pithy, arresting expressions of, or gestures towards, a particular way of seeing or thinking about things – through to more complex (narrative) structures composed of such individual elements or in which they are embedded, right up to overarching mythologies or “world-pictures” that are fundamental to some particular form of life. Whatever their scope, they are supposed to serve as a sort of pretheoretical orienting framework.

In his early works, Nietzsche explicitly promotes (Wagnerian tragic) myth as a response to the cultural crisis of modernity, and although the term “myth” is used less in his later works, myths remain central to his project: the Dionysian myth, the mythic narrative of Zarathustra, the mythologising genealogy of morality, the mythical parables of eternal return (with regard to the latter, cf. Wittgenstein’s claim that mythic narratives convey the sense “that this is all a repetition of something that has happened before” (LC, p. 43) – according to this claim, the parables of eternal return would effectively be directly inviting us to regard our lives in a mythical mode). His notion of myth is frequently associated with (Apollonian) pictures. Conversely, Wittgenstein himself occasionally linked the notion of pictures to mythologies (OC 95, 97) and many of his interpreters are more explicit: for example, Stanley Cavell describes something which Wittgenstein calls a picture, “I cannot know what is going on in him” (PI II:xi, p. 190), as “the myth of the body as a veil” (Cavell 1979: 368). According to Cavell, Wittgenstein seeks to replace this with the new myth, “The human body is the best picture of the human soul” (PI II: iv, p. 152). Meanwhile, David Egan (Egan 2011: 68) says that Wittgensteinian pictures are “like organising myths, which orient our thinking in a broad sense”.

Here is where there is an important ambiguity across all the different accounts. This ambiguity is brought out most clearly by comparing Charles Taylor’s account of what he calls “hypergoods” (an analogous notion of an orienting framework): he describes them both as “a standpoint” from which evaluations are made (Taylor 1992: 63) and as “landmarks for what [agents] judge to be the direction of their lives” (Taylor 1992: 62). But this is mixing the spatial metaphor: a landmark is something I look at, a standpoint is the perspective I look at something from. We find this same ambiguity in Nietzsche: myth is both “a mode of thinking” (a standpoint) (UM IV: 9, p. 236) and an “image of the world” that “communicates an idea of the world” (a landmark) (UM IV: 9, pp. 242, 236). And also in interpretations of Wittgenstein: according to Baker’s influential interpretation, a picture is a “a way of seeing things” or a “way of looking at or regarding things” (Baker 2004: 266), and being freed from the grip of a picture is analogous to a “change of aspect”: coming to see things a different way, just like (in Wittgenstein’s famous example) when we shift from seeing the duck-rabbit figure as a duck to seeing it as a rabbit. But there are two distinct senses of picture in this analogy: on the one hand, picture as a way of seeing, the aspect under which we are seeing (standpoint) and on the other hand, the picture that is being looked at (landmark), i.e. the duck-rabbit figure itself (or, alternatively, another picture that we are invited to look at in order to get us to see the first one differently – e.g. an unambiguous rabbit-picture).  A pertinent, though slightly distinct, point is put thusly by Egan: “Is Wittgenstein shifting the aspect of the same picture here, or is he offering us an alternative picture? Baker’s work seems ambiguous on this point.” (Egan 2011: 66).

Despite this ambiguity, one sense in which we could see the notion of myth as landmark and that of myth as standpoint as related immediately leaps to mind: thinking in a mythic mode (standpoint) is oriented by a mythic narrative or narratives: in Nietzsche’s own favoured examples, the ancient Greeks’ perspective is oriented by the myth of Prometheus, while the Judeo-Christian perspective is oriented by the myth of the Fall.

Correspondingly, one tempting thought is that the moderns could be shifted to a mythic mode of thought (standpoint) through giving them the orienting mythic narrative (landmark) that corresponds to this mythic mode: so for instance, they could be shifted to the Wagnerian mythic mode by means of Der Ring des Nibelungen or to the Nietzschean mythic mode by means of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, these being the myths which (at least in theory) orient the Wagnerian and Nietzschean mythic modes respectively. Accordingly, the therapeutic project practised or recommended by Nietzsche could simply consist in presenting the moderns with the corresponding myth that orients the (right kind of) mythical mode of thought (i.e. Wagnerian or Dionysian rather than Socratic or Judeo-Christian), either filling the mythless void or replacing the pernicious myth/picture that currently has them in its grip.

However, the fact that those who think in a particular mythic mode are oriented by a particular mythic narrative or picture does not entail that presenting people who do not yet think in this particular mythic mode with the corresponding mythic narrative or picture will be sufficient to reorient them towards this mythic mode of thought. We must heed an important lesson from Wittgenstein here: a picture or myth (in the sense of a landmark) can only orient us through being applied in a certain way, and hence can do so only if we are able to thus apply it. The fact that the ancient Greeks were capable of being oriented in a certain way by the myth of Prometheus does not entail that the moderns could also be thus oriented; because of their particular perspective (conditioned by their form of life, sensibilities, etc.) they may be unable to receive and apply the myth of Prometheus in the way that the ancient Greeks did. I noted earlier that Egan asks, by analogy to aspect-seeing, whether Wittgenstein (or, by extension, Nietzsche) is offering us a new picture or shifting the aspect of an existing picture; but continuing this analogy, if a new picture (or myth) were to be offered, what it will present to us will depend on what aspect it is seen under. Someone who sees a picture under the wrong aspect will not apply the picture normally; analogously, someone who is unable to apprehend a myth in the appropriate mode will not be able to apply it in a way that orients their thought in a mythic mode.

So even if Nietzsche’s ultimate aim is for the moderns’ perspective to be converted to the characteristic mythological mode of thought oriented by a myth such as Der Ring des Nibelungen or Thus Spoke Zarathustra, they may not be capable of being converted by means of the myths that would orient them post-conversion. The aim of establishing an orienting myth should not be mistaken for the method of using a reorienting myth to achieve this aim, even if one and the same myth could serve both functions (though Zarathustra remarks “you cannot learn to fly by flying” (Z, Of the Spirit of Gravity)).

Once we start to tease apart myths as landmarks and myths as standpoints in this way, a whole range of possibilities opens up. I will conclude by laying out some of these alternatives, without choosing between them.

(1) For instance: I suggested earlier that Nietzsche might be trying to shift the moderns towards a mythic mode of thought (a standpoint) by means of providing mythic narratives (landmarks). But perhaps although Nietzsche provides mythic narratives as landmarks to help shift the moderns towards a new mode of thought, this new mode of thought or way of seeing is not itself a mythic one (i.e. not one oriented by a myth). Nietzsche’s narratives (especially Zarathustra) have the trappings characteristic of myth: set in fantastical worlds populated by mythical beings, suffused with an atmosphere of profundity and higher purpose, replete with quasi-Christian imagery (on which more shortly). Arguably, Nietzsche wishes to shift the moderns towards a mode of thought in which the craving for an eternal metaphysical grounding (a craving that is central to myth) is absent. If so, the mythic form of Zarathustra is geared to appeal to its readers’ current standpoint (i.e. sensibilities to which overtly mythical or even Christian imagery still appeals) rather than to the standpoint Nietzsche ultimately wants to steer them towards: it is a myth that overcomes itself, to be discarded once its work is done. Alternatively, Nietzsche may not hold out hope of a permanent cure, but see himself as offering tools tailored to particular sensibilities that his readers can use to temporarily reorient their perspective: this new orientation cannot become permanently, habitually embedded as it was in some prelapsarian Golden Age, but individual, conscious acts of volition aided by Nietzschean myths such as the parable of eternal return (choosing to see the world like this, much as one can choose to see the duck-rabbit as a rabbit; or being nudged into seeing things differently whenever I bring the parable or some other “illustrated turn of phrase” to mind) can at least arouse it temporarily.

(2) Or another possibility: Nietzsche’s ultimate aim is indeed for the moderns to be converted to a mythic mode of thought oriented by a particular mythic narrative or narratives that he offers them. But his readers are not (yet) able to apply the myths and pictures he provides in a way that thus orients them. Their standpoints first need to be transformed for them to become properly receptive to what he has to offer them – before they are capable of being appropriately oriented by the mythic landmarks they can find in his work. On this possibility, the mythic landmarks that Nietzsche provides need not necessarily be part of his method for reorienting their standpoints at all – this reorientation of standpoint might need to be effected by other means, perhaps involving a radical transformation of the form of life in which this standpoint is embedded or by which it is conditioned.

The moderns’ current pathological standpoint might itself stand in the way of any attempt made by Nietzsche to transform it, because these attempts will, as it were, have to be filtered through the lens of this pathological perspective and applied accordingly. It is sometimes suggested that Nietzsche therefore needs to target his readers at an affective rather than a theoretical level, but this is too simplistic: it is possible to trigger strong emotions simply by activating, rather than transforming, existing sensibilities and dispositions. One way Nietzsche might bypass this difficulty is by presenting his readers with elements whose application is not immediately obvious, and which therefore resist smooth, automatic uptake by an existing (pathological or pernicious) perspective: for example, provocatively baffling, outrageous, extreme, paradoxical, oblique or straightforwardly nonsensical statements. Compelling readers to actively engage in a new mode of application or seeing opens up the possibility of this new mode becoming habitual and replacing the old, pathological mode. Another way, discussed by Christopher Janaway, is for him to first arouse in his readers symptoms of the very pathology he wishes to cure them of, and then to force them into devastating awareness of these symptoms.

(3) Yet another possibility: Nietzsche is not in fact offering a new myth (in the sense of landmark) at all, but making available a new way of seeing and applying an existing myth. The most obvious way of understanding Nietzsche’s goal is that he is freeing us from the Christian myth or world-picture and replacing it with another, better picture. But what if, despite his fierce avowals that he is doing away with Christianity, Nietzsche is in fact reapplying rather than discarding the Christian world-picture? A number of commentators (including Mulhall 2005 and 2009, von Tevenar 2013, Fraser 2002 and Cavell 1979) have suggested that he is doing just that – reappropriating Christian imagery, language and narratives in a way that orients the moderns towards a fruitful, life-affirming perspective instead of a nihilistic, life-denying one (this is analogous to the suggestion that in Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein is not inviting readers to discard the Augustinian picture of language altogether, but instead teaching them how and when to apply it in a way that helps orient our understanding of language: when his interlocutor asks whether the Augustinian picture is a “usable [brauchbar] representation [Darstellung] or not?” (PI I:3, translation modified), Wittgenstein replies: “Yes, it is usable, but only for this narrowly circumscribed region, not for the whole of what you were claiming to represent [darstellen].” (PI I:3)).

(4) Another possibility centres on the significance of what it means to be in the grip of or held captive by a picture. Baker suggests that “being held captive” is a special and pernicious way of relating to a picture: one which holds us “in a cramped position” or keeps us “in thrall” (Baker 2004: 264) because a feeling of necessity attaches itself to the picture (Egan 2011). Wittgenstein’s readers stand in this relationship to the Augustinian picture of language; the problem is not just that they do not turn their eyes away from the picture, but that they cannot: Wittgenstein’s therapy must not just shift them away from the Augustinian picture or a certain way of applying it, but must first make it possible for them to shift away or be shifted away.

We may think this is also true of Nietzsche’s therapy: that the moderns do not merely occupy the Christian world-picture but are trapped in it, and this is why a two-stage therapeutic approach is required, first to free them from captivity and secondly to shift them to a new standpoint. Alternatively (or additionally), we may cast the Christian world-picture in a different role in this schema: instead of (or as well as) the Christian world-picture being the picture towards which the moderns stand in the relation of being held captive, perhaps instead (or additionally) it is through being oriented by the Christian world-picture that the moderns are caused to be held captive by pictures in general. Before the moderns can shift away from this picture or pictures, they need to be released from their grip: they need to come to experience the contingency of the picture that holds them captive, to appreciate it as just one possible orienting landmark, or one possible way of looking at things, perhaps to see precisely that their perspective is perspectival rather than consisting in transcendent, unmediated access to truth. Something like a Brechtian “Verfremdungseffekt” might be needed. The non-naturalistic mode of myths might be a particularly apt way of achieving this; alternatively, it is also possible that mythic forms might enforce a sense of the unalterable solidity of some intransient world and hence run counter to attempts to instill a sense of contingency. It is also often claimed that Nietzsche’s critical genealogies aim to dislodge the grip of certain perspectives by revealing their historical contingency.


Works referenced

(a) By Nietzsche

UM      Untimely Meditations, ed. Daniel Breazeale, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997 [1873–1876])

Z          Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 1969 [1883–1885])

(b) By Wittgenstein

LC        Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology & Religious Belief, ed. Cyril Barrett (Oxford: Blackwell, 1966)

OC       On Certainty, eds. G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright, trans. Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974)

PI         Philosophical Investigations, 3rd edition, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001 [1953])

(c) Other authors

Baker, Gordon P. (2004 [2001]) “Wittgenstein: Concepts or Conceptions?” in Wittgenstein’s Method: Neglected Aspects (Malden, MA: Blackwell), pp. 260–78

Cavell, Stanley (1979) The Claim of Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Egan, David (2011) “Pictures in Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy”, Philosophical Investigations 34 (1), pp. 55–76

Mulhall, Stephen (2005) Philosophical Myths of the Fall (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press)

Mulhall, Stephen (2009) “Nietzsche’s Style of Address: A Response to Christopher Janaway’s Beyond Selflessness”, European Journal of Philosophy 17 (1), pp. 121–31

Taylor, Charles (1989) Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press)

Von Tevenar, Gudrun (2013) “Zarathustra: ‘That Malicious Dionysian’’ in Ken Gemes and John Richardson (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 272–97








This MS Paint picture shows why Corbyn is right. You won’t believe how.

I have created a lavish visualisation in MS Paint to illustrate a point about moderating one’s political position to try and appeal more to public opinion.

Sliding scale

Imagine that, for a particular contested issue, “the status quo” is how things currently stand (for example, the current state of the asylum system or the welfare system). Your political aim is to move away from that status quo towards a better state (for example, towards more humane treatment of refugees or people with disabilities). But “public opinion” (whatever exactly that is) is pulling in the other direction (towards, e.g. harsher controls on refugees, more punitive treatment of welfare claimants) and your political opponents are positioned on the same side.

One view is that in this situation, you need to move your own policy position closer towards public opinion so that, by winning the support of the public, you are in a position to implement policies that, while they are less close to your political aims than would be ideal, are far closer to them than those of your opponents, which are what will be implemented if you squander power by sticking to your principles.

Now, there might be something to be said for proposing policies that are a more moderate step away from the status quo in the direction of the state of affairs you ultimately aim to reach (point B on the diagram) in order to appeal to mainstream opinion. But if you position yourself on the other side of the status quo (point A on the diagram: the same side as “public opinion”, but moving less far in the opposite direction from your political aim than your opponents) you have conceded defeat from the outset by adopting a position that goes in the opposite direction from what you are aiming at. Going more slowly than your opponents in the wrong direction is a counterproductive way of trying to get where you want to go. What is more, in the absence of any movement in the direction of your political aims, public opinion is only going to drift in the opposite direction.

For this reason (alongside others with a less consequentialist flavour), the view represented by Jeremy Corbyn is fundamentally correct: for there to be any prospect of progress towards your political aims (and this applies not only to electoral politics), you do need to stand for a political position that does not cede ground to your opponents but is, however small, a step in the right direction; and however difficult it may be, if “public opinion” is opposed to your aims, you are faced with the task of attempting to shift that opinion.

Where there are questions are about the specific implementation of this general task by Corbyn and others: how far exactly should point B be positioned from the status quo? What are the best ways to appeal to and persuade people who are (more or less) opposed to your aims? Can this be done at all through the prism of electoral politics? What are the right ideas and people for this project? But one thing is clear: if your ambition is to do anything more than apply a brake to a constant rightwards drift, you cannot position yourself (however “moderately”) on the side of harsher policies on immigration, welfare, equality, civil liberties, bombing Middle Eastern countries, etc.

Nietzsche, modernity, duality

In his recent biography of Nietzsche, Julian Young writes:

A potentially serious difficulty in Nietzsche’s cultural criticism is presented by an apparent inconsistency […] On the one hand, he claims modernity to be a motley ‘chaos’. But on the other, he seems to attribute to it an unhealthy order: that of (disguised) Christian morality. [Young 2010: 421]

The apparent tension between these two claims does not, in fact, present an insurmountable difficulty; Young has not caught Nietzsche out in a contradiction (nor does Young take himself to have done so). But Young’s observation is still a fruitful starting point; for by reflecting on why these claims are not in contradiction, we can unfurl the full complexity of Nietzsche’s account. Continue reading

Be serious and realistic, and learn to love the bomb

Someone is wrong on the Internet, and so I have responded in the only way possible: by resurrecting my blog.

The someone in question is Ian Leslie, who has written an article for the New Statesman blog called “Jeremy Corbyn and the nirvana fallacy“. It probably does not deserve to be singled out for particular attention (beyond a roll of the eyes), but it does serve as an especially pure distillation of various themes and lines of argument that have been parroted ad infinitum by “Labour moderates” throughout the summer (albeit on topics other than nuclear warfare), and hence is rather instructive. Continue reading

Consumerism, self-denial and perfectionism

One concern that motivates many anti-capitalists is capitalism’s prodigious appetite for ever-increasing wealth and growth: environmentalists point to the unsustainable consumption of resources, others to the damaging effects this pursuit of profit has on workers and on citizens-cum-consumers. These anti-capitalists promote low-consumption economic models which do not place excessive strain on the environment or on workers. But as is often pointed out, there is a danger that what these avowed anti-capitalists (or anti-consumerists) end up promoting is puritanical self-denial: holier-than-thou types abstaining from pleasurable things. In this post, I want to examine this puritanical streak with a little help from Nietzsche, who had a lot to say about puritanism (or, as he called it, asceticism).

The first thing is to say that not all approaches advocating lower overall consumption need be puritanical. Imagine two different responses to excessive consumption of alcohol in a society. One response is to deliberately restrict one’s alcohol consumption and advocate that others should do so too. The other response is to cultivate a new, lower consensus about what counts as a normal amount to drink on a fun night out. The first response is parasitic upon existing norms governing alcohol consumption; people are to deliberately drink less than would be normal for a fun night out. The second response changes those norms: people don’t deliberately drink less than would be normal or have fewer fun nights out, but the amount that it is normal to drink has become less.

A change in consensus is likely to arise from broader changes elsewhere (it can’t be imposed by diktat from above, or if it is then it is likely to be puritanical after all), such as changes in working conditions or the distribution of status in society. But the first response presupposes that the consensus does not change; it is the reaction of a small group who identify themselves in contrast to the norm. In Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality, he imagines that the weak and powerless might make themselves feel better by evaluating all the characteristic attributes of the powerful as evil. But those who react against consumption are often not the powerless but the powerful, who derive a sense of superiority (and a sense of being the ‘good guys’ rather than systematically part of the problem) from being part of an elite who abstain from things that others do not. This, too, is part of Nietzsche’s story; the ultimate expression of power is to be so confident of one’s power (in this case, one’s ability to consume) that one can casually refrain from exercising that power.

As well as being a paradoxical means of expressing power, puritanism can be a continuation of the very tendency it supposedly opposes but in fact merely inverts. Imposing absolute efficiency on consumption, or requiring exacting justification for consumption, is simply another manifestation of the insatiable rationalising impulse at the heart of capitalism.

For an example of what I mean by this, let’s turn to Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer thought that it was impossible to be truly happy; we think we will be happy if only we can satisfy all our desires, but Schopenhauer points out that even if we did manage to satisfy all our desires we would only be bored, not happy, and before long some new nagging desire would make itself felt. Schopenhauer proposed that we should give up on the futile chase for happiness and refrain from satisfying our desires: we should live a life of saintly self-denial.

Nietzsche attacks Schopenhauer’s account on many fronts; but what particularly interests me here is Nietzsche’s rejection of the craving for a transcendent state of perfection. Nietzsche thinks Schopenhauer is right to deny that we can achieve a permanent state of satisfaction that redeems our existence; this is the beguiling myth that happiness is just round the corner as long as we just keep plugging on. Philip Larkin puts it nicely:

Something is always approaching, every day

Till then we say,

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear,

Sparkling armada of promises draw near […]

We think each one will heave to and unload

All good into our lives, all we are owed

For waiting so devoutly and so long.

But we are wrong.

Another version of this myth is peddled in capitalist society: if you just buy this one product, you will be happy and your life will be perfect (except, of course, it turns out that there’s always another product you need to buy to achieve this happiness). Just as some anti-consumerists think we can “opt out” of this myth by refusing to consume,  Schopenhauer thinks we can achieve victory over our desires by refusing to satisfy them. But Nietzsche thinks this is just a new form of the craving for a state of transcendent perfection: the absolute clarity of nothingness.

Unlike Schopenhauer, Nietzsche does not think this craving is an unchangeable metaphysical reality but a contingent symptom of spiritual sickness. To yearn for a state in which everything is perfectly resolved, once and for all, is to be sick of life: life is dynamic and ever-shifting, and we should rejoice in the beguiling temptations of desires rather than wishing for their cessation. Any apparent endpoint will turn out to be a stepping stone to a new destination, and Nietzsche thinks we should welcome this continual process of self-overcoming.

This may seem a rather unsettled and unsettling ideal (Nietzsche would agree, but would not think it a problem). Metaphorically, he likens it to endless sailing without any solid land. Within this metaphorical landscape, the picture he is arguing against is of an otherworldly firmanent that provides absolutely solid grounding beneath our feet. But we need not suppose there is no solid land, even if we reject this myth of an unchanging firmanent. We can find grounding in things that, while firm enough to be getting on with, do not satisfy the craving for absoluteness and perfection; indeed we must, because  nothing can satisfy such a craving.

Nietzsche identifies this craving with Christianity, but that might not be quite right for all forms of Christianity. It is only where a radical separation opens up between our immanent lives and some transcendent Beyond that things go awry, and this radical separation is not characteristic of a Christian doctrine according to which which God’s goodness is disclosed through his creation. It is more characteristic of a “disenchanted” outlook which relegates value to a realm of absolute rationalistic, geometric perfection and consistency that cannot be realised in the course of our actual lives. This is the outlook of modern capitalist societies, more appropriate for machines or financial accounts than for human beings.

The way out of the impasse is not necessarily to change what we value, but our way of valuing. There is nothing wrong with wanting luxuries that go beyond our essential needs – life only flourishes amidst superfluity. But if we anxiously crave a perfected accumulation of such luxuries (in vain, since this accumulation can never be perfected), the solution is not to anxiously crave the non-accumulation of such luxuries, but to desire those luxuries less anxiously and more moderately.

Of course, this isn’t a solution that can be aimed at directly, since our consensual norms and modes of valuing are grounded in social and material factors that need to be changed before it would even make sense for most people to value otherwise than they do: But the point here is to rule out puritanism as a solution, not to propose a new solution of the same kind; the starting point for a solution lies in tackling structures of power and wealth distribution, not in finding means to accommodate ourselves to those structures.