Nature, Nurture and the Mature Future

Nature, Nurture and the Mature Future (On Avoiding Ourselves)

            Though selfhood is not thinghood, we have placed in our way a number of distractions that help us avoid the basic challenge of ongoingness. The fabric of this temporal vestment we are compelled, as living beings, to don and to wear and thence wear out, is such that while it admits entry to several kinds of origins, it is nevertheless something placed upon us, and which does not have as its source who we are as persons. In short, though only at first glance, the difference between nature and nurture is the same difference as exists between the what and the who. If one is content only to be a thing, then natural selection can suffice. But if one wishes to develop their fuller humanity, to become a who and not merely a what, then it is to culture we must turn, and in a sense, turn into. For it is only culture which provides an identity beyond that mammalian, and this in turn is a species-shared identity, quite apart from all of its diverse guises. Yes, there are a number of ‘sources of the self’, as it were, most of them outside of our ken and afar from our reflection, but at the same time we, with a gritty panache, come to embody and even to ‘own’ much of this source material, even if we as often feel that it also possesses us.

            This veteran selfhood, ‘mature being’ as Gadamer has referred to it, represents the dialectical pinion resting uplifted from both nature and nurture. The ‘debate’ between their thesis and antithesis is, unless seen dialectically, a false one. There is no either/or at work or at stake. We are at first animals which are then encultured to become human beings. That this socialization process begins perhaps even before birth is suggestive that our animal ‘nature’ is something to be overcome, something that culture takes pride in moving beyond, just as we might well take a similar sense of accomplishment away from having become our own persons yet within a culture. We are perplexed by this movement, even so, and I imagine that this is what is part of the elemental puzzle of ‘when’ a human being begins to become human, at birth or rather even at conception. For the vast majority of human existence, humanness does not appear, at least fully, until one had survived the first difficult years of life itself, say, in social contract societies, until age 6 or so. This first and most difficult accomplishment is celebrated through renaming rituals, and indeed, the infant and small child in these primordial societies were not generally given a name at all, reflecting the shocking mortality rate at large. Another new name at puberty and after perhaps a month of passage, almost immediate adulthood. Another new name with the marriage bond, and then finally a pseudonym, so that the living might still refer to the now unspeakable dead.

            Van Gennep, in 1909, was the first to codify the four-square rites of passage, as he first called them – birth, puberty, marriage, death – and though they resonate with us today, we have made into signage what once were assignations. And there is yet another wrinkle; that selfhood is not identical with one’s humanness, just as one’s person is not the same as one’s culture, one’s individuality not always in line with one’s society. Hence the lazy idiom ‘human nature’, which no thinking person would ever dare to utter in response to what is in fact habitus at most, irresponsibility at worst. There is no singular nature which is human, for to be human is to be a being of both language and history, both of which change, sometimes radically, over time. What remains within our essential condition as Dasein is, on the one hand, the anxiety of our running-along, and on the other, the care which we bring to our thrown projects. The apex of this more telling triangle is concernful being, itself a prequel to the mature being noted above. And if cheap talk of human nature is one common exeunt from the confrontation with both the tradition – a weighty but wholly cultural habitus and historical inertia – and of equal import, that with myself, we hold a number of other pleasant pleasures to ourselves when avoiding the day-to-day dalliance with our ownmost demise.

            Nostalgia is perhaps the most insidious of these entanglements, but the base thrill of authority and its exertion is another commonplace instance. In the one, I am free to do nothing and let everything be done for me, as it ‘must’ have been in some imagined social horizon, dimly perceived through dimwitted lens. In the second, I am free to do everything to another, and thence have them carry out my bidding. The family unit is the crucible in which their dark alchemy is carried on, to the detriment of any and all children. In the one, the child is regressed, which is convenient for our consumer economy, and in the second, she is enslaved, which in turn produces complacency for the State. If we adults bemoan the absence of courage in our politicians, we are only ourselves to blame, since we tend to desire cowardice in our children, and some, yet more evil, even take pleasure in it.

            So, let us suggest that the selfhood of self might be a way in which to distinguish the appearance, however belated, of mature being in the individual person who has also, through this same process and crossing over this same limen, moved from mere individuation to individuality. Certainly, it is a daunting prospect; this sense of aloneness, without or within the prop of aloofness or even astuteness, but the grace of adult life allows for a number of runs at it. I am unaware of anyone who has made the full hit the very first time, and perhaps it is the case that it is a cumulative affair, and after all, who’s counting? And it is doubtful that one can play the probability game with life-course maturing, as if one seeks to roll a twenty but one has five rolls of the relevant polyhedral to sum such a number before one is out of chances. So, if the looking glass self provides a basis upon which to construct a later selfhood, the elemental anxiety and care of Dasein’s thrownness develops itself upshifted into a concernful being which is the conscience of this selfhood experienced as mine ownmost compass. The cardinal directions have been exposed for what they are; if meritorious aesthetically or ethically, they are not so much thoughtlessly heeded but at least noted as benchmarks, but if they are hollow, their idols are toppled through the sheer and simple withdrawal of our specific idolatry of them. No God can exist without believers.

            The question of ‘believing in oneself’ too has been adulterated in false adulation. It occurs most commonly in hortatory manuals that describe in lurid and very material terms what the ‘good life’ is supposed to be, and to be about. One has ‘arrived’ when one attains a certain status, both in one’s professional field of expertise, in one’s purchase of esteemed real estate, through one’s trophy spouse, or even in smaller instances such as the auto one drives or where one takes a vacation. All of this sounds very 1950s, but is it truly the case that we have left these markers behind us? I would hazard rather that even the more recent in-group status-seekers have their own versions of ‘arrival’, whether feminist or queerist, transist or ethnist and so on. And what of the non-European non-binary person driving the German SUV, a common sight in any urban center. Like the creationist who also drives a similar vehicle, seemingly unaware of the essential contradiction this embodies, or blithely able to ignore it, the post-colonial culture critic, through their frontage and their rewritten self-esteem, is nevertheless a novel participant in the same sources of the self which had given all those cultures ever without a conception of the self an almost ontological pause. One might proffer a simple slogan here; ‘The West is evil but by gods I want to be Western’.

            In one’s own way, of course. And in working towards this renewed self-interest, the non-European will inevitably encounter the same existential challenges we ourselves have come to know so well. In adopting a self-conception, the traditional cultural suasions of kinship and tribe drop away. The entanglement here is the same one Europeans endured several centuries ago, and also explains in the fuller part the regressive temper and backsliding tempo of immigration societies; those whose ancestors left Europe never underwent the maturing their newly estranged relatives would, not unlike when a native of Paris visits Quebec and is bemused by the fact that there, the Francophones speak as if it were still the 17th century. All of those peasants and religious fanatics thrown up on indigenous shorelines the world over! Is it any wonder that T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound found solace in Europe, only to reject it through a neo-Catholic recidivism for the one, a Neo-fascist recidivism for the other. Yes, Europe has grown stale, comfortable, weak-kneed and smug, but perhaps the perduring subsistence of the querying and querulous Cossack, as well as that of the adolescent and absolutist Yankee will provide for the best of Western thought a cracked mirror, wherein it can identify the fissures of its own latter-day revolution.

            Might it not be the same thing, writ small, for the denatured yet over-nurtured self? We each of us can stand for querying, for another to question our oft-drab druthers, just as we might be enlightened, once again, by all those who did not cross over the first time. If so, if we can step aside from all that we feel we ‘need’ to maintain both our status and our esteem, we might then discover the threshold to mature culture is much closer than we would have surmised. We might indeed begin to understand that to be fully human is not to rely on any rite of passage but to have become one’s ownmost movement of being, engaging the fusion of horizons whilst engaging in concernfulness. To know this would be to know the history of Being itself.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Wider War on Personhood

The Wider War on Personhood (is a form of auto-genocide)

            “You will not forget that the stress laid on the writer’s memories of his childhood, which perhaps seems so strange, is ultimately derived from the hypothesis that imaginative creation, like day-dreaming, is a continuation of and substitute for the play of childhood.” (Freud, 1957:182 [1908]).

            The last poet and the last human are one and the same. This, Freud notes at the beginning of his essay ‘The relation of the poet to daydreaming’, is what the writers try to assure the rest of us. In the writer, however, the heart of the child remains active. A child’s beloved is his playing selfhood, what an adult would call a persona. But a child is not yet a person in any holistic sense. Under a just law, she must be treated as if she were a fully cognizant person with all of the attendant rights such a legal entity possesses. But in day-to-day life, the fuller responsibilities of being and adult must be treated rather as a becoming; as something that is gradually developed and introduced, just as we adults become inured to the sense that death will at some point complete our own being. This ‘ownmost death’ is the culmination of the self as a thrown project, as a being-in-the-world, but it also represents the end of personhood and indeed, the return of a kind of persona. Each of us traverses the space between childhood, wherein the self is not easily distinguished from other selves and personae rule the child’s fantasy worlds, and dying, wherein the self experiences a diminution; in short, a regression.

            Kindred with the oft logistical dependence and loss of autonomy aging and dying promote, various aspects of our being retreat into what by then are the murkiest memories of authentic existence as dependent. This is one of the crucial differences between actuality and authenticity that a human being can know, and this kind of knowing is quite intimate, and ironically perhaps quite personal, even if it is that very person who is failing. The aged are not children, but they generally must be cared for as if they are, and are so once again. So, there is in fact a double regression at work: that occurring to the person in question as she ages, and that happening to those around her, the caregivers, family members, friends and lovers alike. This community is regressed into the much more-narrow role of parenthood, whether as a paid professional health-care worker or as an intimate. The latter ‘sign up’ for such a role more or less tacitly, taking the vow of ‘sickness and health’ either formally or informally. The former expect that their vocation, at once noble and degrading, will include such caregiving and perhaps see themselves as heroic, even though their quest is routine, even otiose. What these others share, those both intimate and professional, is the experience of the objectification of being – the self brought low by failing mechanism – and thus also the foreknowledge that they too will one day be similarly regressed. All the care for others matters not, counts for nought, in this knowing.

            If we have in the human arc a kind of faux circle, moving from the authentic pre-personhood of the child to the very much non-personhood of the dead, it is more understandable that vestiges, charades, trysts, and echoes of this existential frame resonate throughout the rest of our life, that in which we are more or less fully functioning adults with the usual suite of obligations and perhaps even some status here and there. The juvenile role-play of sexual burlesques, the desperate bullying of the authoritarian parent, the desire to repeat experiences first had in youth, which can easily become a compulsion, and the fantasy of projection even adults may indulge in – though with different avatars and icons than has the child; the thirteen-year old whose heroine is Swift may well become the thirty-year-old whose hero is Trump, for instance – all attest to the powerful force the imagination has over the worldly selfhood. Yes, the self is in, and thus is in possession of, the world as it is. But the imagination transcends this ‘isness’, and places before the willing senses another world, the world as it might be, even the world as it could be. This is the world of fantasy and projection, and that it often occurs to us as partaking of the visionary, rather than merely in the imaginary, constitutes its tantalizing hook.

            Thus regression, even if the hallmark of aging and dying, is always available to us as a kind of auto-homicide, for it involves, at least for the moment, the death of the self. But what if entire cultures engage in this kind of regression? And further, what if such a culture, as expressed in a society or in a politics, willingly compels itself to undergo mass regression? This is, we will suggest here, what is occurring, and in a global fashion, in our own day. Freud recognized the incipience of such a crisis when he comments that it is the nation-state that takes the lead in regressing adults into children; nations and their leaders treat citizens as menial, mediocre, and misbehaved. This is so, we can add, because not only does the state represent the religion of modernity, it does so by way of ancient mythological themes. The state possesses the pantheon of godhead, in its various ‘ministries’ – and why else would such departments carry this hold-over nomenclature hailing from the premodern period of pastoral care and missions? – and performs the same function, and as often as not, with the same unction, as did the religious institution. And if it is the case that only in a theocracy are women and children enslaved by violence, in our pseudo-theocratic politics, we nonetheless enslave ourselves.

            But the state is hardly the only regressive force present in modern culture. The vast popularity of fantasy fiction based upon both narrative and media targeted at children is also a case in point. We behold a regression in literacy of all forms; cultural, historical, textual, psychological. The comic-book legends, the cartoon heroes, the cardboard cut-out live action characters, mimic and mirror the manner in which we ourselves play out our oft-conflicted social roles. Can the mother and the professional co-exist in one person? Can the father and the recently marginalized male do the same? What of the dutiful daughter and Electraic lover? And speaking of such, what is our duty? To one another, to society, to the state, to culture? It does appear that any kind of authentic and autonomous selfhood could not bear any such burden. But instead of asserting all the more prodigiously, and with a truer heroic courage, that very selfhood, what we observe is a personalist retreat from personhood in imaginatively constructing new forms of gender and even divisions of the person in what the psychoanalyst would surely have called mild psychosis. It is somewhat reasonable to argue in return that the sovereign self of the Enlightenment is itself a fantasy, and thus all attempts at shoring it up, including those psychoanalytic, are in their own way, creations of the imagination alone. I would suggest in response that the purpose of such a self-conception rests in its service to that very imagination; its freedom, its creativity, its curiosity, even its nobility. Most of all, the authenticity of selfhood, in the face of forces of regression arranged against it, speaks to both myth and reality in a unique manner. It does so by bringing legend into life, fantasy into reality.

            Instead of constructing persona, foisting upon the mature self a premature regression or, for some purposeless souls, never exiting childhood at all; instead of acceding to the state or to the low-culture industry alike what is most precious about human existence by becoming only what these institutions demand of their overlapping but so seldom competing markets; instead of puerile attempts to avoid the existential narrative of happenstance birth and unknowing death, both of which occur to mine ownmost self and for my experience, to no other, rather we must resist the wider war against personhood by reasserting, if not the sovereignty – a term deliberately used in the 18th century as an antidote to the regent who, in the Ancien Regime was the only ‘person’ who existed in such a social form – then both the autonomy and the authenticity of singular selfhood, undivided by either social role performances externally or made schism by self-inflicted role-playing internally. It is a feature of successful propaganda that its audience take on the work of ideology as part of their own life-vocations. This ‘internalization’ is made possible by the simple and basic processes of child socialization. All of us are ripe, as it were, for indoctrinations anew. But the very fact that such efforts are made, and at such cost, in desire of compelling each of us to regress ourselves in the face of our ownmost humanity tells us that the default setting, if you will, of that selfsame human being is not regression but rather progression; we evolve ourselves through phases of life, we are beings who are forward-looking and future-seeking.

            Adults made children once again are easier to control politically, easier to vend to as consumers, easier to manipulate psychologically, easier to ignore. Children made adults present grave challenges to both market and state, for they understand the difference between fantasy and reality, between myth and world, between self and other. If we like to say to ourselves, ‘well, no adult wants to be treated like a mere child’, then it is high time to make that aspiration into a wider ethic, instead of paying it personal lip-service in the effort to assuage our conscience – which cannot be regressed if and once formed at all – that our personhood is not truly at risk, and it is all fun and games after all. That conscience will, over time, find it unacceptable to be masked over by a mélange of role, phantasmagorical and social at once, and the murder of selfhood will attain its own wider form in the auto-genocide of culture itself.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was a professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Two Contrasts: History and Soul

Two Contrasts: History and Soul

            Man is still in his childhood; for he cannot respect an ideal which is not imposed against his will, nor can he find satisfaction in a good created by his own action. He is afraid of a universe that leaves him alone. Freedom appals him; he can apprehend in it nothing but tedium and desolation, so immature is he and so barren does he take himself to be. He has to imagine what the angels would say, so that his own good impulses (which create those angels) may gain in authority, and none of the dangers that surround his poor life make the least impression upon him until he hears that there are hobgoblins hiding in the wood. His moral life, to take shape at all, must appear to him in fantastic symbols. The history of these symbols is therefore the history of his soul. (Santayana, 1954:222-3 (1906)).

                Angelic intellect results in a paucity of the imagination. Condemned to walk the earth, to till it, to lay upon it and ultimately be buried within, we human beings might well imagine another kind of existence which would never stoop to simply being life alone. It has life, no doubt, but living it is not. And hearsay, whether it implies angels or demons, nymphs or goblins, does nothing to free us of our own poor imaginations. Nay, rather it provides their fuel in the face of both cosmos and freedom alike.

            Let us then take history and soul as our two contrasting epigones. The one betrays morality at every turn, the other is supposed to have ingested it whole; indeed, might be said to be its conception as a fetus is conceived and develops in the human womb. This womb is conscience, its child our better selfhood. Better than what? Superior to both tedium and desolation, which is, on a bad day, what the universe so free and so aloof looks like to the naked eye. The twinkling stars be damned, for their winks are a smug conspiracy of eternity which mocks and sneers and at the end of each night simply despairs that mortal consciousness the cosmos over – once again, for the heavens do not have favorites – will ever ascend to anything more than what it has already been. From Mahler to Sagan, this motif haunts us: ‘The firmament is forever blue… But Man, how long do you live?’ opens up the desolation – though never the tedium! – of The Song of the Earth. The artist asks us to contrast our own paltry existence with the very thing that reminds us thereof, and does so each night. In turn, the scientist warns us of the myriad of civilizations which, upon attaining a certain level of technology, promptly destroy themselves. Will humanity be the next? This is not a case of a much-reported ‘Jewish’ anxiety, ported into that Pauline and made ahistorical by living on, step by unutterable step, as an anti-historical force. From Marx through Husserl, Mahler and Freud, Sagan and Chomsky, the idea that their family backgrounds had anything to do with their accomplishments or outlooks on life is a piece of anti-Semitism at best, for anyone who is so accomplished has become so in part by shedding his life-chance variables; in a word, has chosen soul over history and thus engaged in the transformation of both.

            But this is precisely the question with which the rest of us are left, when confronted by either art or science: what of the contrast, even confrontation, between history and soul? Just as the conception of the sacred is said to be transcendent to history – it survives even the oceanic shifts associated with changing modes of production, for instance; and this without respect of course to any of its historical contents, which do not so survive – soul is an archetype, both in the Jungian sense of the term but more tellingly, in the yet wider linguistic sense of it being ‘archiphonemic’. On the way to this exalted status, it accedes to also being an apical ancestor, the unmoved mover which sits atop a certain kind of genealogical diagram, as if it generated the world from nothing. It is the local version of Godhead and it itself is divinity made worldly by being implanted in a mortal vessel. Like the sacred, the soul survives the end of this vehicle, which in the meanwhile, giving into both its brute senses and its brutish imagination, has betrayed its spirit and made soul nothing more than an admired prisoner, to be genuflected at but otherwise utterly ignored.

            In spite of our ‘childhood’, which in Santayana comes across more as childishness as expressed by beings who in fact do know better, soul asserts itself. In casual language, we hear it associated with a certain kind of feel or spirit in the arts; this or that ‘has soul’ or is soulful. We hear of it being blessed, both as a kind of rustic epithet – ‘the old bastard, bless his soul’ – as well as being in earnest and directed to a beloved other. Either way, we cut to the chase by its use. ‘Soul’ is meant to refer to the essence of one’s character, and thus pertains, indeed, even dictates, how such a character has expressed herself. Has she attended to her conscience, her ‘better self’, or has she betrayed it? Has she raised the soul of another upwards to compete with the imaginary angels or has she cast it down, to the penury of temptation and eventually soullessness? And while the childishness which too often guides us yet might imagine the judgment to come nonetheless, we also know better on that score that no one is after all keeping.

            As an archetype, soul is not supposed to have a history at all. Thus no accounting of it makes any ultimate sense. There is no score, beyond the nonexistence of the scorekeeper, and yet the game remains always and already afoot. What then of its purpose, its meaning, its ends? History the game, soul the player? History the narrative, soul the protagonist? History the meat, soul the bone? One could go on of course, but suffice to say that the essential contrast between these idealities, one the fullness of change and the other its fullest absence, is one between movement and presence, even existence and essence. And if we have learned by now that ‘consciousness is itself a social product’, then why not soul ‘itself? It would seem no serious slight to sign off on such a saying. Consciousness contains both history and soul insofar as the first is written and lived by we conscious beings and the second comes to be known through its oddly awry impingement upon the ethical aspect of consciousness; the conscience and its conscientiousness. One might suggest, with some effort at countervalence, that history also objectifies consciousness and soul makes it into a subjectivity. In fact, this is the better manner of understanding both their constitution and their confrontation.

            History is played out, not without consciousness but even so, ‘outside’ of it. I can read our shared history since I too have participated in it, but I cannot read your singular soul as mine own is always in the way. Just as I can never see the shadow figure of the schizo-affective who, in absence of most, even all, of the other salient archetypes, has retreated into the radical and existential doubt the shadow represents, simply because I have my own shadow that in turn, no one else can ever see, your soul forever remains invisible and can only be communicated through the translation my own makes of your conscience brought into history by conscious act and speech. We humans are distinct from one another just as we are separate from the cosmos at large. What makes us so is, perhaps surprisingly, not to be found in history after all but in the individuatedness of a perspectival consciousness which has, graciously or no, included soul in its wandering embrace. If history carries us along, we in turn do the same for soul. We, in fact, are its history as well as being its movement, its vehicle, its expression. In being so, my own life becomes the fulcrum that balances their autochthonous contrast. History pulls me along willingly; I am change and I desire to be so. Soul provides the existential weight that must be so pulled along; I am nonetheless that which changes and not the change itself.

            But if we wish to speak of species infancy, we should first acknowledge the history of this sensibility. For the Greeks, existence in history connoted as well as promoted a regression into a baser form, a return to infancy from being otherwise. For the Christians the infancy of Man was his existence entire, and we would experience maturity only by being freed of our mortal penance. But for the fin de siécle infancy was more of a promise than even a premise. Yes, we are a child-race – this sentiment can be found, though without rancor, in H.G. Wells’ 1903 address to the Royal Society, and has become a staple of science fiction in general from Sir Arthur Clarke to Star Trek – but the child is nevertheless the father of the man. Santayana is more critical than is the British Wells or even his American comrade in the history of consciousness, William James, but he is still hopeful. For Nietzsche, that other great pundit of the end of a culture, childishness was something to be overcome by the other dominant feature of infancy: child-like wonder.

            We understand, more or less, the history of the soul. We know these conceptions apart from one another and as contrasting forms twice over, as it were, for hovering about the soul’s own history is the question of the soul of history. At one glance, we might say that the soul of history is change itself, but the effort to identify change then becomes all in all. In the self, in society, in morality, in consciousness, even in that firmament ‘forever’ blue. The next step in development away from species infancy lies in our collective ability to understand the changes that are occurring even if our childish solace which selfishly hugs the soul only to itself fears now this and now that without reason and in ignorance of its own powers. The phantasmagoria of symbols which is the history of soul in form and indeed in history must no longer be taken for the future, which only comes into being bereft of mere symbology and instead takes up love’s perfect freedom. For if soul is the manner in which I love myself, history attains a higher love; that of the other at first, then the culture, then the species, then the cosmos. But in all of these portages, ethical and existential alike, soul historicizes itself and only thence frees itself from its self-love, which was after all the source of all fantasy in the first place.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty-five books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the inter-disciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Modernity’s Fragile Selfhood

Modernity’s Fragile Selfhood

            “Here there speaks no fanatic, here there is no ‘preaching’, here faith is not demanded; out of an infinite abundance of light and depth of happiness there falls drop after drop, word after word – a tender slowness of pace is the tempo of these discourses. Such things as this reach only the most select…” (Nietzsche, 1888).

                In his foreword to his final work, completed mere weeks before his genetic neurological condition overtook him, Nietzsche’s absolute affirmation of personal character in the face of the fate modernity had proclaimed upon itself is yet mitigated by its reliance, albeit indirect, upon the very antithesis to his own philosophy, that of the ‘tragic recurrence’. This is so because to affirm the self as ‘what one must become and what one is’ is to take seriously the ancient notion of the intrinsic value of the self and of each person’s selfhood. Nietzsche’s anti-Christian and anti-Buddhist sentiments are not sabotaged by this ethical  kinship, but rather made into obverses thereof, for the Nietzschean self hypostasizes the selfhood first introduced in the East and then the West by these then novel world-systems. But we must ask first, what is this radical affirmation of being-oneself working against, given that by the time of the fin de siécle no antique religion could have had such suasion to prompt the much touted ‘reevaluation of all values’.

            Let us then suggest that Nietzsche’s target is not religion at all, but rather everything that at first denied and then overcame the religious sense of both selfhood and fate alike. It is well known that Nietzsche, though he accepted Darwin’s understanding of the origins of life as a fact, was most dismayed by its discovery. That evolution during the nineteenth century was seen as a radical denial of creation – today, we realize that cosmic evolution must understand itself, with a certain irony to be sure, very much in the cast of the old metaphysics; infinite in terms of the cyclical universe or yet the multiverse: there is no ‘starting point’; both of these are ancient ideas that pre-date by far the religions of intrinsically valuable selfhood – suggested to Nietzsche the idea that God was now ‘dead’. Discursively, such an ‘event’ must be back-dated at least to Hume and Vico, who between them relativized the conception of both culture and history and hence as well all contents as might be found within these. However unwitting this murder may have been in the 1730s, by the 1880s the divine corpse had been retrieved and the mourning begun.

            But Nietzsche asks, what is, who is Man without God? ‘Man’ too, now lives on borrowed time and indeed, 1914 put an end to the culture which exonerated mankind from its undue and vain fixation upon the sense that progress and evolution not only went hand in hand but were more or less the same thing. In our own time, beginning in the 1920s, the personalization of religion was undertaken in earnest. Today, the conception of God is as is the conception of Man; for Western believers, God is one’s own God, and each of us is said to have a ‘personal’ connection to such a divinity that was utterly unknown historically. Conversely, ‘Man’ has become ‘men’, or, more politic, ‘humanity’. Because of its indubitable link with organismic evolution, the term humanity has within it an undeniable species reference and thus is difficult for many people to identify with. It seems to denote our animal form, though at a distance from nature, rather than connote the spirit which was understood as animating that form. As such, our contemporary conception of ourselves does not make up for the loss of the divine definition of the locus of our being.

            And this is, in essence, the entire issue within the ineptly named ‘culture wars’. There is nothing within modernity that can equal, let alone better, the ancient understanding of humanity as divinely endowed, not just with grace, but also with reason. And Nietzsche was the first thinker to realize this. In the face of this insoluble problem which he also understood as inevitable, he offered instead the absolute affirmation of the self-as-it-is: Godless, finite, but subject to the eternal recurrence of the same and constantly willing itself into being through ‘the will to power and nothing besides’, as he famously intones. It is a bold, courageous and altogether necessary maneuver, but can it ever be more than a ‘quick fix’? Nietzsche’s ‘Dionysian’ tone, especially vivid in his final works, implies that it cannot in fact be anything more. What was ‘more’ was lost forever when humanity decided to make decisions for itself, by itself. This condition was foreshadowed in the Hebrew account of the expulsion. To speak somewhat metaphorically, what the serpent didn’t count on was being ejected along with the unhappy couple and thence was also left to fend for itself. Evil, in a word, had thus also been personalized.

            With the individuation of both good and evil it could only be a matter of time before the entire system that was constructed by the moral apparatus of a great chain of being broke apart. It was given impetus, certainly, by the ‘discovery’ of global cultures of which no canonical narrative could take account. The ‘lost tribe’ sensibility carried one only so far. How many lost tribes, again? Beyond this, the perduring resistance to any specific world-system by its competitors – today, the half billion plus Buddhists number the very smallest of the four major religious oriented architectures, for instance – frustrated any attempt to argue that one specific faith had actually latched on, even by happenstance, to the truth of things. And beyond this, the rise of scientific method and result, conquering the vast majority of explanatory territory that used to be the sole preserve of religious explication, ultimately felled the now hollow idols that Nietzsche, in an almost reminiscent manner, discusses in Götzendammerung (also 1888). All of these world historical factors occurred, however, long before Nietzsche was writing anything at all, and it is a simple error of displacement to associate his work with the reality of our mutable, if loosely shared, condition, either at present or centuries ago.

            Instead, Nietzsche today looks more like an ally for a kind of morality than anything else. The ethics of the ‘Overman’ are their own super-morality, one to which the finite and discontinuous beings of a humanity made base by evolution might aspire. But we cannot be naïve on such a profound score; the path before us is not one of a humanity evolving into something which is ‘beyond’ itself. This sensibility echoes the tradition, wherein transfiguration was an active mechanic. Today, the desperate rush to invent an ‘indefinite human’, a cyber-organic-stem-celled-artificially-intelligent ‘thing’, is a symptom not of aspiration at all, but rather of anxiety. And it is not death per se that animates this inauthentic anxiety, but rather, and once again, vanity. It is almost as if the brash among us say to themselves, “If God has been dead, perhaps even since the incarnation – this is why the Father left the Son ‘hanging’, so to speak; the former was already dead – and now Man as well has passed, then those remaining are destined to become the new divinities”, ‘Men as Gods’, to borrow Wells’ title. Vanity, yes, but also a kind of neurotic compulsion to mechanically metastasize mortal desire unto infinity.

            Nothing against the passions, we must note. They have their place, especially for youth, as part of a phase of ever-changing human existence, even within the singular life. But obsession denies that life, just as delusion obfuscates the life of the species-essence more generally. For a mature being, the very definition of growth is to place each phase’s form of being within its own existential envelope, and desire, anxiousness, even recklessness, all ‘the passions unabated’, as Goethe has it, belong with youth and to youth alone they must adhere. A great scandal of modernity is, to my mind, how we have extended youth indefinitely – it is surely our own ‘adult’ fetishization of youth, something we ourselves have lost, that motivates us not only to keep youth young for overlong as well as imagine being ourselves eternally young as a consciousness housed in a future machine – at the cost of other phases of the human experience. We hear of evangelicals coercing young adults as if they were still small children, including physically coercing them in certain sects. And though this is deplorable, to focus our critique upon it alone is a mere decoy and projection, exuding from us, and as such constitutes a denial of how the larger society seeks to keep all persons childish, ideally for the entire life-course, simply because we are more easily manipulatable in that form. We can thus be sold almost anything, from irrelevant toys to equally irrelevant, but all the more dangerous, politicians.

            So Nietzsche’s exhortation must also be seen as an argument against any sense of ‘beyond’ at all, whether one traditional or one hypermodern. The Overman is manifestly not a superior being in terms of mechanism or dispassion. Rather it is the maturity of being that recognizes that existential change over the life course is our way of ‘dying many times to become immortal’. No zealot, no ‘fanatic’, speaks of or to this kind of being. Within its changing course, we are as is the neighbor figure; spontaneous, shunning the status and esteem of social role, reaching out to others in distress as by self-definition and as a creative ethics. Hence there is also no sermon, no ‘preaching’, of such a spontaneity. It is as we are, thrown into the world very much against our individual will. Indeed, one could still argue with some merit that this existential thrownness – none of us asks to be born and this is as well why no ‘faith’ as such is required, at least at first – bears the imprint of the afterlife of all Godhead, or perhaps it could be experienced as a kind of ‘afterglow’; life as the outcome of what remains an astonishing miracle of birth. And we are, sectarian or no, all of us born again and again over the life course, if we allow ourselves to be so. Those who are lucky enough to grow old accomplish this marvelous feat, with more or less elegance and aplomb, and with it begin to know the truer grace of Being as self-created in the face of the void.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, social theory, aesthetics and health, and more recently, fiction. He was professor if the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.