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.