Lecture Nine: Music 9.1

9.1 Introduction

The self is a constitutively relational hermeneutic construction aimed at mastering, in a way or another, the uncertainty that is inherent in its conditionality. But what would happen if one were to give up this attempt at mastering uncertainty? At first, such a question might sound strange, since uncertainty seems an inherently unwelcomed problem. And yet, our discussion in the last four lectures shows that mastering uncertainty might not be something fully achievable. Different solutions can be put on a spectrum, in the middle of which we can distinguish two major components: embodiment and consociation. If one remains within this middle range, the two components quickly enter into tension with one another, because consociation not only addresses the condition of needfulness entailed by embodiment, but also creates and supports new needs that prevent a complete emancipation from uncertainty. If one moves towards one extreme of the spectrum, in which disembodiment leads to complete emancipation from any community, a sui generis solution might be achieved, but only one in which uncertainty is mastered through a complete emptying of the empirical, biographical self (since the ‘true Self’ thus discovered is the thinnest of all beings, like a metaphysical ghost). If one moves towards the opposite extreme of strong embodiment, by reducing one’s identity to an individual living body, then again, a certain sui generis solution can be achieved only by dismissing the whole idea of selfhood as illusory, while also remaining fully exposed to the utter uncertainty of physical embodiment (since nothing is more needful that an individual living body). A question arises: if mastering uncertainty is always so problematic, why keep struggling for it? Is it possible to face uncertainty without attempting to master it? And what would be the consequence of such an attitude? Starting from this lecture, we shall devote the concluding part of this series to exploring this option.

In Western theistic traditions, practices akin to anesthetic trance were used and interpreted by mystics as ways of gaining a direct experience of God (Lecture Four). However, we discussed how both in the ancient Indian (Lecture Six) and in the ancient Greek contexts (Lecture Eight), moving towards Transcendence was regarded as problematic. In the Indian context, ascetism was seen as potentially disruptive of the social order, and significant debates attempted at somehow domesticating it. In the Greek context, Plato’s Sophist offers a refutation of the hermeneutic apparatus can be used to interpret intransitive experience in terms of access to an ontological ultimate and absolute reality. Instead of aiming at absolute Transcendence, Plato’s philosopher develops discursive knowledge, based on dialectic, which might still aim at glimpsing unchanging and eternal ideas. These remarks show that the leap into absolute Transcendence has never been regarded as the only way, or even as a necessary way, of solving the problems of selfhood.

In contemporary Western culture, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is best-known for his claim that ‘God is dead’ and his view that any attempt at seeking Transcendence should be dismissed. These claims are often analyzed in terms of the arguments that could support Nietzsche’s atheistic conclusion, and thus the debate focuses on the reasons for believing in the existence or nonexistence of this particular object, namely, God. Oftentimes this discussion is subsumed under the broader topic of ‘secularization’; referring to the corrosion of theistic beliefs in Western culture from at least the eighteenth century onwards (and, as mentioned in Lecture Zero, Taylor provides a nuanced picture of this process).

From the point of view of our discussion, though, we can (and should) look at this issue differently. A Transcendent God can be seen as one (more or less extreme) way of allowing for the construction of selfhood (moving towards one extreme of the spectrum we sketched). The death of God can thus be interpreted as the firm commitment to not pursuing the sort of selfhood that results from moving in that direction, or rather the acknowledgement that forms of selfhood that are constructed by moving in the direction of a Transcendent God are no longer considered viable. The death of God can thus be rephrased as the end (or the rejection) of a specific set of practices through which the self can be enacted, in which forms of anesthetic trance plays a crucial role.[1]

From this point of view, Nietzsche’s atheistic commitment can surely be seen as the result of a certain trend that develops in modern Western thought. Recall Kant’s attitude in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781). Not only does Kant reject the grounds for offering a compelling rational proof for the existence of God, but he also begins his discussion by rejecting any human access to an ‘intellectual intuition’ of ultimate reality or things in themselves, which would also allow for a direct knowledge of God. Just a few decades later, Schopenhauer provides a purely atheistic and pessimistic metaphysics (in opposition to Hegel’s triumphalist rationalism). Nietzsche was profoundly fascinated by Schopenhauer’s work, which provided an initial framework for his own intellectual research. The early Nietzsche, though, turns back to Greek tragedy in the search for a model of how to handle the contradictory nature of reality, its uncertainty, and live up to its challenges, without attempting to master it through pure reason, nor to escape from it through Transcendence, and without sinking into sheer pessimism.

Our discussion will focus specifically on two segments of Nietzsche’s thought. In this lecture, we shall start by presenting the seminal ideas about Greek tragedy that Nietzsche introduces in his first published essay, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (1872). Here, Nietzsche advances three

connected claims: (i) life is inherently contradictory and painful; (ii) the only satisfying way of facing this inherent contradiction without falling into despair and pessimism (à la Schopenhauer) is by providing an ‘aesthetic solution’ to the problem of life, namely, by finding a way of listening and staying with the dissonance of life, saying ‘yes’ to it, and giving expression to it; (iii) the Socratic-Platonic model of philosophy is a betrayal of this ideal, which covers up the inherent dissonance of life with a fake appearance of rationality and a consequent optimism. Nietzsche’s essay is a call for the renewal of a tragic culture, and the kernel of this project is later witnessed in Nietzsche’s most important, difficult, and perhaps misunderstood work: Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

We shall devote the next lecture to some core ideas of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, but here we can still do some stage setting by stressing two assumptions that Nietzsche articulates in his reflection on tragedy. The first assumption concerns Nietzsche’s underpinning ontological views, which are hinted at in The Birth of Tragedy and will re-emerge in the Zarathustra. The core idea is that reality is inherently contradictory and thus necessarily painful; life is suffering. The second assumption is stated in the first part of the Zarathustra and concerns anthropology. Nietzsche outlines a path of transformation that leads to present-day humanity towards a new form of humanity. This anthropological path sheds light on some of the most famous themes associated with Nietzsche’s philosophy, including the death of God and the problem of nihilism (an echo of which we encountered in Lecture One). The core of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra presupposes this background. This also reveals why Nietzsche, while shying away from Transcendence, is also no friend of strong embodiment or hard naturalism (as defined in Lecture Two).


  1. This does not mean that all theistic beliefs are necessarily supported by anesthetic trance. As already mentioned in passing, the attitudes towards anesthetic trance in the Christian West have been ambivalent. Especially in the early modern period, this practice becomes increasingly regarded with suspicion, both by certain strands of Protestantism (which dismiss it as ‘enthusiasm’) and by orthodox Catholic church (with its condemnation of ‘quietism’). However, by severing the link between theistic beliefs and anesthetic trance, the former tend to reduce in fact to just a matter of belief, deprived of any experiential backup. And this disconnection from any sort of direct experience might add one further reason why theistic beliefs started to appear more and more unjustifiable.

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The Tragedy of the Self by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.