Lecture Ten: Life 10.4

10.4 Nietzsche against secularism


Before moving on, it is worth emphasizing three core aspects of Nietzsche’s proposal that shed light on the direction that we shall pursue further, and how it differs from other alternatives. Nietzsche is a soteriological thinker, that is, he aims to uncover the fundamental predicament of the human condition, the inherent problem in the current state of humanity, and provide a viable solution for it. At the heart of this soteriology is the idea of eternal recurrence. As we saw, this entails three connected points:

  • (i) The loyalty to earth and life, the ‘yes’-saying and amor fati commended by Zarathustra do not bring back, nor are justified on the basis of, a materialist or hard naturalist view, in which human beings are entirely reduced to biological machines.
  • (ii) The project of seeking the advent of the overhuman is predicated on a profound criticism of the ordinary way of life of current humanity, the ‘yes’-saying is not a way of endorsing and celebrating current practices, values, and worldviews.
  • (iii) The overhuman does not constitute a definite solution, nor brings about an ideal world in which problems and suffering will end forever, since the overhuman itself will have to be overcome at some later point.

Sometimes, Nietzsche is coopted as a supporter of today’s secularism. One might think that since God is dead, and we can no longer genuinely believe in an afterlife, all that we are left with is this biological body, living on this planet, meaning that we better take care of it as best as we can. Usually, ‘taking care of it’ entails making life as happy and sorrowless as possible for ourselves and alleviating unhappiness and suffering of others. In his reconstruction (mentioned in Lecture Zero), Taylor pointed out the historical roots of this sort of secularism in the eighteenth-century Western Enlightenment. Although this view might share with Nietzsche’s a common polemical target (namely, the opposite attitude of seeking salvation into some form of transcendence), this Enlightenment view is at odds with Nietzsche’s soteriology, and it is explicitly rejected by Zarathustra.

Nietzsche grants that there is no metaphysical soul, no disembodied entity that can exist independently from the living biological body. But this does not entail that selfhood must be reduced to an individual biological body. There is no self without a body, and yet the self is not just a living body. A living body is more than just an individual well-defined organism. As we saw, for Zarathustra a living body is an expression of life and of its constant process of becoming and self-overcoming. Already in The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche rejected (following up on Schopenhauer) the ultimate validity of the principle of individuation. In the Zarathustra, he further develops a view of life that is incompatible with any reductionist stance (like those exemplified by hard naturalism, as discussed in Lecture Two). Being loyal to life and to the body does not mean being reduced to the body. On this front, Nietzsche remains firmly in the middle of the spectrum of possible views of conceiving of the self, in line with his tragic Greek sources, according to which embodiment is best conceived in a weak form.

Moreover, eternal recurrence excludes the possibility of radical annihilation at death. Even if I die when my body dies, since the body is but an expression of a cosmic process of life, this same body will eventually be reconstituted again, and I too with it. Nietzsche rules out the possibility of an afterlife, but this does not entail that life can be confined in the narrow span between the biological birth and death of a particular individual, because the individual itself is nothing but an expression of life in its global and endless unfolding struggle. The reason for taking care of the body, of life, of this earth, is thus not that we have got only this limited time, preceded and followed by sheer nothingness (as the contemporary secularist, or perhaps nihilist, might be inclined to think), but rather because our being here instantiates the struggle of life itself to create something new, and it is better for us to live up to the challenge and responsibility that this struggle raises rather than being swept away by it.

As the anthropological picture of the overhuman also makes abundantly clear, Zarathustra (and Nietzsche) is no friend of the ordinary way of life, which is often presented in terms of decadence and passive nihilism (as discussed in Lecture Nine). Embracing life, the body, this earth, saying ‘yes’ to all of that, does not mean that our ordinary way of running our lives is fine as it is and we need to simply be more condescending. The lazy hedonism that seeks anesthesia in the compulsive satisfaction of any sorts of sensual cravings is the most remote attitude from that envisaged by the overhuman. Sticking to this ordinary way of life constitutes in fact a conservative way of preventing and hindering creative change and transformation. The ordinary way of life, with its interest in avoiding suffering and maximizing pleasure as much as possible, is what must be overcome to move on from the last man to the overhuman. The ordinary way of life is part and parcel of the soteriological problem, not of its solution.

Ultimately, Nietzsche’s project is not that of ending the world’s suffering forever. This is not only impossible, but also against the very nature of life and betrays an inability to take up a genuinely tragic understanding of the human predicament. The advent of the overhuman is not the end of all suffering, but the (provisional!) ending of a sick way of dealing with suffering by simply trying to push it away or escape from it into some world-beyond. Giving birth to the overhuman will cause suffering, and the overhuman will not stop suffering from being inherent in life. What the overhuman promises as a soteriological solution is a new way of withstanding suffering, living amidst it, saying ‘yes’ to it and thus being freed from the concern for it. And this attitude constitutes the way in which suffering will cease to be a problem. A problem can be a genuine problem only insofar as it is felt unpleasantly. But even in this unpleasant feeling, the genuine problem is not the feeling as such, but rather the aversion towards it, the desire not to feel that way. The problem is the ‘no’ said to unpleasantness and suffering. The overhuman can bring about a new way of reversing this attitude by saying ‘yes’ to what is not wanted, and by thus dissolving the sense of aversion and resistance to what is unpleasant and sorrowful. Dissolving the aversion does not necessarily dissolve the feeling, and yet it dissolves what made that feeling into a problem, and hence solves the problem.[1]

In giving up the idea of seeking transcendence, contemporary Western secularism tends to jump to the opposite end of the spectrum of possible ways of conceiving of the self. If transcendence is no longer viable, it would seem natural to embrace its most direct opposite, namely, hard naturalism. Nietzsche’s own discussion provides an important confutation of this move, by showing that more options are available. However, insofar as contemporary secularism embraces a philanthropic ideal of making the world ‘a better place’ or ending the world’s suffering forever, secularism is recasting, on earth, a markedly transcendent eschatological goal. In soteriological schemes based on a linear progression of time (such as in Christianity or Zoroastrianism), God creates the world and will eventually destroy it. If all goes well, (for some at least) there will be a happy ending, with eternal peace and bliss. Dropping God from the picture, one can still hold on to this idea of the happy ending, or at least to the ideal of bringing about a global and eternal state of happiness and pleasantness for everybody. What is this ideal if not a secularized version of the transcendent eschatology of final eternal bliss? Moreover, what is this ideal if not an explicit acknowledgment of one’s inability to withstand the suffering inherent in this life? In seeking this ideal of a globally happy world, the secularist is still playing the same game of the transcendent, despite the change of setting (and this is in fact what ‘secularization’ means, namely, recasting an originally theological view or notion into a non-theological context).

Nietzsche’s insistence on the importance of facing eternal recurrence is also due to his realization that to get rid of this residual transcendent eschatology of a globally happy state, it is necessary to dismiss two of its fundamental premises: (i) a linear conception of time based on progress towards the better; (ii) the inability to withstand suffering and thus the desire to erase it from life. The second point is an obstacle to a genuinely tragic understanding of life as inherently dissonant, while the first point misconstrues becoming (by making it a straight linear process) and eventually builds the cage for the will’s creative power (by making the past something unchangeable).

Nietzsche’s project is not just about offering an alternative to a transcendent way of constructing the self, by reverting to the opposite side of the same spectrum. More radically, Nietzsche seeks an alternative to the project of mastery as such, and hence to the whole project of constructing selfhood in general. The secularist approach remains caught in the project of mastery and seeing the failure of the transcendent strategy reverts to the naturalist one. Secularism is still a form of nihilism. Nietzsche’s project is more radical, and more interesting for present purposes. As we shall discuss in the next three lectures, Nietzsche can help us to define certain background conditions that a genuine attempt at disbanding mastery should fulfil. This does not mean setting up a secularist agenda, but rather laying down a foundation for moving beyond secularism altogether.

  1. There is ample possibility for the overhuman to bring relief to others and help them. And yet, this sort of help will be structurally and hermeneutically different from the ordinary way of conceiving of the relief of world suffering. Ordinarily the latter project is conceived of in terms of minimizing feelings (of pain, sorrow, distress). But from a Nietzschean perspective, the problem is not with the feeling, but with the attitude towards it, the aversion towards suffering and pain, the inability to withstand it. Hence, genuine relief will depend on the possibility of helping others to cultivate this sort of strength, endurance, resistance, overabundance of health and energy. For a discussion of this point in terms of different types of ‘compassion,’ which Nietzsche rejects or endorses (and their relationship with the Buddhist account of compassion), see Antoine Panaïoti, Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy (2013), chapters 5 and 6.


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