Nietzsche on God and power: timely meditations

Nietzsche – “Desconstruindo gigantes” by Emerson Pingarilho http://tinyurl.com/c4lontc

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a thinker at war with his times. To understand Nietzsche’s vision of the death of God and the will to power, we need to understand the world that he lived in.

Nietzsche’s nineteenth century was a time of industry and transformation. Germany was a major industrial and colonial power, unified under Emperor Wilhelm I. European society was being reshaped from within by the emerging middle class, while the working class railed against their conditions and dreamed of revolution as they browsed the works of Marx. Everyone was looking ahead, inspired by the possibilities of science, democracy, socialism and progress.

Nietzsche smelled something rotten at the base of it all. He peeled back the layers of polite conversation to unveil a simple truth. There was no place for God in this brave new world of science and progress. Indeed, most progressives didn’t see a need to make a place for God because they no longer believed in Him. This reflected a major social and cultural shift. God had ruled European society through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance through his emissaries in the Church and State. Religious faith had shaped and colored life at all levels of society, from the rituals of the King’s court to the observances of the working poor. But God had been sidelined through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the rise of science and the secular state, undercutting the power of the Church. By Nietzsche’s time, God had become a private matter, if not a superstition.

God took ill the day that it became acceptable to question His existence in polite company. He went into seizure the day that science established it was a better guide to reality than faith. ‘God is dead’, Nietzsche declared. ‘All of us are His murderers’ (The Gay Science [GS], §125). [Read more…]

What does it feel like to seriously confront death?

I answered a question on Quora: ‘What does it feel like to seriously consider the prospect of your own death?’ You’ll know if you’ve read Life Changing that I believe that confronting death is the best way to get in touch with who you are and what you think is important in life. Answering this question enabled me to go deep into intimate territory. Thanks to Seb Paquet for inviting me to take the plunge.

———————————————–

It’s the people who haven’t done what they came to do in life who are the most scared of death.

As an atheist, I don’t see any reason to suppose that there is an ultimate meaning to life. Human beings are a cosmic accident (an accident that was inevitable in the scope of eternity, which doesn’t make our existence any less random or arbitrary). Conceding there is no ultimate meaning to life, however, doesn’t stop us from wanting to know the meaning of our own life. As Albert Camus claims, human beings are remarkable for the fact that they can acknowledge the meaninglessness of existence and affirm life regardless.

The attitude of existential revolt defines the human condition. It’s a bleak teaching, but having reflected on it for 20 years, I’m ready to say that Camus was right. [Read more…]

Flow and the 21st century canyon

James Martin, founder of the 21st Century School at Oxford University and author of The Meaning of the Twenty First Century (2006), has a powerful analogy for thinking about our situation today. We are like a group of canoeists paddling down a broad, deep river. For a long time, the current has been steady and slow. We have relaxed into the ride, hypnotized by the flow and the canopy of blue overhead. Suddenly the vessel quakes. We look up and see a bottleneck canyon ahead. The mighty river is being forced through the canyon. When a river runs through a canyon, things change quickly. The water turns to rapids – indeed it is already churning into foam about us.

No one knows how bad these rapids will become. We don’t know if we can make it through the canyon. Still there is only one way ahead. Into the rapids we go.

When the river of life gets rough, there is only one thing to do. Put on that helmet, strap on that life-preserver. It is time to get ready for change.

—————————-

This is an excerpt from my book Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide. Life Changing is available in Kindle and ebook versions. Paperbacks will be available on Amazon soon.

Check out the UK-based Philosophical Foundation, where I am June’s guest blogger.

Ready for change? Your time starts now


Life Changing is a hands-on guide to harnessing the power of change. Using philosophical examples, it shows you how to cultivate the resilience, agility and vision to embrace change and make it an adventure.

The book includes practical exercises that enable you to apply the ideas in familiar contexts. By doing the exercises, you learn how to think philosophically about change and unleash its life-changing possibilities.

Be creative with change. Don’t just ride it out — use it.

Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide is available on Amazon, Kobo, and iTunes.

Check out the introduction to Life Changing on the P2P Foundation wiki.

Life Changing marks the end of a personal journey. For the past fifteen years, I have been studying, teaching, and applying transformative philosophy in my own life, first as a doctoral student at the University of Sydney, then as a lecturer at the Universities of Sydney and New South Wales, and recently in my Philosophy for Change course, which I’ve run at the Centre for Continuing Education, University of Sydney. My guiding intuition has been that it is possible to distil from philosophical ideas a kernel of practical wisdom, which can be communicated through simple exercises that students can apply to their lives.

This intuition is core to Life Changing. The book is structured about five practical exercises. Each incorporates a life-changing insight. The exercises show you how to muster the courage to change; how to control yourself like a Stoic philosopher; how to cultivate your Nietzschean will to power; and how to use Spinoza’s philosophy to supercharge your social life. They show you how to take adventure from the heart of crisis and fulfilment from the struggle with adversity. [Read more…]

Learning how to love

‘One must learn how to love. — This is what happens to us in music: First one has to learn to hear a figure and melody at all, to detect and distinguish it, to isolate it and delimit it as a separate life. Then it requires some exertion and good will to tolerate it in spite of its strangeness, to be patient with its appearances and expression, and kindhearted about its oddity. Finally, there comes a moment when we are used to it, when we sense that we should miss it if it were missing; and now it continues to compel and enchant us relentlessly until we have become its humble and enraptured lovers who desire nothing better from the world than it and only it.

But that is what happens to us not only in music. That is how we have learned to love all things that we now love. In the end we are always rewarded for our good will, our patience, fairmindedness, and gentleness with what is strange; gradually, it sheds its veil and turns out to be a new and indescribable beauty. That is its thanks for our hospitality. Even those who love themselves will have learned it in this way; for there is no other way. Love, too, has to be learned’.

Nietzsche, The Joyful Wisdom (also trans. The Gay Science), aphorism 334.

Vision and empowerment: the Spiderman moment

What goes through Peter Parker’s mind when he first realizes he has superpowers? This scene in the original Spiderman movie sent chills up my spine. What goes through your head in a moment of vision? ‘I am alive, I am empowered, I have the capacity to think, feel, act, and experience life in some way’. In a moment of vision, we understand our sources of power and our powers themselves. We realize that we are empowered through having the capacity to think, feel, do, and be.

Thinking, feeling, doing and being are the building blocks of human experience. Together they encompass an incredible range of capacities and abilities. If we located all the different species in the world on a graph showing their relative powers, with insects and reptiles with basic sensory and motor functions at the one end of the graph, and the higher primates with rudimentary cognitive and affective powers at the other end, human powers would be off the scale. Of all living creatures, only humans have the power to seize on an issue and think it through; to attune themselves empathetically to the needs and desires of other human and non-human creatures; to respond to a situation with a complex and deliberate set of actions; and to assume a social role and become a certain sort of person in a social context.

We call our species homo sapiens, the wise man. We might just as well call ourselves homo potens, the powerful man. Wisdom is only one of our powers. It is all too rarely applied. [Read more…]

Camus, absurdity, and revolt

Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a French writer and existentialist philosopher. He was born in Algeria, then a colony of France, which gave him a unique perspective on life as an outsider. Camus is widely acknowledged as the greatest of the philosophers of ‘the absurd’. His idea is simple: Human beings are caught in a constant attempt to derive meaning from a meaningless world. This is the ‘paradox of the absurd’.

Camus’ novels The Outsider (1942), The Plague (1947), and The Fall (1956) are classics of existentialist fiction. His philosophical writings The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) and The Rebel (1951) are profound statements of position. Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. Unlike fellow existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre, he accepted it.

It is instructive to consider the differences between Sartre and Camus. The men were friends in the war years. Together, they edited the political journal Combat. But Sartre and Camus fell out on account of their views on Stalin and communism. In the 1950s, Sartre threw his support behind Stalin’s vision of the global communist struggle. Camus was unimpressed by the “ends justify the means” mentality of the communist revolutionaries, and would have no truck with Stalin’s mass production of a perfected humanity. In The Rebel, he made his criticisms plain. Sartre responded in anger and ended their friendship. [Read more…]

Nietzsche’s three metamorphoses

I wanted to know all about everything when I was a kid. I was an inquisitive child. The will to knowledge took root well before I was in any real position to pursue it. I remember, as a child, being conscious of a realm of adult understandings that I just didn’t have access to. There was a universe of truth and wisdom beyond my ken, and it fascinated me.

Things are different for kids today. Thanks to the internet, the truths of adult existence are only a mouse-click away. But I didn’t have recourse to instant internet gratification. I was left to think about things. My search for knowledge, as I travelled through childhood and teenagerdom, led me to dwell on the weightier things in life. Intuitively, I knew that many of the adult things beyond my experience were sombre, perhaps even dreadful, matters. The more that I reflected on these matters, the more I became a sombre person myself. I was weighed down by what I knew. I stared too long into the abyss and I started to see the abyss in me.

This was before I read Nietzsche. I started university later than most, at the age of 24. Attending philosophy classes and reading Nietzsche was a revelation for me. I had a Damascus road experience – broke with much of my past life, and devoted myself to philosophy broadly.

Looking back, I can see there was a spiritual transformation that came along with this as well. I went from being a camel to a lion. I transitioned from the first to the second phase of Nietzsche’s “three metamorphoses.” [Read more…]

For the new year!

On January 1st, 1882, Nietzsche wrote in celebration of the new year:

“Today everybody permits himself the expression of his wish and dearest thought; hence I, too, shall say what it is that I wish for myself today, and what was the first thought to run across my heart this year – what thought shall for me be the reason, warranty, and sweetness of my life henceforth. I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things: then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati [love of fate]: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer” (Gay Science, 276).