Friday, March 20, 2015

The Stoic and the Ubermensch

Nietzsche famously, or infamously depending on your perspective, condemned the Stoics (in his understated way) thusly:
You desire to LIVE "according to Nature"? Oh, you noble Stoics, what fraud of words! Imagine to yourselves a being like Nature, boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain: imagine to yourselves INDIFFERENCE as a power--how COULD you live in accordance with such indifference? To live--is not that just endeavoring to be otherwise than this Nature? Is not living valuing, preferring, being unjust, being limited, endeavouring to be different? And granted that your imperative, "living according to Nature," means actually the same as "living according to life"--how could you do DIFFERENTLY? Why should you make a principle out of what you yourselves are, and must be? In reality, however, it is quite otherwise with you: while you pretend to read with rapture the canon of your law in Nature, you want something quite the contrary, you extraordinary stage-players and self-deluders! In your pride you wish to dictate your morals and ideals to Nature, to Nature herself, and to incorporate them therein; you insist that it shall be Nature "according to the Stoa," and would like everything to be made after your own image, as a vast, eternal glorification and generalism of Stoicism! With all your love for truth, you have forced yourselves so long, so persistently, and with such hypnotic rigidity to see Nature FALSELY, that is to say, Stoically, that you are no longer able to see it otherwise-- and to crown all, some unfathomable superciliousness gives you the Bedlamite hope that BECAUSE you are able to tyrannize over yourselves--Stoicism is self-tyranny--Nature will also allow herself to be tyrannized over: is not the Stoic a PART of Nature? . . . But this is an old and everlasting story: what happened in old times with the Stoics still happens today, as soon as ever a philosophy begins to believe in itself. It always creates the world in its own image; it cannot do otherwise; philosophy is this tyrannical impulse itself, the most spiritual Will to Power, the will to "creation of the world," the will to the causa prima.
It's hardly surprising, of course, that Nietzsche, who seems to have been an insistently, deliberately, emotional thinker, wouldn't find Stoicism congenial.  If ever there was someone overwhelmingly disturbed by things not in his control, it was Nietzsche.  It's unfortunate but typical of him (at least from what I've read) that he condemned it in this fashion; delivering yet another rant rather than a serious analysis.

I wonder sometimes if his frenzied style was typical of his time rather than a personal quirk. William James was more or less his contemporary, and C.S. Peirce; J. S. Mill was older, dying it seems when Nietzsche was in his thirties.  Imagine any of them writing in this fashion, and you (or at least I) can't help but laugh.  Perhaps this was the style in continental Europe, though, or at least in Germany.

Nietzsche's exclamatory comments are very Dionysian, certainly, but if you like me are unimpressed by mere denunciations--argument by exclamation--it's difficult to see in this excited outpouring much that is coherent or much of significance.  I'll perforce address what he seems to be saying to me.

First, he states that Nature is indifferent and we, by living are otherwise than indifferent; we value, have preferences, are unjust.  Of course the ancient Stoics didn't feel that nature was indifferent in the sense being used by Nietzsche, as it was infused with the Divine Reason and had a purpose, so Nietzsche rather than addressing or even acknowledging that is merely telling us what he thinks Nature to be.

Let that pass, though.  We humans are parts of Nature, however, and so our feelings, desires etc.--which Nietzsche seems to think of as contra Nature--are, therefore, just as much part of Nature, as natural, as we are.  So when the Stoics refer to acting according to Nature they obviously refer to acting according to human nature as well as Nature in general, as human beings interacting with the rest of Nature.  It's not possible for us to live "otherwise" than Nature as Nietzsche claims.  Nietzsche's distinction between us and Nature is thus unsound.  Perhaps, though, he didn't think of us as parts of Nature. 

Next, he equates the Stoic dictum live according to Nature to "live according to life."  It's not clear to me, though, why he does so.  In what sense is Nature "life"?  In the sense that it exists?  It does of course exist, but it has certain characteristics, as do we.   Is Nietzsche seriously claiming that the Stoic dictum in question is simply "exist" or "live"?  That would indeed by silly, and it is silly of Nietzsche to maintain that is the case.  The Stoics clearly refer to living in accordance with certain characteristics of Nature and humanity, i.e. to living in a certain way, not merely living.

Then, he accuses the Stoics of imposing morals and ideals on Nature.  He does not trouble to explain this claim anymore than he did his others, but he seems to be saying that the Stoics purport to see in Nature what to think and how to act. 

This makes no sense either, though, as the Stoics quite consistently insist that what is in our control is very limited, and what is beyond our control is vast.  The great majority of Nature, therefore, is not something with which we should concern or disturb ourselves.  So, we would not "see" Stoicism in Nature.  Instead, being Stoics, we understand that Nature is to a great extent something we lack the ability to impose upon.  Also, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius state that our lives are what are thoughts make it; that what disturbs us is not what takes place, but our feelings regarding what takes place.

Stoicism doesn't appear in Nature, but Nature and our nature, and our interaction, necessarily figure in how we should act.  We live according to Nature when we live as reasonable human beings, based on what we know of Nature and ourselves.

He also calls Stoicism "self-tyranny", again for no stated reason.  Just what tyranny is involved in not being unduly disturbed but rather tranquil, being calm and reasonable, is not clear.  But Nietzsche may have so committed himself to being full of Romantic sound and fury that even the merely sensible seemed to him vile and evil.

Not content to denounce Stoicism, he proceeds to denounce philosophy in general.  Indeed, why not, being Nietzsche?  What did he do that was not, directly or indirectly, a denunciation of something?  Nietzsche was an extremist, I think, and more an artist (a tortured one, of course) than a philosopher.  The reference to Bedlam in his condemnation of Stoicism is unfortunate in his case.  Perhaps if he had been a Stoic he wouldn't have gone insane in the end, identifying himself so much with Dionysius that he claimed to be the mad god.

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