On Nietzsche’s THE GAY SCIENCE
by Joseph Suglia
“At the beach and in the sand, small mussels are splashed about, into them we wriggle and see only wrigglers but never the waves and upsurge of beings!”
—Martin Heidegger, Black Notebooks, October 1931
FROM THE EARLY PERIOD TO THE MIDDLE PERIOD
The middle period of Nietzschean thought begins with The Gay Science (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft) (1882; 1887). Its invigorated and invigorating philosophy was made possible by the largely destructive Human, All-Too-Human (1878; 1886) and Daybreak (1881; 1887), the two books that immediately preceded The Gay Science. In Human, All-Too-Human, Nietzsche explodes the concept of the free will and reveals the obscene selfishness, the crass self-interestedness, that underlies all human conduct. In Daybreak, Nietzsche argues that all morality is false—indeed, impossible—if we conceive of moral behavior as being voluntary or other-directed.
The foundation of Nietzschean thought could be represented by one word: ananke (the Greek word for necessity).
We do not control what we think; we do not control what we do. The sources of thought and action never exist within the horizons of consciousness. All human thought and activity are uncontrollable / involuntary—that is to say, necessary—and therefore there is no reason to celebrate anyone for his or her “heroism” or condemn anyone for his or her “immoral” behavior. It makes no sense, therefore, to regret what one has said or done, as it makes no sense to regret what one has not said or not done. We are free to choose only what necessity has chosen for us. Persephone rolls the dice of fate in Hades; we are free to play along.
The Gay Science—and the gay science—is the passionate assumption of necessity, amor fati (“the love of fate”). The gay science is gaiety at the meaningless mechanism which is the world. Everything is necessary yet purposeless.
DIVORCING SCHOPENHAUER: WHAT IS THE “WILL-TO-POWER”?
The Gay Science marks a swerving-away from Nietzsche’s unofficial teacher Schopenhauer. There were already indications of Nietzsche’s growing dissatisfaction with Schopenhauer in Human, All-Too-Human [cf. especially Paragraph Thirty-Nine], in which Nietzsche ridicules his master for believing that some “metaphysical need” is innate to human beings. The “metaphysical need” comes after religion; religion is not responsive to a preexisting “metaphysical need.” Nor, Nietzsche argues, does the human conscience imply human moral responsibility—this is a false inference on Schopenhauer’s part. The human conscience is a hive of error.
The total break with Schopenhauer, again, is announced in the pages of The Gay Science. I would direct the reader to Paragraph Ninety-Nine, where Nietzsche makes explicit statements against Schopenhauerian philosophy, as well as to the poem “Pessimisten-Arznei” and the 1887 Preface, where he describes pessimism in physiological terms as a sickness. What Nietzsche writes is pellucid; little commentary from me is required. Briefly: Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the One Will is indemonstrable (that all causes are manifestations of the One Will at one time and at one place); the idea that a genius is a timeless, subjectless, desubjectified subject of knowledge is ridiculous; there is no such thing as animal magnetism; pity is not separate from the selfishness of individualism, etc.
What I would like to focus on here is something that is less obvious: the way that Nietzsche subtilizes Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the Will.
As the title of Schopenhauer’s masterwork, The World as Will and Representation, suggests, the world has two valences. The innermost core of the world is the Will: the throbbing, palpitating, blind, stupid vital force, the will-to-live, the impulse to perpetuate and to preserve life. The Will is the impelling force of Nature. The Will is what makes one want to live, what keeps one alive, but more importantly, what makes us, usually inadvertently, continue the human species. All that we do, whether we think we are doing so or not, is in the service of the life-will, of the enhancement and enlargement of life.
The fundamental trait of the Will is striving. The exertions of the Will as objectivated in the human body are geared toward one thing (not a “purpose” or “goal”): the reduplication of humanity. While this might sound “heteronormative” or “heterosexist” (to use two fuzz words), it is not. Schopenhauer is not implying that the Will is a libido that is geared toward sexual reproduction; the Will is not the Will-to-sexually-reproduce. Childless farmers, non-procreative artists, the celibate, gays, lesbians, the transgender—all of these, too, dance the regimented, compulsory dance of life, creating conditions for future humanity. Homosexuality, for example, is a necessary counteraction / has a necessary counteractive effect which serves the drive to revitalize the human species.
Life, then, has no “purpose” other than its own perpetuation and promotion. Human beings are playthings of the will-to-live. The will-to-live continues, despite the endless deaths of individuals (in a sense, there are no individuals, for Schopenhauer)—which is why suicide is both foolish and repulsive. You can kill yourself, but you can’t kill life. Individuality is subordinate to the push-to-keep-humanity-alive. The gay science is consciousness of the thrustings, the wellings, and the swellings of the Will and of the purposelessness of existence (Nietzsche, in this regard, likens the Will to the Wave, der Wille to die Welle).
Human beings think that they are their own masters, when behind every gesture, action, and word is the ascendant urge to renew the human species. As I explained above, in Human, All-Too-Human, Nietzsche destroyed the philosophical foundations of altruism and the free will; in Daybreak, he destroyed morality on the basis of the destructions of Human, All-Too-Human. In The Gay Science, we learn what human acts and thoughts subserve. We are marking time, marching in place, when we believe that we matter.
Schopenhauer and Nietzsche are one at this stage: Individuals who believe that they are masters of themselves are self-deceptive. They are puppeteered by the Will (which Schopenhauer believes is the will-to-preservation; Nietzsche believes the Will is something else, as we shall see). Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, however, differ in their attitudes toward the Will. For Schopenhauer, life is tragedy (life is a business that cannot cover its own expenses; human beings arise only to be extinguished; the character of life is suffering). Nietzsche does not deny any of this—far from it—but for him, life is a comedy, a comedy because it has no goal, and consciousness of the pointlessness of life is the gay science. Why else would Nietzsche invite the Grillen to dance the dance of life? Grillen: this interesting word means both “crickets” and “whimsical (often, bad) moods.” We are invited to confront and absorb the negative in the dream-dance of life: hence, the frequent terpsichorean and oneiric figures that proliferate throughout the text. Nietzsche rejects Schopenhauer’s gloominess, his dourness, though he agrees that the maintenance, sustenance, and perpetuation of the human species is the result of a more fundamental human impulse than that of the principle of individuality (the principium indivuationis).
Nietzsche advances another step beyond his ex officio teacher and mentor, Schopenhauer, when he calls attention to how vices and how (later) squandering contribute to the will-to-live: Hatred, malice, envy, aggression, the desire to steal—all of these forms of so-called “wickedness” belong to “the astounding economy of the conservation of the species” ([die] erstaunliche[-] Oekonomie der Arterhaltung) [Paragraph One]. Much later, Nietzsche informs us that “Evil” is nothing more than another name for those who are vigorous, for those who are passionate (leidenschaftlich) [Paragraph 326], for those who enhance life, for those who stimulate opposition, with their passionate individualism and unconventional ideas.
Life is neither ugly nor beautiful, good nor evil in itself; we make it so. That is to say: Neither Good nor Evil exists. “Good” and “Evil” are mystifications, simplifications (and hence falsifications), abstractions. The dichotomy of Good and Evil is replaced, by Nietzsche, with the terms strong / fertile / healthy and the feeble / sterile / sick. Nietzsche seems to be using dualisms / dichotomies / binary oppositions himself. One must be careful not to think that Nietzsche is substituting one dualism for another, however.
The strong and the weak do not form a dualism, but a continuum or an “axis” (to use Brian Eno’s term). There are no opposites, only continua / axes. Sickness and health are not opposites—there are subdivisions, gradations, degrees, nuances, levels between the antipodes of “strength” and “feebleness,” between “sickness” and “health.” Health cannot do without sickness, as we learn from Paragraph 120 of The Gay Science and the 1886 Preface of Human, All-Too-Human. All values are derived from disvalues. Logic comes from illogic [cf. Paragraph 111]. Altruism is the chick that is hatched from the egg of selfishness. In Human, All-Too-Human, we learn that generosity is drawn from a selfish lust for power. In Paragraph 118 of The Gay Science and Daybreak, passim, we learn that benevolence (and pity, the affect that motivates benevolence) is the effort of the strong to appropriate the weak. Opposites interpenetrate.
The most fundamental human impulse is not the will-to-reproduce-life, as Schopenhauer believes. In the following words, Nietzsche definitively breaks with Schopenhauer: “In nature, it is not distress which rules, but rather abundance, squandering, even to the point of absurdity. The struggle for existence is only an exception, a temporary restriction of the life-will; the great and small struggle revolves everywhere around preponderance, around growth and expansion, around power, in accordance with the will-to-power, which is simply the will-to-live” ([I]n der Natur herrscht nicht die Nothlage, sondern der Ueberfluss, der Verschwendung, sogar bis in’s Unsinnige. Der Kampf um’s Dasein ist nur eine Ausnahme, eine zeitweilige Restriktion des Lebenswillens; der grosse und kleine Kampf dreht sich allenthalben um’s Uebergewicht, um Wachsthum und Ausbreitung, um Macht, gemäss dem Willen zur Macht, der eben der Wille des Lebens ist) [Paragraph 349].
The will-to-live is only the restriction of a much greater will. For Schopenhauer, the Will is the will-to-live; in Nietzsche, the Schopenhauerian Will is transformed into the will-to-power.
What is the will-to-power? The “will-to-power” means the following: All of life is composed of relativities of power. One creature is the dominant; the other is the subordinate. One creature is the master; the other is the slave. Not the desire for power, but desire as power is the fundamental characteristic of the will. Exertion, struggling, striving for the preservation of the human species is a secondary characteristic. The essential trait of the Will is the drive toward supremacy, toward ascendancy, over other organisms and entities.
All live organisms strive for dominance over other live organisms—but they also strive for dominance over the world. Such is the will-to-power. Power is not an object that is separate from the will; it is inherent to the will itself. The will-to-power is the will of power, the power-will.
NIETZSCHE LOVES WOMEN / NIETZSCHE LOVES MOUNTAINS / NIETZSCHE DOES NOT LOVE WOMEN / NIETZSCHE DOES NOT LOVE MOUNTAINS
Nietzsche, sadly, writes a number of disobliging things about women in The Gay Science.
Am I the first reader to notice that Nietzsche writes about women in almost the same way in which he writes about mountains? In Paragraph Fifteen, he tells us that mountains are only beautiful at a distance. A mountain is beautiful to look at, but it is not beautiful to be a mountain. The man who gazes at the mountain from the comfort of the Swiss boarding house is charmed; the mountaineer is not so enchanted.
In Paragraph Sixty, Nietzsche writes almost exactly the same thing about women. Women, we are told, produce magical effects on the spectator only at a distance. Fascination / bewitchment / enchantment implies distance. The comparison between women and mountains could easily be interpreted as a misogynistic comparison (for what is a mountain but a large rock?). However, as I have written elsewhere (in my commentary on Human, All-Too-Human), Nietzsche is not always merely a misogynist.
At other times, Nietzsche praises women to the sky. Consult Paragraph Sixty-Four: Old women—Nietzsche slyly utters while twisting his Vercingetorix moustache—know that the superficiality of existence is its essence. In other words, experienced women are more philosophically minded than experienced men. A philosopher (I will return to this point below) is not someone who sees the Platonic idea (eidos) through the masquerade of appearances. A philosopher is one who knows that there is no idea behind the curtain.
Anyone who still thinks that all of Nietzsche’s thoughts on women are reducible to misogyny should read on. In the poignant paragraph that follows, we learn that Nietzsche has sympathy (perhaps even empathy) for women who offer their bodies—and their shame—to men who neither appreciate them nor return their love. At another point, he even equates life itself to women / women to life itself: “Yes, life is a female!” (Ja, das Leben ist ein Weib!) [Paragraph 339]. This is the highest encomium that could ever be accorded to anyone. What is this if not philogyny (the love of women)? What is this if not crypto-feminism?
NIETZSCHE WAS NOT A FASCIST. NIETZSCHE WAS NOT A PROTO-NAZI
Of all the tabloid lies that have been told about him, none is as blatantly untrue as the rumor that Nietzsche was a fascist or a proto-Nazi. Such slanderous gossip could be refuted in a few words. Nietzsche renounced his German (Prussian) citizenship in 1869. He vilified the authoritarian state in Thus Spoke Zarathustra—and there has never been a fascist who did not revere the authoritarianism of the state. He believed in a rule of intellectuals [cf. Paragraph 283], or, to invent words, a cognocracy or a philosophocracy—surely, fascism is nothing if not anti-intellectualist (see my brief article “Fascism”). He inveighed against nationalism, racial hatred (Rassenhass), and the fetishistic piety of epidermal worship or “mendacious racial self-admiration” (verlogne[-] Rassen-Selbstbewunderung) [Paragraph 377]. Not only does Nietzsche suggest that “racial purity” (whatever this means) is undesirable—he even seems to suggest that it is impossible. He never ceased to ridicule and condemn Anti-Judaism (for one example of this, consult the final pages of Toward the Genealogy of Morals). He constantly expresses his admiration for the Jewish people [read Paragraph 475 of Human, All-Too-Human and Paragraph 205 of Daybreak]. On 29 March 1887, Nietzsche inked and mailed a letter to Theodor Fritsch, self-anointed Anti-Semite and one of the vilest ideological precursors of National Socialism, that contained these words as its closing paragraph: “Finally, how do you think I feel when the name Zarathustra is mouthed by an Anti-Semite?” Nietzsche was demanding that Fritsch stop sending him copies of the rag that Fritsch edited: the Antisemitische Correspondenz und Sprechsaal für innere Partei-Angelegenheiten.
This is scarcely the profile of a fascist or a proto-Nazi. The ethnic purifiers, the racial homogenizers, the phenotype idolaters, the ideological Aryans, the alt-rightists, the Neo-Nazis should find another “fave” philosopher (might I suggest Hegel?). Nietzsche revolted against everything these thugs, mugs, and lugs stand for.
OUT-KANTING KANT: ONTOLOGY IS PHENOMENOLOGY
The title Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (“the gay science”) has at least four meanings:
- At the most literal level, the gay science is poetry. The term gaya scienza was used by twelfth-century troubadours from Provence as another name for poetic art. The book itself is fringed by two series of poems: “Joke, Cunning, and Revenge” and “The Songs of Prince Vogelfrei.” The most significant of these is “To Goethe” (from “The Songs of Prince Vogelfrei”), to which I will turn, briefly, below.
- The title carries a personal meaning. In the 1887 Preface, Nietzsche attributes the provenance of the book to a personal convulsion, the “saturnalia of a mind” (Saturnalien eines Geistes), an overturning, an overthrow of the romantic pessimism of Schopenhauer and of Schopenhauer’s disciple Wagner. The rejection of romantic pessimism does not lead Nietzsche into optimism (thank goodness). “The gay science” is the impassioned affirmation of the world-as-such in all of its ugliness, not the naïve hyperbole of Leibnizian optimism, which sees the world as the best of all possible worlds. To see the world as the best of all possible worlds is to see the world as better than it is, since there is only one world. This is the world, and there is no other. Optimism and pessimism are surpassed in favor of the life-affirming repudiation of all religion, of all morality, and of all metaphysics (which serves as the foundation of religion and morality). Metaphysics, by definition, posits a supraworld, a world-beyond-the-world, an Apart-from-the-world, an επέκεινα. This explains the book’s frequent references to Epicurus, who believed: If there are gods, they do not concern themselves with us. The Gay Science is not a Leibnizian book (far from it); it is an Epicurean book.
- The gay science, as I suggested above, is the consciousness of the purposelessness of existence—unless the promotion of life is itself a purpose. But how could the impulse to continue, to perpetuate, to reproduce the human species be a “purpose”? If the concept of purpose implies free will (and surely it does), then the impulse to propagate the human species is no purpose at all. The gay science is the joyous assumption of necessity. It is the cheerful knowledge that a supercomputer would be able to preprogram all of human behavior centuries before any of that behavior was enacted.
- The gay science is Nietzsche’s phenomenological ontology.
Let me address this final theorem here.
In The Gay Science, Nietzsche gives us a philosophy of superficiality. Nietzsche tells us, “We cannot see around our corner” (Wir können nicht um unsre Ecke sehn); the human intellect cannot avoid seeing itself, things in the world, and other selves under its own perspectival forms [Paragraph 374]. All we have are surfaces and surfaces of surfaces. The world is a glittering, glistening, trembling, quivering play of surfaces without depth—a scintillating mosaic with nothing behind it.
But if there is no depth, can there be a surface? For Nietzsche, there can be depthless surfaces—there is nothing beneath the surface; there are only grooves, filigrees, fissures, grooves incised on the surface of the world. There are nothing but veils and veils that veil veils. As he writes in the 1887 Preface: “We no longer believe that the truth still remains the truth when the veil is pulled off” (Wir glauben nicht mehr daran, dass Wahrheit noch Wahrheit bleibt, wenn man ihr die Schleier abzieht).
The disciple of the Temple of Sais pulls off the veil that veils the statue of Isis—there is nothing there beneath the veil. No revealed mystery, no depth. The unveiling is a forced striptease that does not lead to nudity, that does not lead to the truth, that never reaches an essence, that never comes to an ultimate profundity, but one that leads to another set of impermeable veils. What this means is that depth is superficiality, as superficiality is depth. A frog is a frog, a log is a log, a bog is a bog.
It takes a deep person to recognize that the world is superficial, which is why Nietzsche writes that mystics are not even superficial / surficial: “Mystical explanations are estimated as deep; the truth is, they are not even superficial” (Die mystischen Erklärungen gelten für tief; die Wahrheit ist, dass sie noch nicht einmal oberflächlich sind) [Paragraph 126]. My interpretation of this statement: A mystic / mystagogue is someone who ignores the surfaces of life in favor of a deeper world that does not even exist.
The all-important Paragraph Fifty-Four—the centrifugal force of the book—liberates appearances from essences. We learn here that a phenomenon is not the appearance of a thing; a phenomenon has its own integrity. Appearance is not the opposite of some essence (Gegensatz irgend eines Wesens). Appearance is not a death mask (eine todte Maske), an unknown X (ein[-] unbekannt[es] X), the crust or shell of a thing. “Semblance,” Nietzsche writes, “is the acting and living itself” (Schein ist für mich das Wirkende und Lebende selber). Though Nietzsche does not write the following explicitly, he appears to imply: Appearance is essence.
In this extraordinary paragraph, Nietzsche emancipates himself from his unofficial teacher Schopenhauer and from Schopenhauer’s unofficial teacher Kant. It is not merely the case that we only know appearances and never things in themselves, Nietzsche suggests to us. Nietzsche celebrates and affirms—with the giddiness of gaiety—phenomenality without Dinge an sich (“things in themselves”). Here, Nietzsche is moving away from Schopenhauer (and from Schopenhauer’s predecessor, Kant), who still believed that there is a supersensible truth beyond the world of appearances. Whereas Kant believed that things in themselves underlie appearances, Nietzsche here affirms that there are only appearances and no things in themselves.
Further, Nietzsche is against all ethics of prudence. Reason does not have a pure employment—all ethics are ethics of prudence, of convenience, of self-interest.
Kant does assert repeatedly that the forms of knowledge (particularly, the forms of sensibility, space and time) cannot be applied to things as they are in themselves. Neither are they applicable to three “Ideas of Reason” that entranced the originators of Christianity (and, to an extent, Christian Wolff): God, the free will, and immortality. On this, Nietzsche and Kant are in agreement. The “Ideas of Reason” have no correlative in experience. Where is God? Where is the free will? Where is immortality?
However, Nietzsche goes much further than Kant. Nietzsche utterly denies the reality of God. He utterly denies the reality of the free will. He utterly denies the reality of immortality. We must admit that Nietzsche was far more enlightened than Kant. In comparison with Nietzsche, Kant appears to be clouded by intellectual benightedness. Nietzsche thinks that God, the free will, and immortality are intellectual errors and that human reason is by no means bound to accept them even as noumenal realities.
Nietzsche, then, is out-Kanting Kant: There is no noumenal self, no supersensible morality, no noumenal world. There is no separation between the phenomenal and the noumenal worlds. Although Nietzsche never actually writes this, we can aver with confidence that Kant was not enlightened enough. Kant is not the representative of the Enlightenment that most think him to be. Nietzsche, who was born forty years after Kant died, takes the Enlightenment to its logical conclusion. He certainly took the Enlightenment much further than Kant ever did.
Nietzsche phenomenalizes the world. That is to say: Nietzsche superficializes the world.
Heidegger is wrong when he claims that Nietzsche inverts Platonism. To “invert” Platonism would be to place the phenomenon above the essence (eidos). Nietzsche does not invert Platonism. He displaces Platonism.
Does this imply that life is a lie? Nietzsche will write in the Nachlass that “[t]ruth is the kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live.” This, regrettably, is one of the most unfortunate things that Nietzsche ever wrote. For does not this interpretation of truth presuppose truth? Is Nietzsche not assuming that his own statement is true? Is he not hoping that we, the readers, will accept his statement as a true statement? Or is he suggesting that his own statement is erroneous? This is one of the Megarian paradoxes: A man comes from a city where everyone lies. He says, “I am lying.” Is he telling the truth? Nietzsche writes that truth is a lie. Is he telling the truth?
Nietzsche’s argument might be saved if we rewrite his statement as follows: “There is no truth (no absolute reality, no reality absolved of perception and perceptibility); there are only things that we take as the truth.” To cite a popular-culture example: The film I, Tonya (2017) seems to proceed from this understanding—all the while discounting any perspective other than that of Team Tonya. In the film, Tonya Harding is the victim, not Nancy Kerrigan.
Most of the poems in The Gay Science are nothing more than silly fun (and Nietzsche admits this), but there is one that stands out: “To Goethe.”
World-Play, the masterful, / Blends being and semblance:—
Welt-Spiel, das herrische, / Mischt Sein und Schein:—
To paraphrase: There is no “deeper life.” Being is appearance, Sein is Schein, ontology is phenomenology. Life is a scintillating mosaic, a play of surfaces. Again, this is not an inversion, but a displacement of Platonism.
This is why Nietzsche praises artists, creators of illusions of profundity. This is why artists are compared to lovers, and lovers are compared to artists; both conceal naturalness [Paragraph Fifty-Nine]. Art is the “good will to semblance” (gute[r] Wille[-] zum Scheine) (Paragraph 107)—that is, art is illusion without the pretext of being true (unlike, say, religion). Art resembles existence, which is already aesthetic. This does not mean that art represents things in the world, as Aristotle believes. It means that art repeats the phenomenal character of existence. We are drawn to works of art because they remind us that life is already art—that is, they remind us that life is already a shallow play of appearances. Art reminds us that life is already a constellation / a clutch / a cluster of illusions.
This is why what flying fish love most about life is its skinnishness / skinness / skinnedness / epidermality (Hautlichkeit) [Paragraph 256]. For life is a vast skin without fat or muscle—a skin of many pigmentations.
This is why the name of a thing (its reputation) is more important than the thing itself. A name describes the human relation to a thing; it does not describe the thing itself. The name of a thing is the skin that becomes its very body [cf. Paragraph Fifty-Eight]. Indeed, without a name, a thing is not accessible at all. Language gives birth to reality—Nietzsche almost writes this [cf. Paragraph 261].
Language is not reducible to some meaning behind letters and punctuation marks. Language inheres in letters and punctuation marks. This point is reflected by Nietzschean novelist Hermann Hesse, a writer who has long been adored by public and reviled by Germanists, in the fourth chapter (“Awakening”) of his novel Siddhartha. In this chapter, the eponymous protagonist throws off religion and affirms his self, the surfaceness of life, and the signifierness of language (sit venia verbo):
“Meaning and essence were not hidden somewhere behind things, they were in them, in all of them” (Sinn und Wesen waren nicht irgendwo hinter den Dingen, sie waren in ihnen, in allem).
The affirmation of the empirical is not scientific reductionism, for science destroys mystery / ambiguity [cf. Paragraph 373]. It is not scientific reductionism; it is the gay science. The gay science: to be unfavorably disposed toward meta-phenomenal ideas and toward absolute unbudgeable convictions. The gay science is the joyous, impassioned affirmation of empty phenomena.
The lightness of being is not unbearable—to write against the worst of the pseudo-Nietzschean novelists, Milan Kundera (Hesse is his superior). Not only is the lightness of being bearable, it is joy-inspiring. Nietzsche celebrates the joyous weightlessness of existence. The gay science—and The Gay Science—is a gay phenomenology.
“GOD IS DEAD”: WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
How could God die, if God never existed to begin with?: Both Georges Bataille and Christopher Hitchens have posed this question. The answer, of course, is that Nietzsche never intended the literal death of God when he wrote, “God is dead.” He meant the implausibility of believing in the otherworld, the unbelievability of belief in the otherworld. One should recall the story of the lunatic in the marketplace that Nietzsche tells us in The Gay Science: The people of the marketplace do not even believe in God and are indifferent to the lunatic’s rantings. The point is not that God does not exist, but that the idea of God is unbelievable.
If God is dead, this is because God is depth. Any belief in metaphysical depth becomes incredible.
God is dead because God is depth.
WHAT DOES NOT KILL ME KILLS ME: WHAT DID NIETZSCHE MEAN WHEN HE WROTE, “WHAT DOES NOT KILL ME MAKES ME STRONGER”?
Nietzsche is a thinker who many talk about, but few have read—thoroughly, at least. One of his statements that is repeated everywhere throughout American popular culture, a statement that permeates everything from the now-moldering and –smoldering Web site MySpace to the sounds of Kayne West, is “What does not kill me makes me stronger” (Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker) [from Götzendämmerung].
The 1887 Preface helps one understand this, probably most oft-quoted statement that Nietzsche ever made (eclipsing perhaps even the death of God and the abyss-that-is-looking-into-you): “I doubt that [the great] pain ‘improves’ us—; but I know that it deepens us” (Ich zweifle, ob [der grosse] Schmerz ‘verbessert’—; aber ich Weiss, dass er uns vertieft).
The 1887 Preface clarifies in advance what Nietzsche meant by “What does not kill me makes me stronger”: What Nietzsche means by “what does not kill me” is “the great pain,” the most excruciating pain of one’s life. The great pain makes me deeper.
But what or who is this “me”? The “me” is the free spirit. What does not kill the free spirit makes the free spirit deeper. Pain makes the free spirit become another person—the free spirit is always becoming another person. A way of retranslating this famous formulation, then, might be: “The great pain annihilates and recreates the free spirit.”
What does not kill me kills me.
The new person is a questioner—one who poses questions as to the questionableness of existence. After an experience of pain, the free thinker—the survivor of the trauma—delights in the experience, for s/he knows that pain is necessary and produces meaning. Pain problematizes existence, highlighting its ambiguity / equivocality.
What does not kill me makes me more profound—and (to retranslate this remark into the terms of The Gay Science) my profundity makes the world appear superficial.
WHAT IS THE ETERNAL RECURRENCE OF THE SAME?
The Gay Science contains the first published reference to the doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same (an unpublished reference occurs earlier, in the notebooks—see the notebook of August 1881): In order to attain your highest humanity, “you desire the eternal recurrence of war and peace” (du willst die ewige Wiederkunft von Krieg und Frieden) [Paragraph 285]. By the “eternal recurrence of war and peace,” Nietzsche does not intend that our lives will repeat themselves infinitely. He intends that we ought to live our lives as if our lives will repeat themselves infinitely. The infinite repetition of our lives is a thought-experiment, not a metaphysical claim. The infinite repetition of our lives is a philosophical imperative, an “Ought.” (I will pursue this topic in much greater depth when I discuss Beyond Good and Evil and the Nachlass.) The Eternal Recurrence of the Same is the philosophical imperative: Live your life for nothing other than its own infinite repetition.
Schopenhauer constantly refers to Hinduism (or as he calls it “Brahmanism” or “the Vedanta philosophy”) throughout The World as Will and Representation. The extent to which Nietzsche is indebted to Hinduism has yet to be sufficiently explored. One should not ignore the epigraph to Morgenröthe, which comes from the Rig Veda: “There are many days that have yet to be dawned.”
Is it possible that Nietzsche was inspired by Hinduism when he came up with the Eternal Recurrence of the Same? I am thinking of the Hindu concept of samsāra. Samsāra is the endless recycling of rebirth and redeath. The only way out is nirvāna, the extinction of the self (the word nirvāna originally referred to the extinguishing, the snuffing-out, of a candle flame). For the Hindu, the point of life is not to reenter the cycle of samsāra. The point of life is to suspend samsāra—not to perpetuate it.
The Eternal Recurrence of the Same is not a matter of hopefulness, even though the future is perfect.
Dr. Joseph Suglia