Your Own Personal Nietzsche (1/25/12)

In the ancient Chinese Book of Balance and Harmony, we read:

Thus the scriptures and alchemical writings use various different terms to lead students from the crude to the subtle, so that they may gradually enter a state of beatitude and then see essence and realize openness. The actuality is not on paper; writings are like a boat to ferry people across a river—once the people are on the other shore, the boat has no more use (p. 60-61)

Nietzsche, as anyone who has a long acquaintance with his marvelous writings will attest, approaches philosophical and psychological questions of the first order—but often from a pungently personal standpoint. He was well aware of Emerson’s laudatory remark about Montaigne: Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive. Nietzsche would have described his own words in such vascular terms, with the suggestion that they were consubstantial with his very being.

How profound is the difference between these two attitudes towards writings and words as aids to spiritual enlightenment. The Taoist attitude is pointedly impersonal and the Taoist writings encourage the reader’s mental liberation from the narrow horizons of the ‘personal’—to break him or her out of the cramped confines of the personal standpoint. With Nietzsche, on the other hand, his own knowledge and insights are always incontrovertibly personal, always pulsing (and occasionally hemorrhaging) with intense personal feelings, pyrotechnical passions, barely disguised suffering, exultation, rapture, and struggle. Who will dispute the fact that Nietzsche’s works possess a ‘heroic’ quality that is very attractive to his readers (especially younger ones) precisely because of this display of personal struggle and individual ‘truths’ stolen from the jaws of monsters of the deep?

But behind these ostensibly ‘spiritual’ heroics one suspects an immodest claim to personal proprietorship over ‘truths’ that are, at bottom, transpersonal. In the very process of attempting to claim personal ownership of such truths, Nietzsche rather heedlessly deforms, violates, and cheapens them, both in subtle and in conspicuous ways. Rather than to bravely and trustingly allow these larger, transpersonal truths to ‘break’ the stubborn personal standpoint open, after the Taoist example—and juxtapose his limited consciousness with the larger sphere of the transpersonal—Nietzsche insists, again and again, upon forcing the impersonal into the more cramped ‘space’ of his ego-consciousness, infusing everything he can hunt down with his own ‘blood,’ his own distinctive scent, his personal imprimatur. Nietzsche is Hercules in Hades…or Othello and Iago locked into one body and brain, continually at odds with itself. Again, I’m not disputing the stupendousness of his personal heroism in attempting to single-handedly hunt down (and slay and eventually stuff into an aphorism or an essay) enormous specimens of ‘wild game’ with his deadly bow and arrow. But I must question the wisdom of following his ill-fated example.

Like Prometheus—no matter how prejudiced one might be in his favor—Nietzsche perilously steals fire from divine sources without quite paying due respect to the established order of things. He seems to have violated an ‘order of rank’—a scheme within which even the most exemplary human beings occupy only a modest status and not the titanic stature that Nietzsche’s idealized Übermensch is inflated with. It is one thing to argue that Nietzsche overstepped the limits within which humans, as such, seem naturally fit to inhabit. But he did this, in large part, by categorically denying that any such hierarchy or ‘chain of being’ exists at all, and that humans—or at least humans of his stature—are perched at the very summit of what is essentially a material universe animated, through and through, by the will to power. Nietzsche begins with the assumption that there are no inherently fixed, eternal, and divinely authorized levels of being either within or beyond the human level, as all the major spiritual and esoteric traditions of the world have taught for millennia. Unhinged ‘creativity’ and boundless, self-authorized inventiveness replace the former methods of graded, initiatory spiritual development.

In the past (and still in those remote places which have managed somehow to elude the far-reaching tentacles of Western nihilism/relativism/anthropocentrism) these methods were founded upon the understanding that there are higher laws and levels of being than mere human inventiveness backed up by the will to power, and that the initiate’s task was to try and make these laws and levels conscious so that he/she could live in accordance with them. This sacrifice of the personal (human, all too human) will and vision to the deeper, subtler, and thoroughly impersonal ‘Tao’ or ‘Brahman’ or ‘inner Christ’ constituted a radical transformation of consciousness. In each of these spiritual traditions this transfiguration (symbolized in Christianity by the Crucifixion and Resurrection) entailed the death of the personal ego and the subsequent realization of the (deep, transcendent) Self as the true center and source of consciousness.

Nietzsche has little or nothing of substance to say to us about any of this because he seems to have lacked a natural feel or appreciation for these matters. Like so many of the leading figures (of the 19th century) who internalized the ubiquitous materialist, physiological, and historicist assumptions, Nietzsche appears to have suffered from a kind of spiritual blindness—an evident incapacity to respectfully acknowledge a spiritual (or metaphysical) dimension that transcended the material-physiological-sociological standpoint. When this transcendent standpoint (as a crucial component or reference point within one’s philosophizing) is categorically denied, a thinker inevitably falls prey to some form of reductionism or another—at least if he or she aims at some kind of internal cogency or consistency. But for Nietzsche to speak—as he often does—about ‘spirit’ is like a (color blind) person talking about ‘red’ or ‘violet.’ He sees something but it is not at all the same thing as the ‘spirit’ known directly by someone who has a developed capacity for such experience. ‘Spirit,’ or esprit, for Nietzsche is often equivalent to animal or intellectual liveliness—or a subtle form of what the ancient Greeks called thumos and what Vedanta philosophy calls rajas. It is always closely allied to passion for him—if not synonymous with it. At any event, it should be quite obvious to anyone who is acquainted with the notion (or the actual experience) of spirit, as it is treated within esoteric or ‘quietist’ traditions, Nietzsche, in using the word ‘spirit,’ is dealing with a very different kettle of fish.


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