It may one day be incontrovertibly ascertained that ‘cosmic design,’ a ‘higher purpose’ to existence, as such, and ‘meaningful evolution towards higher forms’ are nothing more than hollow fictions that we puny and clueless humans still desperately cling to in the hope that they can somehow protect us against the other possibility—namely, that mere chance and random accidents decisively prevail over design and purpose in this vast, uncaring universe. Our lives are, for the most part, animated and oriented by aims and purposes that are received pre-packaged from our culture and upbringing—awaiting our own efforts to develop and ‘realize’ them to any extent. The notion that a human life ultimately comes down to little more than a pointless string of moments, hours, days, and years—the unsponsored journey of a biological creature, its noggin stuffed with fanciful dreams—a journey that began with two copulating parents greedily gratifying instinctual urges and ends with unanswered questions and the eerie, irreversible dimming of the animal vigor and the once envied intellectual faculties that brazenly broached and wrestled with big, sweaty, hairy questions: this all seems to be excruciatingly inconvenient for many of us to consider, let alone, to embrace. We hunger for a credible ‘meta-narrative’ descended from a sterling ancestral pedigree, one that might inject beauty and value and meaning into our arid and threadbare souls—and not some patchy, abstract fabrication that we concoct alone in the dark, in our fretful isolation, proudly but impotently defiant of our derailed and bankrupt culture. We long for a compelling and dignifying story that serves as a kind of portal or ‘insertion point’ into the very fabric of existence, a universe that is a rich and multilayered continuum composed of numerous material and immaterial planes. We’ve had it up to our neck with bleak and humorless scientific accounts of a dumb and unfeeling expanse of matter and oodles of void—accounts that are unnervingly communicated by a bespectacled little waste of a man in a wheelchair with his artificial voice and his unmoving lips—just staring at you, rather like the void he is so curiously intent upon describing!
The three major religions (four, if their fountainhead, Zoroastrianism, is included) which emerged in the West are moral down to their marrow, for the ‘narrative structure’ of human life they present is that of an ethical struggle of good against evil, of the righteous over the sinful, of the ‘chosen’ over the heathen infidels or the uncircumcised—a struggle and a trajectory that were set in motion and defined by God through His ‘meat puppets’…er, I meant to say ‘mighty prophets.’ By way of contrast, Buddhism and Hinduism are cyclical (in their understanding of creation) and rather more ‘psychological’ in character (as opposed to being essentially moral and apocalyptic—proceeding to a final day of judgment in the temporal and spatial realms of concrete history). In their depiction of the human situation and its destiny, these more ‘inner-directed’ religions prescribe a purposeful, disciplined struggle against spiritual and psychological ignorance (avidya). Only when this ignorance (which is rooted in wrong or excessive attachment) is overcome does the world-renouncer attain liberation (moksha), the principle aim of the sādhanās, or yogic practice. If this is a crude and unforgivably sketchy depiction of the fundamental differences between the religious standpoints of the East and those of the West, I wish only to establish an important point: notwithstanding these basic differences in perspective—along with the divergent values that spring from those differences—the sense of individual and/or collective purpose is present on both sides.
If Nietzsche is willing to admit that, as a rule, we require purpose and design, order and a sense of direction, if our lives are to have a measure of coherence, dignity, or meaning, he seems, repeatedly, to shoot down the idea that nature and the universe are behind us, sponsoring and underwriting our human-all-too-human plans and goals. As far as Nietzsche appears to be concerned, only spiritual cowards need to believe in such metaphysical claptrap. To assume that our goals and our purposes are established and maintained by an invisible ‘cosmic order’ is to presume that we enjoy a privileged (as opposed to an accidental and therefore utterly unreliable) relationship with nature. Nature, as Nietzsche sees it (Chap. I, sect. 9, Beyond Good and Evil), is coldly indifferent to our schemes, goals, wishes, aspirations, and intentions—even if few of us are able or willing to rest content with such a stern truth staring us in the face each day. But, after the ‘death of God’ (that misfortune of monumental proportions largely precipitated by the rise of modern empirical science, with its skeptical and critical bent), physical nature rapidly became the lone matrix, and its ‘laws’ the dominant standard in disputes concerning purpose and design. Teleology, as we know, is not a conspicuous feature of the scientific method and the sensibility to which it has given birth is even less tolerant of metaphysics—especially metaphysics with a moral agenda sneakily smuggled into them.
In Nietzsche’s own thought, the courageous uprooting and renunciation of this metaphysical need for supernatural sponsorship does not entail dispensing altogether with the stubborn human need for ‘higher’ goals and purposes. Far from it. In (VI, 211, BGE), philosophers are described as ‘commanders and legislators,’ with the understanding that these higher men are our best guides in this lofty enterprise. It is they who have authorized themselves with the right to lay down the tracks that we must then attempt to follow. According to Nietzsche, they have the right to give direction and purpose to humanity because they are the most comprehensive human beings—their more far-reaching and more deeply penetrating awareness of man and his needs, his possibilities and his limitations, equips them with the vision to chart a course for humanity’s future. It is only because they are in a position to look down upon humanity that they are able to see beyond the ‘thousand and one goals’ hitherto followed by man. In (III, 61, BGE), we are told that these philosophers will make use of religion whenever it proves necessary or convenient as a means for accomplishing the task of giving form and purpose to this ‘undetermined creature,’ man. If man must, perforce, inhabit a protective, life-sustaining bubble (the insulating walls and familiar horizons of which shield him from will-crushing truths concerning his actual condition) then it is the privileged responsibility of the genuine philosopher to create (and poetically adorn the walls of) this bubble—this inhabitable space—this culture, wherein a meaningful and credible future may be envisioned and lived for.
Better, perhaps, than any other comprehensive thinker, Nietzsche understood the corrosive forces of nihilism and pessimism that have infected the souls of modern men and women—and rather than resigning sadly and defeatedly to these contagious symptoms of decadence, he sought with unrelenting bravery and single-mindedness to face them with dauntless courage and imagination—and to find a way to combat the disease. Those who merely see him as part of the disease (which he diagnoses), and not as a heroic spirit struggling to rescue a disintegrating, de-composing species from despair, anarchic instincts, and impotent resignation, quite simply do not appreciate what he is attempting in his writings. Nonetheless, he certainly expected to be misunderstood by all but the very few.
No doubt, Nietzsche’s loneliness as a human being must be approached and understood in connection with his having broken out of his own, inherited ‘bubble,’ a feat requiring as much daring and strength of will as intellectual penetration and depth of understanding. One is virtually unattended and bereft of allies as soon as he or she moves outside of the meaning-bestowing context of his/her culture, and is thrust into the position, as it were, of the ‘original man’—or, in the phrase of King Lear, ‘unaccommodated man.’ This naked and exposed creature (psychologically speaking) must fall back upon his own poetic-creative powers in order to project a ‘world’ where there seems to be only an indifferent, chartless void awaiting his Adamic name- and meaning-bestowing fiat. This sort of experience is accessible only to a tiny number, while the rest of us must be content to follow well-beaten paths. For the most part, this pertains to ‘leaders’ within the bubble, as well, of course—since they command and lead only from positions acknowledged and recognized by those of us who follow them.
To the extent that we are able to securely inhabit our inherited myths and assigned roles without being vexed and obstructed by the accidents of fortune or the occasional earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions produced by indifferent, ‘cruel’ nature, we often are inclined to believe that what does not work against us is actually working with us, for us, and behind us. This enticing presumption of cosmic support is made a good deal more credible simply by virtue of the fact that the goals of most human beings are so modest and humble in scope—rarely demanding more from life than can be readily supplied by the means at hand or, if somewhat more challenging, attainable with persistent effort and a bit of patience. When conditions are favorable and one’s demands are not outrageously extravagant, as long as one’s faith in his scripted quest is firm and unwavering, felt satisfaction is often within reach. This is the most that many of us can hope for, and it seems to be enough for the majority of human beings. The profoundest existential problems, however, become acutely conscious and urgent only for those whose needs and demands greatly exceed the means ready at hand. The needs of these spiritually troubled persons simply are not adequately palliated or put forever to sleep by those pleasures, entertainments, and conventional remedies with which the generality is distracted and pacified. May we claim that such restless spirits are burdened (or cursed) with immoderate cravings and oversized longings—whether it be in the realms of knowledge (Socrates, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Nietzsche), power (Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin), wealth (Crassus, Croesus), or love (Jesus, as Nietzsche understood—or misunderstood—him)? If such demanding figures are not to despair of life in fits of frustration, they are obliged, it would seem, to create their own means of satisfaction, however precarious these are (perhaps because self-authored). All else is felt to be a flimsy and momentary diversion, never sufficiently binding to arrest one’s restlessness for very long.
Such ‘insatiable’ persons often pass through a more or less protracted period of critical disengagement from their culture, their friends, wives, and families, and all the ultimately un-compelling claims upon their allegiance. Their dissatisfaction with life’s readily available offerings and easily attainable goals can so thoroughly sour them with discouragement that they succumb to bitterness and a miserable, disconsolate resignation—and, as Nietzsche observed, these failures are far more numerous than the ‘lucky hits’ who proceed alone into new territory, opening up new possibilities for themselves (and, consequently—if they leave a record—for the rest of us).