In the last post we looked at the astonishing philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, where all roads led to Kant’s thing-in-itself — what reality really is, independent of what our minds tell us it is. We saw that there is no conceivable way for the mind to understand the thing-in-itself, for mind can only understand its own representation, which it calls reality, but which is actually an ‘effect’ of reality. We put ‘effect’ in scare quotes because the mind doesn’t just produce the colours and smells we perceive, but it creates time and space — coming and going, matter and form, cause and effect and the difference between this and that, or between me and you — and so we can’t really speak of the thing-in-itself causing what we perceive of it. In fact, because we cannot think or speak without the presuppositions of mind, all language, when applied to the thing-in-itself, is misleading.1
Schopenhauer reasoned from here that because reality is not, or at least not completely, mind-knowable, there must therefore be some aspect to it which is not constrained by mind-made time and space, or by cause and effect. This means that, firstly, most of the puzzles of philosophy (such as free-will and the mind-body problem), which refer to cause and effect, are completely irrelevant, or easily solved, and secondly, rather surprisingly, that science can never reveal the truth (because cause and effect can never reveal the truth)2, I am you (because separation or differention between objects is, ultimately, an illusion), nothing has ever happened (because time doesn’t really exist), and death does not exist either (because coming into existence, and passing out of existence, are also, ultimately, generated by the mind).
‘Surprising’ is putting it mildly, if not charitably. ‘Abstract’ would be the more likely label, ‘insane’ perhaps, or just plain ‘stupid’. Even if we follow a water-tight argument — as far as arguments ever can be water-tight3 — to such conclusions, and even if we see that such a philosophy really does solve the deeper questions of life, we can’t really accept such bizarre ideas unless we ourselves have experienced what they refer to, in our own lives. Otherwise they are just ideas, and outlandish ones at that. Some people are attracted to outlandish ideas for other reasons of course — notably followers of religions — but their acceptance is founded on belief, not on experience. If I read that in paradise I’ll be given a harem of virgin girls to deflower for eternity, then I might believe in that or I might not, whereas if I read that I am reading these words, belief doesn’t come into it.
So how are we to accept, or experience, or ‘know’4 the thing-in-itself so that it is as real for us as the experience of reading these words? We saw that Schopenhauer, like Kant, pointed the way — that I am a thing-in-itself — but that he only really led us to the threshold of the solution. Unable to cross, his clarity failed him, and emotion, animal-instinct and other secondary concerns muddied the waters. He spoke of ‘denying the will’ (by which he meant denying our animal urges) and he spoke of aesthetic and ethic experiences in which the rational mind gives itself up to pre-rational actuality; but ultimately direct experience of the thing-in-itself eluded him. He didn’t realise the basic difference between consciousness (I) and self (my mind and emotions) and so he confused them.
When we say ‘I am a thing-in-itself’ we mean that I am ‘an object’ like all the ‘objects’ in the world, but unlike all those objects, I do not have to go via my self — via abstract conception or time-space perception — to experience I. I am that which the ideas of the self are only ever of. But then, if I cannot know I, how can I experience it?
Let’s just say for the sake or argument, if you are not convinced so far, that this thing-in-itself that I am really does exist, and that it is ‘prior’ to the mind and emotions. It would seem, in that case, that no philosophy, nothing that I can possibly say, will ever make sense of it. Anything I do say could well be the same kind of ‘Hegelian nonsense’ that Schopenhauer complained about, or classic po-mo bullshit — the kind of thing that French intellectuals write, or Žižek, or someone like that — or it could be pointless, baseless mysticism, something along the lines of ‘God is love’ — nice sounding, very lovely to religious folk, but without content. How am I to know that what is said about the thing-in-itself is or isn’t nonsense, if mind can never know?
The problem here — and its not a trivial abstract problem, but gets to the heart of most of the tragic mistakes we ever make in our lives — is discernment. How are you to tell the true from the false, the implausible original from the plausible fake, the friend from the deceiver? Ultimately you — your self, your mind and emotions — can’t. Your self can never know if it is being deceived. If we accept that the self generates a representation of reality — that it is not reality itself — then it can have no standard by which to judge the real, the true, the primary good (or whatever you call it), except by its own secondary ideas and feelings. The mind of self understands something, the emotions of self like or want something, self says, ‘oh yes that’s right’ or ‘that feels good’ and decides that it must be right, must be good, only to discover it wasn’t right or good at all. It was an illusion. Science is rationally right, having my self praised or adored feels good, money and sex are understandable and getting them feel good, the Bible is understandable (and the Torah and the Koran) — they produce nice feelings; all kinds of philosophical and artistic nonsense can be grasped too — even the meaningless guff of postmodernism — and they produce good feelings also. Sport can be easily grasped by the mind and makes me feel good, same with drugs, same with success — even producing children and bringing them up. It all makes sense and feels nice; and it all leads to regret, confusion, self-doubt, stress, contention, disappointment and despair, as it logically must, because all of it exists in time and space, in thought and emotion, in the coming and — crucially — going self. Everything I have and everyone I know, all my ideas and memories and possessions and relations… die.
Obviously we can raise a family, have some money, read the Bible and play football and not throw ourselves into painful delusion, but to the extent that it the self which seizes these things, which feeds from them, which uses them for reassurance or meaning, then suffering, turmoil and agonising doubt are, and must be, the inevitable consequences. Nothing the self can understand can ever, ultimately, be true; because life is, ultimately, un-understandable. Nothing the self ever grasps or gets can ever make me happy; because life is, ultimately, un-gettable. Self is therefore condemned to ignorance and misery.
But once again: how is self — which calls itself I — to know the difference between its secondary self-truths, all the things it wants and likes, and the primary truth? How am ‘I’ to know which part of me is simply enjoying success or using the scientific mind, without the delusional self latching onto it, and which part is addicted, blind, lost? And again, there is no way self can ever know. Only I can know. So yet again, what is this I — this thing-in-itself that I am — and how can language, such as your mind is now engaged in, ever communicate it? If I — that which is conscious of my self — is not understandable, doesn’t come and go, does not cause and is not caused by anything, is not a subjective feeling or a mental abstraction and is not even an object; if it cannot be owned, grasped, manipulated or lost. if I can never get, feel or know consciousness, then how can a philosophy ever tell me of it? What is the point of reading this, or anything else ‘about’ it?
There are three ways that philosophy can ‘tell’ you of consciousness and the thing-in-itself that it is. These are reason, unreason and practice. These are disputable, but they are preceded and followed by a fourth ‘way’, which is indisputable. We shall get to this in due course. First…
In part one we looked at Schopenhauer’s code. The idea is that we cannot ever prove that a system or philosophy applies to reality, now or at any time in the future, just as we cannot prove that a key which cracks a code is really giving us the truth, or will apply to every message we encounter. All we can say, and all we need to say, is that the explanation before us fits experience well enough, and that we are likely to understand future explanations.
Symbolic thought can do nothing more than show us those aspects of the world which symbolic thought can show — cause and effect in time, separation and substance in space. It cannot show us anything else. The symbol (the thought, the word, the idea) is not and never can be that which it is of — unless it is of another symbol. Despite being amazingly powerful and useful — as our scientific minds demonstrate to us every day — reason is inherently and obviously limited. But. Those limits do not rule out their own exposure. Reason can be used to show the limits of reason, which was, in various ways, the project of Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Popper, Wittgenstein and Feyerabend.
There are then two ways in which reason can ‘tell’ us of reality, of the thing thing-in-itself, by, first of all, accounting for it — by providing us with a means to recognise (literally, to turn into thought5) that which is before our eyes — and, second of all, by explaining to us how these thoughts are connected with each other and what their limits are.
Philosophies of Recognition tend to be accessible, easy and enjoyable. They simply describe experience. A philosopher of recognition might observe, for example, that when we are agitated we forget people’s names. The observation is turned into an idea and shared with others who recognise what the idea refers to, and who then enjoy that recognition (‘that’s so true!’) along with the subsequent power to perceive, name and communicate the observation for themselves. This is not just a service provided by great philosophers, but also great writers of fiction, great comedians, and even (perhaps even especially) great musicians.
Philosophies of Explanation, in connecting up like observations, and systematising them for our use, tend to be more abstract. They might explain, for example, that agitation is a form of unconsciousness, like anger and craving, which prevents us from observing the name and then fitting the idea of it into memory. Or they might offer causes for the agitation (fear of the unknown, fear of others), and the effects (the difficulties involved in pretending to know someone’s name). Or they might point to the limitations of names, or of memory, or of mathematics, or of thought.
In the work of great philosophers recognition and explanation work together to turn perceived aspects of reality into ideas, and to connect those ideas up with each other into a useful system. At no point, however, is reality literally represented. At no point is reason — the creation of ideas or the organising of them into a system — used to prove that reality is a certain way. Philosophical argument can never generate truth that is not somehow contained in its premises. If those premises come from conscious perception of reality, then the organisation, the philosophy, is (or in principle can be) truthful, beautiful and useful. If they come from the mind or the emotions, then the philosophy is untruthful, ugly and useless. As we have seen, the self won’t know the difference,6, but I will be led from philosophies based on consciousness, through seeing myself (or the limits of myself), back to consciousness itself.
The second way express conscious perception, or the thing-in-itself, can be expressed is through non-literal language. This is language — in philosophy or, more usually, narrative art — which is deliberately unreasonable, which refers to that which is mind-unknowable. This it does through four related techniques; hyperbole, metaphor, paradox and irony.
Hyperbole is exaggeration. Romeo says of Juliet that ‘The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars’. We know that her cheek isn’t really as bright a a star. That wouldn’t be attractive: it would give Romeo a headache. What Shakespeare is communicating here is not the star-like nature of Juliet’s face, but the depth of Romeo’s feeling for its non-literal ‘luminous’ qualities.
Metaphor is one idea applied to another ‘Juliet’ says Romeo, ‘is the sun.’ Again, Juliet is not really a huge gaseous sphere of explosive thermonuclear reaction. She is a thirteen-year old girl 7 with non-literal life-giving properties. She shares these attributes with the sun, but Romeo does not say that Juliet is like the sun — he says that she is the sun.
Paradox means combining two contradictory ideas into one. Juliet, describing Romeo — after she has learnt that he has killed her cousin — calls him ‘a damnèd saint.’ Logically or literally, this is impossible. Clearly someone can be saintly and damnèd — she says herself that one applies to how he seems and another to how he is — but the idea ‘damnèd saint’ (fiendish angel, dove-feathered raven — she lists quite a few paradoxes) is self-contradictory.
Irony means saying something that is patently untrue, knowing that your listener will refer not to the meaning of your words, but the meaning of the situation, or context. When Juliet jokes to her mother that she ‘will not marry yet, and when I do I swear it shall be Romeo, whom you know I hate’ we know that she is really telling the truth.8
Clearly all these overlap. Hyperbole is a kind of metaphor, metaphor is a kind of paradox, paradox is a kind of irony, and irony is a kind of hyperbole. What they all have in common is that in all four cases I know what Romeo and Juliet really mean because my non-literal consciousness recognises the non-literal perception, or truth, that Shakespeare is non-literally expressing; whereas if consciousness and context are absent, if unreasonable ideas are apprehended directly by the self, or simply invented by it, the receiving time-space self may appreciate what it hears or reads, but the timeless-spaceless I will remain untouched.
Unconscious people are notoriously literal, unable to grasp brilliant unreason — yet quite able to succeed in the world. Likewise selfish (merely imaginative) ideas may do very well for a time, if they appeal to the time, but they will inevitably vanish with the time. Selfless philosophies on the other hand endure, sometimes for millennia. When Jesus of Nazareth, perhaps the greatest ever non-literal philosopher, said ‘Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it’ or ‘Love your enemies’ or ‘Unless you become as little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ or — a personal favourite — ‘Split wood, I am there. Lift up a rock, you will find me there also’ the subjective religious emotional self might think it understands, or the objective atheist mental self might think it cannot be understood, but prior to the sycophantically-agreeing / cynically-disagreeing self, reality is recognising reality, which is why such expressions are, firstly, detested by unconscious people of the time and, secondly, lovingly preserved and passed on by those able to put themselves aside, to hear what is being said.
Hyperbole, metaphor, paradox and irony are found in comedy, in music, in poetry and in philosophy, but it is in narrative art, drama or myth where the thing-in-itself can be, at least in a sense, most profoundly represented. Myth is really a non-literal representation of the thing-in-itself as it manifests, through time, in self. To better understand this, an analogy is in order.
Let’s say you dream you are a squirrel, in a forest, talking to a mouse. In your dream your experience is effectively divided into two; your subjective experience, of being a squirrel in here, and your objective experience of talking to a mouse out there, in the forest. This subjective-objective experience — of apparently being a squirrel and apparently not being a mouse or a forest — seems completely real, and yet you know now that it was an illusion. It’s not just that you’re not, really, a squirrel9 though. This is far, far less amazing than what has actually happened in the dream, for when you dreamt of being a squirrel in a forest your mind didn’t just generate the experience of squirrel and forest, it generated subjectivity and objectivity themselves. You know that really the entire thing — the squirrel and the forest — is you. Not just the squirrel, but the mouse that the squirrel is talking to, and the forest, and the other forest animals, or whatever else is in the dream — they are, actually, all you. Your mind has divided itself into a completely and indisputably illusory this-in-here and that-out-there.
We saw in part one that dreams are not the same as waking ‘reality’. In the waking world objectivity (concepts and percepts) are consistently and, apparently, completely integrated with each other. When we are awake we can leave a room and be stone-cold certain that when we return the same room will be here (although not rationally certain!). Not so in a dream. Lucid dreaming manuals, which teach you how to become aware in a dream, say that, to become aware, you should do something like watch your shadow, which will start to behave strangely, or flick a light switch on and off; while awake the light will go on and off with your actions, more or less immediately, while in a dream sooner or later they will fail to synchronise. In the waking world concepts and percepts are supported by their integration with each other, while in the dream world, they depend solely on the mind, and so the reality the mind creates shifts and morphs.10
But. This difference, between waking reality and dreaming reality, leaves the reality of the experience completely untouched. There is no reason not to suppose that our waking relationship with subjectivity and objectivity is not identical to our dreaming relationship: an illusion. Just because waking objectivity is more ‘internally consistent’ doesn’t mean that it is actually real, that I am not actually the room just as much as the person sitting in it. To the mind which creates objectivity and subjectivity the idea that subjectivity and objectivity don’t really exist seems — logically, necessarily — just as insane to you as it would have to the squirrel you were last night. The autonomous mind knows that a ‘super-wakeful’ experience means the end of its autonomy, unseats it as it were from the throne of consciousness, and so it defends itself. The rational mind defends itself against the insanity of transcendent wakefulness — against a reasonable presentation, like this, of the unreasonable idea that, effectively, I am the universe — by rationally rejecting the idea (‘look! clearly we are different!’), while the religious or ‘spiritual’ mind defends itself by irrationally accepting, or worshipping, the idea (‘yay! I am God!’).
But when mind encounters myth, no such defense apply, because the mind knows that myths aren’t real either. Although I love to see ghosts, witches, miraculous powers, gods and devils11, the rational mind rationally knows that this is ‘just’ a story, that such things don’t ‘really’ exist, while the religious mind irrationally believes that they do exist, that we live in a fabulous world of angels and demons. With true myth however knowledge and belief are entirely besides the point. It’s not in presenting objectively impossible elements that myth expresses the thing-in-itself, as Lord Krishna, Moominpappa and Sam Lowry are thinkable entities (as dreams demonstrate). What true myth does, which is to say myth which accurately reflects the ‘relationship’ between the self and the thing-in-itself, is far more remarkable, and powerful.
True myth demonstrates, amongst other things, 1) that the characters of the story (the objective mice) are really aspects of the hero (the subjective squirrel) 2) that everything that happens is somehow coloured by the same mood, or theme 3) that the time-space self of the hero — and the mental-emotional illusions he clings to — must die or surrender or ‘realise itself’ (i.e. that I come to see self) 4) that death itself is an illusion 5) that reality is somehow intelligent, that things don’t happen randomly (even stories by the staunchest atheists demonstrate this) 6) that there is an archetypical or mythic ‘structure’ to life, a certain satisfying pattern to the way it unfolds 7) that mythic reality displays itself as itself — we laugh and cry because it is funny and sad, not because we are told to feel this way or that, through signs and signals, or manipulated into feelings with pornographic effects, and finally 8) that every moment of the story — not just its overarching structure — is peppered with truthful hyperbole, metaphor, paradox and irony — with the stuff of moment-to-moment experience.12
This last element is never mentioned in guides to writing, nor is mention ever made on how to perceive truthful unreason in the only place it can be found, in conscious perception — i.e. in the real experience of the real world and of real people — which is why so many stories, so very many, are produced with a by-the-numbers mythical structure but with dead characters, dead dialogue and dead action.
It would take us far away from the point to go into detail about how these eight elements work in practice. The point for us here is that true myth takes those who engage in it through a surrogate experience of transcendence. It unfolds in time, but at the end we are left with a sense that actually our ordinary experience of time has collapsed, fusing the story, which we went through step by step, into an intuitive whole which, somehow, doesn’t just gesture beyond itself, but beyond anything which can be imagined.
Let’s say that you had been reading here of a ‘philosophy of water’. Ten-thousand words on what water really is, behind its appearance, its colour, its form, behind the word ‘water’, and behind what science has discovered about it. All very interesting — but how, in the end, are you going to know what the words are referring to? In the end there is only one way; by experiencing water for yourself, by looking at it, jumping into it and drinking it. A philosophy of water can tell you many interesting and useful things, can show you how to manipulate water in ways you might never have imagined, or even sketch transcendent aspects of wateriness that might never have come to you alone. But it cannot, ever, give you actual water. Can it? Obviously only water can do that. Obviously there is a radical, qualitative difference between anything that can be said about water, and water itself.
While this might be obvious for a philosophy of water, it’s not so obvious for a philosophy of life, at least if those philosophies that we can study at university are anything to go by, which never speak of practice, of drinking the water. Academic philosophy deals entirely with the self — with time and space, language and concept, cause and effect — and so it has no reason to point beyond itself. It does not present the recognition and explanation of transcendent reason, it does not present the true myth of transcendent unreason, and it never presents things you can actually do to experience what it is talking about. As we have seen, and as Schopenhauer pointed out, it only ever gives the why of life13, never the what, or the how.
The reason why academic philosophers of the West don’t point to that which their ideas are only ever of is because they cannot. Their lives are spent in servitude to the self and to the institutional world that self has created, and so they see nothing beyond self and world and no reason to teach the self to surrender itself so that it can be seen in this way. The most obvious consequence of this is that what they say is as mind-numbingly boring as how they live. As we saw in part one, Schopenhauer was scathing of this academic unlife:
…the considerable knowledge amassed by ordinary scholars is dead, because even when it does not consist in mere words, as is often the case, it consists in nothing but abstract cognition; but this derives its value only from the intuitive cognition of the individual to which it relates, and which must ultimately realise all concepts. But if this is very meagre, then such a mind is in the same state as a bank whose demands payable are ten times in excess of the ready cash, ultimately rendering it bankrupt. Thus, while an accurate grasp of the intuitive world marks the brows of some non-scholars with the stamp of insight and wisdom, the faces of many scholars bear no traces of their many studies other than those of exhaustion and wear and tear, through excessive, enforced effort of memory in the unnatural accumulation of dead concepts… (The World as Will and Representation)
(He goes on to say that scholarship is not, of course, useless — but that it only really benefits those for whom life has shaped and taught. ‘…scholarship can be compared to a heavy suit of armour that certainly makes the strong man absolutely invincible, but for a weak man is a burden that sinks him completely.’)
Eastern philosophies are rather different. Certainly there is a nearly overwhelming tradition of bankrupt abstraction and futile mentation in the East, but there is a far, far greater emphasis on what to do to experience what the teaching in question is about, hence the rich literature of meditative or mindful practices based upon the essential insight that a certain kind of action or perception is required to experience what philosophies refer to which forms the basis of every really meaningful teaching or therapy; which is to say about 0.0001% of those available today. Meditation means for us ‘thinking about something for ten minutes’, ‘mindful’ means glorified self-satisfaction, and ‘therapy’ means adjustment to ordinary alienation.
This isn’t to say that all Eastern philosophies are necessarily applicable to our modern lives and minds though. Very often they are useless too. One reason is that if a philosophy of life is to apply to life, it must apply to all of life; and life today — which includes thought and perception — is different to the life which Lao Tzu, Jesus of Nazareth and the Buddha addressed. Fundamentally nothing changes of course, which is why their teachings are still revered, but the self has a phenomenal ability to hide in the details. In addition traditional Eastern teachings are incomplete — at least insofar as the texts that were preserved. What we have from the teachings of Eastern Masters that meaningfully and profoundly speaks to the problems that men and women have in relationship, for example, or on the difference between sex and love making, is scant indeed, yet of foundational importance in the ordinary lives of ordinary people. Another reason why classical Eastern teachings are misleading is that classical Eastern teachers are dead. They cannot address your clever self, which will always find a way around mere texts.
Practice for you doesn’t just mean sitting with a still mind and thoughtlessly enjoying the sky and the birds — although it certainly does mean that — it also means facing your fear of your father, your self-indulgent addiction to your sad story, your anxiety about going to work, your chronic addictions and cravings, your inability to face the new. In all these ways, and countless other specifics unique to your personality and situation (to the ‘width’ of life mentioned in part one), your self guards itself against the thing-in-itself. You might have the Upanishads memorised, be a world-famous Wittgenstein scholar and be able to transmute your semen into liquid gold, but while the time-space self lives it will never grasp the essence of philosophies that point towards it. Action is required.
In the end of course, nothing that we’ve looked at so far will make the slightest impression on most people. It will not interest them at all. It will just annoy them. They will not get beyond a few paragraphs, or reject it at the first excuse the mind can find — and it can always find an excuse, some procedural or semantic inconsistency to quibble over. In fact all this might not even make much of an impression on you, dear reader. You might have been inspired by Schopenhauer’s philosophy, moved to your depths by Tolstoy’s Master and Man and had your awareness transformed by devotional practices, and still self endures, still you don’t really get it.
We’re just dealing with words here. Powerful and useful, to be sure, and at the right time, for the right person, world changing. But just words; they are to life what shadows are to the sun. They cannot burn you, and, as many a wise man has pointed out, nothing teaches, or motivates, quite as much as a house on fire.
Man and woman will do everything in their power to avoid the heat. They will ignore or ridicule uncomfortable truths, they will obliterate physical pain with narcotics, they will run from the discomfort of boredom into fun, they will blame everything under the sun to avoid the discomfort of shame and responsibility, they will cling to the known — to routine, to safety, to the group or partnership they belong to — and rationalise away their attachment to it, they will flee from even the vaguest whiff of uncertainty, they will coerce, subordinate — even torture and exterminate — anyone or anything which painfully reminds them of their selfishness; and then blame the victim. They will go to unbelievable, extraordinary, horrific lengths to avoid the tiniest quanta of meaningful pain. Meaningless pain, that which doesn’t really affect me — perhaps which even justifies me — is fine, but the message of life behind the pain of life, this cannot be allowed into self-consciousness, because it always points beyond the self.
Eventually though, self has nowhere to hide. Ultimately pain suppressed and ignored does not go away, it returns, ever more insistently, until self itself is revealed as pain. This is the condition where everything self thinks and feels signals the end of self.
We call this death.
CONCLUSION: THE CASE OF NIETZSCHE
If Kant was the great pioneer, taking the West to a completely new intellectual continent and Schopenhaur the great founder, building a place for us to live there, Nietzsche was a classic case of ‘third generation wealth’, squandering everything he had inherited. He more or less ignored metaphysics, simply declaring that it was all an illusion, that there was no such thing as the thing-in-itself. Like so many of the so-called ‘geniuses’ who were to follow him, he took this ridiculous ideological act to be one of courage, and the feeling of reckless excitement it generated, to be freedom. As we now know, living as we do in the intellectual world he ushered in — the futile, shallow, charlatanism we usually call ‘postmodernism’ — it is no such thing.
Schopenhauer declared that to do this, to take the ancient truth that he and Kant had uncovered but divest it of the reality of the thing-in-itself, would be an act so monstrous that only an anti-christ could do such a thing. Nietzsche not only agreed, he called one of his books ‘The Anti-Christ’ and set about proudly declaring that all pity, sympathy and empathy (which he madly considered to be the same thing) were intellectual diseases which only made sense to a ‘herd-mentality’. Here he is telling us that the only reason we don’t cause pain to other people is because we are scared of their revenge.
Whence comes the conviction that one should not cause pain in others in order to feel pleasure oneself? Simply from the standpoint of utility, that is, in consideration of the consequences, of ultimate pain, since the injured party or state will demand satisfaction and revenge. This consideration alone can have led to the determination to renounce such pleasure.—Sympathy has the satisfaction of others in view no more than, as already stated, badness has the pain of others in view. For there are at least two (perhaps many more) elementary ingredients in personal gratification which enter largely into our self satisfaction: one of them being the pleasure of the emotion, of which species is sympathy with tragedy, and another, when the impulse is to action, being the pleasure of exercising one’s power. Should a sufferer be very dear to us, we divest ourselves of pain by the performance of acts of sympathy.—With the exception of some few philosophers, men have placed sympathy very low in the rank of moral feelings: and rightly. (Human, All too Human).
He tells us that it is impossible to act non-egoically. We always act for our own sake and as Schopenhauer taught him, an act cannot be both moral and egoic, then morality does not exist.
No one has ever done anything that was solely for the sake of another and without a personal motive. How indeed could he do anything that was not related to himself, thus without an inner necessity (which simply must have its basis in a personal need)? How could the ego act without ego? (Daybreak)
Of course if the thing-in-itself does not exist, if ‘mere appearance is worth as much as truth’, then there can be nothing but ego in our experience — there can be, as Nietzsche asserted, no ‘I’ behind my thoughts and perceptions at all. And people wonder why Nietzsche went insane!
In any case it’s all too stupid — and Nietzsche knew it. He contradicted himself all over the place; not because he was endeavouring to express an ineffable paradox which can be viewed from apparently different perspectives, nor even because he was growing and deepening his insights and perforce changed his outlook. He contradicted himself because he was a dickhead, and like all dickheads he found himself forced to sneak admissions of his faulty beliefs through the back door.
One has the feeling, reading Schopenhauer’s more ludicrous passages, about women for example, that he is simply making dreadful mistakes, through ignorance — like my Granddad warning me not to ‘go up to London because its crawling with blacks and gays’. Reading what Nietzsche has to say about women produces an entirely different effect14. He really does sound like a horrible person, with a vendetta against women.
And yet! Can there be an ‘and yet’? Yes, even here there can be. Somehow, amidst his preposterous superficiality, Nietzsche is still worth reading. He certainly has next to nothing interesting to say about anything really essential, but because he pushed himself over to one of the most extreme intellectual positions possible, he found himself outside of an enormous group of people who have something appalling in common which, because of his mad extremism, he was the first person to really see. He called this the ‘morality of the herd’.
His critique of bourgeois ethics, his devastating attack on what goes by the name of ‘humility’, ‘meekness’ and ‘compassion’ but which are very often the worst kind of self-interest, his understanding that there can be greatness in what the world calls ‘arrogance’ and ‘insensitivity’15, and his unbelievably accurate assessment of what we now call ‘groupthink’ were all peerless.
In addition he took Schopenhauer’s disgust at academic man, and his observation that ‘philosophy is psychology’, and expanded these into a series of savagely incisive critiques of academia and the mediocrities16 which make it up.
They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic (as opposed to the mystics of every rank, who are more honest and doltish—and talk of ‘inspiration’); while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of ‘inspiration’—most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract—that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. (Beyond Good and Evil).
…he (the academic) is rich in petty envy and has lynx eyes for what is base in natures to whose heights he cannot attain. He is familiar, but only like those who let themselves go, not flow; and just before those who flow like great currents he freezes and becomes doubly reserved: his eye becomes like a smooth and reluctant lake with not a ripple of delight or sympathy. The worst and most dangerous thing of which scholars are capable comes from their sense of the mediocrity of their own type—from that Jesuitism of mediocrity which instinctively works at the annihilation of the uncommon man and tries to break every bent bow or, preferably, to unbend it. Unbending—considerately, of course, with a solicitous hand—unbending with familiar pity, that is the characteristic art of Jesuitism which has always known how to introduce itself as a religion of pity (Beyond Good and Evil).
Finally Nietzsche, in thrusting his way into the maddest wrong-turn thinking man ever made, discovered, in his loneliness and desperation, a great many truths that only the lonely and the desperate can see. His works are peppered with priceless truisms, that seem to come out of nowhere and which are related to nothing which has gone before, but which all who have faced themselves are forced, somehow, to see.
I shall leave you with one of his most famous quotes which, oddly enough, seems to bring us full circle. For what else, I ask you, could ‘an abyss that looks’ be, other than the thing in itself? Nietzsche would certainly have denied the suggestion, but the authors of the oldest myths, who populated their stories with mysterious living essences which, in the end, turn out to be the unthinkable dark matter of one’s own consciousness, would have found this quote very easy to understand:
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you (Beyond Good and Evil).
- This is the basic point of Schopenhauer’s most famous student, Ludwig Wittgenstein.
- Although, as noted previously, the mind is not actually inventing what we perceive. There are somehow facts out there, and science is the perfect tool to deal with that ‘somehow’ — discarding science completely, or the rational mind, leads to error and fraud.
- and they cannot.
- Scare quotes again — we’re not talking about rational knowledge.
- Sometimes here I use the word ‘recognition’ in a deep sense — indicating the identity of the thing-in-itself of consciousness ‘in here’ with the thing-in-itself of reality ‘out there.’ Here I am using the word in a more superficial sense, of seeing my own experience in the thought of someone else.
- Actually it probably won’t even care particularly, but because it profits from sucking up to power, which always broadcasts useless, ugly, untruth, it will always side with shallow philosophies.
- No-one, by the way, ever really seems too bothered by this, as if humans have ‘moved on’ since then. Well, either we have — and all of Elizabethan England, indeed the entire Western world, was a paedophile-enabling madhouse — or we haven’t, and it is somehow possible for an adult man to fall in love with a girl that young.
- Elevated irony we call courtesy (‘It’s a bit hot in here’ — meaning: I’m roasting) and base irony we call sarcasm (‘He’s smart’ — meaning he’s thick).
- Apologies if you are.
- Close your eyes now and try to picture an unchanging moon. You can’t, not for very long. It will start moving or changing.
- And also a great deal which happens in science fiction, which is also magical.
- Whereas. Turn on the television now, or watch pretty much any movie on Netflix, and you’ll see a preeminent example of a story 1) in which the relationship between the characters and the hero is artificial or mechanical 2) in which theme does not exist or, again, is clunkily applied 3) in which the self-realisation or self-surrender of the self is as trivial as the self in question 4) in which death is pointless or superficially / sentimentally meaningful 5) in which the intelligence of reality is roughly that of a wealthy, middle-class scriptwriter 6) of which the story is completely predictable (an unoriginal archetype) or self-indulgently random 7) in which we are continually being told to feel sad, feel amazed, feel fear — through swelling music, or exposition — or manipulated through sex, violence, special effects, exciting cuts and so on 8) in which nothing is really happening, that nobody is really saying anything, that the events of the story are entirely subordinate to the plot, that the original zing of life has been drained from each scene.
- Or the what of rational thought.
- I mean to a discerning reading of course. Feminists would vomit into their eyeballs reading both authors.
- ‘“I don’t like him.”—Why?—“I am not equal to him.”—Has any human being ever answered that way?’
- ‘Behind a remarkable scholar one finds, not infrequently, a mediocre man.’