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Nietzsche Past & Future

Our Nietzschean Future

Paul O’Mahoney considers the awful fate Nietzsche predicts for humanity.

Scattered through Nietzsche’s writings are proclamations of his ‘untimeliness’, expressing the conviction that he will be ‘born posthumously’. He claims that few in his time have ears to hear him, that he must trust in future generations to understand him, and also that he is preparing that future audience. Along with these proclamations goes his prediction that one day his name will be associated with a crisis unprecedented in human history. Nietzsche appears to suggest that his work may help precipitate the most acute stages of this crisis; but he also positions himself as humanity’s guide through and beyond the coming upheaval.

What is the nature of this predicted crisis? The most common reading of it represents, I believe, a misconception or underestimation of its nature and scope. This common idea is that Nietzsche is speaking of the gradual erosion among humankind of our belief in any binding, transcendental values. This process is exemplified by, but not restricted to, the decline in religious faith. Without the foundational belief in a divine sanction for human systems of morality, and without faith in a reward beyond it for our conduct in this brief life, the idea that one’s life and actions (and especially one’s efforts and sufferings) are meaningful becomes inestimably more difficult to accept. The result is nihilism: a renunciation not only of religious belief but also of the sustaining convictions of antiquity that the continued flourishing of the community to which one belonged might supply a suitable end for one’s action.

The case can certainly be made that this strain of nihilism has spread, and one can appreciate that this mass renunciation of inherited values was already underway in Nietzsche’s time – as he recognised. Indeed, Nietzsche is one of the most astute chroniclers of this malaise and its progress. But one need only read a little of Nietzsche’s diagnoses and prognoses of this to realise that what he is describing is a more or less inevitable process, and in some way therefore independent of him. Nietzsche could today be identified as one spur to the Western decline in religious faith; but after reading his own writing on the subject, you might well conclude that this process would have continued anyway, without his contributions. That is to say, one might concur with a famous assertion from his notebooks (The Will to Power, Preface 2) that in the rise of nihilism, Necessity itself was at work. But the decline of humanity’s belief in transcendental values is just a preliminary. The true looming crisis on which Nietzsche trains his eyes is considerably more shattering.

The Link Between Ape and Superman
The Link Between Ape & Superman © Chloe Collett 2020

No Free Will: To Power or Otherwise

The nature of the projected crisis is indicated by a conviction expressed throughout Nietzsche’s writing: his absolute unbelief in the freedom of human will.

Though the precise nature of his unbelief in human freedom is subject to debate, what is certain is that Nietzsche did not conceive of human beings as being in any traditional sense free agents, responsible for their actions. Our thoughts and consciousness are functions of deeper processes beyond our ken, and the freedom of our will is an illusion. There are different varieties of denial of free will, support for several of which can be found in Nietzsche’s writings, but none of them allows a notion of freedom substantial enough to grant us responsibility for our choices and actions. Let’s look at three varieties here. All are easily understood, require no philosophical training or reading of Nietzsche whatsoever, and more than likely have occurred to and been pondered by any reasonably intelligent human being.

The first notes simply that we cannot possibly be responsible for who we are, because we have no say in our makeup. We aren’t responsible for our genes, biology, biochemistry, brain function, or the formative environment in which we are born and grow. As these factors are so profound, go so deeply into making us the kind of person we are, with the desires and thought-processes that we have, we cannot realistically be said to be responsible for our choices and actions. Galen Strawson believes this to be Nietzsche’s position, and he subscribes to the same stance. He sums up the point by saying that we cannot create ourselves. Illustrating this, the world’s most famous long-term developmental study, the Dunedin Study, has shown how, controlling for variables such as social class, poor impulse control in childhood is the most reliable predictor of poor outcomes in health, wealth and crime in adulthood. The study notes that current research emphasises how genetic factors and brain function play quite significant roles in impulse control – and both are naturally outside of the control of a subject who did not create himself.

The second, related but subtly different, conception of our lack of freedom rests on the Nietzschean assertion that the body is the self. In other words, physiological processes (dimly understood though they are) contain or define the whole of the human person. On this view, consciousness is merely a function of biological processes beyond our control. This contention could also find support in some recent research. For instance, experimental evidence lends support to the idea that the common parasite Toxoplasma gondii may inhibit risk-aversion in its host. In other words, playing host to this parasite makes people significantly more disposed to taking risks. Much more banal is the increasing evidence that gut bacteria play a role in the regulation of mood, and determine our cravings for food. This research into our physiology seems to erode the possibility of free will. The bacteria or parasites to which we play host determine our moods and behaviour, and so our beliefs and lives, even while we cherish the idea that we ourselves determine our fates. Recent research has even suggested that the great marker of our humanity, consciousness, might be the result of the long-ago binding of the genetic code of the Arc virus into the human genome.

The final and strongest position undermining human freedom could be termed ‘cosmic determinism’. The argument starts with the premises that every physical effect must have a physical cause, and that we humans, being physical, are subject to this rule. We cannot be exempted from the chains of cause and effect in the material world. Therefore, everything we do or think is the result of prior physical causes, themselves the effects of still earlier causes back to the beginning of time. This is a deeply materialistic form of determinism, and it is perhaps the form which has traditionally most troubled philosophy. (I happen to believe that Nietzsche subscribes to this last and strongest form. Despite his distaste for the vulgar ‘mechanistic’ vision of the cosmos that it entails and his criticisms of the very notions of cause and effect, he is ultimately a cosmic determinist.)

Acceptance of any of these positions means that one must renounce freedom of the will, and so moral responsibility. Any notions of blame or merit, and of justice or injustice, must also go. One cannot any longer hold anyone criminally responsible. One can also no longer cleave to any notion of value hierarchy based on the ideas of ‘noble’ or ‘base’, because no one, noble or base, can be held responsible for their actions. I believe this dilemma to be unresolved by Nietzsche. It is the worm in the heart of his system, condemning his practical philosophy to incoherence. At any event, the crucial point is that Nietzsche foresees the advent of an era in which the traditional notion of the free human subject, responsible to and for himself and others, becomes simply unfeasible, a ridiculed relic of the past.

Freedom is Dead and We Have Killed It

Let us assume that one of the following two situations obtains at some not-too-distant point in the future: either that definitive scientific proof is provided of the unreality of human choice or that although conclusive proof of this unreality is not yet attained, the balance of evidence suggests it. In either scenario, the ideas of human freedom and moral responsibility must be renounced by any honest and thoughtful individual who weighs the evidence. Imagine next that this becomes the conventional wisdom, spreading irresistibly until the idea has taken hold of humanity, compelling a new and unprecedented reckoning with our nature. Only in imagining this has one begun to contemplate the crisis which Nietzsche predicts, and with which he envisages his name being associated. A world in which deterministic ideas have become moral principles, really believed in and lived by the vast majority of humankind, defines the dimensions of the Nietzschean crisis. Here, the conviction that a human being cannot realistically be held accountable for their actions is the norm. This would be a world in which there is no longer any concept of criminal responsibility. No longer would blame or merit be possible. The task confronting humanity as a whole is to wrestle with and reckon with the consequences of this new conventional wisdom. There are good reasons to believe that humanity, confronted with this refutation of its most cherished and sustaining illusions, would ultimately destroy itself.

What then is to be done if humankind is to survive passing into this Nietzschean era where belief in the freedom of the will has been renounced?

The Future of Philosophy

There is no doubt that the renunciation of the idea of freedom would represent an irreversible debasement of humanity as traditionally understood, inducing a kind of vertigo in our species. That such a renunciation might be inevitable, and belief in freedom irrecoverable, is however not at all difficult to imagine. How might a person orient themselves in this vertiginous climate?

It must first be said that, despair-inducing though this future scenario might seem, it is likely also, after some period of adjustment, to be a spur to liberation – from responsibility, from hierarchy, and from fear. Unafraid, more willing to wager the self on an action, in this future many human beings will come by default into possession of those Nietzschean virtues of daring and honesty that mark them as ascending types. That no attitude or action will be accounted their own choice, or worthy of praise or merit, will only sharpen the sense of fearlessness and commitment.

Under these conditions, the appropriate conception of life would be that of a game: a grand, ongoing, purposeless and all-encompassing piece of play, each person with no more agency than a cast die or caroming billiard ball. The cosmos as a game was a metaphor of which Nietzsche himself was fond. Seeing the cosmos as a game is precisely the kind of god’s-eye view appropriate to the philosopher, who looks down on creation from a standpoint beyond good and evil. The idea, along with the thought that not truth but illusion sustains life, is prominent in Nietzsche’s early, unpublished writings from the 1870s (for example in the essay ‘Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks’ and the abandoned Philosophenbuch). Both sentiments also recur prominently in Nietzsche’s mature work, Beyond Good and Evil (1886), which he calls ‘A prelude to a philosophy of the future’.

It is less of a surprise than one might think that in ruminating on the philosopher’s possible role in the future freedom-free world, Nietzsche, the great anti-Christian, holds in high regard the most genuinely religious nature – the committed mythmaking instinct of the religious leader or founder. It is even less surprising that, against the traditional picture, the future philosopher is no slave to or even servant of truth, and is instead closer to the artist. The religious nature indeed is included among the highest ranks of artist, and the philosopher of the future will make use of whatever relics of religion still beset his contemporaries, and of the religious spirit in general. The future philosopher must move in a world where the deadliest knowledge has been disseminated and accepted; he is no longer the repository of dangerous or unendurable wisdom he traditionally was. He will be, says Nietzsche, a tempter and experimenter among humankind – and how indeed could he be otherwise, when the game is all? Naturally, he will have to compete with other tempters and pied pipers, for this is how life conceived of as a game, individually and collectively, purposeless and innocent, will tend towards order. Competing visions, competing interpretations, competing forms of the game, or opportunities to while away one’s short time playing it, will arise, none of them pretending to be anything but illusions. There is no reason that myriad forms of the game may not coexist. Some may be novel, some consciously atavistic. One might imagine a group banding together to worship Odin and live as Vikings, fully conscious of but committed to the pretence – but no pretence has more or less legitimacy than any other. If violence erupts between one faction and another, this will itself be merely a form of the game: war as a game, an experiment in living, and an experience to be had. The philosopher of the future must stand in this Nietzschean age as the purveyor of some compelling version of the game, describing a narrative or vision that compels allegiance and, in what will surely seem to that future time rather obscurantist language, creates new values or gives meaning to existence. What life as a game can be imagined to offer the individual is the invitation: ‘Choose your illusion’. Choose in the full knowledge that it is nothing but illusion, fully conscious that you are not really free to make the choice anyway. The philosophy of the future says, then: surrender to the game, relinquish all resentment, adopt or reject positions as you please, pass this brief existence and take your leave of it lightly, understanding that it and you have all the substance of a will-o’-the-wisp.

Our Possible Futures

We have not of course yet reached, or even truly reckoned with, Nietzsche’s crisis. It is likely indeed that, to the primitive eyes and minds of the early twenty-first century, wedded to the fiction of free will and other superstitions such as purpose or the value of truth, it appears a monstrous future. All the trends in the sciences for the past few centuries have, however, tended to undermine rather than bolster traditional notions of freedom and agency, and quite a few philosophers have admitted – generally with equanimity– that some form of determinism is, on balance, probably true.

Writing near the end of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche asserted that he was recording the history of the next two hundred years. Were he roughly correct in his forecast, it would be toward the end of the present century that (if there is still a habitable Earth for our species) advances in our knowledge will compel passage into the Nietzschean era of the renunciation of belief in freedom and the advent of the great game. We might begin to think of this future by numbering it among the existential risks to humanity, for the loss of our sustaining illusions may indeed spur our destruction. From that anxious beginning we might proceed by returning to Nietzsche, who after all offers himself not only as prophet but, at least to those with ears to hear, also as guide.

© Paul O’Mahoney 2020

Paul O’Mahoney completed a PhD in University College Dublin focusing on the work of Jean Baudrillard. He works in Trinity College, Dublin.

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