Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Philosopher

His sensitive temperament made him feel an outsider; and feeling an outsider he behaved like one, which increased the prejudice against him and intensified the contempt and hostility aroused by his physical defects. Which in turn increased his sense of being alien and alone. A chronic fear of being slighted made him avoid his equals, made him stand, where his inferiors were concerned, self-consciously on his dignity. He was as solitary and self-preoccupied as his father was garrulous; as serious and introspective as his father was effervescent and glib. His father, the old doctor, thought his son given to "looking at life as a solemn show where he is only a spectator"; William James, Henry's brother, found in him a "cold-blooded, conscious egotism and conceit."

A timid adolescent, as sensitive as he was withdrawn, a person who had never learned to relate to another person, not even as a child, he no doubt felt the need of a rigorous context, an orderly and protective society.

He was subject to numerous physical and psychological complaints. His deficiency took physical form in states of low vitality, periods of insomnia and nervous aches, psychologically in spells of melancholy, a hunger for solitude, fear of duties and responsibilities, and probably also in thoughts of suicide. Dangerous though his situation is, by the aid of meditation and great self-discipline he keeps himself going so courageously that most of his acquaintances have no idea of how severely he suffers and are aware only of his great shyness and taciturnity.

The young Nietzsche was shy and quiet and kept to himself. He was not the sort one befriended easily. Some found him very solemn.

Nietzsche once wrote to his sister: "I have one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy; and the absence of the object of which I now feel as a most severe evil. I have no friend, when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate in my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavor to sustain me in dejection. I shall commit my thoughts to paper, it is true; but that is a poor medium for the communication of feeling. I desire the company of a man who could sympathize with me; whose eyes would reply to mine. You may deem me romantic, my dear sister, but I bitterly feel the want of a friend. I have no one near me, gentle yet courageous, possessed of a cultivated as well as of a capacious mind, whose tastes are like my own, to approve or amend my plans. How would such a friend repair the faults of your poor brother!"

Nietzsche's loneliness was caused by his inner plight, for only the very few were receptive to what he said, and perhaps he wasn't aware of even these few. Thus, he would rather be alone than together with people who did not understand him. He remained alone, because he found no second self. In his solitude, he had new ideas and made new discoveries; since they were based on his most personal experiences, but at the same time concealed them, they were difficult to share with others, and they only deepened his loneliness and the gulf between him and those around him.

To live alone one must be an animal or a god -- says Aristotle. There is yet a third case: one must be both -- a philosopher.

Nietzsche's favorite philosophers -- Socrates, Pascal, Spinoza, and Schopenhauer -- were all "primarily concerned with the cure of sick souls," and for Nietzsche "a genuine philosopher was essentially a physician of the interior self." Nietzsche believed that the well won't care for the sick; true healers also had to be sick. I myself am convinced that had he been healthy, it is doubtful he could have created as much, or as well.

Nietzsche was too self-analytical not to be aware of the parallels between himself and the Jewish philosopher, Benedict de Spinoza. Both were 'sickly recluses'; both were 'outsiders', rejected by their own community, living in rented rooms on a low income, devoting themselves to the life of the mind.

At the age of twelve he kept a diary, the kind an adult might have kept, written in a well-adjusted, reasonable, well-behaved way. "I live in the suburbs with my mother and my sister and my grandmother," he wrote, "almost a prisoner but full of road dreams and the constant anticipation of adventures in strange cities. At night, I pore over maps and imagine every highway and hill and out of the way town. I approach big cities in my mind. I explore every back street and alley. From the tops of tall buildings I enjoy crystal views of streets spilling into the country. Sometimes the streets are filled with traffic and sometimes they are deserted and I am alone."

His writing kept alive the illusion of liberation because on a symbolic level he actually did take steps in the direction of truth and freedom. In fact two separate individuals, two different Nietzsches, talked about loneliness. The one was his mother's son, a "laughed-at 'mama's boy,'" the only male in a household of women. The other was a fearless explorer and a military strategist on his philosophical quest, who spoke of life in military metaphor -- as a war with battles, retreats, campaigns one for whom solitude was powerfully symbolic.

He was alone with his past, his present and his future. Alone! He needed to be. The strongest must pause when the precipice yawns before him. The gulf can be spanned; he feels himself forceful enough for that; but his eyes must take their measurement of it first; he must know its depths and possible dangers. When he became an expert in the use and manipulation of his own egotism, he conceived a notion of space that allowed him to navigate unknown currents across unknown seas, to visit uninhabited territories, and to establish relations with splendid beings without having to leave his study.

Friedrich Nietzsche was truly a hero of the nineteenth century, that era when the tale of lonely outsiders -- reviewing life and society in the obscurity of a study and plotting new policies in the reading room of a public library -- was often more fascinating and significant than the story of crowned heads, prime ministers, illustrious generals, and captains of industry.

His room, a quiet room for a closet metaphysician, was more than a place for work, this wonderful place, Nietzsche's place, was to him a retreat, a banqueting room of the spirit, a cupboard of mad dreams, a storeroom of revelations.

Nietzsche, as we have seen, had a good mind and was an excellent writer. He looked at the world with the eyes of a Henry James, noting the subtlest of feelings in himself and those around him. Ever since his schooldays he had dreamed of composing a book about life which would contain, like buried explosives, the most striking things he had so far seen and thought about. The books he wrote are now among the classics of philosophy, but are highly untypical of works that answer to that description. Primarily concerned to convey insights rather than expound arguments or analyze other people's positions, they are usually written not in long chapters of extended prose but in short, concentrated bursts, sometimes no more than aphorisms, separately numbered.

The internal tensions in Nietzsche ultimately led to a fatalistic dependence on paradox and impotence, and this formed the basis of his philosophy. Consciously or unconsciously, he perceived the opposing impulses in himself, what he called the constitutional incapacity, and gave up attempting to reconcile them. Whether man was inherently evil or perfectible, whether change ever constituted progress, even whether he himself existed -- a question he took seriously -- were unanswerable riddles. The easy solution was to acknowledge "ultimate facts" -- power, force, and change. The idea that came to him was that all religions and philosophies have so far been mistaken about the highest good. It does not lie in moral virtue, or in self-restraint, or even in self-knowledge, but in the idea of great health and strength. This, says Nietzsche, is the fundamental constituent of freedom. Once man has these the others will follow. For most of his evils -- and his intellectual confusions -- spring from weakness.

Momentous for Nietzsche in 1865, as he claims in his "Autobiographical Sketch," was his accidental discovery of Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation in a local bookstore. He was then 21.

These notes, "fragments of a grand confession," were found later among his papers: "I must be profoundly related to Byron's Manfred: From my youth upwards my spirit sought for the hidden metaphysical truth behind and beyond the phenomena of this world, for the ideal. I lived then, in my small albergo, in a state of helpless indecision, alone with certain painful experiences and disappointments. Nothing more terrible could be imagined."

"What a fool I was! How I tried to force everything to go according to the way I thought it ought to! This was an error. One day -- strangely enough, I found Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation in a secondhand bookshop, picked it up as something quite unknown to me, and turned the pages. I do not know what demon whispered to me, 'Take this book home with you.' It was contrary to my usual practice of hesitating over the purchase of books. Once at home, I threw myself onto the sofa with the newly-won treasure and began to let that energetic and gloomy genius operate upon me. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book! Here I saw a mirror in which I beheld the world, life and my own nature in a terrifying grandeur, here I saw sickness and health, exile and refuge, Hell and Heaven."

He never tired in his search after that transcendental and supernatural secret of the Absolute and he did not recognize that the great secret of the transcendental, the miracle of the metaphysical is that it does not exist. The very notion that one might imagine the strange sublunary poetry which lies in a particle of an inch at the other end of a microscope was so wantonly extravagant that even a century later the philosopher would be mocked for spending his whole life, both interest and principal, in a vain search for it.

It had been the dream of his life to write with an originality so discreet, so well concealed, as to be unnoticeable in its disguise of current and customary forms; all his life he had struggled for a style so restrained, so unpretentious that the reader or the hearer would fully understand the meaning without realizing how he assimilated it. He had striven constantly for an unostentatious style, and he was dismayed to find how far he still remained from his ideal.

While he was lost in his work, life--that miserable patch of event, that melange of nothing--passed him by.

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