The Gay Science for Life

Now you might appreciate my very clever shirt.

By no means am I an expert on Nietzsche. His thought is so original, so complex, and so completely counter-intuitive at times that I have to assume that I can only grasp glimpses of his work’s brilliance. And I think he would agree.

Nevertheless, as I have continued with my (re-)reading of his books, I have felt a distinct shift in the degree of my appreciation for his work. Nietzsche himself noted that his books must be peculiarly read. Some will get it. Most others are bound to misunderstand him, and quite possibly in very dangerous ways. And one can’t simply pick and choose among his aphorisms. One must read patiently and slowly, ruminate like cows graze, and get a sense for his tone. And one must not be too serious in the matter. Indeed, this is a key point that is highlighted by the title of my favorite of Nietzsche’s books, The Gay Science. Rather than being stale, stuffy, and “academic,” our wisdom and knowledge should embolden a sense of lightness, laughter, dancing, and a robust affirmation of life.

This leads to an important point in Nietzsche’s philosophy, which is also an important point that I am trying to keep in mind for myself as I continue reading and living my day to day life: When we act in the world and with others, when we place value on certain ideas or experiences, when we relate back to ourselves, Nietzsche explains that, if we are strong and healthy free spirits, we will do so out of an overabundance of life, passion, enthusiasm, and gratitude. Not from fear or pity or shame, and not from a duty or obligation, but from the celebratory joyfulness and childlike brightness that comes from being able to cast off inhibiting social values, metaphysical comforts, and by renouncing the seriousness of the error that we call “Truth.” Once we come to see life for what it is–the will to power, that is, the will to discharge energy, to grow, to expand, to become more, to go higher, to become new–we will be able to live more vibrantly, more healthily. As Nietzsche explains in Section 4 of the Preface to The Gay Science, “one returns newborn, having shed one’s skin, more ticklish and malicious, with a more delicate taste for joy, with a tenderer tongue for all good things, with merrier senses, with a second dangerous innocence in joy, more childlike and yet a hundred times subtler than one has ever been before.” Emerging out of the depths of life with this fresh skin is likened to finding “happiness in being for once like a flying fish, playing on the peaks of waves” (Section 256). Can’t you just feel the tickle from dancing along the surface of things with such lightness and sensitivity to these feelings?

As wonderfully exuberant as this all sounds, it is immensely difficult for us to live and act with such levity because, according to Nietzsche, we are bogged down and made literally unhealthy, literally depressed, by our values which reflect seriousness, gravity, and the negation of life. Pity orients much of our actions and beliefs in debilitating ways. Equally heavy are feelings of revenge. Or to sum it up, Nietzsche explains that weakness leads us to act out of ressentiment. The French usage is important because it captures the sense with which these negative feelings are felt over and over, again and again. The English equivalent, resentment, is similar in meaning, so long as it still carries the quality of feeling feelings and being unable to let them go. If we are healthy and act out of our own abundance of energy, power, gratitude, and liveliness, we will be able to fully experience certain passions, emotions, and events, let this discharge and expel our energy, and then carry on. Even, or especially, when another tries to harm or injure us. We can take the blow. Nietzsche’s descriptions of digestion help make the point. One with healthy digestion will consume, incorporate, metabolize, and then expel food, and it will be a nourishing process. Otherwise, if you internalize and hold on to your food (like, hold it in and do away with nothing), you will become constipated, nauseous, and ill. That is ressentiment.

The difference, then, is in how one handles life with all of its pains and pleasures, hurts and joys, violence and passion. Do we roll with the punches (out of an affirmation for all of life–not just the “good stuff”), or hold on to them and continually outline our bruises? This difference contains implications for political life, personal life, and how one engages in philosophy.

People commonly misunderstand Nietzsche’s notion of the will to power as being terrifyingly violent. They assume that he glorifies murder and pillage. But to think this way is to already mishear his words and get tangled in a web of values that he is trying to reveal. For Nietzsche, it is the case that all of life is the will to power, and this means that “Benefiting and hurting others are ways of exercising one’s power over others; that is all one desires in such cases. One hurts those whom one wants to feel one’s power, for pain is a much more efficient means to that end than pleasure” (Section 13). But he goes on to explain, “Certainly the state in which we hurt others is rarely as agreeable, in an unadulterated way, as that in which we benefit others; it is a sign that we are still lacking power, or it shows a sense of frustration in the face of this poverty; it is accompanied by new dangers and uncertainties for what power we do possess, and clouds our horizon with the prospect of revenge, scorn, punishment, and failure.” If the will to life is the will to power, then what matters is “how one is accustomed to spice one’s life.” The main point is that, although others will hurt us and try to bring us down, if we want to be healthy, if we are already strong, we will not respond by hurting others, especially not those who are weaker than us. Instead, one shows control and power over oneself.

It is for this reason, then, that Nietzsche goes on to give a ‘new caution,’ which I think has clear connections to many aspects of our lives, including how we might deal with others, lovers, and ourselves. “Let us stop thinking so much about punishment, reproaching, and improving others! We rarely change an individual, and if we should succeed for once, something may also have been accomplished, unnoticed: we may have been changed by him. Let us rather see to it that our won influence on all that is yet to come balances and outweighs his influence. Let us not contend in a direct fight–and that is what all reproaching, punishing, and attempts to improve others amount to. Let us rather raise ourselves much higher. Let us color our own example ever more brilliantly. Let our brilliance make them look dark. No, let us not become darker ourselves on their account, like all those who punish others and feel dissatisfied. Let us sooner step aside. Let us look away” (Section 321).

This may seem like just another instance of “turning the other cheek,” but one cannot be so quick to make these connections. In just the same way that Nietzsche reproaches the desire to punish, especially out of revenge, he is equally disdainful of a “Christian morality” that operates out of weakness and pity. Pity, for Nietzsche, is really a twisted form of vanity–it makes us feel better about ourselves to help others because it marks our superiority over them (again, harking back to the will to power, but it is a weak will).

So again, the main issue becomes one of identifying the underlying source of our actions. “Every art, every philosophy may be viewed as a remedy and an aid in the service of growing and struggling life; they always presuppose suffering and suffers. But there are two kinds of sufferers: first, those who suffer from an over-fullness of life [and thus they must find ways to discharge and empty themselves, like when one is so filled with gratitude that one creates a god to whom one can give their thanks]…and then those who suffer from the impoverishment of life and seek rest, stillness, calm seas [and thus take comfort in metaphysical errors, like that the good and evil in the world can be explained by the presence of a god who punishes and rewards us for our actions, which is a mark of one who “revenges himself on all things by forcing his own image, the image of his torture, on them, branding them with it”]” (Section 370). Depending on their source, our actions will carry a different effect…of health and vitality or of sickness and weakening.

If we think about our interactions with one another, whether we act out of gratitude and strength or resentment and an inability to expend our energies in productively healthful ways, we can check ourselves against this distinction by following Nietzsche when he asks, “‘is it hunger or superabundance that has here become creative?’ At first glance, another distinction may seem preferable–it is far more obvious–namely the question whether the desire to fix, to immortalize, the desire for being prompted creation, or the desire for destruction, for change, for future, for becoming (in case you are a bit lost, on the most superficial level, Nietzsche is pulling for the latter, but he notes that this can still be broken down even further since…) The desire for destruction, change, and becoming can be an expression of overflowing energy that is pregnant with future…but it can also be the hatred of the ill-constituted, disinherited, and underprivileged, who destroy, must destroy, because what exists, indeed all existence, all being, outrages and provokes them.”

I have quoted Nietzsche at length in the hopes that his words will resonate with personal experiences. For myself, thinking of these important distinctions about the sources of my own actions and the actions of others helps me reconsider not only how I will act, and want to act, but how to respond to others who might lash out at me from their own sources of pain or constipated ressentiment. (Thus, this is a related note, and perhaps a follow up, to my previous post “Breathe Love.”) And it also is generating in me questions about how I will continue to pursue philosophy.

Nietzsche lived with his ideas day in and day out, and he was the first to acknowledge the need to be personally involved in great problems because they require great love. And Nietzsche, too, was sick for much of his life. And he philosophized about health. Nietzsche notes, “For a psychologist there are few questions that are as attractive as that concerning the relation of health and philosophy, and if he should himself become ill, he will bring all of his scientific curiosity into his illness. For assuming that one is a person, one necessarily also has the philosophy that belongs to that person; but there is a big difference (AND HERE IT IS AGAIN, one last time, for my own purposes perhaps…). In some it is their deprivations that philosophize; in others, their riches and strengths. The former need their philosophy, whether it be as a prop, a sedative, medicine, redemption, elevation, or self-alienation. For the latter it is merely a beautiful luxury–in the best cases, the voluptuousness of a triumphant gratitude that eventually still has to inscribe itself in cosmic letters on the heaven of concepts.” He concludes: “What was at stake in all philosophizing hitherto was not at all “truth” but something else–let us say, health, future, power, life” (Section 2).

I hope to keep a handle on these distinctions as I continue to expand my own philosophical thinking and work, especially because I know of the therapeutic dimension of philosophy. But am I seeking to heal (myself and others), as if with a palliative? Or am I seeking to grow, to become more, to be healthy? Can I? And of course, this is my hope as I continue to grow in and out of my relationships, my environments, and my self. I hope that I am, or if not yet, that I will be, strong enough to let go of certainty and faith and truth, and be able to swim joyfully across the crisp peaks of life’s waves with a childlike levity.


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