Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy


     Hence that strange, alien nature of Nietzsche's philosophy. There is no stability in it, no balance. It does not even seek them: as in the case of Dostoevsky's world view, it lives by contradictions. Nietzsche never misses an opportunity to ridicule so-called strength of conviction. Premises, which Schopenhauer considered so essential for philosophy and which he not only justified, but did not even consider necessary to conceal, as is usually done, find in Nietzsche their most caustic and vicious critic. "There is a point in every philosophy," he says, "when the ‘convictions’ of the philosopher appear on the scene; or, to put it in the words of an ancient mystery play: Adventavit asinus, Pulcher et fortissimus." [Ibid., VII, 16] But along with such statements, you also find others that seem to be diametrically opposed to them: "The falseness of a given judgment does not constitute an objection to it, so far as we are concerned. It is perhaps in this respect that our new language sounds strangest. The real question is how far a judgment furthers and maintains life, preserves a given type, possibly cultivates and trains a given type. We are, in fact, fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest judgments (to which belong the synthetic a priori judgments) are the most indispensable to us; that man cannot live without accepting the logical fictions as valid, without measuring reality against the purely invented world of the absolute, the immutable, without constantly falsifying the world by means of numeration. That getting along without false judgments would amount to getting along without life, negating life. To admit untruth as the fundamental condition of life: this implies, to be sure, a perilous resistance against customary value-feelings. A philosophy that risks it nonetheless, if it did nothing else, would by this alone have taken its stand beyond good and evil." [Ibid., 12-13]

     But the question naturally arises: if untruth and false judgments are the basic conditions of human existence, if they help to preserve, or even to develop life, then weren't those sages right who, like Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor, passed off this untruth as truth? And wouldn't the most sensible thing be to remain with tradition, i.e., to refrain completely, as before, from seeking truth and, in this regard, to hold to opinions that have been formed unconsciously, i.e., to have those premises, those "convictions," in connection with which Nietzsche recalled the disrespectful words of the ancient mystery play? If synthetic a priori judgments are so necessary to man that life is impossible without them, that to repudiate them would mean to deny life, then they might as well retain their former respectable name, "true judgments," in which guise they can, of course, best fulfill their noble purpose. Why expose their falseness? Why not follow the example of Kant and Count Tolstoy and place their roots in another world, so that people will not only believe in their truth, but will even be convinced that they have a celestial, a metaphysical, basis? If a lie is so essential to life, then it is no less essential that people think that this lie is not a lie, but the truth. But, evidently, Nietzsche is interested not in ‘life," over which he makes such a fuss, but in something else - at least not in a life such as the one thus far defended by positivists, by synthetic a priori judgments, and by their priests, the teachers of wisdom. Otherwise, he would not have begun to shout out, almost on the public square, philosophy's professional secret; on the contrary, he would have tried to conceal it as carefully as possible. Schopenhauer had made a tactical error in proclaiming that philosophy is impossible without premises, but Nietzsche goes even further. So in the final analysis, he is not in the least interested in the question of preserving and sustaining what he calls by the abstract word "life." Although he speaks of such a "life," as many others do, he does not care about it or even think about it. He knows that "life" has existed thus far without the tutelage of philosophers and that it will continue to get along on its own strength in the future as well. By justifying synthetic a priori judgments in such a risky way, Nietzsche was merely trying to compromise them, in order to open the way for himself to complete freedom of investigation, in order to win for himself the right to speak of things about which other people remain silent.

     Zarathustra says: "Down there [among people] all speech is useless! There, the best wisdom is to forget and pass by: That have I learned now! He who would understand everything in man must grapple with everything." [Ibid., VI, 271] In his youth, Nietzsche himself was no different in this respect from other philosophers. It was not of his own free will that he fell to stopping at places where others pass by and to remembering what others forget. "Suffering asks about the cause, but pleasure is inclined to keep within itself and not look backward." [Ibid., V, 50-51] But not all suffering teaches us to question. Man is born a positivist, and by no means must he first go through a theological and metaphysical stage in order to acquire a taste for the limitation of knowledge, as is recommended by positivist philosophy. On the contrary, he avoids too great wisdom and, above all, even tries to escape suffering, to rid himself of it. And only when all efforts in this positive direction prove fruitless, when he is convinced that it is impossible to "adjust himself," that it is impossible to find a situation in which "suffering" ceases to make itself felt, does he leave the bounds of positivist truth and begin to question, without giving any further thought as to whether or not his questions are permitted by contemporary methodology and epistemology. "At the present time," Nietzsche says, "we all live, relatively speaking, in a security that is much too great to make us true psychologists: some survey their fellow men as a hobby, others out of boredom, and others again merely from habit; but never to the extent they would do so if they were told by an authoritative voice: ‘Discern or perish!’ As long as truths do not cut us to the quick, we assume an attitude of contempt towards them: they still appear to us too much like ‘winged dreams,’ as if we could or could not have them at our discretion, as if we could be aroused from these truths as from a dream!" [Ibid., IV, 311] You see how the boundaries of the cognizable world are extended: all that is needed is an authoritative voice to say "discern or perish," a categorical imperative, which Kant did not think of. Finally, it is necessary for truths to cut us to the quick - but none of this is mentioned either in epistemology or in logic. There, the process of seeking truth is portrayed in an entirely different way; there, to think means to proceed calmly, consistently, and painlessly (although with effort) from conclusion to conclusion until what is sought is found.

     But with Nietzsche, to think is to worry, to be tormented, to writhe in convulsions. If you recall, it is the same in Dostoevsky's novels; none of the leading characters ever thinks according to the rules of logic. Everywhere in his books, there is nothing but frenzy, anguish, tears, and the gnashing of teeth. The theoretical philosopher sees needless, even harmful, excess in all this. Spinoza says: "Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere." He thinks that it is possible "to understand" by means of abstract or - as people are inclined to call it - objective thinking. But what has philosophy "understood" up to now? Nietzsche had legitimate doubts as to whether the methods recommended by Spinoza and hitherto always practiced by teachers of wisdom actually do provide the most reliable or even the only reliable way to the truth. "Yes, perhaps in our struggling interior, there is a good deal of concealed heroism, but certainly nothing divine, or eternally reposing in itself, as Spinoza supposed. Conscious thinking, and especially that of the philosopher, is the weakest, and on that account also relatively mildest and quietest way of thinking: thus it is precisely the philosopher who is most easily misled concerning the nature of our knowledge." [Ibid., V, 253]

     Not only the "philosopher," but all of us, we people of modern upbringing, precisely because of the circumstances of our development, are hardly capable of making correct judgments about nature, about the limits of our knowledge, and about "truth." True, superstition has always existed among men; you cannot name a period when some error or other was not regarded as truth, and a great truth at that. But never before have people been so deeply convinced of the infallibility of their methodology as in our time. Our century, as you know, is called the century of skepticism par excellence; in other words, people think that once something is presented as truth, it is done so only after the most careful and thorough investigation possible, when there can no longer be any doubt about it. But we are utterly incapable of "believing," even if we wanted to. Yet, from childhood on, we are trained to "believe" and, above all, to believe the most implausible things! A peasant boy or a young savage, of course, also believes what his elders tell him. But usually he is told nothing that is implausible or that constrains his thinking. He is told, for example, that there are sorcerers, wood goblins, and witches. All this is untrue - none of it exists, but, as you know, it is all conceivable and comprehensible. From these stories, the young mind merely concludes that there are extremely horrible and interesting things that it has not yet seen, but that it will perhaps some day see with its own eyes. It is another matter with a child of our society: its mind is unencumbered by fairy tales; it knows that demons and sorcerers do not exist, and it trains its mind not to believe such lies, even if its heart is inclined toward the miraculous.

     But on the other hand, from very early age on, it is given reliable information, the implausibility of which surpasses absolutely every fib ever told by the most imaginative writers of fairy tales. For example, it is told - and in an authoritative tone before which all doubt subsides - it must subside-that the earth is not motionless, as the evidence indicates, that the sun does not revolve around the earth, that the sky is not a solid, that the horizon is only an optical illusion, and so on endlessly. All this is learned in early, very early, childhood and usually without even those considerations and proofs that are provided in elementary geography textbooks. And all this is accepted as the absolute truth, and not even subject to verification, for it comes from the child's elders, for it is so written in books. Now tell me, which fairy tale (and it doesn't even have to be from those that educated people recommend for the common folk, but from those that illiterate writers manufacture for profit) contains a lie more obvious to a child than the truths that we teach it? A sorcerer, a witch, a demon - they are merely something new, but they are comprehensible and do not contradict the evidence. But the revolving earth, the motionless sun, and so on - all this is, of course, absolute nonsense to a child. And yet it is the truth; the child knows it for certain, and he lives for years on end with this implausible truth. But doesn't this coercion of the child's mind impair its cognition? Doesn't a belief in the import of nonsense become its second nature? And finally, isn't the tendency of each of us to accept as truth only what seems to our entire being to be false certain to remain in our minds forever?

     Or, if this conclusion seems too paradoxical or exaggerated, must we not, at any rate, be ready to believe in what to us is an obvious absurdity (intelligere in other words), as long as it is provided with a certain argumentation and comes from learned people or from their books? For example, Schopenhauer's will, Kant's Ding an sich, or Spinoza’s deus sive natura? Our mind, having assimilated so much nonsense in childhood, has lost the ability to defend itself and accepts everything except what it was warned against from early childhood on, i.e., the miraculous, or m other words, effect without cause. Here, it is always on guard; here, it cannot be enticed by anything - neither by eloquence, inspiration, nor logic. But if the miraculous is not involved, then everything goes. What, for example, does contemporary man "understand" by the words "the natural development of the world"? Forget for a moment, for just a moment - provided that is possible - your schooling, and you will immediately be convinced that the development of the world is frightfully unnatural: it would be natural if there were nothing at all - neither the world nor its development.

     And yet there is almost no one today who does not believe as firmly in the theory of naturalism as a devout Catholic believes in the infallibility of the Pope. More than that even: the Catholic may in some way or other be dissuaded, but contemporary modern man will under no circumstances seriously accept the idea that the world evolved unnaturally, and, consequently, that randomness in nature, effect without cause, about which Mill speaks, has any other use than to indicate the limits of our knowledge. For him, as for Mill and Kant, this is a truth, beyond which there can be neither thought nor life. Those who deny it suffer what is commonly believed to be the most horrible of all punishments: everlasting sterility. Such is the dragon that guards positivism and idealism! Who has the courage to engage in a struggle against it? And how can an ordinary man, a mere man, hazard such a fearful deed and openly proclaim: nothing is true, everything is permissible? For this, must he not first of all cease to be a person? For this, must he not first of all find in himself some other still unknown and untried forces that we have thus far scorned, that we have feared? Listen to Nietzsche's prayer, and you will understand, at least in part, how convictions are born in our soul, and what it means to go one's own way and have one's own view of life: "Oh, heavenly powers, grant me madness! Madness, that I at length may believe in myself I Grant me delirium and convulsions, sudden flashes of light and periods of darkness; induce in me such shivering and feverishness as no mortal ever experienced before; frighten me with mysterious noises and ghosts; force me to howl, whine, and creep about like a beast, if only I can come to believe in myself! I am devoured by doubt. I have slain the law, and I now dread the law as a living person dreads a corpse. If I am not above the law, I am the most outcast of people. From whence comes this new spirit that dwells in me, if not from you? Prove to me that I am one of you - nothing but madness will prove it to me." [Ibid., IV, 23]

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