Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy


     This all explains why Nietzsche needed his underground work, and the kind of hope it was that gave him the strength to bear for so long the absence of light and air. He instinctively felt that the contemporary world view and the commonly accepted morality, although they are based on so-called solid scientific facts, are powerful only because of human gullibility and human weakness. He himself was "unhappy," and saw that pity, the only remedy that morality has at its disposal, is more horrible than complete indifference. "Isn't pity," Zarathustra asks, "the cross on which he is crucified who loves people?" [Ibid., 15] To pity a person means to admit that he can no longer be helped by other means. But why not say this openly, why not repeat after Nietzsche: a hopelessly sick man must not wish to be a physician. For what purposes is the truth concealed? To Nietzsche, it is clear that the "good" pity the unfortunate merely to avoid thinking of their own fate, to avoid searching, to avoid struggling: "Now I understand clearly what people once sought above all else when they sought teachers of virtue. They sought sleep for themselves and soporific virtues to promote it. For all these highly praised sages who were teachers of virtue, wisdom was sleep without dreams: they knew no better meaning of life." [Ibid., "Von den Lehrstühlen der Tugend."] And, of course, Nietzsche would pass calmly by the slumbering people and their soporific virtues if only they would leave him in peace. But we remember the dreadful anguish to which he had been subjected by morality. At the time when, to use Dostoevsky's words, the laws of nature, i.e., sickness, had deprived Nietzsche of sleep and rest, the laws of mankind, as if in mockery, were demanding composure and sleep of him and, as is their custom, threatening anathema in case their demand was not met. "Wisdom" offered him its soporific virtues and was offended when they proved to be devoid of any salutary power. Instead of helping the suffering man, it demanded that encomia and hymns be offered to itself. That is its usual way.

     That is why in Dostoevsky, as we have already seen, Ivan Karamazov revolts against "the devilish good and evil," which had so impudently dared to demand human sacrifices to itself. After Dostoevsky, Nietzsche repeated almost the same thing that Ivan Karamazov said: "Oh, my brothers," Zarathustra says, "who represents the greatest danger for all man's future? Is it not ‘the good and the just,’ who say and feel in their hearts, ‘We already know what is good and just, we possess it also; woe unto those who still seek here.’ And whatever harm the ‘evil’ may do, the harm done by ‘the good’ is the most harmful harm! Oh, my brothers, one man once looked into the hearts of ‘the good and the just,’ and said: ‘They are pharisees.’ But He was not understood. ‘The good and the just’ themselves were not free to understand Him; their spirit is imprisoned in their good conscience. The stupidity of ‘the good’ is unfathomably shrewd. This, however, is the truth: that ‘the good’ must be pharisees - they have no choice. ‘The good’ must crucify him who invents his own virtue! That is the truth!" [Ibid., "Von alten und neuen Tafeln."] The poor "good and the just!" Could they possibly think, after believing so deeply in the infallibility of their truth, that such a horrible accusation awaited them? And yet it is already two thousand years old. Two thousand years ago, one man looked into their hearts and said: "They are pharisees." True, they did not understand Him. They do not understand Him even now, and who knows, perhaps "all" will never understand Him, for, in His words, they know not what they do. Perhaps those who do not understand are not supposed to understand. Why do they only say: woe unto those who still seek here? Why do they direct their brutal strength against the Dostoevskys and Nietzsches? Or is this also "necessary"? But Dostoevsky and Nietzsche no longer take into account the needs of "the good and the just" (the Mills and the Kants). They have understood that man's future, if man really has a future, rests not on those who now rejoice in the belief that they already possess both goodness and justice, but on those who know neither sleep, rest, nor joy, and who continue to struggle and search. Abandoning their old ideals, they go to meet a new reality, however terrible and disgusting it may be.

     It must be noted here that, on the whole, Nietzsche's doctrine was misinterpreted. Accustomed to moralistic outlooks, the modern mind sought in all that Nietzsche said nothing but traces of a new moral doctrine. Nietzsche himself was partly responsible for this. Like almost every writer, i.e., a person who speaks to people, he involuntarily accommodated himself to a certain extent to his audience and gave it not only an advisory, but sometimes even a decisive voice in his opinions. The same thing was done by Dostoevsky, who, as we saw, felt himself bound even more so than Nietzsche by the "spirit of the times." His audience, however, listened keenly and eagerly and then fished from the master's words all that was "its own, all that was familiar, and comprehensible - and they did not in the least concern themselves about the rest. In Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, they found a system of morality - some, a new one, others, an old. Perhaps future generations will read them just as calmly as they now read Goethe. Little by little, expository criticism will adapt Zarathustra and Raskolnikov to the needs of "the good and the just," after having convinced them that Dostoevsky and Nietzsche were struggling against abstract or extinct pharisees, and not against that ever existing commonplaceness (positivism and idealism), which is the most dangerous and inexorable enemy that people of tragedy can possibly have. Nietzsche used to say that when he was with people, he thought as everyone else, and that he sought solitude mainly because it was only when he was alone with himself that he felt his thinking to be free.

     Commonplaceness is terrible in that it hypnotizes the solitary thinker with its millions of eyes and imperiously subjugates him to its will. But to live in solitude is also difficult! Nietzsche remarks with bitter derision: "In solitude, you devour yourself; in company, you are devoured by the many: now, choose!" [Ibid., III(2), 168] But, after all is said and done, you must choose solitude: in spite of everything, it is better than "forsakenness," i.e., the realization that in the midst of a vast number of people, you are alien to everyone else. "Oh, solitude," says Zarathustra, "oh, my home, solitude! Too long have I lived wildly in wild, strange places, not to return home to you in tears! Now threaten me with your finger, as mothers threaten; now smile at me, as mothers smile; now say to me: ‘And who was it that, like a tempest, once stormed away from me? Who shouted in parting: "Too long have I sat with solitude; I have forgotten how to be silent!" That, I suppose, you have learned again now? Oh, Zarathustra, I know everything. Also that you were more forsaken among the many, being one, than ever with me! To be forsaken is one thing, to be lonely, another: that you have learned now." [Ibid., VI, "Die Heimkehr"] The reader now sees what Nietzsche's task was: he assumed the cause of the man who had been abandoned and forgotten by good, by science, and by philosophy.

     I hope it is now clear why "altruism" did not attract Nietzsche: among the forsaken, the old argument between altruism and egoism does not exist. More than that, both of them are amazed that they could have once been at loggerheads. They hardly believe that it was reality, and that even to this day it continues to be reality. And how could they believe it, when both of them, both altruism and egoism, were compelled to wallow in the dust and, while gnawing the earth, foolishly to cry out to the modern god-monster of necessity or "natural development": "Not ours, not ours, but thine be the praise." Praise to natural development! Praise to necessity! In the face of these impotent gods, does altruism really mean more than egoism, more even than crime? Here, all distinctions made by man are smoothed over, effaced, and destroyed forever. If egoism means nothing, if it is necessary to renounce oneself, then it is necessary at one and the same time to renounce both one's neighbor and all that people hold dear. And conversely, if we can look fearlessly in the face of naturalism, then the individual person must be guarded against "necessity" to the same extent that the whole world is.

     There is no choice, nor can there be one, although "commonplaceness," which has accepted the morality of accommodation and refused a struggle, in principle sanctions and puts into practice the opposite view and tries with all its might to force all people to accept its principles; these principles it elevates through the mouths of "the good and the just" on the one hand, and of their regular patrons the unfortunate and the unhappy of all kinds on the other, to supreme laws of morality and calls them ideals. Therefore, the men of tragedy, the "forsaken," must wage a double struggle: against both "necessity" and their neighbors, who can still adjust themselves, and who, because they are unaware of what they are doing, side with mankind's most horrible enemy. Hence Nietzsche's binomial formula: "Nothing is true, everything is permitted." Its first part is directed against necessity and natural development; its second, against those who, consciously or unconsciously, rise to the defense of the "laws of nature," which had so offended Dostoevsky. But Nietzsche not only does not strive to rid life of all that is enigmatic, mysterious, difficult, and agonizing - he goes in quest of all this. In the laws of nature, in order, in science, in positivism and idealism, there is a guarantee of unhappiness; in the horrors of life, a guarantee of the future. This is the basis of the philosophy of tragedy: to this lead skepticism and pessimism, which Kant had at one time so greatly feared, and which people try with all their might to avoid as they would exceedingly dangerous monsters.

     Nietzsche was reproached for his hatred of the weak and the unfortunate and for his aristocratic morality. I have already remarked that moralities of every kind, both aristocratic and democratic, were alien to Nietzsche. His task lay "beyond good and evil." Like Karamazov, he did not accept a moral interpretation or justification of life. But he is guilty of hating "the weak." They were as obnoxious to him as their constant protectors, "the good and the just." Not because of their unhappiness, not because of their failures, but because of their readiness to accept the "pity" offered them as consolation. They entered into a conspiracy against life in order to forget their misfortunes - and this, Nietzsche considers the most horrible crime of all, a betrayal of the great cause; this, he never forgave anyone. His entire doctrine, his entire life’s task amounted to a struggle. Wasn't it natural for him to hate those who, by their tractability and cowardice, not only strengthen the ranks of their already countless adversaries, but also confuse the few fighters who have not yet lost courage?

     It is curious that Nietzsche's teacher, Schopenhauer, set little store on courage; he did not even understand what purpose it could have in life. "Courage," he wrote, "is, as a matter of fact, quite a secondary virtue, a virtue merely for noncommissioned officers - one in which we are even outdone by animals; that is why, for example, we say ‘brave as a lion.’" And, of course, Schopenhauer had his reasons to think like that: in order to write books with a pessimistic tendency, but with an optimistic faith, it is not necessary to have courage. In such matters, wit, a dialectical resourcefulness of mind, the ability to find a pretty comparison or a pointed epithet, seem incomparably loftier qualities. How strange the words of Schopenhauer quoted above must have sounded to Nietzsche, providing he had occasion to recall them. "Art for art's sake," whether in philosophy or in poetry, had long since stopped attracting him. "The struggle against purpose in art," he wrote, "has always been merely a fight against a moralizing tendency, against the subordination of art to morality. L’art pour l’art means: to the devil with morality! When the purpose of preaching morality and of improving mankind has been excluded from art, it still by no means follows that art is altogether purposeless, aimless, senseless - in short, l’art pour l’art, a worm biting its own tail. What does the tragic artist communicate of himself? Isn't it precisely his fearless attitude toward that which is terrible and questionable? Before tragedy, what is warlike in our soul celebrates its Saturnalia; whoever is used to suffering, whoever seeks out suffering, the heroic man, extols his own existence by means of tragedy - to him alone does the tragic artist offer this drink of sweetest cruelty." [Ibid., VIII, 135]

     Obviously, not just noncommissioned officers need courage; man, too, must at times envy the qualities of wild animals! "Do you have courage, oh, my brothers?" asks Zarathustra. "Are you stouthearted? Not the courage before witnesses, but anchorite and eagle courage, which not even the gods behold? Whoever looks into the abyss, but with the eyes of an eagle, whoever grasps the abyss with the talons of an eagle - that man has courage." [Ibid., VI, 419-420] Zarathustra’s constant companions were the eagle and the serpent: from them, he learned to soar in the clouds and to crawl on the earth, to look boldly into the sun and not lose touch with the earth. How many times he was within a hair's breadth of destruction, how often he was seized with despair by an awareness that the task he had assumed was impracticable, that tragedy must ultimately yield to commonplaceness! Zarathustra’s words bear clear traces of this struggle of hope against hopelessness. But in the end, Nietzsche achieved his goal nevertheless. He ventured not only to raise the question of the underground man, but also to provide an answer to it. "The great epochs of our life," he says, "come when we gain the courage to rebaptize what we regard as evil in us, and call it goodness." [Ibid., VII, 101] This means that Nietzsche decided to regard his "egoism," which he formerly called "the serpent's sting," and which he feared so much, not a disgraceful quality, but an ennobling one.

     The same idea is expressed even more sharply and fully in another aphorism: "At the risk of offending innocent ears, I submit the following: egoism belongs to the nature of an aristocratic soul - I mean the unalterable belief that other beings must by the nature of things be subordinate to a being such as ‘us,’ that they must be sacrificed to us. The aristocrat accepts the fact of his egoism without question, and also without seeing harshness, constraint, or arbitrariness therein, but rather as something that may have its basis in the primary law of things; if he had to find a designation for it, he would say: ‘it is justice itself."'[Ibid., 265-266] In so far as these words relate to Nietzsche himself (i.e., in so far as they can be of interest), there is a slight inaccuracy here. He did not regard his egoism as a fact that demanded no explanation. And, in general, "egoism," as we recall, troubled Nietzsche very, very much - it seemed trivial and disgusting to him. So that in view of this, the word "aristocrat" should be replaced by another, less pretty word - "the underground man" - especially as everything that Nietzsche said about the aristocracy had little to do with him personally. He himself was only an "underground man," as the reader has probably long since concluded. He joined the aristocrats, the happy ones, the lucky ones, the victors, only for outside reasons, which are fully explained by his following admission: "The great advantage of an aristocratic origin is that it gives one strength better to endure poverty." [Ibid., IV, 193] It seemed to Nietzsche that his poverty would be less noticeable behind aristocratic manners.

     There is some truth to this. But poverty remains poverty regardless of any manners. And the egoism about which Nietzsche speaks was the egoism not of an aristocrat, serenely and confidently accepting sacrifices, but the egoism of a poor man, a beggar, indignant and outraged over the fact that even his sacrifices are disdained. Nietzsche's great merit lies in his ability to defend before the eyes of the whole world the "egoism" of poverty - not the poverty that is fought by social reform, but the kind for which, even in the best organized state of the future, there will be found nothing but pity, virtues, and ideals. After all, in the state of the future, as in the states of today, there is no place for tragic people; in it, the so-called bourgeois morality will be changed only in so far as it is necessary for the "happiness of the majority." But for people such as Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, it will be preserved in its entirety; as m the past, it will be their lot to have those celebrated ascetic ideals and that "beautiful and lofty," which for thirty years weighed so heavily on the neck of the underground man. But Nietzsche did not want virtues and asceticism, and he did not believe in the morality of abnegation. He had reason to spend so much time tracking down the "psychology" of preachers of morality. He already knew that all the pompous words of abnegation in the mouths of moralists and philosophers were sham. "What," he asked, "do such people have in common with virtue?" By virtue, they usually understand those principles of life that guarantee them the greatest success in their cause. "What then," Nietzsche asks, "does the ascetic ideal betoken in a philosopher? Asceticism provides him with the condition most favorable to the exercise of his intelligence. Far from denying ‘existence,’ he affirms his existence, and his alone, perhaps even to the point of hubris: pereat mundus, fiat philosophia, fiat philosophus, fiam!" [Ibid., VII, 413] The last words are an almost literal translation of the famous statement of the poor hero from the underground: "Is the world to go to pot, or am I to have my tea? I say that the world can go to pot, as long as I get my tea." Could he ever believe that the phrase he had hurled in a fit of blindness and anger at the unhappy prostitute would be translated by a famous philosopher into the language of Cicero and Horace and offered as a formula defining the essence of the highest of human aspirations? If Dostoevsky could have foreseen that such great glory awaited his little hero, he would probably have omitted his comment to Notes from the Underground.

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