The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche : Philosophy and Preaching
Of God, such a God as he who has understood all the horror of his own helplessness needs, a God who, as Heine put it, "is able to help" - of such a God Nietzsche obviously could not even dream. The only thing that he knew clearly is what men had lost in killing God, what sacrifice they had made in renouncing faith. As an altogether modern man, completely imbued with the idea of evolution, the idea that presents our present world to us as naturally evolved from nebulae and considers man a link in the chain of evolution, how could he have dared think that his personal situation, i.e., the misfortune of his life, could find a justification somewhere in the universe? He knew that such a point of view would be called anthropocentric and that it testifies to the naïve ambition of an infinitely small particle to be the final goal of the world.
We are all too much accustomed to the theory of natural evolution, and modern man must strain all the faculties of his soul to the highest degree to tear himself, even partially, out of its power. It required many years before Nietzsche decided to renounce the prejudices of scientific positivism, all the more so because he did not have anything that he could set against the "positive" truths to satisfy his new curiosity sufficiently. He breaks the old limits, he is no longer willing "to conclude where he could surmise," but he feels that "the poets lie too much," for "they know too little," and he openly admits that "Zarathustra too is a poet."
This is why in all his works, even the latest, one can observe the most varied influences. On the one side are natural evolution and the most determined attack against every attempt to represent man as something other than the accidental product of the fortuitous play of irrational forces - this was the tribute he brought to that contemporary philosophy that he had absorbed with his mother's milk and the result of the conviction that the sick man has as little right to believe as to be a pessimist. On the other side are railleries against positivism and utilitarianism and against all the tendencies and views that are related to these systems, statements that surpass in boldness the most audacious dreams of mankind.
In the first period after his illness he still hoped to find satisfaction in pure science. He wrote:
Is there any need to say how far these words were from the true state of Nietzsche's soul? That they were only a mask to hide the fact that, despite the task he had assumed, be could not be anything but a pessimist?
- Do you think that such a life with such a goal is too fatiguing, too empty of all pleasures? So you have still not learned that there is no honey that is sweeter than the honey of knowledge, and that the heavy clouds of sadness must serve you as a breast from which you will draw milk for your refreshment? It is only when old age comes that you will notice to what degree you have listened to the voice of nature, that nature which rules the whole world by the law of pleasure: the very life whose summit is in old age has also a summit in wisdom, in that soft ray of the sun of a continuous spiritual joy; both the one and the other, old age and wisdom, you will encounter on the crest of life: nature has willed it so. It is then that the hour will sound, and there will be no occasion for anger that the fog of death approaches. Let your last movement be a movement towards light, and your final exclamation a cry of joy at knowledge.
This praise of wisdom and of old age in a man who at thirty was obliged to be wise and old - for what other honey was available to him? - is all the more suspect the more insistent it is. Here Nietzsche was not afraid of human perspicacity. The whole world praises wisdom and science, and thus no one ignorant of his personal fate could suspect him of insincerity. Perhaps, however, he really also hoped that "knowledge" could choke in him his longing for the life that had been lost and that it would be, if not a source of life, at least a source of forgetfulness capable, in its own way, of stilling the hunger of the tormented heart. But he found that science could give him nothing. Here is what Zarathustra tells of his experience in this respect:
It was in this way that Nietzsche's hopes that he had put in science, in the sweet honey of knowledge, of which he had spoken so eloquently in Human, All Too Human, were fulfilled. And yet he had come to it with the best of intentions, and feared nothing so much as to be deceived in these hopes. Science appeared to him now like a skeleton. He preferred being a day laborer in the kingdom of shadows to living with men of our time. It will be said that the fault was his own: why did he expect from science what it could not give? But where, then, shall modern man go? Where shall he seek salvation? And will he not hear from the scientists that their science stands above everything else in the world? And is it not natural for a man in Nietzsche's situation to seek salvation in science after having learned the news, after having "seen and heard," that "God is dead?"
- Too far I flew into the future; I was seized with horror. And when I looked around, lo, time was my only contemporary. Then I flew backward, homeward - and always more quickly. Thus I came to you, you men of the present time, and arrived in the land of culture. For the first time I brought an eye to see you, and good desire. Truly, with longing in my heart I came. But what happened with me? Even though fear seized me, I had to laugh. Never had my eye seen anything so motley-colored. I laughed and laughed, while my foot still trembled, and my heart also. "Here, indeed, is the home of all the paint pots!" - I said. With fifty patches painted on faces and limbs, you present-day men sat there to my astonishment. And with fifty mirrors around you, which flattered your play of colors and repeated it!... He who would strip veils and wrappers and paints and gestures off you would have only enough left to scare the birds. Truly, I myself am the frightened bird that once saw you naked and without paint, and I flew away when the skeleton winked at me. I would rather be a day-laborer in the nether-world and among the shades of the past! - Indeed, fatter and fuller than you are the inhabitants of the nether-world... Alien to me, and a mockery, are the present-day men, to whom my heart lately impelled me, and I am exiled from fatherlands and motherlands. Thus I love only my children's land, the undiscovered, in the remotest sea: for it do I bid my sails seek and seek. ["The Land of Culture," Thus Spake Zarathustra]
Wherever men can seek, he sought; wherever he could hope to find a refuge, he went. To the scientists he came with the best intentions, without any desire to criticize, test, or mock. He assured himself that there was no honey sweeter than the honey of knowledge. By knowledge, however, he meant science, that science which was already here before him and which he hoped could assuage the hunger of his soul. He lived through some years in which he refreshed himself with positivism, hoping that the "vivifying milk" of which he had so great need would at last flow from what he called "the hanging clouds of sadness~"
Is it surprising that he was obliged to laugh, even though he felt so earnest? Is it surprising that later he should have characterized Mill as "offensive clarity," Spencer and Darwin as mediocre Englishmen? He could not deny their gifts, talent, clear-sightedness, though he no longer valued all these as in times past when he took science for wisdom, i.e., what is best in our life. Now, on the contrary, the clarity and perfection of scientific systems offend him. He cannot understand how men can be interested in logical systems, in investigation of the external world, without feeling that with which he himself had suffered so greatly, and remain indifferent toward that which terrified him so. These scientists, who into old age did not see above their scientific work the tragedy of our earthly existence, which had been revealed to him under such extraordinary circumstances, seemed to him like infants. "I left the house of the scientists, banging the door behind me."
With his attitude toward science Nietzsche offended professional scientists of all categories, for he turned away equally from the positivists, the materialists, and the idealists. Hence the special tone that the professors have taken in speaking of Nietzsche. They would say at best that Nietzsche renounced science not because he could get nothing from it but because he did not know how to get anything from it, being too vehement, too impatient, too impetuous. And while valuing his talents as a publicist and allowing for the tragedy of his situation, their relation to him has the character of benevolent condescension, which excludes any thought of the possibility that Nietzsche's experiences could serve as a touchstone for the claims of science. For them Nietzsche is a brilliant writer, but not a philosopher. He is a "forger of aphorisms," lacks the capacity to synthesize, and does not understand how to generalize or unify his individual observations.
It is true, of course, that like every man, Nietzsche has his faults. But perhaps that for which the learned reproach him is his highest excellence. It is most interesting, perhaps most necessary, for us to hear what a philosopher says who dares to speak without turning constantly backward to see what he has already said, out of fear of not arriving at that logical unity which every philosophy claims as conditio sine qua non. Definitiveness and systematic form are very worthwhile when they come of themselves, when the contradictions of the philosophical theory are not smoothed over by an experienced hand, as customarily happens, but, on the contrary, show themselves to be internally impossible. But the latter case is almost inconceivable. At least there has not been until now a single philosopher who did not bind himself, for the sake of synthesis, to some idea. Under these conditions theory obliges one to speak not of what he sees and feels but of what does not contradict his conviction that has been admitted. Even more, the philosopher who possesses a fixed and formed theory ceases to see and feel everything that does not enter into his framework.
In this respect Nietzsche is freer than the others, and he owes this in part to the aphoristic form which he perhaps adopted against his will. He wrote down his thoughts and impressions as they came to him without adapting them to a system. And for the reader it is obviously much more profitable to do the work of synthesizing for himself. It requires labor, but one has in exchange for it the certainty that Nietzsche did not artificially prune his thoughts and did not invent untruths out of fear of being inconsistent.
If the logical infallibility of the theoreticians really testified to the truth of their doctrines, then the absence of system in Nietzsche would obviously be a grave fault in his philosophy. But we know what the secret of philosophical "wholeness" consists. From the simple fact that we know a whole series of absolutely exclusive theories, each of which is constructed with equal consistency, we can learn not to value too highly this side of the philosophic conception and even, indeed, to experience it as irksome. When a philosopher is too consistent and convincing, we see in this almost a danger of seduction and become all the more guarded the more certainly we know that he has not procured his logic for nothing and, in any case, not from the nature of the phenomena in question (especially when it is a question of difficult and complex problems). We wish that the possible degree of consistency should come forward of itself as the result of what a man thinks, sees and feels, if it no longer appears possible that this systematic assumes that it comprehends absolutely everything that is accessible~ to philosophical investigation. The elimination of contradictions, however, seems to us dangerous and risky for, whether one wishes it or not, many things will be left outside the system which should not under any circumstances be left outside. That is why the reproaches raised by the professors against Nietzsche can be justified only in very small measure, at best insofar as he tried to add purely external reasons to his views. But, as has already been noted, Nietzsche only rarely had recourse to these measures, and the best thing is to ignore them, as, for example, his philosophical reflections on the words bonum and malum that criticism has so zealously refuted. It is the thoughts and feelings he experienced that are important to us, not his constructions. If he happened to experience different, often contradictory states of the soul and was not afraid to hold fast to both, so much the better for us. If we would represent to ourselves the general character of a man s experiences, we must ourselves know how to separate the permanent and the important from the accidental and unimportant, without taking account cf what he himself would have wished to have stand out or what he himself valued most in it. For, according to Nietzsche's own statement, "What is best in yourself, you do not know." Others can discover it more easily. We receive finally a total impression, not a logical but rather a psychological one. We will have before us not a complete system but rather a complete man, which is obviously not the same thing.
Thus science, on which Nietzsche had founded such great hopes and which should have taken for him the place of all the joys of life, all the consolations of religion, gave him nothing and could give him nothing. What he needed was not to be found in science. In order that the reader may appreciate Nietzsche's spiritual state in the period when he pilgrimaged from one holy place to another in the vain hope of at last finding repose, we shall quote a short fragment of Thus Spake Zarathustra. During Zarathustra’s conversation with the dwarf about "the eternal return," he suddenly heard the terrible howling of a dog.
Such visions accompanied Nietzsche in his wanderings. Could the stories of Tolstoy such as "The Caucasian Prisoner" and others like it, or reflections on the good or on science, bring him peace? Was he not right to turn aside from all these and go his own way?
- Where now was the dwarf? And the gateway? And the spider? And all the whispering? Had I dreamt? Had I awakened? Suddenly I stood alone between wild crags, dreary in the dreariest moonlight.
But there lay a man! And there! The dog leaping, bristling, whining - now it saw me coming - then it howled again, and cried: - had I ever heard a dog cry for help in this way?
And truly, the like of what I saw I had never seen before. I saw a young shepherd writhing, choking, quivering, with a distorted face, and with a heavy black serpent hanging out of his mouth.
Had I ever seen so much loathing and pale terror on a face? He had perhaps gone to sleep. Then the serpent had crawled into his throat - then it had bitten itself fast.
My hand tore at the serpent and tore: - in vain! It did not pull the serpent out of his throat. Then there cried out of me:
"Bite! Bite! Its head off! Bite!" - so it cried out of me; my terror, my hatred, my loathing, my pity, all my good and my bad cried with one voice out of me. - You daring ones around me! You venturers and adventurers, and whoever of you who have embarked with cunning sails on unexplored seas! You enjoyers of enigma! Solve for me the enigma that I then saw, interpret for me the vision of the lonesomest one!
Who is the shepherd into whose throat the serpent thus crawled? Who is the man into whose throat all the heaviest and blackest will thus crawl?
["The Vision and the Enigma," Thus Spake Zarathustra]