Why I am So Wise – Nietzsche

Why I Am So Wise is one of several chapter essays with ironic titles including ‘Why I am So Clever” and “Why I Write Such Good Books,” in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is  [1908]. 

The book is the last original book written by philosopher before his death in 1900 and was published posthumously.

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The phrase ‘ecce homo’ is Latin for ‘behold the man‘ and is the phrase used by Pontius Pilate in John 19:5 [Vulgate] when he presents Christ, bound and crowned with thorns, to a crowd shortly before his Crucifixion.

According to Walter Kaufmann, the text contains parallels to Plato’s Apology which documented the trial of Socrates. Just as Socrates was presented as the wisest of men precisely because he freely admitted to his own ignorance, Nietzsche argues that he himself is a great philosopher because of his withering assessment of the entirety of Philosophy which he considered a cowardly failure to pursue its stated aim to its reasonable end.

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In this regard, the wording of his title was not meant to draw parallels with Jesus, but to suggest a certain kind of contrast.

Nietzsche posits that mythological figure of Jesus actually represents the mistake of failing to see that being a man is enough, that the important task of transcending the all-too-human requires nothing genuinely inhuman or supernatural,  nothing beyond the reach of flesh-and-blood humans.

Nietzsche holds that to believe in the existence of objective values is to believe in an illusion that is devoid of any constructive meaning, and therefore nihilistic;

In religion the constraint is lacking to consider ourselves as value positing.

Nietzsche maintains that when the will of the self is subordinated to the will of God,  the content of experience is negated.

Nietzsche’s scathing critique of religion and morality has exerted a profound influence on Western philosophy and modern thought, particularly on existentialism. However, his critique of the person of Christ, the ‘ecce homo’ of history and art, is in my view, somewhat amiss claiming Christ represented an embodiment of ultimate morality.

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In my view, Christ arrived not to represent a divine morality but to address the failure of human constructed morality, the very self-constructed morality Nietzsche championed.

A contemporary of Nietzsche, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, examined this dilemma in his 1880 novel, The Brother’s Karamazov. Nietzsche’s senior by only 23 years, Dostoevsky wrote of man’s attempt to create moral norms without God and concludes that it is not within man’s power to overcome nihilism — without God, man will inevitably destroy himself.

Why so? Dostoevsky’s Ivan asks to what end is mankind served by God’s plan for bringing about a harmony between good and evil in some distant future while meanwhile mankind suffers inexplicably. Ivan’s question is quite compelling because it addresses the problem of evil and suffering in terms of how mankind experiences it.

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Nietzsche’s thought on the reality of suffering fails to account for why anyone or anything suffers at all, or why the problem of evil was ever a valid moral question in the first place, because the exploitation and “overpowering of what is alien and weaker” is a natural consequence of strength passes unquestioned as a self-evident rule.

Dostoevsky’s novel, through the dialogue of the two brothers, examines and critiques the empty vanities of religion and moralism, pointing out many of Nietzsche’s later conclusions, yet ends on a very different note. Rather than championing the creation of new values within the moral vacuum of nihilism, the Jewish and later Christian scriptures address the self-created morals of humanity and their failure.

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It is in the Book of Job, written in the 3rd century BC, in which the protagonist who in the face of pointless suffering has the choice to turning back to moralism or towards nihilism, turns instead angrily and audaciously to address God with an ultimatum.

Answer humanity personally!

This challenge was answered in the person of Christ, not an ‘ubermensch’ or ‘superman’ because he represented God’s moral superior standards, but because he represented the face of God’s suffering with and for humanity. The cost of human freedom and moral agency finds reconciliation, and ultimate meaning in the scars of God himself.

 

 

On Suffering

Recently Stephen Fry created waves by declaring the Judeo-Christian  God to be capriciuos, mean minded and an “utter maniac”  for creating a world full of injustice and pain.

For him athiesm is a much more internally consistent belief system.

It avoids the prickly internal contradiction that maintains there is an all knowing , all good and all powerful God responsible for this world who is also desiring of our unending grattitude and praise.

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Cultural commentator Russell Brand, mouthpiece for the spiritual awakening pervasive in western culture , had his reply on The Trews.

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The debate is interesting because it drills down beyond dogma into the narrative of belief systems. Every world view has a story at its heart and from this core narrative we draw the meaning of our existence.

The narrative of Buddhism says suffering is an illusion tied to desire. If we achieve detachment from desire we can escape the world of suffering and so the world of rebirth.

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The narrative of Hinduism says suffering is merited, and karmic cycles deliver suffering upon us for past misdemeanours.

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The narrative of Islam says God is far greater than humanity, and God’s greater wisdom means humans cannot understand the meaning of their suffering.

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The narrative of athiesm says says suffering is entirely meaningless [as is joy or evil]. The locus of reality lies in existential being.

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What all these narratives agree on is that suffering incites in us a sense of justice. From it we gain a sense of meaning outside of our own experiences, a solidarity with others who suffer. Suffering gives us a  knowledge that all is not right with this world and that suffering is inherently wrong for the human condition.

The Hebrew understanding of suffering to me offers the most profound illustration in the Book of Job.

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The narrative of Job shows that suffering is real and it is often unmerited. Job choses not to resign himself to God’s mystery.

His suffering presses him to go beyond religion.

Job then has the choice to turn from God to nihilism but instead he turns TO God with a daring challenge. “Show yourself.”

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God created this mess and so only God can stand between an imperfect humanity and a perfect God and arbitrate.

In doing so, Job is declared righteous, as righteous as any of the covenant. It’s not blood sacrifice, circumcision, baptism, church attendance, meditation, renunciation, humility, pennance, piety or prayers that God smiles upon. From the very beginning it’s faith.

It’s the vision of God standing between us and Godself, a God-man ultimately carrying our suffering.

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This redemption gives ultimate meaning to our suffering, not removing it but bearing with us, walking with us, taking away our tears with a glorious future hope.

Got a Redemption Narrative?

This article by Drake Baer was published in Business Insider this week. It’s too good not to share.

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Psychologists say that happy, socially engaged people share a remarkably similar life story

Psychology research verifies that the stories we tell ourselves matter.

A new study from Northwestern University shows that folks who fit the classic mould of “good people” — those who care about others while also having high well-being and mental health — have life stories that share remarkably similar narrative arcs.

In two to three hour interviews, researchers Dan McAdams and Jen Guo asked 157 people between the ages of 55 and 57 to describe their lives as if they were novels, complete with main characters, recurring themes, and turning points.

According to McAdams and Guo, the people who cared the most for future generations all told their life stories as “redemption narratives.

From the study’s abstract:

The story’s protagonist

(a) enjoys an early advantage in life,

(b) exhibits sensitivity to the suffering of other people,

(c) develops a clear moral framework,

(d) repeatedly transforms negative scenes into positive outcomes, and

(e) pursues prosocial goals for the future.

In McAdams and Guo’s study, the adults who were the most generative — or socially engaged — acted out a similar story of redemption in their everyday lives.

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In “The Art and Science of Personality Development,” McAdams argues that there’s a link between the suffering felt early in life and the redemption that follows:

Failure may ultimately result in victory, deprivation may give way to abundance. Importantly, the narrator describes an explicit causal link between the prior negative event and the resultant enhancement…

For example, a woman is devastated by a romantic breakup, but then finds the partner of her dreams. A student flunks out of college, then finds a great job. A boy endures extreme poverty as a child, but when he grows up, he comes to believe that early suffering made him a better person.

McAdams notes that while not everybody identifies with every turn of the redemption narrative, adults who are more generative conform to the narrative arc than those who are less so.

If the story of redemption sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a narrative arc that you can spot again and again in our mythological and literary traditions.

Siddhartha

One of the most notable accounts is the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha. The traditional account is that he was born into a sheltered royal life, but when he witnessed the way people were getting old, sick, and dying outside of the palace, he resolved to figure out how to deal with the problem of suffering. This motivated him to study the mechanics of the mind in meditation, yielding the foundational insights of what we today call Buddhism, a system of understanding that’s helped people for generations.

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The Jungian psychologist and comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell argued that historical, mythological, and literary narratives show up in our everyday lives. We find ourselves called to go on quests like Joan of Arc did when she united France; are filled with righteous anger like when Jesus threw the merchants out of the temple; or get caught up in star-crossed love affairs like Romeo and Juliet.

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What’s fascinating about McAdams and Guo’s study is that it evidences how the narrative arcs that we know so well from our various cultural traditions animate our lives.

It seems that the most pro-social people — the Nelson Mandelas and Aung San Suu Kyis of the world — embody these redemption narratives.

The good news is if you’re not happy with your life story, the research shows that you can edit it, too.

Prometheus [2012]

In his 2012 film Prometheus,, Ridley Scott revisits his Aliens franchise, deciding to tell the origin of not only his Alien creatures, but of humanity.

Plot Summary

The film opens with a humanoid  creature left on earth, a rocky and watery desolate place.  As his space ship leaves him, he drinks a potion and he collapses into the stream. His body dissolves into the water, and fragmented DNA reforms into strands; life is started on earth.

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Years later, in 2089, scientists Shaw and Holloway discover cave paintings of humans worshiping giants who are pointing to a constellation. They gather the data and present it to the Weyland corporation, invested in research into the origins of humanity. It seems Shaw and Holloway have found a star map. Weyland commissions the expedition aboard the space vessel, Prometheus, to seek out the star system and its inhabitable planet there.  The ship, and crew in cyro-sleep,  are guided by robot David.

Shaw and Holloway and the crew awake to find themselves near a desolate planet with a curious hive like structure. Within, there is a breathable atmosphere and heaped up bones and carcases of the inhabitants. The place seems to be a sarcophagus. David, proficient at multiple forms of communication, is able to awaken hologram like memories of the deaths of the giants here. It seems they were escaping a terror. David also opens long shut doors, taking the expedition into a temple-like chamber full of vases. Although dormant, from these vases quickly grow squirming, menacing demons – Aliens.

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The crew take a preserved giant head and one of the vases, back into the space ship. In the process they lose two crew in the honeycomb tunnels of the hive. These two poor souls are the first victims of the rapidly growing, frightening creatures disturbed in the chamber. In true Aliens style we know it’s just a matter of time before each crew member gets their come-uppance.

Aboard the ship, Shaw examines the giant head and discovers a close match to human DNA. They have discovered the Engineers – the predecessors to human life on earth. The discovery sends ripples through the crew aboard, “you’re messing with 300 years of Darwinism.” When Holloway asks Shaw if this disproves her faith, marked by a cross around her neck, she retorts, “but who made them?”

David opens the alien vase and extracts what looks like vials of liquid from within it.  Most enigmatically, he deliberately places a tiny drop of the black ink into Holloway’s glass of water.  That night Holloway and Shaw make love, but not before we discover that her father died fighting ebola in Africa and that she is sterile and cannot bear children.

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The next day, the crew return into the hive, however Holloway is seriously ill, and Shaw, unknown to her, is now pregnant with an alien foetus.  David explores alone and discovers the cockpit of the Engineers‘ spaceship. He activates the hologram memories again and discovers that the Engineers were bound for earth.

Curiously, the spaceship is packed to the gills with vases like those in the temple. It’s almost as if the ship is packed with weapons – fearful biological weapons.

Most interestingly, David discovers an Engineer in cryosleep with an audible heart beat. One is still alive.

Holloway is very ill and Captain Vickers will not allow him back on board. When the crew try to return him to get medical help, Vickers instead torches him with a flame thrower. Not long after Fifield, one of the ships crew left in the hive tunnels over night arrives, crazed and zombified. He too is promptly killed. Inside the ship, Weyland the elderly millionaire who established the Prometheus expedition, is found. It seems,  he commissioned the expedition to find the Engineers and discover the secret to his own immortality. Strangely, Captain Vickers is revealed to be his daughter. Both she and David have known the deadly nature of this expedition and are party to Weylands hubris.

At this point though now it is dawning on the crew, Shaw in particular, that the expedition is doomed. The alien foetus within her has grown rapidly and threatens to kill her. Boldly, she accesses a medical pod and performs surgery on herself, extracting the wriggling creatures and sewing herself up with laser stitches and staples. With only a few jabs of pain killers to abdomen and legs, she then proceeds to race and chase for the remainder of the film. The foetus she leaves to die, locked in the medical pod.

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Weyland and David awaken the Engineer, the one remaining creature of the race who spawned life on earth and are promptly and soundly beaten. This is no benevolent creator; no. The Engineer is bent on piloting his spacecraft straight towards earth where the vials of alien embyos and black sludge will obliterate life.

Is this the moral kick back for daring to name your space ship Prometheus? Is the search to find the gods, or to be like the gods, worthy of mortal punishment?

One by one the characters on the team Prometheus die off; in true Ridley fashion the female protagonist kicks butt. Despite the cesarian section, she shoots, kills, climbs and fights for the remainder of the film. She also maintains her faith, and although the Engineers wished to obliterate life on earth, she wishes to find the reason why, and the reason why they created life in the first place.

Thematic Points: 

Technology and Artificial Intelligence

Cryo-sleep, light speed, star maps, human like robots capabale of jealousy and deceit and proficient at “over 6 million forms of communication, ” the film explores a future only 80 years ahead of our own. David the robot is an enigmatic character, at once loyal to Weyland, he deliberately infects Holloway with Alien substance. His loyalty shifts from Weyland to Shaw upon Weyland’s death however, perhaps revealing a rather human expediency to preserve his own existence.

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Faith 

Shaw wears a crucifix and maintains a faith beyond scientific reason. At one point it is mentioned that surely by 2089, religion and faith would be no longer relevant. However, she is bent on asking the deepest of age old questions. Science fiction the genre, is able to ask the questions asked by myths and legends throughout time – why are we here ? where did we come from? What is the meaning of our existence? Is our creator benevolent or not? In fact, science fiction reasserts that humanity is not on a trajectory away from spiritual wonderings but into the same ones. The genius of Star Wars was that it portrayed a future and advanced scientific world into which spirituality was integrated, instead of being tied to the dated and contextual issues of post-enlightenment rationalism.

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The Myth of Prometheus & the Quest for Immortality

The central theme in Prometheus concerns the Titan who defies the gods and gifts humanity with fire, for which he is subjected to eternal punishment.  The gods want to limit their creations in case they attempt to usurp the gods.

Weyland is an elderly millionaire who seeks to find the origin of life and take immortality for himself. This hubris leads the mission to sure death and the unelashing of a terrible biological weapon into the universe. It seems both Weyland’s accomplices, David and Captain Vickers know of the dangers of the mission and comply. The moral framework of the story judges Weyland but not Shaw. She wishes to know her creator and to ask “why” and survives to continue her quest. Conversely, Weyland wishes to wrest immortality for himself, and so suffers judgement for his hubris.

The Origin of Life

As mentioned above, the narrative is set within the 21st century and is thus constrained by contemporary rational scientfic questions of life and origin. The story does not counter Darwinian evolution, instead addresses the missing link in evolutionary theory, “how did life start?” The Engineers are thus named because they are the agents of life [and death] but not the creators themselves. The film closes with Shaw jetting off, still searching for the answers. Moreover,  robotic responses [placed in the mouth of David] as to “why does it matter?”, sound hollow to the human heart and spirit. To be human is to question.

Interestingly, the Engineer who comes to prehistoric earth to generate life, gives up his own life,  for life to continue. Notes on the film production process allude to alternative plot elements, including an Engineer coming to earth 2000 years ago, to intervene in human barbarity, but was crucified. However Scott removed the plot element for fear it was too heavy handed.

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The Problem of Evil

The giants created life on earth and now seek to destroy it ? Why?  It’s like the planet and its hive are an enormous trap, set to lure over-reaching mortals in search of eternal life and answers of being, and then in turn to release utter destruction upon them and their species.

There is an amorality about the plot as well. The Engineers themselves are and have been consumed by Aliens. This biological weapon is indiscriminate, much like ebola, or the burrowing worm that lives in the eyeball intent only to blind, or the insect that lays it’s larva in the chest of a live host only to burst forth into life, killing it.

Why do we live alongside such creatures and imagine a benevolent world with a benign creator. Life is cruel – we alone place meaning onto that cruelty. So goes the questions as to the nature of morality in this universe.

However, it is intrinsic to narrative to create a meaningful universe. The characters have agency, face a crisis and struggle for catharsis. The absence of morality leaves both good and evil neutral – and removes the crisis. If there were no questions of morality, there would be nothing “wrong” with aliens destroying life; and we inherently believe in life. The suffering and randomness experienced in the universe does not discredit the existence of God, but rather, the existence of ultimate meaning  affirms that our suffering is significant and our struggle for catharsis, has worth.

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Some Final Thoughts:

In an earlier blog, Noah and the Quest for Immortality, I touched on the age old question, expressed in myths, legends and the greats of world literature – the question of life immortal. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero discovers that immortality lies only in human civilization and not in any herbal remedy to prolong life. The Noah story, which refashions this tale, reinjects into this epic narrative the note of eternal life. It lies in a promised descendent who would take destruction upon himself, delivering life and relationship with God back to humanity.

In the biblical account of Adam and Eve, the pair are originally granted immortality in the Garden and need not lust for it. Curiously they are tricked to eat of the fruit “of the knowledge of good and evil.” I say curiously,  because this knowledge is something they already possessed. Otherwise the dare would have no meaning for them. Why would they be tempted to take of what they already had ?

The power in the temptation was for them to believe God was withholding something from them – equality with him. He was a killjoy, a cheater, someone who wanted less for them than they could attain. The fruit of the “knowledge of good and evil” would bridge the gap. So in taking what they already had, they showed distrust for God’s voice and so distrust for God’s nature and their own identity. In doing so, they lost relationship with God, and so lost immortality.

The quest ever since then has been to reattain immortality. And more importantly, to reattain relationship with God. These two things should not be equated to be the same thing.

What the film Prometheus shows us, is that it’s not the quest for relationship with God, or to ask “why” that gets humanity into problems, but the selfish quest for immortality and its power, to the exlcusion of relationship with this creator, that is the problem. The one who seeks to know God, must also listen to how this God is telling the story of redemption in unexpected ways.

The film was a popular and critical success, grossing over $400 million world wide. Nevertheless, there  are major weaknesses to the plot, including the strange choice to have a young actor [Guy Pearce] made up to look like an old man Weyland. Moreover, the unlikely way Shaw runs, fights, climbs and chases after experiencing major abdominal surgery is close to ludicrous. Various other characters such as Captain Vickers and other minor characters are underdeveloped leaving plot elements enigmatic or weakened.

Nevertheless the story is an interesting prequel to the Aliens saga and exploration of origins.