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.

 

 

The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick’s 2011 film “The Tree of Life” is largely a reflection on the Book of Job. The film begins with this quotation:
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“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?… When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” ~ Job 38:4

 

In the face of suffering, such as the story of Job recounts, one is left but to question God,

Why?!

God’s response [above] seems enigmatic. But  a  meditation on our smallness in space and time can be definitive.

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The enormous hyperbole of time and space, when acknowledged, removes all pretensions of any other identity other than our identity in God. If not, we are cosmically nothing. Indeed, without God, our questions, our suffering mean nothing. Job, stripped of all identity, had a few choices. He could turn from God to ‘nature and cosmic solitude‘ or towards God to earn favour by ritual and rite. Instead, he chose a third path, he asked God personally for a legal arbitration. He asked for grace.
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So why does Malick in his film,  draw an association with the motif of “The Tree of Life“? It is Genesis 1-2, not the Book of Job, which tells us of the separation between humanity and God and the loss of the Tree of Life. The creation narrative tells of how humanity, by turning away from relationship with God, chose the way of nature, and so became subject to the created order and its perils. Humans become mortal.
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Forever, since then humanity has searched for the “Tree of Life,” the power source of eternal being. The story of Job connects to this narrative by posing the the temptation presented by Job’s friends to reach out for the Tree of Life.
“Repent”
they say,
“Pray! Pay penance and be restored.”
Earn favour, gain life.
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Job refuses his wife’s urging to “curse God and die”. He chooses the third path. He chooses to address God directly. The Book of Job then poses a few mysteries. Firstly, it examines how mysteriously, God’s gift to humanity is suffering. Suffering pulled Job from his relationships to his wealth, his health and even his loved ones. It cut through his ties and relationships to the natural world leaving him boldly facing God and asking for grace. Suffering reoriented him to his truest relationship.
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The second mystery,  is that Job looked past the wisdom of his friends and appealed personally to God for grace. He resisted the temptation to reach for the “Tree of Life” to find life, but in doing so, evade the person who gives life – God.
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The grace that Job looked to, the grace he could not see fully, was for God to stand on earth, a redeemer, and speak for humanity, to arbitrate for us, we who are unable to earn access to life eternal. What Job rejects is the way of nature or “nihilism” and the way of “wisdom” but turns instead, with a personal appeal to God. In the midst of Job’s suffering, he turns to face God and he asks for God to personally intervene. God honours his request, standing on the earth as a redeemer for a humanity adrift. This person-God, stands as a suffering servant, and is hung on a tree, the Tree of Life. It is only in this act of grace, that restores humanity to relationship with God, and to life eternal.
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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.