Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy and Aesthetic Atheism

Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy is an excellent starting point and stimulus for aesthetic atheism.   Rather than simply go for the Socratic/scientific perspective advocated by such traditional atheists as Richard Dawkins, Nietzsche takes the religious impulse quite seriously.  (See  "Affirmations After God:  Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Dawkins on Atheism," by J. Thomas Howe, Zygon, 47:1 (March 2012) for an interesting discussion). As Nietzsche would put it:  religion exists for man because not everything that happens is explainable to us by way of natural science.  There comes a moment when our "unshakable confidence" in the principle of sufficient reason and in the principium individuationis (which is the same thing, really) and of the Apollonian dream-world, suspends itself:  i.e. we can't find the explanation, at least not in terms of any principles of science.  I am not talking here about miracles but rather about stuff that we want to explain, like what is the meaning of life or the basis for morality, and why is there so much suffering ... and which science can tell us nothing about.  Human existence involves a great deal of suffering, and there must be some way to deal with this.  Traditional religion tells us that there is a God to look over us and that we have a soul that can go to some other realm, for example Heaven, when we die.  Nietzsche offers an alternative, but rather than attacking religion as illusion he argues that illusion is sometimes good for us.  The Greeks were aware that, as the Silenus figure put it, the best thing for man is never to have been born, and if born, to die soon, and yet they made life worthwhile by creating a world of illusion, the Apollonian world of the Olympian deities.  The Greeks created their religion to make it possible for them to live life.  (Nietzsche believed that this religion was better than the Christian one because it was not given to asceticism, which is just another word for denial of life.) And then the Greeks created another religion, the Dionysian religion, which involves, like Christianity, ritual, death, resurrection and redemption, but in a different key.  The Dionysian religion is another illusion, but it is an illusion that gives life meaning in a deeper way even than the Apollonian religion.  In this respect Nietzsche is the opposite of Plato.  Although, like Plato, he believes in the value of truth (what he teaches us as a philosopher is, after all, true in his eyes), he also, unlike Plato, sees the value of illusion, if addressed in the right way.  Plato asks us to leave the cave.  Nietzsche asks us to do that too, but then insists that this is not enough...and even that the Socratic quest holds within itself its own illusions (Apollonian illusions).  Leaving the cave is one part of the story.  The other part is diving deeper into the cave.  The Apollonian illusion seems to have taken us out of the cave but is in fact just another illusion:  when Plato's philosopher king thinks he has gotten out of the world into the world of reality he fails to see that he has gotten into another layer of illusion, the dreamworld of Apollo.  Recognizing this is one step.  But deeper than that is the overcoming of the veil of maya put up by the Apollonian illusion.  Once we do that, the even deeper illusion of oneness with the "primordial one" emerges.  Nietzsche could be read at this point in his intellectual career as holding that the "primordial one" is God, that God seeks to redeem himself through creation of a world of illusion.  This would be wrong.  Nietzsche, I believe, already is thinking that "God is dead."  And the "primordial one" is just another word for what he later calls "will to power."   It is a word for something deep within ourselves, a potential that we can actualize.  The primordial one which is the will to power which is the will to creative self-actualization on a grand scale (on the level of true greatness) is his answer to Schopenhauer's idea of the underlying irrational will.  But in contrast to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche's primordial one is the will as seeking power through creativity, through creation of great art, and through creation of oneself as a work of art.  So, the best manifestation of the will to power for Nietzsche is (and this comes out in Thus Spoke Zarathustra) the creation of oneself as a great work of art:  this is what is meant by "saying yes to life" and also what is meant by saying yes to eternal recurrence.  It is important that Nietzsche does not say that the veil of Maya is in fact shattered in the Dionysian experience.  Rather it is "as though the veil of Maya had been torn apart and there remained only shreds floating before the vision of mystical Oneness."  The Dionysian illusion of a vision of mystical Oneness is an even greater and more powerful illusion than the Apollonian, especially when combined with the Apollonian in the form of great art (which was in the form of tragic drama for the ancient Greeks and the tragic opera of Wagner, thought Nietzsche at that time).  So when Nietzsche says "Each of his [the Dionysian reveler's] gestures betokens enchantment; through him sounds a supernatural power, the same power which makes the animals speak and the earth render up milk and honey" he does not mean that the Dionysian dancer manifests something actually supernatural but rather that the world takes on an enchantment:  the ordinary becomes extraordinary, as if the animals could speak, etc.  The dream illusion of the Dionysian is in part the great aesthetic accomplishment of every great redemptive religion.  So, what happens to the individual here?  "He feels himself to be godlike and strides with the same elation and ecstasy as the gods he has seen in his dreams."  The gods were created by man spontaneously (in dreams) to give life some sense, but the deeper level of illusion is the one in which one begins to see oneself as godlike, and not just as an artist, but as a work of art created by oneself.  So when Nietzsche says "The productive power of the whole universe is now manifest in his transport" he means the productive power of the will to power is now manifested in the ecstatic experience of the self-productive Dionysian artist.  The sublime aesthetic experience found not only in great art but in great religion, such as that of the ancient Greeks (and perhaps even that of Christianity, although Nietzsche himself would deny it), and also in the great self-creation of the "tragic man" is something based on the true value of a special kind of deep illusion.  Oddly, great religion is what great art strives to achieve except without the belief, without the conviction that religion speaks truth. 

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