Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil: Chapter Three and the Eternal Recurrence

Given that Nietzsche has a reputation for being an atheist, this chapter may come as something as a surprise to many, as it demonstrates Nietzsche’s own ‘religiosity’. In looking at religious belief, Nietzsche is more concerned with why people believe what they do, not what they believe. It is the psychology of religion that is his main concern.
Here I want to focus on the key Section 56, as this presents his notion of the ‘eternal recurrence’. Apart from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the doctrine of the eternal recurrence only gets a few mentions in his later works. However, the doctrine was first elaborated in The Gay Science (S341) where Nietzsche presents a ‘what  if’ image.  He asks what if a demon were to creep up to you one night when you are all alone and, feeling lonely, and were to say to you that the life you have lived and continue to live will be the same life you will live again and again for infinity. This life will be exactly the same; no additions, and no omissions, every pain, every joy, every small and great event.  If this were the case, would you cry out in despair over such a prospect, or would you think it to be the most wonderful outlook ever? Though not mentioned specifically, this ‘what if’ scenario sums up the eternal recurrence: whatever in fact happens has happened an infinite number of times in the exact same detail and will continue to do so for eternity. You have lived your life an infinite  number of times in the past and will do so an infinite number  of times in the future.
Importantly, like seemingly the doctrine of the will to power, Nietzsche presents the eternal recurrence as a thought experiment,  not a provable truth. In his unpublished notes of the time (which should always be treated with caution) he argues for it as a cosmological thesis. However, it is most appropriately (given what we know about Nietzsche’s epistemological views) seen as an existential challenge: given this burdensome thought how can we turn it into something joyful? It is essentially the same kind of question that has preoccupied a number of existential thinkers, most notably Camus. Nietzsche goes beyond Schopenhauer’s pessimism here in expressing the need for a human being to be world-affirming: you have to be well-disposed towards yourself, not full of world-weary pessimism or hoping for the next life. You have to look at your life and, like seeing a drama or hearing a musical, declare ‘de capo’ (‘from the beginning’): wanting it again and again. Saying ‘yes’. Nietzsche ends S56 with ‘a vicious circle made god?’, but this is the god Dionysus, not the Christian God.
The eternal recurrence is meant to have a transforming effect, which requires a revaluation of all values. It requires us to be proud of our achievements because they are our creation. Nonetheless, like religious belief, adopting the eternal recurrence is a matter of ‘faith’. Where it differs from religious belief is that it does not place that faith in something other-worldly, but in this life.

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Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil: Chapter Two and the Will to Power

The ultimate concern of this chapter is the possibility of philosophy.  If we accept that our ‘truths’ are merely the prejudices of philosophers, then we are led to scepticism.  However, Nietzsche believes that there is a role for the genuine philosopher, and this involves a ‘free spirit’ (‘spirit’ [geist] also translated as ‘mind’) that goes beyond scepticism and involves a new insight into nature.  This leads to a new philosophy, a new ‘religion’ that also entails a new morality and politics.
The ‘free spirit’ is what anticipates the ‘philosopher of the future’. Here Nietzsche asks us to see the world differently – ultimately as expressions of the will to power. A key section of Chapter 2 on the topic of the will to power is Section 36. Note how Nietzsche uses terms such as ‘assuming this’ and ‘supposing that’, so this passage presumably cannot be seen as a straightforward statement of what the will to power is (keep in mind what Nietzsche has already said about the will to power in Sections 13 and 22, in particular that all is ‘interpretation’). To some extent then, what Nietzsche is presenting is a thought-experiment and is highly speculative. Having said that, Burnham points out that, given that truth equals representation for Nietzsche, then Section 36 – and all of Nietzsche’s views for that matter – are both statements of what is and are highly speculative.
Whereas scholars such as Arthur Danto argue that this is Nietzsche’s ontology, other scholars such as Maudemarie Clark, points out that this view would conflict with what Nietzsche says in Sections 13 and 22, which is why the passage is deliberately set out in hypothetical form. Having said that, as Janaway notes, Nietzsche is nonetheless presenting his view; not so much ‘ontological’ as ‘psychological’.
In Section 36, Nietzsche presents a series of hypothesis:

1.    Suppose that one ‘representation’ (i.e. what is ‘real’) of the world is that it consists of drives and passions and nothing else. Thinking (intellect) is only a relationship between these drives. Thinking is not a representation of these drives, but the drives themselves!
2.    Suppose also that the ‘material world’, the world of mechanistic cause and effect, is also part of this model and so is actually an organic unity. i.e. drives, the will, etc. are not something separate from the physical. So the physical world is not delusion, not ‘appearance’ but, rather, part of Nietzsche’s  model (which is itself an ‘appearance’)
3.    All organic functions can be ‘traced back’ to the will to power in the sense that all things are a power relationship, to achieve mastery and dominance (not something separate from the drives, but rather that which consolidates the drives). This includes thought itself (and philosophy): it is the will to power spiritualized! It is abstract ideas etc. that, ironically, often set out to disguise the will to power by giving other explanations for the world.
The key thing to note here is that the scientific view of the world sees everything in terms of physical cause and effect, whereas Nietzsche speculates that it is will; a kind of ‘instinctual life’ which includes emotions. Even physical process, such as animals or plants feeding on other animals or plants, involves the will to power, of matter acting on (and taking over or consuming) other matter. In an existential (phenomenological) sense, Nietzsche is saying that we experience the world this way, not that this is the way the world really is.

New book out by RPE tutor

Roy Jackson’s new book What is Islamic Philosophy? has just been published by Routledge. It offers a broad introduction to Islamic thought, from its origins to the many challenging issues facing Muslims in the contemporary world. The chapters explore early Islamic philosophy and trace its development through key themes and figures up to the twenty-first century.
Topics covered include:
  • ethical issues such as just war, abortion, women’s rights, homosexuality and cloning
  • questions in political philosophy regarding what kind of Islamic state could exist and how democratic can (or should) Islam really be
  • the contribution of Islam to ‘big questions’ such as the existence of God, the concept of the soul, and what constitutes truth
    “This excellent book provides a user-friendly introduction to the emergence and subsequent developments of Islamic philosophy. Jackson’s problem-oriented approach also shows, in a skilful manner, the relevance of this philosophy to some of the most pressing issues of our time in important fields such as politics, ethics and religion.” – Ali Paya, University of Westminster (UK), Islamic College (UK), and National Research Institute for Science Policy (Iran)

Applicant Day..

There will be an Applicant Day for people who’ve applied for the RPE (Religion, Philosophy & Ethics) course on Wednesday 19 February.
It’s a chance to get a feel for the University of Gloucestershire, for what it would be like to study here, and to ask any nagging questions about the course (if you have them). One of the sessions will offer a taste of what RPE students experience in lectures, and the subjects they explore:


Religion, Philosophy and Ethics: The Examined LifePlato famously said that an unexamined life was not worth living. But what is an unexamined life? How would you live a life that had no religion, philosophy and ethics in it, and if you did, would that really be a problem? 

Don’t worry if you can’t make 19 February, there will be another Applicant Day on 04 April.

Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil: Chapter One

Chapter 1, The Prejudice of Philosophers, is concerned with considering the history of philosophy and declaring that traditional philosophy now lies in ruins. Before moving on to consider key themes presented in Chapter 1, be aware that BGE (Beyond Good and Evil) has a clear structure to it.  It is in nine parts: beginning with a Preface and ending with a ‘Concluding Ode’, it is broken up with the first three parts dealing with philosophy and religion, Chapter 4 as an ‘Interlude’ of very short aphorisms, and Chapters 5-9 are concerned with politics and morality. The importance of Chapter 1 rests in Nietzsche’s belief that his works can only be appreciated and understood by the few: if you can get through Chapter 1 and have survived then you can be initiated into the next stage.
Section 1 of Chapter 1 is one of the most famous in the book.  It begins with something of a bombshell, “Given that we want truth: why not prefer untruth?”  Nietzsche here is bringing into question what is regarded as the fundamental drive of philosophy: the will to truth.  To assume the value of truth for human beings is to assume that there is a concord between truth and our nature; that truth is integral to our nature.  However, for Nietzsche, truth is deadly. The philosophical quest for ‘truth’ is nothing but a myth, a lie that has become indispensable for our survival.  Nietzsche, early on, is laying out the task before him:  if mankind has lived on the ‘lie’ that we must look for ‘truth’ then how are we to break away from that belief? 
Nietzsche, like all of us, is trapped by the limitations of language. As a philologist, Nietzsche recognised the power of language and is an early precursor of Wittgenstein in his views of language as imposing a ‘reality’ upon the world. Much of our language, containing such concepts as ‘God’, ‘truth’, ‘soul’ and so on are a product of primitive psychology and we are yet to accept that these terms are redundant.  As Nietzsche points out:
“Language, at its origin, belongs to an age of the most rudimentary form of psychology.  We enter a realm of gross fetishism when we become conscious of the fundamental presuppositions of the metaphysics of language or, in plain words, of ‘reason’…I am afraid we shall not get rid of God until we get rid of grammar”
(Twilight of the Idols, III)
Readers often find Nietzsche confusing when he criticises the quest for truth or, as in Section 12, talks of the need to get rid of the concept of the soul, yet also calls for “new and refined versions” of the concept of the soul.  When Nietzsche talks of “untruth” he is not suggesting that we all should live a life of falsehoods, rather that what is regarded as ‘truth’ is a falsehood. The trick, when reading Nietzsche, is to know when he is talking about his view on truth and when he is using the word in reference to the quest of past philosophers such as Plato and Kant.  Ideally, Nietzsche would like to be rid of such terms as ‘truth’ and ‘falsity’ altogether for, as he says in Section 4, “We do not object to a judgement just because it is false; this is probably what is strangest about our new language.  The question is rather to what extent the judgement furthers life, preserves life, preserves the species, perhaps even cultivates the species…” 
Nietzsche attacks Plato and Kant because of their methods of questing for truth, yet, because Nietzsche believes that philosophy has a future, that it can act as a guide for mankind, he does have views on what is truth.  These views are tied in to the Will to Power, the basic drive of mankind.  The Will to Power is mentioned four times in  Chapter 1, with reference to philosophy itself, then in respect of biology (the ‘science of life’), to physics (the ‘science of nature’) and to psychology (the ‘science of the human soul’).  It is the latter, the human ‘soul’ – bearing in mind what Nietzsche understands by the term ‘soul’…back to the problem of language again – that Nietzsche believes gives us privileged access to a ‘reality’, to a ‘truth’ shared by all beings.  It is curious that, whereas Nietzsche is often critical of Plato, he also shares many of the same aims and methods, both in terms of the rehabilitation of the philosopher and his importance, and, for those of you who are familiar with Plato’s famous cave allegory, the Socratic ‘turning’ towards the truth.
This ‘turning’ however, is not seemingly a metaphysical one, not pointing towards the stars for answers.  For Nietzsche, psychology is the “queen of the sciences” and, indeed, Nietzsche was as much a psychologist as a philosopher.  Nietzsche took it upon himself to discover what it meant to be truly human.  His criticism of such one-time friends as Wagner is that they ceased to be disgusted by the falsehoods and, instead, indulged in them.  Again, not unlike the prisoners in Plato’s cave, it is far more comfortable to live in the world of shadows than to be dragged up towards the real world.  For Nietzsche, this meant an existence that was jobless, wifeless, childless, homeless and stateless.  Ultimately, it may have cost him his sanity, although, prosaically, this may well have been an unavoidable medical condition.
In Section 6, Nietzsche claims that the “instinct for knowledge” that is, the will to truth, is not the “father of philosophy”, but that there is a more basic instinct.  “Every instinct is tyrannical; and as such seeks to philosophise.”  Philosophies (and philosophers) are seeking one thing: mastery, to be the ultimate purpose for all existence.  This mastery is what Nietzsche means by the Will to Power, although he reserves using the term itself until Section 9.  Philosophy is driven by the lust to rule, a lust that can be utilised for good as well as bad.  This is why Nietzsche gives philosophy such importance for, unlike other “scholars” (that is, the scientists), philosophers have the added bonus of being spiritual and intellectual.  For Nietzsche, the best philosophy is ‘science with a soul’. 
Nietzsche’s understanding of the Will to Power is best understood with reference to his own background.  Nietzsche studied and taught philology, which is the study of language and literature.  In particular, Nietzsche was concerned with classical philology.  It is said that when he gave lectures at Basel University his students felt that this man had literally been transported through time from ancient Greece; such was his knowledge and explication of the subject.  A key endeavour of BGE is to recover a Greek wisdom prior to Socrates and Plato; a ‘Homeric vision’ celebrated in its tragedies.  Nietzsche believed that the Platonic distinction between the real and apparent worlds, for a metaphysical truth, replaced this pre-Socratic wisdom not because it is true, but because it is safe.  Nietzsche believes his philosophy is a risk-taking adventure, a series of “dangerous maybes”.  The science of the psyche, especially, he believed could make actual discoveries that are both dangerous and promising.  It is the voyage of a new Odysseus who risks the danger of shipwreck for the hope of a whole new continent of discoveries. The theme of a ‘new voyage’ was a recurrent one with Nietzsche, as can be seen from this quote in The Gay Science:
“We philosophers and free spirits in fact feel at the news that the ‘old God is dead’ as if illumined by a new dawn; our heart overflows with gratitude, astonishment, presentiment, expectation – at last the horizon seems to us again free, even if it is not bright, at last our ships can put out again, no matter the danger, every daring venture of knowledge is again permitted, the sea, our sea again lies there open before us, perhaps there has never yet been such an ‘open sea’”
(The Gay Science, 343)
Nietzsche is not a nihilist in the sense that he does not conclude that, as there is no God, then ‘nothing matters’.  He does not talk of the end of all values, but the transvaluation of all values. In Section 13, Nietzsche asserts, “life itself is the will to power”.  Biology is wrong in believing that self-preservation is the primary instinct.  Rather than preserve life, “A living being wants above all else to release its strength.” 
Nietzsche was interested in Darwinian theory, and also had an attraction towards scientific knowledge, hence his tribute to Copernicus and Boscovich. Nietzsche is neither an idealist nor a materialist, but a philosopher who aims to provide an explanation of the world grounded in the interpretations of physics and biology. Buried as he was in ancient Greek wisdom, Nietzsche interprets physics as a rational inquiry into the way of human beings, as ‘physis’: he is not a proponent of modern physics, on the reliance upon materialism, but on the ‘psyche’ and human nature, on what it means to be a human being. 

What is Islamic Philosophy?

One of the greatest philosophers is the German Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant is, of course, a ‘Western’ philosopher and not an Islamic philosopher, although I might add that it is quite possible to be ‘Western’ and ‘Islamic’ at the same time, but it is a curious fact that there exists a copy of Kant’s doctoral thesis certificate (see picture), dated 1755, which has inscribed at the top of the title page the Arabic words bismillah al-rahman al-rahim (most common translation: ‘in the name of God, most Gracious, most Compassionate’). This short and poetic phrase is regarded as containing the true essence of the Quran (the Islamic holy scripture) and, it is frequently cited at daily prayers and other contexts by Muslims. Why this Arabic phrase should appear at the top of Kant’s doctoral thesis is a puzzling one, and we will likely never know the answer. It is unlikely Kant placed it there himself, for he makes little mention of Islam in his writings, but I remark upon the existence of this thesis here because, in many ways, it raises the question of the relationship between the firmly-established Western philosophical tradition – with such giants as Kant – and the perhaps more fragile existence of Islamic philosophy. Is it really possible to propose that there is congruence between such philosophical system-builders as Kant and what Islamic philosophers have to say in their great volumes or, for that matter, what can be found in the Quran? Or does this bismillah merely poke fun at the very idea that Islam could offer anything of value to philosophical discourse when compared to such earth-shattering contributors to modern thought that Kant, amongst others, represents? This is why I say that Islamic philosophy seems more ‘fragile’ in this respect, for the ground upon which it rests seems more slippery. But why is this the case, and does it really make any sense at all to even speak of an ‘Islamic philosophy’?

Crossing Boundaries in Religious Studies: take for instance that detestable ‘Malleus Maleficarum’…

Despite the ‘methodological agnosticism’ our discipline has been… constructively criticised for and despite the phenomenological egg-shells some of us still tread on with care, the exciting thing about being a religious studies scholar today is that one has the freedom to cross the boundaries between more established disciplines, such as theology, philosophy, history or psychology. Most of my students do this without even thinking, although with premeditated intent!  They are stimulated by being able to ask the sort of questions that may not be interesting (nor possible) in other fields of study.

For example I have recently been talking about witches with some of my students – witches of the very fictional and medieval sort – and I found myself reading to them from none other than the infamous MalleusMaleficarum, the textbook of the Inquisition. Better known in its English translation as The Hammer of Witches, this book aimed to justify the persecution of hundreds of thousands of women – the use of the feminine gender for the adjective maleficus (feminine malefica/ maleficarum), Latin for wicked or criminal, being a clue for which of the two sexes might have been considered more susceptible to demonic influences.

Authored by two German clergymen in 1487 Malleus does not match what literary critics call ‘the horizons of expectation’ of its age – the historical, scientific or cultural context towards which a literary text naturally aspires and is in turn received and decoded by its readers. Dogmatic and brutal, this is perhaps not the sort of popular text one would expect to find in Germany, or Europe more widely, during the Renaissance. In fact it may have just providentially ended up quarantined on some dusty old shelf, had it not been concomitant with the development of the printing press.  As it turns out over the next two centuries it was going to be reprinted almost thirty times. Alas, the printing press was the Internet of its day: used for both good and evil.

The Hammer of Witches is shocking in many ways, but perhaps what is deeply unsettling about it is the extent of its heretical beliefs about the human body. Although the authors pretend not to be fooled by such ‘devil work and illusion’, we may still enquire into what sort of processes may have allowed many educated clergymen and laymen alike to entertain these sort of wild ideas? What might be the reason or reasons for such an irrational fear as having one’s sexual organs secretly stolen? What may be the emotional or social link (not intended to mean a sequential link) between monasticism and the inquisition? Religious traditions abound in norms, customs and symbolism about human sexuality and it seems that the accompanying emotions have often been sublimated in ways intended to leave no trace of their existence. Luckily students always ask about what is missing or hidden from view.

And so for those students out there who want to ask the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions of social sciences as well as the ‘yes but, what do they really believe?’ and the ‘what do they do?’ or ‘what does it mean?’, I would say: come cross some boundaries in religious studies!