Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 4

Chapter 2 of John Gray’s book is divided into 15 subsections.

Section 1: At The Masked Ball

In popular psychology we read about all the different masks we wear as we go about our daily business, e.g., that of parent, teacher, bus driver, patient, student or whatever, and, indeed, we change those masks many times per day.  Sometimes we may even wear “a face to meet the faces that we meet” as T.S. Eliot puts it in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Often we are pretending to be what or who we are not, e.g., the sophisticated and knowledgeable one, the stiff upper-lipped one who does not bend under any pressure or whatever.  Our masks are legion as we portray all the different sub-personalities that reside even within the one person we are.  In this section Gray argues that when one unmasks the Christian or the Humanist one finds that underneath both masks lies the human animal in its essential nature with its belief of mythical proportions, namely that “humans are radically different from other animals.” (Op. cit., 37)

The real task of philosophy, Gray argues is to unmask all the various pretenders at the masked ball.  he even argues that “philosophy’s greatest unmaskers have ended up as figures in the masquerade.” (Ibid., 37)  A real unmasking reveals nothing short of “our animal face,”  and this is the goal of true philosophy and the truth which Humanism must face up to.  Humanists have given up irrational belief in God and replaced it with an equally irrational belief in Humanity.

Section 2: Schopenhauer’s Crux 

Gray sings Schopenhauer's praises to such an extent that one wishes immediately to go out and buy his books and steep oneself in the old misanthrope. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) was a German philosopher known for his atheistic pessimism and philosophical clarity.  He was an eccentric recluse who did not suffer fools gladly.  Such writers as Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Mann were deeply influenced by his thought.  He was a reactionary liberal to give his politics a modern title and he was mostly inimical, if not hostile, to romanticism and revolution in all their guises.  In modern psychological terms one would call him a neurotic – he slept with loaded pistols beside his bed.  He never let his barber shave his neck just in case he might let the razor slip and cut the jugular.  For nearly thirty years he followed the same daily routine in the city where he lived – Frankfurt.  He had a hatred of noise and even threw a neighbour down the stairs for disturbing his peace. (I wonder was he Asperger’s?)

Gray picks Schopenhauer out for special study because he claims the philosophy of this eccentric misanthrope is highly inimical both to Christianity and its unmasked son or daughter Humanism:

But the upshot of Schopenhauer’s criticism of Kant is that the Enlightenment was only a secular version of Christianity’s central mistake.  (Ibid., 41)

Schopenhauer argued that our individuality or sense of self is an illusion.  That he spent time seeking or running after that illusion, seems not to have dawned on him.  I was also surprised to learn that our man had read a lot in Eastern religions and philosophy, in Hinduism and Buddhism mainly, and that with them he shared a central belief that “individual selfhood is an illusion.” (Ibid., 43)

Section 3: Nietzsche’s Optimism:

Here Gray gives a rich and uniquely personal understanding of that very conflicted human being (or human animal if we are to take Gray at his word) – Nietzsche or Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844 – 1900).  Sex for Schopenhauer was the only real goal of humankind: “Sex is the ultimate goal of nearly all human effort” and Gray argues that the old misanthrope believed that the sexual urges of mankind cared “nothing for individual well-being or personal autonomy.” (ibid., 43). History itself was in fact meaningless apart from the animal urge in us to survive as long as we can.  Nietzsche was initially attracted to the work of Schopenhauer but was to abandon it soon enough and to stand most of the older philosopher’s thought on its head, apart from his interest in sex, which Nietzsche shared with the old man.  Some scholars argue that Nietzsche was a homosexual [for example, Joachim Kohler argues cogently in his magisterial Zarathustra’s Secret ( Yale University Press, 2002) that Nietzsche’s suppressed homosexuality generated a hatred of Christianity and conventional morality.]  Nietzsche criticised the Schopenhauer’s pessimism and especially his view of history as pessimismGray points out that Christianity has a wonderfully mythic view of history (my words not Gray’s, that is, my interpretation of Gray’s thoughts).  History for Christians has a meaning, that is, it is the history of salvation and the eventual goal of history is redemption of all creation, the acme point of which is humanity.  Needless to say Humanists also have a mythic belief that history is meaningful, that is, that it is a linear representation of inevitable progressGray rejects vehemently both these misrepresentations of history.  Indeed, he rejects history and any philosophy of it because as human animals we are part of the cycles of nature, no more and no less.  In so being we can never stand outside nature whatsoever.

I agree with Gray that Nietzsche was a complex and very conflicted creature.  He was obsessed with religion while denying it with great vehemence all of his life.  Once again (like Carl Gustave Jung and many others) he came from a long line of Lutheran clergymen.  Psychologically he simply could not escape his past, which often results in trying to deny or reject it.  Gray points out that Nietzsche was a small inoffensive man with exquisite manners and was extremely polite, so much so that he was called “the little saint.”  Ironic indeed, then, that Nietzsche was one of the most famous atheists who spent much of his works in philosophy in trying to deny the existence of this God.  In short he was besotted and obsessed by that which he sought to deny.  Indeed, so conflicted was Nietzsche that while he criticized and rejected Schopenhauer’s proposal that pity was an essential virtue for human beings to possess as it taught us to be compassionate and altruistic, he himself was to exemplify in his very being a deep capacity for pity.  So much so that I have long had in my memory, since first reading it many years ago, the famous incident where Nietzsche threw his arms around the neck of an working horse which was being whipped callously by its master in the streets of Turin.  From then on Nietzsche was to succumb to the madness in which he was to die some years later.

In his later writings, Nietzsche was to insist that pity was not the supreme virtue but rather a sign of utter weakness.  He was to become besotted with this idea of weakness that he proposed the turning to the very strength of the human Will.  Life was, indeed, cruel but it was better to glorify the Will than to deny it or to succumb to the espousal of weakness in pity.  To that extent, he proposed a return to all that was essential in the ancient Greek god Dionysus.  This was the god of excess and bounty which could even at times be most cruel. Nietzsche invented the ridiculous figure of the Superman to give his understanding of history some meaning.  If anything Superman in Nietzschean atheism or Nietzschean humanism is no more than another masked animal like the Christ figure at the masquerade of life.

Above I have uploaded a picture I took earlier this evening of the dust jacket of my copy of Joachim Kohler's Zarathustra's Secret.

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