Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Why "Bringing down the wrath of heaven?"

Which is what my absolutely Free compilation of writings is entitled. It's a paraphrase of something from the book "Mysteries" by Knut Hamsun, author of the much better known "Hunger". The narrator goes on extended rambles about philosophy, society, writing, some of which are disturbing preludes to Hamsun's later politics, some of which are interesting and charmingly nihilistic and misanthropic. One of the things this guy Nagel says is that if you're going to write poetry you have to write while being prepared to bring the wrath of heaven and that is good and holy down on you. Kind of like if you want to write honest poetry you have to be prepared to have God send down a lightning bolt to strike you in consequence of what you're writing, and do it anyways.

I thought that that was a nifty ethic, and something that I like to think I exemplify somewhat.

Do it in order to spite what's good and holy. In fact, do it because it pisses off all that's good and holy, because that stuff is largely arbitrary bullshit that's used to extend the influence of particular social groups, to advance people's own self interest. Comes from "Beyond Good and Evil" by Nietzsche.

Interestingly enough, Nietzsche's definition of going beyond good & evil can be really easily combined with Marxist thought on how sociology and economics influence what he called the superstructure of society, i.e. education, religion, politics, the media. "Beyond Good & Evil" is maybe not the most explanatory of titles. What it's about is how the concepts of Good and Evil are used by religious leaders, politicians, and others in a way that conveniently reinforces their own social standing, that justifies their dominance of society, that condemns people who challenge them, and that have little validity, in Nietzsche's opinion, as categories of thought.

Good & evil in this case could be said to refer to the notion of public morality as opposed to libertarian morality. Public morality and civic virtue are ideas that go back to Aristotle that say that it's the duty of the state to exercise moral leadership in its territory among people for their own good. Not to just punish them when they break laws and leave them alone when they don't but regulate aspects of private life and behavior that don't directly have anything to do with crime in order to prevent 'moral decay', which they say will lead to the above. The idea of not a personal but a public, community oriented concept of what's good and what's bad in this sense is condemned as being in itself an invalid idea entirely, with Nietzsche suggesting that anything that people propose would have to go beyond these very categories of public good and public evil.

In the English speaking world this makes not necessarily that much sense because similar kinds of things were proposed, albeit without the total condemnation of the concepts themselves, by reformers going from Locke down to Bentham, who instead argued that people, 'men', could regulate their behavior effectively without civic leaders enforcing morality. But Nietzsche was coming out of a philosophical tradition that accepted the possibility that what we call morality might not have just personal value but might have carefully been programmed into us, or evolved, in a way that goes beyond just pleasure and pain, where what we call public morality might have a grounding in principles that we're not even fully aware of. The idea out there was that we may be wired to think in these terms for a reason, and that therefore we should take these concepts seriously and look into them in a serious way instead of dismissing them or trying to explain them away through reductionist ideas like utilitarianism.

Nietzsche argues that we can negate the ideas of public good and public evil but that we can't get to a direct knowledge of what should replace them, a very Kantian attitude. We can look through history, like he does in "The Genealogy of Morals" and determine somewhat what the truth was behind our actions, but the categories are partially hard wired into our brains, even though there might be changes over time to how they manifest, and so a true explanation of things would go against how we're programmed to think of things. It would be something that would not make logical sense on the face of it, but that would be based on a point of view that appears to be irrational, although when considered on its own terms and really examined it may not prove to be that way.

Nietzsche looked to prior historical eras, eras before the current content of the categories of Good and Evil was fixed, for hints on to what a different morality might look like. Christianity has extremely contributed to our notions of what Good and Evil are, so to get to something transcendental we need to emancipate ourselves from it, maybe look backwards while straining to get beyond our hardwired categories, maybe doing a sort of deduction from a personal transcendental view in the Kantian sense, to get at what might come next.

My head's about to explode. There are problems with this, but without Kant, Nietzsche's chain of reasoning and even his basic ideas wouldn't have possible.,,,nnnnnnnnnnnnnn

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