Monthly Archives: February 2011

Toward a more complete ethic

There is an ethic between Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, between denying the will to live and embracing the will to power, between transcendence and immanence, between asceticism and affirming joy. We could apply to these two ethical systems the Aristotelian principle of the golden mean. The virtuous path lies between the two extremes. As it is written in an ancient book of wisdom, the wise person will hold onto one without letting go of the other.

However, we must also recognize that one ethic comes more spontaneously than the other. Nietzsche recognizes as much when he considers the self-affirming morality of nobles as more primitive, more vitalistic. It perhaps takes the disciplining power of movements like the world’s major religions to form individuals that are predisposed to negate their own wills. Yet, and here Schopenhauer is right, given even the call to asceticism of these religions the majority of adherents still do not achieve transcendence and are driven almost entirely by their wills. This is necessarily so since otherwise the species would not survive. It is in affirming ostensibly one’s personal interests that the goals of the species are realized.

Thus we can use Aristotle again to argue that Schopenhauer gives the ethic that better serves in achieving the good or virtuous life. Like the world’s ascetic movements, it helps guard us against the extremes that our own self-affirming inclinations, no matter how weak, would lead us to if we were to indulge them fully. Assuming, however, that it is not desirable to entirely extinguish one’s own impulse to embrace life, Schopenhauer’s ethic leaves us in the unfortunate position of living in what he calls a penal colony, in a condition where we do out of necessity what we would have ourselves not do.

Nietzsche’s ethic, on the other hand, is useful for those moments when an individual is overly constrained by ascetic principles or moral judgments. It is a breath of fresh air, a liberating force that helps one escapes the life-defeating thrust of slavish moral censure. Human greatness, that which is immanent to this world, is founded on affirmation. Let the weak console themselves with the beatitudes of another world. The strong will create and celebrate beauty in the here and now.

So, we are left with two approaches to the will, one that helps guard against the excesses to which we are lead by our inclinations, and another that would have us affirm what is strong and noble in ourselves. It seems to me that we would do good to hold onto one without releasing the other. They are both ethical tools. We might discover that here one functions best and there the other. Perhaps at times it will be an amalgamation of the two. A more complete ethic would provide us with a means of identifying the relative applicability of these partial ethics and a way to move forward experimenting with mixtures.

Just our parents in different circumstances

We spend half our lives believing that we will be exceptional. We tell ourselves that it is just a matter of adopting a few simple principles or perspectives. It is not so much that we think we are better than our parents, but times have changed, we have knowledge, technologies, and enjoy privileges that they didn’t have. Certainly in many cases it was our parents themselves that instilled in us this belief. Now we spend the second half of our lives learning how truly unexceptional we are.

Through a few transpositions effected on the intelligence and character of one relative or another we can derive our own. If we are different than our ancestors and peers it is only due to this or that circumstance or opportunity beyond the direct control of the parties involved. Perhaps it is true as some philosophers have suggested that the purpose of life is but for us to learn just to what degree our movements are hemmed in and determined. Striving toward exceptionality is to imagine lifting ourselves up and away from the masses. But even this is an individuated gesture belaying a general impulse. Isn’t it true that the more an individual is possessed by the desire to be extraordinary the more they enact the designs of the species? We could think here of the peacock.