It’s been a few weeks since I decided to take a break from reading Friedrich Nietzsche. The respite was much needed, and my brain is less fried now than it was back in July. I feel ready to dive into the next chapter of Beyond Good and Evil and I’m excited to get back at it.
I’ll admit that the last few weeks have left me a little rusty, however, and I’m likely going to be re-familiarizing myself with some of Nietzsche’s ideas as I go forward. He covers a lot of philosophical bases in his writing, and it’s not going to be easy to reorient myself on the winding path he’s been laying.
Now, one of the things that’s stuck with me since taking a break from Nietzsche is his contention that our understanding of reality relies on interpretations, placeholders, and “foreground estimates,” to use his term.
We concoct laws and labels to explain the phenomena that we experience through our senses, but none of these actually describes the world as it really is. In fact, the closer we come to a true understanding of how reality works, the less words and rules become applicable. The better we comprehend reality, the more inadequate our systems of laws, language, and labels become. So says Nietzsche.
When I picked up Beyond Good and Evil again this week, I was pleased to see that Chapter Two, entitled The Free Spirit starts off on that very subject.
Nietzsche takes a different tone than we’re used to, however, in discussing our poor understanding of reality. Previously, he’s seemed dismissive and scornful of all the ways in which we try to categorize and order our experiences, but he starts Part 24 by singing the praises of our ignorance.
“O sancta simplicitas!” he begins. “Oh holy simplicity!”
Rather than calling us benighted or dull, Nietzsche now claims that our misinterpretations of the world are in fact freeing, and endow our lives with joy and simplicity.
“How from the beginning,” he says, “we have contrived to retain our ignorance in order to enjoy an almost inconceivable freedom…”
He attributes to our thoughts a “…divine desire for wanton leaps and wrong inferences…” and claims that this tendency allows us to truly enjoy life.
I’m sure that the use of the word divine here was intentional. Nietzsche isn’t just lauding our “wanton leaps and wrong inferences”— he’s nodding towards the source of their most egregious examples. But I’ll ignore that potential sidebar for now.
Now, I’m inclined to agree with Nietzsche in his belief that our superficial understanding of existence keeps us happy. It’s easy to see how simple ideas can keep one comfortable, and how a world that’s circumscribed and easily explained is more pleasant to live in than one that consists of many questions and few answers.
It’s a big, scary universe out there after all. The part of it we occupy is unspeakably small, as is the relative depth of our experience. It makes sense that our understanding of the world would have evolved to match our smallness.
But Nietzsche takes things a step further and says, perhaps unsurprisingly for those who’ve been paying attention, that this ignorance is not to be mistaken as the opposite of real knowledge. No, Nietzsche believes that it is the fault of language’s limitations that knowledge and ignorance appear incompatible.
In reality, he says, oversimplification and misinterpretation are necessary. They exist on the same continuum as real knowledge. Indeed, he says that “…the will to knowledge [is built] on the foundation of a far more powerful will: the will to ignorance, to the uncertain, to the untrue! Not as its opposite, but—as its refinement!”
It might just be because I’ve grown accustomed to Nietzsche’s style over the past months, but this immediately made sense to me.
I think Nietzsche means that our hasty, simplified explanations for things are a necessary first step towards true understanding. We need to concoct illogical explanations for things in order to start organizing our experience, cataloging patterns in the world, and making predictions. It doesn’t matter if our conclusions are actually right at their core, it just matters that they allow for reasonably reliable predictions, and that they keep us more or less sane.
Once we’ve found a little stability in primitive world-explanations, we can start thinking more deeply, questioning our views, and delving into more complex problems. Just as the belief in Zeus was replaced by meteorology, so too might that understanding evolve into something even more abstract, and even more divorced from artificial concepts and laws.
Just as an investigation of the ocean would need to start on the shore, and move gradually out to the shallows, then to offshore reefs, so too must our investigation of the world advance in small steps.
With each new step, we see just how small a part of the picture the last step revealed. And even as our picture of ocean ecosystems grows more complex, we still have yet to fathom the wonders that await kilometers below the surface, where there’s no sunlight, and where the pressure is enough to crush most organisms flat. Once we plumb the deepest depths of understanding, our initial impressions will seem distant and naïve. That does not, however, make them any less important or necessary.
Nietzsche believes that to jump to conclusions and cling to simple explanations is just a part of being human. Even those we consider to be more sophisticated and “scientific” will likely one day appear childish to us. Science is, after all, a byproduct of life. It didn’t exist before us. We invented it in order to account for the world around us, just as we invented religion for the same reason.
He sums this idea up nicely at the end of Part 24 by saying that science “…loves error, because, being alive, it loves life.”
Nietzsche is fond of foreshadowing the emergence of new ways of thinking, new philosophies, and new world-explanations. But I can’t help but wonder if he actually expects that we’ll ever arrive at the “real deal.”
He talks often about the failure of past attempts to explain the universe, and of the inadequacy of even our most sophisticated efforts. He’s subtly goaded the reader into questioning even his own assertions, and I’ve had the impression more than once that Nietzsche’s goal is to discourage any kind of certainty at all.
Not to point us towards a better kind of philosophy, but instead to create a climate of perpetual doubt and questioning.
Now this isn’t a bad thing. An excess of certainty can be ruinous.
But I need to do a better job of keeping this possibility in mind as I read on—the possibility that Nietzsche isn’t ever going to come out and say “Here’s the answer. Here’s what I believe, and here’s why.”
I keep waiting expectantly for him to reveal a final, fleshed out philosophical framework. He still might, of course. Even though I’ve been at it for months, I’ve read less than half the book.
But I should bear in mind the possibility that uncertainty might be the whole point. It might be that Nietzsche just wants to leave his readers unwilling to accept any of the philosophies currently on offer.
Maybe he just wants us to recognize how limited our capacity for understanding truly is, and to proceed from that recognition with the confidence that we’ll never know what’s right and wrong. Maybe he hopes that by relinquishing hope of ever “having it all figured out,” we’ll be able to live more fully.
But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. After all, as I said, I’ve got a lot left to read.