The Challenge of Nihilism
In a world awash today in nihilistic intent, it is worth turning to Nietzsche — the philosopher of nihilism nonpariel. He was that above all else, really. He knew nihilism intimately from his own “stare into the abyss”, and he knew nihilism as the worthiest of all worthy opponents. The struggle with nihilism honed the human spirit, and compelled it to transcend itself. Anything truly worthwhile and everlasting — the treasures of darkness — were won from the struggle with nihilism. Probably, this is one of the chief lessons Jean Gebser took away from his study of Nietzsche. The fruit of Nietzsche’s own struggle with nihilism is summed up pithily in one memorable saying: “what does not kill me makes me stronger.”
Nietzsche was not being mean-spirited or immoral, then, in looking forward to “two centuries of nihilism” and welcoming the onset of the global tragedy. He knew it would have to be faced, and that in the struggle with it, a new human type would emerge victorious — the “overman” or “transhuman” who had bested nihilism. Nietzsche is, in that respect, an alchemist. The “two centuries of nihilism” represents the alchemist’s crucible, through which leaden matter must pass in its transmutation into spiritual gold. The crucible is also a chrysalis.
The relation of the word “crucible” with “crucifix” (and with the words crucial and crisis) is not coincidental. Passing through the crucible is experienced as a crucifixion (as is the chrysalis stage of the larva). There again is the irony of the Great Antichrist Nietzsche, for his “two centuries of nihilism” follows the pattern of death, resurrection and transfiguration. Mankind’s “two centuries of nihilism” is a crucifixion, a transformative passage through the portal of death, leading to the transfigurative, luminescent resurrection called “overman”. This is also William Blake’s “Albion” of his own mythology and prophecy. In Blake’s Vision of the Last Judgement is represented also Nietzsche’s “two centuries of nihilism”.
Nihilism is the disguised form of social and spiritual death. But then, again, “death is the teacher”, as don Juan tells Castaneda. For the social philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, as well, the true grandeur of the human spirit and its latent potentialities only emerged in the struggle with nihilism — with nihilism in its four social forms as total decadence, total anarchy, total war, or total revolution. For Rosenstock-Huessy, crisis was always a struggle between Creation and the Void, and yet the danger of nihilism was also a blessing too “because it compels us to wake up”.
The power of Nietzsche’s and Blake’s spirit was such that they transformed nihilism itself into an ally of self-transcendence. Gebser and Rosenstock-Huessy teach pretty much the same thing, and this belongs to the Hermetic philosophy — the principle of enantiodromia as coincidence of opposites. This is known, in Buddhism, as “making friends with death” — enlisting nihilism itself as an ally in transformative practice. This is, in essence, befits the practice of non-duality. It is, at root, the often misconstrued meaning of Heraclitus’s notion that “war is the father of all things”. It should really be understood as “crisis is the father of all things”, and as essentially about the struggle between Creation and the Nihil.
Lesser, more violent and belligerent intelligences have misconstrued Heraclitus’s (and subsequently also Nietzsche’s) meaning, for it corresponds to Blakes “without contraries there is no progression”. Nietzsche expressed the truth of Heraclitus’s remark in his understanding of the warrior’s way: “in times of peace, a warrior goes to war against himself”, and “it’s not the courage of one’s convictions that counts, but the courage to attack one’s convictions that counts.” As in don Juan’s teachings, the warrior is someone on the way to self-overcoming, and who is enlisted in the struggle of creation against nothingness. This is encapsulated in don Juan’s dictum: that the art of the warrior is “to balance the terror of being alive with the wonder of being alive”. This is the essential “critical” or crisis situation — the struggle of terror and wonder. It is simply a variant on Nietzsche’s theme that “what does not kill me makes me stronger”. Terror and wonder, or the awful and the awesome, are echoes in the soul of the pre-primordial situation of origin, reflections of Genesis and the Void, Being and Nothingness. That balance of terror and wonder, or death-pole and life-pole of the soul in Gebser’s terms, is called “equanimity”. That’s the authentic place of the “dialectic”, as expressed by Gebser: the secret to the integral consciousness is to know when to “let happen” and when to “make happen”.
To look the devil in the face without losing your marbles, as don Juan expressed it to Castaneda, is why Nietzsche, Gebser, Rosenstock-Huessy, and others wrote books at all. They are all concerned with what Rosenstock-Huessy called “survival knowledge” and with not being drawn into the maelstrom and succumbing to mass anxiety (Rosenstock called it “outrunning the modern era”, outrunning “modern man’s distintegration”). What Nietzsche, Gebser, and Rosenstock-Huessy, amongst others, are attempting to do is instill in us a new faith — a new confidence — resilient enough to endure and survive the trials and tribulations of Nietzsche’s “two centuries of nihilism”, a faith strong enough to endure the passage through the crucible, or what we tend to call today “chaotic transition”.
It should be clear, then, what terror and wonder, non-Being and Being, Nothingness and Creation (or Genesis) are: they are the life-pole and death-pole of the soul as described by Gebser — the very contraries that are needed for progression. They are the bookends that frame the parable of the journey of the Prodigal Son, aren’t they? Even in the life of Plotinus, as described by Porphyry, Plotinus’s journey towards the “Uniate” was stimulated by his need to master the ugliness of “the blood-stained world”.
It’s probably best to think of Genesis and the Void as dialogical — represented in speaking and listening moods, which correspond to the life and death poles of the soul and expressed in the form of Gebser’s “make happen” and “let happen”. This was also expressed in don Juan’s initial frustration with Castaneda’s “stuckness” , his lack of tempo or timing: “you rush when you should wait, and you wait when you should rush”. There is, in that accusation, a judgement about “modern man’s disintegration” as a loss of equipoise, and of loss of clarity and sobriety of mind.
That is to say, no wisdom at all.
Scott… You must read two books. VIOLENCE UNVEILED: Humanity at the Crossroads by Gil Bailie and THE JOY OF BEING WRONG: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes by James Alison. In my mind both are just as important and powerful as THE MASTER AND THE EMISSARY. Even more so.
Great post – many important points here, providing “survival knowledge” which will assist us “with not being drawn into the maelstrom and succumbing to mass anxiety.”
Kind of amazing (but maybe it should be expected) how often what I’m reading in Gebser lines up on the same day or the next day with a topic of your post.
This morning I read EPO page 151 where he discusses the Heraclitus aphorism you mention.
I think you got it right in substituting ‘crisis’ for ‘war,’ to communicate the essential meaning. Gebser affirms that the phrase “War is the father of all things” has been misunderstood and used as propaganda. He suggests that it might be fragmentary, and that it is symptomatic that only this part survived.
“It has never occurred to them [propagandists and power-obsessed paternalistic militarists and politicians] that – as in the case of all statements by Heraclitus – the phrase makes sense only when completed by its polar complement… The partial sentence…may, in one version or the other, have been originally completed by such words as ‘Peace is the mother of all things.’ ”
War and Peace, or Terror and Wonder as you have put it above. “…the life-pole and death-pole of the soul as described by Gebser — the very contraries that are needed for progression.”
David. Do you know the book “Integral Ecology: Uniting Mulitiple Perspectives on the Natural World” by Esbjorn-Hargens? Just came across it on the net. Might be of interest.
Yes, I have the Integral Ecology book. It’s big and thick, and I use it more as a reference to look things up that are of interest rather than reading it through. It’s very much Wilberian in outlook. Esbjorn-Hargens is one of Wilber’s more prominent proteges, and founder of Meta-Integral, which hosts the biannual Integral Theory conferences. Co-author Michael Zimmerman is also a prominent Wilberian integral philosopher.
The book is somewhat of a compendium, offering overviews of various people and approaches, and encouraging “multiple perspectives.”
There is much that is useful and interesting, but… Bonnitta Roy has an interesting critique of the book, regarding what she calls the “action-paralysis” of meta-theory: ” Sean Hargens and Michael Zimmerman wrote a comprehensive book Integral Ecology which conextualizes hundreds of approaches across domains, worldviews, altitudes, quadrants and quadrivia … but it doesn’t actually do any ecology. Or imagine a council on education, getting together to discuss different educational approaches — at the end of the day, no student has been taught anything….”
Oooo. That’s a pretty devastating critique!
Yeah, and insightful to note that they talk about ecology but are not doing ecology. Yet I still have a lot of respect for Sean. He seems to walk the line between respecting and honoring the tradition inherited from Wilber, yet willing to challenge and think beyond its weak points as well. In the last few years he’s been leading the charge of integrating Wilber’s AQAL Integral Theory with Roy Bhaskar’s Critical Realism and Edgar Morin’s Complex Thought, now called Complex Integral Realism.
There is, by the way — especially for Gebser students — a very good book by Alfred Crosby called The Measure of Reality: Quantification in Western Europe 1250 – 1600 that speaks to what Gebser sees as the onset of the deficient mode of the mental. It doesn’t reference Gebser directly, but it is a good companion volume to getting at Gebser’s interpretation of “rationality” as the deficient mode of the mental.
Lovely! Nietzsche was my Socrates–he left me broken and without a clue… (see Peter Kingsley’s exposition of the Greek notions of ‘elenchos’ and ‘aporia’ in “Reality” — google “The Spiritual Tradition at the Roots of the Western World”). I was remarking to a friend last evening– the very friend, in fact, who first referred me to this blog –how much I have been enjoying your recent references to Nietzsche. Your understanding of him resonates with my own. For what it’s worth, I recommend that people read “On the Genealogy of Morals” and “Twilight of the Idols” before tackling Zarathustra.
Here are some reflections on my experience with Nietzsche during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s:
Apropos of overcoming nihilism, here is a favorite text from “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”:
“A young shepherd I saw, writhing, gagging, in spasms, his face distorted, and a heavy black snake hung out of his mouth. Had I ever seen so much nausea and pale dread on one face? He seemed to have been asleep when the snake crawled into his throat, and there bit itself fast. My hand tore at the snake and tore in vain; it did not tear the snake out of his throat. Then it cried out of me; “Bite! Bite its head off! Bite!” Thus it cried out of me — my dread, my hatred, my nausea, my pity, all that is good and wicked in me cried out of me with a single cry.
“The shepherd, however, bit as my cry counseled him; he bit with a good bite. Far away he spewed the head of the snake — and he jumped up. No longer shepherd. no longer human — one changed, radiant, laughing! Never yet on earth has a human being laughed as he laughed! O my brothers, I heard a laughter that was no human laughter; and now a thirst gnaws at me, a longing that never grows still. My longing for this laughter gnaws at me; oh, how do I bear to go on living! And how could I bear to die now!”
~ Nietzsche – Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Another of the ironies of Nietzsche. I wrote about that sometime ago. The tale is taken from Rumi. Do you know it?
I should know it, but if I read it (years ago, when I was reading Rumi), I didn’t make the connection–and no one else bothered to point it out to me over the years (as I have shared that quote quite often). Much appreciated…
Wayne..This is from a philosopher named Don Cupitt.
1. Life is everything.
Life is the whole human world, everything as it looks to and is experienced by the only beings who actually have a world, namely human beings with a life to live.
2. Life is all there is.
Our age is now post-metaphysical. The world of life is not dependent upon, nor derived from, any other realm, not is there any other world after it, or beyond it.
3. Life has no outside.
Everything is immanent, interconnected, secondary. Everything remains within life. When we are born, we don’t come into this world, and when we die we don’t leave it. There is no absolute point of view from which someone can see ‘the Truth’, the final Truth, about life.
4. Life is God.
Life is that in which ‘we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28), within which we are formed, and of whose past we will remain part. Both our ultimate Origin and our Last End are within life. Life is now as God to us.
5. To love life is to love God.
Every bit of our life is final for us, and we should treat all life as a sacred gift and responsibility. We should see our relation to life as being like an immediate relation to God. We are moved and touched by the way all living things, and not just we ourselves, spontaneously love life, affirm it and cling to it.
6. Life is a continuous streaming process of symbolic expression and exchange.
The motion of language logically precedes the appearing of a formed and ‘definite’ world. It is in this sense that it was once said that ‘In the beginning was the Word’.
2. Life And My Life
7. My life is my own personal stake in life.
The traditional relation of the soul to God is now experienced in the form of the relation between my life and life in general. As, traditionally, one’s first responsibility in religion was for the salvation of one’s soul, so now a human being’s first duty is the duty to recognise that I simply am the life I have lived so far, plus the life that still remains to me.
8. My life is all I have, and all I’ll ever have.
I must own my own life, in three senses: I must claim it wholly as mine, acknowledge it, and assume full responsibility for the way I conduct it. I must live my own life in a way that is authentically mine. To be authentically oneself in this way – the opposite of ‘living a lie’ – is the first part of the contribution each of us should seek to make to life as a whole.
9. Every human person has, in principle, an equal stake in life.
This principle is vital to our ideas of justice and of love for the fellow-human being. Murder and other offences against the person are almost everywhere regarded as equally serious, whoever the victim is. The love of God is love and fellow-feeling for ‘the neighbour’ – or the fellow creature – generalised without limit until it becomes the love of all life.
10. In human relationships, justice is first in order, but love is first in value.
We should esteem love most highly of all; but love itself must be based on justice, not least in parental/filial and in sexual relationships. The work of justice is to clear a level space for love, but love eventually ‘kicks away the ladder’ and exceeds justice.
3. The Limits Of Life
11. Life is subject to limits. In life, everything is subject to temporality.
In life everything is held within and is subject to the movement of one-way linear time. Life is, as people say, a single ticket: there are no second chances or retakes.
12. In life, everything is contingent.
In life, the one-way linear movement of time makes every moment final and every chance a last chance; but at the same time everything is contingent. This painful combination of finality with contingency is what gives rise to people’s talk of luck or fate. More to the point, it also follows that there are no fixed or unchanging absolutes in life. There are no clearly and permanently fixed realities, or identities, or even standards.
13. Life itself, and everything in the world of life, is mediated by language.
Consciousness is an effect of the way language lights up the world of experience, and self-conciousness is an effect of the use of language to talk about itself. Thought is an incompletely-executed motion of language somehwere in our heads.
14. Life goes on, but my life is finite.
The only deaths we need to prepare ourselves for are the deaths of others who are dear to us. We will never experience our own deaths. So we should simply love life and say Yes to life until our last day. There is no point at all in making any other preparation for death.
4. Faith In Life
15. When I have faith in life, love life, and commit myself to it, I have bought a package deal: life with its limits.
Whereas in traditional theology ‘evil’ was seen as a secondary intruder into an originally perfect world, and therefore as being eliminable, the limits of life, which were traditionally called ‘metaphysical evil’ or ‘evils of imperfection’, are essential to life. Unlike God, life is finite and imperfect, and has to be accepted as being neither more nor less than what it is. If I want to refuse the package, the alternative for me is ‘passive nihilism’ or thoroughgoing pessimism. For the religion of life, apologetics takes the form of an attempt to show that pessimism is unreasonable.
16. The package deal of life cannot be renegotiated
There is nobody to negotiate the deal with. We cannot hope to vary the terms on which life is offered to us.
17. Life is bittersweet, and bittersweetness is greatly to be preferred to pure sweetness.
In the classic iconography of Heaven, everyone is 33 years old, everyone looks the same, and everything is oddly dead, like a plastic flower on a grave. In real life, we love imperfections, irregularities, beauty spots, and signs of frailty or age. The mortal actual is far more lovable than the ideal.
18. We should never complain, nor even feel any need to complain.
Life should be loved purely affirmatively and exactly as it is. Everyone gets basically the same deal, and nothing else is on offer. Any sense of victimhood or paranoia or grievance is out of place, and we should get it out of our systems. Never say, nor even think ‘Why me?’
5. Solar Living
19. Life is a gift (with no giver) that is renewed every day, and true religion is expressive, ‘solar’ living.
By faith, and without any qualification or restriction, I should let life well up in me and poor itself out into symbolic expression through me. Thus I ‘get myself together’: we become ourselves by expressing ourselves.
20. Solarity is creative living-by-dying.
In solar living I live by dying because I am passing away all the time. In my symbolic expression I get myself together, but as I do so I must instantly pass on and leave that self behind. I must not be attached to my own life, nor to my own products, or expressed selves. My self, and all my loves, must be continuously let go of and continuously renewed. Dying therefore no longer has any terrors for me, because I have made a way of life out of it.
21. Solar living creates great joy and happiness.
My symbolic expression may take various forms, as it pours out in my quest for selfhood, in my loves or my work. In all these areas, continuous letting-go and renewal creates joy, which on occasion rises and spills over into cosmic happiness. This ‘cosmic’ happiness is the modern equivalent of the traditional Summum Bonum, the ‘chief end’ of life.
22. Even the Supreme Good must be left behind at once.
I, all my expressions, and even the Summum Bonum, the supreme Good itself, are all of them transient. Eternal happiness may be great enough to make one feel that one’s whole life has been worthwhile, but it is utterly transient. Let it go!
6. The End Of The Real World
What people call ‘reality’ is merely an effect of either power, or habit.
23. The Real: a product of lazy, unthinking habits of perception and interpretation.
The fixity and unchangeability that people like to ascribe to the real world out there is in fact merely the effect upon them of their own lazy habits. They are in a rut of their own making.
24. There is no readymade Reality out there.
There is no readymade meaningfulness out there, and no objective Truth out there. Meaning is found only in language, and truth belongs only to true statements. Because life is always language-wrapped, everything in the world of life is always shaped by the language in which we describe it, and in a living language everything is always changing. It follows that we ourselves, and our language, and our world, are shifting all the time like the sea. Nothing is, nor can it be, objectively and permanently fixed.
25. We ourselves are the only Creator.
As we become critically aware, the objective world melts away. So many supposed features of the world turn out to be merely features of the language in which we describe it. By now, critical thinking has dissolved away objective reality, leaving us with just the human world-wide web, the stream of all our human activity and conversation, and the changing consensus-world-picture that it generates. Our world is our communal, partly-botched work of folk art.
26. Nihilism and creative freedom.
There is no stable real world and no enduring real self. But this situation is not one for despair: it offers us the freedom to remake ourselves and our world. By solar living we can each of us make a personal offering, a small contribution to life, an oblation.
27. Passing out into life.
Unattached, but loving life to the last, I am able at the end of my life to pass out into the moving flow of life in general. The only sensible preparation for death is the practice of solar living.
Thanks, Steve–I read his “Taking Leave of God” back in the day (1990, maybe). He seems to have grown quite a bit since then — or maybe I have!? 🙂 Still, I’m not sure he’s penetrated to the root of the matter. I will give it more thought, though–thanks again! (btw, what is the source of the quoted text?)
After reading your reflections on your experience with Nietzche I thought you might like the effort of Don Cupitt. But I agree with you that he hasn’t penetrated to the root of the matter. I’ve been reading Simone Weil for a couple of weeks. Now she is someone whom I feel has penetrated to the root of the matter.
Thanks for sharing. Cupitt sounds like a religious naturalist broadly in the tradition of Henry Nelson Wieman, Bernard Meland, Bernard Loomer, et al. Cupitt barely gets a mention in Jerome Stone’s book, “Religious Naturalism Today” (2008). Apparently he had just learned of him as he was concluding his manuscript.
“Taking Leave of God” was an early work — 1980 (I just looked it up). My recollection of it is that he gives all the typical reasons for rejecting (what I now refer to as) “our Sunday School Theology” (kind of like John Robinson’s “Honest to God”), but offers a positive message that comes down to embracing Kant’s categorical imperative. That is very noble, on one level, but falls flat for someone who was seeking the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Since then, however, I have come to imagine a kind of connection between being fully present (nondual awareness) and our capacity to “treat people as ends and not merely as means” (or to “so act that the maxim of our action can become a universal law”). So perhaps the later Cupitt and the early Cupitt are not that far removed from one another–insofar as he is now articulating a nondual perspective and assuming that non-dual awareness is, indeed, the ground of “the call of conscience” (i.e. authentic morality/”vocation”). But I wonder, nevertheless if he is not still trying to pull himself up by his bootstraps–has not quite given up on his own resolute efforts!? Perhaps a bit more ‘gelassenheit’ is in order!? 🙂
Apropos of “the call of conscience” and Heidegger, these texts from “Being and Time” have loomed large in my life after Nietzsche:
“Because Dasein is in each case essentially its own possibility, it can, in its very Being, ‘choose’ itself and win itself; it can also lose itself and never win itself; or only ‘seem’ to do so. But only in so far as it is essentially something which can be authentic–that is, something of its own–can it have lost itself and not yet won itself.” [Being and Time, 68]
“Losing itself in the publicness and the idle talk of the “they,” [Dasein] fails to hear its own Self in listening to the they-self. If Dasein is to be able to get brought back from this lostness of failing to hear itself, and if this is to be done through itself, then it must first be able to find itself–to find itself as something which has failed to hear itself, and which fails to hear in that it listens away to the “they.” This listening-away must [be] broken . . . [by a call which] arouses another kind of hearing ; in other words, the possibility of another kind of hearing, which, in relationship to the hearing that is lost, has a character in every way opposite. [315-316]
“The call is from afar unto afar. It reaches him who wants to be brought back.” 
“And to what is one called when one is thus appealed to? To one’s own Self.” 
“But how are we to determine what is said in the talk that belongs to this kind of discourse? What does the conscience call to him to whom it appeals? Taken strictly, nothing. The call asserts nothing, gives no information about world-events, has nothing to tell. Least of all does it try to set going a ‘soliloquy’ in the Self to which it has appealed. ‘Nothing gets called to this Self, but it has been summoned to itself–that is, to its ownmost potentiality-for-Being. The tendency of the call is not such as to put up for ‘trial’ the Self to which the appeal is made; but it calls Dasein forth (and ‘forward’) into its ownmost possibilities, as a summons to its ownmost potentiality-for-Being-its-Self. 
“Hearing constitutes the primary and authentic way in which Dasein is open for its ownmost potentiality-for-Being–as in hearing the voice of the friend whom every Dasein carries with it.” 
Wayne..Do you know a writer by the name of Tom Cheetham? I get the feeling you would like him very much. He is a Henry Corbin scholar and deep thinker. I think Corbin had translated Heidegger’s BEING AND TIME into french.
“AFTER PROPHECY: Imagination, Incarnation, and the Unity of the Prophetic Tradition”
“GREEN MAN EARTH ANGEL: The Prophetic Tradition and the Battle for the Soul of the World”
“ALL THE WORLD AN ICON: Henry Corbin and the Angelic Function of Being”
“THE WORLD TURNED INSIDE OUT: Henry Corbin and Islamic Mysticism”
He also has a web-site.
Thanks, Steve–I will check him out. I’ve looked at Corbin and have some inkling of his depth and genius, but have not had time to even to scratch the surface of his work. Maybe Cheetham will offer me an effective point of contact/entry. Thanks again!
A reporter asked mother Teresa how do you pray she said I sit in his presence and listen then he asked how he responds, she said, he listens. The idea is, I am both the listener and the speaker and the message is my input that comes through the meeting, Benefiting from the inputs of the others is supportive, providing one should not let himself be besieged by them,even if the others are the prophets. I am his representative in both the listening mode and the speaking mode. It is a personal journey. The issue can we keep still in his presence until our hearing is activated, since the path to him is stillness.Often time too much talk is dispersive. Islamic mysticism is immersed in the process of communicating with him through the tools he prescribed for communication, Aleef Laam Meem, doubt not, is the tool through which you receive his information, after all the communication with him is epestimic in nature. To shutter the doubt further the Quran said, aleef laam meem raa, what you have received from your lord is the truth, but most people have faith not. The message as mentioned in the post is to stlr faith in those who respond. It is time of disclosure. The epiphany is rampant in those who have stilled themselves to flash. It is a life of awe and wonder. Al last the rivers are meeting. Thank you all.
I was thinking, we’ve been together quite a long time haven’t we abdulmonem, ever since Muntadhar al-Zaidi brought us together (bless both his shoes) in the old Dark Age Blog. If I’m not mistaken, you’re the last of the old Dark Age Blog crew to still be around. Amazing. I guess that makes us best buds.