Sunshine Recorder

Link: Nāgārjuna, Nietzsche, and Rorty's Strange Looping Trick

(This is a modified excerpt from the epilogue of my book, Talking in Circles: Serious Dialogues on the Silliness of Everything, a book which is itself intended to be one big looping trick.)

Philosophers have lots of tools and tricks up their sleeves. They, of course, can use formal argumentation, they can employ all sorts of thought experiments to elicit various intuitions, they can lay out examples, dilemmas, and dialectics, and do a whole host of other things. But I want to talk about one particular trick that only a select few philosophers have employed. This trick involves wrapping everything up in a philosophical system only to have that system knock itself down by its own internal means, and doing all in order to produce some sort of anti-philosophical result. I’ve come to call this the “looping” trick, and it’s one of the most philosophically curious things that I’ve ever stumbled upon.

The Loop and Wittgenstein’s Ladder

In my first year of college, I started reading Douglass Hofstadter’s book, Gödel, Escher, Bach. In this book, Hofstadter explores the paradoxical notion of a “strange loop” a sort of geometric structure and abstract concept illustrated by the art of M.C. Escher. What is a strange loop? Hofstadter describes it thusly:

The “Strange Loop” phenomenon occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through the levels of a hierarchical system, we unexpectedly find ourselves back where we started.

Famously, it can be seen in the ever-ascending staircases drawn by Escher.

Here, my concern is philosophical strange loops. If you were to find yourself in a strange loop of this variety, it would seem as you are going farther and farther down a particular philosophical path only to end up right where you started. I’ve found that this strange looping structure is a recurring pattern in a certain type of philosopher: the systematically unsystematic philosopher. It is an odd stance to be in, but somewhat surprisingly, there are quite a few of these sorts of philosophers in the philosophical tradition, and they are rather interesting.

When one says “unsystematic philosopher,” there is one person that pops into most philosophers’ minds: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Largely regarded as the most important philosopher of the 20th century, Wittgenstein thought there should be no philosophical theories. Such theories, he thought, only arose because of conceptual confusions. Ironically, however (an irony he well realized), Wittgenstein could not express this anti-philosophical thought without doing philosophy, and so his philosophy on his philosophy ended up coming out quite loopy. One of the best explicit explanations of loopy philosophy comes from Wittgenstein.

If the place I want to get to could only be reached by way of a ladder, I would give up trying to get there. For the place that I have to get to is a place I must already be at now.

Anything that I might reach by climbing a ladder does not interest me.

Now, of course, if the place he is trying to get to is where he already is, then any of the positive steps forward he takes must undo themselves. And thus, one of the concluding remarks of his first great philosophical work, the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, is the following:

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

But where has he climbed? Well, just like the people climbing Escher’s self-connecting staircase, he has climbed right to the place where he began! Strangely, that’s exactly what we’d expect from someone who thinks that no philosophical theses should be advanced. Where would we expect to go? In this sense, Wittgenstein’s aim, at least in his early work, we might say is to loop philosophy, fitting it all into his system, then showing why his system is nonsense, thus showing why all of it is nonsense. The aim here, many commentators argue, is to inspire a sort of philosophical quietism. That is, to get us to all stop spewing philosophical nonsense and just shut up already.

Though the Early Wittgenstein is, in a strong sense, philosophically loopy, he is not an existentiallyloopy philosopher. That is, he doesn’t wrap himself and his personal ambitions up in the loop as well (at least not explicitly).  The next three thinkers I’ll talk about, Nagarjuna, Nietzsche, and Rorty, do just that.


Nāgārjuna is arguably the most important Buddhist thinker after the Buddha himself. His philosophy is called the philosophy of the “middle way.” In his central philosophical text, theMūlamadhyamakakārikā (I’m not going to even pretend like I know how to pronounce that, but it means “The Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way”), he entertains what he takes to be all the possible philosophical views, rejects them all, and then rejects the philosophical view that rejects all philosophical views. This last part is quite important.

First, let’s take a look at this verse:

To think ‘it is,’ is eternalism,
To think ‘it is not,’ is nihilism:
Being and non-being,
The wise cling not to either.

Some people have interpreted Nāgārjuna here as positing some sort of ultimate Truth beyond the bounds of logic and traditional categorization, but this is almost certainly the wrong reading of Nāgārjuna. Rather, he wants to reject philosophical views altogether, putting nothing in their place. Consider this verse:

Everything is real, or not real,
Or real and not real
Or neither real nor not real;
This is the Buddha’s teaching.

I might add a bit, just for fun: Or neither neither real nor not real nor real and not real …  or neither neither neither real nor not real nor real and not real nor neither real nor not real andreal and not real. And we could do this on and on, ad infinitum, but I think you get the point. In short, there is absolutely no philosophical claim about how things actually are being put forward here, since there is always an equally legitimate meta-claim, the negation of that claim, that could be put forward as well. And thus, Nāgārjuna arrives at the view of “emptiness,” the view that one can’t hold as a view. If you hold it as a view, you miss the whole point. Nāgārjuna writes,

The victorious ones have said
That emptiness is the relinquishing of all views.
For whomever emptiness is a view,
That one has accomplished nothing.

To this, you want to say, “But you just said a whole bunch of stuff about how emptiness is the rightview!” And then it hits you: if emptiness is the right view, it can’t be the right view. It’s one giant paradox! Of course, this would be a problem for any view that was proposing itself as the truth of the matter, but Nāgārjuna isn’t proposing his philosophy as a system which captures the “truth of the matter,” even though it might seem that way. His philosophical position isn’t really a position at all. Rather, it’s a sort of philosophical act aimed at catapulting the reader into liberation.

What’s most interesting in reading Nāgārjuna isn’t really the particular philosophical views that he goes about rejecting, but the general strategy of having an all-encompassing philosophical view that rejects all philosophical views and then rejects itself. What Nāgārjuna is trying to do here is toloop the reader into enlightenment. In the Wittgenstein passage I mentioned earlier, he attempts to loop the reader into philosophical quietism. Nāgārjuna’s goal is a bit loftier, but, like Wittgenstein, Nāgārjuna does not provide the reader with any new philosophical theory. He rejects all views, but, without putting any opposing view in place, he leaves the reader right where they started.

This notion ended up becoming a common feature of much of Buddhist thought. We can see it arising again in the Zen Master Ch’ing-Yuan’s famous aphorism,

Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.

Philosophically, we’ve gone in a circle. Everything was undone, just for that undoing to be undone itself. The point all of it isn’t to see some new deep truth, but to change one’s perspective on what one already sees.


Now let’s fast forward a millennium and a half, and move one continent westward. Our next thinker, Nietzsche, is a bit more of an unsettled soul than Nāgārjuna. Looking at Nietzsche will allow us to get some serious existential context for the loopiness just described.

One of Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous philosophical metaphors which comes from his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy, is that of the Greek Gods Apollo and Dionysius and their distinct forms of life. In Greek Mythology, Apollo is the Sun god, the god of light and reason. Above all, Apollomakes things clear and gives things form. On the other hand, we have Dionysius, the god of wine and ritual madness. For Dionysius, the world is a drunken blur, a primordial dance-party of sorts. The Apollonian and Dionysian each embody a tightly connected personal and metaphysical outlook on things, and we can see these distinct outlooks come out in some seemingly at-odds passages in Nietzsche’s work.

Consider first, Nietzsche’s notion of Giving Style, a sort of self-art that is “practiced by those who survey everything in their nature offers in the way of strengths and weakness, and then fit them all into an artistic plan.” Giving style is something that Apollo would do. It’s a way of making sense, artistic sense, of oneself. But here, we have a problem. In making oneself into a work of art, there is a sense in which one has created himself, but there is also a sense in which one has lost himself. One is always outside of their present self—an artistic projection. The downfall of the Apollonian is the realization that his whole world is an illusion, a mere dream.

Now consider the opposing notion of Amor Fati, the Latin phrase for “love of fate.” Endorsing this state, Nietzsche says, “I do not want to wage any war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse the accusers.” In this state, one has lost himself in a different sense. There is nothing to distinguish oneself from others. One has merged into the formless “Primordial Oneness” of reality. Now, this isn’t a problem for someone if they are perfectly content to blend into the primordial oneness, but the artistically inclined will be discontent here. There is no form, just flow, and, in that flow, anything distinctive about who one is completely disappears.

We might understand Amor Fati, as “dancing with the music” and Giving Style as a way of fighting against being overcome by the music in an attempt to make something of oneself. Ultimately, for Nietzsche, the flow of this music is all that there is to reality. It’s what Nietzsche called “becoming.” However, it’s in our very nature to fight against this flow, this eternal Dionysian becoming. We are the sort of beings that try to get a grip on things, including ourselves.

What are we to do once we realize this? Here’s the answer Nietzsche provides: “You shall become who you are.” When you think about it for a moment, you realize the peculiarity of this sentence. The idea of becoming implies a change, a going somewhere. And yet, the destination is right where one started because one always is what one is. Here, once again, we have stumbled into loopiness. Like Escher’s staircase on which one can walk endlessly upward and go nowhere, there is a strange circle of action in which one is both moving and staying put. This, it seems, might be the true state of becoming ourselves. It is a mesh between making something of oneself and flowing with the music. We see that struggling to make something of oneself is precisely the way in which one flows, and vice versa.

So that’s what we are? Not so fast. Here’s where the true loopiness of Nietzsche’s philosophy unveils itself: Let’s suppose that we try to identify ourselves as part of this Dionysian becoming, since that’s what Nietzsche says is really real. To do this would be to try to get a grip on ourselves, and this action is precisely the Apollonian form that we are rejecting by identifying ourselves in this flowing Dionysian sense. We’ve run into a paradox. The nature of reality is such that, in even trying to say what this nature is, we’ve already made a mistake. And so, even this statement, which is ultimately still a statement about the nature of reality, is a mistake as well.

Though the language is somewhat different, I tend to think that this is the same paradox that Nāgārjuna encounters. If we’re feeling particularly deep, we might call it the fundamental paradox of reality, or something really epic like that. This is not to say that reality is essentially paradoxical, as that would be to naively fall right into it. Rather, it is to say that the way in which we are forced to understand ultimate reality, if we do in fact try to understand it, ultimately leaves us with paradox.

However, even though they encounter the same paradox, Nāgārjuna and Nietzsche end up in radically different places. Nāgārjuna, after all, is a religious philosopher, a Buddhist, and Nietzsche is pretty deeply opposed to religious thought altogether. So why the difference? Well, it boils down to a difference in aims. Nāgārjuna’s whole point of theorizing in the first place, following the goal of the Buddha, is to alleviate suffering. Nietzsche, on the other hand, wholeheartedly embracesthis suffering! He regards himself as a “tragic philosopher,” and tragedy, in Nietzsche’s view, is the greatest form of art. As such, Nietzsche’s philosophy is a thoroughly worldly philosophy.

But how do we resolve their metaphysical differences? The answer is that we don’t. This is because, like it or not, there isn’t really anything to resolve. Neither one of them is actually interested in taking some stand on the ultimate nature of reality. Sure, they seem to be taking a metaphysical stands of this sort, but we have to interpret this act instrumentally. Whether it is Nāgārjuna’s view of “emptiness” or Nietzsche’s view of “becoming,” the overarching metaphysical view that appears to be put forward by these two thinkers is not an end in itself, but part of an act. And what is this act? Well, it’s the greatest thing that can be done at that moment, whatever that is. For Nāgārjuna, in line with his Buddhist orientation, this is the act liberation from suffering. For Nietzsche, it is dramatic tragedy. Both Nietzsche and Nāgārjuna perform a strange looping trick in which everything comes together in its falling apart making way for the light of the unconceptualizable thing beyond.

Read more.

The discipline of suffering, of great suffering—do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? That tension of the soul in unhappiness which cultivates its strength, its shudders face to face with great ruin, its inventiveness and courage in enduring, persevering, interpreting, and exploiting suffering, and whatever has been granted to it of profundity, secret, mask, spirit, cunning, greatness—was it not granted to it through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (via ludimagister)

(via astranemus)

Link: On the Tragedy of Life

Ken Gemes interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Ken Gemes never stops brooding on what the postmoderns got right about Nietzsche, about the lack of seriously considered theories in Nietzsche, about why his naturalism isn’t of interest, about the stark nihilist fact at the heart of Nietzsche’s philosophical outlook, about the role of the genius, about being strangers to ourselves, ressentiment, Nietzschean localism, about Freud and Nietzsche’s relationship, about the ascetic ideal, about the canonical virtue of scientific empirical testability, about the need for fine grained logical content, about the value of his different philosophical interests and why what Nietzsche says may well be literally true. All in all, this one walks into the essential territory like its griot time…

3:AM: You’re a leading Nietzsche scholar. There’s been in the last decade or so some interesting developments in the understanding of this philosopher. One shift has been away from a postmodernist interpretation. So to begin with, can you say something about how you think postmodernism used and abused Nietzsche? Was Foucault the main culprit in this?

Ken Gemes: The postmodernists got something decidedly right about Nietzsche. Nietzsche, they say, disagrees with Descartes’ and Kant’s assumption that there is a pre-given soul or self for each person. That soul/self is a fiction. However that is merely on the descriptive side. On the normative, prescriptive, side, the post-modernists celebrate the demise of the self; they think we should totally jettison the notion of self.

For instance, the post-modernist Lytoard says we should reject all meta-narratives that try to create a centre of meaning; rather we should become ironists and employ multiple narratives, giving none any real authority. This is in fact the very nihilism that Nietzsche predicted would follow from a thorough appreciation of the Death of God. What strong individuals, the type that Nietzsche really cares about, do in the face of the collapse of all received, externally sanctioned, meta-narratives (be they that of religion, utilitarianism, Marxism, etc) is create their own meta-narrative; they impose their own values, recognizing that this is an existential act of self creation. Foucault himself actually gets a lot right about Nietzsche but also deforms him for his own purposes. I have no problem with that, since strong creative readers, rather than truth obsessed scholars, are Nietzsche’s preferred readers. That said, I find Nietzsche a hell of a lot more interesting than Foucault.

3:AM: I guess it was Nietzsche’s critique of truth that led to some of the postmodernist conclusions. So what do you think he was saying about truth?

KG: It is typical of modern philosophers to try to make Nietzsche speak to their limited concerns; hence they ask about Nietzsche’s theory of truth, Nietzsche’s epistemology, Nietzsche’s metaphysics. I don’t think Nietzsche had any seriously considered theory of truth, and was a fairly uneducated dilettante in his naive speculations about metaphysic, epistemology and the like. I would suggest that he occasionally fastened on to certain themes in epistemology and metaphysics because he thought he could use them to drive his normative agenda. For instance, the claim that there is no free will “in the superlative metaphysical sense” paves the way for a critique of received moral notions of guilt and responsibility. He was far more interested in, and perspicuous on, such psychological questions as “Why do we value truth so highly?” then such standard philosophical question as “What is the nature of truth?” Nietzsche says that he who reads him well reads him as a psychologist. I agree, but would add that one should also read him as a Kulturkritiker.

3:AM: What is your general position about Nietzsche then? Is it in the naturalist camp in the tradition of the German mid 19th century materialists like Buchner or do you situate him coming from some other place and going somewhere else?

KG: I don’t doubt that Nietzsche was in some sense a naturalist. But I don’t find that to be of much interest. In the 19th century naturalists were more or less a dime a dozen and I don’t see that he adds much to the picture.

3:AM: Is the tragedy of life in Nietzsche the stark nihilist fact that life is meaningless?

KG: Yes. Schopenhauer focused on the, for him, atemporal fact that life inevitably involves suffering. For Nietzsche’s the fundamental problem, a problem that only comes fully into view with modernity, is that life appears meaningless. Note, I refer to appearance deliberately; for the psychologist Nietzsche it does not really matter whether life actually is, or is not meaningful. What is crucial is that to us moderns it appears meaningless. Current Anglo-American interpreters tend to emphasize Nietzsche’s undoubted debt to Schopenhauer. But if we see Nietzsche as not being primarily fixated on the problem of suffering but on the particularly modern problem of the loss of meaning we have a perspective that allows emphasis of his debt to Wagner. One of Wagner’s key obsessions is that our modern will to truth destroy all those illusions and myths that provide existential meaning to our lives. It is from his engagement with Hölderlin and Wagner, among others, that Nietzsche picked up this theme.

3:AM: Do you agree with Leiter’s arguments that conclude that Nietzsche was addressing a limited type of person, the genius, and that broadening his conclusions to a more general position and audience misconceives his project?

KG: Nietzsche, like his early mentor Wagner, was influenced by the German Romantics’notion that modernity lacks any cultural unity. He first naively followed Wagner in believing that a new unified high culture could be created through a new mythology. He soon wised up and saw (as did Taine, De Tocqueville, and Mill in his occasional pessimistic moods) that philistine culture (“the tyranny of the majority” to use De Tocqueville’s words) was inevitable. The mature Nietzsche, like the early Nietzsche, still ultimately cares about high culture, but came to believe that its survival and development was in the hands of a few individuals of genius. It is such individuals who are his real conversational partners and who he really cared to influence. In a sense, he is talking in a one way, albeit temporally two directional, conversation to the dead (his great predecessors such as Schopenhauer and Goethe) and to the yet to be born (his successors, including Mann, Rilke, Hesse and the like).

3:AM: You take a key message from Nietzsche’s Genealogy to be that we remain of necessity “stranger to ourselves.” Can you explain what you think Nietzsche is saying in what you call a “beautiful and uncanny phrase”?

KG: There is an intellectual sense in which we are “strangers to ourselves”; namely, there are parts of our psyche that we are unaware of. Thus the Christian slave, who preaches love, is typically unaware that in fact he has a raging repressed desire to have revenge against his oppressors. But the really profound sense in which we are strangers to ourselves is that there are parts of us that are in a sense split-off, working autonomously, from our conscious I and other parts of our psyche. Nietzsche’s ideal, for his select few, is the achievement of a sublimated unity, where the parts (for Nietzsche these are fundamentally different drives) are integrated into a unified whole. This estrangement from ourselves precludes such a unity and so prevents us having genuine selves and freedom.

3:AM: Does Nietzsche intend us to stop being strangers, to engage in a “shattering struggle” using “momentous courage”?

KG: As a decided elitist (he says “let the rules of the herd rule – in the herd”) he thinks the vast majority of us will inevitably remain strangers to ourselves. And doing so is not such a bad thing as it makes our pathetic lives bearable, and also we are needed to do the non-creative work, which is all we are rally capable of, and which is needed to keep society going. But for those with genuine talents he thinks finding a master voice (a master drive) that sublimates, brings into unity, the other minor keys is the high road to full creative expression. This seems to me a rather fanciful romantic notion; a kind of unity worship, Einheit über alles. I don’t see why unity is essential to full creativity. I think he is on a better track when arguing that a disunifed self (for Nietzsche a kind of non-self) is not one that can fully overcome ressentiment – the ressentiment that comes when any parts of ourselves are pathologically repressed. Again, I am not sure that being a creature of ressentiment precludes the high creativity that Nietzsche so valued. I suspect that his real objection to ressentiment is that it makes its bearer ugly. His ultimate criticism of ressentiment may be aesthetic.

3:AM: You say that Nietzsche is “always a local rather than a global thinker.” This seems strange given that he seems to go back to very ancient pre-Socratic roots to justify his claims, and this seems a pretty global procedure. But also, doesn’t the claim of being local threaten his message with parochialism – modernity has changed since he was writing, so his locality has gone and he is no longer relevant?

KG: To answer the last part first: The lack of the illusions of meaning remains one of the core problems of modernity. So Nietzsche’s core problem is arguably still with us. But we may indeed get over that and then perhaps Nietzsche will have less to say to us. It is his belief that all great ideas have their own death built into themselves; they overcome themselves. Genius that he was Nietzsche saw his own obsolescence in his vision of the last men; people who were contented with herd happiness and do not feel the call of existential questions. He was appalled by such lack of ambition but at the same time realized that he had no purchase on such creatures.

Nietzsche is a local thinker in the sense that he does not ask, as a typical philosopher would, questions such as “What is the value of truth?”, hoping to find a final answer that serves all people for all time. Rather, he asks what is the value of so and so’s high estimation of truth. Thus he says in his own case and that of Goethe their high estimation of truth was part of their engagement with the world; but for typical scholars their high estimation of truth is a way of disengaging from the world. Like Schopenhauer they aspire to be mere passive mirrors of the world; pure subjects of knowledge. Similarly with religions and illusions, Nietzsche does not globally condemn them tout court but asks of each illusion and religion whether it serves to affirm life or deny life. For instance, he has no problem with the illusion of the Greek Gods; the Greek Gods were simply a projection, a personification onto nature, of the Greeks themselves; so that in worshipping a God filled nature the Greeks were in fact healthily worshipping themselves and their natural drives. The Judeo-Christian religions, in contrast, use their God to slander this world, saying that (acting on) our natural drives, for instance sexual and aggressive drives, is an affront to God. Philosophers ask the global question what is good; Nietzsche asks local questions like what is good for this kind of person in this kind of situation. Thus he allows that a high valuation of altruism and compassion may be good for members of the herd but for genuinely creative individuals they may be a debilitating distraction.

3:AM: You have compared Freud and Nietzsche on the idea of sublimation and you find Nietzsche’s account or analysis superior. Can you first say how the two thinkers diverge?

KG: There is a stupid question (not one you asked) about how the genius, Freud, borrowed from another genius, Nietzsche – usually this is asked in the context of an implication that Freud did not properly acknowledge his debt to Nietzsche. This is not something we should care about. What is helpful is to use the work of one to illuminate that of the other.

From a Nietzschean point of view, Freud is focused rather on the mundane descriptive causal problems of herd happiness and unhappiness. Nietzsche, of course, has total disdain for such pedestrian problems. It is Nietzsche’s focus on the idea of great individuals that leads him to a picture of sublimation as a thorough integration of the drives, and, conversely, to picture pathology as a disintegration of the self into mere competing drives. Freud, on the other hand, notoriously had a good deal of trouble separating pathology from sublimation. Both, for Freud, involve the redirection of sexual impulses; sublimation leading to symptom like formations that are socially acceptable (for instance, in the case of Leonardo Da Vinci, a fixation on artistic creation), as contrasted to the case of pathology where the symptoms are social unacceptable (for instance, in the case of the psychotic judge Schreber, a fixation on the belief that God is attempting to castrate and feminize him). From a psychologist’s point of view the mere vagaries of social acceptability should not mark the distinction between the healthy and the pathological. I am on Nietzsche’s side here; much of what society approves of is pathological and some of what it disapproves of is quite healthy.

3:AM: Given the psychological insights you find in Nietzsche, why should we heed him now rather than just turn to the psychologists who followed and have gone on since?

KG: Nietzsche is a psychologist with a grand normative vision. Most psychologists have no articulate normative vision or implicitly follow Freud’s totally mundane vision of turning extraordinary unhappiness to ordinary happiness. Also, Nietzsche had the good taste to at least implicitly recognize that psychology cannot yet seriously hope to be rigorous science. Personally, I think because of complexity issues it never will be – it is computationally intractable (too many variables) for beings like us. Freud maintained a fairly inappropriate, one might even say, near fraudulent, veneer of scientific authority for much of his career.

3:AM: And if as you say Nietzsche says philosophy is merely the last manifestation of the ascetic ideal, why continue with doing philosophy? Do you like the ascetic ideal? Or is he wrong to think of philosophy like that? And how could he know whether philosophy was the last manifestation anyway?

KG: Well, as Nietzsche himself says, the ascetic ideal gave man depth and made him interesting. Unlike Nietzsche, I still think it can be a source of great creativity. Nietzsche has as tendency to berate it as pathological, but that is probably, as he himself realized, an expression of its pathological effect on him. Like Nietzsche, I strongly value human creativity in its highest forms and philosophy is one expression of that creativity. Of course it’s desperately difficult to be a genuinely creative philosopher, and people like Descartes, Kant and Nietzsche put us lesser mortals totally in the shade – talk about the difference between Gods and the human-all-too-human! Still we help keep the philosophical Gods alive and add more or less important footnotes to their work. To use another metaphor, there is a wide space of reason; the Gods map out significant portions of that space, we mortals explore and map out minor alleys.

One must learn to love.— This is what happens to us in music: first one has to learn to hear a figure and melody at all, to detect and distinguish it, to isolate it and delimit it as a separate life; then it requires some exertion and good will to tolerate it in spite of its strangeness, to be patient with its appearance and expression, and kindhearted about its oddity:—finally there comes a moment when we are used to it, when we wait for it, when we sense that we should miss it if it were missing: and now it continues to compel and enchant us relentlessly until we have become its humble and enraptured lovers who desire nothing better from the world than it and only it.But that is what happens to us not only in music: that is how we have learned to love all things that we now love. In the end we are always rewarded for our good will, our patience, fairmindedness, and gentleness with what is strange; gradually, it sheds its veil and turns out to be a new and indescribable beauty:—that is its thanks for our hospitality. Even those who love themselves will have learned it in this way: for there is no other way. Love, too, has to be learned.
Friedrich Nietzsche

(via reflectivexistence-deactivated2)

When the highest and strongest drives, breaking passionately out, carry the individual far above and beyond the average and lowlands of the herd conscience, the self-confidence of the community goes to pieces, its faith in itself, its spine as it were, is broken: consequently it is precisely these drives which are most branded and calumniated. Lofty spiritual independence, the will to stand alone, great intelligence even, are felt to be dangerous; everything that raises the individual above the herd and makes his neighbor quail is henceforth called evil; the fair, modest, obedient, self-effacing disposition, the mean and average in desires, acquires moral names and honours.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
To learn to see—to accustom the eye to calmness, to patience, and to allow things to come up to it; to defer judgment, and to acquire the habit of approaching and grasping an individual case from all sides. This is the first preparatory schooling of intellectuality. One must not respond immediately to a stimulus; one must acquire a command of the obstructing and isolating instincts.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

Link: Falling Out With Superman

I stumbled upon Friedrich Nietzsche when I was 17, following the usual trail of existential candies — Camus, Sartre, Beckett — that unsuspecting teenagers find in the woods. The effect was more like a drug than a philosophy. I was whirled upward — or was it downward? — into a one-man universe, a secret cult demanding that you put a gun to the head of your dearest habits and beliefs. That intoxicating whiff of half-conscious madness; that casually hair-raising evisceration of everything moral, responsible and parentally approved — these waves overwhelmed my adolescent dinghy. And even more than by his ideas — many of which I didn’t understand at all, but some of which I perhaps grasped better then than I do now — I was seduced by his prose. At the end of his sentences you could hear an electric crack, like the whip of a steel blade being tested in the air. He might have been the Devil, but he had better lines than God.

I was sold. Like those German soldiers in World War I who were found dead with copies of ”Thus Spake Zarathustra” in their pockets, I hauled my tattered purple-covered copy of the Viking Portable Nietzsche with me everywhere. It was with me when I dropped out of college after a semester to go work in a shipyard, with me years later when, sitting on a knoll on a tiny island off Vancouver, I decided to wake up from my dream of total escape and go back to school. I read him to elevate myself, to punish myself, to remind myself of the promises I had broken. He was the closest thing I had to a church.

Eventually, I stopped going to church. There were various reasons for this, some of them good and some of them not; I couldn’t sort out which was which then, and can’t now. Maybe it was just satiation. The philosopher John Searle once told me that reading Nietzsche was like drinking cognac — a sip was good, but you didn’t want to drink the whole bottle. I’d been pounding Nietzsche by the case.

So I left Nietzsche alone on his mountaintop. But as every lapsed believer knows, you never wholly escape the church. Nietzsche had come to stand for something absolute and pure, like gilded Byzantium or Ahab’s whale; he represented what I imagined I might have been. He had become a permanent horizon.

Oddly, during this long, strange love affair, I avoided learning much about Nietzsche’s life. Maybe this was because I had turned him into a shrine — after all, totems have no history. I knew only the superficials: that he was a desperately lonely man, poor and largely unread, plagued by bad health, who went mad at the age of 44.

Then, last summer, I planned a trip to Switzerland. As a highlight, I decided to visit Sils-Maria — the small village near St. Moritz where Nietzsche spent seven summers and wrote many of his masterpieces. The tourist soon won out over the iconoclast: now that I was going to stand where the Master stood, I couldn’t pretend I didn’t care about how he lived, what people he liked, what he wore. So I immersed myself in various biographical accounts: ”Nietzsche in Turin,” Lesley Chamberlain’s psychologically penetrating book about the philosopher’s final year; Ronald Hayman’s challenging ”Nietzsche: A Critical Life”; and a book that only a Nietzsche cultist would consume, ”The Good European: Nietzsche’s Work Sites in Word and Image.”

It wasn’t the grand narrative of his life but the details that stayed with me. The joke photograph in which he and his friend Paul Ree posed in a cart over which Lou Salome, the 21-year-old woman with whom he was timidly, desperately in love, held a whip. Nietzsche in the Caligari-shadowed last days of his sanity, once again turning himself into a character in an unhappy novel, lamenting that a journey was ”perhaps the most unfortunate I have made” simply because he had climbed aboard the wrong train. The fact that he liked ”Tom Sawyer.” The solicitude of an old female friend who tried to buck him up but was unable to teach him not to let everything wound him. The visitor who simply reported how much he liked Herr Nietzsche, the lonely, earnest professor with the bad eyes.

This wasn’t the Nietzsche I remembered. The philosopher I had worshiped was an uncanny hybrid, simultaneously a terrifying Old Testament prophet and a 19th-century free spirit. To be sure, much of Nietzsche — maybe the best of him — was as lucid, critical and quick-footed as Stendhal. Yet it was the monstrous doctrines at the heart of his thought — the Overman, the Eternal Recurrence — that had drawn me; they hypnotized me because I couldn’t figure out whether they were coming from man or some frightening gospel. Now that I understood how much of Nietzsche’s work was an attempt to turn his personal torment into something lasting, I realized that perhaps those enigmatic pronouncements were best seen not as antitruths handed down from on high, but as words he whispered to himself, beacons he lighted in the darkness to cheer himself up. What was great in Nietzsche was not, I began to see, his holiness, maybe not even his wisdom. It was his courage.

Then I went to Sils.

Sils-Maria is a bland one-horse resort village under spectacular mountains between two crystalline lakes. Terminally respectable Swiss burghers polish their vacation homes; tourists (”They climb mountains like animals, stupid and sweating,” Nietzsche wrote) fill the hotels. The Nietzsche-Haus stands near the center. In his day it was a tea and spice shop whose owner rented an upstairs room to Nietzsche; now it is a museum. In front of the tidy white-and-green building stands a sculpture of a large black eagle — one of the companions that consoled Zarathustra in his last loneliness. On a gray afternoon I pulled open the door and climbed the stairs to his room.

No one was there. I looked in. A small, low-ceilinged room, walls of knotty pine. A lumpy-looking bed. A small table with a green silk cover. A washbasin. A single window, looking out onto a patch of the forest.

We go to literary shrines to touch things. We run our fingers along the writing table, we furtively step over the red velvet rope and finger the water jug by the edge of the bed. Yet to feel the pedestal is to call the very idea of the pedestal into question. Which is why there is something comic in all pilgrimages: while Don Quixote holds loftily forth, Sancho Panza steals the ashtray.

But as I ran my fingertips along the knotty pine, it all rose up: the indelible words that had been created here; the misery of the man who had shivered out his life in this room; and all the years I had spent charting my course by a dream. Standing outside in the hallway, I was surprised to find myself beginning to weep, like the most breast-heaving pilgrim.

A familiar voice, very old and once sacred to me, protested. I could not pity Nietzsche. It was a betrayal of everything he had believed. He had railed against pity. Compassion was for the hearth-huddlers, the followers, those who lacked the strength to turn themselves into ”dancing stars.” The last temptation of the higher man, Nietzsche had taught, was pity; on its far side was a roaring, Dionysian, inhuman laughter.

I could recite this chapter and verse, but I had never been able to live it. It was the most alien and terrifying of Nietzsche’s teachings. Still, long reverence pulled me up short. Here, of all places, I must feel no pity.

But my heart won the war. Maybe it was resignation — the final acceptance that I was not going to forge myself into a new shape. Maybe it was weariness with a doctrine, with all doctrines, that sounded delirious but that couldn’t be used. Whatever it was, I stopped fighting. Yes, part of Nietzsche would always stand far above the tree line, and I would treasure that iciness. But I had to walk on the paths where I could go.

Still confused, I stood in the doorway. And then, as a gift, the following words came into my head, words spoken by Zarathustra to his disciples, disciples that Nietzsche himself never had. ”You revere me; but what if your reverence tumbles one day? Beware lest a statue slay you. You say you believe in Zarathustra? But what matters Zarathustra? … Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you.”

I took a last look at the room. Then I walked out the door. 

You will never pray again, never adore again, never again rest in endless trust; you do not permit yourself to stop before any ultimate wisdom, ultimate goodness, ultimate power, while unharnessing your thoughts; you have no perpetual guardian and friend for your seven solitudes; you live without a view of mountains with snow on their peaks and fire in their hearts; there is no avenger for you any more nor any final improver; there is no longer any reason in what happens, no love in what will happen to you; no resting place is open any longer to your heart, where it only needs to find and no longer to seek; you resist any ultimate peace; you will the eternal recurrence of war and peace: man of renunciation, all this you wish to renounce? Who will give you the strength for that? Nobody yet has had this strength! There is a lake that one day ceased to permit itself to flow off; it formed a dam where it had hitherto flown off; and ever since this lake is rising higher and higher. Perhaps this very renunciation will also lend us the strength needed to bear this renunciation; perhaps man will rise ever higher as soon as he ceases to flow out into a god.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
It’s when I finished studying it, at the point where I stopped believing in philosophy, that I began to read Nietzsche. Well, I realised that he wasn’t a philosopher, but was more: a temperament. So, I read him, but never systematically, now and then. But I really don’t read him anymore. I consider his letters his most authentic work, because in them he’s truthful, while in his other work he’s prisoner to his vision. In his letters one sees that he’s just a poor fellow, that he’s ill, exactly the opposite of everything he claimed. […] His work is an unspeakable megalomania. When one reads the letters he wrote at the same time, one sees that he’s lamentable, it’s very touching, like a character out of Chekhov.
— Emil Cioran on Friedrich Nietzsche

(Source: litafficionado, via a-weltanschauung-deactivated201)

To the realists. — You sober people who feel well armed against passion and fantasies and would like to turn your emptiness into a matter of pride and an ornament: you call yourselves realists and hint that the world really is the way it appears to you. As if reality stood unveiled before you only, and you yourselves were perhaps the best part of it—O you beloved images of Sais! But in your unveiled state are not even you still very passionate and dark creatures compared to fish, and still far too similar to an artist in love? And what is “reality” for an artist in love? You are still burdened with those estimates of things that have their origin in the passions and loves of former centuries. Your sobriety still contains a secret and inextinguishable drunkenness. Your love of “reality,” for example—oh, that is a primeval “love.” Every feeling and sensation contains a piece of this old love; and some fantasy, some prejudice, some unreason, some ignorance, some fear, and ever so much else has contributed to it and worked on it. That mountain there! That cloud there! What is “real” in that? Subtract the phantasm and every human contribution from it, my sober friends! If you can! If you can forget your descent, your past, your training—all of your humanity and animality. There is no “reality” for us—not for you either, my sober friends. We are not nearly as different as you think, and perhaps our good will to transcend intoxication is as respectable as your faith that you are altogether incapable of intoxication.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

(via muwashahaat-deactivated20140614)

Link: Culture War: How the Nazi Party Recast Nietzsche

"Fitting Nietzsche’s ideas into a single worldview was no simple matter, but this was precisely the mission of the ‘Völkischer Beobachter’’s editors and writers: to make even complex ideas such as Nietzsche’s appear to coordinate with the main tenets of Nazism."

High culture played an important political role in Hitler’s Germany. References to music, history, philosophy, and art formed a key part of the Nazi strategy to reverse the symptoms of decline perceived after World War I. Allusions to great creators and their works were used as propaganda to remind the Volk to love and worship their nation. In the words of the French scholar Eric Michaud, author of The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany, the Nazis used culture “to make the genius of the race visible to that race.” And to cap off these images of a great national culture, the Nazis heralded Adolf Hitler, the Führer, as an artistic leader.

As Michaud put it: “Hitler presented himself not only as a ‘man of the people’ and a soldier with frontline experience (Fronterlebnis), but also and above all as a man whose artistic experience constituted the best guarantee of his ability to mediate the Volksgeist and turn it into the ‘perfect Third Reich.’”

The revival of a culturally rich Germany as the so-called Third Reich, however, would be achieved only once those whom the Nazis considered its enemies were all destroyed. So war and culture went together in the National Socialist agenda. Art, said Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, “is no mere peacetime amusement, but a sharp spiritual weapon for war.”

To understand how Nazis employed culture to define and promote their broadest ambitions, I looked to German mass media, in particular the main Nazi newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, whose cultural pages I examined for the years 1920 to 1945. While the Nazi co-optation of many great figures in the Western intellectual tradition during these eventful years proves revealing, one need look no further than the party’s claim on Friedrich Nietzsche to see how culture became entwined in the discourse of politics and war in the pages of Hitler’s foremost propaganda outlet.

Fitting Nietzsche’s ideas into a single worldview was no simple matter, but this was precisely the mission of theVölkischer Beobachter’s editors and writers: to make even complex ideas such as Nietzsche’s appear to coordinate with the main tenets of Nazism. Looking into the shifting terms with which the daily newspaper presented Nietzsche helps us toward understanding how the Nazi party attempted to place his biography and writings—along with the tradition of Kultur as a whole—at the service of the Nazi outlook.

In addressing the “Germanness” of Nietzsche, however, the cultural politicians of the party faced some difficulties. The newspaper did not try to verify Nietzsche’s racial origins—as it did for many other Western creators, including and especially Wagner and Beethoven—despite the fact that he occasionally claimed to be of Polish heritage. But it did have to confront indications that the philosopher rejected nineteenth-century trends of nationalistic identification.

As one contributor to the Völkischer Beobachter wrote, there is “one important point in Nietzsche’s mental attitude on which even his friends have remained silent, from which they tried to distance themselves as much as possible: this is the matter of Nietzsche’s attitude toward Germanness and the state.” The philosopher, according to the paper, had seen with “sharp eyes” that while the Second Reich had been formed, it still “remained a shell without content” under Otto von Bismarck’s Realpolitik. To him, nationalism was the “illness of the century” because it “attempted to hide its emptiness.” In his words, “Nationalism as it is understood today is a dogma that requires limitation.”

But the point to keep in mind, according to the Völkischer Beobachter, was the qualifying phrase: “as it is understood today.” Nietzsche’s opinions about the German state could be understood only with reference to this phrase—that is, as critiques of his own specific time, not as categorical rejections of German nationalism.

This opened the way for the newspaper to present Nietzsche as a fervent patriot and strong representative of “Germanness.” In fact, the paper reminded, Nietzsche actually said of himself that “I am perhaps more German than the Germans of today.” And he valued the “earnest, manly, stern, and daring German spirit.” He knew that “there was still bravery, particularly German bravery,” that is, “inwardly something different than the élan of our deplorable neighbors.” Compared with the French essence, in particular, he was “consistently, strongly, and happily conscious of the virtues” of the German character. Above all, Nietzsche held that “it is German unity in the highest sense which we are striving for more passionately than for political reunification—the unity of the German spirit and life.”

Very few others “saw things so clearly” in those days, said the Völkischer Beobachter. As if on a mission to confirm the philosopher’s Germanness, another contributor traveled to Sils-Maria, wandered the region, and ruminated on passages Nietzsche had written there. The landscape, Ernst Nickell reflected, is “consecrated by German fate and German tragedy.” Nietzsche “needed this landscape; he had to stand near the highest things and the firmament”—because he was “German despite everything.”

Nietzsche was, however, rather ambivalent about politics, having called himself the “last anti-political German of them all.” But Nazi propaganda rigorously promoted the view that the primary creative impulse was as much political as it was artistic. The picture of Nietzsche thus had to be corrected to bring out his political side.

The Völkischer Beobachter admitted that “we find here at first view a sharp contrast with today’s [National Socialist] thinking”—but only at first glance. According to the paper, what Nietzsche understood by the term “state” was completely different from “our idea of the state today.” For him, politicization meant democratization, i.e., the greatest good for the greatest number. This Nietzsche hated, the paper said, because “general prosperity would make mankind too lazy to invest powerful energy in a great individual— in a genius.” That is why Nietzsche wanted “as little state as possible.” A volkish state, directed according to Nazi ideology, however, would revive the genius of the nation, and therefore earn Nietzsche’s support.

The paper acknowledged that Nietzsche had other views that seemed “the complete opposite of our views today.” For instance, he viewed culture and the state as antagonists. This, perhaps, should have made him the oddest of conscripts to the Nazi campaign to subordinate culture to politics and war, but that was not the party line. Such ideas of Nietzsche’s, the Völkischer Beobachter insisted, were likewise conditioned by his own times:

The German Reich had had the misfortune to achieve its external form when there was no longer any inner content. The classical heights of German education had sunk, the song of German Romanticism sounded only from afar. On the other hand, Realism was on the rise, leading more and more toward materialism. Money and business had become the gods of the age.

A state as the “guardian and defender of culture; a state as the means of achieving the true goal of existence, not as a goal in itself; a state that is built on the Volk—that, Nietzsche would have accepted,” the newspaper claimed. Therefore, the philosopher “would have agreed with today’s [National Socialist] German idea of the state with all of his heart.”

Under the Weimar Republic, the Völkischer Beobachter complained, Nietzsche had been invoked far too frequently by “international-democratic literati” as a “star-witness” for their worldview. But, the paper countered, Nietzsche “hated and fought every form of democracy, both political and spiritual,” and he said so in the sharpest possible terms. The notions that “all are the same” and that at base we are all just selfish brutes and riffraff—were symbolic of the democratic age that believed in the equality of men and that established “the weak, fat, and cowardly as standards for this equality.”

In Nietzsche’s opinion, said the Völkischer Beobachter, this rule of the humble amounted to a blow against life itself. Against the democratic and supposedly feeble outlook of the Weimar era, the newspaper argued, Nietzsche set forth a way of thinking that sets laws for the future—an outlook which “handled contemporary things harshly and tyrannically” in the interest of the future.

Thus did the cultural-historical material that appeared in the Völkischer Beobachter resound with the Führer/Artist–Artist/Führer theme that typified Nazi cultural politics. Hitler was the primary manifestation of this creative leadership, but he came, according to this view, after a long line of notable predecessors, including Luther, Beethoven, Wagner, and, yes, Nietzsche.

Cultural renewal in accordance with such perceptions of intellectual history was a central premise of the larger project of the Third Reich, fundamental to Hitler’s aims. But this agenda also contributed to the most destructive impulses of the movement. Indeed, German cultural identity as shaped by the Nazi regime did not merely justify anti-Semitism or policies of extermination, it led to them. Hitler’s racist standards of judgment were grounded in cultural terms, as he stated in Mein Kampf: “If we were to divide mankind into three groups, the founders of culture, the bearers of culture, the destroyers of culture, only the Aryan could be considered as the representative of the first group.” According to the Völkischer Beobachter, Jewish creators such as Heine, Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn, Mahler, and Schoenberg—among many others—supposedly belonged in the latter, so they and their kind had to be eradicated.

Demonstrating that great cultural figures of the past would have agreed with these premises was a priority in the Nazi newspaper. One contributor put it in these stark terms: “to win over to our movement spiritual leaders who think they see something distasteful in anti-Semitism, it is extremely important to present more and more evidence that great, recognized spirits shared our hatred of Jewry.”

In the case of Nietzsche, however, this process required a little more “spin” than the “selective scavenging” for biographical and textual evidence that scholar Steven Aschheim identified as the usual mode of such politicization. Some Völkischer Beobachter contributors recognized that Nietzsche had not been a committed anti-Semite, and had even criticized the anti-Semitic views of Richard Wagner, his own sister, Elisabeth, and her husband, Bernhard Förster. One editor, for instance, said about Nietzsche: “His work contains other crass contradictions and obscurities, especially in his treatment of the Jewish Question, where he sometimes confesses himself as an Anti-Semite, and then as a philo-Semite. Equally obscure is what he understood as race and nation. This may be a result of the eruptive nature of his creativity and the shortness of his life, which didn’t allow him enough time to go into these issues deeply.”

For the New Year. I still live, I still think; I must still live, for I must still think. Sum, ergo cogito: cogito, ergo sum. Today everyone takes the liberty of expressing his wish and his favourite thought: well, I also mean to tell what I have wished for myself today, and what thought first crossed my mind this year, a thought which ought to be the basis, the pledge and the sweetening of all my future life! I want more and more to perceive the necessary characters in things as the beautiful: I shall thus be one of those who beautify things. Amor fati: let that henceforth be my love! I do not want to wage war with the ugly. I do not want to accuse, I do not want even to accuse the accusers. Looking aside, let that be my sole negation! And all in all, to sum up: I wish to be at any time hereafter only a yea-sayer!
— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Herd instinct.—Wherever we encounter a morality, we also encounter valuations and an order of rank of human impulses and actions. These valuations and orders of rank are always expressions of the needs of a community and herd: whatever benefits it most—and second most, and third most—that is also considered the first standard for the value of all individuals. Morality trains the individual to be a function of the herd and to ascribe value to himself only as a function. The conditions for the preservation of different communities were very different; hence there were very different moralities. Considering essential changes in the forms of future herds and communities, states and societies, we can prophesy that there will yet be very divergent moralities. Morality is herd instinct in the individual.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

(Source: hierarchical-aestheticism, via 1109-83)

Are we asking too much if we seek the company of men who have grown gentle, well-tasting and nutritious like chestnuts from the fire? Such men who expect little from life, are too proud ever to be able to feel themselves rewarded, and are too serious in their passion for knowledge and honesty to have time or inclination for fame? Such men we should call philosophers.
— Friedrich Nietzsche

(via onthegenealogyofmyblogging-deac)

Link: The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Ecological Restoration

One of the newer biological conservation strategies, ecological restoration, attempts to reverse the degradation of lands set aside for conservation purposes by reinstating, as closely as possible, the species and environmental conditions that existed before recent and large scale disturbances by human activities. A newly emerging framework within restoration ecology - the novel ecosystem paradigm - points out that with global change we are moving into an era for which there is no historical analogue. As a consequence land must be managed without excessive regard for the past which can no longer serve as our guide. This has generated a lot of controversy within the field. I was asked by Irish journalist Paddy Woodworth to speak on a panel on “The historical reference system: critical appraisal of a cornerstone concept in restoration ecology” at a conference of the Society for Ecological Restoration held in Madison Oct 6 -11th 2013. In recent articles and in his new book “Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century” Woodworth had been critical of the novel ecosystem paradigm wondering if it does not undermine the case for restoration. I had not realized how controversial the topic had become. Tensions at the conference were running high, and the room in which this panel convened was over capacity with dozens turned away. What follows is the outline of my remark at this session.

On first glance the work of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), the German philosopher, might not seem especially helpful for restoration ecologists or indeed for anyone contemplating our relationship with the natural world. After all, his work supposedly challenges the foundations of Christianity and traditional morality. Nietzsche’s famous locutions concerning the “death of God” and his extensive discussions of nihilism should, however, be seen as his diagnosis rather than his cure. For Nietzsche our real cultural task is to overcome the annihilation of traditional morality, replacing it with something more life-affirming. The failure of our traditional precepts of value stem from the fact these express what Nietzsche calls the ascetic ideal. This ideal measures the appropriateness of human actions against edicts coming from beyond our natural and earth-bound life. The highest human values, as we traditionally assess them, came from a denial of our natural selves. Nature, in turn, is regarded as having no intrinsic value.

Thus Nietzsche even when he wrote in areas seemingly distant from traditional environmental concerns has useful things to say to us environmentalists. At times, in fact, his aphorisms are those of a poetic naturalist. In The Wanderer and His Shadow (1880, collected in Human, All too Human) he wrote “One has still to be as close to flowers, the grass and the butterflies as is a child, who is not so very much bigger that they are. We adults, on the other hand, have grown up high above them and have to condescend to them; I believe the grass hates us when we confess our love for it.” This is not, of course, to claim that Nietzsche is a traditional naturalist. His concerns are primarily about the thriving of human life, though in this he seems less like a traditional wilderness defender and closer to a contemporary sustainability advocate who seeks to locate a promising future for humans while simultaneously solving environmental problems.

A central device in Nietzsche’s work is a type of thought experiment about eternal recurrence of the same: the thought of a pure and perpetual restoration. An early use of the thought is in The Gay Science (1882). There he wrote: “This life, as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once more and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees and even this moment and I myself.” There are those — do you count yourself among them? — who might welcome this. For many of us, however, the prospect of the same sequence playing over and over again would crush us.

In some ways eternal return asks us how much history we can tolerate. In what circumstances does embracing the past testify to our strength: the ways we are disposed to ourselves and to life? And if we cannot take on the entire weight of history, how much of it are we prepared to take on: a little, a lot? The question of what to do with history is considered by Nietzsche in an 1874 essay entitled On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life: the essay from which I take my title. In it Nietzsche decries a style of knowledge acquisition for the sake of knowledge alone. This desiccated strategy ends up sapping our vital impulses. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Nietzsche, memorably, wrote that history can be related to the life of a person in three ways: “it pertains to him as a being who acts and strives, as a being who preserves and reveres, as a being who suffers and seeks deliverance.” These are Nietzsche’s “three species” of history: the monumental, the antiquarian and the critical species.

Restoration is always a game that we play with time. Ecology has a history of being overly confident about that which is genuinely perplexing to other disciplines, namely time. There is a long standing suspicion among philosophers that time, as such, is meaningless. The British philosopher John McTaggart (1866 –1925) famously pronounced the unreality of time. The argument, briefly, is that since every event is both past and future and thus there can be no coherent ordering of events. The observation that an event is not simultaneously past and future relies itself on the ordering that it is trying to explain, creating a vicious circle. Restorationists, however, have a refreshing lack of interest in abstractions such of these. We are concerned, however, with the degree to which we should incorporate the past into our plans for the future — this is the essence of debates about the use of historic reference systems.

The connection between restoration and history is obviously the case for classical restoration defined by the SER International Primer on Ecological Restoration as “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.” All those “re” and “de” words etymologically reveal their indebtedness to the past. The origins of the prefix “re”, for instance, refers to the original Latin, meaning ‘back’ or ‘backwards’. Ecological restorationist’s concern for the past is not, of course, necessarily about the past for for its own sake, but on behalf of a suite of reasons connected with our direct human needs as well as in discharging of our ethical obligations to the biosphere. As Dave Egan and Evelyn A Howell phrased it in The Historical Ecology Handbook: A Restorationist’s Guide To Reference Ecosystems (2001): “A fundamental aspect of ecosystem restoration is learning how to rediscover the past and bring it forward into the present – to determine what needs to be restored, why it was lost, and how to make it live again.” In William Jordan III’s strict definition of “ecocentric restoration” — “restoration focused on the literal re-creation of previously existing ecosystem, including not just some but all its parts and processes” — restoration, this seemingly impossible grappling with the past generates a broad range of values, some of which we will never get by ignoring the past. In Making Nature Whole: A History of Ecological Restoration (2011) Jordan wrote: “The motives behind this new and some ways odd enterprise [of ecocentric restoration] were complicated: a mixture of curiosity, scientific, historic, and aesthetic interest, nostalgia, and respect for the old ecosystems, together with the idea that the old ecosystems are ecologically privileged assemblages of organisms, endowed with distinctive qualities of stability, beauty, and self organizing capacity, and so might be useful as models for human habitat.” Jordan’s work invites us to deal with the full blast of history, to endure it for the sake of the “classic ecosystem” which otherwise won’t survive, and by enduring to understand better our current relationship with the rest of the natural world. In Jordan’s work, failure is an option — sometimes indeed, failure may be the very point.

Let us engage in a little Nietzschean thought experiment of our own. If an ecological manager from today was transported to the future and shown three sites: one minimally influenced by human activity (assuming that such a thing exists), one classically restored, and one that had been classified at the time of the manager’s departure as a novel ecosystem, the manager would not be able to distinguish based solely upon an inspection of their respective ecological properties one category of site from the other with certainty.

Contemporary ecologists have for generations abandoned any expectations that natural systems, even those uninfluenced by human activity, are static. In the absence of human intervention, ecosystems will change, according to some accounts at least in episodic ways, as one ephemerally stable condition gives way to the next. Each stage will be characterized by species combinations that are largely historically unprecedented, as paleoecologists have documented for systems since the Quaternary and even before. Attempts, therefore, to predict the future of “natural” communities are prone to error. The future is indeterminate. In this ecologists agree with an emerging philosophical consensus that the past is realer than the future, and that the present moment is realist of all.

Nor will the future condition of a restored system be readily identifiable to today’s manager. If our time-traveler has with her the SER Primer on Restoration Ecology, an inspection of the expected properties listed there for identifying a restored system would confirm that this difficulty must be the case. Identifying which species of a future assemblage are indigenous — in restored systems the majority of species should be natives according to our contemporary standards — becomes more difficult the further into the future we project. Over sufficiently long time scales, evolutionary forces come into more pronounced play. Additionally, it is conceivable that species not at present within a biogeographic range of a system may become so in due course without human intervention. Thus naturally altered vegetation patterns may not easily distinguished from those caused by deliberate or inadvertent human introductions. Ultimately, the difficulty that our time-traveler will have in identifying today’s restoration efforts projected into the future arises because current restoration thinking acknowledges, as it should, that communities are dynamic, and sound contemporary management practice should not seek to curtail this dynamism.

A novel system, is defined by Hobbs, Higgs and Hall in Novel Ecosystems: Intervening in the New Ecological World Order (2013) as “a system of abiotic, biotic and social components that, by virtue of human influence, differ from those that prevailed historically, having a tendency to self-organize and manifest novel qualities without intensive human management.” A novel system that is currently under management no matter how minimal (this absence of intensive management being a defining aspect of novel systems), would likewise be difficult to distinguish from sites under restoration management or merely undergoing long-term successional change. All sites are subject to the vagaries of dynamic but unpredictable change. One manager’s failed restoration project, or natural successional system, is another’s future novel system.

At first glance one might be inclined to say that the novel ecosystem is an ahistorical concept: history in a deficient-mode: history being conspicuous by its conscious absence. But there is more history involved in the identification of a novel system than might at first be obvious. The identification of novelty depends upon historical analysis. A determination is made by a historically-informed person, that these systems are not classically restorable and have certain emergent properties of value and are therefore worth studying, conserving, and managing, albeit non-intensively. Although, as we noted, novel ecosystems are defined by their lack of need for intensive management, nonetheless when a novel system is providing conservation services and generally functions in a manner that is pleasing then a management regime may be instituted. As soon as this management is enacted the novel ecosystem is thereby governed by a historical reference system even if the historical moment being referred to is but a few moments in the past. 

The conclusion that these systems cannot be identified without context should not be interpreted nihilistically, nor should it demotivate us. The point I am making here is that history matters regardless of which paradigm of restoration prevails. The engagement with history can be done objectively but it generates important subjective values. That the novel ecosystem is enmeshed in history is acknowledged by its proponents. Richard Hobbs and colleagues wrote “there is a gravitational pull in our discussions towards historical conditions. In acknowledging novel ecosystems, it is plain that this gravitational pull is sometimes very weak; it remains however, if only as a reminder that the past matters and has mattered.”

I want to give the last words to Nietzsche. In his view, stretched between vast forgetfulness and the stultifying horrors of forgetting nothing, is a level of reckoning with history that may be helpful for life and restoration. Though as Nietzsche wrote “Forgetting is essential to action of any kind”, nevertheless restoration — classic or associated with novel system management, is always about history, and must therefore reckon the costs of both deliberate but empowering forgetfulness and value-creating but expensive commemoration. Cows, Nietzsche wrote “do not know the difference between yesterday and today …and thus [are] neither melancholy or bored.” The downside, one supposes, is that neither do they know joy nor beauty, and when all is said and down, they are, after all, cattle! An oversaturation with history, on the other hand, can be inimical to life. Nietzsche lists many reasons why too much history can be dangerous (I mention only the one that most pertains to us): it implants a belief, harmful at any time, in the old age of mankind, the belief that one if a latecomer and epigone. The past swells behind us and though it is tempting to think that everything was so much better last week, last year, in previous ages, nonetheless it would be deadening to think of ourselves as anything but a vernal species with a promising future ahead of us. In some case we draw strength and value from total recall, but there are times we must know when to forget.