Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Précis on "Why I am so Clever" by Friedrich Nietzsche

The institution of monotheistic religion, specifically Christianity, has been a centerpiece of western civilization for the past two millennia. The consequences of institutionalized Christianity are discussed within one of Friedrich Nietzsche’s essays in Ecce Homo, titled “Why I am so Clever.” Enshrined within the essay is the argument that monotheistic religion originates from ressentiment, as the value systems of said religions are created in response to the sources of early man’s intellectual frustration, such as questions of the origin of life and the creation of the universe, as well as the origins of human suffering. This fetishistic ressentimentality, Nietzsche argues, is an insult to the capacity of human intelligence and serves to stifle intellectual advancement, and Nietzsche communicates this to his audience through his use of irony, allusion and metaphor.

Christianity answers some of the most complicated questions dogging the scientists and intellectuals of today in simple, and absolutist ways. Nietzsche rallies against the absolutism of Monotheism and Christianity specifically through his use of irony and allusion. Nietzsche argues that “God is such an obvious and crass solution… He is really nothing but a coarse commandment against us: ye shall not think! . . . I am much more interested in another questions with the ‘Salvation of humanity’ depends much more than upon any piece of theological curiosity: the question of nutrition.” Nietzsche uses allusion and irony simultaneously when he alludes to the Ten Commandments in illuminating how the idea of God relegates humanity into a position of unthinking with the commandment “Ye shall not think” followed by ironically declaring that the topic of nutrition is more essential to the “Salvation of humanity” than is theology. The allusion links the “God” in question to Christianity in the reader’s mind, then associates the ressentiment of Christianity insinuated by the commandment "ye shall not think" upon critical thought. The ironic statement following immediately after then undermines the authority that the reader associates with the institutionalized behemoth of Christianity. As a result, Nietzsche disarms his reader’s preconceptions and makes them more receptive to his argument, a necessary step as Nietzsche’s target audience is one that has not previously considered the stifling effects and ressentiment of monotheism, and perhaps even prescribes to the beliefs of a monotheistic religion.

Nietzsche, following the disarmament of his reader's potential conditions of rebuttal, then launches into a metaphor later in the essay that challenges his reader's preconceptions. Nietzsche asserts that “All the things men have valued with such earnestness heretofore are not even realities; they are mere fantasies, or, more strictly speaking, lies arising from the evil instincts of diseased and, in the deepest sense, harmful natures-all the concepts, ‘God,’ ‘soul,’ ‘virtue,’ sin,’ ‘Beyond,’ ‘truth,’ ‘eternal life.’” Nietzsche’s metaphor occurs when he compares “all the things men have valued” to “mere fantasies,” and later reveals that the values he refers to are all concepts referring to the supernatural and monotheistic. This metaphor which challenges the long-held beliefs and assumptions of his Judeo-Christian audience, without the disarming use of allusion and irony earlier in the essay, would normally cause the reader to disregard Nietzsche’s argument explicated immediately following the metaphor, that “All questions of politics, of the social order, of education, have been falsified from top to bottom, because… people were taught to despise the "details," more properly, the fundamentals of life.” Nietzsche’s essential argument is that monotheistic religion has stifled scientific discovery through ressentiment by discouraging curiosity and instead offering the cookie-cutter explination that all natural phenomena is the work of God.

Nietzsche’s argument in “Why I am so clever” is similar to the one made by the “death of god” in his earlier work The Gay Science, that the death of the monotheistic god results in the birth of a pagan polytheistic pantheon of infinitely many gods and goddesses affording an infinite amount of possibilities for the universe. In an interpretation that is more useful to modern-day readers of Nietzsche’s work, the “death of god” opens humanity to rejecting the ressentimentality of Christianity and all religions through their dissolution into mythology, thus opening humanity up to the infinitely many scientific possibilities regarding the nature of life and the universe which hitherto have been stifled by belief in God.

10 comments:

Shayda Azamian said...

Great job! I would perhaps add in a reference to an instance where Nietzsche specifically states the merits of pagan polytheism. Also, I like how you made the connection between The Gay Science and Ecce Homo at the end!

AC said...
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AC said...

This is a job well done: eloquent and comprehensive!

However, I would be careful about suggesting the bit about "scientific possibilities regarding the nature of life" as a reading of Nietzsche's work, since it dismisses the complexity of Nietzsche's existential angst (for lack of better words). While Nietzsche definitely rejected the "absolutist" ways of Christianity, he also recognizes the limitations of science. Recall his position in On Truth and Lie in an Extramoral Sense -- Nietzsche doesn't shy away from questioning what truth really is, and how we could ever hope to grasp it. I don't think that Nietzsche's belief of Christianity stifling human knowledge can be simplified into just "Christianity prevented scientific discovery, and now that God's dead we can explore science more freely."

This was an insightful read - thanks for being brave enough to be an early precis poster!

Clinton Barnes said...

@Shayda Azamian, Thanks for appreciating the connection. I posted this precis before Dale posted excerpts from The Gay Science, and I now know that Nietzsche discusses the merits of pagan polytheism in section 143, titled "The Greatest Advantage of Polytheism." He discusses how polytheism give an individual a medium to "posit his own ideal and to derive from it his own law, joys, and rights."

@AC I agree that my "scientific" reading is a bit inadequate; it arises from a combination of my woeful deficiency in Nietzsche's work and my own scientifically-based Atheism. After reading section 143 from The Gay Science, however, I now realize that the death of god not only allows us to explore science freely, but also our own "law, joys, and rights."

Thanks for pointing out my simplification, it really allowed me the chance to clarify my understanding of Nietzsche's work.

Cheyenne Overall said...

Overall, this was a very well written piece. I really liked your close readings and felt that you were able to make a great argument that was well informed my both your choice work and other works by Nietzsche.

I would however caution against a similar concern of @AC in your piece where you sort of marry Nietzsche's anxieties with religion to some sort of hope for science. I didn't read your first draft but, it does only come up in your concluding sentence. Still, I would be weary of making that association. I've always read Nietzsche particularly in
"On Truth and the Lie" as being critical of scientificity. He seems to me to think that science has taken up a religious form that he is critical of. I'm not saying that you have to agree with me though; it's just something to think about.

Neil Griffey said...

Very well done piece, thanks for the read. I appreciate the closer reading as not being particularly religious myself I wasn't put off or made defensive by much of anything Nietzsche said here. But I think your points on his disarming the reader and guiding them through his logic systematically through metaphor is extremely important to his argument and something I would have otherwise missed.

My only suggestion would be to further expand on how you arrived at your conclusion that "the “death of god” opens humanity to rejecting the ressentimentality of Christianity and all religions through their dissolution into mythology, thus opening humanity up to the infinitely many scientific possibilities regarding the nature of life and the universe which hitherto have been stifled by belief in God" as presently I see mythology and scientific possibilities in some contradiction of one another,=.

Clinton Barnes said...

@Neil Griffey, I was attempting to explain that through all religion's "dissolution into mythology," humanity then opens itself up to "scientific possibilities." I now realize that my trying to explain that in one sentence was ham-handed at best, and would be best served broken up into two sentences.

In order to give some insight into what I mean by "dissolution into mythology," I will use the example of Thor. There once was a time that many people seriously considered and worshiped Thor as the true god of thunder, and now he is used as a character in a movie fighting aliens. Thor is no longer taken seriously, and as a result there is no one who honestly believe that Thor is the cause of lightning in the world. Nietzsche argues that once humanity dissolves ALL religion into mythology, and we start watching movies of Jesus and Mohammed teaming up with Superman and The Flash to defeat sea monsters, humanity as a whole are removed from the shackles of ressentimentality and opened up to new possibilities regarding not only science, but also morality and happiness.

Alright, maybe Nietzsche doesn't mention the whole superhero movie thing, but I think it is a useful way to picture the real-world implication of his argument.

-D.Z.- said...

This is one piece by Nietzsche that I enjoyed as all. Drawing on all the relevant points, as well as connections made between other works, really clarifies the argumentative edges and I get to enjoy it with a better understanding when I draw back on it again. I have friends from every walk of life and they share with me so many beliefs and customs that these types of discussions have come to fascinate me. Thanks for drawing my attention to other points as well.

Anonymous said...

Great summary and interesting analysis! After reading Nietzsche’s work, and the preceding works, I feel a gaping nihilism. His work has pushed me and challenged me, and I am left with numerous questions. He broke down many ideas and I feel like obliterated human meaning. Maybe I haven’t read enough of his works to understand him, but I definitely appreciate his skill in writing.

-Samiha Baseer

Samiha Baseer said...

Great summary and interesting analysis! After reading Nietzsche’s work, and the preceding works, I feel a gaping nihilism. His work has pushed me and challenged me, and I am left with numerous questions. He broke down many ideas and I feel like obliterated human meaning. Maybe I haven’t read enough of his works to understand him, but I definitely appreciate his skill in writing.