Many of you will probably think: “Come on, Nietzsche?!” I know, I know. But I have holidays and a pretty smart, rational person recommended Nietzsche to me in order to overcome my existential angst.
I won’t bore you with the obvious shortcomings of Nietzsche. Not surprisingly, 90% of what he writes is either completely wrong, so confused as to be not even wrong or almost comically evil. For example, he argues at length against compassion and truth-seeking which are, at least in my humble opinion, basically the most important values ever. But as I said, here I will focus on the good stuff.
1. First of all, Nietzsche was one of the first people to understand evolutionary psychology and evolutionary epistemology. Thanks to Darwin, one might add, but still impressive.
2. Much more essential for this essay is the following: Nietzsche was one of the first true existentialists. He understood that there is no objective morality, no objective value, no objective, transcendental purpose. At the same time, he also saw that the yearning for such an objective meaning is a deep-rooted desire of almost every human. (Thus his poignant remark with which I couldn’t agree more: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”)
Since there are no objective values, we humans have to create our own values and find our own purpose. For most of my life, this realization filled me with deep despair and a feeling of absurdity and futility about the cosmos. But Nietzsche is one of the very few thinkers (besides Yudkowsky who is still more convincing than Nietzsche in this regard) who is able to
persuade convince me of the opposite – at least sometimes: The fact that there is no objective morality is actually liberating! We are free to do what we want! We can create and follow our own rules and values! And why should I follow an “objective” morality anyway? Objective moral rules which you can blindly obey without to think for yourself may be comforting and easy, but this is ultimately a child’s dream and a mark of “herd morality” as Nietzsche would call it. Creating your own values is for adults. Or so the argument (or better: the sentiment) of Nietzsche goes.
I myself, with my own idiosyncratic personality, don’t find this perspective entirely persuasive and would expand and modify it as follows: Admittedly, it sucks immensely that there is no objective, transcendental purpose (and no God, no heaven, etc.) but there is no sense to cry and despair about it for the rest of your life like a small child that can’t accept that Santa Claus doesn’t really exist. Sure, an universe in which Santa Claus (or Heaven or moral realism) were real would be much more awesome but we already know that. We have to learn to accept the existential shortcomings of our cosmos, stop “shoulding” at the universe and learn to experience Joy in the Merely Real.
3. Nietzsche also went further than another favorite continental philosopher of mine: Albert Camus. Like Nietzsche, Camus realized (in a certain sense) that there is no objective purpose, no God and no objective meaning. We are ultimately free, that is we have to create our own meaning and values. Camus famously wrote that the fact that humans yearn for an objective meaning and that there is no such thing renders our existence absurd. However, in contrast to other thinkers such as Schopenhauer (whom I’m also admire), he didn’t succumb to pessimism but advocated the revolt against the absurd: We have to create our own values, help our fellow humans and live ethically in spite of the absence of a transcendental purpose. We shouldn’t surrender to the existential despair which our mute cosmos can oh so easily evoke in us. Let us acknowledge evil and absurdity while defiantly continuing to fight against it! For quite some time this sentiment has deeply resonated with me. And it still does.
However, only recently did I realize that Camus still harbored a kind of existential resentment towards our universe. Deep down, he was still against being. Why else would you want to revolt against something? It means that you still can’t accept it. Camus, in a certain sense, failed to acknowledge the nature of our existence, failed to really take it in. Now, don’t get me wrong. As you may already know, I’m the first one to agree with Camus that this place is fundamentally fucked up beyond redemption. I totally understand where he is coming from.
On the other hand, now I also see how this world view could be construed as a kind of youthful, maybe even childish, existential whining. In a certain sense, you can still feel how Camus (and I) are shoulding at the universe: “Hey Universe! You dare to be absurd and without an objective meaning? You think I will give up?! Ha! I won’t! I won’t accept your absurd ways! In fact, I will revolt against you! You heard me right! Let’s see how you like that!”
As an aside: It doesn’t help that Camus liked to use the legend of Sisyphus as a metaphor for the revolt against the absurd. As you probably know, Sisyphus was condemned by the Greek gods to roll an immense rock up a hill for all eternity. Camus wrote that we should “imagine Sisyphus as a happy man”. Although he knows that his existence is absurd and serves no purpose he enjoys it nevertheless. However, Sisyphus had one crucial advantage: He knew that the gods were watching him and by being happy in spite of his cruel fate he could defy their punishment and ruin their satisfaction. But we are not so lucky. The fact is that we are acting out or meaningless lives in front of no one but ourselves. Anyway, back to the issue at hand.
Nietzsche, in contrast to Camus and Schopenhauer, urges us to embrace reality, to love our fate (amor fati), to live our lives to the fullest, to say “yes” to life (for we have no other choice), to view our lives as a kind of joke and to transform existential tragedy into comedy, for we have the power to experience joy even in the face of existential horror. Or as I would sum it up:
If you laugh enough about the abyss, the abyss may start to laugh with you.
This whole sentiment may strike you as immoral (and I certainly know where you are coming from). How can we enjoy existence in light of so much suffering? Isn’t this uncompassionate, if not downright psychopathic? Well, arguably, it is ethically required to enjoy existence: A) You are more productive when you are happy, thus more able to help other suffering sentient beings. B) If you are happy instead of miserable there is one less suffering sentient being in this cosmos. C) If we assume an infinite universe and Timeless Decision Theory (well-justified assumptions) then you can in fact produce infinite amounts of happiness by your decision to be happy for you are an equivalence class and can produce happiness/reduce suffering in each of the infinitely many worlds in which your decision algorithm is instantiated (this also solves the problem of infinite ethics, by the way). To put it crudely: With every second you choose to be happy you can produce infinite amounts of happiness.
4. Another central, at first glance rather crazy idea of Nietzsche was that of eternal recurrence, according to which our universe and thus our life will continue to recur in an identical form for an infinite number of times. Admittedly, Nietzsche didn’t even try to justify the truth of this hypothesis at all, at least to my knowledge. However, modern cosmological theories and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (see e.g. Tegmark’s article), at least to my understanding, make the concept of eternal recurrence not unlikely at all, but I won’t go into details here. Nietzsche called the concept of eternal recurrence the “thought of thoughts” and “the most burdensome thought”. Why? Because your reaction to this hypothesis is the ultimate arbitrator of your stance towards existence. Finding the idea horrifying reveals that you prefer nothingness to existence, whereas embracing the eternal return of all events would mark the ultimate affirmation of life. But embracing eternal recurrence requires amor fati, that is a love of fate, of which I wrote before.
Doesn’t make a lot of sense? I hear you. Here’s my own take on the subject: The concept of eternal recurrence illustrates vividly that you better let go of your resentment towards reality, that you better learn to stop shoulding at the universe and stop your existential whining. For if you won’t learn to do so, you will not only stay miserable in this life but will continue to suffer until the end of time (which won’t come). However, if you learn to love your fate, if you learn to enjoy your existence, if you learn to embrace reality without compromise, you will experience joy forever.
And all joy wants eternity
Wants deep, profound eternity.
[See also: Thoughts on Happiness (1)]