A good friend recently said in a conversation that she was making an effort to write without cursing or being misanthropic. I laughed and said that for me, that would be like trying to write without vowels. Then I started thinking more seriously about being “misanthropic” and noticed something interesting.
The intellectual conscience.— I keep having the same experience and keep resisting it every time, I do not want to believe it although it is palpable: the great majority of people lack an intellectual conscience; indeed, it has often seemed to me as if anyone calling for an intellectual conscience were as lonely in the most densely populated cities as if he were in a desert. Everybody looks at you with strange eyes and goes right on handling his scales, calling this good and that evil; nobody even blushes when you intimate that their weights are underweight—nor do people feel outraged: they merely laugh at your doubts. I mean: the great majority of people does not consider it contemptible to believe this or that and to live accordingly, without first having given themselves an account of the final and most certain reasons pro and con, and without even troubling themselves about such reasons afterward—the most gifted men and the noblest women still belong to this “great majority.” But what is goodheartedness, refinement, or genius to me, when the person who has these virtues tolerates slack feelings in his faith and judgments and when he does not account the desire for certainty as his inmost craving and deepest distress—as that which separates the higher human beings from the lower! Among some pious people I have found a hatred of reason and was well disposed to them for that: for this at least betrayed their bad intellectual conscience! But to stand in the midst of this rerum concordia discors [“Discordant concord of things”: Horace, Epistles, I.12.19.] and of this whole marvelous uncertainty and rich ambiguity of existence without questioning, without trembling with the craving and the rapture of such questioning, without at least hating the person who questions, perhaps even finding him faintly amusing—that is what I feel to be contemptible, and this is the feeling for which I look first in everybody:—some folly keeps persuading me that every human being has this feeling, simply because he is human. This is my sense of injustice.
Two of my most important intellectual influences are Friedrich Nietzsche and the more Western strain of Zen Buddhism, which I’ll personify for the sake of convenience in the form of Alan Watts. Both were intensely anti-theoretical or anti-abstract, if you will; both in their own way stressing the need to focus on the way things are rather than allowing ourselves to be deceived by projecting our own feelings onto them, or allowing our perception to be refracted through the prism of our hopes and fears. Yet both also seemed to betray some hints of an inability to fully embody what their intellectual consciences told them.
He has fled,
My only companion,
My splendid enemy,
My executioner-god! …
With all your afflictions!
All my tears gush forth
To you they stream
And the last flames of my heart
Glow for you.
Oh, come back,
My unknown god! my pain!
My ultimate happiness! …
— Ariadne’s Lament, from Dionysus Dithyrambs
Nietzsche came from a very religious family and was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfathers and become a Lutheran minister. Despite his notoriety as the anti-Christian philosopher of atheism and nihilism, it’s clear to anyone who reads him that his enmity for Christianity is the kind that can only be held by someone who once loved the object of his scorn with all his heart, the jilted lover.
One day the wanderer slammed a door behind himself, stopped in his tracks, and wept. Then he said: “This penchant and passion for what is true, real, non-apparent, certain – how it aggravates me! Why does this gloomy and restless fellow keep following and driving me? I want to rest, but he will not allow it. How much there is that seduces me to tarry! Everywhere Armida’s gardens beckon me; everywhere I must keep tearing my heart away and experience new bitternesses. I must raise my feet again and again, weary and wounded though they be; and because I must go on, I often look back in wrath at the most beautiful things that could not hold me – because they could not hold me.”
In addition to his famous essay attacking the scholar David Strauss, he frequently heaped scorn on ordinary Christians who only mouthed the words while changing nothing in their behavior or thinking (“there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross”). If anything, he constantly took believers to task for not being worthy of their belief, for not treating it with the respect and seriousness he felt it deserved.
And here is where my disgust commences: I look around me – there is no longer a word left of what was formerly called “truth”, we no longer endure it when a priest so much as utters the word “truth”. Even with the most modest claim to integrity one must know today that a theologian, a priest, a pope does not merely err in every sentence he speaks, he lies – that is, he is no longer free to lie “innocently”, out of “ignorance”. The priest knows as well as anyone that there is no longer any “God”, any “sinner”, any “redeemer” – that “free will”, “moral world-order” are lies – intellectual seriousness, the profound self-overcoming of the intellect no longer permits anyone not to know about these things… All the concepts of the Church are recognized for what they are: the most malicious false-coinage there is for the purpose of disvaluing nature and natural values; the priest himself is recognized for what he is: the most dangerous kind of parasite, the actual poison-spider of life. We know, our conscience knows today what those sinister inventions of priest and church are worth, what end they serve, with which that state of human self-violation has brought about which is capable of exciting disgust at the sight of mankind – the concepts “Beyond”, “Last Judgment”, “immortality of the soul”, the “soul” itself: they are instruments of torture, they are the forms of systematic cruelty by virtue of which the priest has become master, stays master. Everyone knows this, and everyone none the less remains unchanged. Where have the last feelings of decency and self-respect gone when even our statesmen, in other ways very unprejudiced kind of men and practical anti-Christians through and through, still call themselves Christians today and go to Communion?.. Whom then does Christianity deny? What does it call “world”? Being a soldier, being a judge, being a patriot, defending oneself, preserving one’s honor, desiring to seek one’s advantage, being proud – the practice of every hour, every instinct, every valuation that leads to action is today anti-Christian: what a monster of falsity modern man must be that he is none the less not ashamed to be called a Christian!
It’s been pointed out that he never fully escaped the teleological Christian worldview, as he still felt the world needed to be redeemed – in his case, by an Overman who could show the way towards transcendence, not of the pain and suffering that made this world a vale of tears according to Christianity, but of the weaker, sickly qualities of human nature itself. And of course, his life was for all intents and purposes over by age 44, so we can only guess if he would have eventually overcome even that aspect of his thought:
For me, they were steps, I have climbed up upon them – therefore I had to pass over them. But they thought I wanted to settle down on them.
Alan Watts, in his dozens of books and countless lectures, elucidated an understanding of Eastern religion and philosophy that had no need for elaborate rituals or pretensions of secret, esoteric knowledge. His sort of Zen was playful, not ascetic, and his genuine love and passion for the subjects he focused on made him a joy to read and listen to. And yet…
“I’d say to him, ‘Dad, don’t you want to live?’, and he would say, ‘Yes, but it’s not worth holding on to.'”
– From Genuine Fake: A Biography of Alan Watts, by Monica Furlong
The man who showed how so many existential dilemmas would simply vanish if looked at from the correct angle drank himself to death by age 58. I certainly am not one of those who think being “enlightened” means someone floats around on a cloud, impervious to life’s slings and arrows, but it does seem a little odd that a man who preached such an accepting philosophy, one that didn’t try to explain or justify suffering away, but simply acknowledged it as the other half of the same coin with joy, only seemed to be able to live in the world while falling-down drunk.
“I must make one confession” Ivan began. “I could never understand how one can love one’s neighbors. It’s just one’s neighbors, to my mind, that one can’t love, though one might love those at a distance…One can love one’s neighbors in the abstract, or even at a distance, but at close quarters it’s almost impossible.”
— The Brothers Karamazov
You might not know it from some of the things I’ve said over the years, but…I like people.
— George Carlin, It’s Bad For Ya
I see the same sort of inconsistency in myself. I’m politically left/liberal, but I don’t have much faith in human nature, and I don’t often think very highly of my fellow shaved apes. There are times when I’m fully in agreement with Ivan above, and I find myself disgusted with individual people and their weaknesses and flaws while consoling myself with thoughts of a better potential for humankind, and then there are times when I treasure individuals while damning the species as a whole to hell. Most often, though, I find it almost impossible to truly forgive people their frailties and failures, which is only somewhat ameliorated by the fact that I’m even harder on myself. Why this insatiable drive for a perfection that I know full well doesn’t exist? Why do I berate myself and others for allowing the passions and inconsistencies of everyday life to overwhelm abstract philosophical principles? I understand what Nietzsche and Watts were saying in this regard, really, I do, so why do I fall prey to the same tendency to disparage what is in favor of what might have been or could be?
I wonder what it would be like to truly embody this mentality:
I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.