Can You Learn to Dance on the Edge of an Abyss?
CAN YOU DANCE ON THE EDGE OF AN ABYSS?
There are certain pivotal moments in human history - moments that fundamentally change humanity’s conception of itself and of its place in the universe. Is such a moment upon us now? If so, how should you respond?
HUMANITY RELEGATED (1543)
The prototype for such a moment was the publication of Nicolaus Copernicus’ book De Revolutionibus in 1543, expounding the theory of heliocentrism. The discovery that the earth was not the centre of the universe, but was in fact merely one of a number of planets orbiting our sun, attracted the ire of the Catholic Church, which quite rightly saw in this theory the clear threat that science posed to scripture. With heliocentrism’s eventual acceptance, humanity had to reconcile itself to not, in fact, being at the physical centre of ‘creation’ - a humbling lesson for creatures that had believed, hitherto, that god had made the world expressly for their habitation and exploitation.
THE WORLD DEMATERIALISED (1745)
Two hundred years later, physical matter, as the very basis of our reality, was brought into question by the Croatian Physicist Roger Bošković in his De Viribus Vivis, published in 1745. He was the first to postulate atoms as vortexes of force rather than substantial particles. As Nietzsche himself observed in Beyond Good and Evil, ‘Boscovich taught us to abjure belief in the last thing of earth that ‘stood firm’, belief in ‘substance’, in ‘matter’, in the earth-residuum and particle atom: it was the greatest triumph over the senses hitherto achieved on earth.’
Suddenly the most certain things of all - the ground beneath our feet, the world of objects we inhabit, even our own bodies - were thrown into doubt.
EXISTENTIAL ALIENATION (1781)
Other such moments followed down the centuries. Immanuel Kant’s 'Copernican Revolution’ was expounded in his book, The Critique of Pure Reason of 1781. It taught us that we do not see the world as it is in itself, but only as it is interpreted and presented to us by our human senses and apprehended by our distinctive human cognitive faculties. What the world is really like in itself when our interpreting filters are removed, we can never know. Thanks to Kant, we discovered that we inhabit an alien world, the true character of which is forever beyond our grasp.
HUMANITY NATURALISED (1859)
With the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, Charles Darwin initiated our fourth existential revolution and put paid to any illusions humanity held about its unique status among living things. Darwin evidenced our evolution from other pre-human species. All vestige of the putative divine origin of man - of man as a being created in god’s image - was swept away. We were, after all, just another animal - descended from apes and springing originally, like all life on this planet, from the frothing stew of primordial bacteria.
GOD DETHRONED (1882)
Then came Nietzsche. Though the ancient faith in a transcendent god was already disintegrating, it was Nietzsche who realised the awesome implications of this historical crisis. All our values, especially our moral values, were to lose their foundations. With the 'death of god’, humanity would have to navigate the universe without an absolute basis for its values or its purposes. There was to be no metaphysically-grounded standard of good or evil and no divinely ordained meaning to life at all. As Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science of 1882, 'What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?’
The grim shadow of nihilism loomed large. Was human existence meaningless?
HUMAN AUTONOMY UNDERMINED (circa 1900)
A further disorienting tilting of the world’s axis attended the work of Sigmund Freud at the turn of the 20th century. Few people realise that Freud picked up the baton from Nietzsche and others, who had already described the complex and unfathomable workings of the subconscious mind. As well as being the greater part of our selves, it was hypothesized that the subconscious mind was actually the predominating part, exercising significant autonomy from the control of our conscious minds. For the first time, we became strangers to ourselves. Our identities and our ability to exercise our free will were now called into question.
THE UNIVERSE DESTABILISED (1905)
Bošković had already banished the idea of substantial matter 160 years earlier. Now even the absolute character of space and time collapsed, thanks to Albert Einstein, following the publication of his theory of special relativity in his Annus Mirabilis papers in 1905. He proved that both space and time were relative, rather than fixed – a mile was not the same distance everywhere in the universe, a second was not always a second’s duration. He evidenced that space and time were inseperably entangled and that ‘spacetime’ could bend and stretch.
The growing incredulity with religion’s unprovable, metaphysical excesses was already eroding our faith in moral certainties. The discovery of the relative nature of the universe added weight to such doubts and had a profound cultural impact beyond the sciences, presaging a burgeoning interest in moral relativity in the century that followed. For, if space and time are not absolute, perhaps human values are similarly contingent.
THE CURRENT TECTONIC SHIFT
Here in the early twenty-first century, could it be that we are facing our next Copernican Revolution? The west's 2,000 year-old Judeo-Christian hegemony has gradually been replaced by a secularised version of the same creed. Our faith in god and the heavenly world to come has been replaced by our faith in science, reason, humanitarianism and inevitable human progress. Since the industrial revolution beginning in the 1700s, humanity has seen technological development accelerate at a historically unprecedented pace. It is important to understand that this is highly anomalous.
People of the past were used to centuries drifting by with barely any technological progress at all. For them, the future would be much like the present. The only terminus for humanity was the Kingdom of Heaven via the Final Judgement. We moderns have replaced this metaphysical utopia with our own equally fantastic ones: humanity colonising the stars or being uploaded into ‘The Cloud’ as disembodied, super-intelligent, trans-human entities.
But what accounts for the astonishing technological leap forward that has occurred in our lifetimes? Is it perhaps the consequence of the triumph of reason over superstition? Of science over religion? Not at all. The obvious, if less laudatory, explanation is simply our exploitation of fossil fuels - in particular, oil. Humanity has never had so much cheap energy at its disposal. It has been estimated that one gallon of oil contains the equivalent of 500 hours of human labour.* Think about that. If you own a car, you are driving around with the kind of power in your tank available only to the greatest kings of antiquity.
As well as exponentially boosting technological progress, this surfeit of energy has allowed us to raise standards of living to heights never before achieved. Though there are still many relatively poor people in the west, nobody starves to death and people rarely die of a basic infection or a broken ankle, as they invariably would have in the distant past. In these respects, we moderns might be the luckiest generations in history.
But there is a problem.
THE AGE OF UNCERTAINTY (now)
Oil and other fossil fuels, always finite resources, are depleting. Living standards in the west have stalled and may soon be going backwards. Capitalism, in its current form, has had a good run but, following the financial shock of 2008, it is now failing to deliver on its original promise of prosperity for all. The next generation will not be better off than the last one. Additionally, the rise of artificial intelligence and robots could see vast swathes of the population made redundant (in every sense), with no contribution to make to society and no means of generating an income. Ten years from now, it is hard to imagine that anyone will make a living by driving, for instance.
Worse, the planet is deteriorating (largely thanks to those fossil fuels that have enabled our singular technological leap). Icecaps are melting. Deserts are expanding. Discarded human residues pollute every ecosystem. Whole species are being wiped out as their habitats are destroyed and the teeming population of seven billion human beings continues to proliferate. To quote the late Bill Hicks, humanity is no 'miracle', it is ‘a virus with shoes’.
This latest Copernican Revolution sees our world becoming smaller, more crowded, more polluted, more fragile, hostile and uncertain, with a future characterised by the possible deterioration of civilisation, increased competition for dwindling resources and widening wealth inequality. All the while, most humans will have a diminishing role to play in their societies and little sense of meaning and purpose to their existence.
THE DELUSION OF INEVITABLE HUMAN PROGRESS
From where we are standing, here in 2019, the future does not look like it will be better than the past. As philosopher John Gray puts it 'Humans cannot live without illusion. For the men and women of today, an irrational faith in progress may be the only antidote to nihilism. Without the hope that the future will be better than the past, they could not go on.’** All of the pivotal moments we have briefly examined have reinforced to humanity the same messages - you are not special - there is no grand plan - the universe is a strange, cold and lonely place. This latest moment puts the red exclamation mark on these unwelcome communications.
Human progress, as we have understood it, is not inevitable.
Human progress, as we have experienced it, is just a blip.
Human progress, in its as yet unimagined forms, must be actively striven for.
Forgive me if this assessment of our situation seems bleak, but it is important to understand the context of a problem - to define the problem - if solutions are to be found. What is the problem? In short: nihilism. What reasons have we to live for? Where are we trying to get to? What is the point of it all?
Just how does one overcome the enfeebling spectre of nihilism and live a life of affirmation and flourishing in a world of limitless uncertainty? Well, the answer to that gnawing question is precisely our raison d'être here at the Nietzsche Self Help Experiment.
Informed by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, the programme will aid you in developing Nietzschean ‘Great Health’, turning your life and yourself into a work of art. It will enable you to celebrate and sublimate your animal drives, overcoming your socially ingrained fears, actualising your latent powers - powers which society has actively, if unconsciously, suppressed for millennia. You will develop the skills and confidence to both command and to obey yourself - indeed, to become master of yourself - the highest achievement for any individual.
‘THE ÜBERMENSCH SHALL BE THE MEANING OF THE EARTH’
The self-mastered individual begins to resemble the Nietzschean Übermensch - the man or woman who embodies Will to Power. Nietzsche claims that happiness, 'the feeling that power increases, that a resistance is overcome', is the Will to Power and so the Übermensch, as 'the meaning and justification of existence’, as Will to Power consciously embodied, is the happiest of individuals.
The philosopher R. J. Hollingdale put it in these vivid terms:
'through continual increase of power to transmute the chaos of life into a continual self-overcoming of life and thus to experience, in an ever greater degree, the joy which is synonymous with this self-overcoming: that would now be the meaning of life - for joy is to Nietzsche, as it is to common-sense, the one thing that requires no justification, that is its own justification.’ [My emphasis]
The Übermensch is the woman or man who heralds the next phase of human evolution. The concept of evolution is not merely confined to the physiological - like a proto-primate developing an opposable thumb - it is also psychological, cultural, even ‘spiritual’. Such individuals are capable of rescuing and redeeming a dying planet and an exhausted culture.
At this point in history, as a long night draws in, the world needs men and women who can exemplify a radical transformation, sloughing off the out-dated mind-sets of the past – formidable, nocturnal creatures who are ‘new, unique, incomparable’.
Nietzsche writes of a free spirit with 'such a pleasure and power of self-determination, such a freedom of the will that the spirit would take leave of all faith and every wish for certainty’. This exceptional individual is capable, in a troubled world, of 'dancing even near abysses.'
*Chris Martenson, The Crash Course 2011
**John Gray, Straw Dogs 2003
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