Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you The Übermensch – part 7
We’ve talked about the fact that you’re like some kind of hapless junkie. The promise of the happiness hit and the desire to avoid unhappiness, pain and fear determines all your choices. Previously, you had believed that your principles, your values and your ethics were the most important and inalienable parts of your character, but now you might be beginning to understand that they are all subordinate to the primitive feel-good mechanism in your brain - its reward centre.
How you feel about any given set of circumstances invariably determines the choices you make. But how you feel is dictated by the activity of the reward centre - the dealer in your brain. The problem is, as junkies, we do what the dealer commands, not the other way around. He determines how we feel about circumstances and, consequently, the choices we make. This would be fine if the dealer’s interests aligned neatly with our own individual interests. Unfortunately, they don’t. In some respects they diverge dangerously. A question that we need to confront at a later time is: can we choose how to feel about any given set of circumstances, swimming against the current of the dealer’s chemical commands?
You can now see how the Free Will on which our morality and laws are premised starts to become problematic. If exposing yourself to old ladies made you as happy as, say, helping one to cross a busy road, and by that we mean it effected the release of the feel-good chemicals in your brain, then you might find it difficult to resist exposing yourself to old ladies. This is the predicament of the junkie. The end, the high, is everything; the means to the end is quite immaterial. If eating the contents of toilet bowls stimulated the release of the feel-good hit, you would probably spend a lot of time on your knees in bathrooms. It goes without saying that, generally speaking, the dealer in your brain will not reward you for this because, to say it again, he only rewards behaviours conducive to past reproductive success in your lineage.
‘Aha!’ you will exclaim, ‘Helping an old lady across the road is not conducive to reproductive success either!’ You are wrong. We will explain how a little later and it's nothing to do with morality being a strategy for the survival of the species. You might also object that there do, in fact, seem to be people around who get some satisfaction out of degrading acts like coprophagia. How could this be? Again, we will return to this question.
Like any junkie, your condition is one of wretchedness. You are not to be trusted. You will sell-out if the price is right. You’ll steal the charity box if you can get away with it. You’ll suck cock at the audition. But hey, don’t beat yourself up; junkies can’t control themselves. You need your fix. That happiness buzz is the only thing that makes life worth living. It grants you life’s highest, sweetest moments. Fortunately, most of the time, the feel-good hit is readily available to us through more prosaic and less distasteful activities and experiences. So, you get a big pay cheque – buzz! You are commended for good work by your boss – buzz! You finally build that barbecue in the back yard – buzz! You lose ten pounds – buzz!
Your caveman ancestors didn’t get cheques or build barbecues (actually, maybe they did build barbecues) but it is the satisfaction of the instinctive drives at the root of these activities that actually triggers the reward. Those instinctive drives are, in these cases, respectively, the drive to secure resource; the drive to enhance social status; the drive to produce and create; the drive for improved health and/or attractiveness. One can see clearly how success in these areas is reproductively advantageous.
Sadly, like any drug, the happiness rush does not last very long. Eventually your brain’s reward centre inevitably asks ‘so what have you done for me lately?’ and you are pushed to go out and get another bigger pay cheque, or get promoted into your boss’ job, or build an outdoor pizza-oven next to the barbecue or lose another fifteen pounds. Even then, that most demanding of masters won’t remain satisfied and silent for long. You have to keep chasing highs or, eventually, face the unpleasant withdrawal syndrome - frustration, anxiety, boredom, despair, in a word - unhappiness.
Worse, there’s an active downside. Your brain punishes you for failure. When you fail or encounter some misfortune, your brain sends a gloomy cocktail of downers through your bloodstream that makes you miserable. You get a tax bill – downer. You are reprimanded by your boss – humiliation. Your barbecue/pizza oven combo collapses – frustration. You put all that weight back on – bummer. The instinctive bases at the root of these unhappy experiences are the opposite of the happy ones: respectively, diminished resources; diminished social status; a feeling of personal incompetence; diminished health and/or attractiveness.
What’s worse, you don’t even really need to be failing to be on the receiving end of this bum-trip; just standing still will make you miserable. Things must be getting better. The status quo will not do, even though, on the face of it, the status quo might be just fine. No, the brain’s reward centre demands more, better, faster, higher, stronger, or you are likely to face dissatisfaction, anxiety, depression and, at the very least, terminal boredom. Like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, you have to run faster and faster just to stand still.
We will go on in the next post to talk about the nature of the dealer. However, at this point, it is probably appropriate for me to outline where we are heading in this, somewhat meandering, discussion. I realise the analysis and explication of Nietzsche’s philosophy and psychology makes for bleak, disturbing reading. It is a savagely deconstructive and reductionist view of the human being and - I won’t lie - things are likely to get worse before they get better.
You must understand that the path to Dionysian affirmation, to the transcendental actualisation of the Übermensch, lies at the end of a journey that involves a descent into the abyss of nihilism. This is not a path for the faint of heart. Nihilism is a charge often unjustly laid at the feet of Nietzsche but of course nihilism is precisely the monster that he sought to discover a means of vanquishing. The project he sketched entails tracing a path straight through the abyss. The overwhelming nihilism that is experienced there is not Nietzsche’s construction; it is inherent in human existence. Only, in ordinary life, we try to ignore it or paper over its ugliness with pleasing fictions to protect ourselves from the horror it evokes.
It is this lack of honesty that Nietzsche decries. We can choose to carry on with our charade, but we pay a price for it: those troubled nights, those strangely unfulfilled days, those subtle, unnameable anxieties and perhaps even a susceptibility to occasional bouts of inexplicable despair. Maybe the price is bearable. Of course - there is an alternative.
Instead of living under the pervasive menace of dark clouds that crowd the periphery of your vision, you can steel yourself and stride into the eye of the storm, forward and downward. The promise of something exceptional is the prize that drives you; an overflowing dawn lit by a new sun.
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