Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Nietzsche’

“It is a question of understanding my destiny.”

In Philosophy, The Examined Life on December 5, 2021 at 11:38 am
In the fog. (Photo by author)

The quote above is lifted from an entry in Kierkegaard’s journal. Here’s the fragment I jotted down in my notebook:

“What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not what I must know….It is a question of understanding my destiny.” (Journals & Notebooks, vol. 1, p22.)

It was the first sentence that caught my attention, “What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not what I must know…” Let me put this out there, front and center: I have spent most of my life in the pursuit of knowledge. (I hope that does not sound too pretentious.) If I am plagued by anything it is, What do I need to know? What book do I read next? What is the next course of inquiry to pursue? These are the questions of my hungry ghost. I credit / blame my parents for this.

I was raised in a household that believed, in the religious sense, that salvation was to be found in books. Not all books, but specifically those leading to spiritual growth and enlightenment. We were a household of Christian Scientists. We did not claim a personal relationship with a supernatural being, did not claim to have special other-worldly insight, did not practice the laying on of hands, nor speak in tongues. We were not contemplative. We did not have preachers, or ministers, or rabbis; there were no clerics to turn to for guidance, instead we had books.

And we were close readers—specifically, readers of the Bible and the textbook of Christian Science, Science and Health, by Mary Baker Eddy. I left the church, to my mother’s dismay, in my early 20s, but, as the saying goes, you cannot escape your biography. It is impossible to leave behind everything from your childhood. Indeed, perhaps it is impossible to leave anything behind, those artifacts linger and hang on long after their specificity has expired. So it is that my reading habit, the soul-saving discipline of my upbringing, and the notion that books held the promise of salvation, did not fade away—but the focus tectonically shifted from the religious to the profoundly secular.

So when my Danish friend makes a distinction between what he must know and what he must do, I take notice. Kierkegaard gave me pause.



In the spirit of the ancient Greeks—Know Thy Self—I have spent the better part of the last year examining the artifacts of my existence. There is really no other way of putting it. If one considers all the stuff one has absorbed, the stuff taken as fact, the stuff believed, the stuff practiced, aspired to, hoped for, longed toward, desired, rejected, abhorred—if you take all that stuff, what I’m calling artifacts, and throw it all out, what remains? That is the question I’ve been investigating most recently. It’s been a practice in deep epistemological skepticism.

This path has taken a round-the-barn route to a place I visited about thirty years ago, the habitat of the Existentialists. The backstory: Rene Descartes, in a fit of skepticism, came to the conclusion that there was but one thing he could count on: He had the capacity for thought, and from there he concluded that he must exist. “I think, therefore I am,” he declared, setting the course of modern philosophy. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the idea was seriously challenged. Hold on, said the Existentialists, you’ve got it backwards. You exist, therefore you think. That is, you can’t do anything without existence, it’s primal. As I said, this is turf I’ve hiked before, but the hike of the young man is different from the 66 year-old. The trek carries real import now, the horizon being in sight.

This is the place I now find myself, and the reason Kierkegaard’s journal entry spoke to me so deeply. What to do? When all is tossed aside, only the clean slate of existence remains. There is no refuge to be found, no safe harbor, no doctrine or system to fall back on for comfort. Have you ever wiped clean the hard drive of a computer? If so, you know what I’m taking about. A factory reset erases everything and you begin again.

It is not the question of what you need to know, but what you must now do! So, “What I really need is to be clear as to what I am to do….”

Nietzsche had a clever response to this challenge. Imagine that life repeats, he suggested, over and over again, eternally. It is an uncompromising thought: If you don’t welcome the thought of living your life over again, you are not living it right. Welcome to Groundhog Day, The Movie. I share the passage in it’s entirety:

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and everything, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become towards yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate confirmation and seal.” The Gay Science, 341, pp 273-274.

In other words, aspire to live in such a way that you wish each and every moment of your life to recur eternally. You are a sculptor and life is a block of marble. What will you do with this wild and precious life such that you welcome repeating it?


My desire for knowledge isn’t going away, nor should it. It is part of my DNA. But as I re-write the hard-drive of my existence I will practice the art of doing, in balance with the art of knowing. Perhaps there, at the intersection of the doing and the knowing, the art of living is to be found.

The Grand Canyon and other philosophies

In Life, Philosophy, Travel on November 13, 2021 at 2:47 pm
The Grand Canyon

I’ve been engaged the last couple years in correspondence with a young man in prison. He is a family friend who made a bad decision. He has a bent for big ideas so naturally the two of us have had a great deal to talk about. We had a recent exchange, a portion of which I wish to share with you here. So here we go.


Greetings from the Grand Canyon. Thanks for your most recent letter. You had some interesting things to share which I want to get to in a bit (the motivations for doing something, doing it for the parole broad, for credibility among the other inmates, and so on.) But first an update. I’ve had the good fortune to see a lot of cool things in the world. I’ve been able to go to places like China to see the Wall, Nepal to see Everest, and so on. Yet I’ve never seen anything like the Grand Canyon. We went to the North Rim first. There had been a snowstorm a few days before and about 3 inches of snow remained on the ground. It was cold and the campground had a heavy canopy of Ponderosa Pines so it was dark, making it all the colder…After leaving the north rim, we traveled four hours around the canyon to the south rim. Goodness! From the south rim you see all the way down into the canyon and can trace the Colorado River twisting and turning. You have a clear view across the canyon, and the layers of sedimentary rock are fully exposed, giving you a glimpse into the evolution of the planet of almost 70 million years… I’ve been reading John McPhee’s, Annals of a Former World. McPhee is a staff writer for the New Yorker and one of our best and most interesting non-fiction writers. He wrote the book several years ago and it subsequently won a Pulitzer. It’s a big book at almost 700 pages and the topic is daunting, geology. I’ve avoided it for years. Who wants to read a 700 page book about geology? But time had run out. I couldn’t travel the West, seeing the highway cut-throughs, canyons, mesas and plateaus and not attempt to understand a little better what I was looking at. McPhee pulled me right in. Compelling prose, beautiful writing and a surprisingly fascinating topic. Consequently, the Grand Canyon seemed even more remarkable, given that I had a modest understanding of what I am looking at. And the canyon played a bit into our correspondence as well. Read on.

It clearly settled on me the insignificance of my existence standing on the rim, 70 million years of geological evolution in front of me. It is sort of like looking at the night sky from a mountain top. The human brain is not able to consider or grasp distance as astronomy employs it. We simply cannot think of a light year intelligently—the speed of light (186,000 m/sec) times 31,556,952, the number of seconds in a year. It’s the same with geology. We cannot grasp the concept of tens and hundreds of millions of years. These things, the night sky and geology, are good exercises in the practice of humility. When I say that my insignificance was starkly tangible, I do not want to suggest that I was distressed or upset. However, it was obvious: my sense of self and the ego that I’ve nurtured over the years really make no difference in the scheme of things. All the generations of human beings—and all the ancestors of our evolution—amount to a insignificant blip of time when tagged onto earth’s age, and even less when you consider the universe. We humans with our plans and schemes, our stark-raving consumption, our wars, loves, and ideals—it amounts to nothing in geologic time. So what is to be done? In the face of such a thing, how do we proceed, how do we scratch out a sense of meaning and worth?

In your last letter you said that your motivation these days is to do good work. That’s a wonderful start. But what does it mean to do good? What is good? What is bad, or as some people call it, evil? Things that were once considered good or bad, have often switched roles. Something that was good, say a hundred years ago, might now be considered bad. For instance, it was good to build Hoover dam and harness the flow of the Colorado. The dam provided hydro-electric power for LA and much of the southwest. But now, Lake Mead, behind the dam, is at it’s lowest level ever recorded. The Colorado River is disappearing, with less flow than ever. The dam might not be a slam-dunk towards the good in the long scheme of things. Remember that zen story I shared with you about the farmer whose horse ran off? The neighbors said, ”That’s too bad.” The farmer replied, “we’ll see.” The horse returned and brought more horses with him. “Good for you,” said the neighbors. “We’ll see,” he replied. His son attempted to tame one of the wild horses but broke his leg. “Too bad,” said the neighbors. “We’ll see,” said the farmer. The son is saved from conscription because of the leg. And so on. The farmer, in his wisdom, recognized that we never really know how something will turn out. The Greeks developed the notion of skepticism. Montaigne was a skeptic, famously quipping, “What do I know?”Honestly, it’s the only proper way of looking at the world once you come to appreciate the enormity of things beyond your control. Your motivation to do good is admirable, don’t get me wrong. If only more people were so motivated.

You made a comment about being judgmental and practicing a double-standard. That is the challenge of being a human being, isn’t it? I have no problem with being judgmental, at least in the fashion of being evaluative. We must make judgments all the time. What is the right thing to do? What is that person up to? Do I go or do I stay? In some sense, everything we do is based on judgement. Everything eventually boils down to choice. It’s when we start to pin the tags of good and bad on judgements that things get tricky. My old friend Nietzsche wrote a book, Beyond Good and Evil. The essence of it is, good and evil are concepts. They are social norms that come and go. There is no absolute good, nor absolute evil. No Platonic idea of good and evil, especially if you take that big social construct, religion, out of the picture. Being human is such a tricky thing. But then you know that first hand, don’t you?

You closed your last letter discussing how your actions might be perceived in one fashion or another depending on who is the observer. A fellow inmate might view your actions one way, the parole board another. You need both on your side, yet they might be opposing perspectives. That is a quandary, an essential ethical problem. You obviously recognize this and are attempting to orchestrate the best path to take. What is good, what is bad? That is the human condition, isn’t it? A mine field, indeed. Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher of the first century, had something to say about this:

“As the proposition, ‘Either it is day or it is night,’ is extremely proper for a disjunctive argument, but quite improper in a conjunctive one, so, at a feast, to choose the largest share is very suitable to the bodily appetite, but utterly inconsistent with the social spirit of an entertainment. When you eat with another, then, remember not only the value of those things which are set before you to the body, but the value of that behavior which ought to be observed towards the person who gives the entertainment.”

Epictetus suggests that concepts like day or night are substantial and not subjective. But there are other things in life that are not so cut and dry. You might desire a large portion at a dinner party—you might think that would be “good” for your appetite—but in fact such a thing would not be good, as there are other things to consider. For example, he suggests that our behavior should be evaluated as to how it effects those around us, in this case, specifically the host at the dinner part. This, I think, falls under your heading of “doing good.” That is, making your best effort and using good judgement in order to best contribute to your immediate social situation. But even that can trip you up. Several years ago my cousin in California was dying of cancer. She sought me out after many years, decades even, of no communication between us. We were not on bad terms, we’d just gone our different ways. For a year I flew back and forth, Maryland to California, to help and attend to her. I was there on the day she died and I believe I brought her comfort. All that was to the good, right? But if we zoom out and take into consideration the particulates released at 30,000 feet and how air travel contributes to global climate instability, one might say that no, it wasn’t good. Thinking beyond the immediate social situation, my flying back and forth was quite problematic in that I was contributing to the demise of the climate in a radical way. So much depends on our perspective. Again, we must try to do the right thing but can never be assured of the consequences. As a rule of thumb, however, the longer the view the better the likely outcome.

I so enjoy getting your letters and really appreciate that you take the time in your schedule to write and send them. We have covered a lot of ground over the last year, ground I would probably not have traveled without your companionship. Thank you for that.


And so my letter to a young inmate came to a close.

This is a long post and if you’ve made it this far I applaud you for your endurance. Thanks for reading, stay safe, do good work, as best you can determine, and be kind most of all.

Da Capo

In Books, Creativity, Philosophy, Reading, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Writers on March 20, 2013 at 6:00 am

The  neuro-chemical thing has worn off and all is again right with the world. That said, it’s a good time to take a little break, a few days away from the desk. The reading is falling behind, the reservoir is low, and the battery needs a trickle charge. So, today I’m putting up a previous post (from 2010) and am taking a breather for a few days. You must be getting tired of me, anyway, knowing as I do, how tedious I can (so easily) become. See you soon.

______________________________________

“There is properly no history; only biography” ~ Emerson

My first choice of reading material is often biography. The biography holds everything: entertainment, knowledge, history, story-telling, insight, and possibly even wisdom. As best I can recall, the first biography I ever read was Mark Twain, though now that I think about it, I believe it was his autobiography, the genre-cousin of biography. I was in elementary school and I recall that it took a very long time to complete–I’m a slow reader. It was a big book written for grown-ups. And I wasn’t–grown-up, that is. I remember I had to write a book report and my teacher checked everyday on my progress, the book being thick and me being slow, and the report not coming when due, and the pressure, oh the pressure…

Young's Biography, Nietzsche, A Philosophical Biography

Young’s Biography, Nietzsche, A Philosophical Biography

As an adult I am still a slow reader and still a reader who loves biography. So it was that I saved up my pennies and sprang for the first new book (“new”: not a used book, or a library sale book, or a freebie review book) in quite some time: Friedrich Nietzsche, A Philosophical Biography by Julian Young. Young is Professor of Philosophy, University of Auckland, and the book is published by Cambridge University Press. I was turned onto it by a glowing review by Francis Fukuyam in the New York Times Book Review.  Fukuyam includes this line:

“Whether we acknowledge it or not, we continue to live within the intellectual shadow cast by Nietzsche. Postmodernism, deconstructionism, cultural relativism, the “free spirit” scorning bourgeois morality, even New Age festivals like Burning Man can all ultimately be traced to him.”

I have always been fascinated by this enigmatic thinker. Here’s how the biography opens:

“Nietzsche’s greatest inspiration, he believed, was the idea that if one is in a state of perfect mental health one should be able to survey one’s entire life and then, rising ecstatically to one’s feet, shout ‘Da capo!–Once more! Once More! Back to the beginning!–to ‘the whole play and performance’. In perfect health one would ‘crave nothing more fervently’ than the ‘eternal return’ of one’s life throughout infinite time–not the expurgated version with the bad bits left out, but exactly the same life, down to the very last detail, however painful or shameful.”

This idea stops me cold.

First Sentences of Philosophy

In Philosophy, Writing on March 12, 2013 at 6:00 am

If you were a book, your opening sentence would be my first impression of you. It is that type-set handshake, that eye contact, the initial body language of our literary relationship, from which I will decide whether we might become friends. I should warn you, I am exacting when it comes to first impressions.

I have on at least two occasions here surveyed first sentences of literature. (First Sentences, and First Sentences II.) I thought it might be of interest to run the same exercise with some classics of philosophy, to see how the thinker begins the engagement. At first glance, it appears that the philosopher is less cordial–less needy?–than the artist-novelist. That is, I guess, to be expected of a writer less interested in drainage and more interested in hydraulics. So, to make it easy, I pull some books off the shelf, from the Philosophy section:

Despite my comment above, Robert Nozick (1938-2002), provides one of the best opening sentences of any genre, From his

The Unreadable Book?

The Unreadable Book?

Philosophical Explanations:

“I too, seek an unreadable book: urgent thoughts to grapple with in agitation and excitement, revelations to be transformed by or to transform, a book incapable of being read straight through, a book, even to bring reading to a stop.”

Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), Philosophy (vol 1.):

“Philosophy means to dare penetrate the inaccessible ground of human self-awareness.”

A favorite thinker, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), from Genealogy of Morals:

“We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge–and with good reason.”

And, for grins, Nietzsche, again, in a sentence which shows why he was, arguably, the most literary writer of the thinkers, from Thus Spake Zarathustra:

“Three metamorphoses of the spirit do I designate to you: how the spirit becometh a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child.”

Heidegger begins his magnum opus with a quote from Plato: “For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression you use the expression “being”. We however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed.” Then the first sentence of Being and Time:

“Do we in our time have an answer to the question of what we really mean by the word ‘being’?”

From Sartre (1905-1980), Being and Nothingness, the opening chapter titled, The Phenomenon, comes this twist:

“Modern thought has realized considerable progress by reducing the existent to the series of appearances which manifest it.”

And here, the doubt-filled precision of Wittgenstein (1889-1951), from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

“Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it–or at least similar thoughts.”

Wittgenstein, as an aside, lays claim to the most wonderful last words. From his death-bed: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” Lovely.

____________________

The Book of Dead Philosophers, Simon Critchley

The Book of Dead Philosophers, Simon Critchley

If you’re in the mood for an eminently readable survey of the history of philosophy, I recommend Simon Critchley‘s The Book of Dead Philosophers (2009). It is entertaining, fun (last days of the big thinkers), and when you’re finished, you will have touched all the bases of philosophy.

Pinsky, Hegel, Nietzsche, Chatwin, & Faulkner

In Death, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writers on March 5, 2013 at 6:00 am

The poet Robert Pinsky made a comment I noted in my journal: “Will your children’s grandchildren remember your name?” What a plague is this question! It burrows to the core of the most tender insecurity I harbor, being forgotten. It is not death, nor dying, that troubles me so much as this. I am at my most alert to cosmic inconsequence when dealing with darkest concerns. In some twisted logic, this state brings a satisfaction.

* * *

The great philosopher Friedrich Hegel‘s (1770-1831) last words are reported to be: “Only one man has ever understood me, and he didn’t understand me.” It has been debated who Hegel had in mind, but most scholars think he was referring to Karl Marx. It is recorded that Marx contended that he was, indeed, the one person who understood Hegel, claiming that the philosopher did not even understand himself.

* * *

Nietzsche‘s thought experiment of eternal recurrence compels one to ask: If my life is to be lived over and over am I troubled or delighted? If I am troubled then it follows that life has been something other than what I wish it’d been. According to Nietzsche, consequently, I have yet to be that which I should become. This has been instilled deep and uprooting the thought of “becoming” is a challenge. Yet, I am learning to release this notion (of becoming), and settling with the subtle comfort of being. It is, at this stage of life, a big deal.

* * *

Bruce Chatwin, in his essay Anatomy of Restlessness, paraphrases Montaigne: “I know well what I am fleeing from, but not what I am looking for.” I used to flee. But no longer. I am, however, still looking.

* * *

Faulkner, Library of America Edition

Faulkner, Library of America Edition

What’s on the nightstand: Faulkner.

Backstory: I was visiting with my friend, the poet, Megan Grumbling, recently. We were discussing our literary preferences and confessed, each, that we’d never read Faulkner, at least read no more than The Bear, his famous short story. One of us observed that a reader is either a Hemingway reader or a Faulkner reader, like a person is either a cat person or a dog person. (I say “one of us observed” because I don’t recall who said it. We both like bourbon and were sitting at a well-stocked bar…’nough said.) I came away from that conversation with the need to rectify my literary shortcoming, hence the Faulkner. Such is life for those hell-bent on self-improvement.

Sunday Repost: Woof, Woof. Bark.

In Death, Dogs, Faith, Philosophy, Writing on February 3, 2013 at 6:00 am

I was at a book reading a few evenings ago. Two rows in front of me sat a woman and next to her, on its own seat, perched an ivory-colored terrier. The dog was well-behaved and I was enjoying her (his?) presence when it turned and looked at me through the slats of the ladder-back chair. Her eyes were like brilliant black marbles tucked in a fluff of silk. I stared into them, lost, and was suddenly and unexpectedlly overwhelmed with the thought of those eyes locked on her master, then closing forever on the stainless steel veterinarian’s table. I chased the thought away it was so immediately and consumingly dark and troubling. Why such a thought would occur to me is a mystery. I’m not dark that way; but animals have always held an incomprehensible sway over me.

It is possibly apocryphal but reported that upon finding a horse being abused on the streets of Turin, Nietzsche threw himself,

Nietzsche, Turin, & the horse.

Nietzsche, Turin, & the horse.

sobbing, around the neck of the beast. The event so overwhelmed the fragile philosopher that he never recovered, never spoke another word, and plummeted into a psychosis from which he did not recover. One can profess a will to power but protecting an animal might be the greatest philosophy.

I’ve had dogs all my life. One dog lost to illness years ago prompted a friend’s comment, “That must be like losing a family member.” No, it was not like losing, it was losing a family member. The most violent mourning I’ve ever experienced was at the loss of my Maggie a year and a half ago. As I write this my little Lucy, a terrier mix, is asleep at the office door, putting

Lucy: ragamuffin.

Lucy: ragamuffin.

herself between me and any intruder who might make the mistake of crossing her without my permission.

Any philosophy I might have must include the beasts.

Hubristic medieval philosophers held that animals had no soul because they had no self-consciousness. Perhaps in that fact alone we hold the  evidence of a superior soul-filled being. This seems provable in that animals will not burn witches at the stake nor slaughter whales.

It is maybe that I want to be more like a dog and less like a human being. I find in them evidence of how to live in a moment so completely as to exist in full vibrancy. Too, I recognize love in a dog more readily and without apprehension than I do in people. Surely, that is a teaching. A dog does not make professions of faith, does not pray, does not sin nor seek redemption. Those are human designs extraneous to an animal intent on spirited life. There is joy at a dog park that is not found in a church. That is where I go to pray.