On Ice-creams, Van Gogh and (the power of) Aesthetics: Part One Nietzsche

1.      NIETZSCHE

In his Critique of Religion in The Will to Power, Nietzsche begins with an original insight into the psychological nature of aesthetics (the beauty and sublimity bestowed upon real and imaginary things), calling it our fairest apology[i], and insinuating that through our admiration and worship of things we are actually humbling ourselves as we do not want to admit to ourselves that the world is as it is because we alone have created it to be that way. The idea he expounds here is a kind of Berkeleyan (albeit atheistic), subjective idealism, that the world is the creation of the (human) perceiver, and that it does not take a meaningful shape until the perceiver begins to understand and define what is perceived. But Nietzsche’s original twist to this old idea is that the awesome power granted by the realisation of this concept is, in fact, paradoxically, an ultimately debilitating force. As Nietzsche says: “it raises in him (humanity) a doubt about his own person: he does not dare to think himself the cause of this astonishing feeling – and so he posits a stronger person, a divinity, to account for it.[ii]Or, in other words, Nietzsche argues that because we cannot cope with the responsibility of our power as creators, we need to invent the idea of God as a greater than human power in the Universe. In this way, the God we make can bear the brunt of the responsibility of creation, while we humans get on with leading the irresponsible kind of life we enjoy the most.  

Now, although Nietzsche never actually uses the term aesthetics in these passages, the beauty and sublimity bestowed upon real and imaginary things should almost certainly be considered a simple definition of an aesthetic process, and so the association being made here is between aesthetics and religion, and that is another great Nietzschean insight. While he makes his proposal in order to simply critique humanity and religion, we have found a much deeper insight buried here. Nietzsche is describing a psychological attitude which not only colours our attitude to religion, it also effects the question of our capacity for freedom and, because of that, inhibits our ability to make true moral and social progress in the world.

§

If Nietzsche was right, embedded in the development of both religions and aesthetics lies an enormous irresponsibility – the denial of ourselves as supreme creators. This denial exposes a human immaturity, a fear of accepting the responsibility of the awesome nature of what we are, and a nihilistic pessimism that negates any attempts to develop our human potential to its fullest. Likewise, it is the fundamental reason behind the domination of classes: by creating a mythical idea that we are subjugated to the will of the gods or God it opens the doors to the possibility for one section of the tribe, state, empire to dominate the rest of us by taking control of that subjection and exploiting it.

This process is quite easy to discern when we compare the development of the priestly-caste and witchdoctors into the mammoth monotheistic church congregations we have today alongside the evolution of Wealth and the great class-divide between rich and poor, but while this exploitation of the human fear of our awesome creativity is easy enough to find in the history of religions, what does it tell us about the history of aesthetics and, ultimately, about what aesthetics potentially means. While in these passages, Nietzsche is merely pointing to the fact that both the religious and aesthetic sense of awe originate in the same negation of human responsibility, by doing this he opens up a can of philosophical worms that reverberate back through his earlier writings on aesthetics, creating a seemingly contradictory dialectic within his own arguments … but then, being seemingly contradictory is a typically Nietzschean trait; it is what makes his writings so interesting and awesome.

To unravel this contradiction, let us start with section 4 of Beyond Good and Evil. In that passage he discusses the virtues of false judgements: “The falseness of a judgement is to us not necessarily an objection to a judgement … The question is to what extent it is life-advancing, life-preserving, species-preserving … the falsest judgements (to which synthetic judgements a priori belong) are the most indispensable to us, that without granting as true the fictions of logic, without measuring reality against the purely invented world of the unconditional and self-identical, without a continual falsification of the world by means of numbers, mankind could not live – that to renounce false judgements would be to renounce life, would be to deny life.”[iii] From this fragment of his earlier writing, his earlier thinking seems to be a complete antithesis of what he states later: if by judgement he is talking about aesthetics and religion (don’t worry, this link between judgement and aesthetics will be explained in due course) , instead of seeing a tragic human irresponsibility, he sees it as the most indispensable trait for humanity’s survival.

For those who know Nietzsche this contradiction probably comes as no surprise, he was antithetical to philosophical systems and his thoughts are mainly expressed in aphoristic or short-essay-long snippets which mitigate cohesion, but why are we presuming there is any relationship between the Critique of Religion from the Will to Power and passage 4 of Beyond Good and Evil at all?

If we look at the final part of passage 4 the idea seems even less plausible. The section continues with: “To recognise untruth as a condition of life: that, to be sure, means to resist customary value-sentiments in a dangerous fashion; and a philosophy which ventures to do so places itself, by that fact alone, beyond good and evil.”[iv]

This seemingly quirky idea of the indispensability of false judgements is suddenly exalted by championing the title of the entire book; insinuating that the central idea around this collection of essays is the motivation for a new philosophical thinking that can embrace untruth and by doing so create the kind of thought that can transcend the concepts of good and evil.

However, the subtle ironies that this passage is full of become clearer when seen in light of the seemingly contradictory passage from The Will to Power: the untruth of Beyond Good and Evil is the falsity of the conventional truths created by religion and aesthetics to “conceal from himself (humanity) that it was he who created what he admired.” In this way it becomes clear that the untruth is the revealing of an older truth long hidden by the human failure to embrace our own awesome capacities.

Seen from our 21st century perspective, Nietzsche’s thoughts take another twist. The nihilism that Nietzsche had resolved himself to as a negative but necessary state that had be endured before any revolution of the Overman (Übermensch) could come about, has now become entrenched in our global civilisation with tremendously negative consequences for any harmonious development of humanity. Instead of paving the way for the Overman, the nihilist century behind us has inspired an upsurge in religious fanaticisms and evangelical crusades that threaten to become a new dominant power in the chaotic condition of this budding century. In fact, what we are witnessing now is a tendency to reverse the process of false judgements that Nietzsche envisaged. An irony over Nietzsche’s own ironies in which religions use their lies to reinstate the old untruth, injecting it into the gaping vacuum opened by the unbearable relativity of the everything-is-nothing truth of the nihilistic world. In 2020, the recognition of untruth as a way of life is now the normal state of things, but there is no positive transcendence beyond good and evil here. By embracing lies as a way of life we have thrown civilisation into an existence-threatening, barbaric state.

But the irony of this situation does not stop there: Nietzsche was right, the only way forward for humanity is its awakening into the realisation that we truly are the great bestowers of judgement on reality and that the Universe is meaningful because we are able to give it that meaning; that it is time for humanity to stop apologising for itself and be itself; but that this step forward is impeded by the nihilistic civilisation that Nietzsche himself has been an integral part of creating.         

The question now is: Can the awakening allowing a great revaluation of purpose still take place and save humanity from itself? But first we have to deal with another query: What does any of this have to do with aesthetics?   To answer that we need to look back to an older pre-Nietzschean philosophy and sift Nietzsche’s concepts through the sieve of Kant.

(But that will be dealt with in Part Two …)


[i] Friedrich Nietzsche, THE WILL TO POWER, Ed. Kaufmann, Vintage, New York, 1968, p. 85

[ii] Ibid, p. 86

[iii] Friedrich Nietzsche, BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL, Section 4

[iv] Ibid

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