He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

In Denial: Nietzsche's Skepticism

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche covers a wide array of topics, and his writing is always as incisive as it is difficult to follow for those accustomed to textbooks.  As always, I enjoy his writing greatly even when I disagree with his conclusions.

One of the most interesting parts of the book from my perspective was his series of ruminations on skepticism.   In Part Six of the book, Nietzsche turns his considerable polemical ability on skepticism immediately after verbally scourging those who pretend to objectivity.

     "However gratefully we may welcome an objective spirit--and is there anyone who has never been mortally sick of everything subjective and of his accursed ipsissimosity? --in the end we also have to caution against our gratitude and put a halt to the exaggerated manner in which the 'unselfing' and depersonalization of the spirit is being celebrated nowadays as if it were the goal itself and redemption and transfiguration.  This is particularly characteristic of the pessimist's school, which also has good reasons for according the highest honors to 'disinterested knowledge.'
      The objective person who no longer curses and scolds like a pessimist, the ideal scholar in whom the scientific instinct, after thousands of total and semi-failures, for once blossoms and blooms to the end, is certainly one of the most precious instruments there are; but he belongs in the hand of one more powerful.  He is only an instrument; let us say, he is a mirror--he is no 'end in himself'.'  The objective man is indeed a mirror: he is accustomed to submit before whatever wants to be known, without any other pleasure than that found in knowing and 'mirroring'; he waits until something comes, and then spreads himself out tenderly lest light footsteps and the quick passage of spiritlike beings should be lost on his plane and skin."

The critique Nietzsche levels against the self-described objective man is not the critique that a college sophomore would launch; no, he's much less timid in his assertions.  Nietzsche points out that the more a man pursues objectivity, the more he becomes an object.

He subtly points out that objectification is the natural result of objectivity in men.  While he does concede that the objective man has some things that are quite admirable about him, traits that set him apart from the herd, he sees that the objective man is still less than a fully human being, not rich in personality and vibrant in the joys and sorrows of life as others are.

     "If love and hatred are wanted from him--I mean love and hatred as God, woman, and animal understand them--he will do what he can and give what he can.  But one should not be surprised if it is not much--if here he proves inauthentic, fragile, questionable, and worm-eaten.  His love is forced, his hatred artificial and rather un tour de force, a little vanity and exaggeration.  After all, he is genuine only insofar as he may be objective: only in his cheerful 'totalism' he is still 'nature' and 'natural.'  His mirror soul, eternally smoothing itself out, no longer knows how to affirm or negate; he does not command, neither does he destroy.  "Je suis meprise presque rien," he says with Liebniz: one should not overlook and underestimate that presque.
     Neither is he a model man; he does not go before anyone, nor behind; altogether he places himself too far apart to have any reason to take sides for good or evil.  When confusing him for so long with the philosopher, with the Caesarian cultivator and cultural dynamo, one accorded him far too high honors and overlooked his most essential characteristics: he is an instrument, something of a slave though certainly the most sublime type of slave, but in himself nothing--presque rien!  The objective man is an instrument, a precious, easily injured and clouded instrument for measuring and, as an arrangement of mirrors, an artistic triumph that deserves care and honor; but he is no goal, no conclusion and sunrise, no complementary man in whom the rest of existence is justified, no termination--and still less a beginning, a begetting and a first cause, nothing tough, powerful, self-reliant that wants to be master--rather only a delicate, carefully dusted, fine, mobile pot for forms that still has to wait for some content and substance in order to 'shape' itself accordingly--for the most part, a man without substance and content, a 'selfless' man.  Consequently, also nothing for women, in parenthesi."

Nietzsche recognizes that even the most objective man is at best an instrument of measurement that is far from perfect, that the objective man has much about him that is not designed to ascertain objective truth and indeed seems bound to find at best a blurred vision of reality.

But this isn't the main point of his examination of the objective man; Nietzsche wants us to see how being an objective man causes a man to be something less than a truly free and virile man, to see how sterility is a result of objectivity.  He describes in quite visceral terms how the objective man loses the traits that make men so attractive to women, the traits that make them so full of life and capable of reaching the depths and heights of the human heart in love.

And this objective man, having been reduced to an object, is in some sense "selfless," but not in the sense of denying the self so that he can give the gift of radical love to another.  It's a selflessness that does not even aspire to such heights, a selflessness that is mere abasement before the facts and nothing that acts boldly based on those facts.

With this in mind, let's take a look at what Nietzsche has to say about skepticism.

     "When a philosopher suggests these days that he is not a skeptic--I hope this is clear from the description just given of the objective spirit--everybody is annoyed.  One begins to look at him apprehensively, one would like to ask, to ask so much----Indeed, among timid listeners, of whom there are legions now, he is henceforth considered dangerous.  It is as if at his rejection of skepticism they heard some evil, menacing rumbling in the distance, as if a new explosive were being tried somewhere, a dynamite of the spirit, perhaps a newly discovered Russian nihiline, a pessimism bonae voluntatis that does not merely say No, want No, but--horrible thought!--does No.
     Against this type of 'good will'--a will to actual, active denial of life--there is today, according to common consent, no better soporific and sedative than skepticism, the gentle, fair, lulling poppy of skepticism; and even Hamlet is now prescribed by the doctors of the day against the 'spirit' and its underground rumblings.  'Aren't our ears filled with wicked noises as it is?' asks the skeptic as a friend of quiet, and almost as a kind of security police; 'this subterranean No is terrible!  Be still at last, you pessimistic moles!"

Here we see that Nietzsche compares the skeptic to the objective man; he paints a picture of someone who is too timid to believe hard things.  The skeptic is depicted in all the glory of the amateur philosopher who, rather than boldly venturing into the deep, is lulled to intellectual sleep by the lullaby of an uncertainty that keeps him from having to risk anything by standing by something he truly believes is of utmost importance.

Like the objective man, the skeptical man may be better than the religious man with his slave morality, but only just.  Even the sincere religious man is bold enough to really give his Yes or No to the beliefs of others while the skeptic is reluctant to face the dangers of fully committing to principles that are hard to live by.

     "For the skeptic, being a delicate creature, is frightened all too easily; his conscience is trained to quiver at every No, indeed even at a Yes that is decisive and hard, and to feel as if it had been bitten.  Yes and No--that goes against his morality; conversely, he likes to treat his virtue to a feast of noble abstinence, say, by repeating Montaigne's 'What do I know?' or Socrates' 'I know that I know nothing.' Or: 'Here I don't trust myself, here no door is open to me.'  Or: 'Even if one were open, why enter right away?'  Or: 'What use are all rash hypotheses?  Entertaining no hypotheses at all might well be part of good taste.  Must you insist on immediately straightening what is crooked?  on filling up every hole with oakum?  Isn't there time?  Doesn't time have time?  O you devilish brood, are you incapable of waiting?  The uncertain has its charms, too; the sphinx, too, is a Circe; Circe, too, was a philosopher.'
     Thus a skeptic consoles himself; and it is true that he stands in some need of consolation.  For skepticism is the most spiritual expression of a certain complex physiological condition that in ordinary language is called nervous exhaustion and sickliness; it always develops when races or classes that have long been separated are crossed suddenly and decisively. ... This disease enjoys the most beautiful pomp- and lie-costumes; and most of what today displays itself in the showcases, for example, as 'objectivity,' 'being scientific,' 'l’art pour l’art,' 'pure knowledge, free of will,' is merely dressed-up skepticism and paralysis of the will: for this diagnosis of the European sickness I vouch.”

The kind of skeptic Nietzsche is writing about is the kind of skeptic who doesn't want to commit himself to accept or reject a particular philosophy or religion.  For this kind of skeptic, doubt isn't some bold rejection of the beliefs of his ancestors in favor of a radical seeking of truth on the horizons of human knowledge.  Instead, it's a timid and waffling perpetual uncertainty that passes itself off as sophistication, though it's mostly just a lazy unwillingness to do the hard work required to sift through the many exclusive truth claims made throughout the ages.

This skeptic might make the argument for the value of uncertainty and doubt, and those things do indeed have value to me personally and to a philosopher like Nietzsche.  He was certainly not afraid of doubt.  And yet he understood that doubt is an invitation to carefully and methodically work our way to the truth; doubt is not an excuse for us to avoid the hard work of finding the truth in favor of wallowing in the perpetual certainty of having something about which we can be uncertain.

     "The sickness of the will is spread unevenly over Europe: it appears strongest and most manifold where culture has been at home longest; it disappears to the extent to which the 'barbarian' still--or again--claims his rights under the loose garments of Western culture.  In France today the will is accordingly the most seriously sick, which is as easy to infer as it is palpable.  And France, having always possessed a masterly skill at converting even the most calamitous turns of its spirit into something attractive and seductive, now really shows its cultural superiority over Europe by being the school and display of all the charms of skepticism.
     The strength to will, and to will something for a long time, is a little greater in Germany, and more so in the German north than in the center of Germany; but much stronger yet in England, Spain, and Corsica, here in association with indolence, there with hard heads--not to speak of Italy, which is too young to know what it wants and still has to prove whether it is able to will--but it is strongest and most amazing by far in that enormous empire in between, where Europe, as it were, flows back into Asia, in Russia.  There the strength to will has long been accumulated and stored up, there the will--uncertain whether as a will to negate or a will to affirm--is waiting menacingly to be discharged, to borrow a pet phrase of our physicists today.  It may well take more than Indian wars and complications in Asia to rid Europe of its greatest danger: internal upheavals would be needed, too, the shattering of the empire into smaller units, and above all the introduction of the parliamentary nonsense, including the obligation for everybody to read his newspaper with his breakfast.
     I do not say this because I want it to happen: the opposite would be rather more after my heart--I mean such an increase in the menace of Russia that Europe would have to resolve to become menacing, too, namely, to acquire one will by means of a new caste that would rule Europe, a long, terrible will of its own that would be able to cast its goals millennia hence--so the long-drawn-out comedy of its many splinter states as well as its dynastic and democratic splinter wills would come to an end.  The time for petty politics is over: the very next century will bring the fight for the dominion of the earth--the compulsion to large-scale politics."

He proposes that the shared root of Europe's sickness and the skeptic's weakness is a lack of the will (whether to truth or power) to act on the natural desires that have effectively animated so many of their ancestors.

Also, the strength of the will is what is sapped of its vigor when skepticism dominates; the man who is a skeptic through and through has no reason to pursue vigorously the actualization of his own desires in life.  That embrace of the challenges and opportunities of life requires sincere belief and the perseverance to actualize it despite numerous obstacles.

Nietzsche proposes that there is an alternative to this sterile skepticism that animates the Europe of modern times, that skepticism does not have to be so sickly and weak.  But what would such a skepticism of strength look like?

     "To what extent the new warlike age into which we Europeans have evidently entered may also favor the development of another and stronger type of skepticism, on that I want to comment for the present only in the form of a parable which those who like German history should understand readily.  That unscrupulous enthusiast for handsome and very tall grenadiers who, as King of Prussia, brought into being a military and skeptical genius--and thus, when you come right down to it, that new type of German which has just now come to the top triumphantly--the questionable, mad father of Frederick the Great himself had the knack and lucky claw of genius, though only at one point: he knew what was missing in Germany at that time, and what lack was a hundred times more critical and urgent than, say, the lack of education and social graces--his antipathy against the young Frederick came from the fear of a deep instinct.  Men were missing; and he suspected with the most bitter dismay that his own son was not man enough.  In this he was deceived; but who, in his place, wouldn't have deceived himself about that?  He saw his son surrender to atheism, to esprit, to the hedonistic frivolity of clever Frenchmen: in the background he saw that great empire, the spider of skepticism; he suspected the incurable misery of a heart that is no longer hard enough for evil or good, of a broken will that no longer commands, no longer is capable of commanding.  Meanwhile there grew up in his son that more dangerous and harder new type of skepticism--who knows how much it owed precisely to the hatred of the father and the icy melancholy of a will condemned to solitude?--the skepticism of audacious manliness which is most closely related to the genius for war and conquest first entered Germany in the shape of the great Frederick."

The skepticism for which Nietzsche advocates is the skepticism of those who are able to make hard choices, the men who have the will to be bold in their decisions, men who are willing to make mistakes as they pursue what they deem to be good ends, even though they might turn out to be evil ends.

He eschews the skepticism that is too risk-averse to take the chance of believing hard and being wrong as a result, though he sees people who reflexively believe in the Christianity and Judaism of their ancestors as quite wrong to do so.

"This skepticism despises and nevertheless seizes; it undermines and take possession; it does not believe but does not lose itself in the process; it gives the spirit dangerous freedom, but it is severe on the heart, it is the German form of skepticism which, in the form of a continued Frederickianism that had been sublimated spiritually, brought Europe for a long time under the hegemony of the German spirit and its critical and historical mistrust.  Thanks to the unconquerably strong and tough virility of the great German philologists and critical historians (viewed properly, all of them were also artists of destruction and dissolution), a new concept of the German spirit crystallized gradually in spite of all romanticism in music and philosophy, and the inclination to virile skepticism became a decisive trait, now, for example, as an intrepid eye, now as the courage and hardness of analysis, as the tough will to undertake dangerous journeys of exploration and spiritualized North Pole expeditions under desolate and dangerous skies."

In Nietzsche's view, the skepticism worth having is the German skepticism that not only doubted the truth claims of Christianity and Judaism and Islam, but also took a bold position which subverted their modes of thinking and their conclusions about human nature.  This is the skepticism of the Four Horsemen of Atheism, German intellectuals who inverted the Christian worldview of their ancestors and struck out into what they saw as the wild frontiers of thought.

Their skepticism was a virile skepticism, capable of begetting something, producing new sets of values and new rationales for them, new moral duties, and new political programmes and pogroms.  They might have been wrong, but one cannot say that they were timid or weak-willed.  They were willing to brave the desolation that comes from holding firmly to unpopular beliefs in contradistinction to their fellow citizens.

In the end, Nietzsche has little patience for the typical skepticism of the modern world which is afraid to take a stand for anything lest it be wrong or even right in a socially unacceptable way.  He is no fan of the skepticism which is in denial about its own value, not seeing how worthless a perpetual uncertainty in the face of evidence is, especially in a world in which so many things are certain enough to kill us as they exercise their will to power.

He proposes that a more virile and bold skepticism will take its place in time, that the skeptics who are fearless enough to take a stand and persevere in accomplishing their deepest desires for power and truth are the ones who are victorious.

Nietzsche's AsceticismNietzsche's Anti-Semitism - Nietzsche's Skepticism

Note:  The above image is part of the cover of my copy of Nietzsche's collected works.  See my Sources page for more information about which translation I used.


  1. Do you think the kind of skepticism that he denounces would be more like scientism, a sort of skepticism which makes observations about the natural world but lacks any coherent philosophy to tie the ideas together?

    1. No. What he's talking about is even less robust than that. Nietzsche has some criticisms of scientistic sort of thinking as well, but it's elsewhere in his work.