For the meeting on November 18, we will read Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and/or John Gray’s The Silence of Animals.
Some Brief Thoughts in Anticipation of the Meeting
Though written some 130 years apart, both Zarathustra and The Silence of Animals vigorously reject religion and supernatural claims of all kinds. So far so good.
Both also make every effort to provoke their readers into new ways of looking at the world. We like that!
Yet both, to my mind, represent wrong turns in non-supernaturalist thinking, and that’s why I grouped them together.
After pronouncing that “God is dead,” Nietzsche, through Zarathustra, argues for a life of unbridled selfishness, captured in his vision of the übermensch, driven by the “Will to Power”. Nietzsche’s is a doctrine of cruelty and dominance, and he rejects any countervailing concerns for kindness, mutuality, respect for others.
It seems to me that Nietzsche seriously underestimates the complexity of the human animal. No doubt affected by thousands of years of conditioning, despite his brave and unorthodox mind, he conflates goodness with godliness. So once he strips humanity of its supernatural pretensions, he reflexively strips it of much that is to be valued in life. It’s a “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” kind of problem.
What about our inclination to love, Friedrich? What about our inclination to shape our values collectively?
Gray’s approach is at once more passive, and also more bleak than Nietzsche’s (you didn’t think that was possible? just wait). First the good news: Gray’s picture of a human being shorn of supernatural certainties is far more complex and up-to-date: he sees each of us, I think rightly, as a confused bundle of conflicting impulses, desperately conjuring myths to give our lives meaning. We are not dominated by a “Will to Power” anymore than we are dominated by a “Will to be Liked” — it’s all in a tangle.
Unlike Nietzsche, then, Gray recognizes that along with our self-interest and potential for cruelty, we are also capable of strong sentimental attachments to one another.
But to Gray, it’s all myth and therefore barren and pointless. He paints a picture of the human animal in a state of nature as a helpless, but vicious, beast. Society, he thinks, clothes us in a meaning that is only threadbare at best: a cheap suit, poorly tailored, called “progress,” or “humanistic” showing skin at the elbows and knees.
So in the end Gray throws up his hands, considering our severe cognitive limitations and unresolvable internal conflicts. Whereas Nietzsche urges humans to be creative and active (though sociopathic), Gray urges us to focus merely on “seeing” the world more clearly.
This too seems to me to leave out much of what makes our lives interesting. Surely we can recognize our severe limitations while also acting in the world, no? Perhaps people can collectively, over time, improve their lot? Why does our status as animals (homo rapians, he calls us) eliminate this possibility altogether?
I hope you are provoked as I was. Enjoy the readings!