Tuesday, November 06, 2012


EKU is on Fall Break today and tomorrow, so I decided to make a pilgrimage to the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, and then to the Abbey of Gethsemani, where Thomas Merton lived. When I was an undergraduate, I took a course on Merton's life and work from Lynne Spellman, at a rather critical point in my life. It was reading Merton that led me to appreciate that there is a kind of religious thinking that is worth taking seriously.

One purpose of my trip was to listen to a recording of Merton's on patience and Sufism, which was a lecture to novitiates. I had not heard recordings of Merton before, and his voice and manner are quite engaging. This is the kind of thing he says to the new monks (always in a serious tone, but not so serious that he cannot also be, in subtle ways, funny):
"for the rest of your life if you stay here you are going to be struggling with constant dissatisfaction, and if you leave here you’re going to be struggling with more constant dissatisfaction, only you’ll have enough pillows and things to fall on that you won’t notice it…"

"love means trials…love and trials are inseparable...you don’t have one without the other, and that goes for Divine love and for human love…and I feel that today, there is a tendency everywhere, in religious life and out of religious life, for people to start kidding themselves that you get the love without the trials. You don’t."
Fair enough, I think. (Remembering this kind of thing when the kids are freaking out is harder.)

I took a nice walk along a trail with various religious statues scattered through the woods (including the striking one above). The air was cool and the sun bright. On my way back I noticed this peculiar sign (to the right), and then looked up (see below). Even the trees, so it seems, are praying at Gethsemani. I don't pray, but I did have a nice sit in the woods. It occurred to me--it has been in the process of occurring to me for a long time--that life is strange. I often wonder, "Where are we going?" (And "are we there yet?") This relates to my prior post on animal research (and Duncan's semi-response) in ways that I would like to explore further at some point. I don't think that "enjoying the ride" or "stopping to smell the roses" is quite the right way to get re-oriented. (I think this is what Duncan was getting at, too.)

Perhaps a little Nietzsche helps:
By doing we forgo.—Basically I abhor every morality that says: "Do not do this! Renounce! Overcome yourself!" But I am well disposed toward those moralities that impel me to do something again and again from morning till evening, and to dream of it at night, and to think of nothing else than to do this well, as well as I alone can! When one lives that way, one thing after another that does not belong to such a life drops off: without hate or reluctance one sees this take its leave today and that tomorrow, like the yellow leaves that every faint wisp of wind carries off a tree. Or he does not notice that it takes its leave--so sternly is his eye set on its goal, entirely forwards, not sideways, backwards, downwards.'What we do should determine what we forgo; in doing we forgo'--that's how I like it; that is my placitum. But I do not want to strive for my impoverishment with open eyes; I do not like negative virtues--virtues whose very essence is negation and self-denial. (The Gay Science, 304)
It may seem odd to be thinking of Nietzsche after a day at a monastery. (Isn't that precisely the self-denial that Nietzsche doesn't like?!) But somehow I think it can all fit together, because in both cases total devotion takes the place of all the various kinds of pettiness, distraction, and drifting. (And if one reads Nietzsche it becomes clear that there is a love of life there which, if followed, would prevent single-minded devotion to truly ugly aims--at least one would hope!)


  1. That's a nice quote from Nietzsche. My unsatisfactory 'solution' of kindness and rose-smelling is roughly Schopenhauer's answer, and of course Nietzsche reacts against Schopenhauer because he seems too negative, too miserable. And part of me feels that way too. But what is the morality that impels me to do something again and again from morning till evening? And what is the something? The two most likely answers for me strike me as being looking after my family (most plausible) and doing philosophy (much less plausible--I'm no Gauguin, and I think Gauguin should have stayed with his family anyway). But looking after my family involves making money, which involves spending a lot of time doing things that don't directly help my family at all. And some of these things I do with hate or reluctance. Nietzsche seems to have in mind a single-mindedness that I just don't think is possible. At least not if you have dependents. Unless the answer is to refuse the game of making money, etc., but I really doubt I would help anyone by trying to live as a farmer. I don't have a farm, for one thing. Dale Carnegie recommends imagining the worst case scenario and accepting it, and I think there is something to be said for Schopenhauerian despair. Not necessarily an unhappy despair, just an acceptance of what is, and enjoyment of it when possible (which is often), without craving anything more. But having said that, I can't make myself fully buy it.

  2. I agree that what you say points to a possible problem with Nietzsche. Something like the problem that the ethical-philosophical ideals of a bachelor may not work for the rest of us...

    But I also suspect that to take someone like Gauguin as a possible example of singlemindedness could be misleading--not because he isn't an example, but because it's only one type of example. Contrast his single-minded devotion to his art to a religious person's single-minded devotion to the idea of doing everything in a way that glorifies God (or is an imitation of Christ, etc.): in this case one has an organizing principle that is significantly more flexible than Gauguin's. But still an aim that can guide one from morning to evening and so forth. The principle is not (obviously) vacuously flexible, unless one can tell a convincing story about how watching TV sitcoms all day gives glory to God (etc.). Maybe the question might be what a "secular" version of such a flexible principle might be--perhaps to see to it that one honors and celebrates life in all that one does?

    In the lecture I listened to, Merton, too, was careful to acknowledge that suffering and trials is not the whole of life. There is good stuff, too. (And in The Gay Science, Nietzsche criticizes the Stoics for painting a picture of the world in which there seems to be a presumption that there is more bad than good, a view he doesn't buy--life is not always so bad...) But the trails, as it were, are the things that can throw one off from living in the spirit of the kinds of broader principles sketched above.

  3. Yes, my question would be what a secular version of such a principle might be. I mentioned Gauguin not (only) because he was single-minded but because I was thinking specifically of the idea of devoting my life to philosophy. That makes sense if you're Nietzsche, but not if you're me. Even if I were to philosophy what Gauguin is to painting I don't think I should put philosophy before my family.

    Honoring and celebrating life sounds good, but I think I'm too much of a pluralist to be impelled in all I do by one ideal. And there are too many forces pushing in other directions. The unavailability of free land means you pretty much have to work for someone else, for instance. And the people you work for create rules and incentive-systems that push you in ways that you have not chosen, and that might not be wholly good. The body pushes you too: you get sleepy, hungry, sick, etc., which makes it hard to keep focused on one ideal (or multiple ideals). Practical considerations (I must get rid of this headache, I must keep my boss happy, etc.) keep demanding our attention, or just taking it. What really matters or is most important is something that, it seems to me, we have to remind ourselves of. And that means turning in a different direction from the one(s) forced on us by less valuable things. Perhaps people with faith don't find this to be the case, but I can't imagine what that would be like. Kierkegaard is supposed to have said (I read this on a bottle cap, so it might be inaccurate) that life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. I think it has to be lived sideways though, against the grain or current of the world. It's not that you have to go directly against the current like a rebel, but you can't allow yourself just to be swept along either (unless you are going to lose sight of all real value). There is suffering and there are trials (both temporary), but there are powerful distractions too (almost constantly). Kids do freak out. That's part of normal life. And when they're not freaking out they're doing something else that is likely to distract you from fully appreciating them. That's why kids are so cute when they're asleep, or in photographs (Schopenhauer on aesthetics).

    In short, I think living a good life requires constant effort. You have to be able to go with the current a lot of the time, but also to move across it in order to see things truly. Maybe some people can more easily ignore the current and keep their eyes on the prize(s), but if so I don't know how they do it.

  4. I agree with most (if not all) of what you say. You mention the need to remind oneself of what's important and of "constant effort," and I think that's related to what I'm noting in the kind of religious view I mentioned above. Think also about Weil on attention. But right: things are constantly trying to grab that attention. I don't know if there's anything better to say about that than what Emerson said: simplify! Of course, that always seems to be easier said than done...

  5. Right. I focused too much on Nietzsche and forgot what you said about Merton before, but I agree with you.

  6. 'But what is the morality that impels me to do something again and again from morning till evening? And what is the something?'

    on nietzsche's behalf i would ask whether your answers are actually examples of these moralities. i would want to refresh my memory to feel confident about saying this, but i have the impression that where he refers approvingly to moralities or even religious spiritual practices, he emphasizes the importance of askesis in them - which is one reason i has to spend so much time distinguishing what he approves of from the anti-worldly, anti-body ascetic tendencies that gave force to christian or platonic morality. the thing i'm not sure about is how much he also grants that really full-blooded askesis is that important for 'morality' as the prevailing interpretation of ethical life. he certainly analyzes it in terms of the personal and social processes by which people are habituated to it. but i think he tends to think of askesis as ultimately involving more autonomy than those processes.

    the question about what those moralities (that nietzsche is attracted to) are is a real one for a related reason, that their individualism leaves it generally not determined what they are or what they involve, except for some of the core involvement of self-creation/overcoming, virtues like truthfulness, and some kind of connection to knowledge in the philosophical or scientific sense.

    you're both right about the conflict between these moralities as nietzsche sees them, and anything like a conventional social existence (with work, dependents, etc.). i think perhaps this is obscured somewhat in later works where he is more bold about appearing to articulate an ethic for humanity, as if it were one that people in all kinds of different social positions could adopt. but earlier on he is pretty forthright. for example, free spirits will not marry or live with women (HAH I 426); or 'in affairs of the highest philosophical kind all married men are suspect' (HAH I 436, which also suggests because of its initial contrast that philosophers or knowledge-seekers of a certain sort might not really have any stake in various social or economic arrangements and so it's absurd to involve themselves in them).

    i assume that all plausibly relevant contingent factors aside (difficulty of coming to know yourself, to have time to think, to feel free to express any opinion you need to, etc. etc.), this conflict is just basic given how individualist N is.

  7. Thanks, j. I should refresh my memory too. I don't remember HAH (which I keep mis-reading as Hah!) at all, although I must surely have read it sometime. The title alone makes it sound apt, and your references to it of course confirm that sense.

  8. j: I'm not steeped enough in the relevant texts to speak authoritatively on this, but one could perhaps question your characterization of Nietzsche being "forthright" in his earlier texts (about the free spirit) in ways that are "obscured" in later texts.

    That is, one could wonder: maybe he grew up a little? (And perhaps that is why he backed off the "more forthright" characterizations in earlier texts.)

    At the same time, I realize that N isn't wrong in suggesting that one's immediate responsibilities can lead to bias and failures of vision. But then presumably so could living one's life as a bachelor (or bachelorette). Etc. Etc.

  9. certainly, matthew. i don't want to leave it there, i was just reaching for a quick way to stress the contrast i had in mind. even for HAH the passages i cited are pretty blunt about the free spirit. some of the bluntest in the book, i think. i do think the individualist, self-creating emphasis is still basically the crux in e.g. GS, but it's woven much more tightly into a picture of social life, the effect of the fuller acknowledgment of which is to moderate/mature some of the individualist-leaning claims as compared to earlier versions of them. to add more notes of realism or skepticism to them, maybe.

    that's one reason i think the later works are better, but HAH is useful because it's basically less literary, less stylistically mature. not so many metaphors all over the place. which is not to say that it is the same as the later works, minus style.

    duncan, i think HAH has a lot of interest for wittgensteinians (and schopenhauerians!) and ethics. and it's a perk that it seems to be massively understudied. there are some recent books on it / 'the middle period' by e.g. ruth abbey and paul franco (don't know how much i'd say for their quality, they're just ok), and danto and other old analytic nietzscheans were always positive about it. but mostly it seems not to be read for itself, rather than as data to plunder for readings centered later on in nietzsche's career.

    vol. 2 just came out in a new translation in stanford's complete works edition, too, with notebook material from the same period. (not that i think the hollingdale/cup translation was bad. kind of germany. maybe not so meticulous on some things?) i've been rereading in vol. 1 all this year and last, and finding that it has more and more virtues and attractions.

  10. Thanks. Makes me want to change the picture on my webpage, but not really anything else. (Or perhaps go with no picture....)

  11. I wouldn't change anything. It just struck me how many of the issues we've touched on here came up in that piece.