Nietzsche and Qohelet on Immanence

What follows is a section from a paper I wrote comparing Nietzsche’s philosophy of immanence to that of the author of Ecclesiastes–Qohelet. The section presented here is specifically focused on Nietzsche’s philosophical vision. Enjoy!

1. Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Immanence

A. Introducing Nietzsche

While at age six Nietzsche was referred to by his classmates as “the little pastor” due to his ability to recite Scripture and hymns, by age 20 he had decided to quit taking the Eucharist. This brought shame and dismay to his mother who had at one point thought he might follow in the footsteps of his father, a deceased Lutheran pastor.[1] From this point on there is no sign that Nietzsche ever looked back as he followed what he called the “will to truth”, the desire to find and embrace the truth at any existential cost, for the rest of his life. By the time Nietzsche came into his own philosophically he had thoroughly embraced atheism and was set on working out its implications.

This must be kept in mind when reading about Nietzsche’s famous statement “God is dead”.When Nietzsche’s fictional madmen jumps into the midst of the crowd in the modern market place, “piercing” them with his eyes and declaring that they have murdered God it is not a metaphysical entity that he is speaking of, but rather the myth that gave meaning to existence.[2] The madmen gives voice to the anxiety felt by Nietzsche in light of this “great” dead that has “unchained the earth from its sun” leaving us “straying as through an infinite nothing”. (GS 181)

This was written in 1882. In 1887 Nietzsche was still wrestling with this anxiety—what I see as a recognition of a shared cultural anxiety—and it is this very anxiety that he seeks to address in his notes on European Nihilism. These notes are important for interpreting Nietzsche’s own understanding of his philosophical task and vision in that they offer perhaps the most systematic presentation of Nietzsche’s highly unsystematic thought. However, as with all of Nietzsche’s texts, his notes must be brought into conversation with other works in his oeuvre if they are to be read fruitfully and interpreted faithfully. In light of this, my plan is to follow the overall trajectory of these notes while taking into consideration several of his other works in my reading. The goal is to present as explicitly as possible Nietzsche’s philosophy of immanence so that it can be compared and contrasted to the philosophical vision of Ecclesiastes.

B. Nietzsche Philosophical Vision

As we have seen the myth of God has died. It has become implausible for humanity, according to Nietzsche, to believe any longer in this myth that brought meaning to life. Yet, because this myth—whether in its Christian or Buddhist form—has been present for so long humanity has come to need it.

Human nature has now been changed by the ever new appearance of these teachers of the purpose of existence… man has become a fantastic animal that has to fulfill one more condition of existence than any other: man has to believe, to know, from time to time why he exists. (GS 1)

But now this myth is gone and with its lose comes a mistrust of all of our past evaluations.[3] Everything which gave meaning to our lives is now gone and hence now life seems as if it is in “vain”. That is, life now has no purpose (EN 4, 5). The irony is that with his works, specifically Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche did much to destroy the edifices, the moralities and meanings, upon which this purpose stood. Seemingly pierced by his own madman’s eyes Nietzsche responds to his gaze by stating that, “we can destroy only as creators.” (GS 58) And so, Nietzsche goes “over” and “under” by bringing this nihilism itself to its utmost, to its breaking point.

The logic appears to be thus. Since existence has no point or aim “the most paralyzing thought” would be for existence to stretch on for all eternity. This is, “the most extreme form of nihilism: nothingness (the ‘senseless’) eternally?” (EN, 6) Already in his notes from 1881 Nietzsche had developed this “most scientific of all hypothesis.” (EN, 6) If one begins with the assumption that there is no God it follows that there is no beginning and thus that time stretches into the past eternally. (RS, 11[148]) From this Nietzsche reasons that energy, “world forces”, must never decrease in quantity, but only change in form—a version of the Second Law of Thermodynamics—otherwise what exists, which is dependant on such forces, would not be possible because the forces would have run out. Coupling this with a deterministic physics Nietzsche states, “Whatever state this world can attain, it must have attained it and not once but countless times. Take this moment: it has already been once and many times and will return… Man: Your whole life will be turned over like an hourglass time and again…” (RS, 11[148]) Whether or not Nietzsche truly sought to establish a new ontology and cosmology with this doctrine—and thus in what way quantum physics would overturn it—I will leave to Nietzschian studies. The significance of the Eternal Recurrence for this essay is the existential import that Nietzsche placed upon it. Nietzsche states, “My doctrine says: the task is to live your life in such a way that you have to want to live again—you will in any case?” (RS 11[163])

The goal of such a doctrine is the affirmation of the process when its telos, or end, is removed, the affirmation of life without a divinely revealed reason or goal. (EN, 7) In part IV of Thus Spoke Zarathustra “the ugliest man” (the murderer of God) affirms that, “one day, one festival, with Zarathustra has taught me to love the earth.”[4] It is after this affirmation of immanence and it’s proceeding “once more” to life that Zarathustra preaches his doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence to the Higher Men. (TSZ, The Drunken Song 2-12) However, while Zarathustra was awake these men still slept (TSZ, The Sign), which is Nietzsche’s way of saying that they were not yet ready for this doctrine. This is how Nietzsche saw his thought. He was ahead of his time and possibly light years so. (GS 125, BGE 285) Part of the reason this doctrine would take so long to incorporate itself into life was that it at first appeared as repulsive. In The Gay Science Nietzsche presents it as first taught by a demon who is only in hindsight recognized as a god. (GS 341) Yet once the eternal recurrence is accepted the “new philosophers” can see it as a “new dawn” and “an open sea” that calls out to all who are adventurous in spirit to embark upon its unknown vastness. (GS 343)

However, this is not the only thing that keeps this doctrine from being incorporated into life. There are many, the vast majority of humankind, who have to depend on morality to protect them from despair and “the will to nothingness”. (EN, 10-11, 14) This despair does not come in the face of natural danger, but rather when faced by those who are powerful enough to exercise their wills over and above others. This is dependent on Nietzsche’s genealogy of the rise of morality and his distinction between “slave morality” and “master morality”.[5] Put simply, and possibly crudely, slave morality is the morality of those who are not able to exercise their own power and wills over others but instead are subservient to others wills, desires and demands. Master morality is the morality of the strong. It is a morality that recognizes its own strength, exults in it and recognizes this strength in others. Master morality was originally seen as good because it was able to “requite goodness with goodness, and evil with evil, and really does practice requital by being grateful and vengeful”. (HH, Section 1, 45) It is the morality of the ruling classes. However, the oppressed could not exercise power and thus saw men, especially the masters, as evil. They sought requital as well and since they did not have the power to do so physically they did so through inventing morality as a revenge. This carried on through the highest forms of society until the priests were able to make all men feel the sting of slave morality and thus even despise themselves and the life, or power within them.

For Nietzsche life is the will to power. The will to exert power, through both creation and destruction, verses just the will to live, is what pushes life onwards in the universe. (EN, 10) It is those who more fully embody this power who do not need consolation through “morality”. And it is these who will be able to embrace the eternal recurrence and the active nihilism that is needed to purge. Nietzsche states that this, “forces together related elements and makes them ruin each other, that it allocates common tasks to people of opposing mentalities—also bringing to light the weaker…” (EN, 14) This will lead to the acknowledgment of “commanders as commanders, obeyers as obeyers.” (EN, 14)

Near the end of his notes on European Nihilism Nietzsche asks, “Who will prove to be the strongest in this?” (EN, 15) His answer is, “…men who are sure of their power and represent with conscious pride the achievement of human strength.” (EN, 15) This, of course, paves the way for the Ubermensch. However, because Nietzsche does not bring this up in the notes I am using to structure my investigation, and in light of space, I will not discuss this here. Suffice it to say that while Nietzsche attempted to affirm the process without an end, it does appear that he snuck one in through the back door. The Ubermensch may not rely on transcendence, or the myth of God, but for Nietzsche he/it is the goal. (TSZ, Prologue, 3)

It is no mystery that Nietzsche influenced Hitler and National Socialism. It is not my intention here to say whether or not Hitler read him rightly. The relationship between the two—and between Nietzsche’s philosophy and fascist/imperialist ideology and practice—is highly complex and needs much more space to be considered thoroughly.[6] However, in light of statements like this, no matter how cryptic, it does seem that Nietzsche’s attempt to affirm life in spit of the lose of transcendence does not offer a philosophical vision that is ethically acceptable for those who wish to affirm all of human life on earth. If life is to be embraced and enjoyed for those in Nietzsche’s universe it is only to be done so by a select few. Further, his vision itself is grounded in an ontology (Will to Power), a metaphysics/cosmology (the Eternal Return), and teleology (the Ubermensch) that are just as speculative as any religion. As I turn my attention to Ecclesiastes I will ask the reader to keep Nietzsche’s vision in mind in order to ask which vision better grounds a philosophy that in Nietzsche’s words allows one to, “remain true to the earth.” (TSZ Prologue, 3)

[1] Craig Hovey, Nietzsche and Theology (New York: Continuum, 2008), 13.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (New York: Random House, 1974), 181. Aphorism 125. For the rest of the paper I will use in text quotations for this book. GS 181 refers to this edition of The Gay Science section 181.

[3] The Nietzsche Reader, ed. Keith A. Pearson and Duncan Large, “European Nihilism” (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.) 386. For the rest of the paper I will refer to these notes by the use of in text quotations. This particular quote is found in EN 5, which refers to European Nihilism section five. I also use this reader for his notes from 1881 on “The Recurrence of the Same”. RS will be used along with the notes number such as 11[143].

[4] The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 429. (TSZ, The Drunken Song 1)

[5] Cf. HH Section 1, 45. And BGE Part V 186-188, 195-203; Part VI. 208; Part VI 219, 221, 222. Also GM (specifically the First Essay).

[6] Cf. Geoff Waite, Nietzsche’s Corps/e: Aesthetics, Politics, Prophecy, or, the Spectacular Technocultue of Everyday Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996). Waite’s book is a superb, complex and extremely erudite argument against Nietzsche’s reception in modern times but specifically by the Left. He prefers the term fascoid for Nietzsche verse fascist, imperialist, or racist. As he states, “The ‘fascoid’ refers to four primary things: (1) to a combative political ontology based on more or less permanent overt and covert warfare against democratic values in general and against the possibility of radical democracy in particular; (2) to an unquestioned commitment to some form of ‘Leader Principle’ (i.e. strong—predominately male—leaders and neo-aristocratic elites as the real motor of history, able to function, when need be, under the guise of individual rights, anarchism, libertarianism, populism, even social democracy—but theoretically By Any Means Necessary); (3) to a concomitant, enthusiastic socioeconomic commitment—not necessarily capitalist, but certainly capitalist if need be—to the maintenance of a gullible, pliable, and—if at all possible—willing workforce, up to and including slave labor; and (4) to a consciously manipulative, duplicitous practice of writing, speaking, and acting grounded in esotericism and other strategies of speaking to two audiences at once—those in the know, and those out of the know who are to be kept out of the know.” Pp. 72-73.


7 thoughts on “Nietzsche and Qohelet on Immanence

  1. Psychologizing philosophers never helps. It just obscures the work, and usually indicates a mortal failure in imagination on the part of the writer to be able to deal with the ideas, which go far beyond the subject, which hardly acts as a basis of anything. Unrevealing.

  2. TOG,
    what a profound and insightful critique. or, wait, no, what a stupid way to critique a methodology without showing in the least how it affected the persons work, good or bad.

    nothing is wrong with intelligent criticism, but polemic and rude nonsense like this is useless.


  3. TOG,

    Uh… Ok. I am a bit nonplussed seeing as how this comment appeared less then two minutes after I posted this entry. Your a damn fast reader TOG! My first response is to note something I have observed about the blogospher in general. Any time one mentions Nietzsche one better be ready for a heated and seemingly emotionally driven attack by someone who for some reason feels threatened. But now I guess I am psychologizing you. Gasp! But your not a philosopher so I suppose that its okay in this case. Your accusation is exactly what I find problematic about the blogospher: you insulted my work, through a round about way by somewhat cryptically critiquing my methodology, and you did so dramatically and personally without ever having dealt with the content of the work! And this passes for intellectual engagement? WTF?

    That being said, I agree with Mike, critiquing method is obviously important. However, you have in no way showed how my interpretation of Nietzsche has suffered from what you accuse it of. It very well might, but if it does, please take the time to show me how – so that I might learn something – instead of offering a personal attack on my intellectual character. Again, I agree with Mike… revealing.

  4. The numbers indicate which paragraph a comment is most directly responding to:

    (A1) A major opponent of perspectivism, Nietzsche was following what he recognized to be his truth. He was fighting against absolutism in general. You make it sound like he was a Richard Dawkins style athiest.

    (A2) When Nietzsche said “God is dead” did he mean the myth or some metaphysical entity? The ambiguity is very important, otherwise he would have just said “the myth of God is dead.”

    (A3) This anxiety very much exists ib Shakespeare’s tragedies, especially in his characters Iago, Edmund, Hamlet, and Macbeth. Nietzsche makes the anxiety explicit and pervasive.

    (B3) The relationship between destruction and creation was well developed, and along similar lines, by William Blake. See, especially, his epic poem Jerusalem. Before Nietzsche, William Blake had gone a long way in contorting Christianity into something very much like Nitschean vitalism.

    (B4) Fine, but don’t forget that deductive logic for Nietzsche is only one more rhetorical device, perhaps less important than metaphor and metonymy.

    (B9) Vico might interpret Nietzsche as a person in the age of democracy feeling nostalgic for the age of aristocracy. See Vico’s The New Science.

    To TOG’s comment: Psycholgizing philosphers/poets destroys the dishonesty of there work. Philosophy/poetry cannot exist without dishonesty… in comes into being through repression. When what is being repressed comes clear, the poetry/philosophy seems obscure. But just as Nietzsche helped destroy Christianity, it is our responsibility to destroy Nietzsche. Unless you idealize his work, in which case I will make a point of ignoring you, just as I ignore people who idealize Jesus.

    1. Justin,

      Thanks for reading this and for commenting on the actual content. I appreciate the thoughtful engagement. I will respond to your response by using the same markers you have.

      (A1)—First, this is a fair critique. I was hesitant to even use the word atheist, which I dislike for the same reason that I dislike the words theist and religion: all of these labels essentialize and homogenize variegated movements, people and perspectives. That is, there is no such thing as religion “out there”, so to speak, but rather a plethora of heterogeneous practices, beliefs and traditions relegated under different nominations such as: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. However, at times for the sake of discourse abstraction is necessary and I don’t see it as definitively bad as long as one recognizes that abstraction always distorts to some extent. So, I in no way wish to relegate Nietzsche under the same topology of banal atheism that Richard Dawkins belongs to. Nietzsche’s thought is way more sophisticated, nuanced, and therefore damaging than any of the “new atheists”.

      That being said, I agree and disagree with the rest of your comment here. While you are right to highlight Nietzsche’s perspectivalism, which is one of his most memorable legacies, I disagree with your notion that he was only concerned with “his” truth. Nietzsche, while breaking with Enlightenment thought in many ways, still retained some of its constellations and one of these comes through in the ways in which he uses truth at times. I see this as one of the aporias of his thought. Whether he meant to or not I am not sure—I could see how one could argue that he did but I think that Zizek is correct when he points out that Nietzsche failed to grasp the position that would allow for both of these views—it is nevertheless the case that there is an apparent gap between his perspectivialism and his use of truth—as a universal category or as something that exists out there, independent of cognition yet able to be apprehended by it in meaningful ways—at times. I was highlighting the later aspect, which again I believe one would be hard pressed to deny is present at times. I am concerned that reading him the way you purpose threatens to turn him into a politically correct liberal, and I don’t think that is what his writings suggest. I may be misunderstanding what your getting at.

      (A2)—Again, good point. The goal of this essay, as I stated, was to make Nietzsche’s thought as clear as possible. This is a huge methodological danger when dealing with Nietzsche because part of his argument—as you have pointed out by bringing up his use of metaphor and metonym—is always connected to the rhetorical aspects. So, to respond to your comment… Yes the ambiguity is important and I think that it is very important that he said, “God is dead” instead of, “the myth of God is dead”—the rhetorical flavor is obviously profoundly different in these two statements—but I still stand by my interpretation that he did not believe that somehow some metaphysical entity had been slain by the profound shift in Western culture and thought.

      (B3)—I am not at all familiar with William Blake’s work, so thank you for pointing this out. Yet, I do think that Nietzsche’s thought along these lines probably goes further back to similar notions found in Hindu thought—Shiva is both the destroyer and benefactor and this idea of creation and destruction being connected runs all through Hindu cosmology, history, etc. I am sure you are aware of this and the trajectory could very easily run through Blake in a way that I am not aware of.

      (B4)—Yes I agree and this is why I am hesitant to make any bold claims in regards to this aspect. If I am honest, I would have to say that I am still a little uncomfortable with this whole paragraph but I am not sure why exactly.

      (B9)—Sounds plausible to me. I will have to check it out. Thanks for the reference!

      Thanks again for the thoughtful comments. This is the type of critical engagement I am really thankful for and why I continue to post stuff up here.


  5. I was not idealizing anyone. In fact it is the perspective of psychology that always idealizes the subject in order to have control over it. But in fact this means that the real subject is always lost, slipping just over the horizon. What I was pointing out was that a philosopher, whether you agree or disagree with him, but especially one as powerful and influential as Nietzsche, should be confronted on the basis of his idea. If one cannot do that, then better to leave it to someone else. Otherwise one risks simply making what one despises (obviously) even more powerful.

  6. Without getting into the specifics of any particular comment I want to say that I am aware now, and have been for awhile, that I have still failed to seriously wrestle with Nietzsche in a manner which respects the vivacity, immensity, and challenge of his thought. This paper is, unfortunately, a representation of this.

    However, there is one virtue that I see in this paper: I attempted to read Nietzsche as a philosopher, i.e. a metaphysician. While surely much good has and will come from reading him for a methodology (genealogy), or simply as a literary giant, it seems to me that one will fail to recognize his significance if he is not read as a metaphysician. It is only in this way that one can view the history of late 20th century philosophy as proceeding from the wake of Nietzsche’s thought. In fact, it is possible to say that 20th century Continental thought can be split between two readings of Nietzsche: that of Heidegger, on the one hand, and of Deleuze on the other.

    That being said, I am not sure when, or indeed if, I will post any more on Nietzsche, but I will continue to be haunted by his specter and am committed to carrying on the wrestling match, and to doing so in a way that truly respects the magnitude of my interlocutor.

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