Nietzsche’s Disavowalist Moment

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a spectacular event unfolded that would forever change history. God was murdered. This scandalous transgression was met with multiple reactions. For some, God’s role was transformed into the logical truths of rationalism. For others, suffering became an eternal condition that only compassion could alleviate for brief moments. A few even continued to cling to the hope that God was alive and well; they transmuted their hopeless hope into “faith.” Yet, the ultimate scandal, according to one German philologist, was that we had assassinated God.

The death of God, according to Friedrich Nietzsche, meant the complete loss of any absolute or universal meaning to life. Contemporary morality and science attempted to mend this void. While Nietzsche offers innovative critiques of moralists (e.g. Kant) and the scientific method, his most venomous rejoinders are directed toward pessimists such as Arthur Schopenhauer. According to Nietzsche, pessimism essentially throws in the towel when confronted with the void of a meaningless existence. It accepts suffering as the eternal condition of life. If the pessimist does not kill herself, she only continues to live for momentary, compassionate acts that unite humans in their shared suffering. Against the pessimist’s resignation and the scientist’s self-certain rationalism, Nietzsche promotes a “gay science” whose task is to tarry with the suffering of existence in order to discover increasingly powerful moments of joy.

In The Gay Science, details of this new science are interspersed with attacks on ancient and modern attempts to escape pessimism (e.g. art, Greek tragedy, Wagnerian opera, religion). The culmination of these guerilla-style interventions is the fourth and final chapter titled “St. Januarius.” (In the second edition, a preface and fifth chapter were added to the book.)  In this chapter Nietzsche turns away from criticism and focuses in on his positive philosophy. It opens with the inauguration of a new year and a new type of person: “I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse the accusers. Let looking away be my only negation! And, all in all and on the whole: some day I want only to be a Yes-sayer!” The Yes-sayer becomes the pinnacle of affirmation; she is the person who resists pessimistic resignation to suffering and creates the new values required for a joyful life. Read the rest of this entry »

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