Hope, Tragedy, and Meaningful Political Engagement

At its core, the main goal of the Existential Citizenship Project—to provide incentive for meaningful and enduring political engagement—is an offshoot of the original project of Friedrich Nietzsche to overcome nihilism. Thus, in many ways, to understand the aims of Nietzsche is to understand the aims of the Existential Citizens Project, and vice versa. That said, as will be demonstrated in this post and others, the Existential Citizenship Project also significantly modifies and extends the ideas of Nietzsche, in particular by substantially expanding the scope of their application well beyond what he foresaw or intended.

Again, the original project of Nietzsche was to identify the causes of the creeping nihilism of his time, as the debilitating belief that meaningful action is pointless or impossible in this world, and to explain how this nihilism can be overcome. Likewise, the goals of the Existential Citizenship Project are to also identify the causes of the apathy, pessimism, and nihilism which characterize so much of the political engagement, or lack thereof, of our politics today, and to also provide guidance for how this malaise can be overcome. So far, so good, with this narrowing of focus to just political engagement seeming to be the only difference.

However, these recommendations from Nietzsche famously focus on the promotion of a radical aristocratic hyperindividualism as a counterbalance to the spread of this nihilism, which he saw as infecting the majority of people through their uncritical acceptance of prevailing values and beliefs. Such an elitist and highly individualistic emphasis seem fundamentally at odds with the purpose of the Existential Citizenship Project to promote the widespread engagement of ordinary people with day-to-day politics. This post and subsequent posts will begin to show how the Existential Citizenship Project actually reconciles this hyperindividualism of Nietzsche with a decidedly communitarian concept of political engagement to produce a new kind of citizen, but also how this new conception of citizenship would not be possible without the prescient insights of Nietzsche into the nihilism of his time, or without his highly original and provocative recommendations for the overcoming of this nihilism.

Nietzsche and nihilism

To begin, on the one hand, most intellectual and political leaders of Nietzsche’s time were announcing contemporary European culture and civilization as the crowning achievement of history, and even Europeans themselves as the culmination of biological evolution, owing in large part to the success of the Enlightenment project in realizing the highest ideals and moral values through rationality and optimism. In contrast, Nietzsche saw instead a fatally sick culture that was in decline because of these same ideals and values, but also in denial and unable to recognize its own sickness.

For example, as Nietzsche describes of himself in the preface of one of the last collections of his writings:

What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism. This history can be related even now; for necessity itself is at work here. This future speaks even now in a hundred signs, this destiny announces itself everywhere; for this music of the future all ears are cocked even now. For some time now, our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect.[1]

Gloomy passages like this one are why Nietzsche is all too often perceived as a proponent of this nihilism he foresaw. However, the bulk of his writings, and the main thrust of his entire philosophical project, show the opposite: That while Nietzsche may have been a prophet of this nihilism, he was also its most pointed and vocal critic.

Hope as a cause of nihilism

In particular, Nietzsche diagnosed this nihilism as the product of the inability of these prevailing Enlightenment values based on rationalism and empiricism[2] and optimism[3] to provide the ultimate meaning for life that humans need.[4] In other words, while these values may have been instrumentally effective in fostering the increasing identification of causes and effects (i.e., in effectively promoting a scientific orientation towards the world), this identification of causes and their effects does not of itself provide any greater objective meaning for the world—rather, it removes such meaning from the world without replacing it with anything else.[5] Because humans have an innate need for meaning beyond basic cause-and-effect, the inevitable result of this demystification of the world, according to Nietzsche, is nihilism as a loss of meaning or motivation.

A history of this valuation of rationality and of its inherent shortcomings will have to wait, but a previous post traces the history of our uniquely modern conception of hope via the transformations over time of the myth of Pandora, and of the perverse role of this conception of hope in actually engendering the apathy and cynicism that characterize so much of our contemporary politics. As such, it bears noting that Nietzsche also identifies this uniquely modern conception of hope as a primary cause of the creeping nihilism in modern Western society, and also invokes the Pandora myth we have inherited from the ancient Greeks to help explain why this is such a problem.

For example, in his book Human All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, first published in 1878, in the section Nietzsche titles a “History of the Moral Feelings,” he provides an aphoristic account of different aspects of the moral feelings which have guided humankind to its present state. Of these moral feelings, Nietzsche describes hope, but does so in the way the ancient Greeks saw it, in contrast to the way we moderns see it. This is an important point for Nietzsche because these contrasts reveal substantial differences in worldview, with direct implications for the emergence of the nihilism Nietzsche describes of the Europe of his time. This is also an important point for the Existential Citizenship Project because what Nietzsche indicates about hope here also pertains to the apathy and nihilism of our contemporary politics, for which the Existential Citizenship Project provides the remedy:

HOPE. Pandora brought the box of ills and opened it. It was the gift of the gods to men, outwardly a beautiful and seductive gift, and called the Casket of Happiness. Out of it flew all the evils, living winged creatures, thence they now circulate and do men injury day and night. One single evil had not yet escaped from the box, and by the will of Zeus Pandora closed the lid and it remained within. Now for ever man has the casket of happiness in his house and thinks he holds a great treasure; it is at his disposal, he stretches out his hand for it whenever he desires; for he does not know the box which Pandora brought was the casket of evil, and he believes the ill which remains within to be the greatest blessing, it is hope. Zeus did not wish man, however much he might be tormented by the other evils, to fling away his life, but to go on letting himself be tormented again and again. Therefore he gives Man hope—in reality it is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of Man.[6]

We moderns see hope as an obvious good, as a palliative for the evils and other misfortunes which occur in the world through the expectation of better things. In contrast, as Nietzsche describes here and I describe in more detail elsewhere, the ancient Greeks—at least before their own descent into nihilism—instead saw hope as the worst of all the evils, precisely because of the way it focuses our minds not on our present, actual circumstances but on the expectation of a better future which may or may not happen when or the way we want.

In other words, the ‘evil’ of hope conceived in our uniquely modern way is that the more our expectations of a better future go unfulfilled, especially in dire circumstances, the more likely we are to see our needs and desires (i.e., our values) as not conducive with or realizable in this world, which is nihilism. In contrast, the Greeks of this era, whom Nietzsche calls “the best turned out, most beautiful, most envied type of humanity to date,”[7] avoided a nihilistic worldview for as long as they did by embracing a tragic view of life as beautiful even without ultimate meaning, and in choosing to confront this world as it is. That even these “cheerful” Greeks eventually succumbed to decadence and nihilism was for Nietzsche an important lesson both in understanding how such a thing could happen and how it could be avoided.[8]

Tragedy and the loss of heroism

It also bears remembering at this point that Nietzsche was originally a philologist, or what we would now call a comparative linguist, but which during his time also involved extensive study of the classics, with a special focus on ancient Greece. As such, he was deeply familiar with the language, history, and the culture of the ancient Greeks. This familiarity is in part why he so often used them as a template for his critiques of his own time, including his identification of hope as not only an evil, but the greatest of the evils, and of the deleterious effects which have resulted from the modern exaltation of hope.

For example, in his first book, Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (changed by Nietzsche to Birth of Tragedy, or Hellenism and Pessimism in later editions), Nietzsche describes early Athenian drama, in which a robed and masked chorus enacts a pageant on stage, as an analgesic the ancient Greeks developed to confront and transcend the ultimate meaninglessness of the universe—the awareness of which was the tragedy of this life for the Greeks.[9] “With this chorus,” Nietzsche writes:

The deep-minded Hellene, who is so singularly qualified for the most delicate and severe suffering, consoles himself—he who has glanced with piercing eye into the very heart of the terrible destructive processes of so-called universal history, as also into the cruelty of nature, and is in danger of longing for a Buddhistic negation of the will. Art saves him, and through art life saves him—for herself.[10]

In particular, this consolation from the tragedy of existence came from the ritualistic participation of the audience in the dramatic spectacle. The combination of the themes of the tragedy, the rhythmic voice of the chorus, and the identification of the audience with the chorus produced an ecstatic feeling of unity that Nietzsche called ‘Dionysian’ (for the god of wine, fertility, theater, and epiphany):

For we must know that in the rapture of the Dionysian state, with its annihilation of the ordinary bounds and limits of existence, there is a lethargic element, wherein all personal experiences of the past are submerged. It is by this gulf of oblivion that the everyday world and the world of Dionysian reality are separated from each other.[11]

However, Nietzsche also goes on to describe how this emancipatory aspect of Greek drama was lost with the introduction of episodic narrative into Greek drama, which emphasized coherence, realism, and resolution over enigmatic profundity.[12] This turn to a much more structured narrative form of drama is now lauded as a pivotal innovation in the evolution of early modernist culture. For Nietzsche, though, this change in the dramatic ethos mirrored the more widespread movement of Greek culture away from the heroic affirmation of life as beautiful in spite of its ultimately tragic nature, and towards the Socratic rationality and optimism which were to go on to constitute such fundamental aspects of Western thought and science.[13]

According to Nietzsche, the move away from this communal celebration of the tragedy of this world reflected the collective loss of nerve of Athenian society, resulting in a nihilism-fueled decadence which sapped the moral and physical strength of the Athenians, thereby precipitating the subsequent decline and eclipse of their civilization.[14] Nietzsche identifies this same dynamic in the trajectory of European culture, culminating in its own inevitable decline into pessimism and nihilism.[15] This is also the same relation between hope and nihilism that I identify in contemporary American politics.

Nietzsche, nihilism, and existential citizenship

However, as mentioned before, what is extremely important for our present purposes is that, for all his bad reputation, Nietzsche is not just a disgruntled critic or a pessimistic nihilist. Instead, he goes on to provide a positive prescription to counteract this inexorable malaise in his overarching project of what he calls the revaluation of values. The remedies for nihilism that Nietzsche proposes via this project are not just esoteric philosophic doctrines, but practical principles for action meant to be applied and tested to real life.

This is why the project of Nietzsche has such direct relevance to our politics today via a new existentialist conception of citizenship. How this Nietzschean revaluation of values can be applied today to inspire both meaningful and enduring political engagement, even in the face of the failure and defeat of deeply personal political projects, will be the focus of subsequent posts.

What do you think? Is hope a toxic influence in politics? Can tragedy be a legitimate basis for meaningful and enduring political engagement? Leave me a comment and let me know what you think about this post or about the Existential Citizenship Project.

[1] Will to Power, Preface, 2.

[2] As the belief that certain truths exist, and that human reason and experience are the chief sources of knowledge of those truths.

[3] As the belief that these truths will be evidence of an underlying beneficial order of the universe—as enforced by a deity or not—that is ultimately discoverable by human reason and experience.

[4] Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I 15.

[5] Birth of Tragedy, “Attempt at a Self-Criticism,” section 1.

[6] Human All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Book 1, 71.

[7] BT, “Attempt at a Self-Criticism,” section 1.

[8] Ibid.

[9] BT, “Attempt at a Self-Criticism,” section 4; BT 1.

[10] BT, 7.

[11] Ibid.

[12] BT, 11.

[13] BT, 17-18.

[14] “Attempt at a Self-Criticism,” section 4, in Birth of Tragedy

[15] Ibid.; See also Will to Power, chapters 1 (“Nihilism”) and 2 (“Concerning the History of European Nihilism”)

3 thoughts on “Hope, Tragedy, and Meaningful Political Engagement

  1. Pingback: Nietzsche and the New Existential Citizen | The Existential Citizen

  2. Pingback: Complexity, Absurdity, and the Problem of Political Control | The Existential Citizen

  3. Pingback: Politics, Thermostats, and Existentialism | The Existential Citizen

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