The Life-affirming Values of the Existential Citizen

What we value determines the focus of our energies and our estimations of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’, and success and failure. In the context of political engagement, which is the focus of the Existential Citizenship Project, whether a person gets involved in politics or not, and which issues or candidates they support or not, obviously depends on the values of that person. Likewise, as the values of a person change, so also will change their political involvement accordingly, as a reflection of these changes in their values.

The source of values

Where do these values come from? This may sound like a question with obvious answers, but it is one of the most profound questions of philosophy. The answer that Friedrich Nietzsche has for this question is that to be human is to be a “valuator,”[1] or to assign significance to things. In other words, assigning values to things is just something that we do as humans, which distinguishes us from other animals. The way that Bernard Reginster describes the nature of this valuing in his book on Nietzsche’s work, “To evaluate is to give color to a world that is, in itself, evaluatively colorless.”[2] As an example of both the need and the function of this impulse to value, consider that the incapacity to assign value to or to perceive the value of things is one sign of clinical depression.[3]

To the degree that Nietzsche is correct about this innate impulse to value suggests a couple of things: First, that there is no escape for us from this innately human impulse to assign or to assume values, and, second, that we are not just reading these values from nature (otherwise, we would not have changes in the values we assign to different things, or have the differences in our perceptions of values that are the very fabric of our political discourse).

However, even if we do have this innate human impulse to assign values to things, this does not yet explain where these values come from. Again, the origins of these values would not be an issue if these values were inherent in the things being valued, or otherwise objective (i.e., given to us from an external source independent of our individual or even collective beliefs). Since they are not, though, if the value of these values is to be accurately assessed, then the origin of these values needs to be established.

If the values of things are neither inherent in the things themselves nor objectively given, the next most likely possibility is that people get their notions of value from the people, institutions, and social milieu around them. At first glance this might seem unobjectionable, necessary, and obviously beneficial, as the sharing of common values seems the glue which holds societies together. However, the uncritical adoption of these conventional values is only beneficial if these common values are in fact the best values for us, in the sense that they will motivate us to achieve the highest or the best outcomes, whatever these might be determined to be.[4]

What if this is not the case? From his many extensive moral histories and genealogies,[5] Nietzsche concludes that these traditional, conventional values are for the most part life-negating, in the sense that they are not realizable in this world (i.e., they require supernatural intervention or another metaphysical world other than this one to be realized), or they explicitly condemn life in this world, or compliance with these values is harmful to life.[6] Nietzsche saw this negation of life by the prevailing values of society as the gasoline on the fire of the pervasive nihilism that was consuming the post-Enlightenment culture of his time for the way these values not only could no longer provide the ultimate meaning they once had, but were also actively removing such meaning from the world.

Luckily, per Nietzsche, this cultural inheritance is not the only source of values: Instead of uncritically accepting the values given us, we can create our own tables of values—if we have the fortitude to do so, that is. Describing how these new values can be created, and who can create them, is a major focus of the project of Nietzsche. Likewise, because this core problem of the loss of meaning is still with us, as the product of our conventional values, the Existential Citizenship Project is also premised upon the need for a revaluation of values, with the goal of creating those values which will motivate meaningful and enduring political engagement regardless of the success or failure of our political projects.

Creation of new value

The first step in this creation of values, according to Nietzsche, is to devalue all those conventional values that are hostile to life in this world as it actually is—such as this naïve conception of hope discussed before—which lead to disappointment, withdrawal, and, eventually, nihilism. The next step is to develop or exert the will to create new values that affirm life in this world as it is, even when these values conflict with the most cherished values of society—which they inevitably will.

To create these life-affirming values requires first confronting the world as it is, because otherwise our orientation towards this world becomes one of hostility or detachment.[7] This confrontation comes primarily as the acceptance that life in this world includes suffering, and sometimes great and pointless suffering, as well as the frustration of even our most sincere desires. Because we will always encounter suffering and obstacles in this world, and because so many of our desires will so often go unfulfilled, our fundamental motivation for action (i.e., what we value) cannot be freedom from unease, the fulfillment of our wants, or the completion of our actions according to our desires.[8] If the absence of suffering and the fulfillment of our desires are our ultimate values, what Nietzsche characterizes as “the universal, green-meadow happiness of the herd, together with security, safety, comfort, and alleviation of life for every one,”[9] then the inevitable frustrations of this world will eventually become the invalidation of our most deeply held values. This end state is nihilism, as the belief that these values are simply not realizable in this world, or rather that life and the world do not have an ultimate purpose, or at least not an ultimate purpose that includes the realization of our highest values.[10]

This presents a rather thorny problem, though: If even the desire for the realization of our goals leads to nihilism, what else could be the grounds for our highest values that will still motivate us to action even as we recognize the ultimate arbitrariness and absurdity of life? The answer to this question constitutes one of the central questions of existentialism.

When the goal is not the goal

In other words, the core of the project of Nietzsche—as with most subsequent existentialists—is to find a way to motivate engagement with life while “facing up to the terrors of nature and history,”[11] and without seeking refuge through detachment or withdrawal. Notably, this is the same question that the Existential Citizenship Project provides the answer for, only in regards to political engagement in particular (i.e., what can the grounds for meaningful and enduring political engagement be, even in the face of the arbitrariness and absurdity of politics, and the high likelihood of the frustration and failure of even our deeply personal political projects?)

The answer that Nietzsche provides—and that the Existential Citizenship Project applies to political engagement—is that instead of making the outcome of our actions our highest value, the desire to seek out and overcome resistance must become an end in itself. As Bernard Reginster puts it in his book The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism, the way one does this, according to Nietzsche, is by valuing not only the overcoming of resistance, but by also valuing the resistance to overcoming, as resistance to the temptation for completion.[12]

By this is meant that instead of valuing the results of our actions as our ultimate end, the overcoming of resistance itself must become our ultimate goal—with the corollary that the greater the resistance, the greater the achievement.[13] Only through embracing these kinds of values will we never run out of motivation for action, given that the world as it is supplies constant challenges and disappointments, which then also precludes descending into apathy or the nihilism that robs our lives of meaning. Further, as will be discussed in more detail elsewhere, life-affirming values of this vein also necessarily entail the searching out of ever greater resistances to overcome after each success. The implications of this for meaningful and enduring political engagement will also be discussed in subsequent posts.

The life-affirming values of the existential citizen

The preceding discussion has been primarily about the solution of Nietzsche for the existential crisis of nihilism in general. Such a broad application of existentialism to life itself and to the world are incompatible with the religious or metaphysical beliefs of many to most people, which presumably narrows the scope of the application of these principles. However, as mentioned elsewhere, one of the greatest benefits of the Existential Citizenship Project is that limiting these principles to the domain of politics actually greatly expands their scope of application and their utility to anyone seeking meaningful and enduring political engagement, regardless of religious belief or political ideology.

Reality must be confronted

So how does this prescription by Nietzsche for the creation of new values apply more precisely and exclusively to politics in general, and to specific political actions?

First, it requires the unflinching confrontation of the domain of politics as it is, and not how we might wish or hope it to be. This is the first principle of the Existential Citizenship Project, for without this unblinking assessment of politics, any actions taken will begin with the wrong trajectory, and thus be less likely to hit their mark.[14]

This does not assume a complete or perfect or unchanging understanding of the political system or of the specific policy domain in question. Instead, this means gathering as much information as possible given one’s circumstances, as well as constantly updating this understanding of reality in the face of new information. More will be said about this point in subsequent posts, but this frank confrontation with the realities of the political system is a core principle of the Existential Citizenship Project.

The political system is not only irreducibly complex, but also Absurd

The next stage of the creation of values for meaningful and enduring political engagement—which is the natural product of the first—is the recognition that the political system is both irreducibly complex and Absurd.

As discussed in more detail elsewhere, a good technical definition of complexity is the increasing abstraction of effects from their causes. This increasing distance between effects and their causes does not mean that political causes and their effects can never be identified. This is rather the much more modest claim that the connections between these causes and their effects cannot be consistently or definitively identified, except in trivial or tautological cases (e.g., that the person who wins an election will assume that seat, etc.). There may be consistent regularities and correlations between events, but the conclusive identification of causes for effects will be elusive and always susceptible to being supplanted by new findings.

That said, as the Existential Citizenship Project applies existentialist principles like this exclusively to politics, one can believe that there is a mindful deity guiding the events of this world according to a preordained plan, or that there is at least a benevolent order to the universe, and still accept the empirical evidence—which will be presented in subsequent posts—about the irreducible complexity of the political system.

The Absurdity of politics is similar to complexity in some ways, but also substantially different. As also discussed elsewhere, in existentialism writ large, the Absurd is a technical term for the conflict between our innate human need to find meaning and the ultimate lack of inherent meaning in the universe. The Absurdity of politics is thus not only that causes are so often dissociated from their effects, but that even the identifiable events and outcomes of the political system do not have inherent meaning of their own.

In other words, the only the meaning or value that political occurrences have are the meaning or value that we give to them. Again, this is not to say that things do not happen for (often) identifiable reasons. Rather, this is just to say that the things that do happen do not carry or convey inherent values which we then perceive. Instead, we supply the meaning or significance of these events (this is why people can have such different reactions to the same political events—not because their ‘value-perceiving organs’ are malfunctioning, but simply because they are applying different values).

Existential values for meaningful and enduring political engagement

The third stage for developing meaningful and enduring political engagement that avoids this Venus flytrap of nihilism involves the actual constitution of the values or motivations for one’s political action. This is perhaps the most important step, but it requires passing through the previous two steps to lay its proper foundations.

When people choose to get involved in politics, it is usually because of some specific event or issue or overarching idea, with the goal to obtain a specific outcome—in other words, they hope to achieve some end, and this hope in the future serves as the primary motivation for their actions. Choosing a specific end as the prime motivation for political engagement seems not only natural, but also the only motivation possible. However, as discussed above and elsewhere, this hope-based orientation towards politics is the ground in which nihilism is sown.

The key issue is that because control over outcomes in politics is so diffuse and complicated, the fervor of one’s feelings and the intensity of one’s efforts may or may not result in the realization of the desired outcome. Perversely, the intensity of one’s efforts and fervor for the cause is often directly related to the intensity of the disappointment if that outcome is not realized. In other words, the less one cares, the less the failure to realize a specific political outcome matters; just as the more one cares, the more one is impacted by failure, and therefore the deeper the subsequent apathy or nihilism which are such a concern for the stability and endurance of representative political systems. Thus, resolving this issue about the source of this apathy and nihilism would be a major boon for those concerned with citizen participation and the quality of representative government.

So if hope is not a valid motivation for political engagement, for all the reasons previously discussed, then what are the proper values for meaningful and enduring political engagement? This is where the existential recommendations from Nietzsche provide important clues.

For all the reasons discussed before, the approach most likely to prevent this slide into political apathy and nihilism, while still motivating intense engagement in political struggle, is through the creation of life-affirming values that Nietzsche recommended, only applied to politics in particular. As such, the primary recommendation of the Existential Citizenship Project in regards to the orientation towards the political system most likely to produce not only meaningful but also enduring political engagement regardless of the success or failure of a specific political project is from the point of view of overcoming resistance in the process itself, and, in fact, seeking out ever greater resistances.

This is a much different proposition than the more conventional hope-based approaches to political engagement. As such, exactly what such an orientation would be like is difficult to conceive at this point, but for all the reasons previously discussed, this is likely to be the best approach to politics to both protect against apathy or nihilism, and to motivate meaningful and enduring political engagement regardless of the success or even failure of deeply personal political projects. The elaboration of this kind of novel orientation towards the political system will constitute a substantial aspect of the subsequent development of the Existential Citizenship Project.

What do you think? Is this the right prescription for meaningful and enduring political engagement? Or does it miss something important? Leave me a comment and let me know what you think about this post or about the Existential Citizenship Project.

[1] Thus Spoke Zarathustra I 15.

[2] Reginster, B. (2006). The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism. Harvard University Press, p. 87.

[3] For example, from Psychology Today, “Regardless of the initial causes, depression will not improve without emotional investment in creating and sustaining value…the result of creating and maintaining value is a revitalization of the sense of meaning and purpose that diminishes in depression.” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/anger-in-the-age-entitlement/201106/value-meaning-sadness-and-depression); See also “Valuation of Life as Outcome and Mediator of a Depression Intervention for Older African Americans: The Get Busy Get Better Trial” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5788279/)

[4] An important meta-meta-ethical point here regarding the valuation of values themselves is that the standard for judging values is going to depend on what is assumed to be the highest or best outcome for humans. If the ideal outcome is assumed to be what is best for the collective, then the ‘best’ values will be those which contribute the most to the good of the collective; whereas if the ultimate good is conceived as the fullest realization of the essential natures of individuals, then the ‘best’ values will be those which contribute most to this end (as well as the possibility for all sorts of permutations of these two ends, e.g., that what is best for society is the fullest realization of individuals, etc.).

Regardless, the primary issue is that assessing the value of values itself requires the estimation of values. One significant aspect of the project of Nietzsche, and perhaps his most subtle and elegant work, which unfortunately cannot be elaborated at this point, is his attempt to define an ‘objective’ basis for the valuation of values, while acknowledging that there are no longer any objective bases for valuation. This is where the hyperindividualism of his existential orientation come into play, in that what is objectively most valuable to me is my willing to overcome the resistance to my individual aspirations. Again, Nietzsche proposes a complex yet elegant argument here for the reconciliation of the seemingly contradictory claims of both a loss of objectivity and an objective value, which unfortunately I cannot develop further at this point.

[5] Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (1886); On the Genealogy of Morality (1887); Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer (1888); The Antichrist (1888)

[6] Reginster (2006), pp. 45-47; WP 11-12, 343; BT, Preface 4; Ecce Homo IV 7; TI V 4.

[7] There is another subtle and complicated point here, which I am still in the process of working out, which again involves two seeming contradictions by Nietzsche. While on the one hand he often calls for and praises the honest confrontation with this world, he also often acknowledges the utility and even the need to stop at superficial appearances, for example, in his criticisms of the uncurbed ‘will to Truth’ as another cause of nihilism (WP 3; Gay Science 344) and in his praises of his beloved Greeks: “Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, worlds, in the whole Olympus of appearance. Those Greeks were superficial—out of profundity” (Gay Science, Preface 4).

In the context of the Existential Citizenship Project, I am not sure yet how or even if Nietzsche’s injunction to live by appearances applies to motivating meaningful and enduring political engagement. The frank confrontation of the reality of politics is core principle of the Existential Citizenship Project, as otherwise the temptation is to diverge into a hope-based rationale for political action, which more often than not culminates in apathy, cynicism, or outright nihilism. In his philosophy, Nietzsche reconciles this seeming contradiction through references to beneficial illusions of art (GS 107, 299) as a “will to deception [with] a good conscience” (GM III 25). How or if this fits into the Existential Citizenship Project, I am not sure yet.

[8] “Well-being as you understand it — that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible…” (BGE 225)

[9] BGE 44

[10] Reginster (2006), 27; TI, V 6; Z III 12; GM, III 28; GS 107).

[11] Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Friedrich Nietzsche,” vol. 5, Macmillan, New York, 1967, p. 507.

[12] Reginster, B. (2006). The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism. Harvard University Press, p. 11-12.

[13] TI, V 3

[14] See footnote #7

2 thoughts on “The Life-affirming Values of the Existential Citizen

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

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

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