"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Being Human–Compassion or Individualism?

Friedrich Nietzsche was famous for his view that the only validation of life was the expression of will; and that rising above the herd and beyond good and evil was the supreme form of human enterprise.

Nietzsche has been kept at arm’s length by many who suggest that he is an apologist for the arrogation and misuse of power.  There would be no Hitler without Nietzsche say his harshest critics, and The Triumph of the Will is nothing if not a celebration of the Aryan Superman.  Whether or not Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or Kim Il Sung kept Thus Spake Zarathustra on the night stand is beside the point. The celebration of will need not be destructive.  On the contrary, if his philosophy glorified anything, it was the unique, powerful, and boundless energy, spirit, and resources of each individual human being. 

This idea of the celebration of individual will has been around for a long time.  Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were unashamed proponents of the idea.  Shakespeare’s greatest characters were Nietzschean villains – Iago, Richard III, Goneril and Regan, Tamora, Dionyza, and many others.  Tamburlaine the Great was Marlowe’s paean to the unleashed power of the individual.  Ibsen and Strindberg especially were influenced by Nietzsche, but also Eugene O’Neill.

Even Tolstoy who dismissed the Great Man theory of history and argued throughout War and Peace that Napoleon was responsible neither for his successes or failures, conditioned as they were by the millions of random events of history, large and small, which affect any momentary decision.  As importantly, Napoleon’s orders had only a marginal effect on the thousands of soldiers nominally under his command who fought less according to his grand strategy than according to their own histories, fears, and desires.

Nevertheless, Tolstoy admitted that it is part of human nature to want to overreach, to defy accepted norms, and to – if only for a moment – throw off the chains of convention and propriety. In this passage Pierre Bezukhov reflects on his own inability to act heroically and courageously.  He wants to assassinate Napoleon but he is beset by doubts. Nevertheless he decides to act first because of “a feeling of the necessity of sacrifice and suffering in view of the common calamity”; but his second reason was as important if not more so:
The other was that vague and quite Russian feeling of contempt for everything conventional, artificial, and human- for everything the majority of men regard as the greatest good in the world. Pierre had first experienced this strange and fascinating feeling at the Sloboda Palace, when he had suddenly felt that wealth, power, and life- all that men so painstakingly acquire and guard- if it has any worth has so only by reason the joy with which it can all be renounced.
It was the feeling that induces a volunteer recruit to spend his last penny on drink, and a drunken man to smash mirrors or glasses for no apparent reason and knowing that it will cost him all the money he possesses: the feeling which causes a man to perform actions which from an ordinary point of view are insane, to test, as it were, his personal power and strength, affirming the existence of a higher, nonhuman criterion of life.
It is not only Napoleon or leaders with great power who feel the need to overreach and to express their potency, but the common man as well.  For most of our lives we trample the prairie with the rest of the herd, moving this way and that as an animal collective following its instincts and with not even a glimmer of choice or individual will.

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Nietzsche, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Tolstoy understood both the herd and the individual.  Tolstoy in fact felt that the mass of the army – that aggregation of soldiers conscripted into a war of almost certain death – had a collective will.  It turned and ran after Austerlitz but stood firm at Borodino.  Napoleon’s army ceased to be an army when it became a band of marauders who pillaged Moscow.  A few looters turned into to hundreds, and soon the whole army had lost its discipline, obedience to the Emperor, and any sense of moral propriety.  It became a herd.

Despite Tolstoy’s determinism, he did not dismiss Napoleon as irrelevant. While Tolstoy understood that the Emperor’s actions were conditioned by thousands of random actions of grooms and kings, he still recognized the force of his personality, character and will.   It might have been fortuitous that the banging billiard balls of history produced a Napoleon, but he was an alluring, irresistible character nonetheless. He had overarching ambitions – he wanted to unify all of Europe and Russia into one peaceful union. Like the Romans before him, he wanted to pacify the last of the rebellious tribes – the Russians.  Of course he wanted to be the Emperor of this new world empire, but his ambitions were at least more sane than many powerful leaders to follow.

It is not hard to sympathize with the Russian soldier who wants to act recklessly and with abandon.  Who among us has not chafed at the bit, reined in by the controlling forces of church, state, and society?

Ibsen’s plays – especially Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder, and Rosmersholm – were celebrations of the individual will.  All of his major characters felt constrained by the past, family, religion, or social propriety; and understood that the only real validation of their lives was to finally reject accepted norms and finally realize their own power and potential.

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Without a doubt Hedda, Rebekka, and Hilde are destructive because the achievement of their ambitions is a matter of personal, vital, validation of themselves.  Nothing can stand in their way.  The expression of will is as important as the ends that result.  Iago, Richard, Goneril, Edmund, and Regan are far more destructive and menacing.

None of these playwrights are honoring the destructive results of the expression of will; but simply acknowledge the innate, absolute, and persistent urge for individual supremacy.  “Don’t run with the herd”, they all say.

Tolstoy is very eloquent about death and dying – perhaps more so than any other writer.  His descriptions of Prince Andrei’s epiphany on the battlefield of Austerlitz and especially his long musings before his death at home from injuries suffered at Borodino are insightful and moving.  His short story The Death of Ivan Ilyich is chilling, frightening, and insightful. We all die alone, Tolstoy says.  In the final reckoning, no matter how hard we resist, we must let Death through the door.  Our struggle to understand what that is and what it means and what our life has led is ours and ours alone.

It is understandable, then, that a philosophy of individual will has such currency.  Not only does the expression of will validate the human experience in a meaningless life, but since we die alone and none of the herd come nuzzling and nosing around to share in a collective death, life and death are nothing is not individual events.

What about compassion, challenges Levin’s wife Kitty in Anna Karenina? She cannot understand her husband’s desire to revolutionize Russian agriculture for his own immediate gains.  She is nonplussed when he replies to her that he is doing everything for himself.  If he makes money, the peasants will gain.  Collateral benefit, he says, not compassion.

The lines have always been drawn in this way.  Whether philosophers or politicians, there are those who believe that the expression of individual will is the only way to spiritual evolution, social progress, and economic productivity; and those who believe exactly the opposite.  Individual will, they say, is the cause of human suffering and must be subjugated to the collective will; and that the people are a group are much more able to shepherd Man to a better world.

History is unequivocal on the argument.  Human nature – aggressive, self-interested, and self-serving – has ruled human events since Man came down out of the trees; and even that was a continuation of the behavior of the monkeys before him. As much as society has tried to rein in what is an ineluctable human nature, it has failed.  Yes, we live in a post-laissez-faire capitalism; but are we any less acquisitive, ambitious, and hungry for power, wealth, and influence?

The individual will always be the centerpiece of human society and the engine for its movement.  Human nature provides the fuel; and the herd provides the brakes.  There will always be a dynamic tension between those who celebrate individual will and those who believe in collective action – those who act and those who try to corral them. If ultimately the Fundamentalists are right and that religion and faith are matters between the individual and God; if Tolstoy is right in that we all die alone; and if Shakespeare is right in chronicling the exuberant expressions of individual will in human enterprise; then the herd has no chance.

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