I am in the process of writing a book. Working title: “The Divine Dilemma: the Story of Why Only Story Matters”.
Friedrich Nietzsche was a prophet. He foreshadowed the great challenges we face today in the West. Though no fan of organised religion, he realised that there was more to it than simply putting Christianity in its place. You can’t use the moral authority of God—be good because that is what he wants—to legitimize laws and a political establishment, then announce that science confirms most of it is delusional and should be junked, only to then have no idea at all on what should replace it. As Sue Prideaux notes in her excellent biography, I Am Dynamite!:
What happens when man cancels the moral code on which he has built the edifice of his civilization? … Given the power to live without religion, man must take responsibility for his own actions. And yet Nietzsche saw his contemporaries remaining content to live in lazy compromise, refusing to examine their own inauthenticity: refusing to swing the hammer at the idols to see if they ring true.
In terms of quality of leadership, little has changed since the 1880s.
Then, perhaps, this is a little unfair. Even Nietzsche himself failed to articulate a solution. Prideaux again:
It is one of Nietzsche’s most frustrating, teasing traits that, true to his aversion to interfering with our freedom of thought, he refuses to show us the path leading to becoming the übermensch; nor, indeed does he tell us what the übermensch is. We know that Nietzsche envisions the übermensch as the strong man of the future, the antidote to the moral and cultural pygmyhood spawned by centuries of European decadence and Church domination. He is the figure who, despite the death of God, does not succumb to scepticism and nihilism; his freedom from belief enhances his life. His freedom from religious belief is equal to his resistance to transferring that belief to science. The übermensch does not need beliefs for a feeling of a stable world.
How does the übermensch attain this state? Nietzsche never tells us. The nearest he comes to description is invariably broad and infuriatingly abstract. In Ecco Homo, the übermensch is described as being cut from wood that is simultaneously hard, gentle and fragrant. He works out how to repair damage, he uses mishaps to advantage and he knows how to forget. He is strong enough that everything turns out for the best for him and whatever doesn’t kill him makes him stronger. In Human, All Too Human he is described as knowing himself a traveller to a destination that does not exist. But this does not blight his life; on the contrary, his liberation lies in taking pleasure in uncertainty and in transience.
Typically, Nietzsche inspires us to higher things in these passages, without laying down laws. Nietzsche, who liked to describe himself as the Argonaut of the spirit, as well as the philosopher of ‘perhaps’, identifies no specific problem of the human condition to solve, but his broad description of the übermensch encourages us each towards our own independent solution.
And here we have the crux of it. There is no applicable-to-all solution, only an individual one. We have to figure life out for ourselves. Yet human beings are social animals equipped with unique and shared problem-solving capacities. We are therefore teased and infuriated because it doesn’t make any sense for us to possess reason and language, yet not be able to employ them to answer the most pressing questions.
There is, however, a way around this. Perhaps the ultimate purpose of reason is not to solve all the big questions. Perhaps the higher purpose of language is not to provide a formula for the übermensch. Perhaps their real purpose is to account for why they are useless in such matters.
Nietzsche rightly avoided offering an answer, but there could be an answer to be found in a more general story. That is, the story of why no answer can be provided. I believe this satirical line of question can bear fruit.
Here are a couple of older excerpts from Chapter One (work has progressed since then, but it gives a sense of things):
This article here also explores some of the key themes of the book.
Any publishers out there: I’m keen to discuss my project. I think the time is right for The Divine Dilemma. Email me for a detailed overview.