My "Stairway to Heaven"
One of Hamlet’s most profound questions was “to be or not to be”. Ultimately he chose “to be”, just like you and I. Consciously or unconsciously those who can read this paper have chosen “to be’. This question seems to be so banal that one may say that it is answered in our sub-conscious, thus we hardly ask ourselves: “To be or not to be?” But it seems as if the critical question which follows is often treated with the same ignorance. If one chose to be then, how will one do that? So, “how to be” must follow. “To be” is certainly not enough! “Being” implies a certain way, form or style. One cannot just “be”. One must be in a way or another. Thus, “how to be” is a question whose importance is only secondary to that of living. And it is this question which allows us to reach a “moral ground”.
My personal quest at first was to decipher what German philosophy has to reveal on this subject. What I found was to be a “stairway to heaven”; a short one too. It only has three stairs: Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Yet, one could not get to where Nietzsche got without Kant or Schopenhauer and actually, Nietzsche himself could not have reached his “peak” without the prior two. The fact is, as much as they seem to go against each others philosophies, these three philosophers put together, can shed some light on the concept of morality.
Immanuel Kant, born in the period known as the Age of Enlightenment was a man devoted to reason. Yet, all three philosophers had this spirit of Enlightenment within themselves. I will let Kant define the spirit which has reshaped morality ever since:
“Enlightenment is the release of human beings from their self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is the inability of human beings to make use of their understanding without direction from one another. Self-incurred in this tutelage when its cause lie not in the lack of reason but in the lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! [Dare to know]. ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’ – that is the motto of enlightenment.”
This is the spirit born out of the Age of Enlightenment as a means to discover new truths. Yet, as it will be shown, it seems as if Kant negated this spirit by dictating moral laws and duties.
To begin with, I must admit that there is not enough time or space to go through each of Kant’s arguments or through each of Schopenhauer’s arguments against Kant and so on. As I have earlier stated, this paper will show how each writer corrects and completes each other; not necessarily how their arguments are right or wrong because as you will see, we are beyond right and wrong.
Kant’s ideas must be seen as the basis to this German morality; the spring out of which water began to flow and out of which morality came to life; the root from which strong trees grow. Kant brought the concept of morality to life from the deepest catacombs of Christianity and ever since, it has been growing, changing, shifting and transforming as life naturally does.
This most important basis is our reason. This is where the water starts to flow. And Kant based almost everything on reason and logic. It is true that Kant took every thought to the end; he dissected a thought until dissecting was no longer possible. An example of this in “Lectures on Ethics” is where Kant stated that “morality has either an empirical basis or an intellectual basis”. Kant continued to break-up and define empirical basis into “inner grounds” (which involve feelings) and “outer grounds” (which involve custom, ex: education, government laws). The intellectual basis was also divided and defined into: “internal principles” and “external principles”.
This style of searching, and the logic with it are alone a masterpiece of one’s courage to use reason to understand the question of “how to be’. It is exactly his “questioning” and the taking of every thought a little further which broke the chains of morality (and to be more precise, Christian morality) and ultimately Kant’s own “categorical imperative”. In the “Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals”, Kant states that:
“… there is one imperative which immediately commands a certain conduct without having as its condition any other purpose to be attained by. This imperative is categorical. It is not concerned with the matter of the action and its intended result … let the consequences be what they may. This imperative may be called that of morality.”
Such categorical imperatives are to be found, Kant would state: “completely a priori and free from everything empirical in pure rational concepts only, and are to be found nowhere else even to the slightest extent”. For him “a priori” is implied in experience but it goes beyond experience. And this is precisely where the great problem of metaphysics creeps-up.
With the same spirit of questioning and dissecting, I must say that a priori is a realistic impossibility. What is there beyond experience and how can we extract a categorical imperative (a law) that goes beyond condition, result and everything empirical. Nothing ties to a priori. And ultimately nothing comes of nothing. The concept of a priori is too abstract. If it is beyond experience then, it is foreign to language and if it is apart from language we cannot talk about it and so how can we possibly obey to it? Kant fell into a severe ditch out of which I see no way out. All makes sense, one can understand Kant’s a priori but to rationalize an abstraction and put it into practice is quite impossible. This argument remains in the metaphysical and cannot be brought into life and into practical reality because it simply cannot take shape. It has nothing to base itself on except on a concept similar to itself: “the-thing-in-itself”. Both these concepts (metaphysical) are an example of something that we know of but we cannot pinpoint or define through our three-dimensional perception.
The question now is whether such a thing as a categorical imperative can exist within the sphere of Kant’s philosophy from a different perspective. And I will return to this when I will refer to Schopenhauer’s quest in finding a moral ground, or “how to be”. Kant clearly argues that a categorical imperative is independent of its result. But are we independent of its result? Even when an action is done for the good in itself, free of any foreseeable results and with no inclination other than to perform that action, there is an inner satisfaction. There are many examples. Like the lady who pulled over when she saw me struggling to rip-off my exhaust system on the side of some lost northern Ontario road. I very much doubt she wanted something from me, or that she did it because they told her to do so at church. Instead, she could have been afraid of approaching strangers in literally the middle of nowhere. Or think about you walking alone and giving-off some money to a poor person for the sake of giving some money to him/her or when walking alone you end-up helping an older person with their heavy luggage for no reason at all. These would all be actions of moral worth, done for no other reason than to do them, with no intention, inclination, expectation, or material reward. But there is still a reward in all these actions. There is indeed an inner satisfaction. This feeling is greatly intensified in saving someone’s life. It is a feeling that comes when a deed is morally worthy. It is not an intended result or reward; it does not act as a motive yet, it does exist as a result out of a morally worthy action. Whether Kant liked it or not this feeling exists.
Another general problem with Kant’s logic is that he did not seem to pay attention to linguistics, which is a means by which we understand and express our thoughts and the world around us. When Kant gave us “imperatives”, he implied an authoritarian, an obligatory and urgent connotation to the “categorical imperative”. We can see that Kant really loved moral laws (as a sign of a theological virus within him) and does not have much trust in the individual. This become visible when we see that he wrote: “Neither nature nor the laws determine a free action; and freedom, leaving our actions, as it does, quite undetermined, is a terrible thing. Our actions must be regulated.” But it was not long before, when Kant argued that: “We are forever hearing sermons about what ought to be done from people who do not stop to consider whether what they preach can be done.” So, Kant did not like us to be free of rules but he did not want others to tell us “how to be”, if being that certain way was impossible for us.
If Kant told us of his despise for those who tell us about unrealistic approaches to life then, what would one make of him stating: “It is better to sacrifice one’s life than one’s morality” or” I should endeavor to preserve my life only so far as I am worthy to live.” How practical is this? If one feels depressed and “worthless”, one should kill himself/herself? Do such advices appeal to the general human understanding of morality? Personally, I do not think so.
And to clearly state and show Kant’s rigidness in thinking, one would have to read what he wrote about lies. In short one cannot lie in whatever the circumstances if he/she is believed to be telling the truth. Thus, in the “Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals”, Kant gave an example of a murderer pursuing his victim. If the victim asks to hide in your house and the murderer knocks on the door and asks if the victim is inside, according to Kant, you must answer “Yes”: “To be truthful (honest) in all declarations is, therefore, a sacred and unconditionally commanding law of reason that admits no expediency whatsoever.” I can already feel Schopenhauer turning in his resting place trying to remind us of our human compassion and of how we should see ourselves in others. How could we not lie in order to save a human life?! That is beyond my understanding. Forget rules, logic and reason if they should teach us to look away when someone is about to be murdered just so we can be on moral ground!
The fact that the categorical imperative cannot work as it is defined, or that morality cannot have universal laws based on abstractions is really insignificant to the overall importance of Kantian philosophy. Kant boosted a cycle of thinkers which would change morality over the course of less than two hundred years, more than it had been changed in the last thousand. Kant’s love for questioning and methodologically explaining his reasoning was beyond any other philosophers. Descartes was of the same spirit but his quest never led him even close to Kant’s systematical and surgical approach when questioning life and our existence. Overall, Kant’s contribution on how we should live was a bold one – reason! He told us not to succumb to myths and doctrines. And although he ultimately procured laws and duties for us, he really just showed us how to examine ourselves and to think critically.
To better see the importance of Kant, it is necessary to follow-up with Schopenhauer. In his work titled “On the Basis of Morality”, Schopenhauer dedicated the first seventy-one pages to refuting Kant’s philosophy on morality and only after did he use the following ninety-four pages in introducing his own maxim and grounding for morality. Schopenhauer stated that: “Kantian ethics “must be removed before we pursue a different course.” That is how important Kant’s philosophy was. It stood-out like the Berlin Wall: one must demolish it in order to be able to go further.
Now morality, or our question of “how to be”, takes another turn, moving a little further away from Christian morality though Schopenhauer’s perspective; a pessimistic one too. Yet, his ideas too are based on reason and the spirit of questioning and his style of analysis is very much like Kant’s. It is impossible to think that Schopenhauer would have written “On the Basis of Morality” without Kant’s philosophy in place. In a strange way, it is almost like Kant gave birth to Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer began with Kant; the step he built to this German stairway to heaven was necessarily built on Kant’s step. We can hear Kant’s reasoning echo through Schopenhauer’s systematic analysis. But Schopenhauer did not like abstractions and he wanted a more tangible reality: “… if what is established as the foundation of morality is not to be a mere abstract principle floating in the air without any contact with the world of reality, it must be some fact to be found either in the objective world or in human consciousness.”.
Already the reader can picture another quest of surgical analysis of concepts, examples and possibilities regarding morality, or “how to be”. What is truly significant in Schopenhauer’s work is that he understood the importance of language in our understanding! And this quality is also transferred onto Nietzsche. Schopenhauer wrote that: “… we have moral theology, which will be more and more recognized as that which Kant really had in view.” He continued to argue that words such as “law’, “command” and obligation” really have their origin in theological morals. Yet, the same will be shown with his concept of the basis of morality.
For now I will like to look closer at linguistics and our understanding since Schopenhauer made several good points in regard to that. Kant told us about “laws”, and “duties” which we “ought” to respect. But “ought” is a word which derives its meaning from the threat of “punishment or promised reward”. Here, Schopenhauer quoted Locke to enforce the fact that laws require either “reward or punishment” in order to be effective. And besides the fact that laws do betray a certain reward or punishment, an unconditioned obligation is an oxymoron – a paradox. Also, this “commanding voice” which tells us how we “ought” to be, is actually selfish, according to Schopenhauer and consequently lacking any moral value.
This is where I must introduce Schopenhauer’s idea of “egoism”. For him Kant’s reward becomes a virtue – “the highest good”, and so morality as such is aimed at happiness and is based on selfishness. The explanation is rather clear: an unconditioned absolute obligation does involve a condition (the highest good). Therefore, if a condition exists then, reward or punishment is also present and they reveal an “egotistic transaction”. In such a case there is no visible ‘purely moral’ value.
Thus, if this “ought” or “obligation is necessarily linked to a condition, so is the idea of “duty”. For Schopenhauer, ethics in the imperative form – a “doctrine of duties”, “as the fulfillment or violation of duties … together with the obligation” were extracted from theological morals. And since the “imperative form” comes out of the theological morals Kant, in Schopenhauer’s view developed his morals into a moral theology. Schopenhauer would argue that Kant’s concepts are nothing but “postulates of practical reason”. Another problem arises when one tries to separate “the will of God” from morals based on the imperative form. In this way, words such as “ought”, “thou shalt” or “it is thy duty”, remain unjustified without ‘God’. And here the categorical imperative cannot help either because it has already been shown to be a ‘unicorn’ that cannot yet take shape in our reality.
Although there are contradictions and Schopenhauer promised to do away with Kantian ethics, he ultimately stated that Kant’s success is in the fact that he separated “a priori” from “a posteriori” human knowledge. It was necessary for him to do so because later in his work, he would introduce the concept of “causality” as a priori. But here Schopenhauer stopped to show the impossibility of “a priori” to result in moral laws. For Kant, human consciousness, the external world and all experience are wiped-out as insignificant. So, we are left in the abstract, in an insubstantial land, with few concepts yet, “mere form of their connection with judgments” results in moral laws. Schopenhauer saw no logic in that and compared the categorical imperative to the laws of space, time and causality. For him the three latter terms are indeed a priori because all experience is subdued to them, while the “moral law” is not because it is always questioned by experience.
Ultimately, for Schopenhauer fundamental truths cannot come from abstractions. Only “what is assumed as having a possibly empirical existence, has reality for man”. Therefore, the moral stimulus or the moral motive must indeed be empirical. He wrote that: “Morality is concerned with the actual conduct of man, and not with the a priori building of houses of cards to whose results no man would turn in the storm and stress of life.” Schopenhauer went on to write that such a priori concept, “without real substance and any kind of empirical basis”, can never have any influence over human beings. For him the Kantian school of thought presented the categorical imperative as a “hyperphysical” fact, telling us “not what will, but what ought to happen.”
Closer to the ending of his critique on Kant’s philosophy, Schopenhauer brought in again the problem of linguistics to prove to us that reason cannot be pure and we cannot result from it with any a priori concepts. In German, the word “vernunft” [reason] comes from the word “vernehmen” [to comprehend, to become aware of]. Therefore, reason is a faculty for understanding/comprehending the ‘supersenous’ and ‘comprehension’ is “the condition of language and … of actual feeling.” With that in mind, reason is really the comprehension of reasonable and rational issues between rational beings and even abstract notions “are nevertheless the result of previous intuitive perceptions, and thus of impressions” of an individual.
That is where Schopenhauer explained that consciousness of the “law of causality” precedes all experience. He claimed that intuitive perception is simply the “sensation of the senses’ focused on its cause. Thus, “cause” becomes as an ‘external object” in “space”. So, the law of causality is a priori because “experience itself presupposes intuitive perception”.
This type of meticulous analysis is the most important aspect which Schopenhauer took/learned from Kant. And it is exactly this strength which encourages our spirit of questioning and the need to find truth, good and evil and ultimately the answer to the question of “how to be”. Schopenhauer made many interesting observations in regard to Kant’s philosophy of ethics and morality but I would like to look at his examination of three more of Kant’s abstractions for two reasons: first the reader needs to be clear of the impossibility of abstractions to take form in reality and secondly to be able to move on from a morality based on abstractions (here we can also think of the abstractions presented by the Christian morality, ex: heaven and hell).
The first abstract concept I would like to look at is the ‘end-in-itself’ concept. Schopenhauer argued against this notion of an ‘end-in-itself’ through our understanding of language. An ‘end’ is really a direct motive of an act of will. So, when Kant wrote: “Man and in general every rational being, exist as an end in himself”, he left himself open for the interpretation that man as an ‘end in itself’ is willed. Every end implies a reference to a will and “is a direct motive of it”. Also this abstraction of the ‘end-in-itself’ is contrary to logic for Schopenhauer. He encouraged us to think of what the concept of an ‘end-in-itself’ could mean: “friend in himself, enemy in himself, north or east in itself, above or below in itself” and so on. It simply does not make sense – nothing “in-itself” can make sense or have any significance in our three dimensional perspective.
The second abstraction worth noting is Kant’s “Autonomy of the will”. Kant argued that: “the will of every rational person is universally legislative for all rational beings.” In his view, one ought to will out of duty and detached from interest in order to be on moral ground: “… a universally legislative will should prescribe actions from a sense of duty, actions which are not based on any interest at all”. But Schopenhauer pointed out to us that this also does not make any sense beyond the realm of the metaphysical. What Kant really asked us to do, was to will without a motive. And if there is no motive in our actions Schopenhauer argued, then there is no interest either. From this, Kant’s “Kingdom of ends” may be seen as everyone willing “without willing anything (i.e., without interest).
The last abstraction to observe is that of dignity. Kant claimed that it has “an unconditioned, incomparable value” because it rested on his autonomy (the law made to obey was made by himself). Again, Schopenhauer stopped and analyzed this concept thoroughly. Indeed as he argued, worth or value are terms that define an estimation of one thing in comparison to another and “hence a concept of comparison”. And there is something of great importance in Schopenhauer’s argument concerning value or worth, which he did not stress enough: the fact that worth is relative. This is something which Nietzsche argued on greatly in relation to morality. For now though, the reader should be able to see that: “an incomparable, unconditioned, absolute worth such as dignity is said to be … is… merely a statement in words of a thought that is absolutely unthinkable”. Ultimately Schopenhauer would state that what cannot be conceived as possible or proven as actual, has really no basis for its existence and Kantian ethics therefore lacks foundation.
It would be foolish to think that Schopenhauer somehow annihilated Kant’s arguments. First of all, Kant arguments have a perfect logic when discussed in the metaphysical and in that realm they remain ‘untouchable’. Second of all, Schopenhauer was more than happy to agree on the separation of “a priori” and “a posteriori” because he himself was going to build on that argument. In truth, Schopenhauer corrected Kant’s view, showing that laws, duties and imperatives are not necessarily as they seem to be. From here we must see what he came-up with as a basis of morality in the same inquisitive spirit as that of Kant.
Here, I must start with Schopenhauer quoting the Greeks on ‘good’ and ‘bad’, since morality does consist of good and bad and since I have shown that Kant’s maxims and categorical imperative has several inconsistencies. “By nature there is nothing either good or bad, but human opinion made the difference.” That is a heavy statement to swallow but it shows a little of Schopenhauer’s pessimistic view.
Schopenhauer explained how ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are relative terms in the sense that a wealthy man has more rights than a poor man. Therefore, he is also more ‘righteous’. The right of the stronger supersedes that of the weaker. It is like saying that history is written by the victors. Now, Schopenhauer asked what is “the purely ethical impulse which prevents” the poorer man from taking the wealthier man’s property.
The argument here is that one prohibits themselves from such actions due to fear. “Whoever once steels is all his life a thief” – this is where the fear is for Schopenhauer. One is afraid of becoming an outcast and of not being trusted; it is a fear of consequences. Religious people according to Schopenhauer have dogmas and commandments on their conscience and even with all those, the reality of the world is that “incentives to do good cannot be very powerful.” To see the morality of man one should ‘read criminal narratives and descriptions of the conditions of anarchy”, argued Schopenhauer. Moral differences differ just as intellectual differences do.
By now, it should feel like we’re standing on the second step of German philosophy. The importance of what is “relational” and of how “perspectives” matter in the understanding of morality should also be clear (or clearer). As Schopenhauer urged us, think about what would happen if the State was abolished. What would the world be in terms of morality and the actions of men? Would the categorical imperative keep us safe? But we shall leave these questions and see what happens to morality, to ethics and its foundation.
Schopenhauer wrote that the foundation of ethics has to be arrived at through empiricism in order to see if actions are genuinely morally worthy. The foundation of ethics is therefore the motive which directs actions and the knowledge of it. There is no need for a priori, abstractions or dogmas. Schopenhauer also stated that we need a morality which is not “ridiculed by experience”.
Then, we are taken through ‘antimoral incetives”, “maxims of malice” and so on, to be able to see egoism in people and in most of their actions. Schopenhauer actually quoted Hamlet at one point Saying that: “To be honest as this world goes, is to be one man pick’d out of ten thousand”.
Nonetheless, Schopenhauer argued that there is indeed a moral worth in as long as the doer of an action considers the “weal and woe” of another. The object here is to leave the other man unharmed from the doer’s action and maybe even help the passive person or to assist them. This can be done, according to Schopenhauer if I make the other “the ultimate object of my will … directly desiring his weal and not his woe just as immediately as I ordinarily do only my own”. What this really means is that I identify with the other; I see myself in others.
Thus, the difference between me and others becomes eliminated. “… this is the phenomenon of compassion … independent of all ulterior considerations, primarily in the suffering of another, and thus in the prevention or elimination of it”. For Schopenhauer, compassion is the basis of all voluntary justice and genuine “love-kindness”; only an action from compassion has moral worth. From this it follows that the supreme principle of ethics is: “Injure no one; on the contrary, help everyone as much as you can.”
Schopenhauer also stated that “compassion” is one of the first Chinese virtues and that Hindu commemorative tablets also show compassion as a primary virtue. This is mentioned to counter the Christian morality and to show that “compassion” is popular world-wide as a virtue. Schopenhauer quoted the Greeks in saying that “we must not tear the altar from a temple, or compassion from the human heart.”
There are several points to be made now. The importance of “compassion” and its historical relevance is not as important as the fact that Schopenhauer showed us how good and bad are relative terms. The second most important observation, although somewhat pessimistic, is that to change one’s motives is harder than to change “lead into gold”. Schopenhauer was convinced that to change one’s motive would involve changing a man’s essence (which would mean changing the ‘thing-in-itself’ – impossibility), therefore only a man’s insight could be changed. That is why he wrote that his morality could show the road to the end but he would not go there. It is a massive and gigantic difference between Kant who told us about imperative laws, duties and obligations and who thought of a “kingdom of ends” and Schopenhauer who told us that he can give some advice on how to be on moral ground but ultimately he would and could not force us to follow it.
So, now we know that ‘how to be’ cannot consist in some universal maxims and by now though the examples of Kant and Schopenhauer we can feel a little more comfortable (perhaps) in exploring the boundaries of reason. And exploring we shall do, in an honest attempt at finding out “how to be”. Enter Nietzsche.
If one does not yet clearly see the idea that everything is relative and that depending on one’s perspective, a truth may be a truth or it may not then, Nietzsche can certainly help in understanding that. His writing is heavy with metaphors and it offends everything you have known. But only in such a way can we find new paths and perhaps new answers to our question of morality; only in such a way can we come to the realization that we live as Nietzsche would say ‘in a sea of metaphors’.
And although morality will climb onto another stair, even more significant than the prior one, the method of making that step possible remained the same from Kant to Schopenhauer and to Nietzsche: the questioning and the need to know the truth remained constant. This inner feeling of the need for truth was passed on through these philosophers and it is precisely this spirit which moves our quest forward.
If I earlier stated that Schopenhauer could not have reached to where he was without Kant as a predecessor, well Nietzsche’s philosophy is unthinkable without Kant’s and Schopenhauer’s. Without the prior two stairs to support him, Nietzsche could not have declared that “God is dead”. And again, I must underline that although this statement is extremely important, more important is how Nietzsche got there and his courage to see and express that statement.
If I were simply writing about the different notions of morality and its basis in German philosophy since the Enlightenment, I would just have to summarize Nietzsche’s work “On the Genealogy of Morality”. But I am trying to trace morality through these philosophers’ thoughts and in terms of Nietzsche’s writings “The Gay Science” does a much better job in helping us climb the last stair.
The “Genealogy of Morality” is important in the fact that it may be more clear and straight forward than “The Gay Science”. And Nietzsche actually stated in the “Genealogy of Morality” that in “The Gay Science”, “the aphoristic form causes difficulty: this is because this form is not taken seriously these days. An aphorism … has not been ‘deciphered’ just because it has been read out … for this, an art of interpretation is needed”. The same may be said of life though and with that, of morality. It is simply not enough to see or listen, to understand and to know. In that sense we would never think anything new because we would simply regurgitate what we have been told. And so the fact that one cannot read “The Gay Science” as one would read ‘The Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals” plainly underlines the importance of perspective and interpretation.
“The Gay Science” is really an attempt at liberating us from dogmas, laws and old customs. Perhaps one of the best aphorisms to begin with is number 380: “The wanderer speaks”. Nietzsche wrote about Christian morality and dared us to separate ourselves from it in order to examine it. This is what “leaving town” signifies. And he encourages us to go to ‘some point beyond good and evil”. “To leave town” in the sense of morality would mean to abolish our reverences and to arrive in a neutral zone where one can discern without biases. But Nietzsche also questioned whether we are able to do that. He knew that the Christian doctrines weighted “heavy” on us and slowed us down like prison chains around our ankles.
At this point I would like to go backwards a little to “Our question mark” (aphorism 346). If indeed we do “leave town” in trying to find a new way of “how to be”, or a new morality as Nietzsche would suggest, we are left with quite a dilemma: “Either abolish your reverences or – yourselves! The latter would be nihilism; but would not the former also be –nihilism? – This is our question mark” (my indentation). Indeed the problem is real. If we move away from all we know, from our morality, from good and bad, from what we have been taught and told … what are we left with? How will we be if we remain empty?
If we go back even more to aphorism 287, “Delight in blindness”, we can see the importance Niezsche gave to the “wanderer”. He wrote in the same aphorism: “my thoughts said the wanderer to his shadow, should show me where I stand; but they should not betray to me where I am going. I … do not wish … of tasting promised things ahead of time”. Not wanting to taste promised things is quite an obvious attack on Christianity with all its heavenly and hellishly promises.
Nietzsche’s dissatisfaction with Christianity (and especially institutionalized Christianity) was incommensurable. Perhaps, he remembered of Kant and Schopenhauer before him who dared people to think, to question and to create anew and by looking at the world around him, he still saw Christianity as the basis for morality and for “how to be”. He stated in his first aphorism that “For the present we still live in the age of tragedy the age of moralities and religions.” A few lines before Nietzsche wrote: “Pursue your best desires, and above all perish!”
Now, for sure we can see that this German philosophy in regard to morality was changing quite significantly. In aphorism 57, titled “To the realists”, Nietzsche really tried to awaken us from our old and outdated beliefs when he wrote: “That mountain there! That cloud there! What is “real” in that?” Nothing! We must return to Kant and Schopenhauer who already told us that we cannot know a ‘thing-in-itself’. Here, Nietzsche is slowly taking us further away from all that is known, to show us that nothing is known and everything is invented and given meaning.
Nietzsche’s sadness can be seen whenever he directly spoke of the Christian church (as an institution). In aphorism 108, “New Struggles”, he stated that although “god is dead”, his shadow would remain influencing our morality through its dogmas. Yet, there is also a happy side to the fact that “god is dead”. He told us in aphorism 343, “The Meaning of our cheerfulness”, that “we should be excited and ready to explore the ‘open sea’. Suspicion is necessary because Christianity “as an eclipse of the sun” had clouded our minds and established a Christian European morality.
One of the best aphorisms where Nietzsche can be seen to question all we know, not just morality, is aphorism 110, “Origin of knowledge”. Here he claimed that we continue to inherit “erroneous articles of faith”, such as; “that there are enduring things; that there are equal things; that there are things, substances, bodies; that a thing is what it appears to be; that our will is free; that what is good for me is also good in itself”. That is clearly a mouth-full! Stop and think of poor Kant who thought that there would be universal laws … what a giant step from him to Nietzsche. But in exactly this aphorism that particular spirit of wanting to question and to know is explained by the author. Nietzsche argued that due to the many different “judgments and convictions” an “intellectual fight” was born in some people “and eventually knowledge and the striving for the true found their place as a need among other needs.”
Nietzsche is still inquisitive just like the two previous philosophers covered but he is not as systematic and logical as the other two. The reason for that is that in reality nothing is systematic and Nietzsche saw life as a flux (more on that later). In aphorism 111 he actually claimed that logic was born “out of the illogic”. This makes sense considering that the main presupposition of logic is that things are equal or that there are equal things and Nietzsche already explained that, that is not the case. The way we create logical ideas and the way we arrive at conclusions is actually quite “illogical and unjust” due to the many impulses which are often concealed from us.
With this in mind we must look at the following aphorism titled “Cause and effect”. Nietzsche wrote that what we are used to call an “explanation” is simply just “description”. He gave the example of throwing a ball into the air. The fact that it drops back down is only a description of what happened. What we describe as “what happened” might prove nothing about what happened to the actual ‘thing-in-itself’. Indeed, we do turn everything in this world to our image, to understand it and give it meaning. Just like one would need a translator if one wanted to read in a foreign language, so is the world foreign to us and we give it meaning to understand it. Yet, as Nietzsche stated, a “free” man would realize that the notion of “cause and effect’ is simply another notion. With that in mind one should also be able to see that reality is just a flux and thus, “deny all conditionality”.
In aphorism 124 – “In the horizon of the infinite”, Nietzsche told us that our quest is on its way and that “we have burned our bridges behind us”. We are now in the “infinite’ and although one might feel “homesick’ (for the security and safety provided by the Christian morality) or afraid, “there is no longer any ‘land’.” That is what we must grasp! Nothing is stable or concrete, all is relative and the only certainty is uncertainty and freedom. If we are still unclear, we can return to aphorism 112 – “Cause and effect”, where he basically explained to us how “explanations” have no meaning. Therefore, there are no laws, no imperatives and no fixed morality. In aphorism 297 – “The ability to contradict”, Nietzsche wrote that ‘the attainment of a good conscience” is the ability to question customs, traditions and routines of oneself. That is for him the way to a “liberated’ spirit”.
Aphorism 295 – “Brief habits”, only strengthens the above statement. Here Nietzsche talked about moral habits. He praised “brief habits” because it reinforces his idea of a flux in life and it also kept a check on dogmas (the “enduring habits’ which have permanent immunity). Also, “Brief habits” allowed for an escape from doctrines (enduring habits). So, Nietzsche was really telling us that there are no constant truths or morals and that we should not obey to such dogmatic principles.
“Looking back” is another significant aphorism in relation to what is true. Nietzsche wrote that “the true pathos of every period of our life rarely becomes clear to us as long as we live in this period”. To return to what he told us in aphorism 307 – “In favor of criticism” and see that truth may indeed become an error, is critical. There he stated that when an opinion is no longer appropriate, it is because we no longer need it and not because it somehow became unreasonable. Thus, when a “prior truth” is no longer needed, a new one emerges. All throughout “The Gay Science”, Nietzsche encouraged us to realize that “truth” is only ‘truth” in the present and in the way we see it.
Regarding Schopenhauer’s basis for morality, ‘compassion’ (or pity as Nietzsche called it), one must see that it is sometimes detrimental, especially for those whom are pitied. Aphorism 338 helps to understand this. To begin with, Nietzsche would argue that one must realize that our most profound and deep suffering is ‘incomprehensible” to others; that there is a necessity in pain (aphorism 318 – “Wisdom in pain”, explains this claim in greater detail) and so therefore, why pity? Nietzsche stated correctly that there is no need for pity when “the path to one’s own heaven leads though the voluptuousness of one’s own hell”. Here the religion of pity is seen as the religion of comfortableness through which the ‘free-spirit’ is imprisoned and his ship drops anchor. Nietzsche’s advice is to “live in seclusion so that you can live for yourself. Live in ignorance about what seems most important to your age. Between yourself and today lay the skin of at least three centuries”. ‘Share not suffering but joy” is Nietzsche’s advice and with that you can “become the person who you are”.
Although I would very much like to go through more aphorisms of this book, I really should stop (my fingers are hurting at the moment, from typing). These aphorisms tie-in and support each other, just as our three philosophers grow: one out of the other. But Nietzsche does not simply leave us on the open sea, without sight of land, or in complete uncertainty therefore I will follow with three more aphorisms to sustain my claim here. This is actually necessary in order to see what Nietzsche told us in relation to “how to be’, since he demolished all prior examples.
I will look at aphorisms 319, 321 and 324 to see how we can perhaps see through Nietzsche’s perspective. In 319 - “As interpreters of our experiences”, Nietzsche raised questions to encourage us to look “beyond good and evil” in a way in which we can ultimately not only question the morality of the day but fancy one of our own. So, we are told to go against the thinking of our founders of religions who never asked questions in order to observe themselves. Nietzsche ridiculed them because “they ‘experience’ miracles and ‘rebirths’ and hear voices of little angels!” We, the heroic type, the ‘free-spirits’, “who thirst after reason” (here it is almost as if we hear an echo of Kant two hundred years later) scrutinizing ourselves “as a scientific experiment”. That is the experiment which we must follow!
Yet, Nietzsche had a “New caution” for us, in aphorism 321 with the same title. In his view, our morality should prohibit from “punishing, reproaching, and improving others!” Those are characteristics of a forceful doctrine and as Nietzsche already told us, he is not one fond of preaching and restricting the individual. Rather “look” away than “become darker ourselves”.
Lastly, I would like to underline that Nietzsche was not a nihilist. From him we should really see life as truer and richer. As he said in aphorism 324 - “In media vita”, life should be ‘an experiment for the seeker of knowledge” – “Life as a means to knowledge.” And without a doubt, from now on, morality will be destroyed by the will to truth’s becoming conscious of itself: that great drama in a hundred acts reserved for Europe in the next two centuries, the most terrible, most dubious drama but perhaps also one most rich in hope …” (“Genealogy of Morality”).
Our interpretation of morality can grow from Kant through Schopenhauer and ultimately through Nietzsche. These three philosophers do create a ‘stairway to heaven’ comprised of three stairs, in the sense that they can help us create our own morality and our own way of ‘how to be” and perhaps “how to be happy with ourselves”. Kant introduced duties and complex laws to morality but as Montaigne once wrote: “The most laws are the ones that are rarest … and I even think that it would be better to have none at all than to have them in such great numbers as we have”. Schopenhauer did not have a great problem with laws but he did show us that abstract laws cannot work in the way we perceive our reality now and he also underlined the importance of language in our understanding. Yet, he was not careful enough and fell in his own trap by promoting “compassion” to an extreme, which had a great Christian resonance to it.
Nietzsche as the last of the three saw everything in a much broader view and he was clear in stating that: “I do not wish to promote any morality”. The necessity for him was in everyone creating their own morality; for people to question how they are, how they think and to become who they really are; not to be how others want them to be. All in all, this is my ‘stairway to heaven’ because it helped me in understanding my own self a little better; it lead to a more open horizon where exploring and searching for knowledge is itself the truth and the foundation of “how to be”.