Sunday, July 09, 2017

Empathic Rationalism and Its Discontents

We all want our philosophies to be “cool.”  Unfortunately, I’m afraid, some of us don’t measure up in that regard.  Take Empathic Rationalism.  It may be “sensible,” but cool it’s not.   To qualify for that label, you need a counter-cultural element, something rebellious.  And what can be less counter-cultural or rebellious than rationalism and empathy?  At least to the thinking person, they both sound as innocuous as peace, love and apple pie.

Fortunately, Empathic Rationalists don’t have to be prisoners of conformity or “conventional” wisdom.   Our charge is to honor the voice of reason and the face of the “other.”  But there is nothing in that charge about closing our minds to the teachings of rebels, accepting societal values slavishly, or deciding that seemingly inexorable trends are necessarily positive ones.  Just consider, for example, the classic status-quo worshiper: the guy who places his trust in the ability of free market economics to solve all environmental threats, or the principles that the arc of history bends toward justice and the fruits of science bend toward progress, or the idea that consumerist values are more benign than not, or the notion that the human survival instinct will always make even the most advanced weapons technology controllable and ultimately docile.  Do you find such a person “rational”?  Or are we simply talking about a modern day Pollyanna?    

Empathic Rationalism merely prescribes the faculties we must consult in reaching our ultimate goals.  As for what those goals are, that is left up to the individual mind and heart.  And as for the means that we use in accessing the voice of reason or in seeking out the face of the “other,” that also is left open to the individual.   This is why it is one thing to say “Empathic Rationalism” champions love, but only some of its followers champion “tough love.” This philosophy is deeply libertarian in the sense that it recognizes the importance of individual freedom and the danger of imposing too many iron-clad rules.   That is why, periodically, it is important for the Empathic Rationalist to wade into the waters of that most provocative disciple of freedom who ever put pen to paper.  I’m talking about the crazy syphilitic from Leipzig, who stopped writing only when his insanity overwhelmed his genius, but whose total madness at the end of 1888 eerily announced the birth of an even more insane German the next year.  The latter is the man who came universally to epitomize a word that the crazy syphilitic frequently discussed in laudatory terms.  That word is evil.  This “more insane” German is Adolf Hitler.  And the disciple of freedom/literary genius/crazy syphilitic is Friedrich Nietzsche.  

Nobody has ever described his philosophy in less “Empathic Rationalist” terms than did Nietzsche, and yet I will always recommend his works to any kindred spirit.  For he is our antithesis, and if we wish to attain our potential as Empathic Rationalists, we must not ignore him.  Rather, we must contemplate what he has to offer and seek a synthesis that incorporates the wisdom he teaches while recognizing that his philosophy could be as dangerous and wrong as it could be profound and right. 
Personally, I’ve loved Nietzsche ever since college, when I was directed to read him by a philosophy professor.  More than any other author known to me, Nietzsche was “cool.”  He dared call bullshit on “civilized society,” which every adolescent viscerally knows is largely full of it.  It was in reading Nietzsche that I felt most at peace because he was telling me in the strongest possible terms that it was OK, indeed commanded, to feel alienated from modern culture.  Marx, who I also read as a collegian, made vaguely similar arguments, but Nietzsche’s hit home so much better.  He would point out the hypocrisy in religion, the stench of consumerism and pseudo-intellectuality ... in short, the cankers in culture.  Nietzsche appealed to my sense that what is “highest” is actually lowest, and what is “lowest” is pointing the way to the highest – a path that has hardly been traveled but that is up to us, the “free-thinkers,” to create. 

Nietzsche was like a muse to me.  He made me want to create – with words, with thoughts, even with deeds.  It’s not surprising that when I became a ba’al teshuva (aka a born-again religious Jew) in the year after graduating from college, I was in Israel, listening to the lectures of Orthodox rabbis while also secretly reading Nietzsche books.  I couldn’t allow myself to make a decision as fateful as becoming religious without also consulting the works of my “Antichrist,” who once wrote a book with that name.  I knew that Nietzsche had stumbled upon the truth.  Not the whole truth by any stretch of the imagination, but a significant part of it – and especially the part that you’re least likely to hear from your grade school teachers, your parents, or your rabbis.

My relationship with Nietzsche deepened in of all places, Harvard Law School.  Surely, Nietzsche would have viewed that place as rotten to the core.  But well outside the institution’s core was a mischievous, tenured law professor named Richard Parker.  Known as a constitutional law scholar, Parker taught a class called “Ideology and Legitimization in Constitutional Law” and many of the most rebellious (Nietzschean) students were enrolled.  At the very beginning of the first day of class, Parker said, “Alright.  You have three choices for this class, and we’re going to take a vote.  Choice One is that we talk about ideology and legitimization in constitutional law.  Choice Two is that we talk about ideology and legitimization, but not necessarily confined to constitutional law.  And Choice Three is that we talk about whatever the fuck we want.  OK, raise your hand if you want Choice One ....”   Needless to say (a) the vote was unanimous; and (b) Parker is almost as cool as Nietzsche.   My entire grade in the class was based on my presentation, which if you can’t tell by now entirely dealt with Nietzsche and had nothing remotely to do with the law.  In preparation for the presentation, I read every book the crazy syphilitic wrote.  And yes, I got an “A” for the class.  :)

Years later, I decided to do another presentation about Nietzsche.  This time it was written for the Washington Spinoza Society at a time when we were meeting in the auditorium of the Washington Goethe Institute.  (That wonderful place gave us free access to their auditorium for a number of years based on the idea that if Goethe were alive today and living in Washington DC, the first thing he’d do is create a society devoted to his favorite philosopher, the man who Nietzsche called his own “twin” – Spinoza.)  I wrote a play entitled “Spinoza and Nietzsche: the Meeting,” which you can find on my website or just by googling that name.  What I remember most about the play had nothing to do with its content.  Our society met every month, and I decided to surprise everyone by growing as thick a mustache as I could between the previous session and the session where we put on the play.  My friend Jay Bratt played the role of Spinoza.  I played the role of Nietzsche.  And believe me, I was far more proud of the mustache than the play.    

Moving ahead to the present, I’m back to reading Nietzsche again – “Thus Spake Zarathustra” to be precise – in preparation for a vacation study group.  I have to say that the older I get, the crazier he gets.  But I still love his writing to death.  I had forgotten just how many times in that book he uses the word “good” to mean “bad” and how even the most “empathic rationalist” of values come across as decadent when Nietzsche has an opportunity to dissect them.

I felt especially compelled to write about Nietzsche in this Blog after reading the chapter of Zarathustra entitled “Of the Compassionate” (which sounds a lot like “Of the Empathic”).   That is the chapter with such gems as:

“Beggars ... should be entirely abolished!  Truly, it is annoying to give to them and annoying not to give to them.  And likewise sinners and bad consciences!  Believe me, my friends: stings of conscience teach one to sting.  But worst of all are petty thoughts.  Truly, better even to have done wickedly than to have thought pettily!”

“But if you have a suffering friend, be a resting-place for his suffering, but a resting-place like a hard bed, a camp-bed thus you will serve him best.  And should your friend do you a wrong, then say, ‘I forgive you what you did to me; but that you did it to yourself – how could I forgive that?”

“Thus spoke the Devil to me once: ‘Even God has his Hell: it is his love for man.’  And I lately heard him say these words: ‘God is dead; God has died of his pity for man.”

“’I offer myself to my love, and my neighbor as myself’ – this is the language of all creators.”

“Of the Compassionate” is less than 1/100th of Thus Spake Zarathustra, and yet it has produced all of those memorable tidbits. That’s hardly atypical of Nietzsche’s works, which are chocked full of some of the most provocative and insightful writing our species has ever produced. 

Do yourself a favor: sometime this summer, when you’re either getting bored or feeling playful, or just want to understand whether there is something naughty that is actually nice, pick up a Nietzsche book and read.  But don’t just read – think!   God forbid you will mindlessly wind your way through his delicious filth and thereby verify his statement (also in Zarathustra), “That everyone can learn to read will ruin in the long run not only writing but thinking too.”  I wonder what Nietzsche’s “twin,” Spinoza – the supreme democrat – would have thought about that statement.  Well, surely he would have agreed that you can easily enough read without doing much original thinking.  For me, though, the beauty of reading Nietzsche is that he helps me to think originally.  And honestly, is there a greater compliment that any of us can pay to a writer than that?

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