Chain of thoughts

Reading Hegel, a passage from Nietzsche popped into my head:

Transfiguration. — Those that suffer helplessly, those that dream confusedly, those that are entranced by things supernatural — these are the three divisions into which Raphael divided mankind. This is no longer how we see the world — and Raphael too would no longer be able to see it as he did: he would behold a new transfiguration.

Raphael is an important personality in Nietzsche, one of the few (along with Goethe and Chopin) he represented in a consistently affirmative light. It is always interesting to look at these references together, so I indexed all of Nietzsche’s Raphael references to see if an intelligible shape would emerge. In the process I came upon this passage from Daybreak, which always struck me as pivotal.

Learning. — Michelangelo saw in Raphael study, in himself nature: there learning, here talent. This, with all deference to the great pedant, is pedantic. For what is talent but a name for an older piece of learning, experience, practice, appropriation, incorporation, whether at the stage of our fathers or an even earlier stage! And again: he who learns bestows talent upon himself — only it is not so easy to learn, and not only a matter of having the will to do so; one has to be able to learn. In the case of an artist learning is often prevented by envy, or by that pride which puts forth its sting as soon as it senses the presence of something strange and involuntarily assumes a defensive instead of a receptive posture. Raphael, like Goethe, was without pride or envy, and that is why both were great learners and not merely exploiters of those veins of ore washed clean from the siftings of the history of their forefathers. Raphael vanishes as a learner in the midst of appropriating that which his great competitor designated as his ‘nature’: he took away a piece of it every day, this noblest of thieves; but before he had taken over the whole of Michelangelo into himself, he died — and his last series of works is, as the beginning of a new plan of study, less perfect and absolutely good precisely because the great learner was interrupted in his hardest curriculum and took away with him the justificatory ultimate goal towards which he looked.

The phrase “noblest of thieves” is an obvious reference to Hermes, and what Nietzsche is discussing here is hermeneutics, specifically hermeneutical appropriation. When you fully understand the reality of hermeneutics (which means you have participated in it and have experience of its peculiarly holistic befores and afters) the apparently random attributes of Hermes resolve into coherence. According to wikipedia, Hermes is “the messenger of the gods in Greek mythology. An Olympian god, he is also the patron of boundaries and of the travelers who cross them, of shepherds and cowherds, of thieves and road travelers, of orators and wit, of literature and poets, of athletics, of weights and measures, of invention, of general commerce, and of the cunning of thieves and liars.”

Some more insights on Hermes from Guenon’s The Great Triad:

To explain the formation of the caduceus it is said that Mercury saw two serpents fighting each other (a figure of chaos) and that he separated them (distinction of contraries) with a rod (determination of an axis along which chaos will be ordered in order to become the Cosmos) around which they coiled themselves (equilibrium of the two contrary forces acting symmetrically with respect to the ‘World Axis’). It should also be noted that the caduceus (kerukeion, insignia of the heralds) is considered the characteristic attribute of the two complementary functions of Mercury or Hermes: on the one hand the Gods’ interpreter and messenger, and on the other the ‘psychopomp,’ conducting beings through their changes of state or their passage from one cycle of existence to another; these two functions correspond respectively to the descending and ascending currents represented by the two serpents.

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