Note to a professor

An email I sent to a philosophy professor I know:

I’ve been thinking about your picture of Nietzsche as skeptic.

I suspect we disagree on some points, but I am not sure about that. I’d like to get some clarification and also to offer you another picture of Nietzschean skepticism to react to.

Obviously, Nietzsche did advocate a consoling, soothing form rigorous skepticism. I understand Nietzsche’s Epicurus as his exemplar of this kind of skepticism: “Epicurus, the soul-soother of later antiquity, had that wonderful insight, which is still today so rarely to be discovered, that to quieten the heart it is absolutely not necessary to have solved the ultimate and outermost theoretical questions. …he who wishes to offer consolation — to the unfortunate, ill-doers, hypochondriacs, the dying — should call to mind the two pacifying formulae of Epicurus, which are capable of being applied to very many questions. Reduced to their simplest form they would perhaps become: firstly, if that is how things are they do not concern us; secondly, things may be thus but they may also be otherwise.” (The Wanderer and His Shadow 7).

I find no evidence that Nietzsche disapproved of this kind of skepticism, and in fact, I believe he saw it as the most honorable alternative to Romanticism, which of course he detested and never tired of attacking in all its myriad forms. I think Epicurus may be the only person besides Goethe that Nietzsche never attacked.

From what I remember of our chats from several years ago, my guess is that we agree this far. The rest I am much less sure about.

Notice in the passage above (WS 7) how conditional his advocacy was. It is presented as a philosophy for “the unfortunate, ill-doers, hypochondriacs, the dying ” — again, for precisely the people vulnerable to Romanticism. There is reason to believe that Epicurean skepticism is only a means to a less gentle, more aggressive “Fredrickian” form of skepticism. Nietzsche describes Fredrickian skepticism in Beyond Good and Evil 209:

“Men were lacking; and [Fredrick’s father] suspected, with the bitterest vexation, that his own son was not enough of a man. In that he was deceived: but who would not have been deceived in his place? He saw his son lapse into the atheism, the esprit, the pleasure-seeking frivolity of ingenious Frenchmen — he saw in the background the great blood-sucker, the spider skepticism, he suspected the incurable wretchedness of a heart which is no longer hard enough for evil or for good, of a broken will which no longer commands, can no longer command. But in the meantime there grew up in his son that more dangerous and harder new species of skepticism — who knows to what extent favored by precisely the father’s hatred and the icy melancholy of a will sent into solitude? — the skepticism of audacious manliness, which is related most closely to genius for war and conquest and which first entered Germany in the person of the great Frederick.

“This skepticism despises and yet grasps to itself; it undermines and takes into possession; it does not believe but retains itself; it gives perilous liberty to the spirit but it keeps firm hold on the heart; it is the German form of skepticism which, as a continuation of Frederickianism intensified into the most spiritual domain, for a long time brought Europe under the dominion of the German spirit and its critical and historical mistrust.”

This recalls the Dionysian/Romantic distinction Nietzsche described most explicitly in Gay Science 370: “Every art, every philosophy may be viewed as a remedy and an aid in the service of growing and struggling life; they always presuppose suffering and sufferers. But there are two kinds of sufferers: first, those who suffer from the over-fulness of life — they want a Dionysian art and likewise a tragic view of life, a tragic insight — and then those who suffer from the impoverishment of life and who seek rest, stillness, calm seas, redemption from themselves through art and knowledge, or intoxication, convulsions, anesthesia, and madness. All romanticism in art and insight corresponds to the dual needs of the latter type…” From there he goes on to discuss two forms of pessimism.

So the Dionysian/Romantic distinction can be applied to skepticism, with skepticism regarded as a variety of pessimism toward knowledge. The soothing effect of skepticism is the “peace as a means to new wars”, mentioned in Thus Spoke Zarathustra — a peace Nietzsche preferred to be as brief as possible.

There is a fair amount of support for this view of the two skepticisms and their sequence and relative value:

“Redeemed from scepticism. — A: Others emerge out of a general moral scepticism ill-humoured and feeble, gnawed-at and worm-eaten, indeed half-consumed — but I do so braver and healthier than ever, again in possession of my instincts. Where a sharp wind blows, the sea rises high and there is no little danger to be faced, that is where I feel best. I have not become a worm, even though I have often had to work and tunnel like a worm. — B: You have just ceased to be a sceptic! For you deny! — A: And in doing so I have again learned to affirm.” (Daybreak 477)

“One should not be deceived: great spirits are skeptics. Zarathustra is a skeptic. Strength, freedom which is born of the strength and overstrength of the spirit, proves itself by skepticism. Men of conviction are not worthy of the least consideration in fundamental questions of value and disvalue. Convictions are prisons. Such men do not look far enough, they do not look beneath themselves: but to be permitted to join in the discussion of value and disvalue, one must see five hundred convictions beneath oneself — behind oneself … ” (Antichrist 54)

Based on these and other passages I can supply if you want to see them, I think that Nietzsche understood Epicurean skepticism to be the foundation for a Frederickian skepticism, neither of which are to be considered the purpose of his philosophy, but only a means to something higher.

So I’m not claiming that Nietzsche was against rigorous, soothing forms of skepticism. I am claiming that he did not view it as any more than a temporary means to something higher. My position is that Nietzsche considered both forms of skepticism to be stages in a process of gradual liberation from positive metaphysics, all for the sake of a post-theological melioristic form of morality. This latter point is a much more complicated conversation. For now I’d like to see how far you agree with me on the Epicurean vs Fredrickian skepticism question.

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