Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Nietzsche's Metamorphoses

Way back when in fall of junior year, I read Thus Spake Zarathustra and began writing about it. Then I stopped thinking about philosophy altogether, but a recent conversation called to mind the three metamorphoses of the spirit which Nietzsche describes in TSZ (Part One Chapter One, for those of you following along at home).

I am quoting from the Thomas Common translation, Modern Library edition:
"Three metamorphoses of the spirit do I designate to you: how the spirit becometh a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child." (23)

In the first metamorphosis, the camel is a symbol of--so I read it--submission and self-abnegation. The camel is the "load-bearing spirit" that casts away pride and triumph; for the camel, suffering is desirable as a way to "rejoice in [one's] strength." Thus laden with humiliation and hardship does the camel go into the wilderness.

The camel thinks itself noble because it suffers. Its mode of being is resignation, rationalization, acceptance. I think it was this passage that made me become disillusioned with the Stoics, because as much as I admire Marcus Aurelius, all the talk of fate and resignation to it in Meditations could get depressing. Reading Less Wrong (especially this article) pushed me over the edge: yes, it is important to admit when you are wrong, but there is nothing noble about enduring humiliation when you don't absolutely have to.

In the second metamorphosis, the camel becomes the lion. The main characteristic of the lion is not suffering but struggle: "Its last Lord it here [in the wilderness] seeketh; hostile will it be to him, and to its last God; for victory will it struggle with the great dragon" (24). The Thou-Shalt dragon, that is: the repository of social values and traditions. As my erstwhile philosopher friend Bowtie Man commented to me, "The dragon sounds a lot like my dad."
"To create itself freedom, and give a holy Nay even unto duty: for that, my brethren, there is need of the lion."

The third metamorphosis struck me as strange the first (and second, and third) time I read this section: the lion becomes the child. This, I thought, could not be right. Why would one go from a powerful animal, at home in the wilderness, capable of taking on the toughest opponents, to something small and vulnerable and helpless?

I think I was taking the metaphor too literally, because what the child stands for is not vulnerability but rather innocence. "Innocence is the child, and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self-rolling wheel, a first movement, a holy Yea" (25).

Innocence: not being marked by others' expectations or the ravages of disillusionment. Forgetfulness: not paying reference to the past, neither accepting it nor rebelling against it. A self-rolling wheel: self-sufficient, without the need to define oneself in terms of something else. The lion shakes off tradition, fights off the past; the child is needed to create the future. Negative liberty comes before positive liberty. (As I've said in a rather different context.)

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I happened upon a quote which lines up quite nicely with these three metamorphoses:

"The third-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the majority. The second-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the minority. The first-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking."
--A. A. Milne

The camel is the third-rate mind, because it is willing to betray its own thoughts and pride to be laden with expectations and others' burdens. The lion is the second-rate mind, because it defines itself as the opposition and needs something against which to fight. The child is the first-rate mind, because it is absolute: it speaks of itself in terms of itself, with a perfect and a pure selfishness.

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One last analogy:

The camel:
(src)

The lion:
(src)
The child makes its own memes.

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I suspect that I'll be reading Nietzsche for my class on evil next quarter, and thinking about philosophy is often interesting. Perhaps I will post more philosophical explorations as I think of them.

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If Nietzsche, then Neue Deutsche Harte:

Ich Will - Rammstein

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