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A world without compass

Compared to the Christian Middle Ages, our world is pretty much without compass. By this I do not mean that we should return to the beliefs held during that time – not only would this be anachronistic, but it would conflict fundamentally (and probably violently) with the techno-scientific tenor of the present era. I simply mean that there was a kind of “unified”, theocentric framework that everyone took more or less for granted, and it was the source, broadly speaking, of “meaning” in their lives. For better or worse, they did not face what one might call an “existential vacuum”, as is arguably the case today.

With the waning of the medieval era humanity gradually entered the modern period, which was dominated by the rise of the nation state, and more fundamentally, by the emergence of reason and its product, science, as the forces shaping the world, until about the middle of the 20th century, when what is commonly referred to as postmodernity incrementally made its appearance. While the first two historical eras both rested on a central idea-framework of sorts – which gave people of the time something in relation to which they could “find a place” in the world, even if they argued incessantly about it – the present one (postmodernity) provides no such solace.

Its overriding characteristic is one of fragmentation at every level (cultural, social, theoretical, ethnic, and so on), except perhaps for one, namely the prevailing economic system (which thrives on difference and fragmentation as opportunities for profit-making, as Hardt and Negri demonstrate in Empire). Postmodernity, in other words, lacks an “existential compass” comparable to those governing the preceding two eras.

The other day I had an experience which impressed upon me just how rudderless the world (or the society) in which we live really is. I was talking to a young man who had recently been given the means to pull himself out of a difficult personal patch which had caused his parents a great deal of worry because, as is often the case today, it went hand in hand with the use of drugs. Eventually the young man was assisted in gaining a measure of equilibrium again by a traditional medicine-man who practises “past-life therapy” and convinced him that he had had past lives in which he had been something or someone distinct, and presumably to which or whom he had to be faithful.

From a purely pragmatic point of view the therapy has been successful, because someone who, a short while ago, was psychically adrift, clutching at the proverbial straws (some of them of a narcotic variety, with potentially damaging neural and cerebral effects), has attained an even keel again, and comes across as being confident and stable. When he assured me that he was “a tiger”, however, while his girlfriend was “a wolf” (in their respective past lives), and asked me how that made me feel, all that I could honestly say was that I admired his powers of imagination.

Clearly this was not the answer he had been anticipating, and his disappointment deepened when I proceeded, as best I could (without offending him) to debunk the idea of “past-life therapy” as belonging squarely in the province of the Lacanian imaginary, and instead of assisting someone to face their own lives resolutely, encouraged them to take refuge in a fiction which actually distracts and alienates them from the one life that is theirs.

Needless to say, this upset him considerably, and indignantly he asked me whether I was trying to persuade him that all there is to his existence is that his parents had sex and he was the result. My answer could only be that, if he needed to believe in himself as having been something “before” his parents got together in order to have a sense of a meaningful life, he was looking in the wrong direction. It is our present actions, in the light of our future-directedness and anticipation, and not our belief about “repeating the past” endlessly, which ultimately infuses meaning into our lives.

In order to encourage him to continue actively finding (or rather, generating) meaning in his life, minus the redundant distraction of an untenable pseudo-therapeutic mythology, I introduced him to Nietzsche’s evocative distinction between passive nihilism and active nihilism (nihilism: the claim that there is no [pre-given] meaning in life). In both cases someone first notices that the systems of “meaning” (religious, political, ideological) that they always took for granted, amount to nothing more than convention (tacit agreement among members of groups that such systems are somehow “true”), and that, as a consequence, there is no such thing as pre-fabricated “meaning”.

The difference is that the “passive” nihilist is so disconcerted by the realization, that all values rest on the thin air of convention (what Nietzsche calls the “abyss” of non-meaning), that, as Nietzsche puts it, they turn around and run straight back into the arms of the priests (where “priests” represents, metonymically, the most widely accepted convention of his time), pretending that nothing has changed.

By contrast the “active” nihilist, who also notices the chasm of non-meaning, instead of promptly embracing convention once more, prefers to “dance upon” the abyss. This is Nietzsche’s poetic way of saying that one is capable of “creating” or generating meaning where there is none to begin with, and that embracing conventional belief-systems is not the only option one has. The crucial question, of course, is whether such active meaning-creation – through the practice of art, architecture, philosophy, mathematics, engineering, or any other discipline one might pursue; or, for that matter, creatively bringing up one’s children (which presupposes that one has the creative, meaning-generating resources to do so), or practising a craft or “trade” such as gardening or carpentry – can pass the test of being-with-others. (Arguably Nietzsche addresses this question in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where Zarathustra’s “animals” [which are “of the earth”] may be understood as comprising such a “community” that is receptive to Zarathustra’s active nihilism.)

By this I mean that “up to a point” it is accurate to say that one should “create meaning” in one’s life, because no one else is going to; and if you discover that your life’s meaningfulness depends crucially on someone else, such as your children, or wife, or husband, this should be a wake-up call; what will happen when they are no longer there? But only up to a point: one runs the risk of painting yourself into an existential corner, as it were, if your creative activity involves only yourself. For all intents and purposes you may turn out to be what the ancient Greeks thought of as being an “idiot”, or someone who lived in the closed circle of their own ideas (as good a definition of “insanity” as any).

The question, in other words, is whether the fruit of your active nihilism is open, or lends itself to, intersubjective confirmation and agreement, or dissent and questioning, regarding its viability. By which I do NOT mean that everyone should agree (or disagree) on what it means, or stands for, but simply that one should be able to conduct a sensible conversation, or dialogue about its epistemic status. And the more it lends itself to debate and differences in interpretation (themselves opportunities for “creative nihilism”), the richer or more fruitful it is, because anything with only one “indisputable” meaning is blatantly of an ideological nature.

I don’t know if the young man in question got anything out of our conversation. It was clear that he was in dire need of an existential “compass” for navigating his life in this complex, often confusing world, and all I was trying to do was to disabuse him of one that paradoxically located such a compass in a fictional place beyond this life. I believe that Nietzsche’s “active nihilism” does constitute one such “compass”; one with which one can face up to the vicissitudes of human life.

Anyone interested in pursuing this question further could read my paper, “Nietzsche, immortality, singularity and eternal recurrence”, South African Journal of Philosophy, 26 (1), 2007, pp.70-84.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. ian shaw ian shaw 23 April 2014

    An excellent essay well-justified by events in my own long life. Creating meaning in practical terms means to expose oneself to the myriad interesting things in this world and I benefited from this viewpoint. It is just the first step that is difficult and one is inclined to believe that one is boxed into an unforgiving and unsolvable situation, requiring some external miracle, like winning in the Lotto.

  2. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 23 April 2014

    For those that like classifications, one could argue that the ‘age of the individual’, if still not in full swing, is at last broadly under way: the first age having been when the Priests told everyone what it was all about; the second having been when reason and science told everyone that it was all going to come right anyway; and the present being when it’s finally dawning on the multitude that it’s down to each one of them what to make of it.

    Fragmentation at every level would be the natural outcome in this stage, involving complexity not simplicity, many truths, not one, and offering absolutely no end in sight – a scenario hardly likely to appeal to a couple of good Marxists like Hardt and Negri.

  3. Call for Honesty Call for Honesty 23 April 2014

    We live in a messed up world and mess up every day not even able to live by the standards we set, whether we are an atheist, agnostic, Christian or follow one of a multitude of religions. In this situation Nietzsche is certainly not the one who can offer us a compass to guide and help us.

    “I am convinced that when Nietzsche came to Switzerland and went insane, it was not because of venereal disease, though he did have this disease. Rather, it was because he understood that insanity was the only philosophic answer if the infinite-personal God does not exist.”
    from “How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture” by Francis Schaeffer

    Sadly when Nietzche rejected Christianity writing “I call Christianity the one great curse . . . I call it the one great immortal blemish of mankind” (in “The Anti-Christ”), he was reflecting how much he had been influenced by what others had written on the Christian Scriptures rather than from a careful reading and understanding the plain sense of the text in its own literary context and so ended up rejecting what was simply his perversion of the message of the Bible.

  4. Dear Bert,

    I thought this article was going to lead to ultimate values but in the end find
    a vacuum between the two theories of passive or active nihilism. It would have been more appropriate to remember Empathy in the words ‘A brusied reed He will not break’, instead of hammering the ‘lost soul’ who confided in you between the two theories of Nietzche. Today, from C.G Jung analysts, Susan Scotts blog Garden of Eden came this beautiful quote:

    ‘I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive, if all extraneous delights should be withdrawn’. Charlotte Bronte.

    The sadness of our age is that the secular media industry and market consumer economy has closed the gates of faith that once inspired the hands that built the Medieval Cathedrals, when despite the squalor of poverty of their himble lives, their hands worked with spiritual zeal and purpose. But now we have all things in science and technology yet hover between two theories of Nietsche like ‘resounding gongs and clanging cymbals’ running after philosophers and psychologists instead of the wings of angels.

  5. Maria Maria 23 April 2014

    @ Gillian: If you read Nietzsche carefully on the two kinds of nihilism (there is a third, too, namely radical nihilism, which is presupposed by the other two) you will see that the “active” variety actually corresponds with what you quote from Bronte, viz; “I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive…” This treasure is simply the ability to generate meaning in one’s own life by living creatively in whatever context you choose to do so. I agree with you about what you say concerning the people who built the medieval churches (and I believe Bert would, too), and in a sense envy them their “certainty” of purpose in life (something Bert has confided in me as well), but can one go back to that age of “innocence” after having gone through the modern into the postmodern age? If a comparable “certainty” were to emerge again, it has to be beyond the present, even if there might be echoes of the past in such a new age. Given the dominance of techno-science in the present era, however, I suspect a new epoch would probably have something to do with technology. Did you read Bert’s piece on The technology and theology of Battlestar Galactica on TL some time ago? I believe that – the scenario in the Battlestar series – is the direction the world is going in its mad quest for technological perfection as a kind of prosthesis to compensate for human inadequacies.

  6. Shaman sans frontieres Shaman sans frontieres 23 April 2014

    Hmm. The main point is fair enough. Ever since Saussure, we have all understood that meaning is rooted in convention. That is not, however, a loaded understanding of ‘convention’. Convention is neutral, is merely the fact of being a social animal, a zoon politikon, a being socialised by language and the unavoidable conventional nature of language. To regard ‘convention’ as an illusory trap packed with the bait of ‘baggage’ is to flee away into the arms of such romantic existentialists as Colin Wilson, who is I guess a true protege of Nietzsche. Stand back from that if you must, because there lies the hieratic or shamanic or soul-mystical path. Instead, if you must, plod on with the utter mundanity of acknowledging your unavoidably conventional idiom, identity, society. Or – if you will – go the path of Lacan and Kristeva, and the more fruitful analysis that speaks of abjection and the entry into language, the semiotic versus the symbolic, etc. But in any event I fail to see how these things will help a drug-addicted young adult. Unless he is a genuine budding intellectual seeker.

  7. Richard Richard 24 April 2014

    Don’t you think this is because the way in which hegemony is exercised today is in many ways more ruthless than in earlier times? People are now seen simply as units to be tapped for their money or their votes, left otherwise to fend for themselves. To be sure, some of that voting is paid for (state benefits are the equivalent of giving sweets to children to win their affection) but by-and-large, there is no real joint enterprise on which we are all engaged. A lot of “we’re in it together” thinking, which encourages the notion of meaning, comes from the notion of death. In modern times, in no way are people encouraged to think about death or what is putatively to come (or not), since that does not involved voting or extracting value-exchange. Nobody can benefit from death, so best not think about it. The idea of death being optional has of course always been an American concern, and I think is tied in with hyper-capitalism. Modern socialism is only concerned with our physical existence, and so is equally one-dimensional. Even where death should be considered – at a funeral – emphasis is increasingly placed on celebrating the deceased’s life, not on their journey into death.

  8. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 24 April 2014

    Bert I love Nietzche’s dancing on the edge of the abyss imagery. His image is of course fiction, if we assume that fiction is that which is not true but a created, imagined truth. What is truth, what is fiction? Is fiction believing you have a wolf personality, is truth believing that Jesus will return to save our souls, that capitalism is the best possible system, that somehow humanity will save the planet? Is thought not the ultimate fiction? Or does truth exist somewhere out there to be discovered and fiction reserved for what occurs in our imaginations? I don’t think we lack a compass, we have moved from a compass imposed by some external authority (church, science), to a compass that is a negotiated one. Whilst negotiation offers greater freedom, it is far less secure, far more in flux than an imposed truth. With freedom comes responsibility, with choice comes the need to decide. Methinks our crisis is not one of a lack of compass, but a crisis in having to rely on ourselves to negotiate our path.

  9. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 24 April 2014

    I also have to say that I think our assumption that the past was more coherent in its thinking, than the present, that we believe we live in times of chaos, is a neat editing trick we play on ourselves. I cannot imagine that living in the feudal era, that the Crusades, that the Xhosa wars, the World Wars were any more a coherent time than now! The only difference is that technology makes the chaos immediately available to us, and in my view it is the mass of information we are presented with that leads to being overwhelmed, not that the different ages in themselves we more or less chaotic.

  10. Bert Bert 24 April 2014

    Gillian – Maria’s answer (Thanks, Maria!) to you, above, is pretty much what my response would be, except to add that, if I had lived in the medieval era (say, the 4th century or so), I would probably have judged someone like Augustine’s answer to the problem of truth in the same manner, because the ‘active nihilism’ answer at that time was something like Augustine’s answer. But I don’t believe that can still be the case today, for we are no longer living in a theocentric world. Where I would differ from Maria, is that, although the technological midset is indeed hegemonic today, I have a suspicion that, willy-nilly, it will be superseded by an ecological paradigm that the planet will force us to adopt.

    Shaman – Sure, as you say, Saussure gives us the formal basis for understanding language as conventional, but conventional ‘beliefs’, such as that neoliberal capitalism is the ‘best’ economic system for humanity, today (although erroneous) is subscribed to by a large number of people, and therefore exerts a hegemonic influence, for the time being, on the economic activities of a certain class of people – investors, etc. So, ‘conventional’ beliefs and praxis have a built-in, largely discursive (or ideological) ‘commitment-factor’ that seems to justify them, until someone follows Nietzsche (or Foucault, Lacan, Kristeva) by examining their basis of acceptance. Lacan’s 4 discourses-theory gives one an even better compass than Nietzsche.

  11. Bert Bert 24 April 2014

    Paul – I agree with most of what you say, except that you’re wrong about Hardt and Negri. They are no orthodox marxists, but adopt a nuanced marxist position, where they interweave Marx with (especially) Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, and other thinkers.

    Richard – Yes, I believe you are right about the ruthlessness of todays’ hegemony’ enforcement, although, of course, it is cleverly disguised by the ‘system’. I think Deleuze’s ‘Postscript on Societies of Control’ spells that out admirably. You are also right about death. You should read Castells on this (The Rise of the Network Society), In a recent paper (Time(s), space(s) and communication in Castells’s ‘Network Society’; Communicare, Volume 32 [2] December 2013) I showed that he uncovers the impact of the dominant time modality on traditional human experience of life and death, which is increasingly removed out of time and sight, through medical technology, combined with the mediated ‘sanitisation’ of life, keeping people ‘alive’ for as long as possible, but undermining the existential meaning of the ‘deathbed’ and of mourning. ‘Human time’ is therefore subjected to the flat, controlled, ‘timeless time’ promoted by medical technology and a flourishing, but largely cosmetic health industry. When death, which has always been synonymous with the bounded, cyclical nature of human time, is systematically ‘denied’, human time-consciousness is unavoidably affected.

  12. Leslie Melville Leslie Melville 24 April 2014

    It is frustrating that knowledge of one’s biological forebears becomes obscure after three or four generations. Those whose ancestors have left a mark on history and can claim an older heritage are envied.
    A form of ‘pastlife therapy’ that could help recover a mislaid ‘compass’ and provide ‘a place in the world’ for the lost individual, would be the acknowledgement of cultural ancestors who are accessible, informative and generally supportive.
    Because our particular culture is so old, rich and diverse, consorting with the dead should enable us to salute Nietzsche as we leap over his abyss of agony; embrace Sartre as we pass through le Neant; and thank Derrida for his suspicion. All very salutary, but expecting the hapless individual to create his own meaning while dancing over a void shackled by suspicion is Calvinistically cruel. (I am not referring to Mr Olivier’s young man who appears to be on a shaky path.)
    Maybe the fault-finding, sin-seeking, discarding and obsessive disinfecting of the ramshackle house of western culture has gone on too long. Move all the furniture back in. Live with it, creatively re-arrange it, leave the doors open for new arrivals, departures and returning travellers.

  13. Richard Richard 25 April 2014

    @Bert, thank you for those reading suggestions, which I shall pursue. I suppose death is all part of the mediaeval cosmological universe, which was anthropocentric. Presumably our displacing ourselves as the focus of the universe – things are no longer set up specifically for us to engage in tests of worthiness in the eyes of God – has led to the modern relativist perspective that will not allow superiority of one manner of living over another. Rather like the foundation myths of countries are used to rally people to a political cause (in the US, neatly encapsulated in their Declaration of Independence), so the celestial hierarchy rallies people around ostensibly more important causes and accountabilities. One of the problems with the abolition of the celestial hierarchy is that people communicate ideas in many differing shades of importance; in other words, notions are now used in political discourse that end up referring to different things. The idea of freedom might have been used to describe the soul’s migration to heaven, whereas now it is used to mean the ability to vote, or engage in economic self-enrichment (heaven having been displaced with mammon?). To continue with this example: I am not certain that we have advanced our notion of “freedom” other than to make it more contemporary. The hierarchy into which it now fits is simply of a different and less satisfying kind. Religious metaphor has now given way to pecuniary metaphor, which can inflict real suffering.

  14. Bert Bert 25 April 2014

    Gary – I can’t say that I agree with you, at least if I understand you correctly. Sure previous times were turbulent – perhaps none more so than the 16th and 19th centuries, with all the wars of those centuries, but underlying all that there was a unifying and unified “worldview” – in the 19th century it was the scientific worldview, actually reinforced by Napoleonic wars, for instance, because of the growth of social Darwinism (that transferred the doctrine of the “survival of the fittest” to the socio-political-military arena). At present there is no such unifying worldview, and while one might celebrate this as a liberation from the grip of ideology, it also makes for a lot of confusion, as the example of the young man, above, shows.

  15. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 26 April 2014

    Bert – our times are characterised by more people (billions more) with access to global exposure and information at an instant and no longer under control of singular authorities (such as the King or the Vatican). We cannot access past times in their moment but rely on what has been recorded of what happened then. Hindsight and recorded narratives incorporate an editing and structuring of experience, thus what appears as consensus may be more a result of the editing of our past and the selection of narratives to suit current world views than an accurate reflection of the actual situation at the time. The apparent chaos of current times may be more a function of the accessibility and volume of global information. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t believe that humans back then and humans now have changed in nature, the confused young man would still have been confused a 100 or 1000 years ago, the only difference being what he would have used as an alternative narrative.

  16. J.J. J.J. 26 April 2014

    We have to find our inner compass – that is our challenge in/for this age. Those who fail to do so, or even realise they have to find their inner compass – on their own – and therefore look externally for solutions or wait for solutions to arrive externally, on/by its own, will perish – spiritually – and become one of the countless “zombies” walking around, all around us. Consumer automatons operating on group-think and “common knowledge”. You have to find the (your own) leader within (your authentic self), who will lead you to meaning through responsibility. We are en-mass in modern society living from “*a will to avoid responsibility” – the complete opposite of what we are meant to seek out. *Considered to be the “ultimate freedom” – which is freedom from responsibility. The ultimate modern day illusion. (But)Those who reject responsibility eject themselves from fully participating and contributing to the natural human ecosystem.

  17. J.J. J.J. 26 April 2014

    correction: or *don’t* even realise they have to find their inner compass

  18. J.J. J.J. 26 April 2014

    If it works/worked for this young man you are referring to, Bert, I see no reason why one should be critical of it (the past life therapy) – considering that it lifted him out of the doldrums and gave him a new meaning for living/life, even if he might be taking some of it a bit too literal. Those literal interpretations would later on give way to a more metaphorical understanding, but if it keeps him off the drugs in the meantime, to me it sounds like a holistic therapy success story.

    My point being that if one can find meaning and mystery as well as fascination in a subject dealing with the unconscious (subconscious) – the spiritual so to say – you are much better off than needing drugs to get through the “bleak concrete reality of life”.

    “One commonly held view is that of Carl Jung who felt that past life recall comes about when a persons subconscious explores the universal memory bank, which he referred to as ‘Collective Unconscious’. He felt that this produced ancestral memories that reflect the persons own problems today.”

    “The simple truth is, there is no conclusive evidence to either prove or disprove the possibilities of past lives one way or the other. This is similar to people’s beliefs in’God’. Some have absolute faith, others believe loosely in ‘something’ out there, whilst others remain sceptical or non believers.”

  19. Rene Rene 26 April 2014

    Nietzsche gave us a remarkable “compass” with his “active nihilism”, but not all people are strong enough or confident enough in themselves to practise it.

  20. Sarah Sarah 27 April 2014

    I won’t tell you anything new, but it is the same with everything in life.
    You’d think past showes us at least anything, but no.
    Feel free to disagree but the world changes, and none of us have no control over it.
    E.g., imagine Obama had any balls to put Vladimir to his place, but it seems like it’s never happening, welcome world war.
    A very deep post, thanks!

  21. Owen Owen 27 April 2014

    No Bert, the further we separate ourselves from nature the more we are confused. Religions were born out of deep reflection on ‘hand to hand combat’ be it on the battle field or baby birth front. Death was up close and personal.

    We have somehow convinced ourselves that we are the head of our evolutionary chain and so created ourselves as gods of our existence, devoid of consequence.

    Your treatment of the young man shows how far from the humanity front you personally have drifted. Don’t kick a man when he is down. Lift him up, give him hope. Not everyone can handle nihilism, etc. People need a ‘life crutch’ some or all of the time.

  22. Maria Maria 28 April 2014

    @ Owen: No Owen, although I’m sure Bert will agree with you about the consequences of separating ourselves from nature (a separation which he has always opposed, especially w.r.t. capitalism), you misunderstand the “active nihilism” that he proposes. Active nihilism is, quite paradoxically, just the way to get rid of radical nihilism, or the descent into the abyss of non-meaning. Active nihilism helps you live a meaningful life. Bert is a good example: I don’t know many other people (there are some) who live as meaningful a life as he does, drawing on may different sources, and “actively” weaving them into a quilt of meaningful existence, BUT without any illusions, such as “past lives” and that kind of nonsense. Go read Nietzsche, and Lacan, and Ranciere, and you’ll see what I mean.

  23. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 28 April 2014

    I don’t have a lot of time for Nietzsche – cannot stand the tone of fire and brimstone and the hint of indifference to others less clever.

    But quite recently I read an anecdote about him that made me come to see what he was about and it touched me very deeply.

    Peeping through the keyhole to his room, his landlady saw him dancing, alone and naked.

  24. Bert Bert 28 April 2014

    Paul – You have to read Nietzsche with an awareness of his experience of being ostracised by the society of his time, and betrayed by his friend regarding the woman he loved, Lou Salome. Hardly anyone can distance themselves completely from the personal events of their lives, not even Nietzsche. You’d probably have found his early text on ‘The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music’ more amenable to your taste than the later texts, which are sometimes difficult to interpret. If I might recommend a wonderful text on Nietzsche, see if you can get hold of Alexander Nehamas’s book, ‘Life as Literature’. But you’re right about the anecdote of him dancing naked in his room being very moving – there he was literally ‘dancing on the abyss’!

  25. J.J. J.J. 28 April 2014

    Considering that we live in South Africa where the ancestral is a fundamental part of African culture, I’m sure (some if not most of) us from European descent must really come across as aliens sometimes, considering that some of us have absolutely no time for “such superstitions”, but also at the same time have zero understanding of it’s place in culture and indeed in consciousness related to heritage and ancestry. Yet, many of us dutifully create our family trees to make the links. Which is the equivalent, just very surface way of doing it.

  26. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 29 April 2014

    Bert – In re-reading your piece, if I am correct you suggest “being-with-others” as the test of self-created meaning. That self-created meaning (as opposed to adopted externally generated meaning of Church, Politics etc.) should remain open and allow for “sensible conversation”, but not be judged on whether everyone agrees. I agree with this view, however there remains a key dilemma.
    What then is, “sensible” and who decides what are the parameters of such? If Darwin, Galileo, Edison, Einstein, Nietzsche, et al all submitted to what was “sensible”, we would be in a poorer world. What then makes the difference between a “madman” and a “pioneer”?

  27. J.J. J.J. 29 April 2014

    “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

    ― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

  28. Bert Bert 29 April 2014

    Gary – ‘Sensible’ would ultimately be determined by the question, whether more people can agree with what a pioneer has done, by examining what she/he did in the first place, and then coming up with ‘sensible’ rejoinders. When Newton wrote his macro-mechanics, it still had to be endorsed by other scientists; the same is true of Einstein, and of Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche and others (in philosophy). As Feuerbach remarked, in opposition to Descartes’s idea that he could discover truth ‘on his own’: ‘Truth begins with two’. At least two, which should/would grow into a community if the creative person, in any field of work, has done anything ‘inclusively’ creative. That’s how new paradigms are formed, by practising active nihilism in this way, instead of simply repeating endlessly what tradition and convention have given us.
    J.J – I agree with Frankl’s formulation, but it is quite compatible with Nietzsche’s active nihilism, which is simply one’s responsible answer to life’s question.

  29. J.J. J.J. 29 April 2014

    Hi Bert, I agree to an extent – but Frank proposed that very often people find meaning (and by extension responsibility) in the “spiritual realm” (may that be religion, faith or related belief systems – e.g. eastern belief systems like Taoism, Buddhism, etc) – in fact according to Frankl, ultimately very many people (not all) tend to find the real meaning (for them) in life exactly there. He therefore advises that (non-religious/spiritual) therapists and counselors respect that in the person (or client) involved.

  30. J.J. J.J. 29 April 2014

    Well, it seems that many people misunderstand Nietsche, and that would be me. I just found this:

    “Viktor Frankl’s theory and therapy grew out of his experiences in Nazi death camps. Watching who did and did not survive (given an opportunity to survive!), he concluded that the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had it right: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how. ” (Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in 1963, p. 121) He saw that people who had hopes of being reunited with loved ones, or who had projects they felt a need to complete, or who had great faith, tended to have better chances than those who had lost all hope.”

    My understanding was that Nietzsche did not support faith or religion…

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