Part of an ongoing project to read through Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals and make some comments as I go.
We are unknown, we knowers, ourselves to ourselves: this has its own good reason.
Nietzsche is driving home, in rather purple tones, two different thoughts. First, the theoretical purpose of this section: ‘we’ do not know ourselves. “Each one is the farthest away from himself” – he suggests it’s a proverb, but I don’t know it.
This is of course an interesting thing to say, and very much a sentiment that was growing in that era: this was a time at the end of Whitman’s life, and the beginning of Freud’s career (Freud began his study with Charcot two years before this was written).
But I’m intrigued by the parallel with Wittgenstein, who also talks about us, in a way, being furthest from ourselves – where most philosophers have worried that, while we can know that we have a headache but cannot know whether our friend does, Wittgenstein suggests that we can know whether our friend has a headache, but can’t know whether we have one ourselves. Of course, his reasoning is different from Nietzsche’s – what Wittgenstein means is that in describing ourselves we are free, and that the status of our claim to have a headache is of a fundamentally different kind from that of our judgement whether somebody else does. But this in turn ties back in with Nietzsche, and his call for philosophers of the future not to judge, but to command; more generally, although he doesn’t make it clear here, there is a sense that in late Nietzsche the ‘unknowable’ ceases to become a source of anxiety and becomes an arena for choice and the will. Does the unknownness of the self render it mutable? I don’t think Nietzsche thinks that, but I do think he points in that direction.
The other thought, though, may be the more important one: that ‘we’ are different from everybody else. The ‘we’ who do not know ourselves is not necessarily everybody (though that probably does apply to everybody), but rather a particular type of person: “we knowers”.
Our treasure is there, where stand the beehives of our knowledge. It is to those hives that we are always striving; as born creatures of flight, and as the honey-gatherers of the spirit, we care really in our hearts only for one thing – to bring something “home to the hive”.
“We”, the creatures of flight, stand apart from the world of lesser people:
As far as the rest of life with its so-called “experiences” is concerned, which of us has even sufficient interest? or sufficient time? In our dealings with such points of life… our heart is not there, and certainly not our ear.
Nietzsche describes this life as a kind of waking dream, in which “we” never really pay attention to what’s going on as regards ‘the rest of life’. It’s an honest and unapologetic defence of the ivory tower, and you can see why generations of rebellious young university students have found themselves drawn to this elitist vision – particular those less given to socialising, who in Nietzsche find what others would call social ineptitude, ‘lonerdom’ or just plain weirdness instead held up as a noble ideal. Moreover, by addressing himself to “us”, he is rhetorically addressing a more direct sense of the words “we are unknown” – those who may live on the outskirts of normal society, unknown, become central, become the protagonists, of Nietzsche’s narrative, their anonymity made meaningful. Those generations of rebellious students, of course, include the strange and unpopular Nietzsche himself. We may also see an echo here of Nietzsche’s rejection as a philologist – when his The Birth of Tragedy was torn apart by other academics, his chief opponant mockingly likened him to a religious prophet rather than an academic, suggesting that he ought to sit and ‘gather tigers and panthers about the knees’, rather than teach the youth of Germany. Nietzsche seems to have eventually taken up the role his enemies suggested, and in his overtly elitist appeals to ‘us’, he is making clear that his audience is not the general public of his day, but the tigers and panthers of future generations.
Nonetheless, it’s worth remembering that metaphor of the bees: the bee is not seeking honey for its own benefit, but to bring it home to the hive, to the community of other bees. Nietzsche’s knowers are like knights of the mind, questing to find knowledge, and necessarily having to tread on a few yeomanry toes when their higher calling demands it. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Nietzsche, despite all his concerns about philosophy and truth and knowledge and whatnot, expressed in previous books and indeed in this one, still identified “us”, primarily, in the first sentence of his book, as “we knowers”. This should make us doubt interpretations that frame Nietzsche as an unyielding enemy of those who seek knowledge: his methods may be different, but he avows the same quest.
(oh dear gods, ‘avows the same quest’. I’ve only read two paragraphs of Nietzsche and look what it’s done to me already…)
Nietzsche claims continuity in his work, at least back to Human, all too Human. This is a big problem for those who claim substantial development, to the point of self-refutation, over the course of his career. But it’s not a fatal problem. Nietzsche may be lying, or may be confused about his own work – or the ideas he’s speaking of may be only a subset of his ideas, while others have changed. More generally, he admits that his thoughts may have ‘grown riper, clearer, stronger, more complete’, and that they have ‘outgrown their original shape’ – so on the one hand, perhaps what he sees as the essence has remained the same while many surface elements have changed, or perhaps everything he thought has remained the same, but his expressions of those thoughts were initially misleading, to the point of looking like similar but different thoughts altogether. It may also be significant that Nietzsche is dating these thoughts to the winter of ’76-’77, immediately before his then-friend Paul Rée published his own book on the topic, and five years before ‘the stars fell’ and he met Lou Salomé. Whether what he says is true (or honest) or not, maybe part of the purpose of it is to distance himself from Rée and Salomé, asserting his own originality – just as he (more vitriolically) disavows himself, as much as he reasonably can, of the formative influences of Schopenhauer and Wagner elsewhere.
We may note in passing that Nietzsche is really proud of himself, or want us to think he is – he doesn’t just think things that are interesting or original, or even important – no, he lets his mind wander through “broad and dangerous territory”. Nietzsche is always keen to remind us how incredibly dangerous his work is (perhaps to show us by extension what kind of a man he is – daring, iconoclastic, military, manly, sexy – things a far cry from the timid, sickly, embittered, rejected-by-women, perennially unemployed, near-friendless man that a casual glance at the man and not his writings might have suggested…)
Incidentally, “riper, clearer, stronger, more complete” might be an interesting criterion for what Nietzsche considers ‘better’ in a thought.
Also of interest is the way that Nietzsche talks about knowledge here:
[the fact that his thoughts have changed and now support each other better gives him] joyous confidence that they must have been originally neither separate disconnected capricious nor sporadic phenomena, but have sprung from a common root, from a fundamental will for knowledge, whose empire reached to the soul’s depth, and that ever grew more definite in its voice, and more definite in its demands.
That’s a pretty religious way of putting it for an atheist! It reminds me of the Stoic notion of ‘katalepsis’, the secure grasping of fact that is the criterion of truth, but that only the sage can be sure of discerning – and the Stoic sage, perhaps like the Nietzschean knower, is ‘as rare as phoenix’. Of course, it also suggests Descartes’ god-given ‘clear and distinct ideas’.
We have no right to be “disconnected”; we must neither err “disconnectedly” nor strike the truth “disconnectedly”. Rather with the necessity with which a tree bears its fruit, so do our thoughts, our values, our Yes’s and No’s and If’s and Whether’s, grow connected and interrelated, mutual witnesses of one will, one health, one kingdom, one sun – as to whether they are to your taste, these fruits of ours? – But what matters that to the trees? What matters that to us, us the philosophers?
So ‘we’ are explicitly philosophers. That ‘disconnected’ is suggestive: literally, it means that our thoughts should be connected to one another systematically, not piecemeal. But I think there’s a suggestion as well that our thoughts should be connected to the world – they are witnesses of one kingdom and one sun, as a tree that bears fruit is not disconnected from the earth and from the light of the heavens. This is also seen in some of Nietzsche’s comments on art, for instance, where he spurns the ideal of the ‘disinterested’ observer. Nietzsche does not believe in playing little games on the sidelines of things: the connectedness of us and our world is very much a theme for him. Note the continual images, by the way, of natural processes – trees and fruit here, bees and honey before. And I also wonder whether that ‘disconnected’ is also a warning to those who become too isolated from those-who-are-not-us – those who forget that the bee collects honey in order to bring it home. But what happens when it gets that honey home: that is no longer the collector’s concern. If you don’t want to eat our fruit, more fool you! The idea of natural processes, and particularly of productive natural processes, perhaps suggests that each thing has its own natural place and purpose – so long as the philosopher does his job, he’s happy, just as the trees are happy to bring forth fruit whether or not there is anyone around to eat it.
But look out: it’s not just about happiness. Nietzsche goes quite far when he says we have no right to be disconnected. It’s not just about happiness, then, but about duty.
Oh, and there’s a nice rhetorical flourish at the end of that quote: he begins by questioning you, but answers on behalf of us. Both you and us, in context, include the idealised reader – he challenges us, but before we can answer he co-opts us into his alliance… and perhaps we do not notice that he has answered for us, that he has turned us on ourselves on a pinhead and put us in league against ourselves.