Epigaph to a Dissertation/Biography

Having grown up an extremely devout and serious 20th Century American evangelical Christian, I imagine it was inevitable that my departure from acceptance of Christian ideas— while the result of months and years of thinking and agonizing—would ultimately be made in a decisive moment of “conversion.”

Ever since that moment two fundamental motivations have ultimately driven all my thinking—(1) the feeling of compulsion to honestly and carefully constructing a new and truer conception of the world and of the nature of values to replace the Christian one that had so fundamentally oriented every aspect of my thought and which I now believed to be absolutely false and to an extent even pernicious.

(2) the need as an apostate to articulate and defend what I saw as the necessity that all supernaturalistic religion be left behind as a matter of intellectual conscience and honesty.

In the “The Prejudices of Philosophers,” which opens up Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche characterizes all great metaphysicians before him as making of their metaphysical systems just “unconscious memoirs.” Their abstract philosophical conceptions of the universe and human nature and human place in the world, etc. are all essentially projections of a certain moral outlook. Philosophers have turned their desires for what the world should be like into blueprints for the world and made it bear out the kind of moral nature they would prefer.

As I envision my dissertation turning out I see it as becoming a sort of biography too. Not so much by presenting descriptions of the world that succumb to my moral prejudices of how it should be (at least I hope not.) Rather, my dissertation is biography in two other ways that a philosophical work can be a biography. (1) The ethics of truthfulness that I am arguing for in it is the one I have believed myself to be living the last ~8 years or even longer. The ethics I’m arguing for is the one that impels me and the conclusions I draw from it are the ones that I’ve felt and thought it as an ethical matter to draw.

(2) The conception of the history of recent Western thought and its future that Nietzsche describes over and over again, and famously in the story of “The Madman” where his “madman” proclaims the “death of God,” is a fundamentally parallel story to my own personal biography. Western civilization, long deeply immersed in Christian myths, dogmas, philosophies, theologies, and morality, finds that the Christian morality’s emphases on mistrust of the self and denunciation of all dishonesty, eventually evolved this ethos of truthfulness into the sort of scientific truthfulness that starts (rightfully) to mistrust and suspect the dubious origins of, and grounds for believing in, theological declarations that come from ancient texts arbitrarily deemed “specially inspired” and closed off from the sorts of independent verifications that make scientific methods and conclusions so powerful and respectable.

In the destruction of the sense that faith and assertions justified only or primarily by faith, and not by reason and evidence, can be intellectually respectable comes the need to reassess the value of all the morality of self-mistrusting and absolutistic truthfulness that initiated the move towards more truthful thinking in the first place. In other words, if we pursued more honest and truthful outlooks initially out of a moral sense that was cultivated by Christianity. What becomes of honesty and truthfulness and all the other virtues and supposed moral absolutes that Christianity wanted engrained in us? If Christianity is false, are its moral judgments too?

The challenge becomes to sift through and decipher what moral oughts of Christianity are still of value and to what extent and which ones are harmful or outmoded, etc. And the most fundamental challenge is to reassess the basis for any value judgments at all without relying on categories that implicitly rely on Christian assumptions that are dubious.

This process of losing the center of orientation for values by losing the belief in Christianity that gave such orientation Nietzsche describes vividly in “The Madman” as the earth being “unchained from its sun” and plummetting through space. He asks whether this is the loss of all suns, meaning all orientation points for value, or simply of the old one. The atheists of Nietzsche’s day, and I suspect ours too, underestimate the extent to which our value formulations have been indebted to engrained Christian morality and, subsequently, the extent to which the falsity of Christianity leads to the falsity of those grounds of value.

It is an inevitable necessity, as I read Nietzsche, that the atheists who laugh at the madman and his concern for the importance of the death fo God, will eventually “later” understand the importance of this task and the enromity of this problem of finding truer ways of assessing value to complement the truer conceptions of the world that scientifically informed thinking provides.

My dissertation is about how seriousness about Christian truthfulness leads to the need to reject Christianity and with it the typically assumed bases of ethics and value that remain embedded in our culture and in our leading philosophers’ writings. My dissertation is then about what sort of new axiology (theory of values and how they are determined) can be laid down and what value truthfulness, and other virtues, can be judged to have in this newer, truer, post-Christian context.

That’s also what my life has been about the last 7 years since that fateful night on the eve of Halloween in 1999 when I re-read the following text twice and realized, as a matter of conscience, I could no longer cling to the faith that I let guide me through every step of life and define me down to every detail of myself.

My professor says I should, at least for the time being, treat this as the projected epigraph for my dissertation as it is the inspiration behind it.

So with no further ado, I give you, in its entirety, Nietzsche’s Antichrist section 50:

“At this point I do not let myself off without a psychology of ‘faith,’ of ‘believers’—precisely for the benefit of ‘believers,’ as is fitting. If today there is no lack of people who do not know in what way it is indecent to ‘believe’—or a sign of decadence, of broken will to life—tomorrow they will already know it. My voice reaches even the hard of hearing.

“Unless I have heard wrong, it seems that among Christians there is a kind of criterion of truth that is called the ‘proof of strength.’ ‘Faith makes blessed: hence it is true.’ Here one might object that it is precisely the making blessed which is not proved but merely promised: blessedness tied to the condition of ‘faith’—one shall become blessed because one believes. But whether what the priest promise the believer in fact occurs in a ‘beyond’ which is not subject to any test—how is that proved? The alleged ‘proof of strength’ is thus at bottom merely another faith, namely, that the effect one expects from faith makes blessed; consequently it is true.’ But with this we are already at the end. This ‘consequently’ would be an absurdity itself as the criterion of truth.

“Let us suppose, with some leniency, that it was proved that faith makes blessed (not merely desired, not merely promised by the somewhat suspicious mouth of a priest): would blessedness—or more technically speaking, pleasure—ever be proof of truth? This is so far from the case that it almost furnishes a couter-proof; in any event, the greatest suspicion of a ‘truth’ should arise when feelings of pleasure enter the discussion of the question ‘What is true?’ The proof of ‘pleasure’ is a proof of ‘pleasure’—nothing else: how in all the world could it be established that true judgments should give greater delight than false ones and, according to a pre-established harmony, should necessarily be followed by agreeable feelings?

“The experience of all severe, of all profoundly inclined, spirits teaches the opposite. At every step one has to wrestle for truth; one has to surrender for it almost everything to which the heart, to which our love, our trust in life, cling otherwise. That requires greatness of soul: the service of truth is the hardest service. What does it mean, after all to have integrity in matters of the spirit? That one is severe against one’s heart, that one despises ‘beautiful sentiments,’ that one makes of every Yes and No a matter of conscience. Faith makes blessed: consequently it lies.”

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • bix

    The atheists of Nietzsche’s day, and I suspect ours too, underestimate the extent to which our value formulations have been indebted to engrained Christian morality and, subsequently, the extent to which the falsity of Christianity leads to the falsity of those grounds of value.I seriously doubt this. For one, only a small portion of the world’s population is christian, or has christian roots. But more importantly, Christianity hasnt been a genuine standard of morality in at least a millenium. By standard, I mean something stronger than a source. I mean the thing against which other judgements are measured–a bedrock for moral judgements.But Christianity has never, at least not in anything like the recent past, provided such a bedrock. In practice what happens is that priests and others pick and choose what elements of scripture they want to follow. (honour thy parents–good, stone adultresses, bad.) Those judgements to follow one bit of scripture have always come from somewhere outside of christianity. Maybe Kant is right, and they come from rationality, maybe Hume is right and they come from sentiment. I dont know. But its silly to think that those judgements came from christianity. christianity was just along for the ride while humans did what they have always and everywhere done: developed a sense of value that is historically and geographically situated and through a process that philosophers have been trying to describe since the beginning of the enlightenment (hume, kant, mill, etc.) and were trying to formulate before it (plato, aristotle).My dissertation is then about what sort of new axiology (theory of values and how they are determined) can be laid down and what value truthfulness, and other virtues, can be judged to have in this newer, truer, post-Christian context.How is this different from what moral philosophers have been doing since at least the 18th Century? And will your account fall outside of the four standard flavours?

  • Daniel Fincke

    Hi bix,Thanks for stopping by and reading through and taking the time to comment on matters obviously very important to me.*To your first point, about the “small portion of the world’s population that is Christian, or has Christian roots.” Western civilization has a huge Christian legacy that has deeply informed its culture in difficult to extricate ways and to that degree, it’s not just a matter of having individual Christian roots, it’s a matter of the extent to which Christianity changed Western culture and is of apiece with it, regardless of particular religious affiliations or practices. This is Nietzsche’s precise point, that atheists were thinking Christianity was this limited aspect of life and thought and resuming their moral studies as though those hadn’t been informed by Christian value judgments and prejudices that needed to be reassessed.And obviously, there are quarters of the world where Christianity has never been the dominant religion, and obviously the crisis I describe doesn’t occur in those places. The axiology I’m trying to work out would be something more universally interesting, but the portion of the dissertation that is trying to assess a historical situation is focused on the Western tradition.Additionally though, it is crucial to note that beyond just the rejection of Christianity the issue is the rejection of monotheism. Many of the gripes Nietzsche has with Christianity are outgrowths of things problematic in the Judaism of the time of Christianity’s offshooting. And I think that Islam is as bad or worse for many of the things problematic about monotheism.It is the way that the legacy of monotheism and particular Christian conceptions of the person affect moral formulation that Nietzsche spends a good time arguing for. The influence is not direct, it’s duplicitously used (by the likes of Kant or Leibniz, for example) without being acknowledged. That’s the whole point. When you say that for a millenium Christianity hasn’t been a genuine standard—-there are several ways it has. #1 As a psychological and cultural reality, the idea that right and wrong is somehow given as “thou shalts” from an arbitrary fiat of a monotheistic God has always remained a huge part of the popular mindset. I agree with you that people have always just worked out their values in response to historical/geographical/political situation and needs. The problem is that religion’s distinct role has been to reinforce and absolutize the value judgments made in such a way as to make further change ruled out. In one generation, the needs dictate making this or that a value. The next generation is told, “thou shalt because God says so” and not given the actual good reasons and when those aren’t good reasons anymore (due to changing circumstances) they don’t have the wherewithall to know to reassess deliberately. And this is the danger of religious conservativism. This pattern of always projecting our values onto gods lets our values rigidify. Nietzsche is articulating how and why this is dangerous and why we need to not just reimagine our gods in more enlightened ways but stop this practice of setting up noble lies that retard progress down the road. And again, its teleological assumptions, its notions of moral equality before God, etc. were barely rooted out in the 19th Century. And in our present context, people may take out God as the basis for saying we’re all morally equal but I’m not seeing a very compelling new basis provided for the assumption we are. That assumption made sense when there was a God declaring it so. Without the arbitrary designation of a monotheistic God, where does “moral equality” come from? The fact that we are all rational beings? What inherent connection do the two have? It may be an ethical ideal we want to promote but there’s no logical connection between our all being rational and our all being morally equal that I’ve ever been able to see plausibly drawn.The notion that Christianity has always changed based on other sociological factors is only partially true. You can’t simply reduce theological belief to mere puppetry of sociological and political and economic factors. It has had its own (changing) logic, sincerely believed in and carried out in interaction with those other forces. The way sociology influences theology, theology sure has returned the favor in spades. Same with political theory. It’s historically unjust to past eras to assume all their theological beliefs were insincerely held. And it does a disservice to understanding religion and its influence not to admit that it can be a novel source of moral or philosophical direction that influences other spheres of life.You do admit it is a “source.” The point of saying it is a “standard” is to say that ultimately its standards have been backed up by purported rationality when rationality should have been reexamining them. The emphasis on selflessness, humility, the distrust of power as an ethically good thing, etc. These are all distinctively Christian innovations in ethics that need to be reexamined and yet are constantly being just reasserted as “clear from rationality” through whatever creative ad hoc justifications now that they lost their real bases in the Christian ethos.The axiology I’ll be working out will be rooted in seeing how “the will to power” can be a basis for judgments of value. Moralities can and must and should vary for people’s to thrive best given their needs. I’m trying to see if what I see in Nietzsche as a common rule for judging the values of the various moralities within their own contexts and needs can work. The axiology is very ROUGHLY “whatever the conditions are that not only sustain but lead to the maximal flourishing of a given type of being are those maximally valuable to it insofar as it IS that type of being.” In general whatever conduces to the strongest, most capable specimens of a species is what it intrinsically values. Now, with humans, what relates to our flourishing will vary wildly in various contexts. The virtues we tend to develop are those to meet the needs of our time and place, etc. We can judge a people’s values and virtues by how well they successfully aid their needs or how badly they retard such accomplishment. This is of course just a rough sketch I’m providing here. There are similarities but important differences from the four categories of moral schools of thought mentioned. I don’t think it fits neatly in any of them. I think of it more as a process philosophy based one that has relationships to virtue theory (which within itself has a consequentialist moment that does not entirely define and overwhelm it.) Most importantly it is not a competing program for an actual moral system but more the attempt to find a basis for judging them and a template for guiding them but not really presuming to know the best for all times and peoples.I hope that addresses sufficiently some of your counter-insights. I fear I may have just multiplied concerns by 5 though ;)

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