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.”

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