On The Powers Of Personal And Political Bodies Over Their Apparent Mental Leaders

On The Powers Of Personal And Political Bodies Over Their Apparent Mental Leaders May 27, 2010

The Peaceful Atheist finds “consciousness-lowering” experiences in which she escapes her aloof and wandering mind to reconnect with her tangible and oft-forgotten body to be greater than her many “consciousness-raising” experiences.  She writes:

It’s extremely hard for me to escape the internal labyrinth of my mind and focus completely on something external.  Often after being lost in thought I look down and am actually surprised by the fact that I have a body, that I’m not just a neural blob floating in infinite dimensions of mental space.  Where did these arms come from!?Like the piles of papers and articles scattered in disarray around my desk, I know my body’s there, but it’s just so easy to forget when my mind is somewhere else.

There is a scene I remember vividly: last summer, I’m kayaking on the ocean on a sunny day.  The landscape is not outrageously beautiful, but the colors are bright and sparks of white light bounce off the waves crests on their way to my retinas.  I felt as though I’d opened my eyes and suddenly found myself there.  Suddenly I felt very much a part of the world of hard things: rock and bone and muscles and skin.  I felt like a different person, but I didn’t know how or if it was good or bad.  I was so stripped of my internal universe that I had no automatic value system to reference.  It wasn’t a feeling of depersonalization, when the self dissolves into the solvent of spacetime and seems to disappear.  It was the opposite: I was as aware of myself as ever, but had hopped across the event horizon between my mind and the world.  For a rare moment, I had shed my internal landscape for an external one, and it was so complete that I didn’t realize it until many months later.

In my case, as someone who also lives in his head, I am still barely aware of my body as externalization but increasingly in touch with the reality of the body as the driver of consciousness and the subconscious as the determinant of the conscious.  I’m increasingly aware of the ways that I function on automatic pilot, unaware of the processing in my brain which determines my actions and even unaware of certain actions my brain initiates without any conscious order from my “will” but which I nonetheless identify with completely as my actions.

I have increasingly adopted Nietzsche’s view of the soul as a set of interacting “drives” or parts of the brain which comprise ourselves and run ourselves the way that the various bureaus of a government run a polity.  If there is a distinguishable will or “real self” amidst all the “agencies” running their various departments, it is like an executive who him or herself only explicitly handles a relatively small number of the choices that need to be made.  Most of the time, the choices are made and carried out by the subordinates in the name of the executive’s administration.  They’re all the executive’s responsibility and are ultimately attributed to the executive, but few of them cross the executive’s mind or involve his or her attention.

And every member of the administration of the self is inherently bodily, from the subordinates to the executive.  As Nietzsche himself puts it in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and Nobody (Part I, Section 4: “On The Despisers of the Body”, pg. 30 (translated by Graham Parkes):

‘Body am I and soul’–thus talks the child.  And why should one not talk like children?

But the awakened one, the one who knows, says:  Body am I through and through, and nothing besides; and soul is merely a word for something about the body.

The body is a great reason, a manifold in one sense, a war and a peace, a herd and a herdsman.

A tool of the body is your small reason too, my brother, which you call ‘spirit’, a small tool and toy of your great reason.

‘I’ you say, and you are proud of this word.  But the greater thing–in which you do not want to believe–is your body and its great reason:  it does not say I, but does I.

What the senses feel, what the spirit knows, that never has its end in itself.  But senses and spirit would like to persuade you that they are the end of all things:  that is how vain they are.

Tools and toys are senses and spirit: behind them lies the Self.*  The Self seeks with the eyes of the senses too, it listens with the ears of the spirit too.

Always the Self listens and seeks:  it compares, compels, conquers, destroys.  IT rules and is also the I’s ruler.

Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, stands a mighty commander, an unknown wise man–his name is Self.  In your body he dwells, he is your body.

There is more reason in your body than in your finest wisdom.  And who knows to what end your body needs precisely your finest wisdom?

Your Self laughs at your I and its proud leapings.  ‘What are these leapings and soarings of thought to me?’ it says to itself.  ‘A detour to my purpose.  I am the leading-reins of th I and the prompter of its conceptions. ‘

The Self says to the I:  ‘Feel pain here!’  And then it suffers and thinks about how it might suffer no more–and this is what it is meant to think.

To the despisers of the body will I say a word.  That they despise, that makes for respecting.  What is it that created respecting and despising and valuing and willing?

The Self created for itself respecting and despising, it created pleasure and woe.  The creating body created spirit for itself as a hand of its will.

Read the whole book or, at least finish reading his admonition of the body’s despisers here.

Nietzsche’s account downplays the “I” we experience as not really the “executive” within the great manifold of oneself but rather he calls the Body the I, calls the Body the Self.  But ultimately, the dynamics are the same as in my sketch, only Nietzsche gives the Body the ultimate credit of agency since it is where the bulk of judgments that determine what we think and do happen.  What consciousness, feelings, senses, etc. give us are only a tiny fraction of what is happening throughout our body and determining ourselves to be what we are.

There is a final political irony here.  If we look realistically at government or corporate institutions, or any other incorporated groups of humans, any other grouping of people where many people function as though comprising one body (corpus), we realize that the leaders for the most part have their decisions determined by the interests, activities, and judgments of all the many components of the larger body whose own decisions and deeds make up the vast majority of what ultimately shapes and constrains the small number of conscious, deliberative, momentous decisions left to the executives.

The irony here is that in the case of the body, Nietzsche, who normally trumpets the importance of the leader at the expense of the many (see Beyond Good & Evilsections 258 and 265) gives the credit to the total body and not the “executive awareness” as the true essence of the Self.  The wisdom is in the many components of the body functioning in their blind ways, in such ways as to run the entire organism and even determine the judgments of the apparently executive mind.  The supposed leader, supposedly separated and special, “not merely bodily” mind is really just another part of the body and one which is ultimately subservient to the direction of all the other bodily cells combined.

And so if we understand Nietzsche’s political analogy for the soul and its emphasis on the many who make possible the apparent One and who really determine what it is, what it is as true Self, might we have a basis for flipping Nietzsche’s own political judgment and argue that the great leaders, the achievement of whom he alleges are worth the sacrificing of the many ordinary, are really themselves also merely the functions of the larger body polities which they apparently rule?

(Brian Leiter, Maudemarie Clark, and John Richardson have articles in which they insightfully debate each other’s competing interpretations of Nietzsche’s psychology of consciousness and autonomy in Nietzsche on Freedom and Autonomy)

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