The Idea Of Mysticism Is Not The Experience Of Mysticism

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Nietzsche’s Life Affirmation And Sartre’s Cave-Like Ego

Jan. ’78 Book Report Concluded

“Movement away from ego,” although not as pronounced as in Kierkegaard and Heidegger, was still existentialized in the philosophies of Nietzsche and Sartre. Just how much distance opened between the “acting agent” and the agent’s ego in each of these respective philosophies was debatable, but it was there nevertheless. Also, the concept of nothingness played a major roll in each of these philosophies, perhaps more in Sartre than in Nietzsche, but, even so, Nietzsche too, actualized the ego’s relationship to nothingness.

For Nietzsche, nature had meaning, but only in so far as it was understood as the “will to power.” The will to power was not selfishness, a mere personalized desire; rather it took the form of the life-affirming meaning of an impersonal will to power. Nietzsche said, “To become what one is, one must not have the faintest notion what one is.”

For Nietzsche, solitude was necessitated by this ability to continually affirm life. Physical solitude was admirable, but Nietzsche had in mind a different kind of solitude, a more extreme kind. Life became affirmed at the expense of self. Life affirmation brought with it an unavoidable upsurge of nihilism, and this nihilism replaced the self. (This was not the same thing as purging oneself in a protest against life. That was the way of decadence and Nietzsche would have nothing to do with that kind of self-sacrifice.) In life-affirmation only awareness remained, and that too got affirmed. In life-affirmation, the “how’s,” “what’s”, and “why’s” lost all validity. The values of unity, purpose, reason, faith, etc. vanished when in the presence of this affirmation. Only a “yes” was permitted, a “yes” to life, a “yes” to subjectivity, a “yes” to nothingness. Nietzsche, in his characteristically one of a kind style, went “outside” to get “inside.” In his pursuit of the will to power, he ended up at the base of subjectivity, which he called by the name “eternal recurrence.”

Nietzsche’s will to power necessitates a constant appeal to oneself, and, in the hands of his Ubermensch, the power of that appeal gets expressed in the form of “that which must always be overcome.” In the hands of the rabblepeople not able to aspire to their own destiny, the power of that appeal, typically, takes the form of action against an “other.” Aggression, tyranny, violence, brutality and war result from the expression of that kind of power. In Nietzsche, the power to destroy is transformed into the power to create. “Only among men of highest nobility,” says Nietzsche, “is it possible to successfully exist with a steady “yes” upon one’s lips.”

In Kierkegaard, the inner journey into subjectivity ended with a person discovering his or her “nothingness before God.” In Heidegger, the journey ended with the appropriation of a similar nothingness–the discovery of Being-in-the-world, the condition for any “knowing” whatsoever. In Nietzsche, that nothingness, along with subjectivity itself, was affirmed. The positive results of faith, authenticity, and life affirmation, respectively, are not found in Sartre. Rather, the nothingness discovered by Sartre condemned humanity to a kind of purgatory. “The self is free from all but self,” says Sartre. Here the self is cut off from everything except from its own nothingness.

For starters, Sartre’s self, the for-itself, was a natural extension of the Cartesian ego. Both Sartre and Descartes were convinced that the ego was the absolute truth of awakened consciousness. For Descartes, doubt (and simple, clear ideas) became the all-important means by which to discover truth while for Sartre that doubt turned into a subjective nothingness attached to ego. While Sartre was no less committed to the self-awareness of the ego than Descartes, he shifted the foundations of that awareness away from doubt (ultimately God for Descartes) to nihility.

Where as for Kierkegaard and Heidegger, nothingness became a vehicle for a kind of liberation, for Sartre, it shut the ego up within itself, it condemned the ego to a cave-like existence. Sartre’s existentialism, grounded as it was in an ego/nothingness, left man with nothing to rely on, either within himself or without. The path toward deeper subjectivity could take Sartre no further. With no escape from nothingness, it was almost as if Sartre condemned man to the categories of agreeable/disagreeable, Kierkegaard’s aesthetic stage of life. His position on ethics, however, became an existential humanist one, meaning that the good of all ought to be preferred over acts of self-indulgence. For him, man was indeed condemned, though not in a hedonistic aesthetic sense, rather, he was condemned to be free. Human freedom, for Sartre, was necessary to account for the movement from nothingness to actual situatedness. How we existed had to be chosen, chosen from a multitude of possibilities. According to Sartre, “the human project, suspended in nothingness, projected the self ceaselessly outside of itself.” Human beings acted and because of this, Sartre was unequivocally able to state that man was indeed condemned to freedom.

Sartre’s No Exit And Nishitani’s Sunyata

Sartre believed that his theory was the only theory truly compatible with the dignity of man be
cause his theory didn’t turn man into an object. However, according to Nishitani, the problem with that belief was that no matter how much the self’s subjectivity got stressed, as long as the “cogito” maintained the standpoint of self-consciousness, there would always be a tendency to turn the self into an object. “Moreover,” says Nishitani, “even though Sartre’s theory appears to preserve the dignity of man in his subjective autonomy and freedom, the real dignity of man seems to me to belong only to one who has been ‘reborn,’ only in the ‘new man’ that emerges in us when we are born by dying, when we break through nihility.” Nishitani is speaking from a Buddhist perspective, which understands sunyata (nothingness, emptiness) as non-ego.

The nothingness-at-the-bottom-of-the-self (the for-itself) is not sunyata because sunyata is not the ground of the subject. The nothingness bound self of Sartre may be fundamentally deepened, but as long as it makes itself present as an object of consciousness, it remains a kind of being, a kind of object. To see nothingness in that way is to see the self as having no ground to stand on. But, says Nishitani, — “the nothingness that means ‘there is no ground’ (the nothingness of Sartre’s for-itself) positions itself like a wall to block one’s path and turns itself into a kind of ground, so we can still say that ‘there is a ground.’ However, only absolute emptiness is the true no-ground (Ungrund). Only from the perspective of absolute emptiness is the flower, stone, stellar nebulae, galactic systems, and even life and death themselves—present as bottomless realities. True freedom lies in this no-ground. Sartre’s freedom is still bondage, a kind of hole that has the ego projected into it like a stake driven into the ground for the self to be tied to.”– Sartre’s ego then has more in common with bondage than it does with freedom, or so says Nishitani, and I agree.

Absolute nothingness, as opposed to Sartre’s negative nothingness at the center of self-consciousness, is the source of real freedom. This nothingness, sunyata, took center stage in Nishitani’s book Religion and Nothingness, and according to Nishitani (and here I will let him speak for himself here), before we can understand sunyata we must understand that nihilty is not sunyata:

Nihility—The Object Of Negation (as quoted from Nishitani’s book)

[Nihility is an absolute negation aimed at all “existence,” and thus is related to existence. The essence of nihility consists in a purely negative (antipodal) negativity. Its standpoint contains the self-contradiction that it can neither abide in existence nor abide being away from it. It is a standpoint torn in two from within. Therein lies its transitional character. We call it the standpoint of nihility, but in fact it is not a field one can stand on in the proper sense of the term. It is no more than a spot we have to “run quickly across.” As essentially transitional and a negative negativity, it is “radically real” but the standpoint itself is essentially hollow and void, ….The standpoint of sunyata is another thing altogether. It is not a standpoint of simply negative negativity, nor is it an essentially transitional standpoint. It is the standpoint at which absolute negation is at the same time, in the sense explained above, a Great Affirmation. It is not a standpoint that only states that the self and things are empty. If this were so, it would be no different from the way that nihility opens up at the ground of things and the self. The foundations of the standpoint of sunyata lie elsewhere: not that the self is empty, but that emptiness is the self; not that things are empty, but that emptiness is things. Once this conversion has taken place, we are able to pass beyond the standpoint on which nihility is seen as the far side that is beyond us (the Buddhist idea of the “yonder shore” of the sea of samsaric suffering), but a far side that we have arrived at. (p.137)]

Nishitani’s Sunyata

[All things that are in the world are linked together, one way or the other. Not a single thing comes into being without some relationship to every other thing. Scientific intellect thinks here in terms of natural laws of necessary causality; mythico-poetic imagination perceives an organic, living connection; philosophic reason contemplates an absolute One. But on a more essential level, a system of circuminsession has to be seen here, according to which, on the field of sunyata, all things are in a process of becoming master and servant to one another. In this system, each thing is itself in not being itself, and is not itself in being itself. Its being is illusion in its truth and truth in its illusion. This may sound strange the first time one hears it, but in fact it enables us for the first time to conceive of a force by virtue of which all things are gathered together and brought into relationship with one another, a force which, since ancient times, has gone by the name of “nature” (physis).]

[To say that a thing is not itself means that, while continuing to be itself, it is in the home-ground of everything else. Figuratively speaking, its roots reach across into the ground of all other things and helps to hold them up and keep them standing. It serves as a constitutive element of their being so that they can be what they are, and thus provides an ingredient of their being. That a thing is itself means that all other things, while continuing to be themselves, are in the home-ground of that thing; that precisely when a thing is on its own home-ground, everything else is there too; that the roots of every other thing spread across into its home-ground. This way that everything has of being on the home-ground of everything else, without ceasing to be on its own home-ground, means that the being of each thing is held up, kept standing, and made to be what it is by means of the being of all other things: or, put the other way around, that each thing holds up the being of every other thing, keeps it standing, and makes it what it is. In a word, it means that all things “are” in the “world.” (p.149)]


2 Responses to “The Idea Of Mysticism Is Not The Experience Of Mysticism”

  1. wings Says:

    No words. Not yet, anyways. But I wanted you to know that I read what you write. I look forward to it. And sometimes I read it back and forth and then come back and read again and read somemore. Face and eyes and nose sometimes scrunched up and sometimes just staring hard…not just because it is “hard” but because there is something here for me. And it is new learning. Thank you, for what you write here. Haha… this is me having no words…guess that would be the day!

  2. dave Says:

    Thank you for your comment Wings. I apologize for the confusion. I do appreciate your effort to try and make sense out of what I write. The least I can do here is explain what this book report (and future ones) mean to me so that you will be able to judge just how much effort you want to expend in the future.

    I will be posting a couple more papers (shorter papers) before I get to my bicycle trip. That trip, my longest, starts south of San Francisco and heads up the coast (I bike the length of Vancouver Island), take the ferry to Prince Rupert, and then turn east and head back to Michigan. But getting back to the book report that made your face cringe; as a child we are handed our parents’ religion. We accept that religion or reject it. If we reject it, we seek out a new religion (sometimes going back to the rejected one), or, we become an atheist. The point is that religion/God is somehow wired into our genetic code as “a need to make sense out of a sane and/or insane world that we inhabit” (even the no religion, no God, of the atheist is still religion).

    I have found the one true religion and, for me, it consists of living, loving, believing, learning, and, seeking to understand our “life journeys.” Yours, mine, and all other life journeys may not only be conceived of as uniquely determined, but also as a religion that is universally experienced. Religiously living, believing, learning, seeking, and loving is religion. A very famous philosopher once said words to the affect (after spending half his life investigating the limits of language and logical analysis): where meaning (truth functional logic applied to propositions concerning facts) cannot go, one should not speak. In a limited sense, I agree with Mr. Wittgenstein, but when one’s life journey becomes synonymous with logic, language, God, and all the emotions Ma Nature can dish out, then not speaking, I believe, becomes synonymous with sin (that may be the only case where the word sin applies). So, as I record my reasons for my religion, I suspect there will be a lot of turned up eyebrows from occasional blog readers. That’s fine, just don’t burn me at the stake—pleeease! I wanted Martin Buber to have the last word here, but, try as I may, I could not find the quote I was looking for in his book “Between Man And Man.” This is what I remember of it though: He said that what separates humans from animals is the incredible potential humans have to expand their horizons. What separates humans from humans is the way that potential gets squandered. For the most part, squandered potential occurs across a wide spectrum of chaotic endeavourers. However, wasted potential is different from potential actualized in the service of finding a home, or going home as Buber might say. For Buber, “home” is found in I-Thou relationships.

    Eventually, after my bicycle trip, my writing will concentrate more on what my religion entails. I will even describe an existential logic that, I believe, grounds truth functional logic. In that description, new light will be shed on the Sartre/de Beauvoir for-itself concept. Sartre’ people might disagree with me here, but I bet they would at least be willing to give me a star or two for creativity.

    Take care,

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