“For the existentialists, the human being is ‘more’ than what it is: not only does the human being know that it is but, on the basis of this fundamental knowledge, this being can choose how it will ‘use’ its own being, and thus how it will relate to the world.”
Existentialism is the philosophical theory that claims, “existence precedes essence”, as Jean Paul Sartre said. These ideas have come to be associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that humans must exercise their natural freedom or risk destroying mankind’s capacity to think critically. Art is regarded as an expression of this human freedom. Nietzsche speaks of chaos, or one’s individual creativity, which – when sought through the acquisition of self-knowledge – will result in a dancing star, or a unique contribution to the world, accompanied by a feeling of divine happiness. I hold the position that any individual creative expression can be considered art. I believe that the aspect of chief importance, when creating or judging a piece of art, is self-knowledge; without this, you are simply a product of the humanized world – of the people and things that surround you – and art has no way of communicating to you.
Abbreviations for the five of Nietzsche’s published works, selected for use in this paper:
- AOM = Vermischte Meinungen und Sprüche (in Menschliches Allzumenschliches II): frequently translated as Assorted Opinions and Maxims
- BGE = Jenseits von Gut und Böse; translated as Beyond Good and Evil
- BT = Die Geburt der Tragödie; translated as The Birth of Tragedy
- GS = Die fröhliche Wissenschaft; frequently translated as The Gay Science or The Joyful Wisdom
- Z = Also sprach Zarathustra (part IV originally published privately); translated as Thus Spoke Zarathustra; references to this work also include an abbreviated section name
“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue, 5
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) was a German philosopher who praised the individual ‘self’ and spoke out against the familiar dogmatism that was – and still is – daily life for the vast majority of people in the world; this epidemic, Nietzsche referred to as, “Human, All Too Human”. He rejected just about everything that could be deemed ‘traditional’, such as religion and morality. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes how Nietzsche believed in life, creativity, power, and the realities of the world we live in; he spoke of “life-affirmation” which involves ‘an honest questioning of all doctrines that drain life’s expansive energies, however socially prevalent those views might be.”
Nietzsche was very interested in the ancient Greeks’ culture. One of the fundamental ideas surrounding his entire philosophy is the Dionysian conception of creativity. Regarding art and aesthetics, Nietzsche writes, “Man believes that the world itself is filled with beauty – he forgets that he created it.” By this, he means, humans have the ability to use their inner creativity to transform the world into a work of art; however, we must first start by making our ‘selves’ a work of art, says Nietzsche. “As an aesthetic phenomenon, existence is still endurable to us, and through art we are given eye and hand, and above all a good conscience to enable us to make of ourselves such a phenomenon.”
I am going to argue that in order to accurately classify a piece of artwork or an aesthetic judgment as ‘yours’, you must first have recognized your individual identity – know your ‘self’ – on the inside. Like Nietzsche, I am going to advocate an individualistic philosophy. Per Zarathustra, we all have the ability to “give birth to a dancing star”, with only one catch: we must first realize that ‘reality’ as commonly conceptualized, is actually just an aggregate collection of all too human influence that we encounter on a daily basis, and thus, we must move beyond it.
II. Nietzsche and Zarathustra
Realizing that the majority of humans would not be functional without the presence of legends, Nietzsche sought to create a new mythology following his proclamation that “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” Thus Spoke Zarathustra is essentially an elaborate parody of The Bible; however, “Zarathustra desires only disciples who are independent thinkers and who will resist following slavishly in his footsteps.” Zarathustra lived alone in the mountains for ten happy, peaceful years; prior to leaving, he spoke to the setting sun, saying, “I must descend…become man again.” Always trying to progress toward the “overman”, or the one that “[goes] over the common herd man, under modern man(…those reduced to fragments and limbs), and deeper into man.” Nietzsche’s meaning behind this ideal “overman”, was that we all need to embrace what it means to be human: use our unique ability to critically think for the purpose of considering and questioning everything, in order to discover what’s all too human and what’s meaningful to us.
Of Nietzsche, Walter Kaufmann wrote, “A frightful arsenal of poisons and drugs, yet the only helpers in the empty silence of this strange room…he wanted to get out of himself and work up whatever might be in him.” Nietzsche lived alone in a modest boarding house; despite suffering from various ailments, he would write tirelessly in his room for hours on end. “[Thus Spoke Zarathustra] was the work of a thoroughly lonely man…the soul’s dialogue with itself.” Nietzsche wrote, “the individual who has risen above the herd” may be required to pay the price of loneliness for nonconformity. He likened himself to Spinoza, who was excommunicated from his synagogue for possessing [individual] unorthodox views. Spinoza wrote, “To live alone one must be either a beast or a god, says Aristotle. Leaving out the third case: one must be both – a philosopher.” As previously noted, Kaufmann said Thus Spoke Zarathustra was written to the effect of Nietzsche’s soul being put on paper; “The overman shall be the meaning of the Earth.”(Z, Prologue, 3)
Following his descent from the mountains, Zarathustra arrived at a town where the people laughed at him, mocking every word he spoke. He was saddened by being misunderstood. “I say unto you: one must still have the chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you, you still have the chaos in yourselves. Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give birth to a star…Behold, I show you the last man.” The ‘last man’ is the one of many that are forfeiting their inner creativity; they succumb to the all to human influences because it has proven to be the easier of the two paths, since the other one is that which you go alone. This chaos that Nietzsche writes of will burn out. Future generations will know anything of this inner chaos – the people in the present are setting an example that more often than not shuns it, if its existence is even hinted to. “What is love?…creation?…longing?…a star?”, Zarathustra asked the people. They didn’t know, for interpreting metaphors and abstract terms requires creativity in the intellect.
III. What exactly does ‘chaos’ mean? How does it allow us to give birth to a star?
“Those thinkers in whom the stars move in cyclic orbits are not the most profound. Whoever looks into himself as into vast space and carries galaxies in himself, also knows how irregular galaxies are; they lead into chaos and the labyrinth of existence.”(GS, 322)
Nietzsche’s use of the word ‘chaos’ is reminiscent of the ancient Greeks’ definition; it should be read as synonymous with the Greek word ‘physis’, meaning, “that which brings forth for and out of itself.” The ancient Greek mythology’s account of how the universe came to be says, “Chaos was first of all” Nietzsche identifies chaos as “the creative potential within culture…the will to power…the fundamental essence of the world.” Consider today’s definition of ‘chaos’. Immediately upon hearing the word, most would envision a mess – complete and total confusion or a total lack of any organization. This creative force, that previously referred to the infinity of space before anything else existed, now has a negative connotation. As Zarathustra said, this chaos is an endangered human trait and it is imperative that it is realized within each of us before it is too late.
There are great rewards that will follow self-discovery of chaos. Immediately, there will be a sense of freedom; later, there will be a dancing star. Comparable in beauty to that of a sunset and described as a feeling of divine happiness, each individual’s dancing star is his or her unique contribution to the world – be it a thought, a painting, a novel, or even just one less negative person. “[I]t is up to man to give his life meaning by raising himself above the animals and the all too human…our so-called human nature is precisely what we should do well to overcome.”
The Dionysian culture was a central foundation behind the formation of Nietzsche’s ideas. This was the ancient Greek way of life, prior to the life of Socrates. Around the time of Socrates, there was a transition from the Dionysian to an Apollonian culture. The Dionysian essence was “a celebration of life’s creative cycles…[that] threatened the viability of identities necessary for political life.” Apollonian secular asceticism severely harms the idea of the ‘self’ by maximizing the importance of the social ladder and destroying the Dionysian preconditions for self-transformation. By practicing such self-denial, as an Apollonian culture wouldn’t deter one from doing, the people had lost sight of the mere possibility of going under, like Zarathustra, toward personal Dionysian chaos. Nietzsche compared these two opposing cultural attitudes to what needed to happen in Germany; he believed that the German spirit needed to be returned to “itself” – characterized by the fulfillment of cultural potential fueled by each person’s self-determination. ‘Know Thyself’, was an inscription at the Delphic Oracle, Apollo’s temple. To those who sought guidance from Apollo, these words were to serve as a reminder that the people visiting the Oracle were not gods, but mere humans with limitations; however, I would recommend that we should instead take ‘know thyself’ for face-value; perhaps, if everyone knew themselves, seeking the advice of an oracle may no longer be considered ‘necessary’.
IV. Existentialism and Aesthetics
Around the early to middle twentieth century, Nietzsche began to be recognized as an Existentialist. Existentialists emphasize existence and believe that humans actively engage in the world and act as a result of each individual’s own free will; they emphasize the radical nature of human freedom which grounded the possibility of knowledge in its deepest form: critical thinking. Existentialism does not promote any sacrifice of creative freedom to some ‘higher value’.
Specifically regarding aesthetics, Existentialists claim “Intentionality” is a driving force “all meanings are constituted through acts of human consciousness”; they have also called art “a revelation of the world”. Jean-Paul Sartre, who said, “existence precedes essence”, defined a literary work as “…an imaginary presentation of the world inasmuch as it requires human freedom.” All artistic activity is considered an existential choice; as such, it requires a level of freedom, both of the artist and of the spectator to realize its fundamental aims. The first aim of art is to purposefully use the uniquely human ability to think critically to introduce meaning; the second is the act of becoming aware of the meaning conveyed and how it displays our ability to exercise such radical freedom.
V. Who are you?
If someone were to ask you to describe your identity, how would you respond? Would it be with a description of your career, your education, or where you live? Nietzsche says, “Forget your origin, your past, your preparatory schooling, your whole history as man and beast.”(GS 57) Humans have a tendency to reduce each ‘self’ to a bulleted list of familiar generic titles (i.e. ‘Student’; ‘White’; ‘Bostonian’; ‘Mother’; etc.) Those four examples could very well be applied to me and if asked about myself, I’m sure they would be the first things I mention; however, no matter how many ‘generics’ are added together, they will never equal a ‘self’. Nietzsche says, “Will a ‘self’, and thou shalt become a ‘self’.”(AOM 366) Going by Nietzsche’s words, it seems a desire to exceed the capacities of ‘Student’, ‘White’, and so on, is required, to make your ‘self’ a work of art.
Our belief system, feelings, and sensations are impacted by our own individual conceptions of reality, which is essentially an internal .zip file containing a lifetime’s worth of preferences, fantasies, fears, prejudices, ignorance, and so on. Our experience, “[which] could itself be [just] a particular interpretation of events that was driven by prior beliefs”, shapes our relations toward people and things in the world, and subsequently, our own ‘reality’. Naturally, through daily life, we develop this individual ‘reality’ which includes [but is definitely not limited to] a sense of acceptable morality, a number of likes, dislikes, ideas [regarding what we believe to be true or false], impressions, and interpretations of things both new and those familiar to us. It is important to note, however, that the experiences we face in life are purely empirical; as such, we rely on the sense data we collect, as opposed to theorizing and developing independent thoughts.
“Universals are a class of mind-independent entities usually contrasted with individuals (or so-called ‘particulars’) postulated to ground and explain relations of qualitative identity and resemblance among individuals.” Going forward, I will only be addressing the universals that can be applied to humans. There are three philosophical theories that focus on universals: Extreme Realism and Strong Realism, argue – though each to a different degree – that universals are a fact of life; Nominalism and Conceptualism reject their existence. Presently, I liken my idea of universals to that of the latter form of Realism. For example, I naturally have brown hair. My sister Christine also has natural brown hair and the same is true for my childhood friend Eddie; so, the three of us share the universal of brown hair. This could appear to be problematic based on the fact that the universal ‘brown hair’ would be in three places at once; however, according to Strong Realism, the color brown can be in multiple places at the same time because when it exists, it is the numerical equivalent of every other instance of its existence.
Naturally, humans group things into various classes and we also classify ourselves. I could be classified by the universal ‘brown hair’ and so could every other natural-born brunette; I could also fit the universals ‘mother’, ‘female’, ‘registered Republican’, and ‘near-sighted glasses-wearer’. Looking over that short list, I’m sure there are thousands, if not millions of people who also fit in the same five groups. Here is where it gets complicated for me; I do not have a problem with whether or not universals exist [since, I fully believe that they do] – for me, the problem lies in the way that universals are formed and how their presence minimizes the need for a ‘self’. For example, someone could guess by my Republican-status that I am a god-fearing, anti-abortion, anti-homosexual, pro-George W. Bush type of person; given the fact that they ‘know’ so much about me already, Democrats need not waste their time talking to me because we do not share political ideologies. On the other hand, someone who is a fellow Republican might want to befriend me because they assume that every Republican will share the ideas that I just mentioned, since they do. The problem lies in the fact that I oppose each of the ‘Republican’ qualities that I just mentioned. While I would say I am more conservative as opposed to liberal, particularly with how my taxes are spent, my main purpose for having any political affiliation, honestly, was to reduce the percentage of Democrats in Massachusetts, no matter how slightly I affected the numbers. My example may seem arbitrary, but it served to illustrate my point that no fact of truth is necessary when consciously or subconsciously establishing, joining, or evaluating a particular group or universal; thus, faulty belief systems and stereotypes are born.
“We are far from being so alien to one another as you think.”(GS 57) The fact of the matter is, we all apprehend ‘reality’ in our own way and as human beings, we tend to group ourselves and others according to apparent similarities. Groups effectively minimize the importance of individual identity by maximizing that of the group with the use of sayings like, “We are one!” To continue to pick on my Massachusetts Republicans, http://www.massgop.com is trying to recruit volunteers for election season with the messages, “Our GOP”, “The Mass GOP Needs You”. Similarly, the ancient Greek mythology “employed art as a means of creating and sustaining a collective identity in time…[this identity] emerged out of an aesthetic moment when poet and listener ‘immersed’ themselves in the ‘beauty of mere appearances.’(BT 44) If something sounds appealing, people will be attracted to it, and as a result, groups gain strength.
Be it ‘group-think’, a fear of embarrassment or other repercussions among peers (et. al.), having a desire to belong somewhere, or simply being content with trusting and conforming some higher authority, all people at sometime or another are [consciously or subconsciously] members of a universal and classify others to the same effect.
VI. Nietzsche and Ralph Waldo Emerson
Some philosophers who study the similarities between Nietzsche and Emerson argue that Nietzsche was influenced in a higher degree than by anyone else; however, this is usually looked at as a case where the ‘student’ far surpasses the ‘teacher’. When comparing these two philosophers, we must remember what separated them: half of the world. The boarding house where Nietzsche resided had nothing in common with the peaceful property that Emerson had in Concord, Massachusetts.
The question of art for both revolves around the natural world. Nietzsche says, “In man, creature and creator are united.”(BGE 225) By this he means, humans need to look around and acknowledge the fact that beauty is a human concept; in fact, without human contribution, the world would lack spaces created [by a non-divine being] with one’s artistic vision in mind, for the purpose of being aesthetically pleasing. “Re-naturalized humanity” is the only way that we are going to be liberated “to the chaos from the all too human”. Emerson says, “The beauty of nature reforms itself in the mind, and not for barren contemplation, but for new creation…the world thus exists to the soul to satisfy the desire of beauty.” Mankind and nature are not simply two separate entities that can just barely cohabitate together on Earth; nature is not just for our comprehension – both collaborate together, working its artistry on the other.
Regarding the knowledge of truths, Nietzsche believes that the artist has a weaker morality than the thinker; but, he goes on to describe how this “weakness” is a result of the artist’s belief in the miraculous and how he fights on behalf of the significance of man. “Poets seek to alleviate the life of men…they turn eyes away from the toilsome present [not in order to think for them, as a group might do]…they are bridges to quite distant ages and conceptions.”
Emerson’s idea of the ‘highest beauty’, seems to resemble Zarathustra’s journey toward the overman and the process of letting the all to human things go. “Ascend to the highest beauty…the love and knowledge of the divinity…we don’t lose anything by progress of the soul – this is so beautiful, only surpassed in beauty by God…[we] must lose finite character and blend with God to attain one’s own perfection.” It should be noted that Emerson, like Nietzsche, rejected traditional religion; this leads me to believe that the chief point here is: we must allow to soul to progress toward its ‘own’ perfection by leaving the all to human influences behind.
“Nietzsche subtitles his own reflections on his life as an author: How One Becomes What One Is. For if one can be thus recalled to oneself, the result is a dancing star…” Chaos is our unique identity which allows for creativity to develop our own ideas and interpretations; these should be represented however each individual prefers, whether it be by painting on canvas, writing on paper, or verbally sharing your thoughts. Conforming to others and simply following their lead will not result in your unique contribution to the world. Only through the acquisition of self-knowledge, will you produce a dancing star. Overcome the all too human and allow your ‘self’ to be free – allow art to flow freely.
Babich, Babette E. “Nietzsche’s Chaos sive natura: Evening Gold and the Dancing Star.” Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia. 2001. pp. 224-245. Dept. of Philosophy, Fordham University. New York.
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Deranty, Jean-Philippe, “Existentialist Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aesthetics-existentialist/>
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Complete Essays”. Complete Works Collection. 2011. Amazon Digital Services/Kindle Version.
Flynn, Thomas. Existentialism. 2006/2009. Oxford University Press/Sterling Press Company, New York.
Gertler, Brie, “Self-Knowledge”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/self-knowledge/>
Hummel, Herman. “Emerson and Nietzsche”. The New England Quarterly (Vol.19 No.1 March 1996) pp.63-84.
Kaufmann, Walter ed. The Gay Science (Nietzsche, Friedrich) 1882,1887/1974. Vintage Books. New York.
Kaufmann, Walter ed. The Portable Nietzsche. 1954/1982. Viking Penguin, Inc., New York.
McCarthy, John. Remapping Reality: Chaos and Creativity in Science and Literature. 2006. Editions Rodopi. Amsterdam/New York.
Pratt, Alan. “Nihilism”, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2001/2005, </http://www. iep.utm.edu/nihilism/#H3>
Village, Andrew. The Bible and Lay People: An Empirical Approach to Ordinary Hermeneutics. Ashgate Publishing Company. 2007. MPG Books, Great Britain.
Wicks, Robert, “Friedrich Nietzsche”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche/>
Williams, Thomas D. and Bengtsson, Jan Olof, “Personalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/personalism/>
 Kaufmann 1982, p.129
 In 1878, Nietzsche published part one of Human, All Too Human, subtitled: “A Book for Free Spirits”.
 Hollingdale (Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations 19-20)
 Hollingdale (Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 107)
 Kaufmann 1974, pp.181-182 (Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 125)
 McCarthy, p.239
 Kaufmann 1982, p.122
 Ibid., pp.104-105
 Ibid., p.105
 Flynn, p.30
 Ibid. p.31
 Kaufmann 1982, p.124
 Ibid., p.129
 Kaufmann 1974, p.254
 Babich, p.227
 Hesiod, line 120
 Babich, p.225-226
 Kaufmann 1982, p.115
 Gambino, p.416
 Gooding-Williams, p.88
 Ibid., p.103
 Oedipus the King
 Flynn, p.60
 Village, Andrew. Page 162.
 MacLeod and Reubenstein
 Kaufmann, 1974
 Gambino, p.419
 Babich, p.245