Lise was one of the hosts of PEL network podcast Combat & Classics and a St. John’s Santa Fe tutor. She passed away last year, but not before finishing her life’s work, Warspeak, which evolved over many years out of her dissertation on Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals.
Dylan and Seth are joined by guests Michael Grenke and Jeff Black (both teach at St. John’s in Annapolis; Jeff co-hosts C&C) to discuss largely the last two chapters (6 and 7), which begin as a commentary on the Genealogy‘s third essay on asceticism, as covered in our ep. 262, and then go on to give Lise’s counter-ideal to asceticism, which is an attempt to make the positive advice of Nietzsche’s often very criticism-centered philosophy concrete and actionable. A key to this is her emphasis on what Nietzsche doesn’t say about the exceptional women that he calls “seducers” who like philosophers, artists, and scientists, use the ascetic ideal in crafty and at least partially life-affirming ways that point to a road against asceticism at all.
In short, the “serious men” who lead our society are weighed down by what Lise calls the moral-theological prejudice, which at its extreme takes the form of belief in original sin. We believe in all sorts of usually implicit ways that we are doomed by the curse of Adam to lives of boring work, that life is suffering (as the Buddhists say), that we are by default neglecting all sorts of important duties to God and our fellow men. But the liberating thing about existentialism is that none of this is true: We are not born with any nature, any teleology that implies that we simply must do anything in particular, and while we have numerous urges and tendencies and complex psychological and physiological default (and in many cases totally unavoidable) mechanisms for coping with the world that we ignore at our peril, none of this need determine our values.
Now, an existentialist like Sartre interprets this freedom as something of a curse, in that we then have the responsibility to determine these values, lest we merely in bad faith take what’s handed to us. This kind of concern is reflected in Nietzsche’s writings through elements like his eternal recurrence thought experiment, where as we act we are to imagine that this act will happen again and again through eternity. This seems to give grave import to even the most trivial act, and pushes us to really sort out our values and commit to them rather than frittering away our time.
Nonetheless, in Nietzsche and in the thoughts that reading him inspired in Lise, the thing we should realize in getting rid of the moral-theological prejudice is a lightness, and Lise thought that considering the position of woman, who was through no intended boon denied social responsibility, can give us a flavor of what this lightness, this poetic and comic approach to the world, can look like. While the serious man (and I’m using this term as developed by Beauvoir, another feminist Nietzschean) places value in some MacGuffin, those women who were historically denied association with the ideal are actually free from its tyranny and can recognize the actual value in the everyday things around us, our actual human possibilities in the world, instead of devaluing them in favor of some other world. We can have hope in our capacities to make positive change in this world and be satisfied in doing so, instead of just being weary of the human condition and wanting really to escape.
Ch. 6, “The Warrior’s Riddle,” has to do with unraveling why Nietzsche writes the Genealogy‘s third essay the way that he does, but also this “riddle” (an important one, like the riddle of the sphinx, where the sphinx kills you if you don’t guess it) is the riddle of why the ascetic ideal is so prevalent, Nietzsche’s answer being that it’s a tool of the will to power. To “re-value values” as Nietzsche’s project entails means not just coming up with brand-new values, but reworking what we’re given, so we have things like asceticism with a long history, and as life-denying as this can be, it’s something that can serve as raw materials for our own creative valuation. We can use ascetic strategies to create life-affirming things, like how Lise used self-discipline to write her book. By analyzing the various types of people who employ the ascetic ideal, Nietzsche is (in Lise’s interpretation) trying to find how they in fact are in fact drawing on this life-affirming will to power and not on inspiration from the otherworldly MacGuffin.
So we’ve got some discussion of science and scientism in this episode: A scientist who aims to make entirely “value-free” judgments is pursuing an ideal that denies the value of doing science or anything else. And writing: Words themselves are energizing; they’re tools for changing other people. Finally, to return to the feminist aspect of Lise’s book, Nietzsche mentions “seducers” as a type of ascetic, but then writes only about the mass of women who are “work slaves” and so covered by his account of slave morality more generally and the priests that rule over it. Lise fills in the blanks by connecting this absence of an account of seducers by connecting it to other comments of Nietzsche associating the feminine soul with becoming (and males with being): Woman has a “preeminently supple soul” and is akin to “the excellent actor” who can fulfill many roles. A woman has to transform herself to fit in; she is an artist of herself, her own artistic production. This description, though on its face pretty misogynistic per Nietzsche’s reputation, actually accords well with the light, dancing ethic that is the “gay” part of Nietzsche’s “gay science” (equally well translated as “cheerful wisdom”). To be a whole person and avoid the “seriousness” involved with the moral-theological prejudice means being in touch with those personality aspects associated with both sexes, to have both lightness and weight in counter-balancing degrees.
Buy Lise’s Warspeak: Nietzsche’s Victory Over Nihilism.
Audio editing by Tyler Hislop.