Part V: Alyosha and Zarathustra on Com-passion and a Genuine Embodied Life
from Per Caritatem by Cynthia R. Nielsen
As we have seen, both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche share a number of common themes and concerns-an emphasis on embodied living, a critique of rationalism and reductionistic accounts of human beings, and a high view of mystery. Yet, we have also highlighted the ways in which these authors and their characters differ due to their radically divergent worldviews. Dostoevsky’s Christian faith, though allowing for and even inviting numerous cognitive and emotional tensions, many of which are purposely left unresolved, ultimately presents a hope-filled picture, as the hope produced springs from a source greater than anything a human being could possibly elicit by a sheer force of will.
In contrast, Nietzsche’s account, though rightly speaking against philosophical systems and theories that denigrate the body and emphasize an other-worldly world at the expense of this world, ultimately leaves us with a sense of despair, particularly when one senses that one’s own will to power is inadequate to meet the very real sufferings of this life. Nietzsche’s perception of the loss that comes with widespread secularization in which the cultural consciousness has more or less proclaimed, “God is dead,” as well as his negative critiques of rationalism, scient-ism and nihilism, are no doubt insightful, penetrating and well worth contemplating; however, unlike Dostoevsky, Nietzsche is unable to present a positive response or meaningful suggestion as to where we should go from here. This is not to suggest that Dostoevsky claims to have all the answers or is able to articulate and present a systematic “day wisdom” account. Yet, he does communicate a vision that addresses Nietzsche’s concerns and iconic-ly opens up a space for genuine hope made visible through an active, Incarnate Love, which has a face.
For Nietzsche demystifies spirituality and the soul, presenting them as effects of physiology and neurology. Thus he allows us to understand all aspects of human culture and mentality as expressions of biological “life.” Further, there is a telling ambiguity in the way that Nietzsche regards “life” so constituted. On the one hand, there is a continual effort to judge, or evaluate, this “life” in terms of sickness and health, descent and ascent, decadence and triumph. In this respect, Nietzsche’s language is akin to that of the Social Darwinism of his time, and it clearly leads into the racist and fascist formulations of the following century. At the same time, Nietzsche affirms the mutability and metamorphosing power of “life”: in this sense, “sickness” is as vital as “health,” and is necessary in order to avoid stagnation; transgression and transformation are posed against the racist, pseudo-biological obsession (which reached its most terrifying expression in Nazism, but which was already prevalent among Nietzsche’s contemporaries) with “purity” and blood lines.
Again, Esposito’s reading is subtle, insightful, and overall unexceptionable. But at the same time, I found myself muttering, over and over again, a weary “so what?”. Whatever the historical value of reading Nietzsche, it is unclear to me that his texts have the same resonance, and the same importance, today in the 21st century that they did at the time of Nazism, or even that they did in France in the 1960s. Esposito refuses to extend his thought beyond the Nietzschean matrix, which he sees as dominating all that came since.
What is the post-human destiny to which we are called as humans in contemporary times? In this transcript of a talk given for the AUM conference in Los Angeles in 2003, Debashish Banerji compares Nietzsche's call for the Overman with that announced by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother to point to the similarities and differences.
- How can we pick our way through the maze of choices held up at this end-time of human becoming?
- Is it by remaining complacent or by using our wills or by surrender to a greater force than ours?
- And if so, what force - the vitalism of an unconscious Nature-force, the deceptive "universality" of the world market or an unpredictable future which calls our arduous attention?
These and similar questions are posed and discussed in this article.