I have long held the view that it is in the areas of self-help books and literary criticism that philosophy is working most strongly. Admittedly, it is a subterranean, weird, often historically unaware and full of strange jargons, trends, fads, and incomprehensible rivalries kind of philosophizing. But nevertheless, that is what is going on. The questions are the same: how ought we live? what does it mean to be human? how do we construct meaning, anyway?
This came home strongly today when I was teaching on Nietzsche’s concepts of master and slave morality. The slave morality finds its expression in the ascetic ideal, itself described as an uncharitable but not totally incorrect view of Christianity; the master morality very much what someone like Tim Ferris argues for inThe Four-Hour Work Week. Now, I am fully of the opinion that it is important to try to be awesome. I am also Christian, and, given that it’s Lent at the moment, particularly aware of the ascetic ideal. Nietzsche is, however, complicated.
Last year I abhorred Nietzsche. Both years we’ve read On the Genealogy of Morals. Last year I felt as if I spent several hours reading filth; I felt dirty as well as deeply disturbed by it. (My colleagues and friends all said they felt Nietzsche would have been delighted with this response to his work. I’m not sure this is at all reassuring.) This year I found myself again disturbed, but not as defiled by his vitriol. It’s still definitely vitriolic, but I understand it better, and am rather more convinced by some of his arguments than last year. I’m not sure what to do with this — I don’t think I agree with all of his interpretations — but, like Kant, this one thinker I feel I should spend more time with.
I’d like to spend some time one day going through various self-help books and aligning them with the philosophical and religious schools they imitate. Often they seem to come from the wackier fringes of the Roman Empire — the stuff the elite were doing in the early twentieth century isn’t so far off from the hermeticism of Alexandria in the second; a great deal of the greatcris de coeurof the 1920s and 1930s sound like 12th and 13th century concerns with meaning and the role of words and governments; and the sixties, well, again, that is old hat. But still cool.
I’m not the only one to feel there’s a dearth of real philosophy in the world, nor that this is a lack. Andrew Taggart is a philosophical counsellor in New York City: he argues that what people need to find meaning and purpose in their lives is not just therapy, but philosophy. Nietzsche would agree; he feels that meaning out of suffering is a great human need, but we can’t just look to the general ascetic answers if we want to be healthy.
More on the literary criticism side of this equation on another date.