Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Birth of Hedonism – On the Existence of an Artistic Socrates

This is not an entry for my Acting journal. It's an essay I wrote in response to Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy in which I make the argument in justification of my own suggested fifth impulse (the first four being the Apollinian, the Dionysian, the Tragic, and the Socratic) that synthesizes the Tragic and the Socratic.

The Birth of Hedonism – On the Existence of an Artistic Socrates

Friederich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy described how humanity responded to a chaotic world by forging perspectives, or impulses, with which to live and find meaning. Of these, Nietzsche named the Apollinian and the Dionysian as the most fundamental, and theorized that the Tragic impulse was invented by the Greeks as a synthesis of the two. Furthermore, he stated that almost immediately following the invention of the Tragic impulse, an opposing impulse was generated as a natural reaction: the Socratic impulse. Where the Tragic impulse suggests that strife and struggle without a goal is the source of life’s meaning, the Socratic impulse suggests it is the infinite pursuit of a goal that exists, but is impossible to achieve (though adherents to the Socratic ideal would say that it is possible; it is just also horrendously difficult). More specifically, the Tragic ideal is that the meaning of life is found in the ongoing attempt to live a productive and fulfilling existence—in the sense that we naturally strive to be productive and self-fulfilling—despite the true chaos of the world ultimately destroying us. The Socratic ideal is that knowledge or truth is the equivalent of virtue, and thus individuals of a Socratic mindset find the meaning of life in the ongoing attempt to acquire truth, to understand and to dispense with illusion until there are no more illusions or mysteries to be penetrated. The key difference being that the Tragic system of meaning is based upon the nonexistence of any tangible goal and the reconciliation of oneself with fate, while the Socratic system of meaning is based upon the existence of a tangible goal, namely truth, and the refusal to reconcile with existing unknowns. Nietzsche asks in section 15 of Birth of Tragedy if the interdependence between the Tragic and the Socratic impulses will lead to “ever-new configurations of genius and especially of the Socrates who practices music?” (98). I would argue that a fifth impulse of this kind has already been formulated in human society, an impulse that I will term the Hedonic impulse, and that it not only has synthesized the Tragic and the Socratic but has resulted in its own antithetical and yet symbiotic impulse.

Nietzsche describes how through tragedy “Dionysus no longer speaks through forces but as an epic hero,” combining the mythology and constructed regulation of the Apollinian with the chaotic truth of the Dionysian to form a new and distinct system of meaning, and in that same way, the hallmarks of the Tragic and the Socratic impulses form, in turn, the foundations of the Hedonic impulse (67). Nietzsche refers in section 9 of Birth of Tragedy to the story of Oedipus as an example of Greek Tragedy’s greatest achievements, to illustrate how meaning is found in the struggle despite eventual destruction. Oedipus, “in spite of his wisdom, is destined to error and misery, but… through his tremendous suffering, spreads a magical power of blessing that remains effective beyond his own decease,” (67). On the other hand, the Socratic ideal emphasizes the dogged pursuit of a goal: knowledge, truth, and the piercing of all illusion. The Hedonic impulse synthesizes the Tragic and the Socratic firstly by combining the Tragic denial of any objective with the Socratic insistence on an objective, forming what I will term an extended objective. An extended objective cannot be achieved in the traditional sense, for it is not a particular or tangible goal like “absolute knowledge” is. An extended objective does, however, provide something to pursue, which is in itself a self-fulfilling objective, for as long as the pursuit is made, the outcome is a success. The Hedonic impulse thus suggests that meaning can be found in the extended objective of maximizing one’s own virtue: not to an infinite level, but just as much as is possible within a life-time. This combines the Tragic structure of meaning, where meaning is found through striving without a target, and the Socratic structure of meaning, where meaning is found in the struggle towards a definitive goal, by suggesting that the target is neither definitive nor nonexistent, while still emphasizing the importance of struggle. It is a life-affirming perspective because the longer one can stay alive, active, and aware, the more one can fulfill the extended objective of the Hedonic impulse.

It is necessary at this point to define precisely what I mean by virtue, as well as to describe the second vital way that the Hedonic synthesizes the Tragic and the Socratic. While the Tragic impulse is exemplified through art, and the Socratic through knowledge, the Hedonic impulse requires both in the pursuit of its extended objective. After all, an artist without any understanding of truth would be unable to produce anything recognizable (for recognition itself depends upon certain commonalities of “truth,” insofar as something is empirically true), while a seeker of knowledge without any art would find it very difficult to be happy in the face of all the ugliness he revealed. Virtue, as it is used in the Hedonic impulse, is a combination of the Socratic ideal that virtue is truth and the more subtle virtues of the Tragic, such as art and struggle. If truth, art, and struggle are interwoven, I would argue that the most comprehensible understanding of this amalgam would be a process by which truth and art (illusion) are selectively combined to form an optimal and pleasurable understanding of the world, and that this optimal understanding yields the greatest virtue to the Hedonic man. This optimal and pleasurable understanding is indeed a combination of truths and lies, arrived at by selectively choosing which lies to pierce and which to maintain, or even cultivate. Thus, the Hedonic impulse’s virtue is a personal understanding of the world where art and truth have been melded to form an optimal, pleasurable understanding, where things that can be changed for the better are understood and worked at, and things that cannot be changed are ignored or smoothed over. In this way, the Hedonic impulse suggests that meaning is found in the pursuit of one’s own Hedonic virtue by finding true sources of pleasure where he can (such as working hard to earn a respected position) and patching over chaotic or ugly truths with illusions. Hedonic art glorifies positive experience, such as love, achievement, and humor, while making negative experiences tolerable, through the sense of commiseration and empathy inherent to all art. Hedonic knowledge also serves to heighten personal virtue, for through the pursuit of knowledge one may uncover new truths of a beneficial nature. Though Nietzsche argued that knowledge was not virtuous or pleasurable, in a context where knowledge is gathered in order to refine a more perfect, pleasurable worldview, that knowledge does have the potential to be valuable. For instance, Hedonic knowledge might serve to prevent negative experience that could be reasonably avoided, and where falsehoods are needed, they are reconstructed. In this way, the Hedonic comprises both the Socratic and the Tragic in the name of its extended objective, though tuning each to its own specific requirement in order to form something disparate.

It seems important, given the terminology of the Hedonic impulse, to clarify that it is not a hacked misunderstanding of “Greek cheerfulness” that Nietzsche describes in Birth of Tragedy. “Greek cheerfulness” is itself divided into two separate things by Nietzsche—the first being a result of Tragic ideology and the second a result of Socratic philosophy. “Greek cheerfulness” originated, Nietzsche says, as the “necessary effects of a glance into the inside and terrors of nature,” as a vital Apollinian sense of self-preservation in reaction to exposure to the Dionysian truth of the world (67). After Euripides destroyed tragedy, Nietzsche argues, “the passing moment, wit, levity, and caprice [became Hellenism’s] highest deities,” and this aimless butchery of “Greek cheerfulness” was really “the cheerfulness of the slave who has nothing of consequence to be responsible for, nothing great to strive for, and who does not value anything in the past or future higher than the present,” (78). This is key. While the Tragic concept of “Greek cheerfulness” is an optimal state of mind where unpleasant truths are coped with through Apollinian illusion; and the Socratic concept is a shallow frivolity; the Hedonic impulse values virtue and pleasure as a life-long struggle, a self-fulfilling process, a closer relative to the Tragic “Greek cheerfulness” but with greater specificity and purpose. And it cannot be the Socratic “cheerfulness,” for to assemble truth and illusion into Hedonic virtue is a serious and difficult task, and to value nothing but the present without thought of past precedent or future consequence will quickly countermine this pursuit. There is a responsibility associated with the Hedonic ideal, a responsibility to oneself and to the continued molding of one’s own Hedonic virtue, which often calls for mature and carefully measured behavior.

Here is where an opposing impulse splits off from the Hedonic and presents a diametrical view. In response to the Hedonic ideal of responsibility to oneself, it was asked, but what of responsibility to others? The term “hedonism” has often been branded as thoughtless, and associated with intoxication and irresponsibility, which is why it is so important that I make the distinction clear between “hedonism” and all its connotations and the Hedonic impulse that I have named. Indeed, “hedonism” is far more similar to the Dionysian impulse (note the words I used above: ‘thoughtless,’ ‘intoxication,’ and ‘irresponsibility’), and those who gave “hedonism” its bad name were likely closer in ideology to the wild Dionysian than to the carefully plotted Hedonic. Nevertheless, whether out of misunderstanding or out of simple difference of opinion, humanity produced a sixth impulse that claims that the extended objective and source of meaning from life should be the maximization of other’s virtue in life: the Charitable impulse. In section 12, Nietzsche describes how on behalf of the Socratic impulse Euripides asked, “Is the Dionysian entitled to exist at all?,” and in the same way that the Socratic seeks to obliterate the Dionysian, it is arguable that the Charitable impulse seeks to obliterate the Socratic (81). I say this because the true follower of the Charitable impulse would give himself entirely over to others, which leaves no room for the personal pursuit of knowledge (which is necessary to the construction of Hedonic virtue, as argued above). Just as Oedipus, the true tragic hero, is said by Nietzsche to have spread “a magical power of blessing” through his struggle, it may be said that the Charitable man (in contrast to the theoretical man) devotes his self and his Tragic struggle to the uplifting of others, essentially enslaving himself willingly (67). The Charitable man would seek to give others the optimal worldview that the Hedonic man attempts to construct, and would thus be left with the hopeless task of somehow reconciling all the world’s problems.

Though I could write a great deal more on the Charitable impulse, the focus here is on the Hedonic. I bring up the former only to illustrate how these impulses are interdependent in society, just as Nietzsche argued that the Tragic and the Socratic were interdependent. Just as no society could be fully Socratic, since Nietzsche said there must always be a “slave class,” no society could be fully Charitable, because if all people submitted their will to each other, no one would have the will to lead since leading, being master, and even thinking for oneself are in contravention of the Charitable impulse. Additionally, just as Nietzsche argues that to be fully Tragic is difficult and therefore requires an alternative, to be fully Hedonic is difficult as well, and it is sometimes necessary to open one’s eyes to other world-views and reexamine ugly truths. In fact, such instances of the Charitable in fact form a symbiotic relationship with the Hedonic, and the tricky balance of interplay between responsibility to self and responsibility to others may ultimately be the most fulfilling approach to both impulses.

Works Cited
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Arnold. Kaufmann. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. New York: Modern Library, 2000. Print.

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