The Setting Sun and the Rising Sun

2002-08-04

What is the best, strongest, most honest intellectual bequest that can be left by any thinker?

In section 542 of Daybreak, Nietzsche writes:

It not infrequently happens that the aged man is subject to the illusion of a great moral renewal and rebirth and from the sensibility thus engendered in him passes judgment on the work and the course of his life, as though it was only now that he had been endowed with clear sight: and yet the inspirer behind this feeling of well-being and these confident judgments is not wisdom but weariness. Its most dangerous characteristic is probably belief in their own genius, which usually assails great and semi-great men of the spirit only at this frontier of their life: belief that they occupy an exceptional position and enjoy exceptional rights. The thinker visited by this belief henceforth considers himself permitted to take things easier and, as genius, to promulgate decrees rather than to demonstrate.... From now on he wants to found, not structures of thought, but institutions which will bear his name; what does he care now for ethereal victories and honors in the realm of demonstrations and refutations! what do being eternalized in books, a tremble of exaltation in the soul of a reader, mean to him! The institution, on the other hand, is a temple -- that he knows well; and a temple of enduring stone will keep its god alive more surely than will the sacrificial gifts of rare and tender souls.... It is all over now with the self-surpassing desire that filled him in his earlier years for genuine pupils, that is to say genuine continuators of his thought, that is to say genuine opponents: that desire proceeded from the unweakened power, the conscious pride, of being able at any time himself to become the opponent and mortal enemy of his own teachers -- what he desires now is resolute party followers, unhesitating comrades, auxiliaries, a pompous processional train. Now he can no longer endure at all the dreadful isolation in which every spirit lives who flies on out ahead; he henceforth surrounds himself with objects of veneration, communality, emotion, and love; he wants at long last to enjoy what all the religions enjoy and celebrate within the community that which he values; indeed, in order to possess this community he will invent a religion. Thus does the aged sage live, and in doing so drifts imperceptibly into so wretchedly close an approximation to the excesses of priests and poets that one hardly dares to remember his wise and rigorous youth, the strict intellectual morality he then practised, and his truly manly dread of inspirations and fantasies. When in earlier years he compared himself with other, older thinkers, it was so as seriously to measure his weakness against their strength and to grow colder and freer towards himself: now he does it only so as to intoxicate himself in his own delusions. In earlier years he thought with confidence of the thinkers yet to come, indeed he joyfully saw himself extinguished by their more perfect light: now it torments him that he cannot be the last thinker; he ponders how, with the inheritance he will bestow upon mankind, he can also impose upon them a limitation of independent thinking, he fears and reviles the pride and thirst for freedom felt by individualist spirits -- after him none shall have full power over his own intellect, he wants to stand as the bulwark against which the surges of thought in general shall ever afterwards break -- these are his secret, and perhaps not always so secret, desires. The hard fact behind such desires, however, is that he himself has come to a halt before his teaching and has erected in it his boundary-stone, his 'thus far and no farther'. By canonizing himself he has also displayed above himself his own death certificate: from now on his spirit may not develop farther, time has run out for him, the clock stands still. Whenever a great thinker wants to make of himself a binding institution for future mankind, one may be certain that he is past the peak of his powers and is very weary, very close to the setting of his sun.

Replace "he" with "she" in this passage and one has a fair and telling description of novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand. But did not her weariness begin all too soon -- as witnessed by "The Collective" (a group of young acolytes) in the 1940s and 1950s, the Nathaniel Branden Institute in the 1960s, an ever-dwindling coterie of followers in the 1970s (including her self-proclaimed intellectual heir, Leonard Peikoff), and the Ayn Rand Institute in the 1980s and 1990s? Could it be that Rand turned quite early from being a free spirit (in Nietzsche's sense of always questioning even one's own truths) to being a weary thinker more interested in setting up a temple to her own ideas, in canonizing herself, in discouraging the genuine opponents and inveterate individualists among her pupils, in seeking to become the last thinker, beyond whom none shall fly?

Stronger and more honest is the hopeful attitude with which Nietzsche ends Daybreak (section 575):

We aeronauts of the spirit! -- All those brave birds which fly out into the distance, into the farthest distance -- it is certain! somewhere or other they will be unable to go on and will perch on a mast or a bare cliff-face -- and they will even be thankful for this miserable accommodation! But who could venture to infer from that, that there was not an immense open space before them, that they had flown as far as one could fly! All our great teachers and predecessors have at last come to a stop and it is not with the noblest or most graceful of gestures that wearniess comes to a stop: it will be the same with you and me! But what does that matter to you and me! Other birds will fly farther! This insight and faith of ours vies with them in flying up and away; it rises above our heads and above our impotence into the heights and from there surveys the distance and sees before it the flocks of birds which, far stronger than we, still strive whither we have striven, and where everything is sea, sea, sea! -- And whither then would we go? Would we cross the sea? Whither does this mighty longing draw us, this longing that is worth more to us than any pleasure? Why just in this direction, thither where all the suns of humanity have hitherto gone down? Will it perhaps be said of us one day that we too, steering westward, hoped to each an India -- but that it was our fate to be wrecked against infinity? Or, my brothers. Or? --

Yes: "or"? Or shall it be said that we, like Columbus, became the first to cross the sea and to find a new world? Thus is Nietzsche's hope, if not for himself then for some philosopher of the future. Better that fervor than the weary resignation of believing one has flown as far as anyone can fly.

Yet Nietzsche lived before the invention of the airplane (let alone the space ship), which is why his "aeronauts of the spirit" could only flap their wings. Perhaps the truth is even better expressed by Yevgeny Zamyatin in his 1922 essay on H.G. Wells:

To me, the word airplane contains all of our time.... Mankind has stepped off from the earth and, with a beating heart, has risen aloft. From the dizzying height, immense distances spread before him. A single glance embraces entire nations and countries, the whole dried-out lump of dirt -- earth. The airplane speeds upward and kingdoms, kings, laws and creeds vanish from sight. Still higher, and the cupolas of some incredible tomorrow flash in the distance.


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