To The Animals, from Nietzsche (and Singer on Nietzsche)

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“Consider the cattle, grazing as they pass you by: they do not know what is meant by yesterday or today, they leap about, eat, rest, digest, leap about again, and so from morn till night and from day to day, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy nor bored. This is a hard sight for man to see; for, though he thinks himself better than the animals because he is human, he cannot help envying them their happiness…” ( 1997a, §1, 60).

 

From Jonathan Singer:

In the second Untimely Meditation, Nietzsche posits that a certain measure of forgetfulness—or that a certain capacity to “feel unhistorically”—is necessary for life and action, and this is why animal life proceeds happily, without a question mark; but we human beings have largely lost this forgetfulness and suffer from a “malady of history”: an indigestible surfeit of historical consciousness or reflective knowing that arrests growth and that estranges us from the vital task of living: the task of liberated thinking and desiring, the task of self-overcoming. Thus, for Nietzsche it is precisely an excess of that which distinguishes us from animals that has, in a sense, sunk us lower than animals. We know life and cease to live it, which is to say that we know too much, that all of our vaunted knowledge has ceased to serve life and has turned against it. Paradoxically, we must, then, relearn how to forget in order to move forward.

To feel historically is to feel the flux of becoming; to feel unhistorically is to forget becoming, to lose oneself in immediacy. Our power to feel historically has overwhelmed (and we might say repressed) our capacity to feel unhistorically, but I hasten to underscore that for Nietzsche we cannot simply forfeit the former in order to reclaim and affirm the latter. Health and growth always require homeostasis, and Nietzsche is clear that human life requires a balance of recollection and forgetfulness—a balance of reflection and “blind” passion—in order to thrive.

 

Nietzsche:

The appearance of moral scruples (in other words: the becoming-conscious of the values by which one acts) betrays a kind of sickliness; strong ages and peoples do not reflect on their rights, on the principles by which they act, on their insights and reasons. Becoming conscious is a sign that real morality, i.e., instinctive certainty in actions, is going to the devil (1967, 228).

 

Where he writes, “real morality”, I think of confidence (in life, self, process, etc.).

 

Singer:

For Nietzsche, responsibility does not consist in the rational legislation of an action, but rather in a certain cultivated or sedimented responsiveness to life. Responsibility means response-ability or appropriate, pre-reflective comportment toward lived situations and possibilities.

Nietzsche, again, does not call for a reversion to animality but does indeed call for a certain recuperation of our animal nature. We might say that the kind of forgetfulness that characterizes a certain traditional rationalism—the kind of forgetfulness that characterizes an impaired or lost capacity to forget—is precisely humanity’s forgetfulness of a certain kind of “animal wisdom.”

 

Nietzsche:

In the midst of the ocean of becoming we awake on a little island no bigger than a boat, we adventurers and birds of passage, and look around us for a few moments: as sharply and as inquisitively as possible, for how soon may a wind not blow us away or a wave not sweep across the little island, so that nothing more is left of us! But here, on this little space, we find other birds of passage and hear of others still who have been here before – and thus we live a precarious minute of knowing and divining, amid joyful beating of wings and chirping with one another, and in spirit we adventure out over the ocean, no less proud than the ocean itself (1997b, 157).

 

Singer:

To reengage oneself with becoming is neither to escape into disengaged theoretical reflection nor to abandon oneself to abject chaos or irrationality; it is to take up and ceaselessly renew a stand amidst the flux of becoming and to “digest” this flux rather than be digested by it, to sublimate this flux into what we call knowledge and a “self.” This is one sense in which human life is and must be “horizonal:” neither total forgetfulness nor absolute knowledge, but rather the one bounded by the other is necessary for human life. Arrested in the past, there is no self to come, no future; arrested in the present, there is no self with a sense of becoming, no self with the sense of a past or future, indeed no self at all. We must, again, negotiate between total forgetfulness (absorption in the present) on the one hand, and an excess of historical knowledge and reflection (absorption in the past and the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of becoming) on the other. For Nietzsche, the cultivation of this equilibrium is the art of good living; it is culture as self-culture, and selfculture is always self-overcoming, always returning to oneself as a self yet to come.

In closing, I would not deny that other animals might in fact possess many of the features that Nietzsche reserves for human beings, but this is beside the point; the point is that philosophers have always in some way (and indeed in many ways) opposedhuman beings to the rest of the natural, animal order of things and that the idea of the good life that has followed from this opposition is one that valorizes all that is considered to be distinctly human; but this kind of view—this system of values—has only made us into sick, unhappy animals, for animals we are indeed. We do not cease to be “animal” because we oppose ourselves to animals; all we do is repress our “animality.” The art of good, human living, then, is the cultivation of a certain balance between our “animality” and our “humanity;” it is neither the repression of the former nor the deification of the latter. For Nietzsche, ethics can no longer begin from an opposition between the “animal” and the “human;” this means that we must reintegrate the animal into the human, but this does not mean that we should reduce the human to the animal or that we should somehow withdraw into animality (for to do so is neither possible nor desirable); this only means that we must bring the “human”—that we must bring ourselves—back down to earth. Forgetfulness (the suspension of knowledge and historical consciousness) and an adequate sense of history or measure of reflection are both integral to flourishing as a human being. Nietzsche does not think that we can (or should) regress to our pre-human animality, but for Nietzsche there is nevertheless something that we can learn from animals, a reserve of animal wisdom that, yes, we must not forget. Insofar as our capacity to forget is one vestige of our animality—or insofar as instinctual activity is one valence of continuity between human beings and animals—then we must become a little more animal and a little less human, for we have, indeed, become “all too human.”

Linked here, is the full text of Jonathan D. Singer’s All Too Human: “Animal Wisdom” in Nietzsche’s Account of the Good Life