Tuesday, May 1, 2012

On "spirit" and "spirituality"

One hears a lot of talk—a lot of loose talk—about the "spirit" and "spirituality." But such loose talk may be indispensable.  Certainly it's preferable to one way of dismissing the spirit.  This is the brutal attempt to reduce everything worth talking about to a mechanism.  Such a reduction is tasteless, because (as Nietzsche says) it betrays the wish to “divest existence of its rich ambiguity” (more literally, “its multi-aspected character” [seines vieldeutigen Charakters]).  Nietzsche invites us to imagine a critic who judges a piece of music according to how much of it can be counted, calculated and expressed in formulas.  What would such a critic grasp in the piece?  “Nothing, really nothing of what is ‘music’ in it.”  Similarly, those who try to grasp a person purely in terms of mechanism will grasp an aspect, but only an aspect, of the human being.  Like existence itself, human beings are multi-aspected.  If the facets in human beings that do not reveal themselves to mechanistic analysis are to be seen, we must continue to use categories that are not at home in materialistic natural science.  To suppose otherwise—to think that everything “real” about human beings can be understood mechanistically—is a “faith with which so many materialistic natural scientists rest content nowadays.”  To call it a faith is not a compliment (at least, not from Nietzsche).  The faith’s directive to permit “counting, calculating, weighing, seeing, and touching, and nothing more” is, Nietzsche says, “a crudity and naiveté, assuming that it is not a sickness of the spirit, an idiocy” (Gay Science 373).

It is vital to see that Nietzsche has no interest in making the world safe for the “materialistic natural scientist.”  Equally important is to grasp that he is not a dualist.  We should continue to speak of “spirit”—but not as though it names an entity that exists, or can exist, apart from the body.  When Nietzsche speaks harshly of “spirit,” he means to criticize a particular notion of “spirit.”  He means spirit conceived as disembodied, a ghostly thing that hovers above the body.  For this idea of spirit, Nietzsche has nothing but scorn.  “Pure spirit is pure lie,” he says in one place.  But spirit is not “pure spirit.”  The despisers of the body speak of “spirit.”  They do not succeed in speaking of spirit.  What, then, does Nietzsche understand by spirit?  If spirit is not to be confused with “pure spirit,” what is it?

To tackle this question swiftly, to quickly get into it and then out again, one cannot do better than to examine two aphorisms, both from the Gay Science.  Aphorism 329 begins by noticing the “breathless haste” with which Americans work.  This haste, the “distinctive vice of the new world,” has “begun to infect old Europe with its ferocity and is spreading a lack of spirituality (Geistlosigkeit) like a blanket.  Even now one is ashamed of resting, and prolonged reflection almost gives people a bad conscience.”  To rest and to reflect are two activities proper to spirit. Rather than genuinely reflect on a question, giving it as much time as it requires, “one thinks with a watch in one’s hand.”  Instead of resting with companions over a well-prepared dinner, “one eats one’s midday meal while reading the latest news of the stock market.”  If one is drawn to these counterfeits of rest and reflection, it is because “one lives as if one always ‘might miss out on something.’”  Those dominated by such anxiety simply have no time or energy “for ceremonies, for being obliging in an indirect way, for esprit in conversation, and for any otium at all.”  Moreover, the time-crunched chase for gain does not promote genuine virtue: “Virtue has come to consist of doing something in less time than someone else.”  Nor does it reward honesty: “hours in which honesty is permitted have become rare.”  When efficiency trumps virtue and honesty, the natural consequence is a deflation of the spirit, notwithstanding any corresponding inflation of bank accounts and multi-story houses.  “Living in a constant chase after gain compels people to expend their spirit to the point of exhaustion in continual pretense and overreaching and anticipating others.”  Such a life, while perhaps diverting, cannot be called joyful.  Those educated to excel in the chase are becoming “increasingly suspicious of all joy!  More and more, work enlists all good conscience on its side; the desire for joy already calls itself a ‘need to recuperate’ and is beginning to be ashamed of itself.  ‘One owes it to one’s health’—that is what people say when they are caught on an excursion in the country.”

From Aphorism 329, one learns what Nietzsche deems bad for the spirit, along with he takes to be good for it.  Here's a quick table.  On the left, the good; on the right, the bad.

Leisure                                     Exhaustion
Reflection                                Thought bound to a schedule
Ceremony                                Dismissal of ritual as “pointless”                       
Indirect helpfulness                  Restriction to what is obviously of service
Conversational esprit               Plain, witless speech
Honesty                                   Pretense
Contentment                            Overreaching and anticipating others (cf. pleonexia)            
Desire for joy                           Temporary respite from weariness
Good conscience about joy      Bad conscience about what is useless for gain
This table does not pretend to be exhaustive.  It could be expanded by analyzing other aphorisms that use “spirit” as a key term.  It suffices, however, to show that when Nietzsche speaks of “spirit,” he talks about nothing detached from the body.  He intends, rather, to convey something about the activities and qualities of embodied human beings.  Those who despise the body, but claim to value spiritual activities and qualities, can be reminded that we never do encounter these activities and qualities in separation from bodies.  Against the reductive mechanist or materialist, we can observe that these qualities and activities are but minimally illuminated by approaches that reduce body to what can counted, calculated and expressed in formulas.
Nietzsche picks up the intrinsic connection between the spirit and joy in Aphorism 359.  “There is a human being who has turned out badly, who does not have enough spirit to be able to enjoy it but just enough education to realize this.”  Such a human being, who is “fundamentally ashamed of his existence,” is joyless and therefore less spiritual than his joyful counterpart with a good conscience.  He will at some point seek “revenge against the spirit.”  He will seek “to give himself in his own eyes the appearance of superiority over more spiritual people and to attain the pleasure of an accomplished revenge at least in his imagination.”   By what means?  By morality—not higher morality, but exploitation of the “big moral words.”  Nietzsche lists “justice, wisdom, holiness, virtue."  To this list, we can and should add “spirituality.”  Those who love to describe themselves as “spiritual” tend to have little of what Nietzsche would regard as genuine spirit.  More likely they are “born enemies of the spirit”; they fear genuine spirit and seek to revenge themselves against it.  Even philosophers are subject to this harsh judgment.  It applies particularly to the kind of philosopher who continually speaks about “wisdom.”  To talk about wisdom about the time will perhaps impress the inexperienced as “spiritual.”  The more experienced, however, will not be misled.  All too often, the rhetoric of wisdom functions as a kind of screen.  It is a “screen behind which the philosopher saves himself because he has become weary, old, cold, hard.”

The aphorism concludes with a question: “Wisdom as a screen behind which the philosopher hides from—spirit?”  This ending strikes me as brilliant.  It suggests what I've discovered from my own experience.  The very people who are quickest to attribute spirituality to themselves, who most pride themselves on spirituality, are actually the least spiritual, at least in any sense that counts.

Or it seems to me at the moment.  I'm in the middle of working on a chapter, and I would love to hear your criticisms and insights.


  1. I approach something of what you're discussing here when I try to avoid using routine names for the Ultimate.

    While I agree with Maimonides that we can only define the Divine by what It isn't, I find it both creative and helpful to perpetually realize anew what the Tetragrammaton is.

  2. So much that is interesting here. It strikes me that, although Nietzsche has no patience with views that detach spirit from body, he does characterize the lack of spirit as a kind of enslavement to the body. But this is not love of the body, but rather a tendency to see it as an instrument. When we do so, the purposes we conceive of our bodies as instruments *to* become our masters, and so a lack of spirituality is of course associated with a lack of freedom. One alternative to such enslavement is the kind of freedom one experiences when in touch with the sublime: oceans, thunderstorms, ice and high mountains. Such experiences could not be more bodily, of course. But they also enable one to feel elevated beyond one's own bodily existence--a feeling that must have been treasured by someone in as much physical pain as Nietzsche often was.

  3. The bad conscience about anything that is strictly for delight, and not subordinated to something useful, or some gain. This is a pervasive feature of the mode of experience that Oakeshott calls "practical activity," which creates the world sub specie voluntatis morisque. It infects all of us, myself included.