MEANINGLESSNESS: The Solutions of Nietzsche, Freud and Rorty
by Michael Casey
Available from News Weekly Books for $33.00 plus p&h
Michael Casey has embarked upon a systematic critique of doctrines which hold that, strictly speaking, Life, and our individual existences, have no Meaning. Further, that there are no intrinsic values, such as the sanctity of human life, nor is there any objective truth, in the sense of propositions to which we must all give assent when they present themselves. We can, in fact, deny the validity of any or all of these “truths”, without contradiction.
Casey takes, in order, Nietzsche, Freud, and Richard Rorty, who all deny that Life has ultimate meaning, that there are Higher Truths to which we must, in all Reason, defer; Higher Truths which structure our lives, explain our place in the Universe, and the relations we have with other men, and by inference, indicate how we should live.
The three authors all hold that the world and our individual lives only have the meaning which we assign to them – there are no moral essences – and the values to which we adhere, or the values we attribute to an object, an act, a human transaction, are created by ourselves, and can be altered, by ourselves, at will. Values are not immanent.
Although assertions such as these go back a long way in the history of thought, Casey thinks it especially important to criticise, and rebut, them at this time, for they have become very influential, almost dominant, and are leading to quite dramatic changes in behaviour and belief, or lack of it, on the part of more and more people. For we are talking about modernity, and post-modernity, which is why the inclusion of Richard Rorty was so necessary. His analysis and his prescriptions for a happy, meaningless personal life, and world, are at the moment quite influential among the Western cognoscenti.
These three writers give different accounts as to why Life, and the World, have no meaning; why there are no immutable universal values – and different accounts of how best to live. An anecdote about Freud. On New Year’s Eve, Freud and some of his friends repaired to Vienna’s Ringstrasse, for drinks and cigars, to see in the New Year, which was 1900. Freud was 44. After some brandies, some of his friends started pestering him. “Tell us, what do you see happening in this new century?” Freud: “All I can see clearly is my own death: but I can’t read the date.” Unabashed, they kept asking him, playfully, “What is the Meaning of Life, Professor?”. Finally, the Master replied:
“Anybody who asks that is a neurotic, for he is always really asking, ‘What is the meaning of his life?’. That is not for me to say – it is for him. And if he doesn’t know, he must search.”
Relenting, for this was New Year’s Eve, he then said, “The Meaning of Life, for me, is Love and Work.” But when he was 67, with cancer of the jaw, some dear friends, including a beloved five-year-old granddaughter, dead from painful diseases, and close associates having broken with his group, he said: “Life! It’s a poor thing: but it’s all we’ve got.” When he was 83, recently exiled from his beloved Vienna by the Nazis, and after 33 painful jaw operations (and he resisted pain-killers, for they stopped him thinking clearly), he declared: “Life … it is a raft of pain, in a sea of indifference.” He would say none of this was for export – for the World is always your world, how you see it, how you interpret it. And it changes as you change.
Neither Freud nor Rorty would begrudge people the right to think that there was a Meaning to Life, if it made them happy. Nietzsche probably would – but then, the Untermensch, the majority, aren’t important, so that it doesn’t matter what they think or feel, so long as they do not assume power. Then, they will punish the clever, the courageous, the independent-minded, for being thus, and they will do this through envy.
Unable themselves to live without illusions – and Nietzsche selects Judaeo-Christianity as being perhaps the most pernicious, soul-destroying, potency-destroying collection of illusions – the Untermensch will force the gifted and talented to swallow the Judaeo-Christian slave morality about the duty to practise pity, compassion, unselfishness, and egalitarianism: all the things which benefit the no-hopers. When the superior ones fall for this, they are like eagles chained for the ex-slaves to torment. The eagles have let the crows take over.
Nietzsche’s superior Man needs no illusions, no second-hand “Meanings” of Life. His mission is self-realisation, the development of all his potentialities – beyond Good and Evil. He makes himself, no-one else does. He makes his rules, which point to the limitless possibilities of power – for him, and for people like him. He creates his own values – life should be play, not duty; should be control or domination, but never submission. But supermen were not interested in groups – in forming them, or joining them. Or politics …! No, more like an artist, who takes himself as a subject/object.
Casey suggests that this solution of Meaning is a logical progression into psychosis. But of course, he says much more on this – as does Nietzsche. I have found Casey on Nietzsche perhaps the most fertile part of a very illuminating book.
Casey paraphrases the similarities and the differences between the three writers. Both Freud and Nietzsche start from Man’s need for meaning making him sick. Freud suggests resignation, stoicism, for the strong; and therapy for the not-so-strong, so they can minimise their misery in a world without meaning. Nietzsche urges the overcoming of Christian metaphysics, which imposed this problem of Meaning, and Meaninglessness. Judaeo-Christian man needs meaning; but the superman, the god, overcomes man, and embraces meaninglessness as his meaning.
As Casey says:
“Nietzsche would say that Freud’s therapeutic solution would make the whole world a hospital; Freud thought Nietzsche’s solution offers at best a retreat into delusion, at worst a headlong flight into madness and self-destruction.”
Rorty describes a process of therapeutic self-creation – whereby Man regards the unfolding and satisfaction of his own appetites and potentialities as his goal, as his Meaning. There are no fixed, permanent descriptions of anything, for everything can be redescribed to suit our purpose. The test for the desirability of every culture is, does it enhance human potentialities?
Casey outlines what can follow when there is no objective truth, when everything can be redescribed, where anything that can enrich you inwardly is permitted. He thinks that the acceptance of abortion, and euthanasia, for example, must follow. For there will no longer be moral issues – only the question as to whether or not something enhances opportunities for self-creation. And, he suggests, the same principle, when applied to a society, appears to allow for the removal of the unfit – however society chooses to describe or redescribe them.
If human life has no absolute value – no sanctity in a world without meaning, where facts are mobile – the elimination of the unfit, to make room for the greater development of the others, seems an option. One of these options is Auschwitz, which can be redescribed, not as mass murder, but as the removal of an obstacle to the greater self- and group-enhancement of the other.
Casey believes that these three authors, each in his own way, produced accounts of Man which ends in his diminution. By reductionism, they make him less than human (not Superhuman, as Nietzsche posited). Neither Freud’s picture of rational man – grimly accepting the inevitability of unhappiness and the necessity of frustration in a meaningless world – nor Rorty’s recipe for life as an individual work of art – where life is to be lived as play, with irony and a deliberate lack of seriousness – do Man justice, so far as our author is concerned. He thinks Man seeks, and needs, transcendence, so as to become fully human.
What I have set down here is but a sketch, an outline, of Casey’s delvings into the minds of Nietzsche, Freud, and Rorty, and into the issues which they treat. But you will find a reading of this whole book a most rewarding experience. Life-enhancing, as Rorty would say.