Weekend Reflection: Nietzsche on Looking Around

On Friday, Ireland, a traditionally Catholic country, voted overwhelmingly to legalize abortion, which means that if you walk the streets of Dublin today, most of the people you meet will be supporters of killing human life to facilitate irresponsible pleasure.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world in Korea, a democratically elected Korean president embraced and held hands with a grotesque brute responsible for the death and enslavement of millions of fellow Koreans — and most of his supporters and friendly media voices cheered this on as a wonderful development.

This confluence of events — neither of them unusual or even surprising in their essence, given the current global climate — put me in mind of an aphorism from Nietzsche’s Gay Science:

The way to happiness.— A sage asked a fool about the way to happiness. The fool answered instantly as if he had merely been asked about the way to the nearest town: “Admire yourself and live in the street.” “No,” replied the sage, “you are asking too much; it is quite enough to admire oneself.” The fool shot back: “But how can one constantly admire without constantly feeling contempt?” (Gay Science, Walter Kaufmann translation, §213)

Today, the fool’s dictum is more like cruel mockery than black irony. For his proposal to “live in the street,” as a means of ensuring that one will never be short of comparisons flattering to oneself, now has the ring of a Mephistophelean nightmare. “The street” is now ubiquitous to one who is merely foolish enough to look around from virtually any vantage point, anywhere on Earth. There is no longer any escape from the nauseating humanity of a civilization in freefall.

Your friends are unraveling before your eyes. Your political leaders are proud serpents. The children in your midst are either passive serfs-in-waiting or craven tyrants-in-waiting. The culture is indoctrinating your peers into a premature second childhood, or rather a second pubescence of endless, mindless gratification and indolence. The State is rounding up the weak and infirm, slaughtering them alternately in the name of “the best interests of the child” or “women’s rights,” while palliating your elders into premature death, calling it “dignity,” as your brothers and sisters look on with accepting sighs and pseudo-solemn shakes of the head. 

It is tempting to close your eyes and simply stop looking around. Get off the street altogether, as it were, and stay indoors — or better yet, deep in a dark wood — permanently. It may be dangerous, and it is certainly full of uncertainty. But today’s streets have exceeded their useful function as sources of flattering contrast. Better to take the harder but more realistic path to the “happiness” of self-admiration, namely to face yourself with a constant view to ensuring that what you see there is not what you saw in the street.

That harder but more realistic path is part of what I mean by Limbo, by the way.

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