Friendship and the Political


Political allegiance in the West has an taken on an aspect of religious devotion and fervor.  Perhaps because religion no longer occupies the same space within our society, we have simply replaced that “god shaped hole” in our hearts with the nearest available ideology?  To be sure, there is a messianic tendency at play.  I’ve fallen into it myself, believing if I just converted the right people the world could be saved, or at least stopped from getting much worse.  We have, after all, been told all our lives that we, the people, are the government – or at the very least determine its decisions.  Strange then that the government seems to do very little that we actually want, and a great many things we emphatically do not want.

All societies have systems of governance: methods of resolving disputes between members, adjudicating the use of common resources, and representing that society to the outside world.  All of these functions are predicated on the boundary between “us” and “not us”.  The political theorist Carl Schmidt laid out that the fundamental function of politics was the distinction between friend and enemy, including various degrees of neutrality or uncertainty.  This may seem harsh or overly militaristic to some, but if you consider it you will discover that no government decree can be meaningful without weighing on this distinction.  Hence the apocryphal quote attributed to George Washington, “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force.” This shocks many middle class Americans because there are layers and layers of bureaucracy between their many transgressions and the application of force: notices, fines, extensions, court dates, etc… etc…  At the end of that process however there is always the threat of force or, to put it another way, the possibility of sliding over the line from friend to foe, from “us” to “not us”.

Yet in our real lives the distinction between “us” and “not us” is not political but rather personal.  Our family, our friends, our town, our work – these are our things.  It is on the quality of these things that our well-being depends.  It is within the system of these things that we are judged and remembered.  What dispute does the average American have with the average Chinese that requires the intervention of a massive bureaucratic apparatus? What common resources (other than Federally created ones) exist to be fought over between California and Florida?   Political discussions and symbols, especially in this age of the sound-byte, the re-post, the 128 character limit, take on the role of substitute tribal markers, but without physical substance.  They are purely symbols of conceptual, rather than actual, allegiance.  As such they may weigh on philosophy, but have very little to do with real politics – that is, the distinction between friend and foe, unless we let them.

This is one of the great side-effects of our bureaucratic age: that conceptual politics effaces the natural allegiances and friendships between men.  First political power is removed from its natural scope. No longer are disputes handled within the organic community in which they arise, on the smallest reasonable level.  Next political power is vested in agents entirely removed from the consequences of their decisions. A rotating cast of elected charismatics and disinterested pencil-pushers takes over functions that were once aristocratic and honor based.  This massive political apparatus, Nietzsche’s “coldest of cold monsters”, fails utterly to provide on a human scale that which politics must by definition provide – the ability to adjudicate friend and foe in complex and uncertain situations. As a result, the political process wells up in other spheres, out of its natural bounds, and ruins everything.  Activism becomes our final refuge. The demand of the perpetual infant replaces measured discourse, because discourse absent from power fails to satisfy the political need.  In truth, what is activism other than making enemies by choice, and seeking friends through conceptual alliance?

The solution is to put things back into their proper place.  Conceptual struggles must be grounded in philosophy, not politics.  Politics is influenced by and dependent upon philosophy, not the other way around.  Politics qua politics should be engaged in on the local level, if at all, and intrusions from distant bureaucrats treated with all the contempt and loathing reserved for a foreign occupier, for that is what they actually are – foreigners, strangers, not us, the enemy.   For us, and our kind, if we are inclined to the political we should seek it out where it matters.  Before we make common cause with strangers on some televised stage, can we make it with the people in our actual lives?

Whither Thelema? Part One

1905 Aleister Crowley

I imagine that no one who has taken the time to read the works of Aleister Crowley with an open mind has not, at some point, felt inspired by his vision of human freedom, open inquiry and spiritual attainment. I also cannot imagine how any stable and emotionally mature adult, spending any time in or around the organizations that claim to carry on his work today, could come away with a favourable impression.  From the high promise of the source material, we fall to the present manifest reality of mismanagement and dysfunction. What are we to make of this vast discrepancy?

Aristotle tells us that causation is four-fold: material, formal, efficient and final.   In the case of an object, say a vase, the material cause is the porcelain out of which it was cast.  The form is the shape of a vase into which the porcelain was thrown.  The efficient cause was the craftsman who shaped, fired, and lacquered it into being.  The final cause was the purpose for which it was created.  In this case, as an attractive holder for flowers.  It should be noted that the thing we are examining here is not an object but something more abstract: the current state of a culture, or to put a finer point on it a small collection of overlapping organizations.  Nevertheless, I believe we can use this model to good effect if we phrase the question as “What is the primary cause, of the failure of Thelema, to establish itself as a mature and viable movement in the world today?”

The material state of the community could be viewed as the collected assets controlled by the organizations that make it up, both people and property.  A failure on this level would be a simple lack of resources.   The solution here would be membership drives and fund-raising.   It would also mean that one of the other three causal factors: formal, efficient or final, were not at fault.  This makes a failure at the material cause level an attractive “solution”, since it requires no deeper criticism:  “Thelema just needs more time and effort.  That is all.  Show up and help out and all will be well.”   Part what makes this diagnosis attractive is that it is obviously true to some extent. Anyone from even a moderately stable background knows that the community lacks material status.  The organizations are poor, and the members are few, disorganized, and generally lacking in high achievement.  Going to a deeper cause requires investigation and argument, skills most people lack.  Everyone prefers to use the tools with which they are familiar.  This is, I believe, the primary reason for movements like “AC2012”, haphazard attempts to independently publish public domain source materials, conversion missions (aka: “outreach”), bake-sales and other funding drives, and like endeavours.  People remember these mechanisms from similar non-profits they were involved with in the past and attempt to import them without examination.  They are ways to try and address the lack of a sufficient “material cause”, while avoiding the three deeper possible factors.

The question is not if this form of causation is lacking (which is an obvious yes), but rather if it is the primary cause?  Over the last several decades many people, some highly invested, some even formally trained in non-profit strategy and group management, have tried to improve the community on this level, yet we are no better off, and in many cases worse off – materially, than we were twenty years ago.  Moreover, Thelema as a movement has existed for over a hundred years!  One would think that by now some organization would have managed to purchase a building.  This sad state of affairs argues strongly against locating the source of dysfunction at the material level.   We must go deeper.

The formal cause would be the structures of the organizations which make up the community.  While there are dozens of small groups that could be called “Thelemic” to some extent, in the main the Thelemic community is dominated by two organizations: the OTO, and the AA.   Most of the smaller groups are modelled on one of these two.  For example, even Wicca began as an adaptation of the OTO lodge structure, and the TOS titles evolved directly from the AA.  To locate our primary cause here would be to argue that the structure of these organizations runs counter to Thelemic principles, and therefore the subsequent failure of these organizations to establish themselves materially, as we described above, is derivative of their inherently inappropriate structures.  This argument has been put forward by others before – typically arguing against the strict hierarchies that make up these organizations, and suggesting that they should become “more inclusive” or “more open”.   Since “openness” and “inclusion” are popular buzzwords, this diagnosis seems satisfying to many who leave the major organizations, but wish to remain affiliated with the movement itself, as a personal ideology or identity.

The problems here are two-fold.  Firstly, this criticism implies a knowledge of what constitutes fundamental Thelemic principles.  Adherents of this critique often bring up quotes from the source material that seem to support their view, but this is insufficient.  Isolated quotes may be suggestive, but they are by no means authoritative.  A comprehensive analysis is needed and therefore to make this argument is to push the problem back further to the question of final causes, or at the very least efficient causes.   It is glib and superficial to assume we grasp the fundamental principles of Thelema merely because we are able to register our dissatisfaction.   Second, while there are certainly fewer people inclined to locate the primary cause of Thelema’s failure on this level, there have been many experiments in creating small groups organized in different ways.  None of these have risen even to the level of the OTO, let alone an organization the size of a moderate church or synagogue, or even a more mainstream offshoot movement, like Scientology.  Furthermore, today’s OTO and AA are not exact reproductions frozen in amber.  Rather, they are evolving interpretations of the source material.  The leaders of these groups have considerable leeway in how they interpret the original design.  They also have a great deal of sympathy with modern liberal secular values – indeed more sympathy towards those than the values of the founders: Crowley, and his immediate successors.   The point here is that if it were a simply a matter of a more open and inclusive structure, or even merely a simplified structure, one would expect to see one of the newer and more “enlightened” groups rising to a position of pre-eminence.  This has not occurred.

The original efficient cause of Thelema would be Crowley (or more accurately Crowley’s interpretation of Liber AL vel Legis).  Blaming Crowley is certainly convenient, but he died in 1947.  At the date of my writing this it is 2015, over sixty years later.   What is the efficient cause of Thelema today?  It is true that we must deal with Crowley’s influence, but how does this “dealing” occur?  To put it another way, if the original efficient cause was Crowley, how is this cause being carried forward through time, and made manifest in the world today?  Excluding appeals to unknown supernatural agents, the efficient cause of the community today are the leaders that drive it forward, through their various interpretations of Crowley and the source material – both explicit and implicit.

While differences between leaders, and their respective interpretations, certainly exist, organizations by their nature develop according to the consensus of key players.  That consensus today is an amalgam of Judeo-Christian style religious authority and left-leaning “secular” humanist ethics.  Outliers certainly exist, but they are almost always driven outside the existing power structure.  Since these organizations are so small, the OTO is by far the largest at around 3,000 members worldwide, their leadership groups are also small and fairly homogeneous.  It is tempting to think therefore that if they were replaced with better candidates many of the problems facing the community would be resolved; but over time many individuals have cycled in and out of leadership.  Also, many independent Thelemic and quasi-Thelemic groups exist, with their own independent leadership cadres.  Yet what is their interpretation of the source material, and how do they put it into practice?  They seem almost uniformly to adopt a religious authority structure, and secular humanist ethics – perhaps surpassing the OTO in privileging one or the other to a greater extent, but not differing substantially from the dominant consensus.  An astute reader may note here that this spectrum of authority mirrors that of mainstream American society, with a “religious” authority source on the “right” and an “ethical” authority source on the “left”.   I do not believe this is accidental, for absent intellectual engagement with the question of final and ultimate causes, all we can do is mirror the values we have inherited from mainstream society.  The question raised by a failure at this level is:  what is the nature of legitimate authority and who is fit for leadership?  These questions can only be answered in the light of primary metaphysical values.  To investigate these requires we press on to the question of final causes.

The final cause is the thing for the sake of which an object or event comes into existence.  Any ideology making metaphysical claims, that is to say claims about the fundamental nature of human existence, must rest its ultimate purpose in truth.  For an ideology to claim ontological authority on anything other than truth is to destroy the very authority it wishes to posses.  No sane person would willingly adhere to a religion or political movement that itself claimed to be false.  It may in fact be false, or based on falsehoods, but it will at least present itself as true.  To attack the truth claims of such an ideology is to attack its very reason for existing, and to interpret those truth claims, or argue for them where they are not stated explicitly, is to make a claim on the knowledge of what the ideology fundamentally is, and what it is about.  Here our primary tool is logical consistency.  Is the ideology internally consistent, and does it match what we know to be true in the observable world?   Our first task will be identifying the key components of the ideology itself, and for that we must investigate the primary documentary source – Liber AL vel Legis.   Without such an investigation our entire inquiry falls apart.  For by what other standard can we resolve apparent discrepancies in subsequent documents?  How can we judge the opinions of authorities?  How can we build organizations according to Thelemic principles?  We can, to be sure, limit ourselves to adherence to previous orthodox interpretations, but those interpretations themselves must be understood as derivative of fundamentals; and this also assumes that a body of well-established orthodoxy exists, and that this orthodoxy possess epistemic sanction by the metaphysical system of which it speaks.  Is this the case in Thelema?  How can we tell without, again, an investigation of the primary source?  We are forced therefore to confront Liber AL and the commentary directly, if we are to hope to resolve the problem of Thelema in the world today.  This will be the focus of my next post in this series.




A Stoic Mnemonic in Hexameter


All beings chase their own good
Will rising from judgements,
Of all things in the world,
Our success or failures.

Happiness is our choice,
Virtue ever close to hand.
Mind is always up to us,
And with it our emotions.

To live in harmony
With all sacred nature,
Means first and most of all
Being joyous in your self.

For excellence in action,
Regardless of outcome,
And steadiness of soul,
Lie always in our power.

Selections from Seneca’s “Moral Letters”


trans. Robin Campbell

To be everywhere is to be nowhere. (Letter 2)

The spirit and the intellect cannot be of different hues. If the spirit is sound, if it is properly adjusted and has dignity and self-control, the intellect will be sober and sensible too, and if the former is tainted the latter will be infected as well. (Letter 114)

If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person. (Letter 94)

‘No man’s good by accident. Virtue has to be learnt. Pleasure is a poor and petty thing. No value should be set on it: it’s something we share with dumb animals – the minutest, most insignificance creatures scutter after it. Glory’s an empty changeable thing, as fickle as the weather. Poverty’s no evil to anyone unless he kicks against it. Death is not an evil. What is it then? The one law mankind has that is free of all discrimination. Superstition is an idiotic heresy: it fears those it should love: it dishonours those it worships. For what difference does it make whether you deny the gods or bring them into disrepute? These are things which should be learnt and not just learnt but learnt by heart.(Letter 123)

I do not agree with those recommend a stormy life and plunge straight into the breakers, waging a spirited struggle against worldly obstacles every day of their lives. The wise man will put up with these things, not go out of his way to meet them; he will prefer a state of peace to a state of war. It does not profit a man much to have managed to discard his own failings if he must ever be at loggerheads with other people’s. (Letter 28)

Give your whole mind to [philosophy]. Sit at her side and pay her constant court, and an enormous gap will widen between yourself and other men. You’ll end up far in advance of all mankind, and not far behind the gods themselves. Would you like to know what the actual difference between yourself and the gods be? They will exist for longer. (Letter 53)

I’m suffering severe pain you may say. Well, does it stop you suffering it if you endure it in a womanish fashion? In the same way as the enemy can do far more damage to your army if it is in full retreat, every trouble that may come our way presses harder on the one who has turned tail and is giving ground. (Letter 78)

We mustn’t take on more than we can manage. You shouldn’t attempt to absorb all you want to – just what you’ve got room for; simply adopt the right approach and you will end up with room for all you want. The more the mind takes in the more it expands. (Letter 108)

The many speak highly of you, but have you really any grounds for satisfaction with yourself if you are the kind of person the many understand? Your merits should not be outward facing. (Letter 7)

An ordinary journey will be incomplete if you come to a stop in the middle of it, or anywhere short of your destination, but life is never incomplete if it is an honourable one. At whatever point you leave life, if you leave it in the right way, it is whole. (Letter 77)

Selections from “The Discourses, Handbook, Fragments” of Epictetus


trans. Christopher Gill and Robin Hard

All things obey and serve the universe, both earth and sea, and the sun and the other stars, and the plants and animals of the earth. Our body likewise obeys it, both in sickness and health (when the universe wills) and when young and old, and as it passes through all other changes. It is therefore reasonable also that what depends on ourselves, that is to say, our judgement, should not be the only thing to strive against it. For the universe is powerful, and superior to ourselves, and has taken better counsel on our behalf than we can, by embracing us too in its governance in conjunction with the whole. Moreover, to act against it is to align ourselves with unreason, and achieving nothing but futile harassment, embroils us in pains and sorrows. (Fragments, 3)

Some things are up to us and others are not. Up to us are opinion, impulse, desire, aversion and, in a word, whatever is our own action. Not up to us are body, property, reputation, office and, in a word, whatever is not our own action. The things that are up to us are by nature free, unhindered and unimpeded; but those that are not up to us are weak, servile, subject to hindrance, and not our own. Remember then that if you suppose what is naturally enslaved to be free, and what is not your own to be your own, you will be hampered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault with both gods and men. But if you suppose only what is your own to be your own, and what is not your own not to be your own (as is indeed the case), no one will ever coerce you, no one will hinder you, you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will not do a single thing against your will, you will have no enemy, and no one will harm you because no harm can affect you. (Handbook, 1)

It is not the things themselves that disturb people but their judgements about those things. Death, for instance, is nothing terrible, or else it would have appeared so to Socrates too. But the terror lies in our judgement about death, that death is terrible. So, whenever we are frustrated, or disturbed, or upset, let us never blame others, but only ourselves, that is, our own judgements. It is the action of an uneducated person to lay the blame for his own bad condition upon others; of one who has made a start on his education to lay the blame on himself; and of one who is fully educated, to blame neither others nor himself. (Handbook, 5)

Where is progress then? If any of you, withdrawing himself from externals, turns to his own faculty of choice, working at it and perfecting it, so as to bring it fully into harmony with nature; elevated, free, unrestrained, unhindered, faithful, self-respecting: if he has learned too, that whoever desires, or is averse to, things outside his own power can neither be faithful nor free, but must necessarily be changed and tossed back and forth with them; must necessarily too be subject to others; who can procure or prevent what he desires or wants to avoid: if, finally, when he rises in the morning, he observes and keeps to these rules; bathes and eats as a man of fidelity and honour; and thus, in every matter that befalls, puts his guiding principles to work, just as the runner does in the business of running, or the voice trainer in the training of voices: this is the man who is truly making progress, this is the man who has not travelled in vain. ( Discourses, Book 1, Ch. 4:18-21)

Difficulties are the things that show what men are. Henceforth, when some difficulty befalls you, remember that god, like a wrestling master, has matched you with a rough young man. For what end? That you may become an Olympic victor, and that cannot be done without sweat. No man, in my opinion has a more advantageous difficulty on his hands than you have, if only you will but use it as an athlete uses the young man he is wrestling against. (Discourses, Book 1, Ch. 24:2-3)

‘But I cannot’, say you, ‘attend to all these things at once.’ Why, does any one tell you that you posses a power equal to Zeus? No! But nevertheless he has assigned to each man a director, his own personal daemon, and committed him to his guardianship; a director whose vigilance no slumbers interrupt, and whom no false reasonings can deceive. For to what better and more careful guardian could he have committed us? So when you have shut your doors, and darkened your room, remember never to say that you are alone; for you are not but god is within, and your daemon is within, and what need have they of light to see what you are doing? To this god you also should swear such allegiance as soldiers do to Caesar. For they, in order to receive their pay, swear to put the safety of Caesar before all things, so will you not swear your oath to god, who have received so many and such great favours, or if you have sworn, will you not abide by your oath? And what must you swear? Never to disobey , never to accuse, never to find fault with anything that god has bestowed, never to do or suffer unwillingly and with a bad grace anything that is inevitable. Is this oath like the former? In the first case, men swear not to honour any other beyond Caesar; but we swear to honour our true selves above all things. (Discourses, Book 1, Ch. 14: 11-17)

How then is this to be effected? You must wish to satisfy your true self, you must wish to appear beautiful in the sight of god; you must desire to become pure in the presence of your pure self and of god… If you set these thoughts against your impressions, you will overpower it, and not be swept away.

But, in the first place, do not allow yourself to be carried away by its intensity: but say, ‘Impression, wait for me a little. Let me see what you are, and what you represent. Let me test you.’ Then afterwards, do not allow it to draw you on by picturing what may come next, for if you do it will lead you where-ever it pleases. But rather, you should introduce some fair and noble impression to replace it, and banish this base and sordid one. (Discourses, Book 2, Ch.18: 19-25)

These are three areas of study, in which a person who is going to be good and noble must be trained. That concerning desires and aversions, so that he may neither fail to get what he desires nor fall into that which he would avoid. That concerning the impulse to act and not to act, and, in general appropriate behaviour; so that he may act in an orderly manner and after due consideration, and not carelessly. The third is concerned with freedom from deception and hasty judgement, and, in general whatever is connected with assent. Of these, the principal and most urgent is that which has to do with the disappointment of our desires, and the incurring of our aversions. It is this that introduces disturbances, tumults, misfortunes, and calamities; and causes sorrow, lamentation and envy; and renders us envious and jealous, and thus incapable of listening to reason. The next has to do with appropriate action. For I should not be unfeeling like a statue, but should preserve my natural and acquired relations as a man who honours the gods, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen. The third falls to those who are already making progress and is concerned with the achievement of certainly in the matters already covered, so that even in dreams, or drunkenness or melancholy no untested impression may catch us off guard. “ (Discourses, Book 3, ch. 2: 1-5)

Remember that you must behave in life as you do at a symposium. Something is being passed round and comes to you: put out your hand and take your share politely. It goes by: do not detain it. It has not yet come: do not stretch your desire out towards it, but wait till it comes to you. Do this with regard to your children, to your wife, to public offices, to wealth, and the time will come when you are worthy to share in the symposia of the gods. (Handbook, 15)

On every occasion we ought to have these thoughts at hand:

“Lead me Zeus, and thou O Destiny,
To where-so-ever your decrees have assigned me.
I follow cheerfully; or if my will should fail,
Base though I be, I must follow still.” (Handbook, 53)

Selections from “The Emperor’s Handbook”


by Marcus Aurelius,
trans. Scott and David Hicks

Never forget that the universe is a single living organism possessed of one substance and one soul, holding all things suspended in a single consciousness and creating all things with a single purpose that they might work together spinning and weaving and knotting whatever comes to pass. (4, 40)

I am formed out of two elements: the causal and the material. Neither of these will be reduced to nothingness when I am dead, just as neither came out of nothingness when I was born. It follows that each part of me will someday be transformed into a part of the universe, and that part will be later transformed into another part, and so on forever. In just this way, I came into being, as did my parents and their parents and all those who came before them. Nothing contradicts this theory, even if the universe is organized in finite periods. (5, 13)

You have searched everywhere, and in all your wanderings you have not found happiness – not in clever arguments, nor in wealth, fame, pleasure, or anything else. Where is happiness then? In doing what a man’s nature requires. And how will you do this? By basing your actions and desires on sound principles. What principles? Principles that distinguish right from wrong and demonstrate that nothing is good for a man unless it helps him to be just, responsible, courageous, and free, while nothing is bad that fails to produce the opposite result. (8, 1)

Build your life one action at a time, and be happy if each act you perform contributes to a fulfilling and complete life. No one can prevent you from doing this. “But what if some outside circumstance stands in my way?” Not even that can stop you from acting justly, wisely, and reasonably. “But it may block me from doing something I want to do.” Yes but by welcoming the obstacle and by calmly adapting your action to it, you will be able to do something else in harmony with your goals and with the sort of life you are seeking to build. (8, 32)

If you’re troubled by something outside yourself, it isn’t the thing itself that bothers you, but your opinion of it, and this opinion you have the power to revoke immediately. If what troubles you arises from some flaw in your character or disposition, who prevents you from correcting the flaw? If it’s your failure to do some good or necessary work that frustrates you, why not put your energy into doing it rather than fretting about it? “But something stronger than I prevents me.” Then don’t worry. It isn’t your responsibility to do what you lack the power to do. “But if it isn’t done, life isn’t worth living.” Then quit this life in peace, as one who dies full of good works and forgiveness for those who oppose him. (8, 47)

Treat with utmost respect your power of forming opinions, for this power alone guards you against making assumptions that are contrary to nature and judgments that overthrow the rule of reason. It enables you to learn from experience, to live in harmony with others, and to walk in the way of the gods. (3, 9)

Don’t be disgusted with yourself, lose patience, or give up if you sometimes fail to act as your philosophy dictates, but after each setback, return to reason and be content if most of your acts are worthy of a good man. Love the philosophy to which you return, and go back to it, not as an unruly student to the rod of a school-master, but as a sore eye to a sponge and egg whites, or a wound to cleansing ointments and clean bandages. I n this way, you will obey the voice of reason not to parade a perfect record, but to secure an inner peace. Remember, philosophy desires only what pleases your nature while you wanted something at odds with nature. “Precisely, doesn’t it all come down to what pleases me most?” Yes, it does, but be careful. This is just the argument pleasure uses to trick most people. Ask yourself – what could possibly please you more than to be great-souled, free, nature, gentle, and devout? And what is more pleasing than practical wisdom when you consider the reliability and efficiency of knowledge and understanding in every situation? (5, 9)

Develop your own methods for observing how all things are in a continual state of change, one into another. Be ready, and welcome it when it is your turn to experience change, for there is nothing like it to heighten your sensibilities and elevate your mind. At the moment of change, a man’s soul takes flight, and being in this instant reminded that he will soon be called upon to leave the world of things and the company of men, he devotes himself wholeheartedly to justice in whatever he does and to nature in whatever is done to him. His mind is no longer troubled by what someone may say or think about him, or do against him; and he finds perfect contentment in these two things only; to do the task at hand justly and to embrace his fate gladly. Throwing off all other considerations and schemes, his one ambition is to run the straight race marked out by the law, in pursuit of the swift-footed gods, who never leave this sure course. (10, 11)

It is within your power, always and everywhere, to be content with what the gods have given you, to deal justly with people as you find them, and to guard your thoughts against the intrusion of untested or inchoate ideas. (7, 54)

After curing many illnesses, Hippocrates became ill himself and died. The Chaldean astrologers predicted the deaths of many before their own fatal hours struck. Alexander, Pompey, and Julius Caesar sacked and ruined countless cities and maimed and slaughtered untold thousands of soldiers and horses, and then they too departed this life. Heraclitus, after endless speculation on the destruction of the universe by fire, drowned in his own juices, plastered with cow dung. Lice got the better of Democritus, and vermin of another sort killed Socrates.

So what’s the point of it all? Simply this. You embarked; you sailed; you landed. Now, disembark! If it is to start a new life, you will find the gods there too. If it is to lose all consciousness, you will be liberated from the tyranny of pleasure and pain and from your bondage to an earthly shell that is vastly inferior to the master contained in it. For the spirit is intelligent and godlike whereas the body is blood and dust. (3, 3)

The Philosopher with an Hammer

hammer & tongs 1

We require history for life and action, not for the smug avoiding of life and action, or even to whitewash a selfish life and cowardly, bad acts. Only so far as history serves life will we serve it.

Whoever cannot settle on the threshold of the moment forgetful of the whole past, whoever is incapable of standing on a point like a goddess of victory without vertigo or fear, will never know what happiness is, and worse yet, will never do anything to make others happy.

All acting requires forgetting, as not only light but also darkness is required for life by all organisms.

The stronger the roots of the inmost nature of a man are, the more of the past will he appropriate or master; and were one to conceive the most powerful and colossal nature, it would be known by this, that for it there would be no limit at which the historical sense could overgrow and harm it; such a nature would draw its own as well as every alien past wholly into itself and transform it into blood, as it were.

And this is a general law; every living thing can become healthy, strong and fruitful only within a horizon;

Everyone will have made the following observation: a man’s historical knowledge and perception may be very limited, his horizon as restricted as that of a resident of an alpine valley, into every judgement he may introduce an injustice, into every experience the error of being the first to have that experience – and despite all injustice and error he stands firmly in indefatigable health and vigour, a pleasure to behold; while right beside him the man of greater justice and learning deteriorates and crumbles because the lines of his horizon restlesly shift again and again, because he cannot extricate himself from the much more delicate network of his justice and truths in order to engage in rude willing and desiring.

Only through the power to use the past for life and to refashion what has happened into history, does man become man.

Think of a man tossed and torn by a powerful passion for a woman or great thought… it is the most unjust condition in the world, narrow, ungrateful to the past, blind to dangers, deaf to warnings, a little living whirlpool in a dead sea of night and forgetting: and yet this condition – unhistorical, contra-historical through and through – is the cradle not only of an unjust, but rather of every just deed; and no artist will paint his picture, no general acheive victory nor any people its freedom without first having desired and striven for it in such an unhistorical condition.

Superhistorical men have never agreed whether the significance of the teaching is happiness or resignation, virtue or penance; but, opposed to all historical ways of viewing the past, they are quite unanimous in accepting the following proposition: the past and the present is one and the same, that is, typical alike in all manifold variety and, as omnipresence of imperishable types, a static structure of unchanged value and eternally the same meaning.

History belongs above all to the active and powerful man, to him who fights a great fight, who requires models, teachers and comforters and can not find them among his associates and contemporaries.

For his commandment reads: “What once was capable of magnifying the concept ‘man’ and of giving it a more beautiful content must be present eternally in order eternally to have this capacity.” That the great moments in the struggle of individuals form a chain, that in the high points of humanity are linked throughout the millennia, that what is highest in such a moment of the distant past be for me still alive, strong and great – this is the fundamental thought of the faith in humanity which is expressed in the demand for monumental historty. Precisely this demand however, that the great be eternal, occasions the most terrible conflict.

What is the advantage to the present individual, then, of the monumental view of the past, the concern with the classical and the rare of earlier times? It is the knowledge that the great which once existed was at least possible once and may well again be possible sometime; he goes his way more courageously, for now the doubt which assails him in moments of weakness, that he may perhaps want the impossible, has been conquered.

The creator has always been at a disadvantage to him who only looked on without even trying his hand; as at all times the armchair politician has been wiser, more just and judicious than the governing statesman.

This is how the connoisseurs are because they wish to eliminate art altogether; they give the appearance of physicians while their real intention is to dispense poisons; so they cultivate their tongue and their taste in order to explain fastidiously why they so insistently decline whatever nourishing artistic fare is offered them. For they do not want something great to be produced: their expedient is to say “see, the great already exists!” In truth they care as little about existing greatness as about greatness in the making: to which their life bears witness.

In the second place, then, history belongs to the preserving and revering soul – to him who with loyalty and love looks back on his own origins; through this reverence he, as it were, gives thanks for his existence. By tending with loving hands what has long survived he intends to preserve the conditions in which he grew up for those who will come after him – and so he serves life.

The small and limited, the decayed and obsolete receives its dignity and involability in that the preserving and revering soul of the antiquarian moves into these things and makes itself at home in the nest it builds there.

Here one could live, he says to himself, for here one can live and will be able to live, for we are tough and not to be uprooted over night. And so with this ‘We’, he looks beyond the ephemeral, curious, indivdiual life and feels like the spirit of the house, the generation, and the city.

But this antiquarian historical sense of reverence is of the highest value where it imbues modest, coarse, even wretched conditions in which a man or a people live with a simple touching feeling of pleasure and contentment;

How could history serve life bettern than by tying even less favoured generations and populations to their homeland and its customs, by making them sedentary and preventing their searching and contentiously fighting for something better in foreign lands?

The happiness of knowing oneself not to be wholly arbitrary and accidental, but rather as growing out of the past as its heir, flower and fruit and so to be exculpated, even justified, in one’s existence – this is what one now especially likes to call the proper historical sense.

Here there is always one danger very near: the time will finally come when everything old and past which has not totally been lost sight of will simply be taken as equally venerable, while whatever does not approach the old with veneration, that is new and growing, will be rejected and treated with hostility.

When the sense of a people hardens in this way, when history serves past life so as to undermine further and especially higher life, when the historical sense no longer preserves life but mummifies it: then the tree dies unnaturally, beginning at the top and slowly dying towards the roots – and in the end the root itself grenerally decays.

Now piety withers away, scholorly habit endures without it and, egoistically complacent, revolves around its own centre. Then you may well witness the repugnant spectacle of blind lust for collecting, of a restless raking together of all that once has been.

The fact that something old now gives rise to the demand that it must be immortal.

Here it becomes clear how badly man needs, often enough, in addition to the monumental and antiquarian ways of seeing the past, a third kind, the critical: and this again in service of life as well. He must have the strength, and use it from time to time, to shatter and dissolve something to enable him to live: this he achieves by dragging it to the bar of judgement, interrogating it meticulously and finally condemning it;

It is an attempt, as it were a posteriori to give oneself a past from which one would like to be descended: – always a dangerous attempt because second natures are mostly feebler than first.

Yet here and there a victory is acheived nevertheless, and for the fighters who use critical history for life there is even a remarkable consolation: namely, to know that this first nature also was, at some time or other, a second nature and that every victorious second nature becomes a first.

Each man and each people requires according to their goals, strengths and needs, a certain knowledge of the past, sometimes as monumental, sometimes as antiquarian, sometimes as critical history… but always only for the purpose of life and therefore also always under the rule and highest direction of that purpose.

Knowledge of the past is at all times desired only in the service of the future and the present.

Knowledge, taken in excess withough hunger, even contrary to need, no longer acts as a transforming motive impelling to action and remains hidden in a certain chaotic inner world which that modern man, with curious pride, calls his unique “inwardness”. He may then say that he has the content and that only the form is lacking; but in all living things this is quite an unseemly opposition. Our modern culture is nothing living just because it cannot be understood at all without that opposition, that is: it is no real culture at all but only a kind of knowledge about culture.

In the inner being sentiment may well sleep like a snake which, having swallowed whole rabbits, calmly lies in the sun and avoids all movement except the most necessary.

Everyone who passes by wishes only one thing, that such a culture not perish of indigestibility.

For from ourselves we moderns have nothing at all; only by filling and overfilling ourselve with alien ages, customs, arts, philosophies, religions and knowledge do we become something worthy of notice, namely walking encyclopedias.

The people that can be called cultured must in reality be a living unity and not fall apart so miserably into an inside and an outside, a content and form. If you want to strive for and promote the culture of a people, then strive for and promote this higher unity and work to annihilate modern pseudo-culture in favor of a true culture; dare to devote some thought to the problem of restoring the health of a people which has been impaired by history, to how it may recover its instincts and therewith its integrity.

What means shall he use? What is now left him but his deep knowledge: in expressing it, disseminating it, distributing it generously he hopes to plant a need: and from this strong need a strong deed will one day arise.

In this truth-in-need, however, our first generation must be raised; certainly it will suffer the most from this truth, for through it it must raise itself, and even itself against itself, into a new habit and nature out of an old and first nature and habit:

First give me life and I will make you a culture from it!

This same youth also guesses with the curative instinct of that same nature how that paradise is to be regained; it knows the ointments and medicines for the historical malady, for the excess of the historical: and what are they called?

Do not be surprised, they bear the names of poisons: the antidotes to the historical are called – the unhistorical and the superhistorical. With these names we return to the beginnings of our essay and to their calm.

By the word “unhistorical” I denote the art and the strength of being able to forget and to enclose oneself in a limited horizon: “superhistorical” I call the powers which guide the eye away from becoming and towards that which gives existence an eternal and stable character, towards art and religion.

It is possible that we, the historically sick, will also have to suffer from the antidotes. But that we suffer from them is no proof that the treatment is incorrect.

But at that final point in their cure they have become human again, and have ceased to be humanoid aggregates – that is something!

And how do we arrive at that goal? you will ask. Already at the beginning of a journey to that goal the Delphic god calls his motto to you: KNOW THYSELF. It is a hard motto: for the god “does not conceal and does not reveal, but only indicates” as Heraclitus has said. What does he point out to you?

The Greeks learned gradually to organize chaos by reflecting on themselves in accordance with the Delphic teaching, that is, by reflecting on their genuine needs, and letting their sham needs die out. Thus they took possession of themselves again; they did not long remain the overloaded heirs and epigoni of the whole orient; after a difficult struggle with themselves and through the practical interpretation of that motto they even became the happiest enrichers and increasers of the inherited treasure and the firstcomers and models of all coming cultured peoples.

This is the parable for each one of us: he must organize the chaos within himself by reflecting on his genuine needs.

Thus the Greek concept of culture – will be unveiled to him, the concept of culture as a new and improved nature, without inside and outside, without dissimulation and convention, of culture as the accord of life, thought, appearing and willing.

– All selections above by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by Peter Preuss, and published by Hacket Publishing as “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life” in 1980. All selections and edits by yours truly, for my personal use and not meant for commercial distribution in any way.