In the essay “What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals” in On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche says that the lives of all the great creative spirits have been marked by the ascetic ideal where all dogs are nicely chained up by poverty, humility, and chastity. In fact, he says that asceticism is a precondition for the erotic ascent of the artist, philosopher and scholar. The urge of the hand to reach for comfort and luxury must be restrained. The barking dogs of unbridled pride and wanton sensuality must be taken to the basement and nicely chained. Whatever seeks to dominate the artist, philosopher and scholar must be confronted by a will to the desert.
For Nietzsche poverty is the desert where the strong, independent spirits withdraw and become lonely. In the desert the artist, philosopher and scholar cultivate humility. Nietzsche’s humility is a desire not to be distracted by the lightning of fame or the burden of self-absorption. His humility does not bow before anything; it withdraws from everything in order to nurture the embryo of Eros within his soul. Hence Nietzsche advocates chastity as a means of channeling all creative energy toward the evolving work of the artist, philosopher and scholar.
The idea of restraint as means to creativity is an important theme in this essay by Nietzsche. In a culture that seeks to manufacture everything quickly and cheaply Nietzsche’s endorsement of the ascetic ideal serves as a necessary corrective. Pregnant souls too often give birth to premature progeny that are incapable of immortality. The gestation period is abbreviated in the interest of market share and instant fame. Where are the artists who have a will to the desert? Where are the philosophers who spurn the lightening of fame in favor of prolonged erotic maternity? Where are the scholars who avoid the brothels of popular demand in favor of creative abstinence?
Aristotle observes in On the Soul that the “the activity of the sensible object and that of the sense is one and the same activity, and yet the distinction between their being remains (III.425b.25).” This observation has interesting social implications. If the sensible objects we encounter manifest themselves in the action of sensing them, then the phenomena of the other is co-constituted by the sensible in act and the sense in act. This is implies that that the other is in us as a result of our being an embodied consciousness able to be sensed and capable of sensing. The sensory experience of the other activates our sensory awareness which then acts upon the sensible object producing a presentation of the other. This presentation is an abstraction of the form of the other from the individual percept. The intellect is then capable of abstracting the form from the conditions of matter and applying universals for the purpose of making a judgment. What is interesting is that Aristotle claims that our senses never err when they perceive objects appropriate to the particular sense. For example, our eyes never err in seeing what is visible. The eyes do not see sound or the ears hear the visible. The senses do err however, in making judgments.
I am drawn back again and again to Aristotle’s statement “the soul is in a way all existing things (III.431b.22).” Aquinas clarifies what Aristotle means by this by distinguishing between Empedocles claim of simple identification between soul and object and Aristotle’s formal resemblance which understands the form of the object without matter (Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, 789-790.) What is so striking about this claim is Aristotle’s description of the mechanism that makes it possible to have an intellection of form without matter. Aristotle says that the imagination produces images “that are like sensuous contents except in that they contain no matter (III.431b.9).” In fact, cognition is impossible without these images. But, images are the products of movement initiated by sensation or reproductions from memory during reflection. In each case images are the immaterial form of the object without matter and yet retain the conditions of matter.
This imaginative capacity is a mechanism for mirroring objects of sensation which has striking similarities with the recent discovery of mirror neurons and their implied shared manifold of inter-subjectivity (cf. Gallese, Vittorio, “The Roots of Empathy: The Shared Manifold Hypothesis and the Neural Basis of Intersubjectivity). Studies have shown infants as young as18 hours old are able to mimic mouth and facial movements of the adults facing them. This is how infants learn about themselves and consequently about others. This capacity is the result of an inter-subjectivity that is rooted neurologically in what are called mirror neurons which are basic organizational features of the brain which allow for action stimulation. What is even more striking is that these neurons require sensory stimulation by an agent and its object: self or other. When monkeys were monitored these neurons were activated during actions executed by the agent and in actions observed. The monkey was able to create an internal copy of what was observed but in reference to its own body.
This seems very similar to Aristotle’s theory of imagination and his claim that the mind is in a way all things. The mind is capable of cognizing all things through sensation and the imagination. One major problem with this connection may be the extent to which a monkey brain and a human brain can imagine. Aristotle does say animals have imagination but he does not grant that their minds are all things because they are not oriented towards universals, which is the orientation of the human intellect, but merely to individuals which is the orientation of sensation.
Both Edith Stein and Merleau-Ponty have addressed inter-subjectivity and their work is referenced in the secondary literature on mirror neurons. I still need to explicate the details on this connection but Aristotle seems to have the basic insight that neuroscience and neuropsychology are now confirming.
One of my professors recently encouraged me to read the speech on love in Plato’s Symposium. The speech is given by Diotema and explains that Eros (Love) was the child of Poros (Plenty) and Penuria (Poverty). The Greek noun eros comes from the verb erao – to be feathered or in the case of Eros to grow wings. Eros is the winged god of love that aggressively flies toward the object of his desire. This aggressive desire is due to his parentage: Plenty and Poverty. We only desire what we do not have (Poverty) and we seek to overcome this deficit with its opposite (Plenty). This dialectic of Plenty and Poverty is the catalyst for desire. Diotema says that all human beings are pregnant with love. We are either physically pregnant or soulfully pregnant. The soulfully pregnant are the creative beings who give birth to works of art. Their art is their love child born of their plenty and poverty. Diotema goes on to say that Eros represents the love of the mortal for the immortal. The desire to reproduce physically is the desire to continually replicate ourselves and thereby achieve immortality. We are straining in our bodies to ascend to the divine.
Aristotle later takes up this notion in his Physics and On the Soul as the framework of Nature. Nature is phusis which means a “straining to emerge”. Living beings are always straining to emerge from non-being towards immortality. Because all living beings are born, decay and die, reproduction is the only option for immortality. Immortality is achieved in a perpetuation of the species. If this notion is beginning to sound a little too much like a reductionist materialism, it should. Baruch Spinoza will eventually make the implications of this notion starkly clear in his sixth proposition of Book III of his Ethics where he says: “all beings strive to persist in their own being.” Although Spinoza clearly rejects teleology his persistence of being becomes his telos. Unfortunately, he did not realize the ferocity of a Nature in perpetual persistence without a telos to guide it. If all beings are striving to persist in their own being what becomes of the Other? Where does personal sacrifice, substitution and giving-oneself-for-the-other fit in? How is ethics even remotely possible if my greatest concern is personal immortality and self-perpetuation? Is all of nature locked into a system “red in tooth and claw (Tennyson)?”
The recent film adaptation of Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road (written in 1961) by Sam Mendes is rife with Heideggerian solipsism and begs for a Levanasian critique. Richard Yates once responded that the theme of his work is that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy. Frank and April Wheeler are thrown into their tragic existences, spiraling towards a death they do not have the courage to face. They are existential cowards, and what is more, they know it. They forfeited an authentic life for a life of mediocrity on Revolutionary Road. The one redeeming quality of the Wheeler’s is that they are aware of their inauthenticity. In fact, they struggle in its grip. But the only one who can rescue them remains at the margins: the other.
The other makes multiple appearances throughout the film in the two nearly invisible Wheeler children, the Nietzchean mad-man John Givings, Frank Wheeler’s secretary, and finally the aborted child of Frank and April Wheeler whose face makes a single appearance in a blood stain on the carpet near the end of the film. Frank and April are also thematized others to each other. Each is trapped in the concepts of the other. Frank wants April to be “mother” and “housewife” and April wants Frank to be the “philosopher-poet” drinking wine and reading books in sidewalk cafes in Paris. April wants Frank to see her as an “artist” and an “actress” but Frank only sees someone pretending to be something they will never be. The strangeness of the other is ameliorated in expectations and themes that make the other manageable. Frank reduces his secretary to a use-object and has sex with her for his 30th birthday. He turns away from her face afterwards because for him she is only a being-for-Frank He does not see the shame on her face or hear her plea for his care. For Frank Wheeler there is only Frank and Frank’s world.
John Givings ruptures Wheeler World with his unbridled tongue that shatters convention and savors the rawness of life. He will not be thematized. He will not be tamed. He is wild and strange. He demands a response from the Wheelers. At one point Frank describes his life as a “hopeless emptiness” and John stops in his tracks, startled by this magnificent insight. John compliments Frank on this crucial insight. “Most people are on to the emptiness, but very few catch on to the hopelessness.” This insight should startle the Wheeler’s into facing their tragic lives with a Heideggerian resoluteness but instead they shrink from the challenge and John unleashes a vitriolic condemnation that strips the Wheeler’s of their paper mache masks of courage and leaves them wallowing in their cowardice. John’s final words are that he is glad he is not their unborn child. He does not want to be the unborn other who will not be seen or heard and will never be given a chance at an authentic life. He knows the child’s face will be covered with a mask as soon as it is born. The child will be reduced to parental themes and constantly silenced just as John’s parents do to him throughout the film. It’s life will be a tragic repetition of the inauthenticity of Frank and April.
Emmanule Levinas has said that we encounter the other as our interlocutor in the face-to-face encounter of language. Throughout Revolutionary Road people are constantly being silenced or spoken over. In the final scene John’s mother is discussing the misfortune of the Wheelers as his father listens disdainfully with the help of a hearing aid. Finally, while continuing to look her in the face he turns down his hearing aid. She is reduced to silence. He shuts her out of his world. This stranger will find no rest in his inn.