Last week at The Stone, philosopher Sean D. Kelly mused on Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God and proceeded to consider contemporary culture in light of Nietzsche’s epidemiology of modern nihilism. Aside from the oddness of seeing Nietzsche analyzed in the The New York Times, there are a few particular issues one could take with Kelly’s brief essay. (By all appearances, Nietzsche genuinely loathed “the newspaper reading demi-monde of the intellect, the cultured class.” He did, however, claim readership of the Journal des débats, though this admission may have been but a bit of anti-nationalistic—or, more intimately, anti-Wagnerian—provocation.)
In searching for a path “past nihilism,” as his title suggests, Kelly leaves aside the ontological and epistemological implications of the death of God—those which shatter not only culturally enshrined values and ideals, or idols, but also the very constructs and conceits of quotidian consciousness and its image of the world. And it is this, philosophical and aesthetic, potentiality of the nihilistic predicament, “as the denial of a truthful world, of being,” that, Nietzsche says, renders active nihilism “a divine way of thinking”—an affirmation unlikely to find any place in the common quest for nihilism’s beyond.
Kelly sets his sights, rather, on the vitiation of value and meaning in the obsolescence of a once unavoidable and irrefragable belief in the existence and transcendence of the good and of God. The stakes of God’s death would appear to take the form of an ultimatum, which reflects in terms of affect and attitude the intransigent either-or of (a)theism: either fulfillment or despair, genuine happiness or gnawing existential angst.
Kelly goes on to cite David Brooks’s argument against the allegedly inevitable triumph of the latter: “The suburban life full of ‘quiet desperation’ [. . .] is a literary trope that has taken on a life of its own. It fails to recognize the happiness, and even fulfillment, that is found in the everyday engagements with religion, work, ethnic heritage, military service and any of the other pursuits in life that are ‘potentially lofty and ennobling.'” But what Brooks fails to recognize, argues Kelly, is that the satisfactions of his exemplary suburbanite may be no more than self-deceptions:
One can imagine a happy suburban member of a religious congregation who, in addition to finding fulfillment for herself in her lofty and ennobling religious pursuits, experiences the aspiration to this kind of fulfillment as one demanded of all other human beings as well. Indeed, one can imagine that the kind of fulfillment she experiences through her own religious commitments depends upon her experiencing those commitments as universal, and therefore depends upon her experiencing those people not living in the fold of her church as somehow living depleted or unfulfilled lives. I suppose this is not an impossible case. But if this is the kind of fulfillment one achieves through one’s happy suburban religious pursuit, then in our culture today it is self-deception at best and fanaticism at worst.
As a counterpoint, Kelly offers the following:
But there is another option available. Perhaps Nietzsche was wrong about how long it would take for the news of God’s death to reach the ears of men. Perhaps he was wrong, in other words, about how long it would take before the happiness to which we can imagine aspiring would no longer need to aim at universal validity in order for us to feel satisfied by it. In this case the happiness of the suburbs would be consistent with the death of God, but it would be a radically different kind of happiness from that which the Judeo-Christian epoch of Western history sustained.
Herman Melville seems to have articulated and hoped for this kind of possibility. Writing 30 years before Nietzsche, in his great novel “Moby Dick,” the canonical American author encourages us to “lower the conceit of attainable felicity”; to find happiness and meaning, in other words, not in some universal religious account of the order of the universe that holds for everyone at all times, but rather in the local and small-scale commitments that animate a life well-lived. The meaning that one finds in a life dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” these are genuine meanings. They are, in other words, completely sufficient to hold off the threat of nihilism, the threat that life will dissolve into a sequence of meaningless events. But they are nothing like the kind of universal meanings for which the monotheistic tradition of Christianity had hoped.
But let’s consider a third option—that the small pleasures, or the “small-scale commitments,” that Kelly sees as an alternative to monotheistic overreach, or monomania, may today serve much the same purpose as the small pleasures that Nietzsche discerned among the principal instruments of priestcraft; that is to say, they are palliatives or ameliorants, anesthetics in the service of suppressing the pain of powerlessness and ressentiment. And for Nietzsche, the fundamental destitution manifested throughout the long history of the ascetic ideal is that it affirms, not what makes life valuable, or desirable, but what makes it tolerable.
Granted, Kelly’s point is to advocate not so much a life of small pleasures as a certain strong pluralism, or “polytheism,” as he has it—the acknowledgment that, while “[n]ot every life is worth living [. . .] there are nevertheless many different lives of worth, and there is no single principle or source or meaning in virtue of which one properly admires them all.” But polytheism—as, for example, Merleau-Ponty knew—is hard, perhaps even “too hard.” Which is not to say that Kelly’s is not an admirable proposal, nor one worth holding on to. However, I would be hesitant to see it exemplified in the pursuit of small pleasures, or the consumer-therapeutic culture, characteristic of contemporary bourgeois life (with regard to which, I would suppose, the first option that Kelly surveys provides the more accurate assessment). But, moreover, the dichotomization that opposes nihilism and happiness—indeed, that renders this opposition the decisive ethical problem of modernity—on which Kelly’s essay turns, is a false one, as Nietzsche reminds us: “‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink.” If some such “polytheism” as Kelly proposes is to materialize, it is, I would argue, the complicity of modern nihilism and the notion of happiness that first calls for attention.