"This elementary world..." — Nietzsche, Strength, and Self-Surpassing

"Knowing that thousand eras constitute a day of Brahman, [and] thousand eras complete a night, are the people who know day, [and] night. On arrival of day, all manifestations originate from 'Unmanifest'; On arrival of night they annihilate into [what is] known as 'Unmanifest' only. This elementary world only happens again & again; Annihilates upon arrival of night, [and] originates upon arrival of day."

- Bhagavad Gita 8:17-19

On the Christian Transhumanist Association’s Facebook page, founder and Executive Director of the CTA Micah Redding began an interesting conversation on power, strength, and oppression, with reference to the German philosopher Friederich Nietzsche, in the context of transhumanism and Christianity.

I know, I'm a nerd, but so far as I could tell, the question came down to something like this: what is strength, and does it necessitate power over others? Or, put another way, at least as I saw it, are strength and moral goodness mutually exclusive?

My response was a bit lengthy (shocking, I know), but I thought I’d run the risk of expanding it into a blog post and sharing it here.  For one thing, I think it’s an important discussion so far as personal development goes, which I think naturally dovetails into writing.  Refining what it means for a character to develop, articulating what it would mean to say they became stronger as a result of their narrative experiences, is invaluable.

Or maybe I’m just a nerd for ethics and metaphysics.  In any event, maybe this will be of some use nonetheless.

The Will to Power and the Eternal Recurrence of All Things

It might not have been precisely to Micah’s question, but I am admittedly a fan of Nietzsche, if only through the work of Eric Steinhart (Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University, with an emphasis on computational theories and mathematics), especially his book On Nietzsche. Steinhart adapts Nietzsche's Eternal Recurrence (which I’ll define anon) and combines it with what may be a slight reworking of his Will to Power (also defined below). The result is an interesting thought experiment that I think yields some interesting questions:

The Eternal Recurrence is a mathematical proposition that basically comes out like this: reality has no ultimate temporal beginning or end, therefore time is infinite; but reality only has so many "objects," and thus only so many ways to arrange them, therefore all possible states of the universe are finite. Combining these two points, Nietzsche suggests the hypothetical that this very moment (this very one, bucko) will happen again and again, ad infinitum, because reality has no end, and that it has in fact already happened in the past an infinite number of times, without beginning. Furthermore, every variation of this moment will also occur, given enough time, infinitely many times in the future, as it already has infinitely many times already. In sum, throughout its eternal existence, reality plays out every one of its possibilities an infinite number of times.

The Will to Power is a bit fuzzier, mostly because I don't think Nietzsche was as much of a systematic thinker as we would prefer him to be.  Arguably his ideas developed (often in subtle ways) over the course of his career, and he wasn’t prone to slowing down and writing dictionaries to accompany his own work. The best I can really deduce it for myself is: no person should be under the power of another, but ultimately free. Something like that, and while it's not necessarily moral, it's not necessarily immoral either; as one of his book titles might suggest, he liked to think "beyond good and evil," anyway.

Consulting Steinhart

So far as I can tell, the Eternal Recurrence and the Will to Power don’t necessarily intermingle in Nietzsche’s work.  That said, Steinhart combines these two ideas in a novel way: envision an infinite bulk multiverse, where every possibility is played out, but because complex things (like universes) are extremely unlikely to cause themselves, they must be caused by something else—Steinhart suggests something like a simpler universe as the cause for our own universe, which is in turn caused by an even simpler universe, and on and on until one reaches a maximally simple universe that stands as the root cause of all things. But if this ultimate beginning starts out maximally simple, then grows complex, playing out every possible route of development, then he suggests that this multiverse cannot be organized on fecundity or plenitude (simply put, that all possibilities, good and bad, play themselves out in an equal plumage).  In fact, if reality has an evolutionary history, then it has a trajectory: every new universe is a better, or more complex version of its predecessor; in other words, if a "bad" universe exists, it is surpassed in the multiverse by a "better" universe. In other words, "bad" universes don't exist alongside "good" ones, but as developmental precursors that necessarily come before "better," more complex.  (For more on this, I highly recommend Steinhart's Your Digital Afterlives: Computational Theories of Life After Death, as well as his upcoming book on Richard Dawkins' metaphysics.)

This seems to me, more or less, to be how Steinhart reworks Nietzsche's Will to Power, and I think there's some use to it: rather than the Will to Power as an attempt to exert power over other things (or other people), it's a matter of surpassing previous versions of oneself and one's situation, with no logically necessary ceiling to how much better one or one's situation can become. Even if not metaphysically, psychologically or philosophically this idea is fairly healthy.  To borrow a quote from an apparently unknown source (and one which Instagram seems to love): don’t compare yourself to others; compare yourself to who you were yesterday.  There’s wisdom there.

So with Steinhart’s addendum in hand, the final question comes out something like this: if you know reality will constantly repeat this moment and every one of its possible variations, and if that knowledge somehow granted you the ability to give trajectory to what would otherwise be an aimless plenitude, what would you do differently and who would you be otherwise? To me, this comes out as an intriguingly Christian question in a sense (partly why I’m sympathetic to not only transhumanism in general, but religious transhumanism as well), pointing to Christ as the archetypal hero of unending existence (overcoming ultimate existential death in "resurrection") and self-surpassing (overcoming shortcomings in "repentance") with no logically necessary end/ceiling.  If Christ is a Christian’s ultimate example, meant for emulation, then (as odd as it may sound, and as much as Nietzsche himself might have hated to hear it) I believe the Christian and the Nietzschian are ultimately talking about much the same thing.

Clean Your Own Room First

I think this mix of Eternal Recurrence and the Will to Power is also surprisingly Eastern. Rather than seeing reality as something which must bend to us (an intriguingly infantile approach, quite literally, as this is how an infant lives their life; parents ideally contort their lives, and life in general, to the infant's needs and comfort, and all that aid is merely a cry away), we must instead see ourselves as in need of incremental growth and adaptation—and I think that's where the Nietzschian Will to Power comes in. If you can't change the world around you, you must invariably change yourself, and that is to be seen as an improvement of yourself rather than a concession to oppression—it's a means of overcoming oppression.

I don't know if it's about strength as such, perhaps more about the right kind of strength, but the late British-American philosopher and writer Alan Watts tells an interesting story he said came from India.  I've had trouble relocating his telling of it, but here it is as I recollect it: a very long time ago, in a time before shoes, the earth was just as harsh and unforgiving on people's bare feet as it is now. A great king declared the wisest among them should come up with a plan to remedy this; some wise men suggested sacrificing their entire livestock to their local god, and then spread the pelts of the sacrificed animals across all the earth, so no one would ever cut their foot or stub their toe again. The king liked this idea, but a wiser man suggested something else: rather than using up all their livestock, sacrifice only a few animals, but instead of covering the world in their skins, just cover the people's feet—give them shoes.

A good story, I think, for a good principle: strength isn't tyranny over the world around you but adaptation to it; real adaptation is not passive slavery, but gaining a new kind of power that enables an individual without dominating others.  And, as far as Steinhart’s metaphysical theory goes, reality itself is predisposed toward (if not hardwired for) this very kind of self-surpassing.  As prosthetics of the universe, the proverbial particles that compose the universe itself, we ourselves are formed around the same doublet prerogative: live and live better.



Image: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), Caspar David Friedrich