It’s funny, when I was brought up, both my parents and my school and books and TV; everything around me tried to teach me the virtues of life. Do not murder, do not steal, do not covet thine neighbours wife. People told me to be good, to live a good life, to do good things, to strive for justice. The funny thing is that as an adult, I have to say that none of the people who followed that advice turned out to be successful in life (by society’s standards; monetary wealth and outward happiness). Those who are most successful are more often than not criminals, who routinely break the judicial laws of society. Successful people are often sociopaths that have little regard or respect for other humans. If you look at who becomes a boss of a company, it’s not the good guy that everyone likes; it’s the psychopath that does whatever it takes to get what they want.
Having a son of my own makes me think of these things. Should I really teach him to do good things, knowing that he will probably live his life at a disadvantage compared to others?
I always had the dream of setting up my own society. It would start as a company, and then I would hire just the right people, to build up an organization with good guys. It would be a work place where people had fun, and where people got support if they were having a hard time. It would not be a capitalistic blood sucker that brainwashes people into quiet submission. However, even in running a company, which I have now tried two times, I find that my honesty stands in my way. People are not used to someone telling the truth; in fact I find that people are so used to being lied to that they prefer to deal with liars. So my own dream of working my way up to my own perfect little world has always remained a dream.
So what do I tell my son? Should I try to sponsor him to follow my own dream? Or should I embrace the cynic and tell him that you need to be hard and ruthless to get ahead, and then after having stolen and pillaged your way to a good position only then can you consider to possibility of doing some good? Maybe it is weird to wrestle with such thoughts. Perhaps it is a remnant of my Christian upbringing. But I really find this difficult to deal with; wanting to live a moral life and wanting that for my son as well, but also wanting my son to live a prosperous life with all his needs fulfilled. It is difficult for me to see how anyone could have both.
Is a good upbringing the path that leads to a prosperous life? Or is the good upbringing the path that leads to good morals and virtues? Should I work for my son to find the simple pleasures first of money and social standing, and only later go after the higher pleasures of peace of mind and internal joy? Or should I work for my son to go for the higher pleasures first, knowing that he will in all likelihood miss out on more simple pleasures like never having to wonder if you are able to pay all bills this month? It really doesn’t feel like an easy choice to make.
When Friedrich Nietzsche published the collection “The Joyful Pursuit of Knowledge and Understanding” he presented arguments against books that are published and popular even in this day. Dawkins’s books about the universe as a clockwork and a marvellously intelligently designed machine is something Nietzsche says we should guard ourselves against more than a hundred years before that book was written. In the same section, he is saying we should be careful not to accept the Gaia theory. What Nietzsche saw was that the Universe just exists. There is no master plan. Humans love to ascribe properties to the Universe and imagine gods and goddesses as rulers of it all, but those things are all in our head. Anthropomorphisms. He then goes into metaphysics and explain that even matter itself does not exist, which physicists are struggling to explain even to this day. Even the fundaments of modern science, which Karl Popper is famous for elaborating, where it is said that we cannot know truth – we only know what is false, this too is a matter of Nietzsche’s text 70 years before Popper. It really is an amazing thinker that is able to produce content like this so far ahead of his peers.
“The Gay Science”, as the text has also been translated as (before “gay” got the meaning of “homosexual” rather than “joyful”) also is the first mention from Nietzsche of his term “God is Dead”. First, he talks about how Buddha died and how people kept worshipping his shadow after he was gone. Then, he presents a madman who approaches atheists but they don’t understand him and then he goes to churches but they don’t understand him either. It seems clear that the madman is Nietzsche himself. “God is Dead” doesn’t mean that god is actually dead, because Nietzsche believes there never was a god. What he is talking about is the death of religious morals and ethics. Yet, the atheists don’t understand how terrible it is to have killed the foundations of society, so they make fun of him. He says churches are the tombstones of god, reminding everyone that what we used to base our laws on has been proven to be a prehistoric fantasy. With the death of religious morals, we need a new system for how to decide what is right and what is wrong. Humans need to think about morals and ethics, not because a god said we have to, but because we need to figure out how to make society work without a god in it. God is dead, I am god!
Nihilism is the absence of morals. This is not what Nietzsche would prefer, even though many ignorant students have associated him with this line of thought. In the joyful science he says that there is a danger for society to end up in a situation where nihilism appears to be the only way forward, but he is not suggesting that it is. In fact, Nietzsche thinks that after realising that god is dead, our future is more bright than ever, because philosophers are free to devise a functional morality with fewer flaws. He does not propose what the solution is, at least not in this book, but he is thinking of the future as bright and exciting, not dark with a lack of meaning as would be associated with nihilism.
Pondering about what a good set of morals would comprise is a fun exercise. It is also a great challenge. Every time you put down a “you should” there arises a situation where “you shouldn’t” for the same reasons. But it is a challenge we should take upon ourselves, if not of necessity for the fun of it all.