The Ockham Society (Week 8, HT23)
One of the most central concerns in Nietzsche’s writings is (European) nihilism and its overcoming. As the values that have given structure, guidance, and meaning to the life of Europeans lose their normative authority in Nietzsche’s time, the assumption that the world is hospitable to human striving is undermined. Concluding that life as it is cannot be justified, one turns against life, exhibiting a pathological life-negating attitude. To overcome nihilism, humans need to take artists and poets as guiding models, aiming to make an “aesthetic phenomenon” (BT 5) out of existence itself. In doing so, an individual enters the aesthetic state, a condition in which the world appears justified and one is freed from nihilist pathologies.
It is this paper’s aim to explain how Nietzsche might have envisioned the aesthetic state to be meaningfully integrated into humans’ everyday value-practices. For this purpose, I propose a reading of the relation between the overcoming of nihilism and aesthetics in Nietzsche that heavily benefits from a comparative perspective with the Chinese philosopher Xunzi (3rd century BCE). Even though we might initially think that this stern and conservative Confucian makes strange bedfellows with the “dynamite” that is Nietzsche, I seek to demonstrate that there are important insights to gain from this comparison.
First, I will present what I take to be an anthropological thesis, which Nietzsche espouses, about a fundamental tension of human existence, and I will explain how this tension can give rise to nihilism. Next, I suggest that the unravelling of Christian metaphysics and morality, which Nietzsche observes in his time, mirrors a crucial cultural-intellectual development that situates Xunzi’s philosophy in the late Warring States period. On this basis, I seek to demonstrate that Xunzi’s reinterpretation of ritual (li 禮) indicates how said fundamental tension of human existence is properly addressed and beautified in ritual practice. This, I propose, can help us understand how Nietzsche might have envisioned the aesthetic state to arise from and be situated in a new understanding of those valued practices that have lost their authority and meaning-giving force in the course of European modernity.