Of First and Last Things

Chemistry of Concepts and Sensations

I’ve always appreciated that Nietzsche hits the ground running in Human, All Too Human. Not to discount earlier works by the man, for many important ideas started as seeds in those writings, but Human, All Too Human is where we really begin to see Nietzsche come into his own as a thinker and a writer. It’s his first work in the aphoristic style which suits Nietzsche’s writing style and thoughts. The very first aphorism goes after the problem of opposites.

How can something originate in its opposite, for example rationality in irrationality.

Nietzsche, Human All Too Human

The very misconception of opposites and “pure” motives/actions are of course misleading in the extreme and have also attached a good amount of negative baggage on ideas that are not in of themselves necessarily negative. The two that always resonated with me, and a concept he returns to at other times, is the altruistic action against the selfish egoistic action. By conceiving these as ideas that exist as opposites it had created the idea that the egoistic action is bad and internal to humans and the altruistic is good and something miraculously allowed to us from an outside source. This in turn has led to actions that are perceived as altruistic being valued more highly than actions perceived as egoistic

There exists, strictly speaking, neither an unegoistic action nor completely disinterested contemplation.

Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human

You see the maturation of this belief in false dichotomies in Christianity. Human’s as inheritors of original sin leading us to be selfish and evil without God’s outside grace. This simplistic notion of human motivation is simply in error, there is no such thing as a complete altruistic act. By removing the two simplistic poles that leaves all human actions as being a mixture of both altruism and egoism. Nietzsche is taking it a step beyond that though, and suggests that it is even more complex than that. By describing it as a chemistry there is a strong implication that there is far more aspects to our motives than could ever be easily stated, and at best we can only approximate based on what we can tell about the interactions between moral, religious and aesthetic concepts within the given social context.

What if this chemistry would end up by revealing that in this domain too the most glorious colours are derived from base, indeed from despised material?

Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human

Since we cannot with any certainty know exactly what drives are motivating a given person’s acts except that they certainly are not “pure” motives, it may turn out that the best acts are being driven by less than great motivation, or perhaps even BAD motives. If one accepts Nietzsche’s hypothesis to the fullest then we must also question how we judge each other now. Much of our modern day concepts of justice revolve on what motivates a person to act the way they do and while we have made some progress beyond where society was when Nietzsche was writing, I do not believe we’ve come nearly far enough to consider ourselves well equipped to be determining guilt or innocence based on our understanding of another humans motives.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human, Translated by R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1986

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