Frederich Nietzsche (“Fred”) is one of my favorite characters in heresy. He was a sickly, solitary guy that considered himself a superman of sorts. He took on all comers, including all of Christianity if not Christ himself. He attempted to inspire if not achieve a complete re-evaluation of all human morals and values. His writing is audacious, probing, powerful, biting and and comical.
My favorite of Fred’s books is called the “Gay Science” in which he endeavored to explain how laughter “forms an alliance” with wisdom to give us an alternative to the tragic way the world is seen by many. Gay science is what will be left once human beings fully learn to laugh at themselves “out of the whole truth”. In the first passage of the book Nietzsche explains that every impulse people have is ultimately for the benefit of the species, reasoning that humans would have died out long ago if this was not the case. This truth should allow any person to fully laugh at whatever they end up doing or whoever they end up being. However, he explains that “we still live in the age of tragedy, the age of moralities and religions” and this ultimately proves an impediment or nemesis to this “gay science”. He asks: “What is the meaning of the ever new appearance of these founders of moralities and religions, these instigators of fights over moral valuations, these teachers of remorse and religious wars?” He explains: “They, too, promote the life of the species, by promoting the faith in life. “Life is worth living,” every one of them shouts; “there is something to life, there is something behind life, beneath it; beware!”
Fred contends that that sometimes these teachers get carried away with the instinct to explain the meaning of life and it:
“From time to time this instinct, which is at work equally in the highest and the basest men—the instinct for the preservation of the species—erupts as reason and as passion of the spirit. Then it is surrounded by a resplendent retinue of reasons and tries with all the force at its command to make us forget that at bottom it is instinct, drive, folly, lack of reasons. Life shall be loved, because—! Man shall advance himself and his neighbor, because—! What names all these Shalls and Becauses receive and may yet receive in the future! In order that what happens necessarily and always, spontaneously and without any purpose, may henceforth appear to be done for some purpose and strike man as rational and an ultimate commandment, the ethical teacher comes on stage, as the teacher of the purpose of existence; and to this end he invents a second, different existence and unhinges by means of his new mechanics the old, ordinary existence. Indeed, he wants to make sure that we do not laugh at existence, or at ourselves—or at him: for him, one is always one, something first and last and tremendous; for him there are no species, sums, or zeroes. His inventions and valuations may be utterly foolish and overenthusiastic; he may badly misjudge the course of nature and deny its conditions—and all ethical systems hitherto have been so foolish and anti-natural that humanity would have perished of every one of them if it had gained power over humanity—and yet, whenever “the hero” appeared on the stage, something new was attained: the gruesome counterpart of laughter, that profound emotional shock felt by many individuals at the thought: “Yes, I am worthy of living!” Life and I and you and all of us became interesting to ourselves once again and for a little while.
Fred then concludes that not even the seriousness of religion and tragedy can stand against the comedy that is existence:
There is no denying that in the long run every one of these great teachers of a purpose was vanquished by laughter, reason, and nature: the short tragedy always gave way again and returned into the eternal comedy of existence; and “the waves of uncountable laughter”—to cite Aeschylus—must in the end overwhelm even the greatest of these tragedians. In spite of all this laughter which makes the required corrections, human nature has nevertheless been changed by the ever new appearance of these teachers of the purpose of existence: It now has one additional need—the need for the ever new appearance of such teachers and teachings of a “purpose.”
Gradually, man has become a fantastic animal that has to fulfill one more condition of existence than any other animal: man has to believe, to know, from time to time why he exists; his race cannot flourish without a periodic trust in life—without faith in reason in life. And again and again the human race will decree from time to time: “There is something at which it is absolutely forbidden henceforth to laugh.” The most cautious friend of man will add: “Not only laughter and gay wisdom but the tragic, too, with all its sublime unreason, belongs among the means and necessities of the preservation of the species.”
Of Fred’s writings, this passage has been one of the most difficult and important to me of the stuff that I have read. He radically dismisses morality and religion as but one part of life, and a part that, like everything else, is worthy of our laughter. I, being one of those infected with the instinct to find meaning in life, and to hold some venerable and beloved things sacred, recoil from the way he flippantly dismisses all that anyone has held sacred. This will lead to enormity and disaster, won’t it? But at the same time, the conclusion is irresistible. There is something both dramatically profound yet utterly comical about the God that put mankind on this infinitesimal rock amidst an unfathomably vast universe and brought them up over hundreds of thousands of years and tens of thousands of generations from struggling apes to a gaggle of silly creatures that fly around in cigar shaped buses and spend billions of hours of our short lives pushing buttons and stare at what they write on little glowing screens of liquid crystal. Equally, there is something utterly comical about the people that declare, without cracking a smile, that we are the end purpose of all of this, all that we know and all that we see, and that the world was designed with us in mind (instead of vice versa.)
What I take from what Fred is saying here is most importantly this: That contrary to our deepest instincts for holiness, loud laughter is perhaps the most reasonable, unreasonable, and healthy response to this absolutely fantastic explosion of life, tragedy, spirit and vision that is the world. Otherwise the awe we experience when we begin to fathom what this universe is may well eclipse us. Believing we are bound for glory, fighting for supreme justice, defending the right, keeping the faith, building the future is all well and good. We may be in desperate need to be part of all that. But we will not be godlike until we can step back and laugh hard at it all.