The Tablet of Yays and Nays

Here I sit and wait, old broken tablets around me, and also new ones only partially written upon. – Thus Spake Zarathustra

Zarathustra and Moral Realism

Studying Thus Spake Zarathustra shortly after studying Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape brought up many questions, many of them interrelated, about how and where we derive our values from.

While the re-evaluation of our values is a necessity in Zarathustra, I’m not sure that the work proposes that nature is without values: rather, it proposes that they must be created (1). By contrast, The Moral Landscape proposes that values do exist in nature, and that through the study of nature (science) we can discern true morality as it exists and is observable in nature. To confuse matters further, it’s more than likely that both possibilities are not mutually exclusive: values exist in nature, and can also be created in culture.

Here are the two great questions before every post-religious individual seeking to begin the intellectual tasks of moral philosophy. We find ourselves, like Zarathustra, between the old tablets of the Law and the new ones, which are yet to be sculpted.

It seems to me that, by proposing moral realism and by arguing for the existence of real good and real evil (whether they are articulated as fair and foul as in Polystratus, pleasure and pain as in Epicurus, or well-being and being un-well as in Harris) (5), the effect this has is to return to the original (Persian) Zarathustra and to naturalize his own moral philosophy. In other words, this at once contradicts Nietzsche’s so-called anti-realist premise, and yet vindicates Zoroaster as his choice of pivotal moral philosopher.

That which creates insuperable joy is the complete removal of a great evil. And this is the nature of good, if one can once grasp it rightly and then hold by it, rather than walking about tediously babbling about the good. – Epicurus

Here, an aside must be made on the issue of definitions to avoid getting into trouble with other Epicureans of the past and present. Cassius argues that “every discussion of realism has to answer the question: reality measured how?” By this he is referring to the Canon, the use of our natural faculties (our five senses, our pleasure/aversion principles, our anticipations) to measure reality. In this sense, there is a particular doctrine of realism espoused by Epicureans, which is unique and distinct from a generic realism. It is this realism that we refer to in our discourse.

There are many further issues with definitions of terms like good and evil. The sources in our tradition do refer to natural goods as the things needed to meet our natural and necessary needs and desires (safety, friendship, food, shelter, etc.). These were referred to collectively as the kyriotatai, or chief goods, (almost?) invariably in the plural. Polystratus also uses evils in the plural. Just as there is no “humanity”, there are individual humans, it may be that similarly there is no (Platonic) good and evil, but we may be able to argue that there are goods and evils in the objective sense, in nature.

On Tangibility

Zoroaster sought, as Epicureans would have it, to make moral philosophy tangible and to express it in concrete terms. Good and evil are abstractions in Zoroastrian cosmology, but they must also find expression in the tangible, concrete realms of mind, speech, and action. This is where the real battle rages between so-called good and evil (pleasure and suffering, ease and dis-ease). We can then say of Persian Zoroastrianism, to some extent, the same thing that Colotes said of Epicureanism: only a moral philosophy such as this one can be practiced (and only insofar as it is defined concretely).

On three noble ideals be ever intent:
The good thought well thought,
The good word well spoken,
The good deed well done.

Is this not morality? Is it not integrity and authenticity, when all three are aligned? Our Masters have taught us that Nature, through natural selection and through the pleasure-aversion principles, gently guides us in our choices and avoidances to the avoidance of harm and to seeking pleasure (2). This is loosely called the moral faculty and leads to our well-being. There are Zoroastrian passages that seem to vindicate the consequentialist view that Harris also defends, as well as Epicurean and even Nietzschean arguments that posit good as the cheerful and evil as gravity (3).

Doing good to others is not a duty. It is a joy, for it increases your own health and happiness. – Zarathustra

Was Nietzsche aware of these Zoroastrian views, and was he attempting to rescue and articulate them within a naturalist philosophy? Or was he being the earthquake out of which new fountains emerge, and trying to do away entirely with the old systems? It’s hard to make a definite case for the former, because Nietzche’s morality is individualistic, but in his own expression of morality he did follow his intuitions all the way to Zarathustra, I would argue, for a reason. On some level, perhaps, the Persian prophet made intuitive sense. Hence, I think (Persian) Zoroaster was initially on to something, and it’s unfortunate that his naturalist insights got lost in the trappings of organized religion and supernaturalism.

In all cases, the goal of studying and teaching moral philosophy (to us) is to encourage people to choose pleasure and to avoid pain for the right reasons and in the right manner (3). It is crucial to consider what these things look like and feel like in nature.

To restate this in pop culture vernacular, Zarathustra would not only want us to choose between the red pill and the blue pill in the Matrix that would either awaken us or keep us dormant: he would also reach into the Star Wars wisdom tradition and choose the light side (lighten up) and avoid the dark side (depression, hostility, fear, suffering) of the Force. This is what moral realism would imply. In fact the term Jedi, in its original conception, meant “mystic at the center” between these two impulses, having to choose between Ashla and Bogan (the original name in the Star Wars canon for the light and dark sides of the Force).

A binary language for morality is inevitable in moral realism, even if the dance between the two primal forces gets so complex that multiple hues of gray and even other colors appear. The aversion against the binary terminology among some post-religious thinkers may reveal something about the difficulties of the task of a contemporary moral philosopher. Real morality, if there is such a thing, must lead to that which is both true (red pill) and pleasant (light side of the Force). Are we really basing our values on the study of nature, or merely reacting against our upbringing and disillusionment?

On the (Limited) Usefulness of Abstractions

The teachers of Epicureanism have always been insistent on pleasure and pain as the concrete terms for good and evil because it’s easy to misconstrue the meaning of good and evil and other abstractions that are divorced from context, from matter, from the body and mind of sentient beings. The usefulness of these abstractions, for didactic purposes, can at times be limited and the pupil must learn to always articulate moral truths in concrete terms. The teaching here is perhaps best articulated as: we must always make philosophy tangible.

Having said this, we may recognize yet another layer of relevance and usefulness for these abstractions. In Zarathustra, the issue of morality is intermingled irrevocably with the issue of whether morality exists for the sake of this world, or some OTHER world that has been postulated, but for which there is no evidence in nature. If we exist and must be moral for the sake of another world, then the decay of belief in that other world results in the crumbling of that morality. This is a bad foundation for it, literally akin to building castles in the air. For this reason, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra argues vehemently that a morality for this world is needed, and that we need to create meaning for this world.

The meaning and morality of this world are life-affirming whereas those of a posited other world are life-denying (6). The preachers of the other world and despisers of the body, then, become the enemies of naturalist morality. I’m tempted to call them the Sith. There’s a very popular cultural meme online on how much former Pope Benedict looks like Emperor Palpatine.

We can then express moral principles not only in binary terms of pleasures and pains, ease and dis-ease, comforts and dis-comforts, ataraxia and perturbances, comedy and tragedy, but also in terms of the life impulse and death impulse, and even in terms of Yay and Nay (affirmation and denial of life, of reality, of nature). Even as we say this, let us not forget:

But even here it should be remembered that, in the natures of things, there were principles which had existence anterior to the formation of these axioms or propositions, and on which they are founded, and on which they depend for their existence: as, extension and solidity … We can, indeed, describe our innate sentiments and perceptions to each other; we can reason, and we can make propositions about them; but our reasonings neither are, nor can create in us, moral principles. They exist prior to, and independently of, all reasoning, and all propositions about them. – Jackson Barwis

In other words, if our moral reasonings are, in fact, based on the study of nature, then they are describing something real that exists in nature independently of them. This we call the moral faculty. The compassion that we feel when we observe an animal or human being suffering visibly, and the desire to alleviate the pain if possible, is an example of a pre-rational impulse that might be related to this faculty, which is so prevalent in our species that people who lack it can be diagnosed as sociopaths and are frequently believed to be damaged or disabled in a way not too different from when someone is missing an arm or a leg.

Nietzschean-Epicurean Synthesis

Nietzsche appears to deny that good and evil exist except as an expression of our own creativity and meaning-making faculty and, inevitably, of our own power. However, he admits realism into his naturalist worldview by calling for meaning and morality suitable for this world, and he even praises physics. It seems that both power and the study of nature are at play here, and Cassius argues that the label anti-realist that has been attached to Nietzsche is unfounded.

It is possible to synthesize Nietzschean conceptions of value-creation with our realism and naturalism. I believe this is desirable and even unavoidable, and I will argue this by taking as my starting point Epicurus’ own division of pleasure as either abiding (katastematic) or dynamic (kinetic).

Epicurus taught that (katastematic) pleasure is passive: this is the steadier well-being, gratitude, cheer and existential health that are the natural state for a sane and mindful individual. It does not require externals and pleasure is not derived from acquisition of goods or experiences.

He also taught that (kinetic) pleasure can be acquired from achieving some desired objective. This pleasure is less stable, it comes and goes with the externalities that furnish it. Sports, sex, great foods, are examples of dynamic pleasures of this kind.

Epicurean and Nietzschean philosophies have two approaches to similar life-affirming concerns. In Nietzsche the discourse revolves around power and creativity: the pursuit of dynamic pleasure arises from the will to power, but the art of living, our self-chosenness, our sculpting of our selves and our worlds through the conferral of sense or meaning, might be what we term abiding or katastematic pleasure in Epicureanism. It is true that they both are acts of self-creation and of choosing, of will-to-power: men who have time for leisure may or may not experience it as pleasant abiding. They may be nay-sayers and use this time to hate themselves and others, their choices, their environment, their existence. The attitude of pleasant abiding can be seen as a choice, an art, an act of conscious self-expression.

For instance, the most prominent example of abiding pleasure is gratitude, which is an expression of will, of creation: it is a way of saying “This is who I am with regards to life or to this situation”, and therefore extends meaning and value, and ultimately power, into the world.

The key difference is that, in N., both abiding and dynamic pleasures are expressions of our choice and power whereas in E., there ARE goods in nature and we are simply perfectly suited for their enjoyment. We need not struggle against Nature, on the contrary: we have a natural tendency to thrive in her.

To us, the pleasure faculty is less about creation and power than it is for N. because there is inherent good in the world, whether in the conventional qualities found in the nature of things, or (most often) in their relational qualities (4). And so we have a synthesis of Nietzchean and Epicurean views: value and pleasure are created (as with art, play and creativity), but they’re also perceived. They are there, factual, objective (the kindness of a good friend, a refreshing glass of orange juice, etc.)

Offerings for the Divine Child

According to Zarathustra, in the final stage of philosophical development, the intellectual morphs into a child-like being: free, playful, loosened up enough to sing and dance. Most importantly, he’s innocent, that is, he has a natural tendency for pleasure and a natural aversion for pain. When we posit that goods and evils exist in nature and can be discerned directly through our faculties, we should immediately look to our senses for insight into the aesthetics of goods and evils (pleasures and pains).

After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. – Matthew 2:11, Christian Bible

I have, for many years, had a rule in my household that everyday trash must get thrown out because bad odors, naturally, bring germs and dis-ease. This had never struck me as a spiritual or moral insight, until I studied the live-foods lifestyle and realized that all the mammals smell their food prior to eating it, that the nose is a hugely important organ for all sentient beings. My relationship with food changed as a result of delving, for a time, in the live-foods lifestyle: I began to relish the aromas and flavors of the foods more mindfully than before. Furthermore, if we take evil to mean disease and suffering, then things can literally reek of evil. Some bacteria and germs smell bad and produce illness. By following my nose and my instinct and by throwing away the trash daily, I had been making philosophy tangible in my home for years, all by instinct.

The Magi of legend who brought incense to the Divine Child were Zoroastrian priests. Notice that their gifts were not abstractions like righteousness or justice, instead they were aromatic: good smells. The third one had solid value of its own weight in gold, literally. Similarly, anyone who has used aromatic baths for renewal and recharging of vitality after a difficult day or as a treatment for tiredness, understands the very real effects of sensual therapy. Water, particularly when made aromatic, can have great purifying and uplifting qualities.

Many Earth and nature religions pay great importance to this: in the Afro-diasporic faith of Santeria, sacred baths are prepared with omiero, a flower-, plants- and herbs-infused water. A cool head, they teach, is a sign of being an elder, a mature person. In my book, I mention that this omiero, or sometimes simply cool water, is used in these traditions to wash someone’s head in order to cool down a heated-up temperament, and I encourage people to cool their heads in this manner if they’re ever tired, confused, or angry. It simply works.

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, at one point, speaks in terms of a sacrifice of honey. In Afro-diasporic faiths, honey is also used to sweeten life when it is bitter, and to sweeten people.

We could make a survey of all five senses and the things that awaken pleasure and aversion for each one of the five senses, and come to a richer and more detailed understanding of materialist and naturalist ethics, with Epicurus’ favorite place (the Garden) becoming the symbol for all the goods: fruits that nurture the body and soul; fountains for refreshment; flowers, barks from which sandalwood and other incenses and aromas can be derived; a location of natural beauty that is also a feast for the eyes; let’s not forget the pleasant association of other seekers of the pleasant things, and so on. These are the goods, the pleasures and comforts of this world that bring ease.

Notice how the imperative to make philosophy tangible produces, ultimately, highly therapeutic, practical and useful new tablets of ethics and rules for living for this world and for this body. These, too, are the Yays of a naturalist morality that can be woven into our projects of self-creation, our wisdom traditions, and our art of living.

Notes:

1. Cassius Amicus comments: “Yes I think so, but I think some people jump from must be created to we create whatever we want and that is dangerous. I think N.’s focus is that tradition is not the right way to go about things, and that we have to look at our own situations anew rather than rely on what people before us have said about their situations. So he is not saying: “don’t look at nature and derive your values from there“, he is saying: “be sure YOU look at YOUR circumstances and derive values from them”. So I would reconcile this with Epicurus by saying that the basic truths of nature that derive from elements (mortality, no supernatural god, canon of truth, pleasure, etc.) are indeed going to be the same for everyone, but that the way the elements combine are so innumerable that we simply can’t rely on the way others in the past have evaluated THEIR contexts. That I think is Epicurus message largely in the PD’s in the 30’s on justice.”

2. Cassius: “Nature gives us is the faculty of pleasure as a guide, but beyond that it is pretty dangerous to flirt with the idea that Nature has also decided what is good … There are limits and bounds as discussed in Book 1 (of De Rerum Natura), but within those boundaries we have lots of freedom on what to pursue. Going either direction too far — thinking that values are totally determined, or thinking that they are not influenced at all by nature — both are wrong extremes … which is why N. wrote Beyond Good and Evil … Keep in mind the comparison to the word “virtue” that is discussed even more extensively. Both words are pure evaluation, and have no clear intrinsic content, and efforts to give them intrinsic content without reference to pleasure, nature’s only guidance, invariably end up with religion, rationalism, worshiping logic, etc. –because the theory Epicurus appears to be saying is that Nature gives NO guidance but pleasure, and that our efforts to maximize pleasure require reasoning, but with no other goal than pleasure (not reasoning to some other allegedly higher goal) … Epicurus is saying that the only real rule Nature has given us is to follow the faculty of pleasure intelligently.”

3. Cassius says: “Is there a right reason for choosing pleasure? If so what is it? Remember the opening of On Ends where it is related that Epicurus refused to discuss it and it is said: Hence Epicurus refuses to admit any necessity for argument or discussion to prove that pleasure is desirable and pain to be avoided. These facts, be thinks, are perceived by the senses, as that fire is hot, snow white, honey sweet, none of which things need be proved by elaborate argument: it is enough merely to draw attention to them. For there is a difference, he holds, between formal syllogistic proof of a thing and a mere notice or reminder: the former is the method for discovering abstruse and recondite truths, the latter for indicating facts that are obvious and evident. Strip mankind of sensation, and nothing remains; it follows that Nature herself is the judge of that which is in accordance with or contrary to nature.”

4. Cassius says: “The qualities – the things we experience – arise from combinations of atoms, and they are never permanent or unchanging. But (1) their combinations and changes are limited by the propertles of the elements, and (2) they do not change so fast that knowledge is impossible and we cannot apprehend them. Point one would be derived from the letter to Herodotus and Lucretius; Point two is right out of Diogenes of Oinoanda“.

5. I’m not saying these categories are all the same thing(s). They are not.

6. Cassius adds: “Epicurus is looking to Nature and saying YEA, and following. These others are looking at Nature and saying NAY! I can come up with a better system than you did, Nature! I can deduce, reason, dialectic my way to a HIGHER code of morality! I think a LOT of what we are discussing comes down to those two opposite attitudes”.

Further Reading:

Reasonings on Thus Spake Zarathustra

Reasonings on Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape

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About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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One Response to The Tablet of Yays and Nays

  1. Pingback: Reasonings on Ptahhotep’s Maxims, Part III | The Autarkist

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