Embracing or Fearing Possibility? From Plotinus to Nietzsche

In his book on Plotinus (1993), Pierre Hadot says about the three first centuries of the Christian era that “this age was disgusted with the body” (p. 23). He quotes Porphyry: “Plotinus resembled someone who was ashamed of being in a body.” But in a footnote Hadot adds: “I am now much less sure about the existence of such a collective mentality.”

This resonates with a very interesting lecture by Noam Chomsky I heard yesterday as I was promenading along an arm of the Baltic sea: “The Machine, The Ghost, and the limits of understanding”. Chomsky explains that the ideal to explain Nature in purely mechanical terms failed several times since Galileo. He does not believe that science can ever achieve what he calls “reductionism”, a simple materialist explanation of all there is. Chomsky is sympathetic to Locke’s suggestion that matter might think, in other words he is suspicious of dualism.

While reductionism in science is often criticised by humanists or subject-oriented researchers, the same thinkers might find it admirable, in their field, to be able to label an epoch with a somewhat Hegelian overarching idea, what Kuhn called paradigm or what Foucault called episteme, for example calling the centuries of christianity the age of contempt for the body (a theme that was implicitly dear to the Marquis de Sade and more explicitly to Nietzsche). A philosophy or historical narrative that provides a general overview of the longue-durée may be seductive: it proposes a clarifying perspective about a chaotic intertwining of threads. The human mind likes unifying principles.

The contempt for the body is itself dualist, although we may argue that with the Plotinian idea that we must endlessly carve ourselves towards a body of light there is a suggestion that matter or at least the human bodily matter is asymptotically spiritual. If we assume that matter thinks in some way, as Locke, Spinoza, Nietzsche or Whitehead suggested, then there is no such thing as dualism, and, as pointed by Chomsky, the mind-body problem vanishes.

As I am wondering why the idea of philosophical health became articulable anew with and after Nietzsche, I cannot resist thinking about an overarching epochalism that might explain why philosophy as been rediscovered in the last century as a set of tools towards a better life, as emphasised by Pierre Hadot himself. Perhaps this is because since the “death of [the christian] god” proclaimed by Nietzsche, the long lasting contempt for the physical body has been replaced (including by Freud) by a rediscovery of the body as part of the self and participating in the meaning of our presence in the world. Emotions that were considered somewhat pathological in the Christian worldview, such as desire, will or triumph, were liberated by the loosening of religious morals and the advent of what one might call techno-paganism. The industrial revolution allowed so much confort that a religion of sadness and contempt for the earth was not adequate anymore. Interestingly, the fact that we now live in industrial over-abundance might explain the need for stoicism and other forms of askesis, as explained a bit pompously and confusedly in Sloterdijk’s book You Must Change Your Life.

This points to the suggestion of a paradigm shift, from a civilisation of necessity to a civilisation of possibility. This is a reductionist intuition about our times, but it seems plausible. Readers of Nietzsche call this perspectivism.

What I call crealectics is such a philosophy of possibility and actualisation. If the Real is seen as a Creal, a flux of infinite possibilities of which only a fraction will be actualised hic et nunc, and perhaps some never actualised by humanity because they are beyond our cognitive or emotional reach, then our individual and social presence in the world can be understood not only as the unfolding of a predetermined destiny (which may work as a retroactive narrative), but also as a co-creative network of decisions, acts, self-determination and axiomatic choices. This is in part what Nietzsche meant by will-to-power: a will to conquering actualisations in a universe that may be an agonistic chaos of Dionysian possibilities in search for Apollonian unification (and vice versa). This waltz between the Multiple and the One is also a theme in Plotinus.

The more we accept that there may be different possible forms of living among humans, but not all of them capable of thriving given the play of agonistic pluralism, the more philosophy will become a meditation not only on what is and why it is that way, but also on what could be, and how to manifest and experience a good life. Marx himself played a role here with his infamous stance: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

The discovery of the poietic sea of possibility might produce two kinds of reaction among humans. The first and most popular is a kind of stoicism or buddhism that claims something like “life is too complicated, painful and chaotic, let us rejoice with the little we can control and accept our vulnerability.” The second, more Nietzschean and more difficult is to try and tame the chaos, and become a master of Creal. The first might shrink and rigidify the soul, while the second might shape the world and take responsibility. Yet, the second might become a form of hubris, while the second might manifest a form of respect or gratitude for life in all its aspects.

It is symptomatic that most people without a philosophical education who today rediscover that philosophy may help them be more satisfied with their lives, begin by reading some book about stoicism or buddhism, sometimes sold as the philosophy of acceptance of our fragility. It is my view that philosophical counseling and philosophy as care must not overlook Nietzsche’s dangerous idea of “great health”, one that does not shy away from our power to actualise what we desire and therefore to reflect philosophically on what we really desire, a risky power which may or may not come with great responsibility.

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