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Philosophically Thinking Through Nihilism
The crucial question for those concerned with nihilism thus becomes: Is there still left in our practices some remnant of the nonobjectifying practices that were presumably extant in fifth-century Athens before the cultural collapse that is expressed and furthered by Socrates and Plato?” ~ Dreyfus
In response to this pressing question I now attempt to explicate what Dreyfus terms “nonobjectifying” practices as an active response to the nihilistic condition within which now find ourselves. This final section focuses on two aspects of our lived world and the values, which are inextricably bound up within our worldly existence: (1) the practices and “forms of life” we share that demand the rethinking of our privileged modes of epistemological links to the earth and others, which includes rethinking philosophy’s role in elucidating and contributing to the development and sustaining of our cultural practices, and (2) the attitude we adopt in relation to science and technology that is the crux of nihilism, and how that relationship might, and indeed, needs to be rethought and recast in terms other than a relationship of divine reverence and servitude. According to Dreyfus, as long as we continue to think in terms of explicit views of truth and objectifying models for values over implicit shared concerns, we will not “find anything that has authority for us and elicits our commitment” (512).
Introducing Empedocles, Nietzsche, and Nihilism
“So much depends on the development of the Greek culture because our entire occidental world has received its initial stimuli from it […] There are very many possibilities which have not yet been discovered because the Greeks did not discover them. And others have discovered the Greeks and later covered them up again.” ~ Nietzsche
In his introduction to Heidegger’s Early Greek Thinking, David Krell talks about the history of philosophy in terms of a “nightmare from which we, Dedalus-like, are trying to awake,” unfortunately, as he observes, “indignant refusal and consignment to oblivion are hardly signs of wakefulness” (7). What follows is not however, an interpretation of Heidegger’s engagement with Pre-Socratic thought, if it were, we would be looking at the fragments of Anaximander, Heraclitus, and Parmenides. Rather, I choose to focus on Empedocles, perhaps for one of the reasons Nietzsche found so appealing, namely, Empedocles attempts to “lead humanity across [the bridge] to the universal friendship (koina ton philon) of the Pythagoreans and thus to social reform” (113). Although the issue of social reform on a grand scale is beyond the modest scope of these thoughts, I examine Empedocles’ thought as it moves through Nietzsche’s modern philosophy with the hope of reawakening and reinvigorating the authentic need and drive to philosophize by attempting to understand more clearly what the ancient Greek’s relationship to his world, and by extension, others, might have been like. I want to consider the value and potential in the thought of Empedocles and Nietzsche for inspiring thinking in other directions beyond our contemporary nihilistic condition as Hubert Dreyfus outlines, which might offer a new understanding of who we are in relation to the way in which we inhabit the world.
“So, I present for reflection in the end; when you seek a self initiation, what do you seek? When you state a denomination or traditional pedigree to your initiation, what are you really stating? When you state you are priest/priestess – who are you really and why did you took on this office?”
– from The Initiation of Self, Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold
Reading Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold’s post, The Initiation of Self, lead me to reflect on the ways that his question applies to the Alchemical Tradition. The assumption is all too often made that the Mysteries passed down by Tradition are simply a sexier way of dressing up a metaphor, some psychological template that can be assumed at will through reading a book or going through the pre-ordained motions.
Often when a seeker hits upon something they don’t understand, or finds no outlet for their search, they will take the easiest byroad that seems to fit what they are looking for. When that seeker puts on the mantle of teacher this deviation can become a recommended path, not proven by true realization, but carved well enough to trick the unwary eye.
Within alchemy this has been the standard course for centuries. Disregarding the full breadth of the Tradition many have come forward with their ‘stones’ speaking as if they had attained the Truth while never even touching it’s farthest border. From chemical chimeras to psychological sophistry the pageant of false initiation runs the entire line of imagination’s potential. For all the color in these creations they remain illusory answers that will never attain to Truth.
What happens when the image of a Tradition is not properly reflected? We are lead astray. When this straying attends to something like the nature of the Alchemical Tradition this path can be very harmful.
On the personal level a misstep in praxis can lead one down an endless and unfruitful path, when a person on this false path has the charisma, resources or support to influence society the consequences are much more dire. Today’s shortsighted scientism is an example of this problem, a problem that Isaac Newton foresaw when he warned Robert Boyle about being too bold in his experiments and impatient with revealing his results.
“The word ‘goes’ relates to terms describing the act of lamenting at funeral rites; the mournful howling considered as a magical voice. These magical tones can guide the deceased to the underworld, and raise the dead. This is the root of the long connection of goetia with necromancy, which as come to be termed black magic.”
– from the Introduction to Geosophia, by Jake Stratton-Kent
There was a time when laws were given through Divine inspiration, and those who spoke them were raised to the level of the gods they served. Perhaps the most familiar example of this in the Western culture is the reception of the tables of law given to Moses on Mount Sinai (or Horeb depending on the tradition), but this tradition exists in nearly every culture across the world. According to the scholar Peter Kingsley it was a common practice in the ancient world that such receptions were required to be heard in times of trouble. Whether it was disease, famine, or war, if someone came forward with a Divinely inspired revelation, irregardless of their social standing, that revelation was to be respected and given a fair hearing lest the society suffer further due to its neglect.