Cheerful readiness: A proper response to being surprised

I will be heading to Banff in about a week. I will not know the participants; I will not know what we will do exactly; I will not know what will happen; I will have never worked with my friend Ian nor taught before with another person. I know only that it will be a philosophical drama concerned to dramatize surprise. Therefore, it is perfect.

Recall that the ethical disposition Ian and I are calling ‘being open to being surprised’ may be characterized, depending on the occasion, by cheerful readiness, a sense of perplexity, or a deep fascination. As usual, Nietzsche–that gnomist–found a better, succincter way of speaking about my life. In Twilight of the Idols, he writes, ‘To get into only those situations in which illusory virtues are of no use, but in which, like the tightrope-walker on his rope, one either falls or stands–or gets off…’ This is how I seek to live each day of my life. For me, there is only the life of the tightrope walker, the life of stepping on and either falling, standing (possibly proceeding), or else getting off. And, in all of this, because of all this, the tightrope walker is cheerful.

‘But the tightrope walker does not know what will happen. Nor does he know whether he will succeed.’ True, he does not count on’illusory virtues’; he has no place in his life for securities, guarantees, risk management, or life insurance. Stepping onto the rope, he has separated himself from the fakes, the frauds, the cheats, the show-offs, the feigners, the weak-kneed, the unwilling. Of course, he counts among his virtues truthfulness and mettle. But, as Nietzsche makes plain in other passages from Twilight of the Idols, he is not sober or excessive serious. Had he been around today, Nietzsche would have smiled too at talk of resilience.

In his portrait of Emerson, Nietzsche writes,

His spirit is always finding reasons for being contented and even grateful; and now and then he verges on the cheerful transcendence of that worthy gentleman who, returning from an amorous rendezvous tamquam re bene gesta[as if things had gone well], said gratefully: ‘Ut desint vires, taken set laudanda voluptas’ [Though the power be lacking, the lust is praiseworthy].

The gentleman’s performance did not come off (pun intended). On the one hand, he is not deluded: it is not that things did go well; it is ‘as if things had gone well’ (emphasis added). Admitting to himself the truth of the matter (perhaps, for instance, that he is aging), he nonetheless has the strength to be grateful to have been properly motivated by thumos. Albeit aged, he finds his physical capacities wanting yet his ‘spiritual’ power remains abundant.

The cheerful person is like the tightrope walker who dares to do something without knowing how it will turn out. And he is like the aged gentleman who responds with the right kind of power–in this case, an invigorating joke–in the face of surprise. Cheerful readiness is activeness: whatever happens, I affirm; to whatever happens, I respond; with whatever happens, I turn.

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