The Good Life and Sustaining Life: Day 1. The Question of the Good Life

The renouncer.– What does the renouncer do? He strives for a higher world, he wants to fly further and higher than all affirmers–he throws away much that would encumber his flight, including some things that are not valueless, not disagreeable to him: he sacrifices it to his desire for the heights.

Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Higher and Lower: Distinction, Articulation, Renunciation

The hero of this guidebook is undoubtedly the lonesome Nietzsche, a philosopher not of his time. Lucky for us, he is of ours. For Nietzsche’s chief philosophical question is, ‘How to take flight from the ordinary in order to lead an extraordinary human life?’ Nietzsche was ruthlessly honest about what would be required of one who sought to live extraordinarily: nothing less than the ritual sacrifice of one’s prior existence.

Let us listen to him. If indeed one is to set off on a path through life, then one must begin by drawing the line: the area below marks out ‘the lower,’ that above ‘the higher.’ There is no other way.

Drawing a clear and uncrossable distinction between lower and higher occurs at the same time that one articulates the lower and the higher according to the path that one is on. The aristocrat points down at the plebs (those destined to lead lives of drudgery and endless toil) and up at a life of honor defined by leisure and an appreciation of the finer things. Unlike and incomparable to the aristocrat, the mystic divides reality according to entirely different terms, marking the this-worldly (the life of the flesh) off from the other-worldly (the life of the spirit). In sharp contrast, the political radical separates political domination by the state, the corporation, and the church from political freedom, one of whose chief characteristics is voluntary association.

This articulation of the lower is accompanied, in the beginning at least, by contempt: the lower is revolting; I must renounce what is lower for it was what I once was but can be not a day longer. ‘I can no longer be the blind fool I used to be,’ says the ancient philosopher, ‘one who lives according to social conventions and the encrustations of ordinary awareness. No desire for status, for recognition, or wealth can direct my life anymore. Giving up on folly, I must discover what wisdom is even if I shall never know for certain.’ Nearby, the contemplative artist cries out, ‘Oh, how ugly my soul has been till now: how foul, how contemptuous and disgusting. “What is beauty?” I must devote my life to finding out, to rendering what is beautiful over stretched canvas.’ Far off, they may hear the social entrepreneur say, ‘I cannot continue to seek to maximize profit. For what end? Profit-seeking is endless, pointless, harmful. For what aim? Wealth begetting more wealth? No, if I am to do anything in commerce, then it must be for the sake of creating a social good, something without which others could not flourish, something because of which they may. “But which social good to create?” I do not know, so I must go and look.’

For the renunciant, death is never far off and there is no more time to waste.