God becomes Man, Man becomes Insane 
10th-Mar-2007 08:09 pm

This evening our son Caleb Jon called from Boston to check in and to tell us what is going on in his life presently. While talking to Caleb he mentioned he had read a book titled "Nihilism Before Nietzsche" by Michael Allen Gillespie. Below is some stuff on this interesting book that fits perfectly with what I have been writing about lately. Have fun.

"Nihilism Before Nietzsche" by By Michael Allen Gillespie
Published 1995
University of Chicago Press
ISBN 0226293475

"In the twentieth century, we often think of Nietzsche, nihilism, and the death of God as inextricably connected. But, in this pathbreaking work, Michael Allen Gillespie argues that Nietzsche, in fact, misunderstood nihilism, and that his misunderstanding has misled nearly all succeeding thought about the subject. Reconstructing nihilism's intellectual and spiritual origins before it was given its determinative definition by Nietzsche, Gillespie focuses on the crucial turning points in the development of nihilism, from Ockham and the nominalist revolution to Descartes, Fichte, the German Romantics, the Russian nihilists and Nietzsche himself. His analysis shows that nihilism is not the result of the death of God, as Nietzsche believed, but the consequence of a new idea of God as a God of will who overturns all eternal standards of truth and justice. To understand nihilism, one has to understand how this notion of God came to inform a new notion of man and nature, one that puts will in place of reason, and freedom in place of necessity and order. This unprecedented reconstruction of one of the most influential philosophies of our time will be of critical importance to philosophers."

Descartes and the Deceiver 1
ockham, nominalism, scholasticism
Descartes and the Origin of the Absolute I 33
descartes, extensa, cogito
Fichte and the Dark Night of the Noumenal I 64
fichte, noumenal, kant
FOUR 101
herta, eberhart, konstantin
FIVE 135
bazarov, chernyshevsky, nechaev
From the Demonic to the Dionysian 174
schopenhauer, dionysian, nietzsche

more »
dionysus, creuzer, zarathustra
Epilogue 255
nihilismus, miethke, ockham

A Review from

of 4 people found the following review helpful:

God becomes Man, Man becomes Insane, June 30, 2006
Reviewer: Joseph Martin "pomonomo2003" (NJ, USA) - See all my reviews

This is an extremely impressive entry into the (seemingly) never-ending contest to come up with the most coherent 'story of modernity'. As such it should be read alongside not only the accounts of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger but also those of philosophical historians of modernity like Hans Blumenberg, Karl Lowith, Alasdair MacIntyre and Bernard Yack.

The story that our author wants to tell begins with the rejection of the rationalism (i.e., Aristotelianism) of the falasifa (i.e., al-Farabi, Avicenna, Averroes), Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas by the Latin Theologians. Today, we tend to think of Latin Scholasticism as a monolithic structure with Aquinas somehow serving as both foundation and capstone. But this is only a confession that one hasn't read the medievals at all. Indeed, the (now infamous) Condemnation of 1277 was in fact aimed not only at exponents of 'radical Averroism' like Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia but also Aquinas himself. In the wake of this ill-conceived condemnation the thought of (most of the) significant subsequent thinkers in the Latin West (i.e., Duns Scotus, Ockham) turned ever more decisively to the God of Absolute Will and His nominalistic World, i.e., the via moderna. Even thinkers who consciously thought of themselves as Thomists (Suarez, for instance) in fact turned away from crucial aspects of Thomistic thought. I should add that we do not even know if the Papacy had a hand in the Great Condemnation or if the Bishop of Paris, Tempier, acted on his own because much of the documentation seems to have been 'conveniently' lost.

But I have gotten ahead of myself! At first blush comparing the present study to those of Blumenberg, Lowith and MacIntyre might seem quite a stretch. One might think that this book is a very focused study of an extremely narrow aspect of the relentless march to modernity. But Gillespie doesn't see it that way and I agree. For instance. in contrast to Blumenberg ('Legitimacy of the Modern World') Gillespie argues that the modern concept of Will is but the secularized version of the Will of the God of (nothing but) Divine Omnipotence. This medieval conception of God originates in the wake of the Great Condemnation and, in its rejection of the limits that Reason imposes on Omnipotence, is (I think) but the Latin form of Arabic Kalam (i.e., speculative theology). Gillespie also maintains, against Blumenberg, that the modern conception of Will (self-assertion to Blumenberg) leads, thanks to the rejection of rationalism it inherits from the medieval divines, to the de-legitimacy of modernity. Indeed, arguing against Yack ('The Longing for Total Revolution), Gillespie points out that the problem with modernity isn't perpetual longing for goals but rather the "repeated rejection of all attained goals as limitations on human freedom". ...Moderns can thus never be satisfied; and this would indeed be nihilism. A caveat though: Gillespie doesn't think this understanding exhausts the possibilities of modernity; indeed, he holds out the hope that a chastened liberalism can yet learn to 'muddle through' and stand up to the various supermen (whether reactionary, revolutionary or postmodern) that want to ever "create the world anew through the application of <their> infinite will." ...Good luck Mr. Gillespie!

Now back to our story. As we have seen, nihilism (contra Nietzsche) did not rise due to the 'death of God' but, according to our author, rose thanks to the inception of an entirely new way of understanding (the Omnipotence of) God by the late medieval nominalists and their followers. For Scotus, "who asserted that de potentia absoluta God could do everything that was not contradictory, concluded that even if God did act inordinata, it would entail the immediate creation of a new order." But for Ockham, even this isn't enough. "Indeed, Ockham even maintains that God can change the past if he so desires." Thus there is no longer any (necessary) Order to God's Power. It is this God, whose Will is indescribably 'free', that ends up as the deceiving god of Descartes. However, after his 'conquest' of doubt, Descartes takes this unmoored Will, freed by God's reduction (thanks to the Cogito) to the role of Guarantor of Science, and ties it to the Human Project of the Conquest of Nature. Thus Divine Omnipotence became an anthropological category. ...But what of Reason? "To think, for Descartes, however, is ultimately to will." ...And what of the Cartesian God? Gillespie will say that, "[H]e cannot deceive us and as a result is irrelevant for science." In the end one can perhaps then best understand the scientific project as the declaration of war against God: Where God was Man shall be.

Of course, Gillespie doesn't simply maintain that all this is Descartes position. "While this potentiality was latent in the thought of Descartes, it was counterbalanced by the rational element in his thought." The next major philosopher that Gillespie discusses in detail is Fichte. Naturally Gillespie begins this discussion with Kant. "For Kant the fundamental philosophical problem is the antinomy of freedom and natural causality." Kant 'solves' this, to almost no ones satisfaction, by positing the phenomenal and (unreachable) noumenal realms. "For Fichte, the I is all." By this Gillespie means the "absolute I of the general will or practical reason." This I is limited by the phenomenal realm of nature. "The I is thus alienated from itself." First through reason (theory) and then through Will the absolute I will attempt to overcome this alienation. But, as we see in most dialectical thought, one term is sacrificed to the other. "The I is thus the source of the objective world. This recognition that the not-I is only a moment of the I, however, does not produce reconciliation and perfect freedom." At first blush one might think this anarchistic egotism. Not so! We all participate in the absolute I, and thus 'experience' perfect freedom and absolute power, through the "feelings and emotions of the people"! Thus the Absolute I attains a most pedestrian view.

At the beginning of modernity Descartes struggles against omnipotent Divine Will (the deceiver god) but Fichte's absolute I embodies, to a frightening degree, this all-powerful caprice. This refusal to recognize anything beyond itself is what Jacobi called nihilism. In the space that Amazon provides it is impossible to go into more detail about this book. Suffice it to say that, for Gillespie, Nietzsche doesn't overthrow modernity; he exaggerates its most dubious component - the Will. He takes the omnipotent irrational Will of his predecessors and offers it to anyone Willing to take it. It would now seem that nihilism is not the death of God - but rather the Nietzschean Overman's irrational Imitatio Dei (Imitation of God).

I have given, in this review, perhaps undue space to the beginning of Gillespie's story because most people today entirely ignore medieval philosophy and I wanted to show its importance. Gillespie divides up his book neatly into three sections: Descartes, Fichte and Nietzsche. Suffice it to say that in a brief review like this one cannot even hope to bring out the rich detail of Gillespie's argument. I found the section on Fichte especially eye-opening. This is a superb book, four and a half stars!

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