In his book the Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche argued that the best way to live one’s life, is to live dangerously: “For believe me: the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is – to live dangerously!” (p.228) Those of you that are familiar with Nietzsche, will most likely guess that Nietzsche did not mean this in a literal sense, instead there is, as with many of Nietzsche’s ideas, a deep meaning hiding within this statement. This article will investigate the true meaning behind this idea of Nietzsche: what did Nietzsche mean when he proclaimed that we should live dangerously?
Man must Believe
Before we can dissect this idea of Nietzsche, we most first have a look at the general outlook which Nietzsche had towards our existence here on earth. An important aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy, in this regard, which returns throughout several of Nietzsche’s works, is Nietzsche’s belief that the world is void of any universal laws, or any sort of supreme meaning: “Let us beware of saying that there are laws in nature. There are only necessities: there is nobody who commands, nobody who obeys, nobody who trespasses.” (p.168)
Similarly, according to Nietzsche, since there is no purpose, there are also no accidents; the one cannot exist without the other: “Once you know that there are no purposes, you also know that there is no accident; for it is only beside a world of purposes that the word “accident” has meaning.” (Ibid)
At the same time, however, Nietzsche argued that man is unique among all the other animals because man has to fulfil one special desire, which other animals do not require; man has to know the reason behind his existence: “Gradually, man has become a fantastic animal that has to fulfil one more condition of existence than any other animal: man has to believe, to know, from time to time why he exists.” (p.75) This results in a complicated problem: where man requires reason and purpose, no reason and purpose exist. As a result, man has to invent a purpose or reason, a process which Ernest Becker described at length in his book the Denial of Death, more on which you can read here: Ernest Becker & Joseph Campbell -Man’s Tragic Destiny.
The Problem of Consciousness
According to Nietzsche, the source of this necessity can be found in the development of consciousness. The development of consciousness, however, is still fairly recent and, because of its novelty, consciousness creates several problems for man: “Consciousness is the last and latest development of the organic and hence also what is most unfinished and unstrong. Consciousness gives rise to countless errors that lead an animal or man to perish sooner than necessary.” (p.84)
Interestingly, Nietzsche believed that it is an inherent phenomenon of the existence of consciousness, that it’s development will remain in its infantile stages for a long stretch of time, since man, because of them trusting in their own consciousness, will not go out and attempt to become more conscious: “Believing that they possess consciousness, men have not exerted themselves very much to acquire it” (p.85)
Nietzsche believed that man was slowly waking up to the necessity of seriously investigating the characteristics of our own consciousness. “The task of incorporating knowledge and making it instinctive is only beginning to dawn on the human eye and is not yet clearly discernible; it is a task that is seen only by those who have comprehended that so far we have incorporated only our errors and that all our consciousness relates to errors.” (p.85) Indeed, after Nietzsche, some great thinkers emerged, who delved deeply into the existence of consciousness; Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Terrence Mckenna come to mind.
The Death of God and other Developments
Another important idea of Nietzsche, which defined his outlook towards our existence on earth, is his idea of the death of God, more on which you can find in my previous post here: Friedrich Nietzsche – The Death of God; a Correct Interpretation. In short, Nietzsche believed that man has killed God by no longer believing in His existence. Thereby man have lost an important source of certainty and a reason behind their existence.
In relation to this, Nietzsche observed that man, lacking purpose, is always focusing on the future, where he is certain an answer will reveal itself to him. However, as Nietzsche indicated, death is the only thing that awaits in the future:
“And all and everyone of them supposes that the heretofore was little or nothing while the near future is everything; and that is the reason for all of this haste, this clamor, this outshouting and overreaching each other. Everyone wants to be the first in this future – and yet death and deathly silence alone are certain and common to all in this future.” (The Gay Science, p.225)
Nietzsche, however, was happy that man did not continually contemplate their inevitable death. Nietzsche even wanted to take it a step further, besides man not continually thinking about death, he wanted them to continually think about life: “It makes me happy that men do not want at all to think the thought of death! I should like very much to do something that would make the thought of live even a hundred times more appealing to them.” (p.225)
The Solution: Live Dangerously
As a result of all these thoughts and developments: life having no inherent meaning, the death of God, the necessity of a reason behind existence, and the feeble existence of consciousness, Nietzsche argued that man should acquire a specific outlook towards life, that man should ‘live dangerously’: “For believe me: the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is – to live dangerously!” (p.228)
As mentioned in the introduction, I do not believe that Nietzsche meant this in a literal sense; that one should engage in dangerous activities, and thereby receive enjoyment. Instead, I believe that Nietzsche meant that one should live dangerously in the sense that one attempts to find his or her own truth. An attempt which can, as I will discuss in the following paragraphs, be dangerous, but also extremely fruitful.
Since ‘living dangerously’, in my observation, relates to finding one’s own truth, the pursuit of knowledge is an important aspect of this idea. The knowledge which one might then pursue, might be at odds with the beliefs held at that moment in time, thereby making this a dangerous pursuit: “For this age shall prepare the way for one yet higher, and it shall gather the strength that this higher age will require some day – the age that will carry heroism into the search for knowledge.” (P.228)
At the same time, this quest for knowledge can be considered dangerous because, with this knowledge, according to Nietzsche, one should seek that which should be overcome within oneself, thereby destroying something, in order to create anew. According to Nietzsche our age requires human beings who: “Know how to be silent, lonely, resolute, and content and constant in invisible activities; human beings who are bent on seeking in all things for what in them must be overcome.” (p.228) Nietzsche believed that a time would come when those that live dangerously, will be able to crawl out of the shadow into the open: “Soon the age will be past when you could be content to live hidden in forests like shy deer. At long last the search for knowledge will reach out for its due; it will want to rule and possess, and you with it!” (P.229)
Living dangerously appears to be a significant sacrifice, because he or she who does, will not resist deconstructing everything, for the sake of knowledge: “You will never pray again, never adore again, never again rest in endless trust; you do not permit yourself to stop before any ultimate wisdom, ultimate goodness, ultimate power, while unharnessing your thoughts.” (P.229) Moreover, all hope for peace and tranquillity will be given up: “No resting place is open any longer to your heart, where it only needs to find and no longer to seek; you resist any ultimate peace; you will the eternal recurrence of war and peace.” (p.230)
Nietzsche observed, however, that when one would decide to live like this, higher levels of existence might be within reach, which would make the sacrifice worth it:
“There is a lake that one day ceased to permit itself to flow off; it formed a dam where it had hitherto flown off; and ever since this lake is rising higher and higher. Perhaps this very renunciation will also lend us the strength needed to bear this renunciation; perhaps man will rise ever higher as soon as he ceases to flow out into a god.” (p.230)
Thomas Carlyle and Carl Jung
I also believe that part of the idea of living dangerously is being open and eventually perhaps even embracing the irrational, the irrational world of the soul. Meaning that one does not always pursue reason and meaning as the ultimate goal, and that one might, at times, even move in the opposite direction of reason: “You open the gates of the soul to let the dark flood of chaos flow into your order and meaning. If you marry the ordered to the chaos you produce the divine child, the supreme meaning beyond meaning and meaninglessness.” (Carl Jung, The Red Book, p.139)
Thereby this idea of Nietzsche can be related to the ideas of Carl Jung. Opening the gates to chaos can be seen as dangerous because the chaos might be overwhelming. However, ultimately, Carl Jung argued, as Nietzsche did as well, that this will only benefit the individual.
Thomas Carlyle, in his book Sartor Resartus, depicts a character who went through a similar transformation as Nietzsche described. Carlyle described the transformation of the character Teufelsdröckh who’s life was characterized by an ‘everlasting no’, until he wondered why he was so afraid of living the way he wanted to and decided to protest against the believes which he had held up until that point: “Thus had the everlasting no pealed authoritatively through all the recesses of my Being, of my Me; and then it was it that my whole Me stood up, in native God-created majesty, and with an emphasis recorded its Protest.” (p.129) This protest, as argued by Thomas Carlyle, is one of the most important events of life: “Such a Protest, the most important transaction in Life, may that same Indignation and Defiance, in a psychological point of view, be fitly called.” (Ibid) I believe that it is a similar protest as Nietzsche’s idea of living dangerously.
In order to understand the idea behind Nietzsche’s statement that we should live dangerously, we must look at some other important aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Nietzsche did not believe that there exist any universal laws, and that anyone who attempts to lay down such laws, is merely satisfying his human need of creating purpose, reason, and security.
This is an endless struggle, which might result in a false sense of peace and tranquillity. As an alternative, Nietzsche proposed that one should live dangerously, meaning that one might reject all this false security, and instead pursue true knowledge; one’s own knowledge. One must even pursue true knowledge of oneself, thereby eventually also overcoming oneself.