Into the Abyss (2011) is a moving documentary about murder and capital punishment, from the famous German director Werner Herzog.
Herzog interviews the young men who were convicted, both of whom blame the other guy. He interviews the relatives of the victims, and he shows that death leaves a hole in the heart. He interviews the father of one of the convicts, who blames himself for his son’s crimes. He interviews a young woman who somehow fell in love with one of the convicts, married him, and became pregnant, all while he was in prison. And finally, Herzog interviews a man who had the job of carrying out executions, executed about 125 people, and finally couldn’t take it anymore and quit, though he lost his pension. Herzog is opposed to capital punishment, but this belief doesn’t dominate the film.
At first, the movie is depressing; Roger Ebert said it was “perhaps the saddest film Werner Herzog has ever made.” But I was gradually drawn in, and at the end, I was glad I saw it. Another great film by Herzog.
Previously I discussed other Herzog films:
All these films are documentaries except 12, 13, and 15.
In the last issue, I discussed the view that solid matter is an illusion, that we live in a world of shadows. Nietzsche took a similar view; Nietzsche said that “materialistic atomism” has been demolished, and “no one in the learned world” believes in it. Nietzsche said that the person who demolished materialistic atomism was Boscovich, a Croatian scientist who died in 1787.1
Boscovich explained the hardness of objects “in terms of force rather than matter.” If Nietzsche is right, Boscovich carried the day, and everyone has abandoned the belief in hard particles. But people continued to believe in matter, as if Boscovich had never existed; people didn’t apply Boscovich’s theory to the world around them. The biologist George Gaylord Simpson said, “It does seem that the problem [of evolution] is now essentially solved and that the mechanism of adaptation is known. It turns out to be basically materialistic.... Man is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process.”2 Biologists were eager to explain evolution in terms of solid matter, and dismiss intangible forces like will and life-instinct. Did Boscovich work in vain?
Nietzsche felt that modern scholars had a materialistic bent. Nietzsche contrasted the modern approach with Plato’s approach. Plato emphasized Ideas, that is, non-material archetypes or templates; nobody ever saw or touched a Platonic Idea. Modern thinking emphasizes the material and tangible. “The Platonic way of thinking,” Nietzsche wrote, was “a noble way of thinking,” it “consisted precisely in resistance to obvious sense-evidence.”
Modern man puts his faith in the senses. A materialistic theory, like the Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, is popular, “eyes and fingers speak in its favor... this strikes an age with fundamentally plebeian tastes as fascinating, persuasive, and convincing.” Plato’s approach, Nietzsche says, offered one sort of enjoyment, the materialistic approach offers a different sort of enjoyment. Among the materialists, Nietzsche includes “Darwinists and anti-teleologists.”3
Nietzsche favors the non-materialist position because of Boscovich’s arguments, and because it has an aesthetic beauty, an intellectual nobility. But did Nietzsche apply the non-materialist position as widely as it could be applied? Nietzsche had little interest in psychic phenomena, and he criticized Schopenhauer for his interest in the occult, so Nietzsche’s enthusiasm for the non-materialist position was limited.
Nietzsche did, however, view will as the driving force behind evolution. Schopenhauer, Nietzsche’s mentor, had spoken of a will to life. Nietzsche felt that organisms strive for more than mere existence, they strive for a better life, so Nietzsche replaced Schopenhauer’s Will with a Will to Power. Both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche can be classed as Vitalists and Lamarckians; they both emphasize will rather than circumstances, will rather than random mutation.
The Lamarckian George Bernard Shaw placed Nietzsche among the “Vitalist philosophers,” and Shaw spoke of “the great central truth of the Will to Power.”4 Shaw was especially fond of Schopenhauer. Though Schopenhauer rejected Lamarck, and rejected evolution, Shaw realized that Schopenhauer’s emphasis on will makes him an ally of Lamarckians. Shaw wrote, “In 1819 Schopenhauer published his treatise on The World as Will, which is the metaphysical complement to Lamarck’s natural history, as it demonstrates that the driving force behind Evolution is a will-to-live, and to live... more abundantly.”5 The Lamarckian slogan is, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Nietzsche realized that the will can move mountains, the will can shape circumstances. Nietzsche wrote, “Against the doctrine of the influence of the milieu and external causes: the force within is infinitely superior; much that looks like external influence is merely its adaptation from within.”6 According to Nietzsche, Darwin underrated will/urge, and overrated environment/circumstances: “The influence of ‘external circumstances’ is overestimated by Darwin to a ridiculous extent: the essential thing in the life process is precisely the tremendous shaping, form-creating force working from within.”7
I’ve long been an adherent of Freud’s theory of life- and death-instincts. My theory of history explains renaissance and decadence as expressions of these opposing instincts. Nietzsche, too, contrasted a positive will with a negative will. He felt that the negative will was as strong as the positive will, and the negative will was embedded in religious traditions, as well as in pessimistic philosophers like Schopenhauer. Nietzsche wrote, “The will to nothingness has the upper hand over the will to life — and the overall aim is, in Christian, Buddhist, Schopenhauerian terms: ‘better not to be than to be’.... The decadent types... have the upper hand.”8 Hence Nietzsche opposes religion and morality; he said, “I abhor Christianity with a deadly hatred.”9
Perhaps the first evolutionary thinker was Empedocles. Like Freud and Nietzsche, Empedocles viewed life as the outcome of two opposed instincts. Different species, according to Empedocles, weren’t created on Day One, they arose from mixing the basic elements. Shaw wrote, “Empedocles opined that all forms of life are transformations of four elements, Fire, Air, Earth, and Water, effected by the two innate forces of attraction and repulsion, or love and hate.”10 This emphasis on “innate forces” reminds one of Freud, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Lamarck.
Because Nietzsche took a dim view of religion, he doesn’t discuss developing a new religion. He admired Greco-Roman culture, an aristocratic culture that had no religion — or at least, nothing that resembled our religions. Shaw, on the other hand, who was contemporary with Nietzsche, says that a new religion is essential, and says that “Creative Evolution” should be the new religion.
Shaw’s goal was a race of supermen, “an England in which every man is a Cromwell... a Germany in which every man is a Luther plus a Goethe.”11 Shaw’s goal doesn’t attract anyone today, we’re more apt to aim at a Zennish appreciation of the present moment than at a distant utopia. But Shaw argues persuasively that modern society lacks a worldview, lacks a religion/philosophy that people really believe in, and this is a big problem for modern society.
Shaw said that Lamarckism “is emerging, under the title of Creative Evolution, as the genuinely scientific religion for which all wise men are now anxiously looking.”12 One of the weaknesses of the old religions is that they’re often at odds with science. Shaw makes a valid point: a new worldview, a new philosophy/religion, should be consistent with science. But Shaw understood that we can’t stop at science, we need to build a culture on top of a scientific foundation. Shaw wanted to start with Creative Evolution (Lamarckism), then adorn it with art. Shaw wrote,
|Creative Evolution is already a religion, and is indeed now unmistakably the religion of the twentieth century, newly arisen from the ashes of pseudo-Christianity, of mere skepticism, and of the soulless affirmations and blind negations of the Mechanists and Neo-Darwinians. But it cannot become a popular religion until it has its legends, its parables, its miracles.... It will be seen then that the revival of religion on a scientific basis does not mean the death of art, but a glorious rebirth of it. Indeed art has never been great when it was not providing an iconography for a live religion.13|
I made the same point in an earlier issue. The decline of the arts is due, at least in part, to “a failure in ‘metaphysics,’ that is, an inability to make sense of the world as a whole.” We don’t have a “live religion,” and therefore we don’t have great art.
The only cure for the arts is a new worldview, a worldview consistent with science, a worldview that people can really believe in, a worldview that’s comprehensive, a worldview that deals with the universe as a whole and everything in it. Shaw argues that such a worldview is not only the cure for art, but also the cure for politics: “Our statesmen must get a religion by hook or crook; and as we are committed to Adult Suffrage it must be a religion capable of vulgarization.”14 All aspects of human life — art, politics, everything — start with a worldview, and suffer from the lack of a worldview. As Shaw put it, “Civilization needs a religion as a matter of life or death.”
Shaw understood that a new worldview/philosophy/religion should be universal, should appeal to all mankind. The old religions appeal to particular groups, hence they divide mankind rather than bring us together. Shaw wrote,
|The test of a dogma is its universality. As long as the Church of England preaches a single doctrine that the Brahman, the Buddhist, the Mussulman, the Parsee, and all the other sectarians who are British subjects cannot accept, it has no legitimate place in the counsels of the British Commonwealth.|
Shaw understood that Lamarckism is about will, the power of will to change the body and change circumstances. Shaw understood that our will impacts whether we have a long life or a short life. Shaw wrote, “Among other matters apparently changeable at will is the duration of individual life.”15
Shaw says that his new religion of Creative Evolution isn’t really new, it’s the eternal religion in a new form: “The religion of metaphysical Vitalism... has always been with us.... There is no question of a new religion, but rather of redistilling the eternal spirit of religion.”16 A new religion in our time should respect life, celebrate life, help people to live — in short, it should do what religions have always done. It should say that existence, with all its suffering, is better than non-existence. It should be a foundation for art because “All the sweetness of religion is conveyed to the world by the hands of storytellers and image-makers.”17
Periodicity means the cycles, the oscillations, the regular changes, of mental or physical states. These cycles might be compared to the path of a comet, sometimes called the comet’s period. In a recent issue, I discussed periodicity with reference to Goethe, Fliess, etc.
One scholar who studied Freud’s views on periodicity is Frank Sulloway, author of Freud: Biologist of the Mind.18 Sulloway says that most scholars have played down Freud’s interest in periods, perhaps because they viewed periods as “pseudoscience.” For example, Ernst Kris and Ernest Jones were “defensive” about Freud’s interest in periods, and insisted it was a peripheral interest of Freud’s.
Sulloway argues that Freud had a strong interest in periods, shared Fliess’ interest in the subject, and participated actively in Fliess’ research on periods. Sulloway writes, “The periodic ebb and flow of vital phenomena that concerned these two investigators was one that they had jointly sought to corroborate.”
Freud and Fliess believed that periods begin in infancy. Sulloway quotes a scholar named Wollheim: “The most general feature of infantile sexual development, as recounted by Freud, is that it is periodic or oscillatory,” perhaps because sexual drives wax and wane, perhaps because the repression of those drives waxes and wanes. It’s likely that adolescent sexual development, like infantile sexual development, is periodic or oscillatory. Perhaps many adolescents have oscillating moods, as I did.
Freud noticed oscillations in patients who suffered from melancholy. “It is a very remarkable experience,” wrote Freud, “to observe morality... functioning as a periodic phenomenon.... The melancholic during periods of health can, like anyone else, be more or less severe towards himself; but when he has a melancholic attack, his super-ego becomes oversevere.”19
Freud never abandoned his belief in periods, and he applied the concept of periods to a wide range of phenomena. In 1913, Freud wrote, “Wilhelm Fliess’ writings have revealed the biological significance of certain periods of time.” Freud “eventually came to question the extreme rigidity with which Fliess himself was wont to apply his periodic laws, but he seems never to have questioned Fliess’ central premise that life, sexual as well as otherwise, is governed by a periodic ebb and flow.”
My most original theory is my theory of history, which speaks of a “periodic ebb and flow” of civilizations, an oscillation between renaissance and decadence. Civilizations are organisms, in my view, and they’re influenced by life- and death-instincts, which oscillate. As Freud wrote in his book on life- and death-instincts, “One group of instincts rushes forward so as to reach the final aim of life as swiftly as possible; but when a particular stage in the advance has been reached, the other group jerks back to a certain point to make a fresh start and so prolong the journey.”20 This “jerking back” is like the movement of a pendulum.
When decadence (i.e., the death-instinct in society) reaches an extreme, the life-instinct “jerks back,” creating a renaissance. The life-instinct is strongest at the moment of “jerk,” the moment of reversal, hence the purest renaissance follows the most extreme decadence. My theory says that we’re now in the middle of the purest kind of renaissance. I developed this theory forty years ago, and I’ve never seen any reason to doubt it or change it.
The oscillation that Freud speaks of was understood by ancient Greek and Chinese thinkers. Heraclitus spoke of enantiodromia, running to the opposite. The Chinese believed that “yang at its highest point changes into yin, and positive into negative.”
When we look at periodicity, we find what we’ve found before: cutting-edge ideas are often ancient, and cutting-edge ideas are often dismissed by the Establishment as “pseudoscience.” If a young intellectual wants to make an important discovery, perhaps he should seek out subjects that are regarded as pseudoscience.
Timothy Snyder is teaching a class at Yale in Ukrainian history. In an earlier issue, I shared my notes on the first five lectures. Here are notes on the next five lectures:
The Grand Duchy of Lithuania
Rise of Muscovite Power
Polish Power and Cossack Revolution
|1.||See Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, #12 back|
|2.||See Koestler, Janus, Ch. 10, #2 back|
|3.||Beyond Good and Evil, #14. Nietzsche often takes jabs at Darwin, but Nietzsche doesn’t defend Lamarck, and Nietzsche seems to have little interest in how evolution works. In Nietzsche’s day, the sciences and the humanities were growing apart. Nietzsche sticks to the humanities, he doesn’t involve himself in the sciences as much as Kant or Schopenhauer or Goethe did.
We’ve seen that Nietzsche views materialism as plebeian, middle-class, and he views non-materialism as aristocratic. He also thinks that the English have a materialistic bent, while Germans are more apt to speak of will, instinct, idea. Shaw argued that modern materialism was a reaction against a religious mindset that saw spirit everywhere. back
|4.||Shaw, Back to Methuselah, Preface, “A Sample of Lamarcko-Shavian Invective” back|
|5.||Shaw, Back to Methuselah, Preface, “Discovery Anticipated By Divination.” The phrase “more abundantly” seems to fit Nietzsche’s Will to Power better than Schopenhauer’s Will. Perhaps Shaw was putting his own thought into Schopenhauer.
On Schopenhauer’s rejection of Lamarck and evolution, see Nietzsche, Gay Science, #99
Shaw said that Lamarck “held as his fundamental proposition that living organisms changed because they wanted to. As he stated it, the great factor in Evolution is use and disuse. If you have no eyes, and want to see, and keep trying to see, you will finally get eyes. If, like a mole or a subterranean fish, you have eyes and don’t want to see, you will lose your eyes.”(Shaw, Back to Methuselah, Preface, “The Advent of the Neo-Lamarckians”) An animal doesn’t lose its eyes because of a random mutation and a selection advantage, it loses its eyes because it doesn’t use them or want them, they’re superfluous.
Shaw understood that Lamarckism is uplifting, Darwinism dismal. Shaw said that Lamarck’s way is “the way of life, will, aspiration, and achievement,” while Darwin’s way is the “way of hunger, death, stupidity, delusion, chance, and bare survival.” back
|6.||Will to Power, #70, edited by Walter Kaufmann back|
|7.||Will to Power, #647 back|
|8.||Will to Power, #685. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche wrote, “I was the first to see the real opposition: the degenerating instinct that turns against life with subterranean vengefulness (Christianity, the philosophy of Schopenhauer...) versus a formula for the highest affirmation, born of fullness, of overfullness, a Yes-saying without reservation, even to suffering, even to guilt, even to everything that is questionable and strange in existence.”(Ecce Homo, “The Birth of Tragedy,” #2) back|
|10.||Shaw, Back to Methuselah, Preface, “The Early Evolutionists” back|
|11.||Shaw, Man and Superman, “The Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion” back|
|12.||Shaw, Back to Methuselah, Preface, “Voluntary Longevity.” How can Lamarckism make any headway, as religion or as science, in a world that blindly accepts Darwinism, a world that doesn’t see any mystery in evolution? back|
|13.||Shaw, Back to Methuselah, Preface, “The Religious Art of the Twentieth Century.” One wonders if Shaw’s interest in will was connected to an interest in psychic phenomena. back|
|14.||Shaw, Back to Methuselah, Preface, “Religion and Romance” back|
|15.||Shaw, Back to Methuselah, Preface, “Voluntary Longevity” back|
|16.||Shaw, Back to Methuselah, Preface, “The Homeopathic Reaction Against Darwinism” back|
|17.||Shaw, Back to Methuselah, Preface, “What To Do with the Legends” back|
|18.||See Ch. 6, #3 ==> “Libidinal Development: Its Periodic Ebb and Flow” back|
|19.||Quoted in E. Hitschmann, Great Men: Psychoanalytic Studies, “Boswell” back|
|20.||Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Ch. 5, p. 35 back|
|21.||Snyder says it’s one thing to found a state, another to continue it. It’s founded by a charismatic leader or a major achievement (as Max Weber said), but the memory of that leader/achievement gradually fades. So it can be difficult to continue a state.
States often expand immediately after their founding/consolidation, as if the energy/will involved in the founding spills over the original boundaries. Examples of immediate expansion are Lithuania, Muscovy, and perhaps the Arab/Muslim state founded by Muhammad. back
|22.||Is Snyder correct to say that the Mongols sought trade routes? Can you really have trading relations with a people whom you attack so aggressively? I think Snyder is depicting the Mongols as more moderate and reasonable than they were. back|
|23.||The knight in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales fought with the Teutonic knights:
Ful ofte tyme he hadde the bord bigonne
We can translate this as,
Often he sat at the head of the table
This essay argues that Russia (eastern Rus) was already Christian (eastern Christian), so only brigands would attack Russia. So the crusading Christian knights (Teutonic knights) must have been fighting a different nation, not Russia. “Ruce” doesn’t refer to Russia (according to this view), it refers to Rossenia, an area north of Prussia. Snyder says that “Ruce” is neither Russia nor Rossenia, it’s Rus, which was centered in Kyiv.
Despite religious differences between Russians and Lithuanians, “many Russians served in the Lithuanian army.” Perhaps Slavic peoples were generally sympathetic toward the Lithuanians, generally hostile toward the Teutonic knights.
Regardless of what “Ruce” refers to, it’s likely that the crusades of the Teutonic knights were carried out primarily against pagans, and attracted Christian knights from various European countries, as the earlier crusades to the Holy Land attracted knights from various European countries. If you wanted to crusade at this time, you had various options, in addition to the Baltic coast; there were crusades in Turkey, Egypt, Spain, etc. Wherever Muslims or pagans were in control, there was a suitable place for a crusade.
The Battle of Grunwald in 1410, in which the Teutonic knights were defeated, may have been the “last hurrah” of the crusading knight. The knight was “a vanishing species.... Chivalry itself was dying.” back
|24.||This contradicts what Snyder says later, namely, that the Lithuanian royal family converted to Christianity when they married into the Polish royal family, around 1385. Perhaps some Lithuanian nobles were Christian, others pagan. back|
|25.||This battle is commemorated, Snyder says, by a statue in Central Park, a statue that depicts King Jagiello of Poland-Lithuania with two swords. According to legend, one sword is his own, the other was given him by the Teutonic leader at the start of the battle, as if to say, “you’re going to need this.” According to this web-page, “The Polish sculptor Stanislaw Ostrowski created the monument for the Polish pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens.” back|
|26.||This must be an exaggeration, since it would leave few people for the army. back|
|27.||Veliky Novgorod is northeast of Moscow, not far from St. Petersburg. Veliky Novgorod should not be confused with Nizhny Novgorod, which is east of Moscow, on the Volga. “Veliky Novgorod” means “Great Newtown,” while “Nizhny Novgorod” means “Lower Newtown.” back|
|28.||One might compare Ivan’s overreach to Putin’s overreach, i.e., Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. back|
|29.||This is an interesting lecture, but a difficult lecture to take notes on; the notes are rather disjointed. back|