Friday, June 26, 2009

St. Nietzsche VI: Over the Overman's Head

In 1944 a book called "Plowman's Folly" took the United States by storm. Scandal of scandals, the book's author claimed that plowing the ground in preparation to plant crops was a bad idea. A blurb on the dust jacket, taken from Time Magazine, reads "The hottest farming argument since the tractor first challenged the horse..." That, by the way, was not a joke, and yes, the book's thesis was a hot topic nationally.

When my brother and sisters converged in Minot, ND, in 2007 to help my mother and step-father move out of there long time home into assisted living, my mother gave me Plowman's Folly with this note, dated December 10, 1993, inside:

"Lyle (my father) loved this book. I want one of my children to have it."

So "Folly" found its way to me, and I was delighted to find this note inside, which captured my father's passion for agriculture along with his personality very well:

"One of silliest and [most] cynical statements ever made in the history of our country is that "Anybody can farm." Devoid of truth. Good farmer has to know more about more things than any professional man. This belief has cost untold amounts of $. But nothing compared..."

These are shorthand talking points on a note card that was torn in half and used as a bookmark in "Folly."

What in the world does this have to do with Nietzsche's criticism of St. Paul? Everything, it turns out.

Gardening--which I will use as a metaphor for human interaction with the environment--is endlessly interesting. There is no sphere of human understanding that it does not enter. As Dad said, the good farmer "has to know more about more things than any professional man," who is ensconced in a particular area of expertise. As beings who continually learn more about how to manipulate our environment, rather than making the garden metaphor ever more remote as our agricultural roots fade in the distance, it becomes ever more germane. Gardening is explicit human interplay with the environment, but all human action is de facto human interplay with the environment. Conscious human manipulation of the environment began on a large scale with agriculture, but human activity in all "fields" entails interaction with our environment, whether we are mindful of it or not.

Furthermore, it would seem that agriculture was the progenitor of science. The particulars of what to plant where and when are rules of thumb analogous to scientific "laws" that followed on much experiment in the "garden," which is still the agronomist's "laboratory."

Here's the rub for Nietzsche's argument. He claimed that the will to power is fundamental making the moral law an impotent agent when it comes to changing human nature. On this, recall, Nietzsche and St. Paul agree. But Nietzsche goes on to point out that the moral law as Christians view it is contrary to nature, since it advocates for mercy and charity and humility, whereas nature always sides with the strong. Since nature is fundamental in making all living beings strive after the things they want--and Christian morals are no exception to this as they pervert nature by being a ploy to give "power" to the weak--to go against nature is to go against reality.

But, ironically, Nietzsche's view cannot survive a realistic view of human interaction with nature. Nietzsche sees wider nature as determining human nature. Our nature is subject to the will to power. But what determines the will to power? Does an organism do best by exploiting its niche, or by understanding its environment and doing best by way of its environment? An organism struggling to maximize its interests within a given environment will say the first. That organism will have a subjective view of good. "Good" means "good for it." An organism that can inpact the environment in a signifacant way must also consider its impact on the environment as part of its view of "good." That organism will have a subjective and an objective view of good, at least in the sense that its subjective "good" is tied to the good of its wider, "objective" environment. That means there are two points of view for a creature, like us, who sees good in a wider and more narrow frame of reference. For such a creature it seems that the wider frame should inform the narrower, making "Good" an objectve matter. But Nietzsche does not take note of this. He writes as if nature informs us that the strong whould dominate the weak. That makes "domination" the goal and hence the good. But is it good that mold overtakes--dominates--its host orange? By that analogy, it would be good for us to despoil our environment, the "orange" called earth.

But once we back away from a narrow frame of interest and admit the need to understand our environment in order to be good in relationship to it, we have a god's-eye view of the world. We are no longer just creatures reacting within an environment. We are creators making it.

Theologically this recasts my view of what it means to be makde in the image of God. For the writer of Genesis I think that the metaphor of the garden captured this very dilemma: we with God are makers of our world. Theologically, this metaphor, then, must hold the answer to our rejoinder to Nietzsche: We have a god's-eye view of nature that cannot be reduced to your narrow view of the will to power as determining our good. To be good, we must function within a wider, wholistic view of good. And that means that there is a moral law that is outside of us and should inform our sense of what we need to do. The moral law may not be fundamental--and with St. Paul you establish that in fact it is not. But the wider view says it SHOULD be. And the metaphor of the garden is precisely what brings that wider view into play in a way that converges with our very real human dilemma: We are creatures with two views of good, a god's-eye view and a creature's-eye view, and it is--in some sense to be sure--sin to capitulate to the creature's-eye view.

Re-read Genesis 1-3 and see if that children's story isn't a lot more sophistocated than it appears on first blush. IN fact, having read Dawkin's "The Selfish Gene" again recently, there is no mention of this crucial level of consideration. As creators of our world, we need the god's-eye view. As creatures within it, we loath to take on that responsibility, along with the sacrifices it might ential...

The picture at the head of this post is of the corner plot at our home. My wife goes out and gazes at it and the other plots lon Saturday mornings wondering what will make it better. As you can see, at the center fot he plot there is an open area, and she has yet to decide what should go there. It's a big decision, for a serious gardener.

Well, gotta go... Please forgive my not proofing this; recall this is prep for a rewriting in the fall.

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