Nietzsche and National Poetry Month

Photo by Trust "Tru" Katsande on Unsplash

Perhaps we don’t often think of the nineteenth century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and National Poetry Month in the same breath, but we should.

When Nietzsche looked to the future and saw the problem that would be posed by an increasing freedom and individuality, he made a startling and prescient declaration: abstractions enslave us. Religion. Nationalism. Fascism. Communism. Individualism. Communalism. Democracy . . . . All traps. Because they ignore the “facts on the ground” that we human beigns necessarily live in.

Nietzsche was very blunt about it: if you believe in anything enough to die for it, not only have you lost your own freedom, but you are prepared to take away the freedom — and even the lives — of others.

Nietzsche thought long and hard about this contradiction. How can we live a good life of meaning and purpose as free individuals in a world in which abstract ideals lead to oppression and murder?

Nietzsche’s answer was counterintuitive but profound: each of us must become an artist —we must become composers, painters, poets . . .

We must find ourselves by embracing ambiguity and irrationality through self expression. Because? Because we human beings don’t live in abstraction. We live in the confusing ambiguity of reality where yesterday’s answer does not address today’s questions.

The poet and novelist Alice Walker, a humanist, looks at the challenge in her poem “Expect Nothing” (see the full poem here).

Expect nothing. Live frugally
On surprise.
. . .
Wish for nothing larger
Than your own small heart
Or greater than a star;
. . .
Discover the reason why
So tiny a human midget
Exists at all
So scared unwise
But expect nothing. Live frugally
On surprise.

These words well summarize the formula: we human beings must discover meaning and purpose for ourselves among the “facts on the ground.” We must become the artists of our own lives and our own fates. Freedom and individuality — they can imprison us as quickly as their opposites.

Nietzsche saw a way to both freedom and communal responsibility: It’s all about the art.

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