Book Review: The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism by Bernard Reginster

This is a book review that I did for my Nietzsche class this past semester.  Since I’ve been reviewing books on this blog, I thought I’d share this book review on here as well.  I’ve got questions that are interspersed within my review.  Overall, I think it’s a really thought-out book and Reginster makes an tight argument about Nietzsche as a systematic thinker who saw nihilism as a troublesome philosophy.  I’ll give my review verbatim, and then give my concluding thoughts after I gave the review to the class.

As suggested by the title of the book, Reginster considers Nitzsche’s biggest crisis as nihilism.  And the way to overcome it is by affirming life, regardless of any absolute and objective meaning of life, which, according to Reginster, is Nietzsche’s biggest philosophical achievement.

Reginster takes a systematic approach to Nietzsche’s works and the book brings out two major theses: (1) a systematic view of Nietzsche’s account on affirming life, and (2) a project of a revaluation of values, which is a positive account of ethics.

Chapter One: Nihilism

First, one must ask the question on whether life does have meaning, if life is worth living at all.  Second, to have a life worth living is to have goals.  Goals are meant to realize state of affairs; values are meant to give a reason on why a state of affairs is worthy to bring about.  Achieving certain goals is a necessary condition of the realization of values.  Thus, if something is an unattainable goals, then it is also an unrealizable value.  Third, goals should inspire an agent to go on (continue?) living.  This all depends on how the agent sees the value of the goal and whether the goal is realizable.

So how does nihilism fit in?  It is when the values of those goals become devalued, or when those goals are unrealizable.  Reginster brings up two types of nihilism.  The first is nihilistic disorientation: we can never have access to objective facts about value, and this is a major loss.  In this, it may be better that the world did not exist, since we cannot realize these values.  This can lead to the second type of nihilism: nihilistic despair, which is that our highest values cannot be realized, and therefore our values are unattainable.  Since this is a limitation for everyone, life in general is meaningless.  Thus, the world we live in cannot give us a route toward the highest values, no matter how we change the world or ourselves.  Through this, life can have meaning only if the agent can see that the goal has value, and that the goal is realizable.

So what are some possibilities for nihilism?  One is the death of God.  This is saying that the belief in God has been discredited; the belief in God is no longer taken seriously.  The metaphysical belief in God is discredited.

  • Discussion Question: could this still be considered some type of agnosticism?  After all, the entity God could still exist, but one no longer needs to believe in it.

If having God out of the picture leads to nihilism, then the presence of God at least represents a necessary condition for the possible realization of our highest values.  However, Nietzsche imagines that the death of God could give one “a kind of light, happiness, relief, exhilaration, encouragement, dawn.”  Thus, the death of God is not a logical necessity to bring about the highest values, but only a psychological necessity.  

There is another worry about life-negating value in that they intend to condemn life.  Nietzsche considers all of morality life negating.  Reginster puts it: “[morality was] invented in order to condemn life in this world” (46).  If life needs growth and power, then any sort of values that gets us away from that (such as meekness and compassion into virtues) is life-negating because they not only undermine life, but they bring life down.  Two of these ideas is Platonism and Christianity because they condemn life by denying life on earth, but also bringing our current life to a declination.

Thus, nihilism comes about because of two premises: the death of God (our highest values cannot be realized), and the negation of life (by endorsing life-negating values).  Since Nietzsche adheres to the first premise, he questions the second.

Chapter Two: Overcoming Disorientation

The point of this chapter is to consider the metaethical form of devaluation.  Reginster examines four claims to do so: first, the authority of the highest values depends on a special kind of standing; second, these values are found to lack special standing; third, because of this, our existence seems meaningless because we no longer have values by the light of which we can evaluate it; and fourth, this type of nihilism is only a transitional stage.
Values have an external origin when they are metaphysically independent of the contingent aspects of the agent’s will.  If the value is objective, then any rational agent is bound by it.  The nihilist has a huge assumption then, that there are values from the outside, by some superhuman authority.  This is what Reginster calls normative objectivism: “the normative authority of a value depends upon its objective standing” (58).  Descriptive objectivism, on the other hand, is the view that there actually are objective values.  Normative objectivism and rejecting descriptive objectivism entails nihilism.  Reginster regards Nietzsche as rejecting of descriptive objectivism.  The way to do this is to show how one can evaluate, in which there are two versions.
The first is normative subjectivism.  This position holds that there are no objective normative facts in the world.  In order to appeal to the nihilist, one cannot use any argumentation or demonstrations because these are objective normative facts.  Thus, one must use a type of seduction to win over the nihilist.  Reginster suggests that Nietzsche uses such a method to win over the nihilist.

To evaluate life is to always take on a perspective and these perspectives are shaped by affects reflecting a certain physiological condition.  Thus, all evaluation necessarily takes place from the perspective of life.  By doing so, one cannot look “from the outside” and try to evaluate life itself.  The normative objectivist would find this quite disorienting because it cannot give him an objective point of view to establish the meaning of one’s life.  Yet, Nietzsche rejects this picture of disorientation because this presupposes our self as a rational, deliberate agent that transcends our contingent perspectives.  On the contrary, we cannot escape our contingent moral evaluations because they in fact shape our identities.

Another account is what Reginster calls normative fictionalism: pretend that objective values do exist.  It is close to an error-theory of value.  We do not need value judgments to be true; we only need to take them as being true.  But why?  In a narrow sense, weak individuals need their values to be objective.  They need this to convince others, mainly the strong, to take on these values (such as benevolence).  This will not convince the strong unless the weak can present some authoritative meaning behind the value that should override the feelings of the strong.  In a broad sense, everyone needs to take on some sort of objective values if they are to be useful.  

  • Discussion Question: wouldn’t normative fictionalism be a form of bad faith, or some type of self-deception?

We can avert disorientation by asking what the meaning is behind evaluation itself.  Reginster states that Nietzsche mainly got this from Schopenhauer where Schopenhauer argued that something is good “if it favors the satisfaction of our desires and bad if it impedes it” (99).  This may solve the problem of disorientation, but we still have the problem of despair.  For that, we need a different kind of revaluation that is not metaethical, but substantive where it critically engages with the actual content of the life-negating values.  Thus, the remainder of the book to devoted to the substantive ethical thought of Nietzsche.  And the basis of this is going to be the will to power.  To persuade the audience either through normative or seductive force.

Chapter Three: The Will to Power

How do we interpret the will to power?  One interpretation is that Nietzsche remarks that the world is nothing but the will to power.  Reginster disregards this by saying that it is “just another instance of the wild-eye speculation not untypical in nineteenth-century German metaphysics, which simply does not merit serious attention” (104).  Another interpretation is that it is a form of domination or control.  Yet this leads to disturbing conclusions.  Another interpretation is to say that it is meant for self-control, or to control particular drives, or a way to develop a certain capacity.  Reginster argues that all of these previous interpretations are in error because “[t]hey take a common, indeed perhaps inevitable, by-product or consequence of the pursuit of the will to power to be what the will to power consists of” (105).  HERE, REGINSTER OFFERS AN INTERESTING ACCOUNT OF SCHOPENHAUER WHICH I’M GOING TO SKIP.
Reginster looks at five various theories arguing that they all fail and offers his own view on what is the will to power.  The first view of the will to power is that power is reduced to drives.  This fails because this makes the will to power indistinguishable to other drives, but Nietzsche does distinguish it from other drives.

The second view is that the will to power is a drive among many drives.  This fails because Nietzsche emphasizes this drive to a privileged position.  Why focus on this particular drive if it is just one drive among many?

The third view, developed by Clark, is that the will to power as a second-order desire capability to satisfy either another second-order desire or a first-order desire.  This fails because Nietzsche insists that the will to power is an indefinite striving, or some perpetual growth.  Clarks account, on the other hand could, in principle, entail one to reach that point where our will to power is completely fulfilled.  Also, this does not specifically give us a new ethics.

The fourth view is that power is an end of each drive.  So power is not a means to achieve a specific end; rather, it is the end of each drive whereby achievement is merely a means.  This fails because it becomes difficult to see how power could be characterized if it is not referenced by another drive and their specific ends.  If all ends aim toward power, then power is a condition whose determinate content must be describable, but without any reference to it.  It is difficult to see what power consists of, or what the recipient of power is.

Finally, the fifth view from John Richardson is that “the will to power designates something about the manner in which it pursues its specific end” (129).  A drive can will power as the development of that end, in which the drive consists mastery over other drives.  In other words, each drive wills power and each drive has its own specific end.  The mastering drives integrates other mastered drives to pursue an end.  This fails because Nietzsche explicitly states that the will to power actually seeks resistance.  If each drive is striving to become the master drive, then any pursuit of desire means that one should be prepared to overcome any resistance, but not deliberately seeking resistance.  Any resistance, on Richardson’s view, is an instrumental requirement.

Thus, Reginster’s view is that “the will to power is the will to the overcoming of resistance” (131-132).  With this definition, power is in and of itself devoid of any determinate content.  It can only gain a determinate content from its relation to some determinate desire or drive.  Reginster considers the will to power as unsatisfiable unless the agent has a desire for something else besides power.  It has a structure of a second-order desire in which the object is a first-order desire.  Specifically, it is a desire for the overcoming of resistance in the pursuit of some determinate first-order desire.  Ultimately, his answer is that the will to power is the will to overcoming resistance.

  • Discussion Question: this sounds very similar to Frankfurt’s position.  How is this any different?  Is the Last Man what Frankfurt considers “a wonton?”

This is not will to happiness, meaning that one wills to come to a state where resistance has been overcome (where the desires have been satisfied).  This would be more like a Schopenhauerian view.  This also does not mean a will to resistance because there is no growth unless this striving was successful.  The will to power is fully an activity of overcoming resistance.  

There is an interesting paradox about the will to power.  Nietzsche remarks that humans do not really seek pleasure.  What they really want is power meaning that they seek resistance.  Thus, the will to power, which is what Reginster has cashed out as the will to the overcoming of resistance, must necessarily also will the resistance to overcome.  Since the will to power is the will to overcoming resistance, the agent must also desire some determinate end.  However, through willing power, the agent must also desire resistance.  The paradox is that the agent who wills power must want both the determinate end and resistance to their realization.  Reginster gives an example of an athlete who wants to win the game, but also wants resistance to win the game by having strong opponents challenging the athlete.  Thus, the will is not satisfied unless it is dissatisfied–by having opponents and resistance.  And yet, there is an overcoming aspect.  The will to power is not satisfied unless: one, there is a first-order desire for a determinate end; two, there is resistance to the realization of this determinate end; and three, there is actual success in overcoming this resistance.  Thus, “if we value the overcoming of resistance, then we must also value the resistance that is an ingredient of it.  Since suffering is defined by resistance, we must also value suffering” (177).

This also means to not be completely satisfied with achieving that determinate end.  The pursuit of power is a cycle of “creation” and “destruction” meaning that one does not destroy what one has created or loved, but to “overcome” what one has loved or created.  Since this is an activity, pursuing power is not about achievements, but more on achieving.  The challenges need to be greater, fresh, and newer.  This produces a growth, a self-overcoming, where the individual can outdo oneself without any permanent satisfaction.

Chapter Four: Overcoming Despair

If overcoming resistance is valuable, then the difficulty of achievement contributes to its value.  Anything considered easy has lesser value simply because of it being easily accessible.  The ethics of power suggests that challenges, resistance, and overcoming the resistance is what gives something more value.

In revaluating all values then, Reginster claims that Nietzsche argues against compassion, suggesting that it is not good for the agent and for the object (which is another agent).  But why?  To be clear, Nietzsche is not against all compassion, but just the type that are based on altruistic grounds.  Thus, it can be good for the agent and is valuable, but this is dependent upon the character of the agent.  So what kind of compassion is Nietzsche against?  It is the type that sees suffering as an evil, a defect, where one cannot achieve greatness.

  • Discussion Question: can one be compassionate without resorting to some sort of alleviation of suffering?  Would this still be called “compassion”?

For Reginster, correct compassion is where there “is not the elimination of suffering, but it is the ‘enhancement of man’ brought on by ‘creative power and an artistic conscience,’ which require ‘the discipline of suffering’” (187).  This suggests that happiness is some type of enhancement.  Thus, the proper response of compassion is not toward those who are suffering, but to those who are not suffering, mainly because they are not achieving greatness; they are leading comfortable lives.  “The lack of suffering…implies the lack of true happiness” (187).  Now if suffering is the key to greatness, and this deals with the revaluation of values, then any creative moment must involve suffering.  “If creativity is a paradigmatic instance of the will to power, then suffering, in the form of resistance, proves to be an essential ingredient of creativity” (194).  Interestingly, this form of ethics requires suffering and not an evil, but part of the good.  Happiness requires a constant overcoming of resistance, and not a stable satisfaction. Happiness is essentially an activity, a feeling of power, and not a state.

Chapter Five: The Eternal Recurrence

The purpose of the eternal recurrence is a thought experiment to see if one is life-affirming or life-negating.  Reginster makes a distinction between the theoretical role (being aware that one’s life will occur again) and the practical role (which is the attitude of affirmation).  Reginster’s position is that the eternal recurrence is a practical role.  But first, he wants to look at other interpretations and show they they are flawed.

The first view is that this is taken literally as a cosmological account.  Reginster discounts this saying that it is flawed, and that Nietzsche only presented this cosmological account in his unpublished notes.  But more than that, Nietzsche considers this idea to be radically new.  But this idea is not new.  It has been advocated by other philosophers that had influenced Nietzsche.  Thus, the newness that Nietzsche proclaimed must not be a cosmological account.

The second view is that the eternal recurrence suggests the futility of choice, which is championed by Löwith.  Löwith views this as a way to renounce one’s will because we are fated to live our life in the same way.  To affirm our life is to not have any regrets about it, which essentially means to not realize new goals (because one is fated not to), but it is to renounce these goals.  This position assumes metaphysical fatalism.  However, Nietzsche’s revaluation of values is to take on new values.  It may be pointless to pursue certain goals and projects if this account is correct, but it is not groundless nor does this entail to be indifferent about the goals and projects themselves.  Thus, Reginster argues that the eternal recurrence does not imply any metaphysical fatalism.  Indeed, it may still be up to me which life I live.  But the affirmation of life is to love it, to say yes to life–not renouncing life, which includes the suffering that comes with it.

The third view is that the eternal recurrence suggests the importance of choice, which is championed by Soll.  Soll argues that this is meant to see how our choices have huge significance.  If the world is to return again and again for eternity, the decisions I make now will have “the greatest weight” because I will have to (re-)live with the consequences for eternity.  Making a good choice is beneficial since one will have good consequences.  Regrettable choices leads to despair since one will have bad consequences.  Reginster, however, argues that the new iteration of coming back would not be the same person.  This new individual in the next cycles is a twin, a Dopplegänger, but not the same individual.

The fourth view is that the eternal recurrence is actually a view about the self, which is championed by Nehamas.  Nehamas argues that the eternal recurrence is a formal indication that one’s life has met one’s expectations, and to affirm life is to affirm all of it because one aspect of life is determined by the relational context of other aspects of life.  But why must this be eternal?  Theoretically, one could live out a life just once and affirm all of life.  Moreover, this view does not deal with the revaluation of values.
The fifth view suggests that the eternal recurrence is a thought experiment in which we evaluate our life.  This is championed by Clark and her account suggests that the eternal recurrence is a way to formulate a question to ourselves: Would I go through this again?  In this, there is the characterization of reliving life all over again.  However, where is the revaluation?  All that is left with Clark’s account is that we just simply live our life without regrets, but there’s no revaluation.  It seems that this could also lead one to value what one already has if one cannot revaluate.

In the end, all of the previous interpretations take on a formal ideal (namely that life is to be relived) rather than taking on the practical role.  Reginster argues that the eternal recurrence is tied up with revaluation of values and the rejection of the Christian notion of eternal life.  Part of this means to not only welcome the finitude of our lives, but to find joy in it.  It is to see one’s experience as perfect, meaning that this moment should not be changed.  This does not mean permanence however.  “One cannot express the value of becoming by wishing its eternity, for one cannot coherently wish the permanence of what essentially involves change.  One can, by contrast, coherently wish the eternal recurrence of becoming” (226).  And so, to live in accordance with the eternal recurrence is to revaluate the condemnation of becoming.  To live a life of permanence is the Christian ideal of living the eternal life, a life that is free from change and becoming.

Chapter Six: Dionysian Wisdom

Finally, this chapter takes on the ideals of the Christian versus the Dionysian views of suffering.  The former condemns it, which is life-negating; the latter desires it, which is life-affirming.  To affirm life and suffering does not mean to see suffering as deplorable, but inevitable.  Nor does it mean to ignore or conceal the suffering.  Rather, it is to desire suffering “for its own sake.”  “[S]uffering is not merely a complement or precondition of [Nietzsche’s view of happiness], but a constituent of it.  As Nietzsche sees it, the good lies in the activity of overcoming resistance–it is the will to power.  From the standpoint of the ethics of power, suffering is not just something that, under the circumstances of this world, individuals have to go through in order to be happy; it is rather part of what their very happiness consists of” (231).  It is an ingredient of the good because it involves resistance, but also its overcoming.

  • Discussion Question: What if a mysterious being offered you the chance of going straight to the goal without going through the hardships, the turmoils, the suffering that came with it?  You would still learn about them, and you would gain the knowledge and the experience of it, but you would not need to go through with the hardships, says the mysterious being, by simply pressing this magic button.  Most people, I think, would hesitate, but would end up pushing the button.  Once one has reached the goal, this person will be glad to have pushed the button.  But not Nietzsche.  He would argue that actually going through the hardship is necessary to affirm life.  If so, this sounds like it still has some ascetic themes here.  One must take on the suffering to make oneself better.  But isn’t that what the ascetic did?  Moreover, Nietzsche’s pronouncement is that people are too happy and comfortable.  Thus, living out the noble life is an uncomfortable life.  Reginster, however, suggests that it is to life a life of suffering and to desire suffering “for its own sake” so that one can overcome its resistance.  Wouldn’t this just be a life filled with frustration and exhaustion?  Is that a good thing?

Living the Dionysian life is living the creative life, which is the manifestation of the will to power; “creativity designates the central feature of a life devoted to the value of creative activity” (242).  One living the Dionysian life deliberately seek challenges and takes on the value of creativity, which has four features.  The first is the valuation of suffering.  Living a creative life is to seek out resistance to overcome, which means to seek out suffering.  The second is the valuation of loss.  If the value is in the activity of creation, then the final products should be left behind in order to seek new creative activity.  This does not mean that we should denigrate the products that we have created.  They still have value by fulfilling a need, but they have also lost value in that they can no longer motivate creative activity.  The strong individual destroys differently than the weak individual destroys.  The latter implies some condemnation and destroys out of spite, devaluing what it has destroyed.  The former destroys in that it motivates one to seek new creative challenges, and to leave the past creative achievements behind.
The third is the valuation of impermanence, which is the realization that there cannot be any final satisfaction.  This has to do with the paradoxical nature of the will to power: satisfaction brings about its own dissatisfaction.  Once the resistance has been overcome, the activity ends, and so does the happiness.  The last is the acceptance of ultimate personal failure.  Because the will to power motivates one to seek new challenges and new risks, this could ultimately lead one to  failure.

Reginster only has a small section concerning the overman, but the overman as a telos without a terminis.  Rather, it is the teaching of the overcoming, to create beyond oneself.  If the overman is the ultimate goal, then we back into the notion of being, which goes back into decadence, which is back to the problem that we were originally in.  

  • Discussion Question:  Does one esteem x because one values x?  Or does one value x because one esteems x?  If the former, why does one value x?  If the latter, why does one esteem x?  Reginster answers that the will to power is the creative activity on overcoming resistance whereby values come out of this.  But does the esteeming come before or after the valuation?  Nietzsche/Zarathustra says, “To esteem is to create…Through esteeming alone is there value.”

The good life is a form of “philanthropy”: to help the weak perish “because no life can be worth living for them, even by their own lights” (262).  This seems like a chilling declaration, but their weakness is not good for them.  In a sense, this is a form of euthanasia: certain lives are not worth living.  With that, Reginster argues that Nietzsche’s conception of happiness is not relative.  There are different types of people, but there are not different types of the good life.  “There is only one kind of happiness, and his philanthropy is based on his conviction that the weak are not capable of it” (264).  The only type that can achieve this happiness is the higher type.  Thus, Nietzsche is not a relativist in terms of happiness, but an elitist: “there is only one good life for human beings, and some human beings are more capable of achieving it than others” (264).  Moreover, it would not be good for the lower types to strive after this “new happiness” because this striving would be detrimental to them, perhaps even fatal.

  • Discussion Question:  In the end, does Reginster offer a way to overcome nihilism?

This is essentially my book review.  Overall, I enjoyed Reginster’s take on Nietzsche and I highly recommend it to others who want to do some more work on Nietzsche.  However, I don’t think that this is a fair representation of Nietzsche in the end.  Reginster’s view of Nietzsche’s “philanthropy” seems to be whitewashing Nietzsche.  But most importantly, it seems that Reginster is equivocating resistance with suffering.  If the best way to overcome life is to face resistance and overcome that, then even silly things should be recommended by Nietzsche.  I should walk to school in my snow gear on a hot summer day, or walk in the snow in a cold Wisconsinite winter.  But for what?  To make me overcome these sufferings, these resistances?  This doesn’t seem to be affirming life; rather, it seems to just doing meaningless tasks simply for doing these tasks, which doesn’t affirm anything, let alone life.  Reginster is somewhat redundant in his writing, which isn’t bad because the redundancy can actually help some of the ideas stick better.  He also spends a lot of time talking about the depths of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, which I personally loved, but I can see how this may turn some people off.  In the end, this is still a well-articulated and well argued book about affirming life.  Even if this isn’t in the spirit of Nietzsche, it’s still in the spirit of what it means to affirm life.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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5 Responses to Book Review: The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism by Bernard Reginster

  1. menalexa says:

    wait…you wrote all this shiz?

  2. James Burke says:

    You’ve made a mistake. You say why would you choose to ‘walk to school in my snow gear on a hot summer day’ to increase resistance. Well, it may be the resistance we encounter when chasing our goals that makes them valuable, but the whole point of resistance is to overcome it, not make it worse. That’s absurd. Tacking resistance is made meaningful by the goal that it leads to. You are talking about meaningless resistance. Meaninglessness is exactly what Nietzsche claims we want to avoid. Meaninglessness is nihilism.

  3. James Burke says:

    *Sorry. You say why would you NOT choose to ‘walk to school in my snow gear on a hot summer day’ to increase resistance.

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