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Bernard Reginster, The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. xii+ 312 pages. ISBN: 0674021991, $35.00 (hardcover). ISBN: 0674030648, $18.95 (paperback, 2008)

Reviewed by Ariela Tubert

In The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism, Bernard Reginster aims to provide a systematic account of Nietzsche’s views concerning value. In claiming that Nietzsche’s views are systematic in this way, Reginster does not mean that Nietzsche is attempting to answer every philosophical question but rather that Nietzsche’s views on metaethics and normative ethics can be organized around one single aim: overcoming nihilism. Reginster’s book thus deals with many Nietzschean themes in this context: the death of God, the overman, eternal recurrence, Nietzsche’s critique of morality, the revaluation of values in general and of the value of compassion in particular, ressentiment, the ascetic ideal, the will to power—all of these figure in Reginster’s account as components of the project of overcoming nihilism. Reginster thus provides an interesting way of thinking about Nietzsche’s work in moral philosophy as unified in the pursuit of one goal. Those who are reluctant to think of Nietzsche as a systematic philosopher are bound to find Reginster’s account problematic. But Reginster’s claim that Nietzsche’s work regarding value is organized around the overarching goal of overcoming nihilism is shown by his book to be an interesting, provocative, and promising way to approach Nietzsche’s ethical views.

Reginster takes nihilism to be the view that life has no meaning or that there are no worthwhile goals. Nihilism, however, can take two forms: disorientation and despair. Accordingly, Reginster’s account of how Nietzsche attempts to overcome nihilism is divided into two parts. In the first part, he provides an account of Nietzsche’s metaethical project: to overcome nihilism as disorientation—nihilism as the loss of confidence in the values one holds. Disorientation is the result of anti-realism, the view that there are no objective values. To the disoriented, human life is meaningless because there is nothing that is of real value and thus nothing objectively worth doing. According to Reginster, overcoming disorientation requires a metaethical revaluation which can take either a subjectivist or a fictionalist approach. Reginster says that Nietzsche is ambiguous between the two approaches and discusses different elements of textual support and philosophical considerations pulling in each direction. The subjectivist approach aims to show that the fact that values are not objective is not enough reason to reject them; subjective values can be proper guides. Disorientation is thus averted on subjectivist grounds by regaining confidence in values despite their lack of objectivity. The fictionalist strategy is to take values to be part of a make-believe practice. Disorientation is thus averted on fictionalist grounds by realizing that values can play a guiding role based on this practice alone without further objective backing. Reginster’s discussion is informed by recent attempts to pin down Nietzsche as belonging to either the fictionalist or the subjectivist camp; of particular notice is Reginster’s treatment of Nadeem Hussain’s account of Nietzsche as a fictionalist. Reginster seems at times to prefer the subjectivist line, but ultimately remains neutral on the matter.

The second part of the project of overcoming nihilism attempts to overcome despair, which is the result of believing that what is most important to us is unattainable. This part of the project requires substantive revaluation (i.e., first order as opposed to metaethical). Reginster takes the two projects (the metaethical project driven by disorientation and the substantive revaluation driven by despair) to both be part of Nietzsche’s strategy for overcoming nihilism. If the metaethical revaluation alone is successful (on either the fictionalist or subjectivist grounds), while the values previously held are retained, disorientation will be averted but despair will still arise—the previous held values will be as unattainable as ever. On the other hand, if our first order values are adjusted but we don’t undertake the metaethical project then worries about the objectivity of our new values will again arise, resulting in disorientation. There is a kind of symmetry between the two projects, then, as nihilism cannot be overcome by either project alone. Still, Reginster is right to point out that the metaethical project needs to be pursued first so that the ensuing substantive revaluation can proceed in terms of the proper metaethical views.

Reginster argues that Nietzsche attempts to overcome despair by revaluating in terms of the will to power. The will to power is to be understood as “a desire for the overcoming of resistance in the pursuit of some determinate first-order desire” (132). As such, the will to power desires both the resistance and the overcoming of it. Reginster points out that on his account the will to power has (1) “a paradoxical structure: its satisfaction brings about its own dissatisfaction” (247); and (2) entails that suffering is valuable: “The will to power, insofar as it is a will to the overcoming of resistance, must necessarily also will the resistance to overcome. Since suffering is defined in terms of resistance, then the will to power indeed ‘desires displeasure’” (133). Reginster points out that (1) fits well with Nietzsche’s embrace of becoming (as opposed to being) and that (2) allows us to make sense of Nietzsche’s critique of the condemnation of suffering. However, both (1) and (2) are problematic because they undermine the ability of the will to power to be the successful basis for the overcoming of despair—the aim of the revaluation. I will discuss them in turn.

Nietzsche’s goal, according to Reginster, is to overcome despair which is based on the belief that our values are not realizable. What we get as the basis of the substantive revaluation is the will to power, which turns out to be a second order desire that is “insatiable” (138)—we go very quickly from its momentary satisfaction (as we overcome resistance in the pursuit of some goal) to its being frustrated because we are not overcoming resistance in the pursuit of some goal.

The will to power will not be satisfied unless three conditions are met: there is some first-order desire for a determinate end, there is resistance to the realization of this determinate end, and there is actual success in overcoming this resistance. But then, the conditions of the satisfaction of the will to power do indeed imply its dissatisfaction. The overcoming of resistance eliminates it, but the presence of such resistance is a necessary condition of satisfaction of the will to power. Hence, the satisfaction of the will to power implies its own dissatisfaction, in the sense that it necessarily brings it about. (136)
And so although the will to power can technically be satisfied, as soon as this happens it becomes dissatisfied and seeks further resistance. It is not clear then how the will to power so understood really could be the basis for overcoming despair. Remember, despair arises because we realize that our values are unattainable. Why wouldn’t despair arise once we realize that long term satisfaction of the will to power is similarly unattainable?

Turning to the role of suffering, Reginster argues that the will to power desires unsatisfied desires and suffering (resistance in the pursuit of some goal). Although Reginster is right that a feature of this account is that it can account for Nietzsche’s claims that that suffering can be valuable, it does not do as well in accounting for Nietzsche’s claim that we can endure suffering only insofar as we find it to be meaningful: “Man, the bravest animal and most prone to suffer, does not deny suffering as such: he wills it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose for suffering. The meaningless of suffering, not the suffering, was the curse that has so far blanketed mankind…” (GM III:28). How does the will to power confer a purpose on suffering? The will to power is just another brute desire, a second order desire which includes a desire for suffering as part of it. It is not clear how a desire for suffering can by itself make suffering meaningful.

Both of the preceding points are further reinforced by looking at Reginster’s account of how Nietzsche’s view relates to Schopenhauer’s. According to Reginster, Schopenhauer thought that happiness, understood hedonistically, is impossible because of the nature of the will. On his view, we oscillate between boredom and suffering. Suffering is caused by having unsatisfied desires while boredom is caused having the will to live—the desire to have first order desires—unsatisfied. And so we move back and forth between suffering (having an unfulfilled desire) and boredom (not having any desire to pursue once our desires are satisfied). Schopenhauer’s solution to this is the renunciation of all desire and the will to live. As we do this, we can attain some peace (freedom from suffering), even if happiness (constant pleasure provided by the satisfaction of our desires) is impossible. According to Reginster, Nietzsche replies to Schopenhauer by replacing the will to live by the will to power. Instead of having a second order desire for having desires, we have a second order desire to overcome resistance in the pursuit of some goal. It is not clear how this is supposed to overcome the despair that Schopenhauer’s view seemingly leads to. On Reginster’s account we still oscillate between suffering and something like boredom given the insatiable nature of the will to power—we go between having resistance to overcome in the pursuit of desires (suffering) and frustrating the will to power by eliminating that resistance and satisfying those desires (boredom). Schopenhauer’s account purports to show that there is an inherent conflict in our will which precludes the realization of our ultimate value—happiness. On Reginster’s account, this conflict does not disappear; there is an inherent conflict in our will which precludes anything more than the fleeting satisfaction of the will to power, as its satisfaction necessarily brings about its own dissatisfaction.

Reginster attempts to deal with this issue by pointing out that part of the revaluation involves the valuing of becoming as opposed to being. The idea is that the fact that we are not to find complete and permanent satisfaction of the will to power should not be problematic. However, I wonder whether this very move would also allow us to avert despair by simply accepting Schopenhauer’s cycle of momentary satisfaction and further pursuit, thus rendering the will to power superfluous as a response to despair. And more importantly, it is not clear to me that the will to power together with the valuing of becoming does anything to render the constant oscillation between suffering and boredom any less despairing.

Reginster’s book provides an interesting and plausible overarching goal for Nietzsche’s work concerning value. Less plausible, however, is Reginster’s specific account of how Nietzsche proposes to overcome nihilism. Nonetheless, Reginster’s The Affirmation of Life is worthy of the positive attention it has already been receiving. There is much more of value than I have been able to discuss here. The book is required reading for those interested in Nietzsche’s ethics and will be of interest to moral philosophers in general.

University of Puget Sound