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Volume 9, Issue 3: Non Est

Those Nasty Bodies

Douglas Jones

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is the beloved bad boy of postmodernism. He full-throatedly rejected Christianity and the Western tradition as tyrannical, suppressive, rationalistic ideologies. But for all his sword-waving against Western thought, he and his postmodern seed share a debilitating assumption with Socrates--they despise the body. In particular, they all agree that the human body is a dam against knowledge, a sieve that fragments truth.

Nietzsche's highest value was natural human instinct. He loved pagan Viking types who acted out of pure instinct without the cultural oppressions of reason and morality. He found this sort of authentic instinct in the early Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews. Those cultures decayed, he thinks, when they were taken over by unnatural priesthoods who oppressed instinct by pseudo-rationality and pseudo-morality. He files Socrates and Plato in as oppressive priests, much as do other postmodernists. Listen how Nietzsche castigates Socrates. (I love it.) "Socrates belonged, in his origins, to the lowest orders: Socrates was rabble. . . . Before Socrates, the dialectical manner was repudiated in good society: it was regarded as a form of bad manners. . . . Honest things, like honest men, do not carry their reasons exposed in this fashion. . . . The dialectician devitalizes his opponent's intellect."[1] Nietzsche saw Socratic reason in the Western tradition as the suppression of everything natural and instinctive and good. That is why Nietzsche jettisoned the whole of Western metaphysics.
Nietzsche and his postmodernist present themselves as making the decisive and complete break with "oppressive" Western and Christian metaphysics. Yet, they couldn't be farther from the truth. Nietzsche is really just Socrates in drag. They share the same typically non-Christian opposition to the body and human finitude. They believe the body distorts reality and falsifies truth. Socrates and Plato head off to the Forms for relief, and Nietzsche uses the same anti-body assumption to attack knowledge and truth.
In Socrates/Plato we find the source for much of the Western tradition's denigration of sense perception, culminating in the Enlightenment stranglehold known as the egocentric predicament. The following type of quote is so important in understanding contemporary foibles. Long ago, back in Plato's Socratic dialogue Phaedo, Plato has Socrates explain that,

We are convinced that if we are ever to have pure knowledge of anything, we must get rid of the body and contemplate things in isolation with the soul in isolation. . . . If no pure knowledge is possible in the company of the body, then either it is totally impossible to acquire knowledge, or it is only possible after death, because it is only then that the soul will be isolated and independent of the body. It seems that so long as we are alive, we shall keep as close as possible to knowledge if we avoid as much as we can all contact and association with the body, . . . instead of allowing ourselves to become infected with its nature. . . . In this way, . . . we shall probably reach the company of others like ourselves and gain direct knowledge of all that is pure and uncontaminated--that is, presumably, of Truth. [emphasis added] [2]

Knowledge contaminated by the body? Can you imagine Adam speaking such piffle? He would be complaining against the Creator that it was his own lousy, finite body and perceptual apparatus which kept him from knowing the truth. He could have complained that he couldn't obey God because his senses deceived him, and he never really saw the tree-in-itself. What a ruse. What a common feature of Western thought.
Hear now Nietzsche on the same point:

All seeing is essentially perspective, and so is all knowing. . . . Our senses learn late, and never wholly, to be subtle, faithful and cautious organs of cognition. . . . Everything new finds our sense hostile and unwilling and more than unwilling . . . . So little do we see a tree exactly and completely as to its leaves, branches, colors, and forms. It is so much easier to imagine an approximation of a tree . . . . We invent the largest part of the thing experienced and can hardly be compelled not to observe some process with the eyes of an "inventor." All of this wants to say that we are basically and from time immemorial accustomed to lying.[3]

Here is Socrates' grandson following closely in his grandfather's tradition. The body--the brain--is a barrier to knowledge. We can't be held responsible for our predicament. God made us with a defective cognitive apparatus which distorts reality.
This is one of the reasons for the failure of ancient, modern, and postmodern non-Christian thought--their antipathy to body which connects us to a real, created world around us that shouts out the truth of God. We were created with bodies built to know and obey. Even after the Fall, our distortions are willful, not inherent in our bodies. What a delightful freedom not to have to be shackled in the prisons of non-Christian rebellion.

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