More To That

An illustrated, long-form blog that delves deeper into the things that make us who we are.

The Trouble With Transcendence

Today I want to talk about the fine line between transcendence and insanity.

In 1889, Nietzsche went mad. The triggering event was supposedly a horse being whipped on the side of the road, which caused a surge of empathy and anguish that his mind was unequipped to handle. This breakdown effectively ended his prolific writing career, and his health rapidly declined until he died in 1900.

Nietzsche is arguably the most influential philosopher of the 19th century, and his ideas on morality and meaning had a profound impact on Western thought. Part of the reason his work was so popular was that he was a great storyteller; he often used parables to communicate his ideas so they could be liberated from abstraction. For example, his famous proclamation that “God is dead” was delivered in the form of a short story about a madman running into a marketplace to tell the townspeople about this revelation. Simply put, he knew when to present his greatest ideas as narratives, and did it with a style that only he could embody.

Much of Nietzsche’s work was dedicated to breaking apart the norms that governed our behavior, and was about taking a bottom-up approach to how we position ourselves in the world. He was quite relentless in his tearing apart of esteemed philosophical traditions, particularly those that relied upon the exercising of self-control to achieve one’s aims (his takedown of Stoicism in Beyond Good and Evil is quite brilliant).

In short, Nietzsche wanted to understand reality in its purest form, and used writing as his way of getting closer to the truth. By delving into the abyss via active reflection, he could better comprehend the truth that we’re all governed by. But as he famously said, if you stare into the abyss for long enough, it stares right back at you.

The way I interpret this statement is that the human mind may be unequipped to internalize reality for what it actually is. That if we had access to all the laws and structures that truly comprised our existence, we may just end up going insane. The cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman has a proposition that reality is an illusion, and that this was the brain’s way of optimizing for survival. That to see reality for what it actually is wouldn’t benefit the health of our species, so evolution selected for a veil to be placed over what is really happening before us. And that veil is what we refer to as our perceptions.

By perceiving what we take in, we build models of reality instead of having to gaze directly at reality itself. And while this may protect our well-being and comfortably lead us to reproduce, it turns out natural selection has also installed something that contradicts this initiative: Our insatiable curiosity to uncover what’s beyond that veil.

This desire resides at the heart of any search: whether it’s to uncover a conspiracy theory or to address the philosophy of morality. Once we have our basic needs satisfied, we direct our minds toward discovering our place in the world, and we do this by orienting ourselves properly via the comprehension of truth. This, in short, is what we sets us off on the path to transcendence.

Transcendence is often viewed as a lighthouse of liberation and freedom, but oftentimes, it goes the other way. Take Nietzsche for example. He spent his entire adult life looking for the truth, and may have gotten closer to it than most people ever will. But in the end, all this truth-seeking compounded until the slightest observation of a horse whipping tipped him into madness. The question then becomes: Why? Why might this phenomenon happen?

Here’s my answer: The more you think you’ve discovered the truth, the more detached you become from the people that live under that truth. You divide the world into two groups: one that knows, and one that doesn’t. You’re the person that sees the invisible strings governing everything, while everyone else is an unknowing puppet of the reality you now see.

If you take a look at Nietzsche’s work after he went mad, it’s unreadable. There are no parables that attempt to ground his abstractions, no stories that serve to clarify his propositions. It’s one rambling after the other, with no attempt to connect to the person that may be reading his thoughts.

That’s because his relentless search for truth created a prison of his own making, and the connection to others was severed. In his mind, he may have well thought that he understood reality for what it truly was, but his inability to connect with the shared human condition ultimately made that a null point.

The reason why transcendence is problematic is rooted in the word itself. To transcend something is to be elevated above it; there’s a division that occurs by its very nature. This is why when we hear about gurus behaving badly, no one is surprised. Anyone who claims to know something that others don’t is making an attempt to move up the ladder of power, and the thirst for power often brings out the worst in us.

That’s why transcendence cannot be the goal of an examined life. While it’s healthy to actualize your potential, the goal isn’t to separate yourself from the next person. Rather, it’s to make the most of your mind so you can better connect with humanity at large. What good is wisdom if you can’t share and receive the wisdom of others as well?

When people talk about discovering what is “real,” I find that they often miss the point of the whole endeavor. What’s real is that you’re one small thread in the vast tapestry of the human condition, and that you are inseparable from the other. The desire to see what everyone else may not see is your way of disconnecting from this network, and to stand alone in your pursuit.

But oftentimes, this type of transcendence is a veiled form of arrogance, and the only antidote to it is humility. Not in the sense of “lowering” yourself to another (which is another form of division), but in the form of understanding that whatever you find must be shared with others. Because the only way to look beyond the constraints of the self is to focus on elevating the people around you, which ironically, is the closest thing to transcendence you can achieve.


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For more reflections or stories of this nature:

It’s Mainstream to Hate the Mainstream

Do You Really Believe What You Believe?

Why Everyone Can Face the Truth

"How do you find your ideas?"

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