Nietzsche and Living Passionately
Will and Wave (from The Gay Science)
If, as Thus Spoke Zarathustra asserts, “Man is like a rope tied between beast and overman”—in other words a process, a transition, a task—then where does this rope lead us to? If the transformations of the spirit lead us to the state of the Child (“On the Three Metamorphoses”), then what is this Child to which we aspire?
In contrast to many popular opinions, Nietzsche asserts that life has no external purpose. No goal has been given to us from heaven, there is no afterlife, no reward in paradise. Life is its own reward. To live meaningfully is to live this life with meaning. But life itself has no meaning (“God is dead”). Meaning is not something to be found, but something to create. If my life is to be meaningful, then I should create its meaning.
Most people, according to Nietzsche, fail to give meaning to their lives. Their life is made of mindless routine, dead moments, social games, petty comforts and enjoyments, trivial choices. They follow the herd; their greatest aspiration is buying the shoes they saw in a store window; their greatest choices are limited to deciding whether to watch this or that movie, whether to accept employment with this or that company. To console themselves for their emptiness they invent doctrines about heaven, ethics, meaning, afterlife.
Nietzsche has no taste for complacent, smug, little enjoyments. He seeks a deeper kind of meaning, one that would take us out of our little selves to greater heights and would enable us to live life passionately and fully. Such a meaning, Nietzsche tells us, can be created through will power: by struggling towards some high ideal, by giving ourselves fully to realizing a value. And this requires overcoming the petty, weak, comfort-seeking, herd animal in us.
Nietzsche expresses this idea beautifully in the passage “Will and Wave” in his book The Gay Science. When reading this passage, imagine yourself standing by the sea and watching the waves rushing to the shore and crashing against the rock. This is Nietzsche’s metaphor for living with passion: Like the roaring waves, life is an opportunity to live fully, passionately, powerfully, willfully.
The Gay Science, section 310: Will and Wave
Translation by Walter Kaufmann
How greedily this wave approaches, as if there was some objective to be reached! How, with awe-inspiring haste, it crawls into the inmost nooks of the rocky cliff! It seems that it wants to anticipate somebody; it seems that something is hidden there, something of value, high value.
And now it comes back, a little more slowly, still quite white with excitement—is it disappointed? But already another wave is approaching, still greedier and wilder than the first, and its soul too seems to be full of secrets and the lust to dig up treasures. Thus live the waves—thus live we who live—more I shall not say.
As the text points out, the lifespan of each wave is limited: It rises, roars, crashes into the rock with great splendor, returns to the sea, and then disappears. It rushes to the shore “as if there was some objective to be reached,” but only as if. Our fundamental choice is to be a grand wave or a small wave: We can live this life fully, willfully and passionately—in Nietzsche’s words, to say Yes to life—or alternatively to lead a dull, colorless, empty life. In order to become a grand wave—an overman, a child who is a “first movement”—we need to overcome our little pale self, and to create a new self, a personal value to inspire us, a new life.