83. Musical Consistency and Personality?

An ideal many philosophers have pursued is a belief system characterized by logical consistency. Such a belief system, far from being just an objective goal existing apart from the self, would be integral, if not identical, to the self. In Plato’s dialogue Crito, Socrates, when offered an escape from prison, chose not to leave. Why? Because he found the arguments for leaving unpersuasive. And they were unpersuasive in part because following their prescriptions would be inconsistent with his former beliefs and actions. Socrates tells us that he had enjoyed the protection and guidance of the Athenian laws his whole life. He obeyed the laws and respected them. So how can he now break them by escaping? To be sure, he disagrees with the judgment of the court. But that doesn’t mean he can break the laws which the court lawfully followed. So consistency remains a crucial normative guide even in the face of death. One might say that Socrates’ being is his consistent belief system: and, despite his ugliness, he is perceived to have a beautiful soul because of this consistency.

Now, most of us agree that our belief system should be marked by consistency as much as possible. We should not tolerate inconsistency and should develop an intellectual conscience that alerts us to its presence. Perfect consistency of our beliefs is an ideal – something we should shoot for. But there are those who would celebrate inconsistency. For example, the poet Walt Whitman famously stated: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” And when we turn to philosophy, we encounter Friedrich Nietzsche whose aphorisms often betray inconsistencies and a low estimation of logic. For those who follow the above ideal of logical consistency this is a shortcoming of Nietzsche’s philosophy. And yet there may be a way to see that, despite the logical inconsistencies, Nietzsche’s philosophy nonetheless has a form of consistency. This way would entail thinking about consistency and its relation to the self in musical terms. Consider this passage from Agnes Heller’s wonderful book An Ethics of Personality (Blackwell: 1995):

“But philosophy conceived of as musical composition proved to be the perfect way for Nietzsche to reconcile taste and thought. To speak with Kant’s vocabulary, Nietzsche could become a genius with taste because he exercised his genius as a philosopher and brought his taste into the bargain with a musical way of speculating about philosophical themes…the musical composition of philosophical thoughts resulted in a unique mixture of consistency and inconsistency. If one reads a work of Nietzsche as a chain of philosophical argumentations, one will soon detect unnecessary leaps, logical contradictions and the like. Once an interpreter takes great pains to eliminate those ‘apparent’ contradictions he does a disservice to Nietzsche, who had a very low opinion of logical consistency. Or, if one reads the first essay of On the Genealogy of Morals and then sums up what Nietzsche had to say about good and bad or good and evil, one will end up with a half-baked half-truth. For the definitions, descriptions, formulations and paradoxes of Nietzsche are either naked statements of a theme or variations on that theme. The same theme (e.g., good, evil, guilt, conscience) appears in the book in many variations and many different rhythms. None of them is the one that could be referred to as ‘what Nietzsche says about X’. They are not the same, they do not even complement each other without fail, because they are just what they are: variations on a theme. They are the same, they are also different, but there is no ‘identity in difference’ here, for no single theme (be it its first or last appearance) can be described as the identity of the variations (difference), although all variations are the variations of this ‘identity’. And yet there is consistency in Nietzsche just as there is consistency in a Beethoven symphony or in a Mozart opera. If one listened to a few works of Beethoven repeatedly, one could later recognize a Beethoven work immediately, and one has a kind of presentiment (or pre-knowledge) of the next tone, of the following musical sentence, or of the finale of a work one has never heard before. Similarly, those who read some Nietzsche will know what Nietzsche could or would of said about an author, a moral sentence, or a philosophical proposition, even if Nietzsche did not say anything about them as far as the reader knows. This is so because the cachet of Nietzsche’s personality is distinctly present in all of his works. His personality is the common (consistent) theme in all his masks or selves, in all the variations of his personality that constitute his works” (29-30).

According to Heller, Nietzsche’s vision of the self is not a “logically consistent set” but rather a “musical consistency”: the various facets (including contradictions) of the personality are integrated in a musical way that, far from leading to disintegration, leads to an aesthetically engaging style and a certain identifiable personality. It is this formation of a personality, a unity in diversity without a fixed essence or theme, that Heller thinks is a viable normative ideal of selfhood. Nietzsche once claimed that the soul is a social structure of drives and emotions whose interaction and struggle is the basis for our thought and our consciousness in general (see Will to Power, section 270). Growth is nothing but the rearrangement of these drives and emotions. But the participants in the struggle remain the same: the “constellation” of the individual’s personality remains even if certain stars shine more brightly than others over the years (See Human, All to Human, section 227) The determinate nature of this constellation follows from the fact that an individual’s lifetime is not long enough to unravel the “imprinted script of many millennia” from which he is to be interpreted (Human, All to Human, section 35). The factors of these constellations, when thought of in dynamic, musical terms, may offer us the means to think about a form of aesthetic subjectivity that follows a form of musical consistency which includes, but is not limited to, some logical consistency.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.