2018 ISSUE

Philologoi : Φιλόλογοι (pl.)

lovers of words, dialectic, and conversation.

A Nietzschean Study of Carl Sagan’s Aestheticization of Science

by Caroline Aung

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But

for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. . . every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there— on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” - Carl Sagan, speech at Cornell University, October 13, 1994


It’s hard not to be affected by astronomer Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” monologue. Inspired by an ethereal photograph of Earth taken from about six billion kilometers away by the Voyager 1 spacecraft, Sagan paints a poetic picture of humanity’s relative smallness against the overwhelmingly vast universe, eliciting a feeling of vulnerability and wonder concerning our place in the grand scheme of nature (Betts). In fact, Sagan’s scientific worldview continues to influence people internationally through his dozens of fiction and nonfiction books, hundreds of articles, and his TV series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which has accrued over 500 million viewers (Dejoie).

Sagan’s successful popularizing of science is in part due to his significant contributions to space exploration and boyish charm, but I’m more interested in the ways his aestheticization of science through media effectively attracts readers and viewers. Not only does Sagan communicate the beauty of the scientific worldview, but he also proposes that this aesthetic perspective carries with it the moral compulsion to preserve and act respectfully towards fellow humans and the environment. For instance, his “Pale Blue Dot” monologue ends with “[this image] underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

One way we can better understand how Sagan’s particular aesthetic view of science made such a profound impact on his audience is by comparing and contrasting it to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s aestheticism. Both Nietzsche and Sagan’s methods of aestheticization involve framing reality through the use of literary form in order to elicit an aesthetic feeling, which makes coherent and meaningful one’s personal identity. In addition, Nietzsche and Sagan had popularizing aims that shaped the style in which they presented their ideas about aestheticism to the public. However, Sagan deviates from the Nietzschean approach in terms of the scope of reality that concerns him. Sagan’s disparate considerations seem to arise from his regard for a broader cosmological reality and humanity’s role in it. As a result, while Nietzsche takes as his raw material his past experiences for aestheticizing, Sagan takes as his raw material the natural universe. Sagan’s different scope also explains the discrepancy between Nietzsche’s embrace of delusion and Sagan’s proclaimed emphasis on truth because Sagan evokes a perception of nature that is universal in its scientific veracity. Moreover, because Sagan focuses on not only the individual but also on the individual as he relates to matters beyond his immediate experiences, his standards for adequate personal identity differ from Nietzsche’s since they take on a more universally moral bent, encouraging the preservation of all earthly life. Consequently, while Nietzsche concentrates primarily on matters of personal character development, Sagan is also interested in the moral character of humanity at large. Nevertheless, because Sagan promotes scientific veracity and a general morality through his aestheticization of the cosmos, I will argue that his worldview remains susceptible to Nietzsche’s criticism of science’s claim to absolute truth.

First, in order to create one’s self-conception as a literary character, Nietzsche describes the act of changing the meaning of one’s past experiences as to cohere them through narrative form. For example, he contends, “[the artists] have taught us to value the hero that is bidden in each of these everyday characters and taught the art of regarding oneself as a hero, from a distance and as it were simplified and transfigured— the art of 'putting oneself on stage' before oneself. Only thus can we get over certain lowly details in ourselves” (Nietzsche, Gay Science 79). In this case, the literary character whom the individual strives to become is a hero, who emerges only after the agent reflects on himself “from a distance”— that is, reviewing the entirety of his life in order to “transfigure” it by the act of “simplifying” or cohering its events. The image of viewing oneself “on stage” symbolizes both a deliberate, holistic reflection of one’s past and the subsequent framing of his experiences into an aesthetic, narrative whole. The cohesion of this perspective even makes tolerable “lowly details” since every moment of one’s past contributes to his aesthetic identity. He continues to describe, “Maybe there is a similar sort of merit in that religion which bade one to see the sinfulness of every individual through a magnifying glass and turned the sinner into a great, immortal criminal: by describing eternal perspectives around him, it taught man to view himself from a distance and as something past and whole” (79). Similarly, Nietzsche illustrates the act of reflecting on oneself “from a distance,” relating it to the way religion perceives supposed wrongdoers. He depicts how religion can attribute “eternal” significance to a mere sinner by viewing his life in a singular narrative, as “something past and whole.” Since religion transforms the sinner by viewing his life as a story lived out as the meaningful literary character of the criminal, Nietzsche believes religion provides an example of how one can transfigure himself. Just as religion places a large amount of gravity on an individual sinner’s life, rendering him an “immortal criminal,” so can one can lay claim to eternity through his daily, mundane actions.

While Nietzsche uses as his formal model the literary form of narrative, Sagan uses poetry to frame his position within the scientific universe in order to attribute cosmic significance to individuals. For instance, in order to assuage his daughter’s anxiety over the finality of death, Sagan describes to her, “You are alive right this second. That is an amazing thing. . . you have the pleasure of living on a planet where you have evolved to breathe the air, drink the water, and love the warmth of the closest star. You’re connected to the generations through DNA— and, even farther back, to the universe, because every cell in your body was cooked in the hearts of stars” (S. Sagan). Sagan’s language involves poetic devices such as the repetition of “you” and sensory imagery evoking smell, taste and touch. He contrasts one’s immediate sensory experience and individual genetic makeup with the larger context of the universe to affectively communicate one’s immeasurable importance. By illustrating the microcosm of an individual in cosmic terms, he shows how science provides new and unexpected perspectives on the origins of personal identity. Sagan’s unifying poetic lens frames his daughter in relation to the greater universe, connoting a personal significance that extends beyond the transience of an individual’s life. The phrase also unifies individuals around a common origin, creating a sense of community and connection within humanity at large. Sagan’s uses his poetic lens in his popular science book Cosmos as well:

"We inhabit a universe where atoms are made in the centers of stars; where each second a thousand suns are born; where life is sparked by sunlight and lightning in the airs and waters of youthful planets; where the raw material for biological evolution is sometimes made by the explosion of a star halfway across the Milky Way; where a thing as beautiful as a galaxy is formed a hundred billion times— a Cosmos of quasars and quarks, snowflakes and fireflies." (Sagan, Cosmos 200)


By asserting that “we inhabit” the universe, Sagan first establishes the cosmos’ relevance to one’s identity. He then richly depicts the universe as dynamic in its incessant evolution, scintillating in its energy, and magnificent in its scale. He attributes earthly qualities to cosmic phenomena by illustrating time in terms of “seconds,” ebullient stars as “sunlight and lightning,” and comparing stellar evolution to cycles of birth. By attributing earthly attributes to astronomical occurrences, Sagan makes aesthetically intelligible events not typically grasped by non-astronomers. At the same time, he depicts the universe as other-worldly, laden with inhuman powers such as stellar “explosions” and ethereal forms such as “youthful planets” and “beautiful galaxies.” The presence of such a universe is made more poignant with the knowledge that delicate, commonplace “snowflakes and fireflies” exist alongside immense forces and unfamiliar “quasars and quarks.” Sagan forges a poetic view of science through language that evokes the impressive and unexpected beauty of the cosmos, which he describes in connection to one’s personal identity. In this way, both Nietzsche and Sagan use a type of literary form to make coherent events relevant to conceptions of the self, thus creating a sense of personal meaningfulness.

In addition, Nietzsche believes that the successful self-fashioning of one’s character begets an aesthetic feeling, whose power is revealed in giving significance to formerly unappealing aspects of one’s life. For instance, Nietzsche asserts that one must approach his life as do artists, “who survey all the strengths and weaknesses that their nature has to offer and then fit them into an artistic plan until each appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye” (Nietzsche, Gay Science 163). The “delight” that artistic coherence offers to the perception of one’s life gives aesthetic value to “weaknesses” since they contribute to the “artistic plan” of one’s identity. Furthermore, Nietzsche maintains that “At times we need to have a rest from ourselves by. . . from an artistic distance, laughing at ourselves or crying at ourselves; we have to discover the hero. . . we must now and then be pleased about our folly in order to be able to stay pleased about our wisdom!” (104). The “laughing” and “crying” Nietzsche describes are among the reactions one has to beholding a complete literary character, the model Nietzsche believes one should utilize to frame one’s past. This aesthetic pleasure allows one to accept his unappealing “folly” along with his “wisdom.” Nietzsche’s analysis of Greek tragedy further reinforces how his method of self-fashioning engenders an aesthetic feeling that has the power to transfigure unattractive aspects of one’s life: he describes how “art draws near as the enchantress who comes to rescue and heal; only she can reshape that disgust at the thought of the horrific or absurd aspects of life into notions with which it is possible to live: these are the sublime, the artistic taming of the horrific, and the comic, the artistic discharge of disgust at the absurd” (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy 46-47).

While Nietzsche believes that fashioning oneself as does an artist produces an aesthetic feeling that transforms personal weaknesses, Sagan believes that the aestheticization of the natural universe inevitably begets a feeling of wonder. For instance, Sagan demonstrates how “science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos” (Sagan, Demon Haunted World 32). Sagan describes characteristics of “reverence,” “awe,” “celebration,” and “magnificence” to the aesthetic emotion of feeling intimately connected with the natural universe. Furthermore, he describes how “When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual” (32). Other characteristics that Sagan attribute to the feeling of realizing one’s situation within the cosmos include “soaring” and “spiritual,” one of “elation” and “humility.” These qualities stem from a sense of wonder, a sentiment Sagan represents as a combination of humbleness at apprehending the universe’s awesome beauty as well as appreciation for existing as a relatively small but still meaningful part of that universe. In these ways, both Nietzsche and Sagan believe that their respective methods’ power ultimately arises from the kind of aesthetic feeling that they engender.

Nietzsche also employs style as a tool to reflect and thus communicate his philosophy and render his message outstanding for his audience. For instance, philosopher Alexander Nehamas argues that while some readers may find Nietzsche’s manner of writing convoluted and confusing, Nietzsche deliberately shifts writing styles as a way to reflect his philosophy and make his ideas memorable for his audience. Some of the different genres he includes in his philosophical writing include aphorism, dispassionate argument, and polemic. By changing between these styles in his writing, Nietzsche makes tangible the unique literary character that he represents to the reader. His shifting of genres keeps the reader keenly aware of the identity Nietzsche fashions for himself and which he imbues into his writing (Nehamas 20). Moreover, he attempts to render his philosophy unforgettable for his readers by making them uniquely experience a variety of genres in the process of reading and interpreting his philosophy. Finally, by making prominent Nietzsche’s deliberate effort to stylize or aesthetize his writing, he in turn emphasizes the important ability of stylizing or aestheticizing one’s life. (37-39).

Similar to Nietzsche’s use of style, Sagan employs style to reflect his aestheticization of science as well as attract his audience through his T.V. show Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. One poet describes his manner of speaking on the show as recalling the Homeric style: “eminently rapid, plain, direct in thought, expression, syntax, words, matter, ideas, and eminently noble” (Head 57). Not only does this manner of communicating make his messages accessible and interesting to the public, but it also reflects his poetic framing of the natural universe. Likewise, Sagan visually communicates his poetic stance through the stunning visual effects of the show. For example, the opening sequence of the series showcases surreal images of cosmic phenomena passing in and away from the field of vision. The series also often depicts Sagan on a spaceship called the “Spaceship of the Imagination,” which transports him around the cosmos, reinforcing the wondrous image of humanity’s smallness against a vast and complex universe. In fact, Sagan indicates how “I’d like the series to be so visually stimulating that somebody who isn’t even interested in the concepts will watch just for the effects” revealing his utilization of style to uphold the publicizing aims of his endeavor (Head xii-xiii). Similar to the purposes of Nietzsche’s writing style, Sagan’s use of visual and verbal style both reflects his type of aestheticism and leaves a captivating impression on his audience.

Nietzsche and Sagan’s aestheticization deploy similar techniques such as the use of literary form to frame and thus cohere reality, the evocation of aesthetic feeling, and the affectively communicative purpose of style. Nevertheless, Nietzsche and Sagan diverge on what aspects of reality they consider relevant for personal identity. This discrepancy is most apparent in their respective thought experiments, which differ in what they take as their raw-material for self-fashioning.

Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence Test takes as raw material personal life events. He introduces his Eternal Recurrence Test with, “What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’” (Nietzsche, Gay Science 194). The thought experiment urges one to imagine his reaction if faced with the possibility of living his life eternally over again. An enthusiastic response would reveal that his life fulfills his standards for adequate identity, while a distressed response would evince that his life fails to meet these vital standards. The test calls for a recollection of all of one’s past events in an attempt to cohere his life into a unified narrative, upholding the principle of harmony in working towards “a deep-going consistency between the agent’s avowed values and her actual life” as Lanier Anderson explains (Anderson 199). This holistic judgement of one’s past encourages the individual to either affirm the entirety of his life or to alter the course of his future actions in order to change the meaning of his past as to conform to his ideal narrative. The Eternal Recurrence Test shows how Nietzsche centers his focus solely on one’s personal life, implying that the only material relevant to one’s identity are his own experiences.

Conversely, Sagan believes that the material relevant to one’s identity includes the phenomena of the natural universe. Sagan demonstrates the broader scope of one’s identity in his monologue in episode nine of his show Cosmos: A Personal Voyage:

"from a planet orbiting a star in a distant globular cluster, a still more glorious dawn awaits— not a sunrise, but a galaxy-rise; a morning filled with four hundred billion suns— the rising of the Milky Way… it is beginning to be clear in our world, that we are made by the atoms and the stars, that our matter and our form are determined by the cosmos by which we are a part."


Sagan’s use of the pronoun “we” urges one to view himself in relation to the greater identity of the humanity. By framing humanity’s physical position against the large scale of a globular cluster and subsequently reducing his scope to the Milky Way, Sagan orients one to perceive humanity’s smallness relative to the boundless universe. This perspective also sheds light on how humanity is inextricably tied to the physical matter of the rest of the cosmos. In this way, in order to communicate a conception of humanity’s identity, through which one may interpret his own existence, Sagan presents humans as a part of the natural universe, both by contextualizing earth against a more general system of cosmic phenomena as well as depicting the shared physical makeup of humans.

In addition, the scope of Nietzsche’s method consequently affects the value he attributes to the role of truth in his perspective. In Nietzsche's aestheticization, the universality of truth loses value since his method takes into account solely the events of one’s individual life. As a result, Nietzsche embraces artistic delusion as a way to utilize the apparent indelibility of personal subjectivity:

"Had we not approved of the arts and invented this type of cult of the untrue, the insight into general untruth and mendacity that is now given to us by science— the insight into delusion and error as a condition of cognitive and sensate existence— would be utterly unbearable. Honesty would lead to nausea and suicide. But now our honesty has a counterforce that helps us avoid such consequences: art, as the good will to appearance." (Nietzsche, Gay Science 104)


Nietzsche points out the scientific belief of humans’ innately flawed perception due to their intellectual and sensory limits. The scientific conception of human subjectivity could lead to “nausea and suicide” since objective reality can never be grasped, rendering “honesty” an unachievable virtue. However, rather than despair one’s inability to comprehend any objective reality, Nietzsche argues that one’s intrinsic subjectivity should be harnessed to artistically transform his identity. Art’s “cult of the untrue” can transform “appearance” into a positive perception, regardless of its veridical weight. In fact, he asserts that art’s “countless illusions of beautiful appearance… make existence worth living and compel us to live on to experience the next moment” (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy 130). Nietzsche expands on the value of delusion in self-fashioning: “And precisely because we are at bottom grave and serious human beings. . . nothing does us as much good as the fool's cap: we need it against ourselves— we need all exuberant, floating, dancing, mocking, childish, and blissful art” (Nietzsche, Gay Science 104). The delusion involved with aestheticization, or “the fool’s cap,” combats one’s tendency to become “grave and serious” in imposing limits on the possibilities of one’s identity since artistic means of self-fashioning open new avenues for individual expression. All in all, Nietzsche embraces delusion in creating one’s self-conception since it resists the despair of the realization of false perception and allows positive personal transformation through cultivating freedom of expression.

While Nietzsche embraces delusion in his method of aestheticization, Sagan emphasizes building an objective worldview unaffected by individual desires because his scientific background requires that he preserve the epistemic integrity of his interpretation of external phenomena. For instance, Sagan insists that “It makes no difference how smart, august, or beloved you are. You must prove your case in the face of determined, expert criticism” (Sagan, Demon Haunted World 34). Sagan’s scientific perspective, whose integrity exists despite one’s character, contrasts with Nietzsche’s beliefs, whose aestheticism seems shaped by the freedom to individually express oneself. The criticism that Sagan promotes is meant to ensure the objectivity of one’s stance and to “distinguish the useful [ideas] from worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all” (Sagan, “Burden of Skepticism” 6). Sagan’s striving for objective scientific accuracy causes him to rule out the notion of multiple subjective truths. As opposed to Nietzsche’s belief in the use of subjectivity to artistically frame one’s life according to his personal values, Sagan insists that the worth of one’s worldview stems from its universal scientific basis. In addition, Sagan argues that:


"if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed. I think this search does not lead to a complacent satisfaction that we know the answer. . . It goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it." (Sagan, Varieties 50)


Sagan’s acknowledgement of the external facticity of the scientific universe causes him to diminish the importance of his own “emotional predispositions.” Because the objectivity of scientific truth is at odds with one’s personal satisfaction, one should never become complacent in believing “we know the answer” since his feelings do not necessarily coincide with the veridical weight of his judgements. Likewise, Sagan believes that knowing “who we are and where we came from” requires understanding one’s physical connection to the scientific world, which continually eludes subjective perception.

Because Nietzsche’s self-fashioning requires the personal freedom to aestheticize one’s identity, his moral concerns remained largely shaped personal desires. He consequently denies the conventional morality that concerns the wellbeing of others and instead promotes a way of life that glorifies individual autonomy. For instance, he argues how the conventional moral code hampers personal potential:

"It would be a relapse for us. . . to get completely caught up in morality and, for the sake of the overly severe demands that we there make on ourselves, to become virtuous monsters and scarecrows. We have also to be able to stand above morality. . . to float and play above it! How then could we possibly do without art and with the fool?" (Nietzsche, Gay Science 104)


The “fool,” or the delusion of art, assists one to “float and play above” conventional morality, escaping its stifling requirements for the sake of free personal expression. While the confines of conventional morality turn people into “virtuous monsters and scarecrows” without individuality and agency, transcending normative moral demands liberates one to explore the unique potential of his identity. Nietzsche also describes how his new lifestyle concerns personal desires unimpeded by external influences:

"I do not wish to keep quiet about my morality, which tells me: Live in seclusion so that you are able to live for yourself!. . . And let the clamour of today, the noise of war and revolutions, be but a murmur to you. You will also want to help— but only those whose distress you properly understand because they share with you one suffering and one hope— your friends— and only in the way you help yourself." (192-193)


Nietzsche promotes forging one’s individual morality uninfluenced by the desires of others and contemporary socio-political events such as “war and revolutions.” Furthermore, Nietzsche advocates a type of social assistance built upon one’s personal concerns, restricting it to those who relate with his “suffering and hope” and treated in a way that ultimately benefits the agent. As a result, Nietzsche defines a moral system that promotes individual autonomy and satisfying one’s personal desires.

On the other hand, because Sagan views phenomena outside of one’s immediate experiences as indispensable in fashioning one’s identity, he believes one has an obligation to respect and preserve the life of others besides himself.  First, Sagan illustrates a cosmological situation that provides a conception of humanity’s solidarity: “We live in a vast and awesome universe in which, daily, suns are made and worlds destroyed, where humanity clings to an obscure clod of rock. The significance of our lives and our fragile realm derives from our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning” (Popova). Sagan illustrates a picture of humanity that emphasizes its singularity and like-mindedness amidst a perpetually dynamic and overwhelmingly complex universe. He adds to this picture a sentiment of vulnerability by describing the earth as an “obscure clod of rock” and a “fragile realm.” In this way, by illustrating humanity’s place in a broader cosmological context, which depicts earth in solidarity and vulnerable isolation, Sagan argues that all of humanity must take up the responsibility for its own existence with “wisdom and courage.” In contrast to Nietzsche’s emphasis on the individual creating his own meaningful narrative, Sagan asserts that “we are the custodians of life’s meaning,” implying a collective effort towards a common moral aim. Sagan further urges for humans’ obligation to all life on earth: 

"We are rare and precious because we are alive, because we can think. We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. We have an obligation to fight for life on Earth— not just for ourselves but for all those, humans and others, who came before us and to whom we are beholden, and for all those who, if we are wise enough, will come after." (Popova)

Sagan contends for preserving earthly life by pointing out the innate worth of being “alive” and humans’ ability to “think” and thus determine ways to prolong life. He believes this obligation stems from humans’ indebtedness to beings “who came before us” since, according to natural selection and the interconnectedness of living systems throughout history, the endurance of human life remains dependent on former beings. As a result, Sagan argues that humanity should sustain the legacy of terrestrial creatures due to its responsibility of being a part of a greater order of life-sustenance. Lastly, Sagan provides specific issues that he presents as necessitating engagement in order to fulfill this obligation to earthly beings: “There is no cause more urgent than to survive to eliminate on a global basis the growing threats of nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, economic collapse and mass starvation. These problems were created by humans and can only be solved by humans.” All in all, Nietzsche and Sagan’s differing beliefs about truth’s value in turn affect how they conceive of moral obligation to others.

Nevertheless, because Sagan claims that his aestheticization of the natural universe promotes scientific objectivity and a universal moral obligation to preserve all terrestrial beings, his method of self-fashioning remains susceptible to Nietzsche’s criticism of science’s claim to absolute truth. Nietzsche’s critique of science derives from his belief in the intrinsically arbitrary nature of science’s affirmation of infallible knowledge:


"Where might science get the unconditional belief or conviction on which it rests, that truth is more important than anything else, than every other conviction? Precisely this conviction could never have originated if truth and untruth had constantly made it clear they they were both useful, as they are. . . Consequently, 'will to truth' does not mean 'I do not want to let myself be deceived' but— there is no alternative— 'I will not deceive, not even myself'; and with that we stand on moral ground.'" (Nietzsche, Gay Science 201)


Nietzsche attacks the foundation of Sagan’s method of aestheticization, which assumes the objectivity of the cosmos as his raw material for self-fashioning. He argues that since “untruth” or the delusion of artistic character-building proves to be personally useful, science’s striving towards truth has no grounds in personal meaning-making; therefore, its perceived objective value is in fact embedded in subjective judgement. Sagan’s conviction for maintaining scientific integrity and avoiding deception is rooted in a motivation that is “moral” since, as mentioned before, Nietzsche’s morality stems from personal desires. Sagan’s promotion of universal moral obligation is also undermined by Nietzsche’s criticism of science’s claim to objective knowledge:


"the question 'Why science?' leads back to the moral problem: Why morality at all, if life, nature, and history are 'immoral'? No doubt, those who are truthful in that audacious and ultimate sense which faith in science presupposes thereby affirm another world than that of life, nature, and history; and insofar as they affirm this 'other world', must they not by the same token deny its counterpart, this world, our world?" (201)


Nietzsche argues that any universalizing moral claim loses its validity when challenged with the question “why?” since the “world” that determines one’s beliefs about morality and truth depends solely upon subjective choice. Because Sagan’s morality is not apparently and regularly upheld in “life, nature, and history,” his promotion of preserving earthly life fails to require universal obligation since its “counterpart” of artistic delusion exists as an equally valid basis for a sufficient worldview.

Nietzsche’s critique of science remains founded in his belief in perspectivism, which conceives of truth as requiring the “ability to engage and disengage our ‘pros’ and ‘cons’: we can use the difference in perspectives and affective interpretations for knowledge.” (Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals 87). In this way, he promotes ways of thinking that take into account a variety of representations and understandings, becoming more independent from any single worldview and thus truer. Rather than attempt to understand the world apart from interpretation, perspectivism acknowledges the inherent delusion in all perspectives and attempts to achieve a kind of truthfulness constituted by an interplay of many worldviews: “the more affects we are able to put into words about a thing, the more eyes, various eyes we are able to use for the same thing, the more complete will be our ‘concept’ of the thing, our ‘objectivity’” (87). Nietzsche hence further views science’s will to truth as detrimental to one’s mental health, as in fact “hostile to life and destructive. ‘Will to truth’-- that might be a concealed will to death” (Nietzsche, Gay Science 201). To approach the world in pursuit of truth as an singular worldview threatens a dangerous kind of asceticism built upon the “incarnate wish for being otherwise, being elsewhere”-- desiring a world that better conforms to one’s cognitive capacities (Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals 88) (Anderson 192).

By comparing and contrasting Sagan’s aestheticization of the natural universe with Nietzsche’s aestheticization of one’s personal life, we can better analyze the method, aims, and value of Sagan’s popular view of science. Sagan and Nietzsche employ similar techniques in their respective processes, but assert different goals due to their contrasting views on personal identity, truth, and morality. Nietzsche’s aestheticism is aimed at personal character development through a subjective evaluation of one’s own life while Sagan’s aestheticism is aimed at nurturing humanity’s moral duty towards all terrestrial life through an evaluation of one’s position within an objective cosmic order. However, since Sagan’s aestheticism reflects the key elements of Nietzsche’s, he achieves the same aims proposed by Nietzsche despite his diverging emphasis on objectivity; both thinkers create methods of self-conception that uphold coherence of identity and aesthetic merit as important results. Nevertheless, the very Nietzschean method that Sagan embraces undermines his claims on the generalizing infallibility of scientific aestheticization. As illuminated by Nietzsche’s criticism of absolutism, Sagan’s claims about unconditional scientific knowledge and universal duty towards the preservation of earthly life lose epistemic weight. On the whole, Sagan’s aestheticism must ultimately harness the same subjective delusion and perspectivism that Nietzsche utilizes in order to avoid the fallacy of epistemological and moral absolutism.


Sagan’s aestheticization of science also speaks to a larger issue of science’s role in the secularization of modern Western society. The decline of organized religion increasingly provides spaces for new systems of value— the question then arises, can science take its place? Sagan attempts to forge a general moral system from his aesthetic perspective of the scientific world, yet it falls short of providing any unifying and enduring universal ethical structure. Perhaps science’s role in secularization calls for a dramatic reevaluation, either of what is meant by adequate knowledge or morality, in order to fully consolidate its ascending position in a society that continually searches for lasting systems of value.


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