How I came back to Nietzsche after years of having struggled with his dense prose, ambiguity, and my confusion about his meanings is, as so often, circuitous and serendipitous.
In the long wait for the results of my final semester in 2015, I stumbled on an essay by American philosopher, Richard Rorty: ‘Nineteenth-Century Idealism and Twentieth-Century Textualism’ (published in his 1982 book Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays: 1972-1980), University of Minnesota Press, pp139-159). Not light reading, you might think, but Rorty’s prose always struck me as less dense and more readable than many other academic philosophers. In that essay I found the passage:
Their contribution [Nietzsche’s and William James’s] was to replace romanticism by pragmatism. Instead of saying that the discovery of vocabularies could bring hidden secrets to light, they said that new ways of speaking could help get us what we want. Instead of hinting that literature might succeed philosophy as discoverer of ultimate reality, they gave up the notion of truth as a correspondence to reality. Nietzsche and James said, in different tones of voice, that philosophy itself had only the status which Kant and Fichte had assigned to science-the creation of useful or comforting pictures. Nietzsche and James interpreted metaphysical idealism, and, more generally, the metaphysical urge to say something about “the ultimate nature of reality,” in psychological terms. Marx, of course, had already done this, but unlike Marx, James and Nietzsche did not attempt to formulate a new philosophical position from which to look down on idealism. Instead, they self-consciously abandoned the search for an Archimedean [absolute or objective] point from which to survey culture. They abandoned the notion of philosophy as super-science. They applied Kant’s and Hegel’s metaphors of making (as opposed to traditional realist metaphors of finding) not only to Kant and Hegel but to themselves. As Nietzsche said, they were the first generation not to believe that they had the truth. So they were content to have no answer to the question “Where do you stand when you say all these terrible things about other people?’ They were content to take the halo off words like ‘truth’ and ‘science’ and ‘knowledge’ and ‘reality’, rather than offering a view about the nature of the things named by these words.p 150. My explanations in angle brackets.
I was intrigued. Skimming articles and essays on Rorty I discovered that he seems to have regarded Nietzsche as a literary figure rather than a philosopher, to be read for pleasure rather than instruction. That had not been my approach when I read him in previous decades. Still, I wanted some guidance on returning to Nietzsche, so I turned to Scottish academic Lee Spinks’s Friedrich Nietzsche (Routledge, 2003), a very readable book that made Nietzsche’s ideas accessible without having read the complete works. Quite an admirable feat in writing, too, I think. Very quickly, though, I realized I had to use Spinks like a tour guide, and return to Nietzsche himself, even if only browsing the relevant parts to double-check Spinks’s interpretations. That project consumed me for six weeks in late 2015, leading me to write this commentary. It isn’t an essay with a central thesis so much as a selective survey of Nietzschean ideas, and my lay interpretations; I am not a philosopher and have no great affinity for the tortured language of most academic philosophers.
One of the most powerful impressions on me after reading Spinks was just how pervasive Nietzsche’s ideas have become, woven into the most unlikely commonplaces, like television drama, art critique, literature, political debate, and even advertising, but mostly without explicitly acknowledging that parentage. This pervasiveness makes it easy to respond to Nietzsche’s unadulterated ideas with an indifferent shoulder shrug. Until it is recalled he originated these now normalized concepts when they might have been seen as revolutionary.
Another powerful impression on me now is that Nietzsche never wrote a definitive work, nor did he develop a cohesive set of principles. Instead he iteratively re-visited the same themes and concerns over a lifetime, amending and refining his conceptions in a process of continuous bringing-into-being that ceased only when his sanity gave out, leaving us with an interrupted work in progress. I see it as more difficult than with some other writers to nail Nietzsche down on any specific proposition-made even harder because he changed his expository style too, moving from the conventional form of narrative essay to an increasingly lyrical, poetic prose that requires significant effort to decipher.
His iterative style also presents an expository difficulty. Many of his ideas are tightly interwoven, and explaining one relies on understanding another. Yet not even an unconventional narrative structure can explain all his ideas at once, and this narrative settles for an artificial sequence, based on the chronology of Spinks’s book.
For further clues on Nietzsche’s unfinished œuvre, I think, you can look at Schopenhauer behind him, Kierkegaard running in parallel, and Camus, with Sartre, in his future. But care must be taken not to regard Nietzsche as part of ‘school of thought’ with these others, doubly so if someone proposes a definitive conclusion about Nietzsche that is part of a self-affirming justification for a particular Weltanschauung.
Any understanding of Nietzsche seems unlikely if the goal is to look for shallow, literal meanings, or crude, precise formulations. Instead of offering procedural method, or manifesto, the usefulness of Nietzsche’s work strikes me as the opportunity to pick up his critiques and apply the underlying techniques personally, creating ‘Nietzschean’ perspectives on a range of topics, as contrast and complement to other analytical landscapes. Not as a ‘Nietzscheanist’, but as part of a broader personal outlook.
Structuralist perspective: historical setting
The biggest lacuna in Spinks’s work is an absence of historical setting or context. This may be because structuralist analysis is no longer fashionable in the academy, or because Spinks’s brief was too narrow to allow for it. Nevertheless, historical illiteracy about Nietzsche’s times and the places risks significantly underestimating his intentions and inflections. I think it proper to place the subject in a context of both a German historical context, and Nietzsche’s own savant career.
He pursued philology, the study of language according to now antiquated methods. In his times this was usually done by scrutinizing original manuscripts to detect how language developed along with socio-cultural concepts (or vice versa). By 1869, aged just 24, he was offered a professorship at the prestigious Basel university in Switzerland, where he wrote his first major work: Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik, translated as The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872). I’ve never read this thesis, turning instead to its later revision into a new one, discussed further below.
The environment in which Nietzsche wrote this work might be a significant backdrop, being as formative a period in German history as were the American or French revolutions for their respective citizens.
Nietzsche had been raised in a Germany that was not a nation, consisting of almost 40 separate, independent principalities, states, and fiefdoms, that were a loose confederacy dominated by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was a child during the revolutionary period that swept continental Europe in 1848, in which Richard Wagner played some part. The revolutionary tide was aimed at overturning an old aristocratic order. It created the second French republic, but failed to gain a foothold in the German states, where aristocrats forced many of the revolutionaries into exile. Wagner and the legacy of the failed revolutions were to leave an impression on Nietzsche that I suspect strongly informed his hostility to Christian conservative orthodoxy.
In an Austrian-dominated German confederation, ‘Christian’ meant a predominantly Catholic orthodoxy, creating internal tensions between North and South, with the North being more heavily Protestant. Nietzsche was a northerner.
As he approached adulthood, the tensions within the German confederacy escalated, with an increasingly confident Prussian kingdom pressing a claim to be a more legitimate and vital pan-German leader than the moribund Austrian Hapsburg dynasty. War to settle the rivalry was expected, and all of Europe anticipated an Austrian victory after a protracted war that would leave both antagonists weakened, allowing others – principally France – to step in and pick up the pieces. Instead the Austro-Prussian war of 1866 lasted just seven weeks, stunning the world with its speed, and ushering in the norther-east German kingdom of Prussia as a muscular new proponent of modern warfare. Warfare of the kind only just ended in the American Civil War, from which Prussian tacticians had learnt the need for speedy mobilization and manoeuvring. In five major engagements the Prussians and their allies forced an Austrian surrender.
Nietzsche was a native of Naumburg, south-west of Leipzig, the capital of Saxony, itself a Prussian province. When he undertook his initial military service, he did so in the newly triumphant Prussian army in 1867. There was still no German nation, but the North German Confederation was led by the ambitious and astute Otto von Bismarck, who knew that French opposition to German unification, and reticence by the southern German states to recognise Prussia as the heir apparent, could be resolved most quickly through war with France. It was the French who eventually declared war on Prussia, but it seems clear Bismarck exerted significant influence to bring about that outcome.
Nietzsche participated directly in the Franco-Prussian War of July 1870 to January 1871 as a hospital orderly at Metz, where he fell ill with diphtheria and dysentery, to be invalided out of the army after three months. Prussian and allied armies defeated the French in five months. This victory led directly to German unification as a real nation, and the declaration of the German Empire under the former Prussian king. This Prussian Germany came to be regarded as the second empire (Das Zweite Reich), succeeding the old Holy Roman Empire, which had always been largely German, and preceding the Third Reich (Das Dritte Reich).
There is no question that Nietzsche lived through momentous times for Germans, and that he may well have believed himself to be intertwined with destiny, with an opportunity to change it by force of will and intellect. Yet it seems Nietzsche misunderstood the Zeitgeist (the temper of his times), in challenging a newly born nationalism based on the fastidious priggishness and ascetic discipline of Prussian Protestantism, which saw itself as newly dominant over the ‘evil’ and ‘decadent’ Catholicism of Austria and France. It seemed an unfertile ground for Nietzsche’s Dionysian passions; Bismarck’s Prussia did not welcome an infusion of a romantic kind, nor a trenchant critique of the banality of the bourgeois affectations justified as discipline, logic, and rationality by the ascendant Prussian Junkers.
Psychologically, Nietzsche may have been a prodigy, but tending towards sociopathy, and later on, towards megalomania, regarding himself as a kind of prophet of a new era. This is my personal assessment, based on a myriad small observations which might be summarized best by looking the at the table to contents for Nietzsche’s autobiography, Ecce Homo written in 1888, but not published until 1908, in which the first three chapters are ‘Why I Am So Wise’, ‘Why I Am So Clever’, and ‘Why I Write Such Excellent Books’. Sociopathy and megalomania aren’t, in themselves, reason to discount or devalue Nietzsche’s thought, but they are the reason I find his later messianic, missionary zeal and vision less convincing or useful than some of his earlier work.
As an aside on sociopathy, it is a much-abused term to which psychoanalysts and psychiatrists lay claim of ownership. I do not use it in conformance with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which regards it as a ‘personality disorder’. Instead I use the term to refer to greater or lesser disregard for conventional courtesy, empathy, ethics, and social cooperation. These distinctions strike me as necessary because Nietzsche straddles territory that could be seen as an indication of anti-social tendencies and clinical narcissism. More importantly, though, his ideas have, at times, been suborned to disturbing causes by people attracted to what they see as a reflection of their own low-brow sociopath tendencies.
Birth of Tragedy
Nietzsche re-wrote his original The Birth of Tragedy as Die Geburt der Tragödie, Oder: Griechentum und Pessimismus, translated as The Birth of Tragedy, Or: Hellenism and Pessimism (1886), conspicuously rejecting philological orthodoxy, thus tweaking the noses of his peers. Instead of being embraced as evidence of his genius, the way I think he expected it to be, it attracted a sharply critical rebuttal from the highly respected German philologist, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff. The premiss of the work is that Greek tragedy served as a metaphorical indicator of a schism in Greek culture between ‘Dionysian’ intuitions, instincts, and sensuality, and the ‘Apollonian’ asceticism with its censorious social discipline. He argued that the Apollonian fork has dominated Western culture ever since. Later in his career he suggested that the contemporary opposite to Dionysian intuition was the self-abnegation associated with the cult of Jesus Christ.
Until I read Spinks I had not recognised in Nietzsche’s early work the threat to the academic establishment of his times that it undoubtedly was, and the outrage he might have caused among, particularly, the Prussian Protestant bourgeoisie. His suggestions that self-control and asceticism might not be the virtues they were thought to be, and in fact harmful to the vitality of people and their cultures, is not likely to have endeared him with the military martinets any more than the dour Lutherans or the Machiavellian Catholics in 19th century Germany.
Worse, he challenged the philological orthodoxy of historiographical cause-and-effect reasoning about social and cultural development, and an entrenched snobbery about Greek perfection in aesthetic and intellectual qualities. The controversy he caused may have been small, limited as it was to a narrow academic circle, but it appears to have been fierce and bitter. Former revolutionary and composer Richard Wagner took Nietzsche’s side in the ensuing public exchange of vitriol. The friendship based on that skirmishing probably injected into Nietzsche’s outlook the influence of the 1840s revolutionary idealism, even if the two men fell out in the 1870s, not least because Wagner became an anti-Semitic Christian.
Looking back on Birth of Tragedy today, it seems to me that the most interesting insight arising from it is Nietzsche’s prescient critique of how Greek culture and society was weakened as the emphasis of its content shifted from the universal and grand to the individual and banal.
Today we might liken this to the contemporary arts, especially in literature, having largely abandoned any grand vision of, or for, human ends and purposes in favour of a focus on the petty, neurotic ineffectiveness of individuals obsessed with insipid identity politics and virtue signalling. Most ‘sit coms’, but especially reality television, celebrate an execrable focus on embarrassingly stupid people pursuing solely banal objects. Big-budget Hollywood shoot-‘em-up ‘blockbusters’ can be seen as vicarious reactions to a similar ineffectiveness-the perverse pleasure gained by people who regard themselves as weak, powerless, and victimized, (Nietzsche might have called them ressentiment-driven) in watching revenge (revanchism) against the ‘bad guys’ on a grand scale. It is a kind of violence pornography, often accompanied by barely disguised homo-eroticism, fetishizing highly exaggerated male musculature. Pop music seems similarly obsessed with the commonplace, including especially a narcissistic, onanistic obsession with sexuality as social currency. Worst of all, the fourth estate has become a propaganda freak show, emphasizing fear, scandal, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and Schadenfreude as perverse titillation for a bourgeoisie needing self-affirmation for its ethically vacuous, ignorant pettiness.
It would be easy to make an argument along Nietzschean lines that the culture which celebrates such mythification, and the societies that consume them, are weak and slavish rather than strong and vigorously independent. However, I think it would be presumptuous to make generalizations about an entire culture based only on what is popular.
Thinking of the generally negative academic reaction to Nietzsche’s book, and his own critique of it later on, I am reminded of Orson Welles: a child prodigy made good as a young man but permanently side-lined later for poking a stick at too many powerful people.
Despite the less-than-favourable reception of his book, Nietzsche’s focus on the dichotomy between the universal and the personal, the ‘noble’ or ‘aristocratic’ and the banal, carry through to his consideration of art, morality, and truth. For me his thinking on truth is the linchpin to all else, including the Übermensch, and the far more sobering implication about Untermenschen (my terminology, equivalent to ‘lesser men’, or ‘Undermen’).
Truth, metaphor, and lies
Nietzsche’s argument against orthodox conceptions of truth is incomplete and unsatisfying. Spinks explains the complexities rather well.
Truth, he argues, does not exist in a transcendent realm beyond the contingency of human values; truth is itself a value with a history that must be interrogated.p 27.
This isn’t just a matter of metaphysical truth, but also for the sciences, no matter how inconvenient this may be for scientists presenting themselves as secular, objective observers of the universe. Nietzsche proposes that truth is a metaphor ‘invented to lend authority to particular forms of thought and styles’:
… Nietzsche simultaneously broadens his argument by claiming that all of the concepts we employ to represent the ‘true’ structure of the world – such as ‘space’, ‘time’, ‘identity’, ‘causality’ and ‘number’ – are metaphors we project on to the world to make it thinkable in human terms. What we call ‘pure’ truth is produced by the interchange of poetic figures – ‘concepts’ – whose origin in metaphor has been forgotten.p 38.
Much of what Nietzsche had to say about truth was a condemnation of religion and theological conceptions of truth. Nevertheless, his arguments resonate because they have been re-cast many times after his death, most conspicuously in Marxist materialist critique, and Sartre’s existentialism, which finally laid to rest any need to grapple with, or to reject religion at all, because it has nothing to say about human consciousness and conscience. Spinks explains:
Truth does not exist as an ideal beyond the multiplicity of perspectives on life; truth is produced by these perspectives as a way of establishing the coherence and authority of a particular style of life.p 39.
Those words resemble closely what Jean Paul Sartre had to say in 1945:
For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s action by reference to a given and specific human nature; in other words, there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom. Nor, on the other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimise our behaviour. Thus we have neither behind us, nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse. – We are left alone, without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.— Sartre (1948), Existentialism and Humanism, translated by Philip Mairet, p 34.
In effect, Nietzsche argues that truth is a third level metaphorical abstraction, derived first from sensory impressions translated into secondary thoughts, and re-interpreted into the tertiary form of human language. The nature of language, which is necessarily an abstraction in itself, then determines the topology of the ‘truth’ it is being used to describe through its conventional vocabulary. A specific vocabulary is then used to give substance to judgements that determine truth as distinct from untruth. In this way, fixed values are built directly into the process of turning perception into language, banishing any fresh assessment in favour of ready-made stereotypes.
Nature – the universe – is indifferent to how humans perceive it, and certainly not at all concerned with human value judgements, which are impositions of human order on a universe oblivious to that order.
I anticipate that technocrats of all kinds are likely to reject this reasoning, arguing that the truth in physical sciences is proven by the application of scientific theories in creating the marvels of modern technology. A fallacious argument. If we regard even the most advanced contemporary science as based on abstractions rather than immutable truths, we can recognise that their utility in creating complex mechanical and electronic artifacts does not mean they embody truth to any greater degree than demonstrably inaccurate ancient maps and crude cosmological conceptions, which nevertheless permitted successful land journeys and maritime celestial navigation. In other words, what we are dazzled by today as the objective truth of the sciences may be recognised in future as crude abstractions as we learn more, or shift our focus, and become able to build even more marvellous contrivances.
Nietzsche’s speculation on language and its specific vocabularies, containing in themselves the subjectivity of a dominant perspective on all things, makes me wonder about a new domain of discourse he couldn’t have anticipated: information technology. Sophisticated calculating machines that allow programmers to layer or array simple algorithmic logics to give us sophisticated software, the internet, and all that resides in both.
Is the programming code that makes this possible also a vocabulary in a Nietzschean sense? Carrying within it the internalized prejudices and preferences of a dominant cultural discourse? I’ve read some of the arguments that many of the products of code reflect a sexism on the part of young male programmers, who outnumber women in programming jobs. Could it be that code goes further than that in promoting the currently hegemonic conception of the universe, the world, and its people?
Interesting to ponder, but not really immediately useful. Software and code are mostly artifacts of political economy. Code is written not to make statements about meaning, but to serve profit. Beyond considerations of elegant code, as opposed to messy or bad code, it contains messages about culture only in the way its final outcome, like an interface or software, could be interpreted as reflecting a particular set of assumptions about the purposes and uses of that outcome.
Is the contemporary use of mathematics already suborned to a wider dominant discourse about human purposes that flows through into coding? Nietzsche said yes, without ever knowing about computers. His arguments about science say so. But does that mean anything today?
When I look at software and online interfaces, what I see mostly is ‘agile’ development, meaning deeply flawed code is pushed into production to force software and interface users to complain, driving iterative cycles of improvements based on demand. Meaning, usually, paying demand. So, yes, code ends up embodying what it is that people will pay for it, meaning the cultural and social vocabulary embedded in code is visible only if you consider what the code includes, as profitable effort, and what it excludes, as unprofitable. Beyond that, I think an argument can be made for male biases purely because they outnumber females in programming, and sub-consciously embed gender-specific preferences. Think of it this way: if women were in charge, would legislation making sanitary products, the pill, and female sexual health not be big bigger priorities than making available little blue pills to address male erectile disfunction, as experienced by the old white men usually in charge?
I’m not sure. For me this will always be a matter of individual assessments in specific circumstances. All the same, I can see room for a Nietzschean interrogation of computer programming, programming languages, and, especially, the products of programming.
But where does Nietzsche’s rejection of human subjectivity and abstraction get us? If this is how people behave, and people are organic components of the universe, then human behaviours are an inherently ‘natural’ component of a universe otherwise indifferent (and hostile) to all life in general.
Spinks suggests that Nietzsche is not necessarily opposed to the metaphorical abstraction of reality into human truths, but rather to the forgetfulness that these are abstractions, and a human tendency to allow metaphors to ‘ossify’ into rigid doctrines (p 43). Nietzsche’s fear in all of this is that such confected truths serve as the justification for mediocre people to overturn the rightful authority of their superiors. I don’t intend to dwell on Nietzsche’s definition of mediocre and superior here, save to say that it is not necessarily the Untermensch vs Übermensch dichotomy, nor quite the various grotesque precursors and adaptations via ‘chosen people’ or ‘master race’ myths, and definitely not the asinine genre of ‘superheroes’ that undoubtedly arose from the idea. Instead I propose only that Nietzsche may well have intended instead the basis for a kind of Platonist meritocracy, in which thinkers able to recognize the arbitrary nature of truth deserve to be leaders, probably meaning, most especially, himself.
Along with Spinks I am not inclined to agree with Nietzsche’s own conclusions about truth, summarized by Spinks as the idea that –
… we generate our beliefs about truth and morality from the grammatical structure of our language rather than from an ‘objective’ reading of the world. We only believe, that is, in a division between appearance and reality or between essence and expression because our language enforces a distinction between a subject and predicate of thought.
The ‘real’ world is, in fact, a continuous stream of physiological perceptions which we reduce and divide up into concepts such as ‘subject’, ‘object’, ‘will’ and ‘origin’.p 51.
Certainly, we divide up our realities more or less arbitrarily, but it strikes me as unlikely that we are all restricted to the chicanery of grammar or vocabulary in conceiving of truth, or, more importantly, of the arbitrary nature of the concept of truth. It seems much more likely that only some people are trapped in such semantic cages, and that enough others exist not to make this a universal curse, the way Nietzsche appears to have positioned it.
Art as gateway to truth
Paradoxically, Nietzsche seems to have recognized this too, in arguing that only through art can we come close to an insight into our existence within the totality of the universe, making sense of our social arrangements within it. I sometimes wonder whether he meant by this the mostly suppressed or hidden reservoir of emotion and feeling that can be evoked by visual art, music, and literature.
The artist speaks ‘in forbidden metaphors and unheard-of combinations of concepts so that, by at least demolishing and deriding the old conceptual barriers, he may do creative justice to the impression made on him by the mighty, present intuition’.p 52.
Nietzsche here seems to be reaching for a heroic posture by and for artists.
It strikes me as a particularly interesting to consider Nietzsche’s ideas about ‘ordinary’ men being imprisoned by their rationalizations of their circumstances. He suggests that ‘… the art of “reason” – is designed to ward off, rather than embrace, the multiple possibilities’ (p 52) offered by their creative instincts and powers. This idea chimes with my observations of a contemporary overemphasis on techno-scientific rationalities blinkered by a literalist imbecility derived from the inflexibility of mathematics. What I mean is a mind-set obliterating the potential for layered, multiple, parallel meanings and significance which exists in the skillful embedding of allusion and metaphor. However, discovering such potential for layered meaning relies on as deep and accessible an education or cultural consciousness as possessed by the artist. For example, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980), contains references to Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes, indicating Eco’s playfulness with cultural pastiche; these references cannot offer any meaning to viewers who are unaware of the external stories and their juxtaposition in Eco’s fiction. The name ‘Baskerville’ references ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’, and perhaps, a monologue by Holmes in ‘The Naval Treaty’ while contemplating a moss rose, but there is also a kind of rose known as ‘Robin Hood’. Eco’s protagonist, William of Baskerville, clearly acts as a Holmesian sleuth, and his novice, Adso of Melk, who is also the narrator of the story, is seduced by a peasant girl, who might also be the rose of the title. She is never named.
It seems unfortunate to me that classically liberal education is being increasingly squeezed out in high school and university syllabi in favour of merely technical training in the sciences, trades, and professions, creating modes of thinking almost as anti-art as anti-intellectual. Formula, method, and technique is advanced as a new kind of secular theology, suggesting fixed certainties and obliterating all that is human in social and economic transactions. It is almost a rush to embrace the rationality of glorified calculators, leading to the inevitably parallel celebration of sociopathy: empathy, humanity, and decency replaced by inhuman, inhumane, technocratic logics.
Tragic art, for Nietzsche, does not provide a moral interpretation of life; nor does it offer a teleological vision of a purpose or goal to existence. Instead, the value of tragedy is that it momentarily aligns us with the most profound material force – the endless becoming of life itself – beyond any thought of metaphysical consolation or the hope of redemption.p 61.
It is not controversial, today, to argue as Nietzsche did that the real significance of historical artifacts, like the Bible or the Odyssey, might be what they tell us about ancient, conflicting, unresolved ways of looking at the world, society, politics, and culture.
This idea has been largely supplanted by Marx and post-Marxist historical materialism, which sees all history as the particular dynamics of political economy in any given period and environment. Yet the concept appears implacably difficult for many contemporary technocrats to grasp. It is almost as if half the Enlightenment had been abolished to remove human understandings and leave only concepts of a clockwork universe populated by pseudo-robots. What used to be called critical analysis is today quite often confused for ‘calculating’ or ‘processing’, as if these operations were actually capable of generating meaning by themselves. Personal experience and judgement is banished altogether, as if it were suspect and fearsome for its potential to uncover uncertainty, doubt, conflict, independence, or dissidence.
This contemporary problem is directly linked to Nietzsche’s thinking on the genealogy of morality, which I will examine in more detail further on. I mention it here to highlight again the interrelationship between the themes in Nietzsche’s works, and the iterative approach to refining them in conjunction with each other. I cannot help but smirk at the sacrilegious thought of Nietzsche employing the iterative Deming cycle of quality management, and using an ur-agile method of conceptual development.
Lessons in objectivity
The greatest utility for me in Nietzsche’s approach to truth is to offer a perspective that creates distance from contemporary orthodoxy about truth and objectivity, particularly as I have encountered it in journalism.
To illustrate, consider a car accident. As a journalist you are supposed to establish ‘essential facts’. Exactly what these are is not sanctified by some a priori determination of what constitutes facts-as-essential-to-meaning, and yet the journalistic formula about ‘what, where, when, who, why’ is the imposition of an arbitrary epistemological hierarchy as the only path to truth. The ‘who’ and ‘why’ implies a causality that is nevertheless as arbitrary as ascribing the accident to divine intervention or the inevitable outcome of a statistical certainty. The ‘where’ and ‘when’ implies that an accident did not originate in events or phenomena removed in space and time from the ‘scene’ of the accident. It becomes easy to see that a notional journalistic objectivity is in fact an alignment of facts with institutional determinants of ‘truth’: a ‘justice’ system aligned with insurance and law enforcement interests in finding guilt (or at least ‘responsibility’ for causality). An engineering orientation that requires known and knowable design and construction of both mechanical devices and human actions as precursors to outcomes, and based on academic expertise in both engineering and psychology. A readership that ‘demands’ such perspectives as the only indicators of an objective truth, which could be re-interpreted to actually mean a news media advertising clientele insisting that the readership be constructed that way. All this is determinism, when really these are all no more than reductionist abstractions to make sense of events in the context of a prevailing political economy.
I don’t see the necessity of denying such perspectives in any or every instance, but I do see it as important to have an intellectual framework that exposes the flaws in supposing that only one valid truth can be distilled from any event or phenomenon, in only one valid interpretive framework.
Turning again to technocratic rationality, it has become a de-facto faith for some who reject all other avenues for discovering truth, even when this means directly contradicting the principle of contestable hypothesizing. More importantly, the doctrine that only technocratic rationality can expose truth does away with any possibility for human truths found in instinctive, aesthetic, and emotional responses (as in art), human relationships (as in love and friendship), spirituality (as in religion or affinity to physical environments), or community (as in social acceptance and self-actualization). Technocratic ‘truth’ thus risks dehumanizing all that is human, exposing itself as a nihilistic doctrine of self-loathing, with vainglorious ambition to transcend all that is human in the same dogmatic manner as demanded by Judaeo-Christian, sado-masochistic conceptions of virtue. Why that is important in considering Nietzsche will become clear when we turn to Nietzsche’s consideration of Christianity. For now, what is important is the contingent nature of truth. Contingent on vocabularies and assumptions serving particular power relations in a particular time and place.
Other frameworks for critical thinking have displaced Nietzsche’s critique of truth, particularly Marxist and post-Marxist materialist approaches that follow the trail of wealth re-distribution to illuminate what kind of interests are being represented in transactional discourses. Perhaps Nietzsche was thus intellectually dispossessed because he was wilfully disdainful of existential priorities; he doesn’t seem to care about social cohesion, economic conditions, legal constraints, and, to a large degree, the psychology of ostracism associated with challenging orthodoxy. That tendency is not just an indicator of sociopathy, but could be a signpost that Nietzsche’s intention was not to prescribe a manifesto for action by the masses so much as to address an imagined elite, fit to rule over the masses by the merit of intellectual superiority. With himself as first among equals in that elite?
This thought conjured for me the imagery of Plato’s autocratic republic, flickering like shadows cast by hearth fire and candlelight across Nietzsche’s night-time study walls, as he scribbled out his ideas. Perhaps he was far more beholden to, and influenced by, the orthodox idolization of classical Greek culture than he admitted.
No matter what its flaws or strengths might be, Nietzsche’s conception of the arbitrary construction of truth becomes an important basis for his thinking on morality and historiography.
I have read nothing in Nietzsche that rejects ethics or ethical behaviour. When he talks of a master perspective as pre-moral, all he says is that it is a position from which an original, authentic analysis is possible, the way it is not under the ‘slave’ mentality of having already and uncritically absorbed an existing ethical construction, together with its prescriptions for human ends. He regarded the latter as servitude by those who obey, to those who are served by that obedience. It is individual and independent critical analysis Nietzsche calls for, and whose lack he laments, when he condemns uncritical, self-effacing submission to imposed rules.
I would go further to propose that obedience, without the freedom or power to consider and form independent judgements is not ethics at all, but a robotic parsing of a set of instructions. Unlike Nietzsche, though, I see no inevitable conflict between independent thinking and a rational acceptance of the compromise rules necessary for societies to function. A modicum of honesty to make it possible to trust and rely on people in everyday exchanges, and a degree of predictability about norms, reactions, and constraints. But not the demands for policed thought made by theocratic and secular tyrants.
It remains entirely possible for each individual to come to some independent ethical sense, even if it incorporates elements from what Nietzsche might have considered a ‘slave’ mentality. Eclecticism isn’t quite the same as surrendering to someone else’s conceptions.
An underlying theme in Nietzsche’s work is an extended self-critique, or perhaps a critique of the orthodox academic wisdom of his era, specifically in his own field of philology. A specific component of Nietzsche’s focus on genealogy is a concern to question the uses or utility of history. He probably accepted that the mark of an educated, civilized person is knowledge of history, and particularly that of the classical antiquity (p 75). But he questioned whether this knowledge didn’t turn into a kind of idolatry that kills off creativity and the capacity to invent a present not enslaved to the past.
Shades of learning from the mistakes of the past.
It’s an enduring, engaging question. Are we all slaves to traditions and heritages? Is there any freedom or willingness to strive for new syntheses and solutions that match our own present purposes, rather than persisting with methods and settlements maintaining status quo conditions? In Nietzsche’s times such thinking was possibly quite revolutionary, and may have been regarded as politically dissident, and therefore punishable with severe methods.
Today a Nietzschean conclusion about what may appear to be a relatively constant custom, idea, or practice, is that the meaning of a thing is the history of how that meaning was derived: ‘the meaning and function of historical institutions will be determined by those who impose their will on circumstances and organise events in order to advance their own interpretation of life’ (p 76). That’s another way of saying ‘history is written by the victors’. In the 19th century, Nietzche’s thinking might have seemed like a direct challenge to the authority of the newly created German state, itself locked in the Bismarckian ‘Kulturkampf’ (cultural war) against the traditional hold of the Catholic Church on cultural, political, and social institutions and practices.
In Spinks’s terms, Nietzsche saw value in an eclecticism that ‘enables us to select those elements of the past that enable us to live productively in the present’ (p. 78).
The best we can do is to confront our inherited and hereditary nature with our knowledge, and through a new, stern discipline, combat our inborn heritage and implant in ourselves a new habit, a new instinct, a second nature, so that our first nature withers away. It is an attempt to give oneself, as it were a posteriori, a past in which one would like to originate in opposition to that in which one did originate …p 82.
Nietzsche was concerned that a singular, or dominant focus leads to a delusion whereby ‘knowledge is robbed of both its historical specificity and its role in creating values; now knowledge is only deemed valuable if it conforms to the criterion of universal and objective truth’p 83.
Once we accept the historical constitution of ‘truth’, it becomes possible to see our values as an effect of the will to power of dominant elites, such as the church, aristocracy, or the ruling class. These values no longer appear ‘natural’ or ‘timeless’, but rather the consequence of conflict and a struggle for authority between champions of competing interpretations of life. The task ahead, Nietzsche insisted, was to move beyond the exhausted and declining Judaeo-Christian vision of existence, creating a new interpretation of human ends for the future (p 86). Was that a task only for Nietzsche, or a universal dictum? I’m not certain that his work was not an extended self-critique, with insights into transforming himself. If her were confronted with that proposition, I wonder whether he would have argued that what we make of this is up to us.
Closely related to Nietzsche’s ideas on truth are his explorations of parallel concepts: those of historicism and thinking about it in terms of genealogies rather than a fixed linear procession.
Spinks characterizes Nietzsche’s ‘radicalised vision of history as the successive reinterpretation of the meaning and function of life’ requiring a change of historiographical perspective away from ‘pattern and purpose’, and towards ‘shifts and discontinuities between historical practices’ (p 58), rejecting the extant idea that history should be seen as ‘the unfolding of an original purpose towards an ultimate goal’ (p 59):
… what effect does the order in which biblical texts appear have upon our reading of the past? Who has access to these documents, and what effect does this have upon the way they are interpreted? What significance does the vested interests of scholars – or the rivalries between them – have upon the value that is attached to them? And to what extent is the importance of a text determined by its relationship to broader social and historical forces? In the light of these questions, perhaps the meaning of the Bible and the Odyssey consists less in the expression of a mind or vision and more in the struggle for authority between competing interpretations of society, history and morality.p 59.
If you substitute references to the Bible or the Odyssey here for references to any other foundational work, this conflict persists today, with ‘dissident’ interpretations inevitably being ridiculed … until they are normalized by being co-opted (interpolated) into the orthodox canon and sterilized as merely passive parts of orthodox, harmless eccentricity, rather than opportunities for radical shifts in thinking. Radical in the same sense underlying the original conception of ‘disruption’, a word whose meaning has today been stolen to mean solely the normalization of aggressive and unregulated wealth redistribution to the to the already wealthy through libertarian technology business models.
Beyond Good and Evil
Nietzsche reached, in these considerations, a metaphysical leap of faith, leading him to propose a mode of life transcending morality altogether. An ‘aristocratic’ or ‘noble’ mode of thought that rejects values as proposed by others and determines its own will in a return to a pre-moral, life-affirming vitality in which all things are possible rather than governed by rules. I am immediately struck by the notion of pre-morality as fantasy: I don’t think that human beings, as social animals, ever lived in times when some form of ethical sense didn’t play a rôle in the survival and cohesion of the tribe. It strikes me as curious that Nietzsche should reach for a version of the state of grace at the same time as denying its Christian version as twaddle.
Nietzsche’s next leap is to suggest that an internalized conscience, creating in people a sense of obligation to adhere to values at all, is essentially a commercial, transactional prerequisite imposed through the power of arbitrary force exercised by the strong (pp 67-70). Marx might have called this the relations of production, with a domination of capital over labour, and the systematic exploitation of labour to produce surplus value while preventing labourers from taking their fair share, often through strike-busting violence or other forms of repression.
Nietzsche went on to suggest that internalized values also legitimize the notion of punishment. Did he see noble values-transcending internalized conscience, immune from punishment for transgression, as a kind of cultured non-conformity, or as a radical, revolutionary dissidence? Both are possible.
It is easy to see Nietzsche’s influence on Foucault here, in his studies of penology and 1975 book, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.
It doesn’t help to interpret Nietzsche’s intentions that he argued forcefully that ‘goodness’ and the restraint from violence were inventions by the weak to restrain the powerful, as opposed to ‘an ideal and timeless standard of moral virtue’ (p 65). He seems to rule out a civilized state of keeping civil strife at bay with rules that benefit the tribe. Nietzsche’s ambiguity about his own conclusions in making these assertions has assisted successive generations of totalitarians, left and right, to misappropriate his ideas as rules for attaining and holding on to power.
Spinks picked out an apparently casual, but sharply insightful quote from Gilles Deleuze to summarize Nietzsche’s thinking about genealogy and values:
Genealogy means both the value of origin and the origin of values. Genealogy is as opposed to absolute values as it is to relative or utilitarian ones. Genealogy signifies the differential element of values from which value itself derives. Genealogy thus means origin or birth, but also difference or distance in the origin.p 67.
The quote summons ouroboros, the circular motif of a snake devouring itself by eating its own tail. Signifying the cycle of death and re-birth, and also of infinity. Endless hair-splitting in this context?
If Deleuze is right, Nietzsche was aiming at an indifference to human concerns, as absolute as that of the physical universe, but as precondition for recognizing the origin and nature of human concerns. That’s quite an ask: as a human to discard all human subjectivity as a prerequisite to understanding what it is to be human. I’m not sure that’s possible at all, not even in an abstract, academic sense.
Christianity and bad conscience
Nietzsche’s conception is that punishment was originally an expression of immediate anger and the power to exert force. The sort that Seneca warned against during the times of psychopath emperors willing and able to impose terrible cruelty on their subjects.
The ultimate expression of this arbitrary, not-in-itself ‘good’ power to punish, Nietzsche argues, has been formalized in Christianity through guilt for sinfulness:
The production of this profound new sense of guilt depends, Nietzsche explains, upon the reinterpretation of a finite economic relation (a debt that is, at least in theory, capable of being repaid) as the infinite spiritual debt of ‘original sin’. Now humanity is spiritually indebted for existing at all, and the prospect of a ‘once-and-for-all payment’ is replaced by ‘the impossibility of discharging the penance’ and ‘the idea that it cannot be paid off (“eternal punishment”)’.p 70.
Humans are condemned by this doctrinal derangement to be irredeemably bad, to be obliged to continual atonement, meaning obedience, and to suffer even brutal, impoverished lives passively in anticipation of a glorious hereafter. The doctrine thus sanctifies a priestly caste to glorify the eternal recreation of crucifixion in the most sadistic, barbaric forms of retributions, ‘deserved’ for entirely confected ‘sins’, some of which are still codified as laws. Particularly those laws that manufacture victimless crimes, or punish the innocent as an adjunct to the legal process (such as plea-bargaining, incarceration without trial, injury and death during ‘arrest’). It is hard to disagree with Nietzsche that such an ideology, and its associated values, represent a benighting vision for stifling human ends.
For me the most important consequence of this argument is the insight that cause and effect are often illusory companions: we should not confuse the way we settle intellectual and material conflicts with meanings about human ends, but rather, we should seek to understand particular interpretations of those settlements under specific circumstances.
This Nietzschean perspective is subversive of contemporary jurisprudence. It suggests that the law is not about administering justice or retribution, but about the particular way it is used under specific circumstances for the benefit of a distinct group of people. Spinks quotes Nietzsche thus:
… people think punishment has evolved for the purpose of punishing. But every purpose and use is just a sign that the will to power has achieved mastery over something less powerful, and has impressed upon it its own idea of a use function; and the whole history of a ‘thing’, an organ, a tradition can to this extent be a continuous chain of signs, continually revealing new interpretations and adaptations, the causes of which need not be connected even amongst themselves, but rather sometimes just follow and replace one another at random.p 72.
Spinks makes an aside that is nevertheless irresistible: was Nietzsche anti-democratic (p 90)?
As I read him, though, Nietzsche was hostile to contemporary conceptions of democracy, but he did not explicitly oppose a rational conception of democracy. That of maximizing the capacity of its citizens to contribute towards noble ends, perhaps? Conceived of by people engaged in a Nietzschean re-invention of themselves, as well as of any existing ‘rules’ about what democracy is and is not. Nor is the idea of socialism mixed with democracy-social democracy-necessarily anti-Nietzschean.
… the morality of pity is not selfless but rather embodies a weak and reactive will to power intended to subordinate the strong to the weak and preserve a degenerating form of life. For the feeling of pity always involves a degree of contempt for the person pitied; and this pleasurable experience of superiority enables the ‘altruistic’ individual to believe itself more powerful than before.pp 90-91.
Applied to democracy, freedom from existential imperatives as precondition to help the less free can transcend Judaeo-Christian altruism or charity into an enlightened form of self-interest: help the miserable lest they help themselves to what was once yours, or help the miserable so that they can better contribute to their societies on the whole. No pity or charity about it.
That said, I nevertheless see very clearly how accurate Nietzsche was in condemning the association of ‘virtue’ with ‘pity and selflessness’ (p 90) when I look at forms of virtue signalling, and the rise of identity politics with its ‘cult of pity’ (p 91). In this contemporary incarnation, people who wish to be seen as virtuous make a spectacle of themselves decrying real and imagined slights to ‘pitiable’ identity groups, demanding that others obey arbitrary values under the threat of ‘cancelling’ them. This pity-virtue mind-set leads to witch-hunting as readily as religion did; cancel culture is one of its contemporary names.
Nietzsche admired elitism. This may be a reflection of his own narcissism, or of his Germanic romanticism (adherence to which he would have denied vehemently).
Nietzsche sees a division among people (where that term is the German gender-neutral ‘Mensch’) defined as the difference between aristocratic or noble mentalities on the one hand, determining their own values and purposes independently of tradition, law, or peer approval, and slave mentalities on the other hand, defined by their envious subversions, and their subjugation of their betters with morality and law (pp 92-93), used to justify their solely reactive natures, and yet being incapable of any real creativity or innovation (p 95).
I do not see this as a manifesto calling for superior people to dominate and enslave their inferiors. Nietzsche explicitly demanded that a mark of ‘nobility’ is not just a capacity to command and control, but also one for self-control and restraint from violence or domination where this is not required to fend off mediocrity (p 94). It is possible to see in this formulation a contradictory elevation of Judaeo-Christian or Oriental asceticism as a virtue even while condemning the belief systems that invented this mode of virtuosity. On the other hand, it could be regarded as an updated version of noblesse oblige.
In any case, Nietzsche explicitly argues that the mediocrity of the mass has dominated society since the ancient Greeks, through a politics of envy that has legitimized false consciousness and institutionalized weakness as virtue, driven by the nihilistic motivation of ‘Ressentiment’.
I don’t see this as an absolute truth, the way, for example, Ayn Rand did in Atlas Shrugged (1957) and other novels. Instead I recognize that seeing politics, art, science, and other human contrivances through that lens can offer insights other analytical frameworks might not offer.
Nietzsche’s use of the term ressentiment is difficult to pin down. Spinks offers the following:
Where aristocratic values were bred from the experience of the natural plenitude and self sufficiency of the noble spirit, slavish life can only create a moral vision by saying ‘No’ to everything outside itself. Because slavish being is unable simply to affirm its own life and values, it is compelled to redirect the ‘evaluating glance’ of moral judgement outward on to a world it finds hostile and superior to itself (p. 21). Ressentiment describes the movement in which this reactive and resentful denial of higher life begins to create its own moral system and vision of the world. Slave morality is a form of moral recoil from life; it can only create a vision of existence by first projecting an ‘opposing, external world’ that represses the weak and vulnerable. Like every manifestation of ressentiment, slave morality ‘needs, physiologically speaking, external stimuli in order to act at all – its action is basically a reaction’ (p. 22).pp 96-97. The page numbers inside the quotation refer to the 2000 Cambridge University Press edition of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic.
Nietzsche says injustice is never found in ‘unequal rights’, but in claims for equal rights. Such rights are impossible to be defined according to any universal law, relying instead on demands based on envy, resembling anti-Semitic, Christian ideas ‘which, he claims, develop “from weakness, from envy, from vengefulness”’ (p 97).
While I defy anyone to walk through a slum in any city and come way with the notion there aren’t unequal rights, I recognize the arbitrary nature of claims to equal rights: what is equality, and how do you address any but material imbalances? Can any society ever ‘equalize’ skin colour, gender, height, sexual preference, taste, weight, imbecility, or mental illness? Can it ever cure the inevitable fear of the ‘other’? What is equality? Another artifact of bad conscience? Of adopting someone else’s determinism in a meek surrender of personal judgement? I prefer the word egalitarianism, which avoids the absolutism of equality by demanding only that differences among people are not held against them in censorious or punitive contempt or prejudice.
Spinks quotes Nietzsche from The Antichrist:
Christianity has taken the side of everything weak, base, ill-constituted, it has made an ideal out of opposition to strong life; it has depraved the reason even of the intellectually strongest natures by teaching men to feel the supreme values of intellectuality as sinful, as misleading, as temptations.p 98.
I was privately amused how this perspective made me think of the kind of reactionary ‘conservatism’ entrenched in the Western polity by Reagan and Thatcher: it can be defined as nihilistic ressentiment, sapping the vitality and creativity of Western civilization as a whole. All to defend their own mediocrity and incompetence as claimed virtue and vigour.
Free will and ethics
From my perspective, and following Nietzsche in selecting from historical artifacts only what is useful to me, Nietzsche’s departure into the apparent fabrication of free will and moral responsibility as ressentiment-driven tyrannies is not all that interesting.
He suggests that free will is an invention, not an objective state of being (pp 99-100). Nietzsche went on to suggest that inventing free will permits the lie that any action is a freely chosen moral decision for which responsibility accrues, because will is not free from all obligations in any structured society. Was it that Nietzsche demanded the ability by some to break the rules of social contract at will, and with no consequences? Or was he merely making the observation that it is inevitable for an aristocratic elite to dominate a slave class in any human social formation?
Maybe Nietzsche was referring to an intellectual elite, recognizing a crisis of confidence in authority structures, and dissenting by civil disobedience or revolutionary means, dismissing the claims to legitimate moral or legal authority of existing power structures. This is, in fact, exactly what happened in Europe in the later 1840s, and again in Eastern Europe during the fall of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre, who incorporated much of Nietzsche’s anti-religious will to self-determination in his own thinking, was more succinct in proposing that if there is no monolithic set of rules preceding our own existences, we are not only free to invent our own rules, but ‘condemned’ to do so. Yet we are nevertheless absolutely responsible for what we choose.
I think it is naïve to argue that you can selectively reject the consequence of breaking laws you know exist, even if you reject their authority or validity. Somewhat similar to Camus’s Meursault in The Outsider, who refuses to defend himself by resort to values and methods he refuses to recognise as legitimate, but in a situation where such refusal will lead to his own execution. It’s fine to be an armchair revolutionary, but rational to pay attention to what can hurt you in the circumstances you inhabit.
Duality of asceticism
In a related and equally uninteresting departure, Nietzsche’s treatment of asceticism doesn’t strike me as useful today. It is worth noting his conception that one form of asceticism ‘constitutes a form of life against life’ (p 102), filling a void of meaninglessness in life with the purpose of self-denial. The implication is that he saw most people as incapable of designing their own ends and purposes. It is a conclusion with some concrete manifestations: a great number of people look for causes with certainties as ends for their lives. Religion, in its secular and spiritual forms: church, ideology, or science. It is a desperate search for something ‘beyond the self’ (p 103), and a surrender to ‘someone else’s idea of truth’ that has always baffled me. Why must there be a need for a greater cause than individuals coming together for common purposes? Why is that not cause enough? Entire civilizations can be built on that foundation.
More interesting was Nietzsche’s conception of the consequences for Western civilization in pursuing the Christian conception of truth. He argued convincingly that the very methods whereby the Church imposed doctrine-by resort to a dishonest lionization of ‘truth’-led inevitably to the liberation of conscience from the Church in turning to scientific truth instead. Spinks summarized it thus:
Scientific conscience, he declares in the Genealogy, is ‘the awe-inspiring catastrophe of a two-thousand year discipline in truth-telling, which finally forbids the lie entailed in the belief in God’ (2000: 114).p 104.
It seems to me the irony here is overwhelming. After centuries of being ‘forced’ to tell the ‘truth’ in the service of grotesque lies, the sheep thus trained finally turned on the lies with the catechism of being obliged to tell the truth according to new scientific revelations. Unfortunately, I see in this, too, a great weakness: people coming to regard science exactly like a religion, as determining human ends, with a new priestly caste of technocrat-scientists mandating the means to those ends, to the exclusion of independent thought and judgement.
Nihilism replaces nihilism.
Nietzsche argued ‘that the most extreme form of pessimism, genuine nihilism, would come into the world’ (p 109) during cultural disjunctures or transitional phases of interpreting values to usher in a ‘grand politics’. It is an attractive forecast, but one that I think is too grandiose and romantic to align with more banal human motivations.
I see it play out more like this: a crisis of confidence in political institutions and actors sometimes precipitates significant or even revolutionary change, but on a time-scale that may in fact be generational, like the gradual abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, or political freedom of conscience.
There is never any guarantee that ‘advances’ won yesterday will remain today or tomorrow. Not without continual effort to prevent them being rolled back.
I can see that there is Nietzschean nihilism in contemporary Western societies, with many people expressing disaffection or disgust with politicians and political practices, though without the clear ideas and energy needed to change things, let alone usher in any grand politics.
Without voiding all other popular interpretations, my own response to Nietzsche’s Übermensch is plainly dismissive. I see in it, particularly as it is disclosed in Thus Spake Zarathustra, a fearfully reactive defence of a type of sociopathy Nietzsche should have dismissed as reactive and weak, even as he embarked on its defence.
All the talk about strength and discipline in overcoming the meanings and projects of others is valid, but talking nonsense about overcoming to end up nowhere at all, other than messianically exalted for purposelessness, is just fatuous. It seems to me this is Nietzsche enthralled with megalomania, seeking to lionize his own looming insanity as genius. Is there a clue in his preface to Thus Spake Zarathustra: ‘I have with this book given mankind the greatest gift that has ever been given it’? Or this from Ecce Homo: ‘Why do I know a few things more than other people? Why in fact am I so clever?’ Indeed! What does one say to a man so singularly convinced of his own genius?
My answer? It seems quite astonishing that for all Nietzsche’s brilliance and philosophical insight, he seems to have been remarkably ignorant of the nature of human social formation. His theories seem to ignore the inevitability of all people living within one or another social context, dependent to some degree on other people, and subject to some degree to the whims of other people. In that ignorance maybe he is reflecting nothing more than his own intellectual and social isolation, and his own sociopathic conception that one need not have any obligations to others, nor material or emotional ties. Nietzsche, patron saint of sociopaths? Prophet of a generation (or two) of idiot STEM savants? Contemptuous or ignorant (or both) of everything others do while enjoying the fruits of their labour all the same.
Exactly what is the Übermensch? It is a German compound word combining forms of über (over, above, higher) and mensch (man, human, person). Spinks translates it to ‘Overman’, to give expression to the idea of people elevated ‘above’ a mass (pp. 116-121). It is a fair compromise, but I have always intuitively translated Übermensch as ‘transcendent man’, to accord with Nietzsche’s insistence that this type of human transcends intellectual ties to orthodox ideas, conventions, practices, and constraints.
The concept of the Übermensch was more elegantly expressed by Sartre and Marcuse as a kind of self-determination immune from indoctrination or the blackmail designed to create conformity, if not quite as the signal event of transcendence. The only analogue that comes to mind for that messianic vision is the contemporary flirtation by zealous nerds with the ‘singularity’ – the expungement of what is human in homo sapiens by the rise of cyborg monster calculators. I also wonder how it is that a trenchant critic of Christianity like Nietzsche could not see, in his own rhetoric about the Übermensch, precisely the same kind of nihilistic cultism underlying Christianity, and the same ressentiment he condemned as reaction, in that the Übermensch is so clearly a reaction to the conformism of Nietzsche’s peers.
Contrary to some assumptions today, Nietzsche’s Übermensch is not necessarily a tyrant. While ‘overmen’ make rules and values for themselves, they may not necessarily regard these as fit for, or applicable to, others. There is no imperative that the overmen should lead or lord it over their inferiors – the Untermenschen (lower, lesser, beneath).
Today, we have a consensus view that if something is legally permissible for anyone, it must be so for everyone. Nietzsche was absolutely right to propose that there is no rational justification for such a state of affairs, even if I can see that crude compromises of this kind may underpin the wider value of social contract accommodations.
If there is value in the Übermensch concept, I see it only in terms of implied efforts to transcend the stale mediocrity of ideology to reach for energetic, vital new ideals.
When Nietzsche mixes into his messianic vision also the idea of eternal recurrence, no matter how interestingly proposed, my instinct is to grimace. Eternity is a concept quite useless to the regulation of thought and personal conduct in a time-frame as fleeting as a human life. What is the use of such a concept to the construction of one’s own reality, fixed as it is within constraints of an apparently linear, unidirectional space-time from which no amount of wishful thinking can liberate it?
However, Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence does offer one useful intellectual tool: if we were all to re-live every moment of our lives, unchanged and identical in every aspect, would we be content with the choices and decisions we made at every juncture? It is not that I accept the idea of being able to control all aspects of my life, but if confronted with the hell of re-living everything eternally, would I exercise more care about some of the things I may be tempted to treat too casually in the here and now? But that may not be possible in a strict sense of recurrence rather than re-defining.
Could we accept the prospect of eternal recurrence if it were extended to us, Nietzsche wonders, or would we have to reject it because we lived reactively and in the spirit of ressentiment? And are we able to accept this earthly life without the transcendent hope of God, redemption or the prospect of another life to come?p 127.
Personally I have lived my entire adult life with the certainty that there are no purposes other than those I make for myself. I have never really suffered from the ‘despair’ or ‘nihilism’ of being without direction or certainty. In that context I simply don’t see the big crisis Nietzsche appears to describe, and therefore I also don’t see the need for any messianic revelation to give me the freedom to think my own thoughts. Dare I say that Nietzsche was grappling here with no more than a prolonged immaturity, after having recognized just how shackled he was to the stifling demands for conformity in his milieu?
Maybe Nietzsche’s conception of recurrence was a more metaphorical allusion to the sameness of people wherever he went, and to his own iterative (eternal?) refinement of his ideas. That would make a whole lot more sense to me than a literally eternal cycle of re-living the same events, which strikes me like more a Christian conception of eternal damnation.
Will to power
It is my opinion, not Spinks’s, that the book of the same title is a fraud. It was not written by Nietzsche, but rather assembled through a selective stitching together of notes and narrative fragments by his sister, whose anti-Semitic husband apparently left a deeper impression on her than Friedrich’s contempt for such ressentiments.
Fraud or not, however, Nietzsche did have ideas about will and power expressed as a scattering of hints and remarks throughout his works. Spinks summarizes ‘will’ to be less of a deliberate effort than a force pervading all life, human and not, conscious and not, that seeks to dominate other life in an evolutionary sense (p 134).
The concept is a determinist Darwinism applied to ideas. In this way ‘the aim of life is neither self-preservation nor moral and spiritual enlightenment but the increase of power and “the will to appropriate, dominate, increase, grow stronger” ’ (p 137).
Moreover, ‘knowledge is an effect of power rather than its precondition; we become “knowledgeable” insofar as we possess the power to create a vision of reality and impose this vision upon others’ (p 138).
Spinks explains that will, and the impetus to dominate, constantly transform the meaning and context of being and truth (p. 144). So powerful people dominate, in part, by imposing their ideas on others? There’s nothing too startling in this: consider any media baron who imposes editorial policy to favour a political agenda. Such games are played out in microcosm across social media, in the academy, and socially. Are to see any attempt at persuasion as just power-play?
For Nietzsche, thinking of knowledge this way might have underpinned the rationality of devaluing all established values, and to accept everything as it is, without judgement (p 149), but to me that seems the rather futile striving to cease being human, which is precisely to interpret make judgements in our specific contexts.
Lessons in misdirection?
Nietzsche seems to have trapped himself in his own cleverness. Almost everything he wrote to undermine conventional thinking, as slavish reaction against more noble ideas, could be regarded as no more than reaction in itself.
In the same manner, his contempt for orthodox thought rubs up uncomfortably against his apparent reactionary longing for a pre-civilized state of anarchic irresponsibility. I say ‘irresponsible’ because, like so many idealists, he seems to have assumed that he would still be able to access the comforts and safety afforded by the decadent and reactionary culture of his times while doing away with the mechanisms that created them.
I don’t see any merit in a romanticized brutopia that meets Nietzsche’s conditions for free-thinking vitality, but arbitrarily condemns people to slavish servitude, subject to the whims of a capricious elite with no greater claim to insight, wisdom, or regenerative ability in Nietzsche’s own terms.
These reservations notwithstanding, it nevertheless seems important to recognize and understand the original arguments to recognize their contemporary derivatives, and to uncover the possible motivations in borrowing from Nietzsche.
Similarly, understanding Nietzsche assists in understanding the potential obfuscation of even recent history to suit the purposes of particular interest groups. This applies not just to general historiography, but particularly to those interpretations that associate Nietzsche with Nazi ideology. It might be an interesting topic for another discussion, but I regard it as advisable to reconsider the often-claimed link between Nietzsche and the Nazis. That link seems to arise from a 70-year fetish of misdirecting people from current excesses with constant reference back to the Nazis as a yardstick for the unconscionable. Unfortunately, that yardstick has been superseded many times since 1945, and now serves only to fog our understanding of what actually happened in Germany between 1914 and 1945.
Nietzsche’s thinking on genealogy, morality, truth, ressentiment, and nihilism are invaluable tools for critical analysis, particularly in checking one’s own cherished assumptions and prejudices; we might like to think we are all fair minded and have fewer biases than others, but the reality is that none of us are without prejudice. That word has negative connotations, but ‘prejudice’ need be no worse than ‘discernment’, even if it can be as bad as ‘bigotry’.
Nietzsche has not lost his original power to serve as an example of misdirection – dressing up the lionization of sociopathy as noble thinking pitted against slavish ressentiment. In an era of evangelists, motivational speakers, charismatic CEOs, bought and paid for politicians, mass marketing lies, mass media disinformation, mass surveillance, and idiot savant technology gurus, recognizing their corrosive effects on liberal democracy and self-determination seems increasingly important.
What do we do with Nietzsche?
Whatever Nietzsche’s reputation may be today, he remains important precisely because others talk about him, and embed his ideas into art and politics. Understanding what Nietzsche wrote, and in what possible contexts, ought to make it at least a bit easier to recognize and understand how and why he is invoked.
As for academic arguments about Nietzsche, I turn again to Richard Rorty, whose ‘Response to Jacques Bouveresse’ (in Robert B Brandom (2000), Rorty and His Critics, Blackwell Publishers, pp 146-155) offers a vivid picture of idiotic academic rivalries. Rorty wrote so elegantly about rejecting his critics that he deserves to be read rather than summarized:
Fifteen years ago, when I found that almost the only other American academics who were reading the Hegel-Nietzsche-Heidegger-Derrida sequence were people who taught literature rather than philosophy, I optimistically assumed that this European cultural tradition would now, at last, be represented in American universities, to everyone’s benefit. I foresaw a happy and harmonious division of labor between philosophy departments (which would stay analytic, and continue to neglect both the history of philosophy and Continental philosophy) and other departments (which would take up the resulting curricular slack). That was one of the reasons I switched jobs, moving from the Princeton philosophy department to a nondepartmental job at the University of Virginia (a university that has distinguished departments of literature, and that I thought might be filled with students who would want to learn about the Hegel-Derrida sequence).
I did not foresee what has actually happened: that the popularity of philosophy (under the sobriquet “theory”) in our literature departments was merely a transitional stage on the way to the development of what we in America are coming to call “the Academic Left.” This new sort of “left” has been called, by Harold Bloom, “the School of Resentment,” and the name fits. Its members are typically no more interested in the romance of the Nietzsche-to-Derrida tradition than in that of the Shakespeare-Milton-Wordsworth tradition or the Jefferson-Jackson-Teddy Roosevelt-John F. Kennedy tradition. They prefer resentment to romance. They view themselves as “subverting” such things as “the humanist subject” or “Western technocentrism” or “masculist binary oppositions.” They have convinced themselves that by chanting various Derridean or Foucauldian slogans they are fighting for human freedom. They see the study of literature and philosophy simply as a means to political ends.
The political uselessness, relative illiteracy, and tiresomely self-congratulatory enthusiasm of this new Academic Left, together with its continual invocation of the names of Derrida and Foucault, have conspired to give these latter thinkers a bad name in the United States. This complicates my own situation, since I have to keep insisting that my admiration for these two men does not extend to an admiration for their disciples, the resentful specialists in subversion. Nevertheless, philosophical colleagues who have remained resolutely analytic often say to me: “See what you’ve done! You helped smooth the way for these creeps! Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”
Quite right. We need not be bound by silly academic turf wars, spilled over into a broader political ‘culture war’. Who’s to say how we must consider Nietzsche? We can use him as we like, or not at all. I don’t see much point pursuing Nietzsche by the ‘analytical’ route Rorty ascribed to American philosophy departments. Who cares whether he was wrong or right by this or that logical standard? How boring!
On a wider scale, I think the extant culture wars, in which the intention and meaning of thinkers is often confused for literal demands to act this or that way, are silly polemical struggles between a notional political left and right. As Rorty alluded to, the confected zeal of rhetoric in culture war is mostly based on ignorance of the subject matter. On both the left and the right. Who have come to resemble each other much more in their tyrannical impulses than representing genuine or even interesting alternative viewpoints.
If there’s value to knowing of and about Nietzsche, it is to place his ideas into my conceptual and analytical toolkit; the utility of his ideas will suggest themselves as I read, see, or hear things that will make me think of him.