Nietzsche: prophet of the sociopaths

nietzsche-essay-001

In the past three decades I have read some – not all – of Friedrich Nietzsche’s works, finding him often obscure, dense, opaque, and less meaningful than I had expected from so famous a name. Scottish academic Lee Spinks has managed to change my mind with his undergraduate primer on the controversial 19th century German thinker.

Spinks’s Friedrich Nietzsche (Routledge, 2003) is part of the ‘Routledge Critical Thinkers’ series, designed to make complex ideas accessible without assuming the reader has absorbed the entire body of work produced by the subject of the primer. That’s an admirable service to interested readers.

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 direct contact with his unadulterated ideas with an indifferent shoulder shrug. Until it is recalled he originated these now normalised concepts when they might have been seen as revolutionary, and that his ideas have become enormously influential despite a common, naïve condemnation of his work as ideological justification for fascist excesses. Or was it because of that association? He was, in fact, rather contemptuous of any ideological justification for terror, and would have been disgusted by the Nazis as examples of weak, slavish, ressentiment-driven malefactors.

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Luminous realm of values

luminous-realm-post

Christopher Hitchens used to tell a story. A good natured but stupid ‘nature’ class teacher, Mrs Jean Watts, had one day ventured to explain that grass and leaves were green as god’s gift to mankind. He paraphrased her: ‘This is an excellent thing and proof of the glory of god, because he could have made vegetation orange or red, something that would clash with our eyes, whereas green is the most restful colour for our eyes!’ Nine-year-old Hitchens concluded: ‘That’s bullshit!’ Bang. Done. The Eureka moment from which he extrapolated all the other idiocies that flow from humans presuming to speak for god.

For me the matter was less certain and more complex, but no less fundamental. And it applies much more widely than just to matters of religious authority proper. The purview is all human reasoning.

Let’s take a detour via Jean Paul Sartre’s 1946 lecture, ‘Existentialism and Humanism’, which some have argued should have been translated as ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’. The distinction is not as inconsequential as it may seem. The translation of this lecture from the French by Philip Mairet contains the sentence: ‘Thus we have neither behind us, nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse.’ A sentence that, when considered carefully, is not just profound, but one of the most elegant literary renditions of any idea in the modern era. In fact, it was such a perfect phrasing that I wondered whether there had been a mistranslation of ‘numinous’ for ‘luminous’. I had to check various sources, but in those I can lay my hands on it is at least a universal mistake, if it is a mistake at all.

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Demand Schäublexit, not Grexit

Former Greek Finance Minister, Dr Yanis Varoufakis, deserves to be read as a counterpoint to largely trivialised reporting of the Euro-Greek crisis.

Varoufakis

Central to Varoufakis’s contention is the charge that German Finance Minister, Dr Wolfgang Schäuble, has always desired the exit of Greece from the Eurozone, and no amount of negotiations would have satisfied him or his coterie of Washington Consensus (my phrasing, not Varoufakis’) hardliners.

Underlying the economic arguments from technocrats impervious to human consequences of policy, however, is the real danger to Greece, and all of Europe.

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Hayek, champion of Western liberalism

hayek-cambridge-companion

Commentary on the Cambridge Companion to Hayek

This most useful primer features three essays in particular that provided good reason to reflect again on the received wisdom and habitual misuse of Hayek’s name to justify a great range of nonsense, whether it is a cold-hearted defence of callous economic rationalism, sometimes known by the grotesque misnomer of ‘neoliberalism’, or whether he is proposed as a menacing heathen idol in simplistic denunciations of free market economics.

The first of these essays, ‘Hayek versus Keynes’, by renowned Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky, closes a theoretical gap between John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich August von Hayek to a matter of degrees rather than apparently irreconcilable differences.

The second essay, ‘Hayek and liberalism’, by Chandran Kukathas, tantalisingly suggests Hayek’s major impact should be a perpetual call to action, challenging those who can to become activists in defence of liberal values with truth rather than expedient propaganda, by admitting mistakes and shortcomings, but contrasting these with detailed examples of the failures of liberalism’s enemies, as well as the enormity of the consequences of those failures.  It is an eerily appropriate challenge from the past when applied to circumstances in the present.

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Amerikaner ethics: failure
at the starting gate

Nosferatu-shopped-shadow

Matthew Hutson’s recent New York Times opinion piece about ethical thinking in the US, ‘Our Inconsistent Ethical Instincts’ pre-supposed its own unwitting, gloomy conclusions about ethical imbecility in its opening paragraph:

… Should we ban assault rifles and large sodas, restricting people’s liberties for the sake of physical health and safety? …

What’s absent from this question is any consideration of the history of social organisation, and the implied social contract that underpins almost all forms of contemporary Western political formation. Even in America, all notions of exceptionalism aside In other words, Hutson’s frame of reference is selfishly personal, proposing that morality can and does exist in such a space of egotistical isolation from a surrounding society. It is the lunatic position of some libertarians and Tea Party types who demand all the benefits of a society but profess to hate every manifestation of it that doesn’t directly meet their myopic, narcissistic desires for immediate and continuous self-gratification.

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at the starting gate”

Amerikaner ethics: failureat the starting gate

Nosferatu-shopped-shadow

Matthew Hutson’s recent New York Times opinion piece about ethical thinking in the US, ‘Our Inconsistent Ethical Instincts’ pre-supposed its own unwitting, gloomy conclusions about ethical imbecility in its opening paragraph:

… Should we ban assault rifles and large sodas, restricting people’s liberties for the sake of physical health and safety? …

What’s absent from this question is any consideration of the history of social organisation, and the implied social contract that underpins almost all forms of contemporary Western political formation. Even in America, all notions of exceptionalism aside In other words, Hutson’s frame of reference is selfishly personal, proposing that morality can and does exist in such a space of egotistical isolation from a surrounding society. It is the lunatic position of some libertarians and Tea Party types who demand all the benefits of a society but profess to hate every manifestation of it that doesn’t directly meet their myopic, narcissistic desires for immediate and continuous self-gratification.

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TLDR: why things turned out so crappy

Admiral Hyman Rickover.
Admiral Hyman Rickover.

Some recent ‘readings’ raised for me once more the topic of orthodoxy and opposition to it. That is, the idea of questioning ‘mainstream’ ideas about political economy, social norms, the ends of humanity, and the means we use to pursue actual as opposed to propagandised ends.

Not a very sexy topic for many people, because it requires patience and the will to understand that there are many more points of view than the stereotypical binary oppositions offered to us by partisans in those fights. Communism and capitalism. Decency and deviance. Lawful and lawless. Social and antisocial. Even good and evil.

In some tangential way these themes came to me again with force via a reminder of Admiral HG Rickover’s 1982 Henry Morgenthau Lecture, by the first six episodes of Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, by Cosma Shalizi’s critique of central planning, and by Evgeny Morozov’s views on the dangers of digital tyranny.

In the mental amalgam of these not too disparate strands of thought, I was drawn again to the idea that we choose to turn our backs on alternatives and seem far too ready to embrace what is as inevitable rather than focusing on what we could create that might be better.

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Conservatives need respectable bête noir

While I don’t agree with most of what New Statesman cultural editor Jonathan Derbyshire had to say in ‘The meaning of conservatism’, I nevertheless found the essay irresistible – for at least engaging in a conversation about conservatism that is critically necessary in the West, and because that project is, unfortunately, no more advanced than it was three years ago.

Bob Hawke
Robert James Lee Hawke.

Perhaps the most telling absence in Derbyshire’s essay was a consideration of the fundamentals in a healthy democracy: well-led parties opposing each other effectively on policy matters to promote robust debate and the emergence of better policy than would accrue from no debate, or discussion by pedestrian intellects only. I forgive Derbyshire’s omission for reasons of brevity and on-topic focus, but it is nevertheless a suitable starting point here.

On the day of Barack Obama’s re-election, one of the Australian commentators in the local election coverage was former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who made a characteristically acerbic and yet irresistibly accurate observation: there are no great leaders anywhere in the world at this time.

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The Ends of Rationality

This essay stretches to around 5,500 words, covering the Enlightenment; Descartes, Newton and rise of scientism; Kant and autonomy; the utility of Utilitarianism; the middle class ascendant; rejection of religion in public, but not in private; Burke and the baby with the bathwater hazard; Shelley and Verne as Enlightenment bookends; industrial society and engineered solutions; Liberalism as balancing act; Marxism as counterpoint; Freud as prophet of the self; post-war quests for paradise; Habermas, Popper and the end of certainty; limits of rationality; Western cultural dynamics; the primacy of education; the subversion of freedom of speech; the absence of a neutral press; and the ends of rationality.


The Wikipedia article on rationality opens with the following statement:

In philosophy, rationality is the characteristic of any action, belief, or desire, that makes their choice a necessity.[1]

It is an incomprehensibly tortured sentence offering a nonsensical proposition that might be better used to demonstrate irrationality. First, in ‘philosophy’ rationality has multiple and specifically contextual meanings, and many more meanings in disciplines other than philosophy. Secondly, rationality is a characteristic of human reasons for taking any action, holding any belief, or rationalising any desire, not necessarily or exclusively of the products of those reasons. Thirdly, it is always people who suggest that some choice is in fact no choice, and only one course of action, or one set of beliefs, is necessary or permissible; this is called absolutism or totalitarianism, which are systems of political organisation usually antithetical to rationality. In a contemporary context, as will be illustrated below, rationality is actually a specific acknowledgement of the plurality of ideas and possible courses of action.

If the world’s premier source of ‘information’ can start so misleadingly about the topic, are we justified in assuming that of the myriad ways the words ‘rational’ and ‘rationality’ are used as a justification for arguments, policies, and actions, many of them are in fact not rational at all? The question is a theme pursued in this survey of the ideas that have made rationality a critical concept in Western civilization.

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Existentialism as philosophy of action

A personal reinterpretation of Jean Paul Sartre’s 1945 lecture ‘Existentialism and Humanism’.

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Jean Paul Sartre with long-time companion, French feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir, 19 November 1964.

The very idea of engaging with philosophy invokes in many people notions of soporific inconsequences and pseudo-mathematical abstractions. That need not be the case if you pick your territory with discrimination.

Philosophical discourse that does not have a direct bearing on the concrete affairs of life is indeed academic distraction and useless to me as well as many others.

Worth noting in that context is that Jean Paul Sartre was not only a philosopher, but also a literary critic, biographer, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and political activist. He was a man who exemplified the kind of intellectual engagement with the world around him that once elevated Western culture above all others, and that has been carelessly pushed aside in recent decades by the unthinking pursuit of profit and the hubris of ostentation.

This examination is not wholly uncritical of Sartre’s thoughts on existentialism, but I see in them the nucleus of a set of ideas that is as yet untried as a counterweight to intellectual inertia, to literary stagnation, to politically obese apathy, and to a crushing alienation of most people from cultural, social and political institutions that cannot do other than decay without the keen interest and interventions of those they are supposed to serve.

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