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.
It is challenging today to try and discern Nietzsche’s intentions rather than relying on second or third party interpretations. Unpicking this ‘packaging’ proved to be much harder than I anticipated. It took only a few days to absorb Spinks’s book, but several weeks more to delve into Nietzsche afresh to clarify my own thinking about Spinks’s interpretations and summaries. In some senses this has become possible for me now, rather than decades ago, because I am able to draw on and combine so many more ideas than I had access to as a teenager, when I first read Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra), or in the ensuing decades, as an undergraduate student, and then just as an interested reader, when I absorbed some of his other works.
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 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. That is particularly the case 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 inculcate and evaluate.
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. In doing so, though, it is worth remembering that almost none of Nietzsche’s major ideas can be well understood in isolation from the others.
For further clues on Nietzsche’s unfinished oeuvre, I think, you can look at Schopenhauer behind him, Kierkegaard running in parallel, and Camus with Sartre in his future. But he is not equivalent to any of those writers, or their ideas, because he was so particular about rejecting conventional extrapolation, especially when that method leads to any definitive conclusion. Doubly so if a definitive conclusion is proposed as part of a self-affirming justification for a particular Weltanschauung.
In a contemporary environment in which technical rationality, formulaic precision, and literalism are apparently prized over the ability to think independently and critically, I regard it as crucial to any understanding of Nietzsche not to look for shallow, literal meaning or crude, precise formulations. Instead of offering procedural method, or manifesto, therefore, 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 genres and topics as contrast and complement to other analytical landscapes.
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 the times and the place risks significantly underestimating Nietzsche’s intentions and inflections. I think it proper to place the subject in a context of both a German historical promontory, and Nietzsche’s own savant career.
He pursued the now arcane field of philology, the study of language according to now antiquated methods. In his times this was usually done by scrutinising original manuscripts to detect how language developed along with guiding 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 (published in 1872): Die Geburt der Tragödie, Oder: Griechentum und Pessimismus (The Birth of Tragedy (or): Hellenism and Pessimism). This book rejected philological orthodoxy, and, I think, tweaked 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 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 consisting of almost 40 separate principalities, states, and fiefdoms, that were not a nation so much as 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. The tide created the second French republic, but failed to gain a foothold in the German states, where the 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 predominantly Catholic orthodoxy, creating internal tensions between North and South, with the North being more heavily Protestant, and Nietzsche himself belonging to that North.
As Nietzsche 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 ageing 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 Prussia as a muscular new proponent of modern warfare. It was warfare of the kind only just ended in the American Civil War, from which Prussian tacticians had learnt the need for speedy mobilisation 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 German armies defeated the French in five months. This victory led directly to German unification and the declaration of the German Empire under the former Prussian king, now become emperor of what came to be regarded after its collapse in 1918 as the second empire (Das Zweite Reich), succeeding the old Holy Roman Empire, 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 and the opportunity to change it by force of will and intellect. Yet it seems Nietzsche misunderstood the Zeitgeist, or temper of his times, in challenging a newly born nationalism based on the fastidiously 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 hankerings for an infusion of a romantic kind of passion, and a natural but lofty intuition, into the banality of mannered bourgeois affectations that were justified as discipline, logic and rationality; precisely the qualities the ascendant Prussian Junkers ascribed to themselves.
It is my further speculation that 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 an essentially personal response, based on a myriad small observations which might be summarised by looking the at the table to contents for Nietzsche’s autobiography, Ecce Homo, which he lists the first three chapters as ‘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 why 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. In educated, intelligent people this is often seen as iconoclasm or eccentricity. In less well educated, less intelligent people it can come across as callous brutishness, or even criminality when legal rules are blithely disregarded. I see Nietzsche as an example of the former. Other examples might include Bertrand Russell, Helmut Kohl, and Malcolm Turnbull. Prominent examples of the latter might include Margaret Thatcher, Steve Jobs, Wolfgang Schäuble, or Scott Morrison, but in recent times, most particularly a great number of STEM specialists who have come to confuse technical logics with human rationality, and whose social disconnection as well as general ignorance (as opposed to technical training) can be easily seen by others as a ‘creepy weirdness’.
These distinctions appear to me to be necessary to at least raise, but not necessarily insist on, 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.
With this aside out of the way, Lee Spinks begins his book with an explanation to novices why Nietzsche might be seen as important today, which is a kind of conclusion offered as an introduction, but his focus in that introduction is principally to explain academic orthodoxy, which is not of great interest. Instead I begin here with Spinks’s more or less chronological examination of Nietzsche’s major works.
Birth of Tragedy
The central premiss of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy is that Greek tragedy served as a metaphorical indicator of a schism in Greek culture between Dionysian intuitions, instincts, and the senses, and the Apollonian censure and asceticism of social discipline and a species of doctrinaire rationality. He argued that the Apollonian fork has dominated Western culture ever since. Later in his career he suggested that the real contemporary opposite to Dionysian intuition was the denialism associated with the cult of Jesus Christ.
As a matter of personal experience, it always seemed like common sense to me to reject the strictures of pathological asceticism and prescriptive, formulaic ‘logic’. The incomprehensibly silly prohibitions of ascetic dogma on all that makes life meaningful has always struck me as an unhealthy obsession with masochism, and as an incomprehensible deferment of life as a staging area for some mythical afterlife. But until 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 Prussian martinets any more than the dour Lutherans or the Machiavellian Catholics in the Germany of his times.
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 performance art shifted from the universal and grand to the individual and banal. Today we might liken this to the contemporary arts having largely abandoned any grand vision for human purposes in favour of a focus on the petty, neurotic ineffectiveness of individuals obsessed with the insipid. Most sit coms, but especially reality television, celebrate an execrable focus on stunningly ineffective, embarrassingly stupid people pursuing solely banal objects. Big-budget Hollywood shoot-em-up ‘blockbusters’ can be seen as vicarious reactions to a similar ineffectiveness, portrayed as powerlessness against two-dimensional ‘bad guys’. Pop music seems similarly obsessed with a unitary focus, albeit on a narcissistic, onanistic obsession with sexuality as social currency. Worst of all, the fourth estate has become a circus freak show, emphasising fear, scandal, and Schadenfreude as perverse titillation for a bourgeoisie with a need to find self-affirmation for its morally vacuous pettiness in being able to self-righteously disapprove of the ethical deficiencies in others.
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.
Aside from this utility as tool for cultural critique, a lot of what Nietzsche said in Birth of Tragedy struck me as distinctly boring. Nietzsche himself condemned his first major work, ironically as an introduction to its second edition, acknowledging that it might have been deeply flawed, but nevertheless still somehow foundational to his later thinking, and so it appears to have been to me too.
In terms of the generally negative academic reaction to the book, I am reminded of Orson Welles: a child prodigy made good as a young man but permanently sidelined by making fun of too large a shark in the zoo, and becoming a sideshow thereafter, even if a notable one, and even if he deserved better.
Despite the less than favourable reception of his book, Nietzsche’s focus on the dichotomy between the universal and the personal, the majestic and the banal, and the unconstrained and the rule-bound carry through to his consideration of art, morality, and truth. For me his thinking on truth is the lynchpin to all else, including the Übermensch (Spinks translates this as Overman, not Superman), 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 sound, but 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, impartial 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, its ethics and constraints, and its effects on his society. Nevertheless, his arguments resonate because they have been re-cast many times after his death, most conspicuously in Marxist materialist critique, and the French existentialism that finally laid to rest any need to grapple with, or to reject religion at all, as having something 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.)
Although the above aren’t Nietzsche’s own words, they resemble closely what Jean Paul Sartre had to say in 1947:
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, 1946, Existentialism and Humanism.)
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. Moreover, in the post-Socratean world, language is also used to give substance to judgements that determine truth as distinct from untruth. In this way, fixed, rigid values are built directly into the process of turning perception into language, banishing an objective assessment, as if seeing and interpreting for the first time, in favour of ready-made stereotypes.
Why is this not truth? Because 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 those sciences to create the marvels of modern technology. But I think that would be a fallacious argument. Instead of using the terminology ‘metaphor’, I prefer the word ‘abstraction’ to describe the process of turning sense perceptions into thoughts and language. 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 artefacts 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.
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, not literal truths, and the 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. Instead I propose only that Nietzsche may well have intended instead the basis for a kind of meritocracy in which thinkers able to recognise the arbitrary nature of truth deserve to be leaders, probably meaning, most especially, himself.
Along with Spinks I am not inclined to attach a deterministic credibility to Nietzsche’s own conclusions about truth, summarised 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 in conceiving of truth, or, more importantly, of the arbitrary nature of the concept of truth. It seems much more likely to me that only the dull-witted and ignorant are trapped by 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 recognised 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 well of sub-rational feeling that can be evoked by visual art, music, and literature. Some art requires a good deal of lateral and non-grammatical (or highly creative grammatical) thinking to unfold its potential impact and meaningfulness. While I already examined Nietzsche’s potential critique of some forms of mass ‘art’, I don’t think it necessary to see Nietzsche’s link between art and truth only in highbrow forms of art. Reading John le Carré thrillers, for example, requires a good deal of non-literal, creative interpretation, based on at least some knowledge of the British ethos that suffuses them. Jimi Hendrix wrote songs that strike a particular cord only in relation to an unspoken Zeitgeist connected to an American counter-culture ethic of the 1960s. Hundreds of other examples could be drawn across Western civilization and history.
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 for artists that seems far from deserved for most of them; just those who survive their own physical demise by having left work that still speaks to us, and that conveys more than commonplace or temporally fixed meaning.
It strikes me as a particularly interesting to consider Nietzsche’s ideas about ‘ordinary’ men being imprisoned by their rationalisation 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 kind of mathematical, literalist imbecility. What I mean is mind-set obliterating the potential for layered, multiple, parallel meanings and significance which exists in the skilful 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, in the film adaptation of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, references to Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes, indicating Eco’s playfulness with cultural pastiche, cannot offer any meaning to viewers who are unaware of the external stories and their juxtaposition in Eco’s fiction.
It seems unfortunate to me that classically liberal education is increasingly squeezed out in favour of merely technical training in the sciences 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, questing for fixed certainties and obliterating all that is human in human 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 mathematical logic and callous pseudo-utilitarianism.
Oddly enough, the sub-rational kind of literalist technical rationality I perceive closely resembles today what Nietzsche despised about his own academic speciality. The traditional teleological approach to philology, seeking in cultural texts a link to original motivation towards an ultimate purpose, inevitably linked to the ends and purposes prescribed by Judaeo-Christian doctrine.
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 as alien today to argue, as Nietzsche did, that the real significance of historical artefacts, 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. That is, how the contemporaries of those artefacts rationalised their existences, rather than how such rationalisations work towards a fixed, supposedly preordained, ultimate outcome.
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 techno-scientifically oriented people to grasp today. 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 smirk at the thought of Nietzsche employing the Deming cycle of quality management, and 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 and the academy. 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. A readership that ‘demands’ such perspectives as the only indicators of an objective truth, which could be re-interpreted to actually mean an advertising clientele insisting that the readership be constructed that way. All this determinism when really these are all no more than reductionist abstractions to make sense of events in the context of a prevailing social order, or 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 techno-scientific 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 hypothesising. More importantly, the doctrine that only techno-scientific rationality can expose truth does away with any possibility for human truths found in instinctual 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-actualisation). Such a conception of truth effectively dehumanises all that is human, exposing itself as a nihilistic doctrine of self-loathing and the ambition to transcend all that is human in the same dogmatic manner as demanded by Judaeo-Christian conceptions of virtue. Why that is important in considering Nietzsche will become clear when we turn to Nietzsche’s consideration of Christianity.
In some senses other frameworks for critical thinking have displaced Nietzsche’s critique of truth, particularly Marxist and post-Marxist materialist approaches that follow the trail of money to illuminate what kind of interests are being represented in transactional discourses. The reason Nietzsche has been thus displaced could well be that he was wilfully disdainful of existential priorities; he doesn’t seem to care about social cohesion, economic boundary conditions, inevitable legal constraints, and, to a large degree, the psychology of ostracism associated with challenging orthodoxy. That tendency is not just an indicator of sociopathy as discussed above, 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.
This line of thought evoked 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 idolisation of post-Socratic 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 moral code, 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 obedience of imposed ethics.
I would go further to propose that obedience, without the freedom or power to consider and judge 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 social groups to function: a modicum of externalised vérité, or honesty, to make it possible to trust or rely on people in everyday exchanges and agreements; a degree of predictability about norms, reactions, and restraints (pp. 63-65). But not the cretinous demands for policed thought made by religionists, lawyers, and populists. It is important here to mention that when I refer to religionists I include those who adhere to secular religions, like ideologies that assume and insist on a priori values.
More about Nietzsche’s conclusions about an unhealthy link between Christianity and morality a little later.
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. In that vein, 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, civilised person is knowledge of history, and particularly that of the classical antiquity so idolised in the 19th century European academy (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.
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 measures? In Nietzsche’s times such thinking was possibly quite revolutionary, and may have been regarded as politically dissident.
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 the interpretations that have taken hold of it’, and that ‘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). In the 19th century this might have seemed like a challenge to the authority of the newly created German state, itself locked in the Bismarckian Kulturkampf against the traditional hold of the Catholic Church on cultural, political, and social institutions. In fact, it is a challenge to any historically derived form of authority, which suddenly becomes open to questioning as not just potentially illegitimate, but quite possibly stale and counterproductive to its own stated ends.
As with so much else in Nietzsche’s thinking, this idea has been appropriate by post Marxists as dialectical materialism – a tool used to synthesise thesis with antithesis to reconcile what are thought to be contradictions inherent in the relations of production. It seems to me, though, the Nietzschean idea loses some of its power in Marxist attempts to legitimate one ‘dominant’ ideology’s claims over another. Nietzsche would have dismissed the claims of both, and others, to legitimacy, arguing instead that they just are, without essential value (or lack of it). He might well have regarded it as useful to know about all ideas, but only if they did not inspire uncritical partisanship in an individual’s will to the power of self-determination. 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).
Spinks cites Nietzsche thus:
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.)
The absolutism contained in the prescription is not necessary, I think, to achieve the aim, which is to detach oneself from debts to the past in order to more freely invent the present and the future. An analogy of what I mean can be found in business process management – a discipline by which a particular organisational process is examined and streamlined for greater efficiency. The conventional approach is to ‘discover’ the existing process, and to ‘renovate’ it according to specific principles, like those of quality/lean techniques. But another approach is to leave aside the old process, and to dream – to design from the ground up what the purpose and ends of a process should be right now, and then to map out an entirely new architecture on the basis of present and anticipated future ambitions, desires, and needs.
The business process management example is poignant. It is based on a set of academic and organisational methods and techniques that elevate techno-scientific rationality above all other human conceptions. And yet Nietzsche argued persistently against such conceptions. He 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).
It is possible I had internalised this Nietzschean warning to create a constant subconscious, but relentlessly nagging unease I felt during my recent master’s degree studies, giving rise to my persistent critiques: a sole focus on the asinine fantasy that science and mathematics offer an objective truth, capable of constructing a human future not chained to the mistakes of the past. A suggestion in this techno-scientific doctrine that it alone is capable of creating a viable future. This delusion is what I have sometimes called reductionist determinism, for reducing all things to mathematical logic, and deterministically imposing human meaning on answers that have no such meaning. At other times, but for the same reasons, I have called it the Silicon Valley Weltanschauung (mind-set), reflecting the banishment of all that is human from what Evgeny Morozov called ‘solutioneering’: the pursuit of technology to propose non-existent (or relatively unimportant) problems solely so answers can be devised using technology toys and tools. Answers that, in Nietzschean terms, serve solely to perpetuate existing power relationships rather than to innovate or disrupt, and therefore in stark contradiction to all the claims for technology-driven disruption so often made and repeated by technocrats. The power relationships underlying the technology delusion and propaganda might be best characterised as those of Wall Street-dominated casino capitalism, together with the political tools and forms necessary to legitimise dangerously self-destructive new ways to gamble on non-productive avenues for confecting speculative profit. It is not entirely coincidence that the political justifications for this self-destructive mode of capitalism are invariably couched in rhetorics seeking to establish a lineage with a heroic past. The ‘nobility’ of the Protestant work ethic. The virtue of humility in accepting lesser socio-economic status than others. The greater wisdom and authority of everyone but the self. Precisely the kind of thinking Nietzsche feared was sterile and corrupting of vigorous and vital thinking, both at an individual level, and across an entire culture.
Once we accept the historical constitution of historical ‘truth’, it becomes possible to see our values as an effect of the will to power of dominant social groupings such as the church, aristocracy or the ruling class. These values no longer appear ‘natural’ or ‘timeless’, but rather the consequence of violence, conflict and a struggle for authority between competing interpretations of life. The task for us now, Nietzsche insists, is to move beyond the exhausted and declining Judaeo-Christian vision of existence and create a new interpretation of life for the future. (p. 86.)
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 deterministic linear process.
Spinks characterises 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), with both being defined in a Christian context. Spinks states the matter in a way I can recognise as an academic dilemma to this day:
… 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 academic work, this conflict persists in the academy, with ‘dissident’ interpretations inevitably being ridiculed … until they are normalised by sterilisation, and interpolated into the orthodox canon as merely perspectives rather than opportunities for radical shifts in thinking. Radical in the same sense underlying the original conception of ‘disruption’, which has today been sanitised to mean solely the normalisation of aggressive and unregulated capitalist wealth redistribution to the wealthy.
Beyond Good and Evil
Nietzsche reached in these considerations a metaphysical leap of faith that led 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 set rules.
Nietzsche next leap is to suggest that an internalised conscience, creating in people a sense of obligation to adhere to values at all, is essentially a commercial, transactional prerequisite that succeeds the power of an arbitrary exercise of force 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 labour from recognising the exploitation as that, instead accepting it as a rigid, given social order.
Nietzsche went on to suggest that internalised values also legitimise the notion of punishment, as if all rules are somehow divorced from maintaining any kind of tribal/clan/social order. It’s tricky, here, to discern just how deterministic Nietzsche’s conception might have been. Did he see noble values, transcending internalised conscience and expectation of punishment for transgression, as a kind of cultured non-comformity, or as a radical, revolutionary dissidence?
It doesn’t help 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 civilised state of keeping civil strife at bay with rules that benefit the tribe. That Nietzsche did not more clearly spell out his intentions in making these assertions has assisted successive generations of totalitarians to misappropriate his ideas as literal commandments rather than as ideas to be discussed and contextualised in specific circumstances.
Spinks picked out an apparently casual, but sharply insightful quote from Gilles Deleuze to summarise 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.)
If Deleuze is right, Nietzsche was aiming at an indifference as absolute as that of the universe to human concerns, but as a human precondition for recognising the origin and nature of human concerns. That’s quite an ask: as a human to discard all human subjectivity as a precondition to understanding what it is to be human. Perhaps it is better thought of as discarding all internalised values and ideological pre-conditions as a condition for making objective observations and assessments.
Nietzsche was certainly opposed to those values internalised throughout the West in the form of Judaeo-Christian religions.
Christianity and bad conscience
Nietzsche’s conception is that punishment was originally an expression of immediate anger and the power to exert force. It then became an exchange convenience whereby essentially economic transactions were guaranteed by the threat of violent retribution for defaulting on promises. That arrangement acquired, over time, an ethical status as a moral good in itself.
The ultimate expression of this arbitrary, not in itself ‘good’ power to punish, Nietzsche argues, has been formalised in Christianity, which has extended the idea of a commercial debt, subject to settlement by payment or punishment, as inevitable and insoluble for all humans. By means of the absurd conception of an ‘original sin’, and the ‘sacrifice’ of the Christ, all humans are condemned to be forever indebted so long as they live, with no chance of settling that debt or expunging their inherent guilt.
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 live meaningless, worthless lives in anticipation of a hereafter. The doctrine thus sanctifies the lunatic prescriptions of a priestly caste, and justifies the eternal recreation of crucifixion as the most sadistic, barbaric forms of retributions, ‘deserved’ for entirely confected ‘sins’, many of which are now codified as laws, particularly those laws that manufacture victimless crimes, or punish thye innocent as an adjunct to the legal process (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 balefully nihilistic vision for human ends and purposes.
It find it deeply disturbing that the rearguard action to maintain this sado-masochistic ‘bad conscience’ of internalised sinfulness, badness, and the worthlessness of life on Earth is still being fought today. It strikes me as even more disturbing that a large number of people see this nihilism as adequate or even justified as part of any civilised organisational principle.
For me the most important consequence of this argument is the insight that cause and effect are often illusionary companions: people should not confuse the origin of human settlement-of-issues with their purposes, but rather seek to understand the particular interpretations and uses of settlements under specific circumstances.
That Nietzschean perspective has significant subversive consequences for a consideration of justice and law in in Western societies. 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?
The establishment of altruism as an absolute moral virtue also forms the basis for political movements like social democracy, which Nietzsche depicts as a conspiracy of the weak against those strong and noble natures capable of asserting their will to power and imposing their own values on the world. (p. 90.)
As I read him, though, Nietzsche would not be opposed to a much more rational conception for social democracy: that of maximising the capacity of its citizens to contribute towards noble ends if they were unconstrained by the depredations of grinding poverty, ignorance, illness, and the petty crime inherent in systems that abandon those without means to their own devices. This, as motivator for those with the means to help the less wealthy, seems an essentially non Judaeo-Christian foundation for an impulse no longer altruism so much as an enlightened form of self-interest.
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 all forms of political correctness, and the rise of a victim culture, or the ‘a cult of pity’ (p. 91) which effectively outlaws words, phrases, and behaviours inan attempt at socially engineering obedience. The pity-virtue mind-set leads to witch-hunts against individuals as readily as does totalitarianism, as has been demonstrated quite recently on American and British university campuses with ‘demonstrations’ against all manner of vigorous debate of tough questions.
… 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.)
I simply cannot argue against the axiomatic truth of this phenomenon in almost all cases in which pity and charity are enforced as ideologies rather than as expressions of individual empathy and collective problem solving.
There is in Nietzsche an undisputable admiration for elitism. This may be a reflection of Nietzsche’s own narcissism, or of his Germanic romanticism (adherence to which he would have denied).
Nietzsche sees a division among men (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 subversion and subjugation of their betters with morality and law (pp. 92-93) justifying and reinforcing their solely reactive natures, and yet incapable of any real creativity or innovation (p. 95).
But, as I have suggested before, 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 attain independence from subjugation by the mediocre (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 invent this mode of virtuosity. On the other hand, it could be regarded as an updated version of noblesse oblige.
In any case, Nietzsche explicitly recognises that the mediocrity of the mass has dominated society since the ancient Greeks through a politics of envy that has legitimised false consciousness and institutionalised weakness as virtue through the nihilistic motivation of ‘Ressentiment’.
Nietzsche’s use of the term ressentiment is difficult to simplify and pin down as an exact definition. 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). [The page numbers inside the quotation refer to the 2000 Cambridge University Press edition of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic.] (pp. 96-97.)
My own intuition is that ressentiment is a psycho-social phenomenon that may transcend specifically cultural, or even human artifice. An experiment reported in 2003 in which capuchin monkeys were differently rewarded with food appeared to show that those who thought the food they received was inferior to that received by other monkeys showed resentful reaction (see Sean Markey’s ‘Monkeys Show Sense Of Fairness, Study Says’, National Geographic News, 17 September 2003, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/09/0917_030917_monkeyfairness.html). In that context ressentiment may be seen as an evolutionary herd or tribal instinct, which would imply that Nietzsche’s critique of it is a demand to transcend certain evolutionary ‘limitations’ to attain a ‘higher’ state of human consciousness and power to act. I think that applies no matter that Nietzsche is unlikely to have been aware of monkey ressentiment.
It is almost amusing how Nietzsche develops his argument. He says injustice is never found in ‘unequal rights’, but in claims for equal rights, because such rights are impossible to be defined according to any universal law rather than the imposition of demands based on envy, and that, as such, they resemble the ideologies of Christianity and anti-Semitism ‘which, he claims, develop “from weakness, from envy, from vengefulness”’ (p. 97).
Spinks quotes Nietzsche from The Antichrist to illustrate his particular scorn for Christianity as an embodiment of ressentiment:
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 find it compelling to speculate whether much of what has passed as post-war conservatism is not in fact a kind of impotent reactionary longing for the imagined glories of a fictionalised past rather than a genuine concern to preserve institutions and practices whose utility is regarded not yet to have been diminished sufficiently to warrant their abandonment. In any case, such ineffective longing for an imagined (or real) vitality of the past fits precisely into Nietzsche’s critique about a weak or slave mentality unable to revitalise its thinking and circumstances the way a noble or aristocratic mentality can and does.
In those terms the kind of reactionary ‘conservatism’ entrenched into the Western polity by Reagan and Thatcher is properly defined as nihilistic ressentiment, sapping the vitality and creativity of Western civilisation as a whole, and sustainable for only as long as the declared and silent enemies of the West (radical Islam and remnant Stalinists) are even less effective.
Nevertheless, seen in this Nietzschean context, there is a possibility for an optimistic and concerted attempt to revitalise Western civilisation by definitively rejecting the confected debt to a fictionalised past and a monstrously abstracted Judaeo-Christian dogmatism.
Free will and ethics
From my perspective, and following Nietzsche in selecting from historical artefacts 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). OK. I’m on board. For there to be free will, there must be an absence of coercion or negative consequences for giving form to will. The immediate objection has to be that such an absence might turn free will into the exercise of anti-social, criminal activities. Nietzsche went on to suggest that inventing free will permits the further artificial determination that any action is a freely chosen moral decision for which responsibility accrues. It is certainly true that will is not literally free in any social circumstance, and that social contract implies the imposition of consequences for known undesirable actions. 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 of a slave class in any human social formation?
Nietzsche can also be interpreted to be referring to an intellectual elite recognising a crisis of confidence in authority structures and dissenting by civil disobedience or even revolutionary means, dismissing the claims to legitimate moral or judicial 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 champion Jean Paul Sartre, who incorporated much of Nietzsche’s anti-religious will to self-determination in his own thinking, was much more clear about acknowledging that if there is no a priori law, and we create our own purposes, we are nevertheless absolutely responsible for what we choose. I think it is silly to argue that you can selectively reject the consequence of being held to account for transgressions against rules and laws you know exist, even if you reject their authority or validity. That would just be inconceivably stupid naïveté. 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 death.
My conclusion about Nietzsche’s conception of will is still reserved, but it strikes me as quite similar to the ill-defined demands by 1960s hippies for freedom from convention and responsibility, but without clear ideas of what would replace orthodoxy, or why people invested in orthodoxy should see advantage in acceding to vague demands.
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 if these were not handed to them; it is a conclusion I think remains valid today, with a great number of people looking for causes with certainties as ends for their lives. Religion, in its secular and spiritual forms: church or science, politics or any one of the endless number of ‘isms’. It is a 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 civilisations can be built on that foundation. However, this question may have been definitively resolved by the existentialism of the 1940s and ‘50s as an artificial distraction.
More interesting than the supine religionist asceticism, and a more exalted one Nietzsche saw flowing from an enlightened self-discipline, 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 lionisation of ‘truth’ led inevitably to the liberation of conscience from the Church in turning to scientific truth instead. Spinks summarised 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 their new scientific insights. Unfortunately I see in this too the great weakness of regarding science as any less constructive of justifications for human urge to treat it exactly like a religion, as its own end, with necessary means mandated by a new priestly caste of techno-scientists, and to the exclusion of independent judgements extending outside the fixed parameters of a techno-scientific doctrine.
Nihilism replaces nihilism?
It might seem obvious that embracing stasis and wallowing in an impotent ressentiment, while opportunities for positive change are passed up wilfully, is a kind of passive nihilism. But Nietzsche required an explicit statement of this nihilism as passive to propose a counterpoint: an acknowledgement of the arbitrary nature of all values and ends makes none superior to any others, representing an active nihilism. The only way I can conceive of this as nihilism is in a pejorative sense, as applied by autocratic opponents of self-determination who see their authority and designs undermined by the free and likely opposing will of others.
Nietzsche argued differently. He proposed ‘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 accord with rather more banal human reactions. I see it play out more like what is known in politics as a crisis of confidence in political institutions and actors, sometimes precipitating generational 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. And there is never any guarantee that ‘advances’ won yesterday will remain today or tomorrow. Not without continual effort to prevent them being rolled back.
Without voiding all other popular interpretations, my own response to Nietzsche’s Übermensch is plainly dismissive. I see in it, particularly as it is propounded 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 lionise 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.
So, 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 a men ‘above’ mankind. It is a fair compromise. 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 (pp. 116-121).
Looking at this conception more than a hundred years on, I think it has been more elegantly expressed by Sartre and Marcuse as a kind of self-determination immune from indoctrination or blackmail designed to create conformity, if not quite as the signal event of transcendence Nietzsche described. The only analogue that comes to mind for that messianic vision is the contemporary flirtation by idiot 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 staunch critic of Christianity like Nietzsche could not see, in his own ravings 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 conformity of Nietzsche’s peers.
There is one unexplored and intriguing idea to the Übermensch that no one has endorsed or sufficiently refuted since Nietzsche, probably because it would be seen as immoral to endorse, and yet unrealistic to refute: the Übermenschen make rules and values for themselves without necessarily regarding these as fit or applicable to others. It is as plain a statement of elitism as there can be, and without the often (wrongly) inferred idea that the Übermenschen should lead or lord it over their inferiors – the Untermenschen (lower, lesser, beneath).
It is merely the almost unmentionable idea that equality is a fiction, and that people never were, and never will be equal in more than an abstract sense. And yet the notion of equality is so central to the problems facing democracy that it must be addressed sooner or later. Equal legal rights for all people have never reached even a symbolic parity before being slowly wound back: in the USA non-Caucasians are being denied the franchise and women are being denied authority over their own bodies; in Australia we have an incipient apartheid creeping into welfare legislation in order to ‘curb’ alcoholism and associated violence. There are many other examples.
Conversely we also have an attitude that says if I am to be allowed something, everyone else must be allowed the same thing, and if most people should not be allowed something, no one should be. 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.
My rejection of the idea is also partly based in what I see as a contradiction in Nietzsche’s ideas, creating in the Übermensch a false claim of superiority that cannot exist without a prior acknowledgement of validity for claims to equality. Otherwise the Übermensch would not need to be defined as superior rather than merely different in a stochastic statistical sense.
To mix into Nietzsche’s messianic vision also the idea of eternal recurrence, no matter how interestingly proposed, is another reason for me to want to step back and smile politely lest I enrage the lunatic. My reason doesn’t have to be more sophisticated than to propose that eternity is a concept quite useless to the regulation of thought and personal conduct in a time-frame as fleeting as a human life. In Nietzsche’s own terms, 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?
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 to my life other than those I make for myself, or to which I ascribe value. 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 belated maturing into adulthood, after having recognised just how shackled he was to the stifling demands for conformity in his milieu?
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 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 in his works.
Spinks summarises 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.
Spinks argues that Nietzsche regarded
… all life, not just human life, as united by a common striving for power. Human life (with all its truths and norms) is merely a form through which life passes. (p. 134.)
The concept strikes me as a determinist Darwinism, and singularly useless to the direction of human conduct, except for one aspect of it, which is to undermine the subject-object causality chain, and to propose instead that a conscious will to power precedes essence and is creative of humanity rather than an artefact of it.
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).
… 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).
The importance of this challenge to cause and effect, subject-object conceptions is the introduction of an idea that the properties of something – anything – are not fixed or real, but rather the outward appearance of a continuous interrelationship of the ‘something’ with ‘other things’ (p. 140-141). If that seems abstruse, consider what you and I might think of a surgical scalpel. Obvious right? Designed for one job, and therefore embodying a fixed meaning. But what if the scalpel is in the hands of a homicidal maniac? Does it then not become a tool for mutilation or even murder? And what if it were in the hands of an artist? Does it then not become a craft knife? Why not all three things simultaneously, or none of them at all, but some other continuous interrelationship?
What has this to do with will? Nothing at all, and everything. To what extent is the meaning and function of the scalpel related to a shift in power and dominion over other power? Spinks refers to TS Eliot to illustrate how an established meaning or context is transformed simultaneously in a comparison with a new one (p. 142), meaning that will, and the impetus to dominate, constantly transform the meaning and context of being and truth (p. 144). What this says to me is that the will of a universal life-force has the potential to transform life itself, and human perceptions of it. Not as a sequential and deliberate sequence of human actions, but as an evolutionary and sometimes impenetrable series of disjunctures and unexpected events.
For Nietzsche this may have meant the rationality of devaluing all established values, and to accept everything as it is without judgement (p. 149), but to me that seems a rather futile striving to cease being human, in which I see no advantage or virtue. So, for me the utility of the idea of a will to power is the challenge to step outside the convention of regarding humans as in control, and to attempt to glimpse a larger tableau of an indifferent universe, including the microcosm of planet Terra, as backdrop, facility, and obstacle to deliberate human striving.
Lessons in misdirection … ?
It is difficult for me not to regard Nietzsche as trapping 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 vein, his contempt for orthodox thought rubs up uncomfortably against his apparent reactionary longing for a pre-civilised 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 these comforts and that safety.
Personally I don’t see any merit, romantic or otherwise, in a romanticised brutopia that meets Nietzsche’s conditions for free thinking vitality, but arbitrarily condemns anyone, even the feeble-minded and unmotivated, to slavish servitude, subject to the whims of a capricious elite with no greater claim to insight, wisdom, or regenerative ability, under Nietzsche’s own terms, than a congenital cretin.
With these reservations addressed, it nevertheless seems important to recognise and understand the original arguments to recognise their contemporary derivatives, and to uncover the possible motivations in borrowing from Nietzsche.
In the same vein, 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 see the importance in consideringthe ill-advised link between Nietzsche and the Nazis as arising from a seventy year fetish of constant reference back to the Nazi phenomenon that pervades Western culture so deeply we run the risk of understanding less about Nazi Germany today than we did in 1945. By extension, Nietzsche’s association with that historical disjuncture also means we run the risk of understanding him less than did before 1933.
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 may have a bad connotations, but prejudice need to be no worse than ‘discernment’, even if it can be as bad as bigotry. What Nietzsche may remind us of is how to spot these tendencies in ourselves.
Finally, Nietzsche has not lost his original power to serve as an example of misdirection – dressing up the lionisation 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 and surveillance, and idiot savant STEM specialists, recognising their corrosive effects on liberal democracy, liberty, freedom of speech, and self-determination seems increasingly important. That is, important if any value is attached to the democratic ideals of liberty and egalitarianism. Understanding Nietzsche’s work can be enormously useful in recognising such deceptions, and the justifications presented for them.