Monday, January 18, 2010

Sins of the Father: a few thoughts on the subject of Nietzsche

So, a friend of mine suggested I write a little about Friedrich Nietzsche. This was sparked a few weeks ago when I mentioned a story about a new book being published which claims that it will prove that the more problematic of Nietzsche's philosophies were probably later additions and perversions of his writings by his sister, who was a sort of proto-Nazi in her own ideology. This may be wishful thinking on the part of some philosophy students who appreciate parts of Nietzsche while rejecting the gruesome associations the bulk of the world tends to associate with him. Or maybe not. Personally, I'm not entirely convinced we can ever know for sure.
Unfortunately, Nietzsche is another one of those historical figures that one must approach discussing with apologetics and corrections. He has been so deeply appropriated by so many groups and ideologies. Not to mince words, many of the Nazis claimed to build upon and enact Nietzsche's ideas. Of course, they were wrong, deluded or lying (or all three).
To quote Walter Kaufmann, "In any case, no other German writer of equal stature has been so thoroughly opposed to all proto-nazism - which Nietzsche encountered in Wagner's ideological tracts, in his sister's husband, Bernhard Forster, and in various publications of his time. If some Nazi writers cited him nevertheless, it was at the price of incredible misquotation and exegetical acrobatics, which defy comparison with all the similar devices that Nietzsche himself castigated in the name of the philological conscience." I think that Nietzsche himself, were he alive and in his right mind again, would probably have been quite grieved to find some of his ideals appropriated by such an ugly group. Also, it's worth noting that Nietzsche was distinctly non-political.

I just taught a class this past Sunday on The French Revolution. One of the things I noticed and called attention to, possibly because I had this post in the back of my mind, is that so many of the ideas of the very bloody and violent French Revolution can be traced to American founding fathers (Franklin certainly springs to mind and I don't think it's a reach to link him to French thinking at the time) as well as Voltaire. Certainly Liberty, Equality and Fraternity as well as free speech, the separation of church and state (in extremis in this case) and such a strong emphasis on Reason can be traced to those thinkers. However, you don't often hear people linking Benjamin Franklin to the nearly 40,000 people beheaded by Robespierre. Maybe that's because I live in America where Franklin is nearly sainted. I don't see Nietzsche's face on anyone's currency.

Of course, the Nazis aren't the only group to (probably falsely) lay claim to Nietzsche's ideas. I took a course on Existentialism once which spent a lot of time and energy on Nietzsche. I got the strong impression that the professor included so much on Nietzsche in that course for the same reason I started my class on the life of J.S. Bach by talking about Karl Lagerfeld. Which is to say, because I felt like it, and it's my class so I'll do what I darn well want.

Also, Ayn Rand attempted to stake herself a claim in some Nietzsche. I've not yet been able to find the bottom of my dislike for Ayn Rand. In her case I also think her understanding of Nietzsche is twisted and perverted. I almost read an essay by her where she lifted Nietzsche's concept of Apollonians versus Dionysians and tried to apply it to hippie culture versus her philosophy of Greedheadism before I threw the book across the room and spent the next half hour washing my hands and eyes with soap.

But let's back it up many steps. That was an ugly way for me to start this post, but I think it's a fair indication of where history has left the man. Let's back it up to the man himself and his ideas and then maybe we can make some sense out of what happened after he could no longer speak for himself.

Nietzsche, for the most part, was an excellent writer, which is sort of a novelty in philosophers. His books are for the most part highly readable (although I could never make it through Zarathustra.) Some of his major ideas were:

* Immoralism- which is not to say that he was some kind of monstrous Mr. Hyde type. People who knew him say that he was very well behaved. But by calling himself an "immoralist" he meant that he desired a re-examination of morality, why and where we need it, how it would be naturally, where it comes from and why. Which leads to -

* Master and Slave Morality- Nietzsche was extremely enamoured with the ancient Greeks. He saw "Master Morality" as striving for excellence, power, glory, honor, fame, renown, and so forth. But along came Christianity, a school of thought which Nietzsche rejected loudly. Nietzsche would say that Christianity popularized a "Slave Morality" which takes the major concepts of Master Morality (fame, power, wealth) and turns them into vices. In his own words "It is not surprising that the lambs should bear a grudge against the great birds of prey, but that is no reason for blaming the great birds of prey for taking the little lambs. And when the lambs say among themselves, 'These birds of prey are evil, and he who least resembles a bird of prey, who is rather its opposite, a lamb,—should he not be good?' then there is nothing to carp with in this ideal's establishment, though the birds of prey may regard it a little mockingly, and maybe say to themselves, 'We bear no grudge against them, these good lambs, we even love them: nothing is tastier than a tender lamb.'"

I might add, while we're paddling around in this thought experiment, that those in the Master Morality may have come up with the Slave Morality to keep the lower classes from aspiring to their level, but lately it seems I'm incapable of having a conversation without shifting into Socialism at some point. I should probably have that looked at by a doctor (but I can't afford medical insurance! [rimshot] )

* The Ubermensch- who shows up at the beginning as a character in Zarathustra if memory serves. Also if memory serves, it's Nietzsche's philosophy embodied, a higher version of humanity to which one can aspire. Of course, this was one of the concepts misapplied by the Nazis coupled with a rather extreme misreading of Darwin to condone ethnic cleansing and eugenics. Far to the contrary, the Ubermensch in Nietzsche would be one who creates a new morality based on a love of this world and life (see the eternal return concept below.)

* The death of God- I often find myself explaining the scene Nietzsche wrote where there's a madman in the town square yelling "God is dead! And we killed Him!" The first half of the quote is often quoted, the second not so much. This is not a happy scene and is, in fact, an indictment of human complacency even in their own religion. Although elsewhere Nietzsche, who was almost certainly an atheist (but he is not often "owned" by the atheist community probably because he was not particularly at peace about it, and also because of the bad associations many make with Nietzsche), says that the death of God in our society would lead to either an unfixed morality, a sort of extreme relative world which celebrates diversity and differences OR nihilism (which, if I understood correctly, was the part that made the boy in Little Miss Sunshine stop talking.)

* The eternal return- this is one of my favorite concepts that he played with. He asks, what if you found out that after you die, you then relive this life, exactly as you've lived it, over and over eternally. Would that be Heaven or Hell? Of course, for most of us, it has elements of both and for the sake of the thought experiment it should probably be ignored that Nietzsche ended in extreme psychological turmoil, which is a nicer way of saying tortured madness.
The point is being aware of the weight of life, the weight of the infinite. If one is going to go through something once, one might not care so much, as you can endure anything for a time. But if you learn that you're going to go through something eternally, it adds a weight to everything and behooves one to pay great care and attention to what they are doing, how they are thinking, where their priorities are, and why.

* The Will To Power- sort of an expansion of his Master Morality. The idea is in response to the Darwinian concept of the major driving force in the story of life on Earth as "the will to live." Nietzsche claimed that it is rather "the will to expand one's power" that drives the story of life on Earth.

It probably isn't terribly difficult for you to see how these concepts were twisted by the Nazis (and, if memory serves, I think Leopold and Loeb had some weird Nietzsche kink as well.) Richard Wagner and Nietzsche started as friends on a similar philosophical track, but Nietzsche broke ties rather dramatically with Wagner (no pun intended) mainly over Wagner's anti-semitism which Nietzsche interpreted as coming from Wagner's Christianity, especially as presented in the opera Parsifal. My own two cents: it's a pretty big reach to call Wagner a Christian, but I share Nietzsche's disgust with anti-semitism.

My own reaction to Nietzsche is that I find his ideas fascinating, brilliant, and I disagree with nearly all of it. However, I think part of the great value of reading Nietzsche, which I would recommend to everyone, is to be challenged to figure out why you disagree with him. I certainly appreciate his appreciation of the problem of morality without God. I am a Christian, which immediately disqualifies me from Team Nietzsche. I believe in mercy, compassion, reverence for life, that all people are equal, and that I ought to strive to love everyone as I love myself. I believe in peace and peace-making. Nietzsche would call this slave morality. I find his concept of Eternal Return quite beautiful and compelling. I certainly agree with the call for a realization of the weight of life. I don't believe in the Eternal Return, but I certainly think it's a valuable thought experiment, one that more people might do well to keep in the front of their minds.
Also, no, I do think I am in agreement with the Darwinists and Albert Schweitzer in so much that the course of history has been formed by wills to live, not wills to expand power. I find Master Morality repugnant on many levels, although especially in that it attempts to rob me of striving for excellence and beauty in my own morality.

The whole story of Nietzsche, his life and his philosophy, is a dark and difficult one. There is so much to wrestle with, but I would also say so much to gain from wrestling with it. In the end, I think that I would recommend reading Nietzsche to everyone... And I think I would recommend following him to no one.

1 comment:

  1. that was masterfully done.... will have to take another look at it though