BY MATTHEW HERBERT
It’s tricky having Friederich Nietzsche as one of your heroes. His reputation as an unreliable guide precedes him.
Even if you’ve never read the first paragraph of Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, you’ve probably heard enough of the standard innuendo about him to draw your own conclusions and keep your distance.
Among other things, Nietzsche allegedly (or actually):
- Developed the concept of the Übermensch, or Superman, which Hitler would use as a justification of the Holocaust;
- Wrote that women were inferior beings who deserved to be whipped;
- Regarded himself as a prophet whose job was to tell everyone they were mistaken in their most basic beliefs about right and wrong;
- Went insane on the streets of Turin after watching a horse being abused;
- Wrote a book attacking Christianity, which he called The Antichrist.
Now here’s something we are always being told about intellectuals: You have to understand their nuances and hidden intentions. You can’t take them at face value.
Well, we might protest in the case of Nietzsche, if the man so abused the tactics of irony and misdirection that the Nazis could pick up his ideas and run with them, didn’t he sort of overdo it? Wouldn’t we be justified in refusing to entertain his wild and dangerous ideas?
No. At least if you have an intellectually honest bone in your body: no.
Consider this question as an appetizer to a Nietzschean main course: How did the most Christian nation on Earth come to possess and wield the most lethal of all mass-killing weapons and to feel justified in subjugating all the world’s people under the threat of nuclear war? Did we not in this policy become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds? Not much charity, meekness or any other Christian virtue to be espied in that way of going about things.
It is precisely the unmasking power of Nietzsche’s ideas that call for a fair defense. What Nietzsche tried to do in his lifetime was to upend the hypocrisies of religion, morality, and mass culture that commanded the loyalty of the ruling and middle classes. Many of these hypocrisies are, if anything, even more entrenched today than they were in 1888, when Nietzsche wrote his last book.
Nietzsche’s fundamental (and deeply discomfiting) insight about humanity is that, almost anytime we make a claim of metaphysical importance about human nature, it turns out to be a preposterous lie.
Here’s one. Man is endowed by his divine creator with a sense of right and wrong, and it is man’s moral duty to do what is right. Some form of ultimate, cosmic punishment is reserved for wrongdoing–hell, or something like it.
Every civilized society in history has evolved a belief like this one. The details may differ, but the basic outline remains the same. Divine morality forms the cornerstone of an all-prevalent belief system such as an established religion. There are established religions everywhere you look on Earth, always based on a story that is obviously trumped up out of picturesque, childish nonsense.
The resulting idea of divine morality, though, is a serious one. It is a highly useful lie. It has the power to remove us from the state of nature.
In reality, man is an animal, born to gorge, kill and rut. If we manage to rise above this beastly existence–and we sometimes do–it is because we evolve adaptations for cooperation and solidarity that enable what Thomas Hobbes called the more “commodious” life of community. We learn to get along and even thrive, by not murdering, not coveting our neighbor’s ass, and that kind of thing.
Zeus, Yahweh or Krishna had nothing to do with our evolution of the moral code that underwrites social solidarity. We thick-headed Homo Sapiens got there on our own–to our parking lots with painted delineations, our legal contracts, courts of law, and the various deliberative bodies that give rise to such miracles. It’s all far from perfect, but it’s ours.
These pillars of civilization are so important, we have found it useful, possibly even necessary, to invent mythical stories about their divine origin.
Nietzsche had two important thoughts about this situation. One, he believed that by the late 19th century, literate folk were ready to acknowledge the ubiquity of the human hand in all this myth-making. God was dead, as he put it. And two, acknowledging our aloneness in the universe brought with it an enormous burden. We realized we were the unsupervised authors of all of our rules. Laws didn’t fall fully formed from the sky, and they never had.
Stylistically, Nietzsche sometimes didn’t do himself any favors. Instead of writing logical chains of arguments, with overarching ideas and supporting evidence, he often wrote in aphorisms, an invitation to be taken out of context.
Here he is describing a “naturalistic” outlook on human nature in The Genealogy of Morals:
The sick are the great danger of man, not the evil, not the ‘beasts of prey.’ They who are from the outset botched, oppressed, broken those are they, the weakest are they, who most undermine the life beneath the feet of man, who instill the most dangerous venom and skepticism into our trust in life, in man, in ourselves…Here teem the worms of revenge and vindictiveness; here the air reeks of things secret and unmentionable; here is ever spun the net of the most malignant conspiracy – the conspiracy of the sufferers against the sound and the victorious; here is the sight of the victorious hated.
It’s not exactly the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus instructed his followers to care first and foremost for life’s losers. The succor of the poor, the protection of children, and the care of the sick were supposed to be our special missions. Plus, we were obliged to forgive our aggressors seventy times seven times. All very saintly.
Like all philosophers, Nietzsche asks us to take a step back and look at the big picture. If our saintly professions of Christianity, or any other morally serious doctrine, were sincere, they would be evident in our habits, institutions, and attitudes. The structure of our society and the character of our inner lives would be recognizably Christian.
But, despite the prevalence of churches and steeples on our landscape, the claim that we are a Christian nation, or indeed a morally serious one, is a farcical lie.
Our most cherished right is our recourse to use deadly force against all comers. (That’s exactly zero acts of forgiveness for our aggressors.) Try challenging the Second Amendment and the Stand-Your-Ground laws in any of our most Christian states, and you will see the fangs of our meekest and mildest countrymen come out.
Or, consider the fastest growing sport in our fair land, bare-knuckles mixed martial arts. It is almost literally a resurrection of gladiator fights. Millions of us tune in to watch this spectacle, conceived and designed for maximal brutality.
Why do we cleave to our guns? Why do we enjoy spectacles of gore and hostility? They may not be pretty, we admit, but they reflect, in their own ways, a stark belief that is fundamental to our national self-image. Life is a contest, we say. It has real winners and losers. The free market is the unsentimental judge of which side you end up on, and the playing field is utterly fair. If you fight hard, you just might succeed. If you end up, say, not quite able to pay for a medical therapy that would have saved your life, or your child’s life, we say it’s a pity, but in the end you just didn’t make the right “life choices” or extend the necessary effort. It was a fair fight.
If there is anyone we despise in America, it’s the person who thinks they should be protected from this fair fight, who believe an authority should intervene on their behalf, or that special measures should be taken to redress or alleviate the cause of their suffering. Mention “entitlements” to a politician or most people above the poverty line, and you will see this attitude come out in spades. The weak, the lame, the sick, the poor–they are in the first instance the objects of our suspicion. If we give them a dollar today, they’ll be back at our doorstep tomorrow for five. We are such romantics in America! We want the struggle of life to go on in all its terrible beauty, without its rules being bent.
In other words, when we look at the way our society is actually set up–the way in which we have set it up–its is obvious that we believe the words of Nietzsche above about life’s winners and losers. Officially, those words are supposed to horrify us, deeply unchristian as they are. But they are actually true for us, not the mercies and charities of the Bible’s New Testament. The way we live shows us what we believe.
Nietzsche said the horrifying things he said because me meant us to come to grips with the fact that we authored those things. Despite our pretenses of Christianity, we despise the poor, and we fear they will take our money. We trample on the weak and expect them to stay trampled.
We are all alone. Neither gods nor stars dictate our moral laws or the meaning of our lives. But just because no one is watching doesn’t mean we have to be assholes or nihilists. Joan Didion once said, “In order to maintain a semblance of purposeful behavior on this earth you have to believe that things are right or wrong.”
That’s what Nietzsche said too, even if it’s not on the surface of what he wrote. Once you cut away the outlandish myths that used to tell us who we were but which today not even a child can believe in–once you stop lying about everything–you still have to believe in something. You are the author of that something. It had better be good.