It can be hard, though, to accept that morality motivates violence. Maybe there’s something wrong with thinking of violence as moral. Isn’t the point of morality to care for people, or at least not hurt them?
We are told that a “surprising new scientific theory explains why morality leads to violence.” It turns out that people are willing to be violent over the things they care most deeply about, especially if those things are considered rare and irreplaceable. I suppose this is “surprising” to anyone raised in a Skinner box, unacquainted with the great philosopher-poets who already addressed this inherent shapeshifting, transitory, mysterious nature of life long ago:
“How could anything originate out of its opposite? For example, truth out of error? Or the will to truth out of the will to deception? Or selfless action out of self-interest? Or the pure sunlike gaze of the sage out of covetousness? Such origins are impossible; whoever dreams of them is a fool, even worse; the things of the highest value must have another, separate origin of their own—they cannot be derived from this transitory, seductive, deceptive, lowly world, from this turmoil of delusion and desire! Rather from the lap of being, the intransitory, the hidden god, the ‘thing-in-itself ‘—there must be their basis, and nowhere else!”— This way of judging constitutes the typical prejudice by which the metaphysicians of all ages can be recognized; this kind of valuation looms in the background of all their logical procedures; it is on account of this “belief” that they trouble themselves about “knowledge,” about something that is finally christened solemnly as “the truth.” The fundamental belief of the metaphysicians is the belief in oppositions of values. It has not even occurred to the most cautious among them to raise doubts right here at the threshold where it is surely most necessary: even if they vowed to themselves, “de omnibus dubitandum.” For one may doubt, first, whether there are any opposites at all, and second, whether these popular valuations and opposite values on which the metaphysicians put their seal, are not perhaps merely foreground estimates, only provisional perspectives, perhaps even from some nook, perhaps from below, frog perspectives, as it were, to borrow an expression painters use? For all the value that the true, the truthful, the selfless may deserve, it would still be possible that a higher and more fundamental value for life might have to be ascribed to appearance, the will to deception, self-interest, and desire. It might even be possible that what constitutes the value of these good and revered things is precisely that they are insidiously related, tied to, and involved with these wicked, seemingly opposite things—maybe even one with them in essence. Perhaps! — But who has the will to concern himself with such dangerous Perhapses!
In her wonderfully gripping new biography of Nietzsche – the type you stay in bed all Sunday just to finish – Sue Prideaux casts doubt on this story. Indeed, the horse only makes an appearance in the legend 11 years later – in 1900, the year of Nietzsche’s death – when a journalist interviewed Fino, the landlord, about the events of the day. And only in the 1930s – more than 40 years later – do we hear about the horse being beaten and Nietzsche breaking down in tears; this time in an interview with Fino’s son, Ernesto, who would have been about 14 at the time.
…Prideaux casts even more doubt on the cause usually attributed to this insanity: syphilis. Popularised by Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, which has a Nietzsche-like character contract syphilis in a brothel, the evidence simply doesn’t stack up. Although diagnosed as such when admitted to the asylum in Basle, Nietzsche showed none of symptoms now associated with it: no tremor, faceless expression or slurred speech. If he was at an advanced stage of dementia caused by syphilis, Nietzsche should have died within the next two years; five max. He lived for another 11. The two infections he told the doctors about were for gonorrhoea, contracted when he was a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian War.
Instead Prideaux puts forward the – correct – view that Nietzsche probably died of a brain tumour, the same “softening of the brain” that had taken away his father, a rural pastor, when Nietzsche was a boy. Indeed both sides of the family showed signs of neurological problems, or of suffering of “nerves”, as one put it at the time.
You know, it’s getting to the point where I murmur a little traveller’s prayer before getting on the web each day: please let me get where I’m going without encountering any more stray books I feel compelled to pick up and bring home. I have a fair amount of Nietzscheana on my shelves, especially for a non-scholarly amateur, but I don’t recall ever reading a debunking of these legends surrounding his mental collapse before. Could it be that there is still more to learn here? A biography so gripping you want to stay in bed all day to finish it? Sigh. Well, as Zarathustra said sorrowfully, I recognize my lot. Thus my destiny wants it. Well, I am ready.
Wagner and Nietzsche shared a deep contempt for the rise of bourgeois culture, for the idea that life, at its best, was to be lived easily, blandly, punctually, by the book. “Making a living” was, and still is, simple in Basel: you go to school, get a job, make some money, buy some stuff, go on holiday, get married, have kids, and then you die. Nietzsche and Wagner knew that there was something meaningless about this sort of life.
As my friend Arthur likes to say, “The problem is there is no Nietzsche, only Nietzsches.” Kaag seems to have been attracted to the dangerously-living, hammer-wielding, I-am-no-man-I-am-dynamite Nietzsche. Fair enough, but what about the Nietzsche who passionately declared that “to be like a little inn which rejects no one who is in need but which is afterwards forgotten or ridiculed” would be “a reason for a long life!” Or the Nietzsche who cast admiring glances at the Epicurean ideal? What do we make of the Nietzsche who confessed in a letter to his friend Peter Gast that “even now the whole of my philosophy totters after one hour’s sympathetic intercourse even with total strangers!” Or the gentle, considerate Nietzsche as remembered by his friends and acquaintances? Bourgeois, the lot of them? Or could it be that Nietzsche’s thought, even at its most bombastic (and syphilis-addled), was still far more nuanced than Kaag’s snark would suggest? Whether God, women, or bourgeois life, Nietzsche tended to love and hate things in equally passionate measures at the same time, which is part of why he’s still so much more interesting than most of his disciples.
Yet Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence belongs strangely to the realm of metaphysics and dualism. Its fatalism and determinism contradicts Nietzsche’s exhortation for each of us to become our own masters and to become who we truly are.
West characterizes Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal recurrence — live your life as if it will recur again and again eternally, down to the tiniest detail — as “basic self-help stuff.” Self-help, of course, is universally scorned among the media clerisy and the sorts of intellectuals who write books about Nietzsche. It supposedly presents simplistic solutions to complex problems and reduces great art to raw material to be mined by the self-centered for banal “life lessons” — all of which is largely true, even if the scorn is overdone for status-signaling purposes. But I had to laugh at the irony here of West presenting Nietzsche as if he were the slightest bit interested in “each of us” becoming our own masters. He wasn’t. I dare say that this middle-class perspective, for lack of a more precise term, of viewing everyone as more or less on the same moral level, of failing to recognize a genuinely 19th-century aristocratic attitude even as it looks haughtily down its nose at you, is just as much a failure of imagination as anything found in the self-help section of a bookstore. What, you think Nietzsche would have been anything other than repulsed by Spiked magazine and its paint-by-numbers pretensions to be the true voice of the democratic libertarian masses? Ah, right, yes, you probably do.
Nietzsche seemed to hint that Goethe came closest to embodying his ideal of the Ubermensch, a man who “disciplined himself to wholeness,” “a spirit who has become free.” He took it for granted that geniuses like Goethe (or himself) came along once every couple centuries or so, and the best the rest of us could do would be to prepare the conditions where such higher types could flourish. They represent the mountain peaks of human existence; most of us spend our unimportant lives down in the valleys. Their work will endure for millennia like the pyramids; the individual slaves who toiled to lay the stonework are justly forgotten. Who could be so ridiculous as to imagine that the ordinary everyman could rise en masse up to the level of a Goethe or Aristotle? Who could generate an incoherent fantasy of human excellence improving cumulatively and indefinitely? Certainly not Nietzsche. For that, you need the stupendous foolishness of a Trotsky. And who could still be so foolish as to lionize a loathsome man who was every bit as monstrous as his fellow Bolsheviks? Ah, right, Spiked magazine. Suddenly, it all makes sense. From the aristocratic heights of Nietzschean philosophy to the fetid swamps of doctrinaire Marxism, it seems that no matter where the self-absorbed Spiked mindset goes, there it finds…itself. How strangely bourgeois!
En route to such an argument, Beiner suggests that we must continually engage Nietzsche as a live opponent, who might just have his hand on something that is both wicked and enduringly attractive. “Reading these thinkers,” Beiner assures us,
doesn’t automatically turn us from liberals into something else (or hopefully it doesn’t!); but hopefully what it does do is draw us into a fully ambitious questioning of what human life expects of us.
This is a generally welcome exhortation, basic to the practice of philosophy, but if Beiner ever concludes his ambitious questioning (and is still a liberal!) I hope he will write another book in which we can learn what it means for “human life” to “expect” anything at all of “us” in a God-shorn universe. Nietzsche thinks it expects nothing at all, and we need to demand that it meet our expectations. One is tempted to see this as another example of Beiner’s quietly placing all of the most momentous philosophical action offstage, as if there is some agent out there called “human life” that will save us from the heavy task of judging and deciding in the absence of a Great Judge.
…Beiner’s good instincts are part of what makes his book so frustrating; he mysteriously fails to follow his own excellent counsel, as he refuses to explore or acknowledge the very real—and yes, potentially dangerous—beauty of Nietzsche’s prescriptions. But maybe he’s just exercising prudence. If these prescriptions are potentially dangerous, why bother to discern the goodness or beauty in them? These ideas are not liberal! Keep them under wraps!
By the time I reached this point in Corbin’s excellent review, I had already remembered a line from Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “And whoever wanted to sleep well still talked of good and evil before going to sleep.” Apparently, Nietzsche was fine when he was being used as an all-purpose tool of intellectual deconstruction by postmodern academics, but in our hyperventilating, panicked political environment, orthodox progressive opinion has once again quarantined him as a dangerous inspiration to fascism. Ah, the vagaries of fashion.
Corbin goes on to draw parallels between Beiner’s bedtime fable, where equality and justice triumph to live happily ever after, and the well-documented paradox of social media, which makes communication with countless strangers both easier and faster, yet ends up creating silos, echo chambers, vituperative distrust, and astonishing ignorance. As Corbin shows, the hope that life would finally be tamed and solved by means of gathering mankind under the comforting shelter of the One True Politics was present in Nietzsche’s time, too, and he saw it for the delusion it is. Bien-pensants like Beiner will never understand this, preferring to tell the same old tales of good and evil before going to sleep.
But is Nietzsche really to blame? And was he really a relativist? I would say that he isn’t and he wasn’t. I believe that it’s time that the great man and free-thinker par excellence was reclaimed by the school of the Enlightenment.
Sigh. Karl Jaspers once said that a reader could not be in a position to decide what Nietzsche meant by any particular assertion until finding a different passage in his writings that contradicts it. Suffice it to say, one of the things that makes Nietzsche still so rewarding to read is the fact that his writing, in addition to being stylistically superior, is so suggestive of different interpretations — and yes, he frequently does contradict himself. As my friend Arthur said, “the problem is that there is no Nietzsche; there are only Nietzsches.” For every passage that seems to glorify cruelty and conflict, you can find a beautiful example like this one preaching a humble life of self-renunciation. For all his quoteworthy assaults upon Christianity and slave morality, there are examples like this one, where he asserts that “It goes without saying that I do not deny — unless I am a fool — that many actions called immoral ought to be avoided and resisted, or that many called moral ought to be done and encouraged — but I think the one should be encouraged and the other avoided for other reasons than hitherto.” What are we to make of all this? I prefer to take him at his word — in this instance, at least — when he says, repeatedly, that he is philosophically opposed to the very idea of trying to construct an internally consistent system of thought. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Nietzsche ever read Walt Whitman, but the oft-quoted line from “Song of Myself” about contradictions and multitudes would almost certainly have raised a smile beneath Nietzsche’s prominent mustache, and he would have been proud to stand beside Whitman in the philosophical nude, their non-sequiturs dangling in the breeze, scandalizing those prim and proper thinkers who preferred to tightly button up their several layers of systematic theorizing.
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of people who still insist on trying to extract one of the many themes he wrote about and hold it up as the keystone of his thought. Here, we have some bien-pensant grad student doing her best to amputate whichever aspects of Nietzsche’s thought won’t fit on the Procrustean bed of political conservatism she’s determined to fit him upon; here, we have the case of Nicholas Carr, who ridiculously attempts to use Nietzsche’s fondness for aphoristic writing as evidence confirming Carr’s own ideas about technological determinism. You name the cause, and there’s probably someone out there right now mining Nietzsche’s books for selective quotations in service to it. It’s true, some of Nietzsche’s work did flirt with Enlightenment themes. You can read a very good book about that period of his career here. But to take that “middle period” as the skeleton key which unlocks all the mysteries of his varied experiments in perspectivism is to make him appear more shallow and you appear more foolish. I’ll bet you a large sum of imaginary money that West’s forthcoming book about Nietzsche concludes that he was an individualist libertarian freethinker, just like the writers and readers of Spiked magazine, coincidentally enough.
A cause-creating drive is powerful within him; someone must be to blame for his feeling vile. His “righteous indignation” itself already does him good; every poor devil finds pleasure in scolding – it gives him a little of the intoxication of power. Even complaining and wailing can give life a charm for the sake of which one endures it: there is a small dose of revenge in every complaint, one reproaches those who are different for one’s feeling vile, sometimes even with one’s being vile, as if they had perpetrated an injustice or possessed an impermissible privilege. “If I am canaille, you ought to be so, too”: on the basis of this logic, one makes revolutions. Complaining is never of any use, it comes from weakness. Whether one attributes one’s feeling vile to others or to oneself – the socialist does the former, the Christian for example does the latter – makes no essential difference. What is common to both, and unworthy in both, is that someone has to be to blame for the fact that one suffers – in short, that the sufferer prescribes for himself the honey of revenge as a medicine for his suffering.
Progressives used to insist that all their talk of “privilege” was not meant to be accusatory, merely descriptive. In the real world, however, it should be obvious that a world without privilege would be a world without a past, a world in which reputation and trust count for nothing, a world in which some all-powerful centralized authority relentlessly enforces a Procrustean equality. This is the stuff of dystopian nightmares. The only thing you can possibly offer in defense of its proponents is that they are too naive and stupid to really understand what it is they’re calling for. In practice, then, this monomaniacal obsession with ranking people and groups by degrees of privilege, rather than elevating those at the bottom of the hierarchy, would necessarily end up expressing itself through the attempt to tear down anyone perceived to have too much of it. In practice, you can’t even conceptualize how to make everyone equally successful and contented, but you can come close to making them equally miserable.
And so we find this article in a popular leftish tabloid, in which the author can barely contain her resentful glee over the misfortune of an American college student sentenced to years of hard labor in a North Korean prison camp. This allows her to imagine a blow being struck against the phantom of white privilege that haunts her every waking moment. In the real world, however, the suffering is borne by individuals, not abstract concepts or statistical aggregates. The arrears here are metaphysical, and even a billion more Otto Warmbiers couldn’t reduce them to the satisfaction of the fanatics who have been seduced by an ahistorical fantasy of statistical equality.
These people are intellectually diseased.
Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
Slavery, universal and unquestioning religious faith, aristocratic government, disregard for the suffering of others: these are the very miserable grounds on which some of the major achievements of civilization in the past were built. Hence the thought: we cannot have those desirable things now, because we have got democracy, freedom of conscience, various kinds of equality (nearly), kindness and hygiene instead. If these really are the only options, then we do not have much choice.
The organic conception of civilization reinforces this view. It stresses the interconnectedness of everything that occurs in a particular society in a particular epoch. Therefore the achievements of a time and place are thought of as inescapably bound up with, and often produced by, the defects of the era. If the passage of time sees the removal of those defects it must also remove the possibility of parallel achievements.
According to this view the great public monuments of post-war Britain had to look like Milton Keynes and the Millennium Dome — because of democracy and a National Health Service and universal education and freedom of opinion. The seventeenth century could have as its greatest public monuments St Paul’s Cathedral and the other churches of Sir Christopher Wren because it has oligarchic aristocratic government, poor sanitation, short life expectancy, little freedom of opinion and little public education.
He doesn’t mention him by name, but this is obviously one of Nietzsche’s central themes. In fact, it’s one of the themes that most effectively resist appropriation by those who would turn him into some kind of bombastic life coach. Given his conscious defiance of “systematic” thinking, it’s always risky to identify what he “really” meant, but if you ask me — and even if you don’t, I’ll tell you anyway — I would say that Nietzsche was most concerned with culture, not individuals. Western liberal individualism was just more decadence as far as he was concerned. All his famous exhortations about the Übermensch were centered on the assumption that strong, healthy cultures would occasionally produce heroic individuals like a Beethoven or Goethe, whose artistic genius would redeem life for the rest of us, who are just here taking up space and doing the grunt work. This tendency didn’t go in reverse — heroic individuals did not regenerate weak, sickly cultures. Needless to say, he would have looked at our culture, seen a crass obsession with commerce, unhealthy individualism taken to the extremes of narcissism and solipsism, and a weak, neurotic concern with avoiding pain and injustice at all cost, and dismissed any further thoughts of cultural greatness with a disgusted wave of his hand. And yet, he might have said, for all your pride in your civilized harmlessness, you still have slave labor constructing your sports stadiums, and something very much like it building the technological gadgets which give your petty lives a semblance of meaning. You have no problem consigning countless millions of other sentient creatures to miserable lives and assembly-line deaths for the sake of your convenience. You can simply afford the luxury of removing cruelty from your immediate vicinity. Rationalist sleight-of-hand takes care of any uncomfortable remainders. Blood, you’re soaking in it. Always have been, always will be. The only question is whether you’re going to use it to produce transcendent greatness or self-loathing mediocrity.
However, we could employ the idea of civilization in a more hopeful way. We could see civilization as seeking to equal the best achievements of the past while disentangling them from the misfortunes upon which they once depended. The idea is that we could aim for the same level of civility, grandeur, grace and beauty, but without building on those obviously intolerable foundations.
Hopeful, indeed. Alan Watts used an odd-but-striking example that relates to this idea:
Here is someone who has never seen a cat. He is looking through a narrow slit in a fence, and, on the other side, a cat walks by. He sees first the head, then the less distinctly shaped furry trunk, and then the tail. Extraordinary! The cat turns round and walks back, and again he sees the head, and a little later the tail. This sequence begins to look like something regular and reliable. Yet again, the cat turns round, and he witnesses the same regular sequence: first the head, and later the tail. Thereupon he reasons that the event head is the invariable and necessary cause of the event tail, which is the head’s effect. This absurd and confusing gobbledygook comes from his failure to see that head and tail go together: they are all one cat.
The cat wasn’t born as a head which, sometime later, caused a tail; it was born all of a piece, a head-tailed cat. Our observer’s trouble was that he was watching it through a narrow slit, and couldn’t see the whole cat at once.
This, in turn, was one of Watts’s central themes — the idea that “good” and “bad”, “desirable” and “undesirable” are like the head and tail of the cat: inseparable. We simply aren’t able to stand up and look over the fence to see the entire cat at once, so to speak. We can’t attain the god’s-eye perspective from which we could see that no matter how hard we try to eliminate bad, unpleasant things from the world and preserve only the good things, it can never happen. It is based on a fundamental misunderstanding, like trying to figure out how the cat’s head “causes” the tail. To strain the metaphor further, our attempts to scrub the world clean of undesirable things would be like trying to separate the head and tail of a cat, only to have each head generate a new tail, and each tail develop a new head.
Somehow it appears that the cat mutated into a hydra. Well, no matter. The point is, the idea of “desirable” and “undesirable” as integers which can be increased or subtracted is one of the foundational myths of post-Enlightenment Western culture. You may say, “Well, I greatly prefer the ‘problems’ of a middle-class Westerner to those of a medieval peasant.” I wouldn’t disagree. But that’s still a value statement, not an objective fact. Likewise, it’s a value statement to say, “Well, I’m perfectly content with the way things are right now. They’re good enough. No need to risk unintended consequences by messing around with further attempts at optimization.” The point isn’t that we can’t ever agree on a way to live and coexist. The point is that any such consensus will likely have to leave our cherished rationality and objectivity behind.
Santayana is seldom found in lists of the great modern philosophers. In part that is because, like other ethical naturalists, including Hume and Voltaire and Schopenhauer, he preferred humanist genres like the essay and the aphorism to the academic treatise or the footnoted journal article. One of his aphorisms has lodged in popular consciousness: “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it” (from The Life of Reason (1905-1906).) This choice of rhetorical strategies, I think, is based on observation of the human animal: if you want to teach the public, stories and jokes and conversational talks are more effective than lectures.
…The naturalism of Santayana, like that of Democritus and Epicurus and Hume, proves that a secular worldview need not assume the form of a militant, evangelical counter-religion. It shows as well that a certain kind of worldly hedonism, by privileging simple pleasures, paradoxically can be a kind of asceticism. You cannot be disenchanted with humanity and the world if you were never enchanted in the first place — that is the greatest lesson of the laughing philosophers.
Santayana has been hovering at the fringe of my awareness for some time, one of those gentlemen too polite to shove and shoulder his way to the front of the line and demand attention. But I aim to rectify that. I’m currently reading a small book of his essays, with a few more on my wish list. This selection from one of his books, in which he offers up one of the more incisive criticisms of Nietzsche I’ve ever seen, puts his rich literary style on full display.