Let us stop thinking so much about punishing, reproaching, and improving others! We rarely change an individual, and if we should succeed for once, something may also have been accomplished, unnoticed: we may have been changed by him. Let us rather see to it that our own influence on all that is yet to come balances and outweighs his influence. Let us not contend in a direct fight – and that is what all reproaching, punishing, and attempts to improve others amount to. Let us rather raise ourselves that much higher. Let us color our own example ever more brilliantly. Let our brilliance make them look dark. No, let us not become darker ourselves on their account, like all those who punish others and feel dissatisfied. Let us sooner step aside. Let us look away.
I always thought that was one of the most beautiful things he ever wrote, and so at odds with the crude stereotype of his philosophy. I was reminded of it while reading this passage from American Nietzsche:
Bourne worried, however, that Nietzsche needed rescuing from his friends more than from his enemies, and he turned to Mencken’s Nietzsche-derived critique of American Puritanism as a case in point. Bourne argued that Mencken exemplified the tendency among anti-Puritan “crusaders” to resort to the very morality-based essentialism they set out to destroy. “One wishes Mr. Mencken had spent more time in understanding the depth and subtleties of Nietzsche,” Bourne wrote, “and less on shuddering at Puritanism as a literary force.” Had Mencken done so, Bourne argued he might have understood that the “attack must be, as Nietzsche made it, on that moralism rather than on its symptoms.” According to Bourne, the value of Nietzsche’s analysis of the priestly zealotry of Christian slave morality was that it enabled the critic not to ferret out the zealotry of others but to recognize it within one’s self. Nietzsche didn’t respond to finger-wagging with more of the same, nor did he advocate a simple inversion of slave morality for master morality. Rather, he employed genealogy to demonstrate the relativity of all moral values.
That relentless moralizing sneer certainly is one of the more tiring things about reading Mencken; see also George Bernard Shaw. I mean, look: even in an age of widespread literacy and easy access to education opportunities, most people are not intellectually inclined. It’s just how it is. But the familiar pose of the disappointed idealist really is the mirror image of the judgmental, provincial busybody. In both cases, there’s an unquestioned assumption that there is an ideal type of personality and lifestyle that all people should aspire to. One of the most valuable concepts I first encountered in Nietzsche was that we should check our proselytizing instinct at the door and think about what a great thing it is that other people are different from us, since it gives us that much more room to develop our own distinctive lives, using them for contrast and relief.