Is it strange that I see Friedrich Nietzsche as a kindred spirit? I’ve joked in the past that if I believed in reincarnation, I might think I was Nietzsche in a past life—he and I seem to share similar outlooks, not to mention an odd sense of humor. Even when he and I don’t see eye to eye—and of course there are disagreements between us; I don’t even agree with myself all the time, let alone other men born in centuries before the one I inhabit (which is a state of mind I tend to think of as approaching “honesty”)—we’re in agreement on the need for a revaluation of values among the human species, a nuke-and-pave of our fundamental cultural concepts; it’s time for homo sapiens to grow up and learn how to think, and to act accordingly afterward. This isn’t a mere academic matter, meaningful to old professors in dusty tweed jackets alone; this is a question of whether we humans will thrive in the coming centuries or descend again into the unthinking barbarism in which our ancestors (and, so long as we’re trying to be “honest,” we ourselves) have generally lived. If you think our current value systems are up to the task of creating a brighter future, or much of a future at all, spend a few days watching the news and then get back to me.
But if our current value systems are corrupt—if the way we Westerners, and we Americans in particular, perceive and react to “reality” won’t do—what should replace them? Read a dozen philosophers and you’re likely to get four dozen answers, or none at all. That doesn’t stop an annoying person like myself from asking the question, even if my first response anymore is to laugh at what “answers” arise from the muck of those speculations. But then humor may be the best sign of “honesty” the human spirit is yet capable of showing, and to say something is funny is often also to say that it is true. (Am I the only one, for example, who finds what the study of quantum physics has to tell us about the nature of reality hilarious? Douglas Adams got the joke; as far as I can follow Einstein and Feynman, they did as well.) The lion laughs hardest when it’s about to roar.
The time has come for me to make my own serious attempt at the matter (at least as serious as I get). These aren’t new questions to me, but while I’ve spent the past decade letting one stream of thought after another pour into my brain-reservoir, I’m yet to make a concentrated attempt at digging my own pool, never mind letting anyone else swim around in there and perhaps pee a little. As a first step toward that project, I’m rereading Beyond Good and Evil and writing a series of essays on what I take away from Nietzsche’s magnum opus. If memory serves, this will be my fifth read of the book, and (to put my current biases on display in an attempt to be “honest”) it comes after a year spent reading Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Sun Tzu, Robert Anton Wilson and the Marquis de Sade, among others; it’s colored by my identification as a Discordian, my experiences this summer at Occupy Portland and my determination to take hold of my life and make a better man of myself. While I intend to be “scholarly” after a fashion, I have no patience for the stuffiness of academia, so these essays will be somewhat informal and may at times take a “Let’s Read” bent (similar to the “Let’s Play” style of playing games for an audience), and I’ll probably be doing some of my own philosophizing in reaction to what I read rather than giving a straight report on what Nietzsche wrote. I doubt Friedrich would have minded that last bit; to simply read and report on a work of philosophy is to miss the point entirely—the point being, to use that piece as an impetus to think and to grow, to react and to become.
Philosophy is a conversation that carries on across cultures and through the ages. Let’s have a chat with Friedrich Nietzsche.
(A quick note: I’m using Walter Kaufmann’s translation of Nietzsche’s works as printed in Basic Works of Nietzsche, published as part of the Modern Library series. Quotations will be true to that translation, and page numbers refer to that printing.)
Part 0: The Preface – Taking Nietzsche In Context
Nietzsche opens his preface to Beyond Good and Evil by comparing truth to a woman and asking “what then?” With this line, Nietzsche exposes both his philosophical bent—ever a man for questions that cut to the soul, our Friedrich—and his sense of humor, the latter being a great part of what makes him so readable. Being a philosopher and a bit of a nerd myself, I have to say he has a point. Nietzsche speaks of the old philosophers, the thinkers who have shaped Western thought previous to the nineteenth century, as “dogmatists” and says that the “seriousness, the clumsy obtrusiveness with which they have usually approached truth so far” wouldn’t work if one was trying to win a woman’s heart (BGE 192); in short, Western philosophers (at least in Nietzsche’s time) mostly think like right-brained nerds, and their tendency for spergy behavior doesn’t just prevent them from getting laid—it also gets in the way of good philosophy. (Did you think that nerds making fun of other nerds for having awful sex lives originated with the internet? Nietzsche was an old school troll centuries before 4chan.)
Before I get into the wider matter of Nietzsche’s criticism of Western philosophy, however, why not take a moment to examine Nietzsche’s own experience with women? After all, Nietzsche says himself once we get into the meat of Beyond Good and Evil that each of the great philosophies of the past has been “the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir” (BGE 203). If that’s the case, what does it tell us about Nietzsche that he chooses to begin Beyond Good and Evil, the follow-up and companion to his philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra, by bringing up the other sex as an example of previous philosophers’ various bewilderments? What did Nietzsche know about women?
My impression is both “quite a bit” and “not a lot,” depending on how you look at it. Prepubescent Friedrich grew up in a household of women, surrounded by his mother, his grandmother, his sister and two single aunts; his father and younger brother both died when he was quite young. As a child of divorce who grew up primarily with my mother and sister and spent more time with girls than boys until the joys of puberty wrecked my childhood social circle, I can relate to the experience of being a heterosexual male exposed to an overabundance of anima, socialized for friendships with women and often given to looking at things from a (Western) “feminine” point of view; I’ve often been stricken by the impression that, at least when it comes to the day-to-day goings-on inside womens’ heads and the ways in which men and women communicate toward platonic ends, I might have a leg up on many of my male contemporaries (and hopefully my male friends’ girlfriends, who have been known to nod along when I give their counterparts relationship advice and tips on more effective communication with their mates, will back me up here). But back to Nietzsche—we’ll see examples later in the text of Beyond Good and Evil where Nietzsche says what are on the surface some fairly awful things about women. It’s my intention to make it clear to anyone who hasn’t read Nietzsche already that his pronouncements often cannot be taken at face value, and that there’s probably a great deal of thought and deeper feeling behind anything he says about women; if Nietzsche seems to have contempt for women at times, it’s probably been bred by a childhood of close familiarity with their gender and tempered with perhaps more understanding, perhaps a more complete map than a man would like to have of that distant shore. After all, couldn’t it be argued that, given how different men and women often are, some of the sexes’ miscommunications between and mystery to each other are good for the individual and the species?
Not that any platonic understanding of women seems to help a man much when it comes to romance, if my own experiences are any indication, and if Nietzsche had such an understanding, he was no exception, for his adult relationships with women seem scattershot at best. Nietzsche never married, though Lou Andreas Salomé claims he proposed to her and she rejected him; the historical accuracy of this claim is debated. His adult relationship with his sister was apparently cool as often as not, though considering she was a Nazi who edited his unreleased works with a pro-fascist bias for publication after his mental breakdown, one has to wonder if it was Nietzsche who was to blame for the frigidity. There is some speculation that Nietzsche suffered from syphilis, which he would have presumably acquired from a woman, and that this is what led to the mental illness that silenced him in his last few years of life; if that was the case, one could perhaps understand some bitterness, though some modern scholars doubt that nineteenth century diagnosis. Regardless, I’m struck by the feeling that Nietzsche missed part of the human experience through his (purposeful or otherwise) life of bachelorhood, and perhaps some of his apparent bitterness when it comes to women really is just plain bitterness rather than metaphor or fond humor; regret and anger are, after all, two fingers in the same fist.
Of course, this is all speculation—and what’s more, I have little doubt that Nietzsche recognized these influences on his own psyche if they existed. Like Aristotle, Descartes, Schopenhauer and so many other explorers of the mind’s hidden places that came before him, Nietzsche spent plenty of time rummaging through the contents of his own mental attic, and he mostly seems to have had a resigned sense of humor about what he found up there (which is part of what separates him from most of his philosophical ancestors—see again the charge of “gruesome seriousness” he levels against his forerunners in that first paragraph). It’s also necessary to remember that Nietzsche was writing in a pre-feminist world and from what was at the time (and arguably remains) a fairly unique standpoint, so even when he does praise women, that well-intentioned praise may sometimes sound sour to twenty-first century ears tuned for post-women’s liberation hymns. Previous reads of Nietzsche’s works have left me with the impression he had a love-hate relationship with women as a gender; I’ll be looking for more indications of that (or refutation of same) as I go through this reread of Beyond Good and Evil. But that topic will come later; I’m not going to psychoanalyze the guy’s sex life based on a couple sentences at the beginning of the book. Still, one has to wonder—underneath Nietzsche’s sardonic wit and his tendency to hit entire groups with exacting verbal barbs (in modern parlance, we might call that “bitchiness”), did the poor guy just really need to get laid?
Let’s return to Nietzsche’s reason for bringing up women to begin with—the state of philosophy in Europe at the close of the nineteenth century. Nietzsche will take us on a guided tour through that discipline’s history in the next section, but for now he’s content to spoil the ending for us—that is, to declare that the classical philosophers have all failed to present lasting, meaningful systems that fit the human experience of modern reality (and that of course includes religion, which is a sort of proto-philosophy). Various philosophers have invented systems—establishing their metaphysical imaginings, fictionalized histories and subjective value judgments as dogmas—to give direction to humanity, yet “today every kind of dogmatism is left standing dispirited and discouraged” as logic, science and that rampaging bastard we call “human nature” poke gaping holes in our individual and cultural ideas about what is “true” or “good” (BGE 192). Mirroring the namesake protagonist’s pronouncement that “god is dead” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche puts forth the idea that “all dogmatism is dying” without laying claim to it himself.
Immediately after he pulls a “just kidding,” but of course it’s when Nietzsche is joking that one must pay the most attention to what he says. If you doubt that, pay attention to the next paragraph, where Nietzsche hits the mat hard and sweeps classical philosophy’s leg before the match can get underway. He refers to the old dogmatizing as “a noble childishness and tyronism” and suggests that most Western philosophy has served not the interest of some pure ideal of “truth” but rather the biases and superstitions of the philosophers as individuals and as members of their respective societies; he questions the simplistic views the old philosophers had on the unexamined “cornerstones” of their dogmas (Plato’s spiritual “forms” that somehow exist independent of our physical world and so give it substance being a prime example) and wonders at how generations of thinkers have accepted these claims at face value or, when questioning them, been satisfied by arguments in their favor that involved grammatical tricks instead of sound reasoning (we’ll see this in Nietzsche’s criticism of Kant) or what Nietzsche calls “an audacious generalization of very narrow, very personal, very human, all too human facts” (BGE 192).
It’s worth keeping in mind when Nietzsche criticizes old belief systems for having feet of clay that (like yours truly) he began his college career as a theology student, then lost his religion and abandoned the subject (at least from a believer’s point of view or as a career) when his readings made him question the historical accuracy of Christianity’s claims (much to his mother’s ire). Nietzsche isn’t just a non-Christian; he’s an ex-Christian, someone who’s seen the bride of Christ up close and realized she’s not quite as hot in one’s arms as she was from across the bar—he has rejected Christianity not out of ignorance, but intimate familiarity. I don’t want to assume Nietzsche’s experience and mine in this regard were identical, but I will say this and assume it was probably true for Nietzsche as well: the depths to which I believed in Christianity, and the combined pain and ecstasy of subsequently leaving it behind, have more or less inoculated me against wholeheartedly buying into any belief system for the rest of my life; anything I “believe” from now on, I believe with a grin. That’s a long and somewhat personal way of saying that when Nietzsche criticizes Christianity and the philosophers who have defended it, he does so as something approaching an expert; he understands the Judeo-Christian spiritual tradition and is able to follow and trace back its traditions and teachings like the curves of a spouse’s body even if he doesn’t buy into the mythology.
Likewise, Nietzsche’s move from theology to classical philology—that is, the study of ancient Greek and Roman texts, thought, history and the intersection thereof—speak not just to his penchant for the written word (and his awareness of the “tricks” one can employ when using language) but his ability to identify and read patterns of belief and behavior across civilizations; Nietzsche, like many philosophers, was something of an early armchair sociologist centuries before that discipline was born. So when Nietzsche says that (to paraphrase) the dogmas and value systems handed down by past philosophers are mostly superstitions and tricks of language guarded more by age and fame than accuracy or reason, this conclusion (and the new starting point for philosophy it represents—for it’s that new beginning that Nietzsche is really focused on) is the result of his exposure to and rejection of the dominant belief system of his age and culture, filtered through what intellectual distance and “honesty” (if you’ll forgive me the term) is granted by study of other cultures alien to one’s own, which leads to the realization that all cultures are equally “valid” (and generally messed up in their own special ways).
As Robert Anton Wilson was fond of pointing out, homo sapiens as we know ourselves today is a very young species, not yet grown into the potential our maturity may promise (assuming we don’t blow ourselves up, wipe ourselves out with super bird flu, get hit by a surprise meteorite before enough of us can migrate into colonies off Earth, or fall victim to any other extinction-causing disaster that can be imagined and turned into a bad movie for basic cable). What has come before this point in human history has mostly been the growing pains of the human psyche as it winds it way from infancy to childhood to (one senses in the present) something like a hint of adolescence; events such as the Crusades and the Holocaust may be the species-level equivalent of a toddler throwing himself on his back and kicking at the air in the middle of a grocery aisle, screaming because mom won’t let him have the box of cereal with the best toy inside. So too, Nietzsche seems to say, the philosophies of the past have been immature; he hopes that they have been “only a promise across millennia—as astrology was in still earlier times” and posits that perhaps “all great things first have to bestride the earth in monstrous and frightening masks in order to inscribe themselves in the hearts of humanity with eternal demands” (BGE 192). As examples he offers the architectural achievements of ancient Asia and Egypt (he could have added those of the ancient Americas as well); though astrology is a load of bunk, one wonders at how the demands it made in the way of temples to be built and calendars to be formulated might have surreptitiously helped advance the scientific knowledge of ancient believers. (Of course, this says nothing for the brutality that often went along with astrological worship, for example the practices of the Mayans; then again, this too fits in with Nietzsche’s greater themes—another way to paraphrase his statements here might be “brutality is sometimes the surest path to achieving influence through unlooked-for side-effects down the line.” Besides, even when we encounter such brutality, Nietzsche wouldn’t call that “evil” any more than he would call our later age of comparative liberalism and science “good.”) And when it comes to unlooked-for side-effects, Nietzsche tells us, no one accidentally messes up an entire culture’s philosophical tradition like Plato.
It’s with a slump to the shoulders that I admit my first encounter with this criticism of Plato, that through his dualistic dogma of the “forms” and spirit-in-itself existing independent of the material world he poisoned the Western intellectual well for millennia to come, came not from Nietzsche but from Ayn Rand. There’s little doubt in my mind that Rand picked up that criticism from Nietzsche; his fingerprints are all over her work, though they’re often smudged beyond recognition, and she quotes him at the beginning of Atlas Shrugged. (For the record: no, I am not in any sense an Objectivist, and I have several beefs with Rand that I’ll save for another time, though I do consider her a legitimate philosopher; The Virtue of Selfishness is worth reading for the way it causes one to question some of our culture’s basic premises even if one doesn’t agree with Rand’s conclusions, and speaking in retrospect, one can trace through Rand’s essays the American embrace of capitalism as a moral system in the face of the twentieth century Cold War, an embrace which helped birth such twenty-first century disasters as the Halliburton-led charge into the magnificently profitable Iraq War and the current banking crisis causing Europe and the US to gradually collapse from within.) Of course, Aristotle the materialist rebelled against his forerunner Plato the mystic as well, but I don’t recall him making the argument that Plato was more or less ruining Western thought. So what did Plato do that was so wrong?
“…[T]he worst, most durable, and most dangerous of all errors so far was a dogmatist’s error,” Nietzsche tells us, “namely, Plato’s invention of the pure spirit and the good as such” (BGE 193). One concept I’ve been developing toward the creation of my own philosophical system (should it come to that) is the difference between the objective and the subjective. The objective is, loosely, that which can be said to exist in itself—material objects, energy, space-time (which are of course all ultimately the same thing). The subjective entails, again loosely, our ideas about what exists—our perceptions, our opinions, our beliefs, which include all of our hypotheses about the nature of what could be said to be objective. If one is to accept materialism, it could be said that we live in an objective reality, but our experience of that reality is completely and inescapably subjective regardless. In Plato’s case, he starts from his own subjective values and creates a metaphysics by which those values are treated as if they were objective, self-evident truths of reality. What’s more, Plato judges the objective reality by his subjective standards, which Nietzsche sees as “standing truth on her head and denying perspective, the basic condition of all life” (BGE 193).
(Not to harp on the matter, but for her part, Rand does much the same, rather hilariously; to paraphrase from memory, she essentially says, “There’s no such thing as an objective value, but I like being alive and having material possessions; therefore, I’m going to treat the Western concepts of individual liberty and the right to property as if they had objective value and excommunicate anyone who questions me.” Then she rags on Plato and talks up Aristotle. And this is the philosophy she would have labeled “Rationalism” if the name hadn’t been taken already! But surely Plato was not the first, nor was Rand anywhere near the last, to fail in making this distinction between objective and subjective.)
It could be said that Plato’s major crime was that he was so influential on Western thinkers to follow; Nietzsche refers to Socrates (a gadfly of whom I am quite fond) as “the corrupter of youth,” but Plato, it would seem, has been the corrupter of culture. The vehicle for this corruption’s spread throughout Europe (and in modern times, over the rest of Earth) is Christianity, which Nietzsche calls “Platonism for ‘the people,’” a theme he’ll develop more as he goes, especially starting with part three. Plato and his philosophical descendants are the sources of many of the values that Nietzsche believes need reevaluating. One has to wonder how different history would be if it had been Socrates the early Christian intellectuals had embraced instead; Socrates, who made such a successful career of challenging self-important authority figures and cultural norms that he was put to death, and whom the Oracle at Delphi named the wisest man in Greece for saying “All I know is that I know nothing” (and all this without any claim to divine birth, one might add).
Regardless, Nietzsche believed the time had come to tear down Plato’s influence on Western thinking; the European spirit must have seemed ripe for change at the close of the nineteenth century, and why not? In history classes today we speak of that pre-WWI world as a “powder keg” waiting to go off; this is no doubt the “magnificent tension of the spirit the like of which has never existed on earth” that Nietzsche is referring to when he writes Beyond Good and Evil in 1885-6 CE (BGE 193). Perhaps it’s no surprise that the revaluation of values didn’t come about as soon as Nietzsche might have hoped it would; the twentieth century was defined by two worldwide wars and the endless spin-off conflicts arising out of them, leading to the creation (or perhaps evolution is a better term) of nation-states of a power never seen before on Earth, not even in ancient Rome or China; nation-states with the power to annihilate humanity at the push of a button, a hundred times over; nation-states capable of monitoring their citizens’ lives in ways previously unimaginable, which led to unprecedented new levels of paranoia among their leaders; nation-states that for all their newfound scientific prowess remained entrenched in old ways of thinking, that even found it convenient and/or necessary to reinforce those old ways of thinking, sometimes through force if necessary.
Perhaps Nietzsche foresaw a hint of the modern world’s push back against this need for revaluation of all values when he wrote of “democratic enlightenment” and “freedom of the press and newspaper-reading” as developments that might help alleviate the stress our value systems were causing the average person, but he couldn’t have foreseen the twists and turns of the tale the twentieth century would become, not to mention the cultural stagnation that would result from our recent history. Only now in the opening of the twenty-first century, as the powerhouses of the West built upon such easily dissolved foundations crumble back into the sand and the old biases of darker ages seem more and more absurd, does the rest of the world seem to be catching on to what Nietzsche tried to tell us going on 130 years ago. Call it a revaluation of values, or the singularity, or waiting for the Rapture, or the end of the Mayan calendar, or the New Age movement—there is a sense that something fundamental must change in the way we humans go about our lives, or there won’t be a human species left to worry about the matter much longer.
In this spirit of curiosity, hope and determination in the face of the absurdity of the modern age and the hypocrisy of its so-called “civilizations,” let’s take another look at Beyond Good and Evil as it applies to 2012 CE and what lies beyond. Maybe our species is finally ready to put on its big boy pants and live up to the challenge Nietzsche set for us. If not, the in-flight show on our species’ ride to hell should at least be entertaining.