Nietzsche is probably the most embarrassing cannonical author to admit to having read, because nobody will believe you if you say you have. Or if they do believe you, at the very least they’ll assume you didn’t understand him–and they’ll probably be right. At worst, they’ll suspect you’re using his work as a justification for a totally lazy and selfish lifestyle, like a Randian Objectivist who couldn’t be bothered to form political opinions. Or else they’ll assume your politics are horrifying, racialist Teutonic dominionism, or an even more denuded, nihilistic revelry in wanton cruelty.
History, but not Nietzsche’s works, give some support to these assumptions. Though a lifelong anti-anti-Semite, Nietzsche’s works were misleadingly reedited by his Nazi sister and appropriated Third Reich, and this false legacy was absorbed by some foul characters. The murderers Leopold and Loeb, the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh glibly identified themselves as Nietzscheans, and now the Arizona assassin Jared Loughner has, too.
So again Nietzsche’s name is being dragged through the rusty mud of barbarism. Slate’s Matt Feeney explains why the Prussian iconoclast doesn’t deserve it:
Loughner’s favorite book, according to news reports, fits with these troubled-guy tendencies and their associated pitfalls. It’s not Beyond Good and Evil, but rather The Will to Power, the notorious compilation of Nietzsche’s working notes (which Nietzsche’s sister peddled, wrongly, as his great systematic work). The observations are longer-form in The Will to Power, but, like the “Epigrams and Interludes,” they are too-easily separated from Nietzsche’s other work. They have a tidy thematic organization that is largely his sister’s. This scheme is helpful to the scholar who knows his other books. It’s also helpful to the troubled young man obsessed with one thing in particular. In Loughner’s case, this one thing was apparently nihilism, which happens to be the first topic in The Will to Power.
That Loughner was reading Nietzsche on nihilism fits so perfectly into a template for such tragedies that it’s easy to miss the gaping confusion in news stories about the shooting. These stories echo claims by some acquaintances that Loughner was a nihilist, and by others that he was “obsessed with nihilism,” as if these are the same thing. But Loughner didn’t see himself as a nihilist. He saw himself as fighting nihilism. This is evident in his fixation in his YouTube videos on the idea that words have no meaning, or have somehow lost their meaning in a process of nihilistic decline—a fixation that seems to lie at the basis of his tragic grudge against Gabrielle Giffords.
Nietzsche, oddly, has suffered a similar fate. Because of his assault on religion and rationalist metaphysics, and because of the hints of anarchy in his assorted visions of the future (e.g., “the transvaluation of all values”), he’s taken as the West’s über-nihilist. But he saw himself as the scourge of European nihilism, and possibly also its remedy. Nietzsche saw nihilism as a disease, which grows from, in Alexander Nehamas’ words, “the assumption that if some single standard is not good for everyone and all time, then no standard is good for anyone at any time.” It presents itself as mindless hedonism and flaccid spirit, but also as fanaticism.
So does that make Nietzsche and Jared Lee Loughner philosophical brethren after all, joined in the same fanatical fight against nihilism? In a word, no, and Loughner’s pathological fixation on the meaning of words is the giveaway. One way of looking at Nietzsche’s project is that he set out to teach himself and his readers to love the world in its imperfection and multiplicity, for itself. This is behind his assaults on religion, liberal idealism, and utilitarian systems of social organization. He saw these as different ways of effacing or annihilating the world as it is. It is behind his infamous doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence—in which he embraces the “most abysmal thought,” that the given world, and not the idealizing stories we tell of it, is all there is, and he will affirm this reality even if it recurs eternally.
Jared Loughner’s despair that everything is unreal and words have no meaning amounts to hatred of the world (a mania of moralism and narcissism) for its failure to resemble the words we apply to it. Faced with a choice between real people and some stupid abstraction about words, themselves mere abstractions, Loughner killed the people to defend the abstraction. This, then, really is a kind of nihilism, only not the kind that people think Nietzsche was guilty of. It’s the kind of nihilism that Nietzsche was trying to warn us about, and help us overcome.
I have a little more to add to this. It’s probably unnecessary.
When one reads Nietzsche, they encounter even more difficulties than Feeney hints at which, on the surface, would make him seem appealing to sociopaths. Chief among these is the frequent use of the word “pity” in a pejorative context, part of a larger critique of the virtue of compassion. Nietzsche describes it as a “decadent” virtue degrading to one’s character.
However, only a superficial reading could allow one to believe that Nietzsche encouraged callousness. Nietzsche called pity “decadent” not because he believed only bleeding-heart softies wanted to help people, but because he believed it encouraged smugness on behalf of helpers. If someone gives handouts to the poor, they maneuver themselves into a position of power over the recipient of their welfare. A weak-charactered almsgiver might become smug learn to take pleasure in the denigration of the less fortunate; and the repeated humiliations the receiver endures might foster ressentiment (a cardinal vice in Nietzsche) against the giver. Instead of acting on pity, Nietzsche suggested that the strong-charactered practice “kindness” and “graciousness” by recognizing the common humanity and potential within the less-fortunate, and work to let them master their own situation.
Though he is generally characterized as a radical author of new, weird values, Nietzsche saw himself an heir to the legacy of Greco-Roman antiquity, whose concept of virtue lacked the explicit iterations of outward-minded charity of Christianity, but instead emphasized the nobility of cultivating a species of personal excellence, in which were compact hospitality and good-humored generosity. Though not silent in his criticism of the Greeks, Nietzsche did find their ethics ”healthier” and a worthier paradigm for future morals than any scheme he observed in the 19th century.
Exactly how these more individualistic ideals would “work” in practical terms is a point on which Nietzsche is somewhat fuzzy on; it is not clear whether the Christian corporeal works of mercy or liberal social justice would survive his “transvaluation of all values.” But however he imagined his ideas execution, Nietzsche had the profoundest admiration of virtuous humanitarianism. The “strongest,” he said, “handle the mediocre ones more tenderly than they do themselves.” Even in the imfamous Zarathustra he declares:
When power becomes gracious and descends into the visible — such descent I call beauty. And there is nobody from whom I want beauty as much as from you who are powerful: let your kindness be your final self-conquest. Of all evil I deem you capable: therefore I want the good from you.
Part II, Chapter 13, “Those Who Are Sublime”
Filed under: Christianity, classical antiquity, existentialism, history, irreligion, literature, moral philosophy, nihilism, philosophy, religion, Uncategorized, Victoriana, virtue ethics | 1 Comment »