Friedrich Nietzsche says many true things and many outlandishly immoral things. There’s clearly a religious and philosophical earnestness underlying many of the things he says, despite a superficial jokey cynicism. Reading Nietzsche inevitably raises the question – what is this person up to? He’s clearly up to something, but what?
He attacks slave morality, but master morality doesn’t seem any better. In fact it is obviously fairly repulsive to him. So readers are left wondering, what’s the alternative to slave morality supposed to be again?
Nietzsche attacks only the crudest Sunday School versions of Christianity; to that extent, it’s a strawman. Admittedly, this crudeness is reflected in some official RC dogma. I reject the kind of Christianity Nietzsche attacks as much as he does. Dostoevsky’s character Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov at least criticizes a very sophisticated version of Christianity and attacks it well, despite Dostoevsky’s pro-Christian sentiments.
In my first cover to cover reading of the Genealogy of Morals several years ago, I believe I found the problem and an explanation for some of the contradictions and contradictory tendencies in Nietzsche. Apparently, my explanation is not at all novel. Yet, in order to accept it, you have to buy the following argument.
Ken Wilber argues that a proper existential stance requires both wisdom and compassion, symbolized by the allegory of Plato’s Cave. In leaving the cave, the philosopher, the lover of wisdom, is searching for wisdom, the Good, and happiness. Happiness requires wisdom because we have to learn the difference between what is desirable and what is not. Part of our destiny is to develop. Misery and suffering will lead to wanting to overcome the problems and limitations that cause these things. The quest to understand the Good better is everyone’s life long goal, whether they know it or not.
So, if you care about yourself and other people, you strive to develop and wish them to do so as well. To wish anyone to stop developing at any age is to wish them ill. The interests and limitations of a ten year old are fine when you’re ten, but ridiculous when you are fifteen. Our urge to develop can be seen as of a piece with the development of the universe, from the Big Bang, to stars, to planets, to solar systems, to life on Earth, and to the development of more and more complex life forms.
But a proper existential stance also requires compassion. Compassion is acceptance; unconditional love symbolized by returning to the cave out of compassion for the philosopher’s fellow prisoners. Regardless of possible charges of sexism, I think there are still some grounds for equating the quest for wisdom and development, and conditional love as a more typically masculine tendency and compassion and unconditional love as the more nurturing and feminine. One’s possible outrage will surely be mitigated if one hears that both the masculine and feminine tendencies should be combined in one person.
The quest for development can be taken too far. Puritanism and Gnosticism strive for salvation, for their perception of the Good, and regard the body and physical reality as evil; as a nasty hindrance barring our way to happiness. This leads to all sorts of intolerance and hatred.
The urge for compassion and acceptance can be overdone as well. Romanticism and Fertility Cults unconditionally accept nature just as it is. Culture is seen as life-denying. To strive to develop is to reject reality as you find it. However, since failing to develop is failing to live well, this excessive compassion in isolation is bad.
Idiot compassion, as Wilber calls it, involves accepting everything with no urge to develop. You give kids candy and TV because ‘its what makes them happy.’ You let your spouse beat you up because you love them. Compassion without wisdom is not compassionate and caring at all. Instead it hurts people.
The traditional two parent family had the tough love Dad making you do your homework and piano practice, sending you to bed with no supper, and the unconditionally loving mother sneaking you something to eat late at night.
Genuine love involves complete acceptance of your children no matter what. Even if they become an ax murderer, you will visit them in prison. It also involves pushing them to develop themselves and to develop their talents rather than becoming fat and useless to themselves and to other people.
If you are being beaten up by your spouse, you should prosecute, and make sure there are consequences for their actions; but you should also forgive them. Forgiveness involves not hating people, but wise compassion does not involve being treated as a doormat. I forgive students who plagiarize, but I also prosecute them and get them written up in the Dean’s office and fail them for the assignment and get them thrown out of class at times.
That’s a lot to accept before I can get around to explaining where I think Nietzsche went wrong. Nietzsche goes wrong by being half right. A major problem with us philosophers and other people, is we take a partial truth and mistake it for the whole truth. It is often difficult to extricate ourselves from this error because the thing we are emphasizing is true. We know we have hold of a truth and we won’t let go. This, I believe, is Nietzsche’s problem. He knows that compassion and acceptance are good and he’s willing to promote them to the utter demise of compassion and acceptance!
Nietzsche says there is no heaven, no transcendence. There is nothing higher to aim for. What is real is here on Earth and what we see is nature.
Nietzsche wants to say yes to life. His test for whether you are saying yes to life is whether you would choose to live the same life you have just lived over and over again for all eternity without changing anything. If you say yes, then you are a saint of acceptance. Total acceptance means saying yes to life.
There is some truth to this. We sometimes think it would be nice if we could edit our lives and take out all the boring bits, and the suffering and the times we acted badly. Saying yes to life is accepting it just as it is.
However, what the test of eternal recurrence misses is embracing development; the striving part. Living the same life over and over would be a kind of hell because we would never get to develop. That goes against reality.
Suffering is fine, as far as it goes. Suffering is a motive to change, to grow and develop. New parents must develop new capacities for patience or end up abandoning or murdering their new baby. However, the kind of suffering Nietzsche is recommending – never learning from your mistakes and thus never developing is hell.
Developing does not mean the end of suffering. One solves the old problems and gets new ones – problems that are developmentally appropriate. At one age, learning how to suck on your big toe might be your big ambition. At another age what career to pursue might concern you. Later on there might be mid-life crisis issues arising. Developing does not mean rejecting life, but attempting to cope with the ever-changing demands life throws at you.
Acceptance is a virtue. We should accept two year olds, for all their limitations. They can’t read, they can’t write, they may not even be toilet trained. But they may still be a perfect little two year old. We are all at some level of development and are perfect in this way too. But if you love that two year old, you do not want to condemn them to the same mistakes, the same interests, the same level of cognitive development for all eternity. That would be hell. We are all that two year old.
By trying to say yes to life, Nietzsche says no to life, because part of life is developing. If it’s all just nature, there is nowhere to develop to.
What does Nietzsche see in nature? No morality. The strong eat the weak. It’s brutal, but it’s the way it is. For Nietzsche, morality says no to life. Morality tries to uplift the weak, it says that lending a helping hand is the moral thing to do… etc. etc. Nietzsche argues that morality says no to life, to nature. Any attempt to change these basic facts of life is to say no. We must say yes, and saying yes means accepting everything. Nature is on the side of the strong. Which side are you on?
For Nietzsche, morality must be rejected because it involves development and is necessarily a critique of what comes naturally.
Why do the left love him? Because the left tend to emphasize compassion e.g., bleeding heart liberals. The left intuit the nonjudgmental acceptance at the heart of this. Unconditional love.
Why do the right love him? The strong eat the weak. Independence and manly virtue. No mercy. Kill or be killed. In accepting unadulterated nature, there is no place for morality.
I’ve met both types. There’s something about it that appeals to the smart and young, but I’ve met middle-aged Nietzscheans too.
Indian untouchables. They can wear only used clothing. They may not wash in fresh water because they would pollute it. They may drink only from the water that fills where the muddy hoof print of an animal like an ox has fallen. Nietzsche pretends to delight in this, after going into graphic disgusting detail.
The left like it – cultural relativism. “This is the Indian way, we must not judge.” Unconditional acceptance.
The right like it – “there is a natural hierarchy and to hell with all this faux egalitarianism. Some people deserve what they get. The untouchables are the weak and we are the mighty.”
The contradictions accumulate. Nature says yes to ‘master’ morality. Christian charity is keeping mankind down. Nietzsche claims that Kant celebrates mediocrity and punctuality as though that is the peak of human achievement. If mankind is to achieve anything it must leave the heaving masses behind and the true genius must rise above the petty self-protective whining of hoi polloi. The übermensch will rise to the top. Perhaps, but there is nothing very natural or accepting about cultural achievement.
We can agree with Callicles in Plato’s dialog, Gorgias, that perhaps many of the weak are drawn to protection under the law for the wrong reasons, just as the weak might be drawn to Christian charity. The weak hope that justice under the law might mean they get their fair share. The weak know that if there is to be charity, then they will be the beneficiaries. Their motives are often selfish, not moral. Much of the time their apparent love of morality is just self-interest. This may well be true. But their selfish motives do not mean that kindness is wrong. I might give you a gift hoping to get something in return, but that doesn’t make gift giving per se immoral.
The saint of acceptance tries to accept everything as a consequence of unconditional love. But when he tries to accept Nature, he finds endless death and no mercy. Better and worse. Strong and weak. Out of love and compassion he will send the weak to the gas chambers and deny their pleas for help because in not accepting their fate, the weak are rejecting LIFE. They must be shown the light. Those who seek to protect the weak are the naysayers.
Something like this seems to be going on. One senses, at times, Nietzsche’s reluctance to keep following his line of thought. He is going to overcome his disgust at brutality and domination in a heroic act of acceptance. It’s his exaggerated idiot compassion that leads him to embrace ruthless domination and name Napoleon as a hero! What a mess. He’s the biggest idealist out there. He’s Kirilov in The Devils. (I have to say I adore Girard’s comments about that character in Deceit, Desire and the Novel.)
Kirilov, like Nietzsche, wants to be the Christ. Or rather, the anti-Christ since the Christ position has been filled already. Both Kirilov and Nietzsche are going to save us from salvation, unredeem redemption and promise us eternal death.
Kirilov points out that the major draw card of religions is the promise of eternal life. No billionaire can offer such a thing. Kirilov hopes to undermine this thing that only religions offer by demonstrating the overcoming of the fear of death through his suicide. If death is not to be feared, then religion becomes that much less attractive. Kirilov is in weird competition with Christ. I can’t help feeling that Nietzsche is too and in fact is quite indignant about his inferior status. I suppose he should be happy because many people I’m sure do think him the superior person.
Nietzsche can be compared to a naïve well-meaning undergraduate moral relativist. Relativism is taught to school children to teach them to be tolerant. I have witnessed students attempting to tolerate some of the greatest horrors ever perpetrated by mankind in order to be good people. They too, like Nietzsche, strive to be saints of acceptance and they do so by holding their noses and attempting to embrace slavery and the Holocaust.
This kind of misunderstanding about tolerance; that one should tolerate evil, would horrify the children’s teachers. And if, perchance, it doesn’t, then of course the teachers are evil.
I admit that I find it hard to believe that I’m a better psychologist in this regard than Nietzsche. He hated Kant and Mill and their version of morality. I dislike them too. Why did they imagine that they could somehow improve on Christian morality? Why was their moral theorizing necessary? What did it add? It was of a piece with the Enlightenment fascination with theory rather than tradition and intuition and of course, revelation. Nietzsche was correct in being unimpressed with some nineteenth century notions of morality but went on to attack Christian morality too as though he had something better to offer, just as Karl Marx rejected Christianity and then promoted compulsory charity and compassion, a grotesque distortion of the Christian message. Nietzsche tries to tear down traditional morality and then writes an I.O.U. that only the Ubermensch can redeem. Into the vacuum, Nietzsche’s left wing and right wing admirers climb.