Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, March 30, 2009

NIETZSCHE: Beyond Good and Evil (Chapter 2)

Imagine it’s Saturday night at the college dorms. Some of the guys are out on dates. Some have gone camping for the weekend. Some are at a sports bar watching the big football game. Meanwhile Freshman Newguy (FN) is up in his room immersing himself in Schopenhauer. That’s what FN did last weekend too; and the one before that. FN despises average guys for being shallow and boring; the average guys think FN is a weirdo who spends too much time alone in his room. Who’s closer to being right? The answer depends on your perspective about what’s important in life. Here’s what Nietzsche thinks of the average guy: “The long and serious study of the average man – and consequently bad conversation (all conversation is bad conversation except with one’s equals) – that constitutes a necessary part of the life-history of every philosopher; perhaps the most disagreeable, odious and disappointing part.” Nietzsche believes philosophy is only for the strong-hearted. Not everyone is capable of understanding philosophy books; and even if they do understand them they may not like them. This is because, as Nietzsche says, “For lower minds they are dangerous, disturbing, unsettling books, but for higher minds they are herald-calls which summon the bravest to their own bravery.” Most folks find this brand of philosophy dangerous and disturbing. For Nietzsche it’s a quest for a higher level of living and thinking. Who's right? Take your pick.

In Nietzsche’s opinion the reason most people don’t attain this higher level is because they worry too much about comfort and security. Most people just want to be happy and think they can be happier if they’re also good. Most philosophers have traditionally thought this too. Ever since Socrates there’s been a strong link between the notion of happiness and virtue. Not so with Nietzsche. He says “Nobody will very readily regard a doctrine as true merely because it makes people happy or virtuous – except perhaps the amiable “Idealists” who are enthusiastic about the good, true, and beautiful…Happiness and virtue are no arguments.” Average people surely will ask: if happiness and virtue don't make for good arguments, then what does? Nietzsche is now striking at the very core of Western values. Was the pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty fine for the classical world of Socrates but somehow not ok now? If we can’t hold on to these bedrocks then what can we hold on to? Nietzsche says we shouldn’t hold on to anything; not to our country, not to our parents or even to our spouse and children. To be a “free spirit” we need to let go of all traditional moorings and set off in pursuit of a totally new and unencumbered philosophy. Naturally most people will say “forget it then – philosophy’s not for me.”

But Nietzsche believes that a new order of philosophers is already appearing in the world. So who are these new philosophers? Well, for one thing they’re not your average guys. Philosophers have never been average guys but here’s the difference: Socrates would go about the marketplace talking to politicians and shoemakers, young boys and old men, the brilliant and the dull. The new philosopher will avoid the marketplace like the plague. Why? Because the marketplace is filled with ordinary people. The new philosophers want to be “free spirits” and in the modern world ordinary people are “slaves of democratic taste and people with modern ideas are not free spirits, they’re just superficial thinkers…What they want is security, safety, comfort and “Equal Rights”…they don’t believe in the dangerous formula: Beyond Good and Evil…” Whether this new philosophy is a blessing or a curse depends on your view of human nature and what you want out of life. Do you want to develop into a super-human hero? Then this new philosophy is a blessing. Do you want a quiet, peaceful life? Then it’s a curse. Take your pick.


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