Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Natural History of Morals

We have a different faith; to us the democratic movement is not only a form of the decay of political organization but a form of the decay, namely the diminution, of man, making him mediocre and lowering his value. Where, then, must we reach with our hopes?
Toward new philosophers; there is no choice; toward spirits strong and original enough to provide the stimuli for opposite valuations and to revalue and invert “eternal values…”

It is hard to admire a man who believes that most of the human race belongs to an inferior caste of simple-minded, dull, pedantic bureaucrats and slaves. You wonder, at times, who can possibly be his audience? Well, the truth is Nietzsche’s popularity never wanes entirely and, indeed, seems reenergized with each generation of discontented youth. For the so-called modern age, in addition to its higher standard of living and greater freedom of choice, brings much turbulence in its wake. The old cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, justice and fortitude, have all but vanished in our rush toward self-actualization and the endless pursuit of comfort. Classical ideas of nobility and grace celebrated in Greek and Roman art are today perceived as being “old school,” having been replaced by the architecture of shopping malls and fast food chains. The traditional values of chastity, modesty and sincerity are fossils of a bygone age, as anachronistic to our culture as the formality of a tea ceremony. Nietzsche is not the first to castigate his society for what modern ideas have done to classical values. One obvious example is Kierkegaard, who offers a counterpart to Nietzsche’s own deconstruction of modern life. Other celebrated critics of their time were Luther, Marx, Mohammed and Jesus. Yet Nietzsche is, perhaps, the most troubling of all. He expresses utter contempt for what most people believe in: the virtues of peace, prosperity, happiness, and the dignity of man. Rather than celebrate the ascent of man, Nietzsche describes the de-evolution of his species:

“This animalization of man into the dwarf animal of equal rights and claims.”

And here is where his argument takes hold. Unlike the prophets of old, who criticized their own people for moral backsliding and called for universal repentance, holding everyone to account, Nietzsche believes most people on the planet are not worth saving. In Darwinian terms, the evolution of the human species requires many slaves and herd animals to support the nurturing of a few noble souls. In fact, 99.9% of the human population is expendable. Like worker bees in a hive, most people are useful only as domestic servants to a few great spirits who lead the human race to greater achievements. Think of Pericles, Alexander, Caesar, Da Vinci, Napoleon or Wagner. These are the great souls that make a difference to civilization. It is for these few that Nietzsche proposes a kind of Renaissance spirit of eugenics, wherein a population of serfs sacrifice their lives for the sake of a few good men. Good in the sense of natural superiority, not ordinary morality. Think of the Tibetan Buddhist quest to find the one true Dalai Lama to lead all people to enlightenment.

Nietzsche is not alone in his view of a natural hierarchy in human potential. Plato and Aristotle both taught that people are not equal, and, in fact, are better off being ruled by other people with greater wisdom. This was generally the view of most philosophers of the classical period. It was not until the rise of Christianity that a doctrine of universal equality emerged with any broad support in the population. But the idea of a natural aristocracy has never completely vanished. It reemerges in such areas as political economy, e.g., the neo-Malthusian theory of mass extinction due to limited means of production (only the best should be allowed to procreate). An elective view of humanity also lies at the heart of the Marxian model of politics, wherein all bourgeoisie are excluded from the ideal state. Needless to say, the evangelistic dogma that humanity is divided into the saved and the damned is another version of Aristotle’s original claim.

Nietzsche is clearly not alone in his belief that humanity is naturally divided into higher and lower castes, so why is he perceived as being so radical? For one thing, his tone. He adopts a superior, judgmental attitude in which he expresses no compassion at all for those of lesser ability. This might be because the so-called “herd animal” today has come into political power. In the days when the aristocracy ruled, the herd could be politically controlled. But no longer. This is why Nietzsche, along with many die hard conservatives, despise the rule of democracy which is founded upon the Enlightenment principle of universal rights for all men. Nietzsche asks, just as Tocqueville did, why the superior man should be ruled by the inferior mob. The answer seems to be that most people do not trust a wealthy oligarchy to rule over them. No one wants to think of himself as a herd animal. Few of us believe we are one of a chosen group of geniuses to lead all of humanity to its destiny. Most people who believe this end up in a mental institution. But who is to say? The divine right of kings has passed into history along with the Homeric veneration of gods and goddesses. Will Nietzsche also pass into history as a relic of classical nobility, or will he be remembered as just another pudknocker ranting about the rise of democracy in a world he despised? Or, to put it another way, will Nietzsche be remembered as a genius or just a nineteenth century version of Rush Limbaugh?

Monday, April 20, 2009

NIETZSCHE: Beyond Good and Evil (Chapter 5: The Natural History of Morals)

Friedrich Nietzsche did an awful lot of what these days we call thinking out of the box. For example, he makes the observation that philosophers want to give a basis to morality. But he worries that morality itself has always been regarded as something “given.” This is probably true. Most of the philosophers I’ve read have opinions on how life should be lived. None of them that I recall questioned basic Western values prohibiting murder, stealing, etc. Nietzsche does. He puts it this way: Morality in Europe at present is a herding-animal morality. As we understand morals this is only one kind of morality. Other moralities, especially higher moralities, are or should be possible. This is interesting. Nietzsche apparently believes “the good” is only one kind of morality; other kinds of morality are possible. He’s right. Lots of things are possible. But why stop with morality and ethics? Think about food. For thousands of years people have regarded it as a “given” that good food is better than bad food. Why is this? Nietzsche calls it a “prejudice” (see chapter 1) that has been instilled into us by our parents or whoever cooks our meals. We’ve gotten used to good food and accept it as “given” that food which tastes good is better than food which doesn’t. We don’t question it. Using Nietzsche’s logic we should. Surely there are other foods, just as there are other moralities, which are possible too. Maybe we need a new breed of chefs to replace our old prejudice for good food with a new prejudice for bad food. Listen up, ye culinary free spirits!

Apparently what bothers Nietzsche is the idea of any one, any where, any time telling him what to do. It even bothers him when other people tell other people what to do; or even how to do it. Sticking with food, consider the Book of Leviticus and its numerous dietary and hygienic laws. These were set down as a way for people to live closely together without causing them to get sick. It also kept them from getting on each other’s nerves. Jews believed this was a better way for people to live in harmony and community with one another. They thought this was a good thing. Nietzsche calls it a herd-morality or a slave-mentality. He says that The Jews are a people “born for slavery” as Tacitus and the whole ancient world said of them. Many of these hygienic laws seem goofy to us today. But it takes a Nietzsche to transform hygienic care for body and soul into a slave-mentality. Think about taking a nice warm bath. Cold water would get you just as clean. Then why bother with hot water heaters? In fact, why bother with bathing at all? Because a slave-mentality has been drilled into most of us that it’s better to be clean than dirty. We have a built-in prejudice that smelling nice is better than smelling bad. I guess Nietzsche would have us question these values. Smelling nice is only one of many ways to smell; there are other possibilities. Listen up, ye aromatic free spirits!

But wait, there’s more. It bothers Nietzsche that Judaism has set up firm ethical standards of which he doesn’t approve. But what really bothers him is how stubbornly they cling to their herd-morality and slave-mentality. They even take pride in it. Nietzsche points out that: They themselves believe they’re “the chosen people among the nations.” Two points here. Point one is that Tacitus and the whole ancient world has not survived. Judaism has. It bothers Nietzsche that herd-mentality values have survived for so long. They survive for a good reason – they work. Point two is that being a chosen people is a mixed blessing. With good comes bad too. As Tevye says to God in Fiddler on the Roof: once in a while, can't You choose someone else? Casual readers may conjecture that deep down Nietzsche really wanted to be a chosen one himself. So he started his own club for outcasts. Want to join? Listen up, ye chosen free spirits!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

NIETZSCHE: Beyond Good and Evil (Chapter 4 – Apophthegms and Interludes)

There are lots of folk sayings and proverbs that everyone knows by heart. You don’t even have to finish the sentence for most people to get it: “A stitch in time…/ You can lead a horse to water…/ Look before you…/ Early to bed…” These nuggets of folk wisdom are deeply ingrained into our consciousness. Whether we follow them or not is another matter. In the fourth chapter of Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche throws in some of his own nuggets of wisdom. These are translated as apophthegms. An apophthegm is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a short, pithy, and instructive saying or formulation.” Why are these particular sayings here, in this book, and at this particular point in the story? It’s hard to say. Maybe it’s just intended to be an “Interlude” or a short break from the heavy reading of the first three chapters. Maybe there’s some hidden meaning. Maybe there isn’t. In any case these apophthegms follow three chapters that deal with three closely related but separate topics.

The first topic is “The Prejudices of Philosophers.” Aristotle once said that there’s some knowledge that we should seek for its own sake and not for anything useful we can gain from studying it. Nietzsche says: “#64. ‘Knowledge for its own sake’—that is the last snare laid by morality: we are thereby completely entangled in morals once more.” Huh? Maybe Nietzsche doesn’t really want to explain things clearly. We have to think harder if we’re not given a clear answer. But even when his words are clear his message is still confusing; like this one: “#134. From the senses originate all trustworthiness, all good conscience, all evidence of truth.” Socrates thought many things were real that we can’t see or touch: truth, justice and love, for example. Even though we can’t see them we understand them better by talking about them with other seekers. You might think that Nietzsche believes in the Socratic method as a way of getting at the truth of a thing. But Nietzsche believes that “#107. A sign of strong character, when once the resolution has been taken, to shut the ear even to the best counter-arguments. Occasionally, therefore, a will to stupidity.” Then why study philosophy? Why talk at all?

In chapter two Nietzsche picks up the topic of “The Free Spirit.” Nietzsche admits that “It is difficult to be understood…” So does he try to be as clear as possible? Of course not. Then he wouldn’t be Nietzsche. Instead he says “I do everything to be difficultly understood.” Here’s an example: “#87. FETTERED HEART, FREE SPIRIT—When one firmly fetters one’s heart and keeps it prisoner, one can allow one’s spirit many liberties: I said this once before but people do not believe it when I say so, unless they know it already.” So let me get this straight – if my heart’s held prisoner my spirit can roam free? This is obscure. Here’s another obscure example: “#146. He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” Nietzsche is not easy to read.

Finally in chapter three Nietzsche writes about “The Religious Mood.” Some of these apophthegms apply to religion. In #65A for example, Nietzsche says “We are most dishonorable towards our God: he is not PERMITTED to sin.” This seems like a logical dead end to me. Witty, but going nowhere. Some of Nietzsche’s sayings may deserve deeper consideration: “#129. The devil has the most extensive perspectives for God; on that account he keeps so far away from him:— the devil, in effect, as the oldest friend of knowledge.” This is worth thinking about. Or this one: “#152. ‘Where there is the tree of knowledge, there is always Paradise": so say the most ancient and the most modern serpents.” Is Nietzsche wise or just another serpent?

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

What is Religious

Do not let this happen to you, you who are weak and whose fate depends on a single movement of the scale. And do not be like those people who, as so commonly happens, miss the chance of saving themselves in a human and practical way, and, when every clear and distinct hope has left them in their adversity, turn to what is blind and vague, to prophecies and oracles and such things which by encouraging hope leads men to ruin.
(The Peloponnesian War, Book Five, 103: The Melian Dialogue)

The advice given by the Athenian commander to the leaders of Melos reflects a view of the world which Nietzsche understands and approves, though it is not one shared by Christians. This view of the world might be called "the school of hard knocks." When the Athenians invade the island of Melos, they do not waste any time trying to justify their position in terms of morality:

Then we on our side will use no fine phrases saying, for example, that we have a right to our empire because we defeated the Persians, or that we have come against you now because of the injuries you have done us - a great mass of words that nobody would fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.
(Book Five, 90)

This outlook represents a position that Thrasymachus argued before Socrates in Plato's Republic. In other words, justice is the will of the stronger. For many people, it is accepted as the natural order of things in a world that Hobbes described as a continual state of "war of all against all." Darwin arrived at a similar position by analyzing the struggle within nature whose only morality might be expressed as the survival of the fittest. In political terms, it has been promulgated by Machiavelli and Hegel as a kind of no nonsense "realpolitik" view of how power is manifested in human society. Obviously, it is a belief not original to Nietzsche, and its supporters can be found in all phases of contemporary life, from libertarian philosophy to pragmatism.

Nietzsche singles out Christianity for abuse because he believes it encourages false hope within human society. Instead of preaching mercy and forgiveness, we need to be powerful and ruthless, otherwise our enemies will take advantage of our weakness. Is he wrong? Before answering this question, you ought to consider what assumptions you already hold about the world you live in. Is it, in fact, a good world where justice prevails and the good are rewarded, or is it a fallen world, as Christians see it, a mere playground for the devil. If you believe it is a good world, then how do you account for the presence of evil? What about the Holocaust? How is that possible in a good world? These kinds of questions arise in any discussion of theodicy, which is how philosphers and theologians deal with the problem of evil. Of course, Nietzsche would say this is all nonsense. There is no good or evil in the world other than what we ourselves make of it. You don't have to be an atheist to arrive at this position. Since 1517, Catholics and Protestants have spent hundreds of years slaughtering each other over questions of dogma, not to mention other religious conflicts involving Jews and Muslims, or Hindus and Buddhists.

Nietzsche doesn't have much good to say about any religion, but he has a special animus for Christianity: view of all that the "spiritual men" of Christianity, for example, have so far done for Europe! preserve all that was sick and that suffered--which means, in fact and in truth, to worsen the European race...cast suspicion on the joy in beauty, bend everything haughty, manly, conquering, domineering, all the instincts characteristic of the highest and best-turned-out type of man, into unsureness, agony of conscience, self-destruction--indeed, invert all love of the earthly and of dominion over the earth into hatred of the earth and the earthly--that is the task the church posed for itself and had to pose, until in its estimation "becoming unworldly," "unsensual," and "higher men" were fused into a single feeling.

Obviously, Nietzsche feels that Christianity has a harmful, even fatal effect on the society of men. For him, it means nothing less than a renunciation of the natural instincts and power of men to achieve greatness. In that sense, Christianity acts as a kind of poison whose debilitating effects are passed down from one generation to another until we become a race of pygmies, "...a smaller, almost ridiculous type, a herd animal, something eager to please, sickly, and mediocre has been bred, the European of today--."

In Part One, "On the Prejudices of Philosophers", Nietzsche accused philosophy of propagating a myth, an irrational search for "truths" that only Plato could take seriously. The problem of both philosophy and religion is that they substitute platitudes for reality. What do we know of "things in themselves" or "essences" or "holy ghosts" or "free will" or "soul"? For Nietzsche, these are nothing more than metaphors, or allegories which are better left to poets and lunatics. Thus, as Nietzsche would say, the human soul is nothing but bad philology. A misuse of language. Such abstract ideas have intruded upon and supplanted a more useful knowledge of human will power, the instincts and impulses that guide our daily life. Instead of praying to divine entities and planning for our future in heaven, we ought to be paying more attention to this world which is the only world we have available. The "free spirit" which Nietzsche invokes is the man who stands alone, unattached to others and unwilling to enslave his desires to any dogma or institution. Like Achilles or Caesar, he is high-spirited, confident, vigorous, fearing no one, and bowing to no one. He is fully aware of his mortality but never complaining or pessimistic. To put it simply, he is no whiner. He takes his pleasure where he can, and makes no excuses or apologies.

The superior man never concerns himself with the opinions of others, especially not his inferiors. Morality is but a creation of the weak to compensate for their inability to face death. As far back as Aristotle, the superior man recognized that humanity is not equally gifted, or brave or strong. Some of us are natural leaders, others are followers. All men may be mortal, but some are terrified at the prospect of death, while others accept it as a natural event. The Greeks and Romans believed that any man who surrendered in battle to save his life must be a natural slave. That is because for a slave, survival is the highest good. He will happily surrender his dignity in order to preserve himself. But other men will never give up their freedom in order to remain alive. That is a slave's bargain. Aristotle called slavery a natural condition for some men, while others are born to be "masters." Later, the master-slave dichotomy was something that Hegel explored in his Phenomenology of Spirit. Nietzsche deplored Christianity because it substitutes meekness for the natural superiority of stronger men. He called the French Revolution "the last great slave revolt." For Nietzsche, democracy is the language of slaves. It is the curse of the modern world, the great leveler of humanity.

Instead of the natural distinctions that nature imposes on life, democrats and Christians turn everything upside down. They empower the weak over the strong, the cowardly over the brave, the ignoble over the noble, the foolish over the wise, the menial over the exceptional. What Nietzsche objects to most is modern life itself, the tendency for individuals to be absorbed by the crowd, for institutions to dominate over men, for ideas (the flatulence of the mind) to castrate vitality, for kindness to smother boldness, for comfort to replace innovation, and conformity to strangle nobility. In other words, Nietzsche calls for the elevation of men as individuals, and the recognition that a belief in equality is a fatal disease which afflicts not just our generation, but our entire civilization.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

NIETZSCHE: Beyond Good and Evil (Chapter 3 “The Religious Mood”)

It’s impossible to think about Western civilization without the Bible. Western art, literature, music, philosophy and even science have all been heavily influenced by biblical themes. There are many stories in the Bible which shock modern readers. The story of Abraham being told by “an angel of the Lord” to sacrifice his son Isaac is one of them. What kind of man would kill his own child? There’s a whole category of people who reject the Christian religion because this “Book” has some seriously flawed people in it and they feel the Bible was written for a different time and place. It shouldn’t be used as a guide for living in the modern world. So these folks are openly hostile toward Christianity. But a second category of people accept the flawed models in the Bible as reflections of their own lives and the lives of everyone else they know. These are believers who see the Bible as a guide for navigating the real world - not the world as we wish it was but the world we really live in. And believers don’t think human nature has changed all that much since ancient times. A third category of people don’t care one way or the other. They go about their daily lives from cradle to grave and the Bible doesn’t make a big influence on them at all. These folks just shrug off religion and get on with life. Then there’s Nietzsche.

Many people reject religion because they think it leads to fanaticism and war. They argue that religion makes people too aggressive. But Nietzsche rejects orthodox Christianity for a different reason. He thinks it makes people too weak. Nietzsche believes that only the strong survive and that’s the way it should be. He says that “Among men, as among all other animals, there is a surplus of defective, diseased, degenerating, infirm, and necessarily suffering individuals… What, then, is the attitude of the two greatest religions (Christianity and Buddhism) to the surplus of failures in life? They endeavor to preserve and keep alive whatever can be preserved; in fact, as the religions for sufferers, they take the part of these upon principle…” By nurturing misfits and other “defective” people Christianity has really weakened the society we live in. Nietzsche’s brand of philosophy is to do away with good deed-doers and replace them with a more vigorous and heroic race of men. Society should therefore focus on developing its strongest members. The weaker members should exist only for the further development of the stronger. This will advance the cause of philosophy and improve human nature as Nietzsche conceives it. The Will to Power is the prime motivating force for this philosophical outlook. It’s exactly backward from the Christian religion, which teaches that the stronger folks should take care of the weaker ones. Self-sacrificial love is the prime motivating force for the Christian religion. These two views could hardly be farther apart in the ends they hope to achieve.

Ironically the means are similar in some ways. Nietzsche likes physical energy and action but he also recognizes that a Super-Man needs to go off and be alone sometimes so he can think and contemplate life. Nietzsche acknowledges the value of meditation when he says that “outward idleness or semi-idleness is necessary to a real religious life…” Catholic Trappist monks agree wholeheartedly with this concept and make “semi-idleness” a major part of their daily routine. They call it Lectio Divina – holy reading. Trappists practice “idleness” by their devotion to this Lectio Divina. But they also balance idleness with physical labor; sometimes hard physical labor. So their days consist of three major activities: Prayer, Work, and Study. For Trappist monks prayer isn’t the “soft placidity” that Nietzsche thinks it is. For them prayer (Opus Dei or “God’s Work”) is, in fact, the most important thing they do. It’s so important that they get up every day at 3:00 a.m. to chant the Psalms. Is this the kind of life Nietzsche calls weak?

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Free Spirit

How we have made everything around us clear and free and easy and simple! how we have been able to give our senses a passport to everything superficial, our thoughts a divine desire for wanton leaps and wrong inferences! how from the beginning we have contrived to retain our ignorance in order to enjoy an almost inconceivable freedom, lack of scruple and caution, heartiness, and gaiety of life-- in order to enjoy life. And only on this now solid, granite foundation of ignorance could knowledge rise so far-- the will to knowledge on the foundation of a far more powerful will: the will to ignorance, to the uncertain, to the untrue! Not as its opposite, but-- as its refinement.

In Part Two of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche expands on his rejection of democracy and his utter disdain for the shibboleths of modern liberal society. Such formulations as "all men are created equal," or "all men are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are mere by-products of "natural rights" theory, and are pure lunacy to Nietzsche. Where is this so-called natural equality to be found? Only within the soft, underbelly of liberal ideas: the dream life of beggars, or as Nietzsche refers to them collectively: the herd.

The values of the herd are famously encapsulated in our Declaration of Independence: namely, a right to the "pursuit of happiness." Yet for Nietzsche, this declaration of indpendence is but a writ of conformity, a touchstone for the mediocre and mentally deficient-- a product of what he would call "slave morality." The superior man, the "free spirit," remains unattached from all humanity; he is neither burdened with feelings of remorse or pity or patriotic zeal. He stands apart from the crowd and has no interest in its approval. For him, tenderness is a form of weakness. All forms of sentimentality act to restrain our power, to drain our vitality and shame us into conformity with the slow and weak members of the herd. Even a cursory examination of nature shows that the strong and the quick survive, while the old and the sick perish.

The long and serious study of the average man, and consequently much disguise, self-overcoming, familiarity, and bad contact (all contact is bad contact except for one's equals)-- this constitutes a necessary part of the life-history of every philosopher...

Nietzsche objects to modern society for placing a higher value on comfort and pleasure than nobility. He blames the middle class for imposing its appetite for material goods over the higher virtues such as courage, honor, and beauty. In the classical age, there was no difficulty in identifying the "aristoi" or superior men. Their deeds, as recorded by Homer and Herodotus, made clear who deserved praise and who deserved scorn. Now with democracy, a kind of triumph of the herd has blurred all distinctions in men so that no one stands apart. Instead of Agamemnon and Achilles, we have Joe the plumber on CNN with his ode to the common man. It seems we have indeed become, as Napoleon once said of England, a nation of shopkeepers.

With general prosperity, our aspirations have begun to resemble our hobbies. Instead of changing the world, we reach out to change the channel on our big screen tv. Only in times of national peril, such as nine-eleven, do we ever put aside our endless craving for amusements. Nietzsche may be offensive, but his attack on bourgeios society has a serious point. The spirit of man has become debased with an insatiable thirst for pleasure, while all vestiges of a more serious life have vanished.

In some respects, Nietzsche resembles a kind of old-Testament prophet calling for a ritual cleansing of Gomorrah. The human race has become polluted with petty, unnatural desires, and needs to be reborn to a sense of its original purpose. And what is that original purpose? This is not yet clear, but a hint of the direction we are heading comes from the title: Beyond Good and Evil. I suspect that Nietzsche will adopt a rather Darwinian view of the struggle for life, devoid of any pretense of divine purpose. To go beyond good and evil is to return to a state of nature, leaving all institutions behind so that each man stands in a kind of Hobbesian world of his own. Does this mean the superior man can only reveal his virtue in conflict with lesser men? Or is this just the return of chaos, of the endless collision of bodies in motion? Can virtue ever arise out of chaos? Perhaps. In Milton's Paradise Lost, we find that even in Heaven there could be rebellion among the angels. Thus, Nietzsche's claim that "whatever does not kill me makes me stronger" testifies to his admiration for the Greek art of war... better to die young with honor, than to grow old with shame. "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori."