Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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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."


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