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ideas of nobility and grace celebrated in Greek and Roman art are today perceived as being “old school,” having been replaced by the architecture of shopping malls and fast food chains.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?


Blogger Ron said...

To prepare for leading discussions on Nietzsche for the Houston Memorial Great Books Group, I have researched many sites and essays. You have defintely "over-flowed yourself" with your Uber-essay, and I used some of your questions.

As to your question "will Nietzsche be remembered as a genius or just a nineteenth century version of Rush Limbaugh"; many of the group were shocked at the comparison. (Itself surprising that anyone had any remaining capacity for shock after reading "Twilight of the Gods" and "Ecce Homo.") I attribute this to the notion that anyone so anti-Chrisitian not only cannot be all bad but cannot be any bad.

Nietzche asks: "Let us look forward a century and assume I have succeeded in my attempts to assassinate two thousand years of anti-nature and desecration of humanity.” (Ecce Homo, Chap. “Birth of Tragedy”, Part 4)

Question with a question with a question: "Does the buck for the century from 1889 to 1989 (WWI, II, drug culture, and the AIDS epidemic) stop at N’s writing desk?"

The answer is the Chapter title from "Ecce Homo": WHY I AM DESTINY.

The last song of the goat-man (in "Ecce Homo") is:

“Have I been understood? —Dionysus versus the crucified …”

Ron Haley

7/24/2009 10:04 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home