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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!


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