Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

NIETZSCHE: Beyond Good and Evil (Chapter 9: What is Nobility?)

Growing up in America has many advantages. One of them is the assumption that government is created of the people, by the people and for the people. That assumption seems almost as natural to us as the air we breathe. It’s one of those truths that are supposed to be self-evident according to our Declaration of Independence. Well it’s not self-evident to Nietzsche. To him it’s not self-evident at all; in fact, it isn’t even true. Nietzsche believes that governments should exist solely to elevate the superior man. He believes that Its fundamental belief must, in fact, be that the society should exist, not for the sake of the society, but only as a base and framework on which an exceptional kind of nature can raise itself to its higher function and, in general, to a higher form of being… The notion that every individual citizen should have the same rights and responsibilities as every other citizen is nonsense to Nietzsche. And it’s not just the American form of government that Nietzsche rejects. He rejects the whole set of values on which American democracy is based. Take the basic American ideals of freedom and the pursuit of happiness, for example. Nietzsche believes that the longing for freedom, the instinct for happiness, and the refinements of the feeling for freedom belong to slave morality and morals. This is almost a reverse image of what Americans hope to achieve. Most of us are just trying to live the lives of normal free men and women, not slaves. And Nietzsche hates normal.

Nietzsche is having none of it. Most of us strive to achieve what has become known as “the American dream.” It might mean different things to different people but generally it involves having a good job, owning your own home and having enough money and leisure time to enjoy life. But Nietzsche warns us that comfort and leisure don’t produce great men. It’s only through suffering that we become wise and truly understand what life is all about. Here he’s on common ground with the teachings of the ancient Greek tragedies and the old Biblical books of Job and Ecclesiastes. Nietzsche believes that Profound suffering ennobles; it separates. We become noble by voluntarily taking on suffering. Living the modern American dream is an avoidance of suffering whenever possible. But this veneer hides the true meaning of life. We live with a thin veneer of activities and stuff so we won’t have to face too much suffering. A deeper more philosophical viewpoint tells us it’s perfectly normal to avoid pain and seek pleasure whenever possible. This is what Epicurus proposed in his philosophy. But Nietzsche says One of the most sophisticated forms of disguise is Epicureanism…because Nietzsche hates normal.

When all is said and done, where does Nietzsche really stand? Toward the end of his book Nietzsche takes an odd turn. He calls himself the last disciple and initiate of the god Dionysus. Then he goes on to say that I might well at last begin to give you, my friends, a little taste of this philosophy, as much as I am permitted? In a hushed voice, as is reasonable: for this concerns a number of things which are secret, new, strange, odd, mysterious… Dionysus (or Bacchus) is anything but secret, new or mysterious. It’s one of the oldest and best-known things we have: the tendency for people to get out of control and do crazy things sometimes. There’s no secret in that. Many people – good people – have been known to get drunk at a party and do outrageous things which are totally out of character. The Greeks were aware of this. They even set aside a few days for a “Bacchanalia” to let off a little steam. Living in society isn’t always easy. It forces people to behave themselves when they would rather mis-behave. In modern America we call it Spring Break or Mardi Gras instead of “Bacchanalia.” Then it’s Girls Gone Wild time. Eventually students graduate, get a job and settle down. This is normal. Nietzsche hates normal.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

NIETZSCHE: Beyond Good and Evil (Chapter 8: Peoples and Countries)

Nietzsche wrote Beyond Good and Evil before two world wars devastated much of Europe. It would be interesting to see what his book would have been like if it had been written after the two wars – or even if such a book would have been possible. Much of what he wrote turned out to be prophetic – especially in his native country of Germany. Nietzsche wrote at the end of the 19th century that the collective impression of such future Europeans will probably be that of numerous, talkative, weak-willed, and very handy workmen who REQUIRE a master, a commander, as they require their daily bread…The rise to power of Adolph Hitler would probably have seemed inevitable to Nietzsche. A master will arise when societies try too hard to make “equality” their guiding force. The way Nietzsche put it was that the democratizing of Europe will tend to the production of a type prepared for SLAVERY. Why? Because according to Nietzsche it’s unnatural for men to be equal – much less women. It’s natural for the strong to rule and the weak to serve. To his way of thinking this is the way it should be. Those living in Europe today might counter that the European Union was formed solely as an economic entity. Individual countries still form their own cultures. Germans are still German and the French are still French. They might counter that European culture has transcended Nietzsche’s “Will to Power.” Today’s Europeans no longer want to fight wars and rule over others. They want to live in peace and enjoy the fruits of their economic union via cooperative effort. Nietzsche might reply something like: “Of course you want to live in peace and enjoy the fruits of your labor. That’s because you’re lazy and have a slave mentality. It’s that kind of thinking that has turned Europeans into shop-keepers.”

It’s not that Nietzsche is against nationalistic cultures – as long as those cultures are authentic and produce men fit to rule. But for a culture to form there has to be some underlying glue to hold the whole thing together. It has to be something that defines what a nation stands for and state clearly what it believes in. For the ancient Greeks this would have been The Iliad. For modern Americans it’s The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution of the United States. What was it for Germans? Nietzsche’s answer is surprising. Nietzsche says that The masterpiece of German prose is therefore with good reason the masterpiece of its greatest preacher: the BIBLE has hitherto been the best German book. Compared with Luther’s Bible, almost everything else is merely ‘literature’—something which has not grown in Germany, and therefore has not taken and does not take root in German hearts, as the Bible has done. The only thing consistent about Nietzsche is his constant inconsistency.

At one point in this same book (#195) Nietzsche calls Jews a people “born for slavery.” In this chapter he writes that The Jews, however, are beyond all doubt the strongest, toughest, and purest race at present living in Europe; they know how to succeed even under the worst conditions (in fact better than under favorable ones)… owing above all to a resolute faith which does not need to be ashamed before ‘modern ideas.’ It’s hard for the reader to reconcile how the strongest, toughest and purest race can at the same time be a people born for slavery. In this regard Nietzsche often writes like a poet rather than a philosopher. Does he often contradict himself? He might reply: “Yes, but so what? Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. My vision is what counts.” In this sense Nietzsche seems to me more of a poet than a philosopher.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

NIETZSCHE: Beyond Good and Evil (Chapter 7: Our Virtues)

One of the worst things you can do to young Americans today is to call them “judgmental.” They agree with Nietzsche’s observation that “The practice of judging and condemning morally is the favorite revenge of the intellectually shallow…” Intellectually shallow. This is an interesting point of view. Many traditional philosophers such as Aristotle claim that moral behavior is an activity, not a thought process. Morality is more about doing something or not doing it on a habitual basis. It’s not thinking but doing that makes us act like we do, either well or badly. Kant goes even further and says that in establishing moral worth it’s our actions that are most important. Our feelings don’t really matter. For example, if I give money to the poor and needy that’s a good action. Even if I grumble and complain about it – I still give. Giving is the important part. How I feel about giving is less important. God loves a cheerful giver but He loves grumpy ones too. Giving to the poor is an objective act that stays constant: philanthropy is good. It was good in ancient Israel and Greece, it was good in Victorian England, it’s good in modern America.

What Nietzsche is attempting to do is to put the very idea of doing good on trial. He wants to go “Beyond Good and Evil.” But it seems dishonest of him to accuse the other side of being “intellectually shallow.” Nietzsche probably has the German middle-class in mind here. He thinks they haven’t thought deeply enough about their moral values. They just accept the values that have been handed down to them by their forefathers. And he’s probably right. But these are also the values that have been handed down by forefathers like Plato and Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant. These guys are hardly “intellectually shallow.” By picking on the German middle-class Nietzsche is really attacking a cardboard cartoon character. He’s a good writer and has a lot of rhetorical tricks up his sleeve. Here’s one: If any one were to say to (a merely moral middle-class German) that ‘A lofty spirituality is beyond all comparison with the honesty and respectability of a merely moral man’—it would make them furious, I shall take care not to say so. But he says he’ll take care not to say so after he’s already said so. Neat trick, but it seems “intellectually shallow” to pull those kinds of rhetorical tricks on some poor middle-class schmuck who has to work for a living; especially when you’ve got a PhD in Philology or whatever and spent your life teaching in universities.

And it’s not just the German middle-class that irks Nietzsche. Here’s what he has to say about England: In the end, they want English morality to be recognized as authoritative, inasmuch as mankind, or the ‘general utility,’ or ‘the happiness of the greatest number’—no! the happiness of ENGLAND, will be best served thereby…They would like, by all means, to convince themselves that the striving after English happiness, I mean after COMFORT and FASHION (and in the highest instance, a seat in Parliament), is at the same time the true path of virtue… Does it seem so strange to Nietzsche that the English would think that their virtues are good? Of course they do. Otherwise, why would they use them as a guide for living the good life? These virtues are firmly embedded in the Western mind. Having material wealth can be useful for happiness and being elected to political office is nothing to be ashamed of – it’s something to be proud of. Nietzsche wouldn’t be happy in England - or anywhere else for that matter.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

NIETZSCHE: Beyond Good and Evil (Chapter 6: We Scholars)

What’s the difference between science and philosophy? For one thing they ask different questions. Science is concerned with things like: what is the world made out of? How does it work? Philosophy can’t answer these types of questions. Philosophy is concerned with things like: why is there a world in the first place (or, put a different way, why is there something instead of nothing) and how should we live in this world? Science can’t answer these types of questions. Science and philosophy have their separate spheres. We can’t really say that one is more important than the other because they’re two different things. It would be like comparing apples and oranges. What bothers Nietzsche is the increasing importance that science gained in the 19th century. Until then “science” had mostly been a branch of “natural philosophy.” In Nietzsche’s view science has swept the field and usurped the role originally intended for philosophy. He says that “the instinct of the populace cries, “Freedom from all masters!” and after science has, with the happiest results, resisted theology, whose “handmaid” it had been too long, it now proposes in its wantonness and indiscretion to lay down laws for philosophy, and in its turn to play the “master”…”

Nietzsche is always concerned about who will be “the master.” Will it be the scientist or the philosopher? The modern world, in Nietzsche’s view, is bogged down in confusion. Nietzsche believes that “The philosopher has long been mistaken and confused by the multitude, either with the scientific man and ideal scholar, or with the religiously elevated, desensualized, desecularized visionary and God- intoxicated man…” What Nietzsche proposes is a whole new concept of what a philosopher is. According to this new concept “the geniune philosopher—does it not seem so to us, my friends?—lives ‘unphilosophically’ and unwisely,’ above all imprudently, and feels the obligation and burden of a hundred attempts and temptations of life.” Socrates and Aristotle would strongly disagree that a philosopher should live imprudently. How can a man live ‘unphilosophically’ and then turn around and call himself a philosopher? The term Philosopher literally means a lover of wisdom. How can a man live ‘unwisely’ and then turn around and say that he loves wisdom?

Clearly Nietzsche isn’t a traditional philosopher. In the traditional sense he’s not making a lick of sense. But all the same there’s something going on here. Nietzsche detests the idea of people drudging away doing science in a way that de-humanizes them. In some ways he wants to recover the heroic classical notion of what life is all about: life is not about spending hours and hours in a laboratory; it’s about doing things – especially heroic things. Nietzsche says “I insist upon it that people finally cease confounding philosophical workers, and in general scientific men, with philosophers…the real philosopher must be a critic, and dogmatist, and historian, and poet, and collector, and traveler, and riddle-reader, and moralist, and seer, and ‘free spirit,’ and almost everything, in order to traverse the whole range of human values and estimations, so he can see with a variety of eyes and consciences and look from a height to any distance, from a depth up to any height, from a nook into any expanse.” This is a tall order. But it does recapture some of the spirit of the classical Greeks. It’s basically an aristocratic outlook that’s at odds with the democratic modern world view. Nietzsche doesn’t care. The philosopher’s job is to shake things up and Nietzsche sure knows how to do that.