Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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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.


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