Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Nietzsche and the New Morality

It amuses me that Nietzsche provokes such a negative reaction among contemporary Americans. His views on the "herd" and the superior virtues of the "ubermensch" are derived from the same moral calculus held by early English settlers towards the native american inhabitants living in the New World, and toward African slaves imported to work the southern plantations of white Anglo-Saxon farmers. The European Enlightenment idea that all people are created equal was never intended to apply to such foreign cultures as Africa, Asia, India or the North American tribes. The belief in natural rights was reserved for members of European descent, primarily the Anglo-Saxen and Nordic races. Christians have never had any trouble in finding scriptural passages to justify a refusal to include "inferior races" as their brothers in Christ. So why are so many Christians offended when Nietzsche (or Zarathustra) comes down from the mountain to announce that "God is dead?" Unlike Moses, who came down from the mountain bearing stone tablets engraved with God's law to the Israelites, Zarathustra comes to liberate humanity. Zarathustra doesn't kill God. He merely looks around and observes how people behave, then comes to the perfectly rational conclusion that God must not exist, otherwise he would never tolerate mankind's treatment of his fellow man. Nietzsche was no apostle for brotherly love. He despised most of humanity, regarding them as members of a herd, as an assortment of crude, boorish, uncivilized creatures who masquerade as people of higher intelligence, but are, in fact, no more civilized than the wild animals living in the jungle. For Nietzsche, God is a fable invented by the herd to justify a belief in their own superiority. Yet the true virtuous man, the ubermensch, does not make excuses nor lower himself to the herd, who is incapable of understanding him. If God is dead, then what need is there of morality or compassion? The Ubermensch makes his own morality. He is Achilles who answers to no one and bows to no king. Should a great man bow to a peasant? Of course not. Nietzsche observes that most men hide behind the opinions of their neighbor, their priest, their councilman, or mayor. But the great man keeps his own company. His conscience is clear. He is beyond shame. He is a force of nature and will not be humbled by the petty bourgeois values of ordinary men. In a sense, he is a god of his own making. Another Caesar, Napoleon, or Alexander. How can the little people, the herd, even dare to look upon him? Yet the little people, the herd, have their own scale of values. They look down on all people of technologically backward cultures. So behold the new morality that Zarathustra brings: the freedom to despise all people lower than yourself. In Nietzsche's view, we are all monkeys in this jungle. But some monkeys are smarter than the rest. And so in the Darwinian model of evolution, it is we, the smart monkeys from Europe carrying a Bible in one hand and a musket in the other, who deserve to rule over the backward monkeys of other races. This is called our "manifest destiny." Or in Judeo-Christian terms, "God's will."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ron, last Wednesday, day after our Tuesday discussion of Zarathustra, Vandy Professor John Lachs lectured on Nietzsche. He divided people into the weak and the strong. They each have their virtues and their good points and bad points.
I think he would say that in your Nov. 3 essay you are writing with the mindset of how the weak see the strong, not how Nietzsche sees the strong.
Weak people prize togetherness, being in the in-group, and getting their fair share of things most of all. Their bad points is the get angry if they don't and they can hold resentments to the end of their lives.
The strong like spontaneity, prefer deciding for themselves rather than fitting in with others. They never forgive because they take so little notice of slights that they forget they've been affronted. They're too busy living each day fully, not in resenting the past or living in a future life. Eternal life is going out in the rain in a drought and getting drenched, getting on the next bus wherever it goes for the heck of it, a plae of delicious pork chops. ~Gael

11/07/2010 5:52 PM  
Blogger RDP said...

There's a reason why they call this method The Great Conversation. Nietzsche had his say. Now it's up to us to figure out what he meant. It's no surprise that people disagree about what Nietzsche means. We all come from our own perspectives and Nietzsche is a provocative writer. That's why he's in the Great Books. But other Great Books authors themselves both agree and disagree with Nietzsche's conclusions. That's because we don't all feel the same about the nature of God, the purpose of society, or the ultimate goal of mankind. Nietzsche says God is dead, perhaps because an all-powerful God wouldn't tolerate such flawed creatures as human beings. Augustine says, on the contrary, God knows that we're flawed but loves us anyway and is hard at work in the heart of human history. Nietzsche says we should be bold and become "overmen" but Hobbes says we should seek security and safety in numbers. Rousseau says we should defer to the General Will of our fellow members of society. Nietzsche says we should strive to overcome our self-imposed human boundaries. Aristotle agrees that we should strive for excellence but maintains that we should do so within the boundaries of our human capacities. And Augustine says we won’t find peace until we rest in God.

So where does that leave us? Right in the middle of the Great Conversation. The biggest "sin" in this conversation is to stand on the sidelines and simply defer to what others have to say. We have to get in the game. In order for reading to be personally meaningful we have to have a dog in the fight. Personally, I agree with Nietzsche on this point: human beings are generally not up to what they could be. But I disagree with his cure that we should ditch our old values and strike out on our own to discover new ones. That way lies destruction, not only for the individual but for society as well. Are the old values perfect? No. But they work. To wipe out the foundations and strike out on our own may get us all killed. Is it possible that a new set of values might work as well, or better, than the ones we have now? Yes, it is possible. But personally (again) I prefer the devil I know to the one I don't know. The old values took generations of trial and error. It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get us where we are today. The herd instinct didn't just spring up out of nowhere. There's a certain kind of wisdom in the herd that goes beyond the superior intellect of any one individual. Nietzsche was a smart guy. But so was Aristotle. So was Hobbes. And all the millions of unknown guys who weren't so smart learned their lessons the hard way, through bitter experience. It was that personal experience from ages past that became our common heritage. Those values are an integral part of what Nietzsche calls the herd. Personally (for the third time) I trust the accumulated wisdom of the herd more than I trust Nietzsche. I’m willing to listen and it might turn out that the herd is wrong and Nietzsche is right after all. But at least I'm not standing on the sidelines.

11/10/2010 10:04 AM  

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