02 Jul 2018

The Illiberal Nietzsche is the Only One There is

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Drawing of Friedrich Nietzsche by Karl Bauer.

Post-modernist leftists have a habit of invoking Nietzsche as an authority justifying their nihilist rejection of the natural order and conventional morality, but, as Brian Leiter, writing in the Times Literary Supplement clearly understands, Nietzsche is not on the side of Ameliorism, Social Justice, or Egalitarianism in the least. Nietzsche is not a Leftist at all. Nietzsche is the most extreme aristocrat.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) pursued two main themes in his work, one now familiar, even commonplace in modernity, the other still under-appreciated, often ignored. The familiar Nietzsche is the “existentialist”, who diagnoses the most profound cultural fact about modernity: “the death of God”, or more exactly, the collapse of the possibility of reasonable belief in God. Belief in God – in transcendent meaning or purpose, dictated by a supernatural being – is now incredible, usurped by naturalistic explanations of the evolution of species, the behaviour of matter in motion, the unconscious causes of human behaviours and attitudes, indeed, by explanations of how such a bizarre belief arose in the first place. But without God or transcendent purpose, how can we withstand the terrible truths about our existence, namely, its inevitable suffering and disappointment, followed by death and the abyss of nothingness?

Nietzsche the “existentialist” exists in tandem with an “illiberal” Nietzsche, one who sees the collapse of theism and divine teleology as tied fundamentally to the untenability of the entire moral world view of post-Christian modernity. If there is no God who deems each human to be of equal worth or possessed with an immortal soul beloved by God, then why think we all deserve equal moral consideration? And what if, as Nietzsche argues, a morality of equality – and altruism and pity for suffering – were, in fact, an obstacle to human excellence? What if being a “moral” person makes it impossible to be Beethoven? Nietzsche’s conclusion is clear: if moral equality is an obstacle to human excellence, then so much the worse for moral equality. This is the less familiar and often shockingly anti-egalitarian Nietzsche. …

Nietzsche’s central objection to morality is more radical and illiberal: any culture dominated by Judeo-Christian morality, or other ascetic or life-denying moralities, will be one inhospitable to the realization of human excellence. What if, as he says in On the Genealogy of Morality, “morality itself were to blame if the highest power and splendor possible to the type man was never in fact attained? So that morality itself was the danger of dangers?”

Consider his objection to moral views that demand that we eliminate suffering and promote happiness. In Dawn, he writes, “Are we not, with this tremendous objective of obliterating all the sharp edges of life, well on the way to turning mankind into sand? Sand! Small, soft, round, unending sand! Is that your ideal, you heralds of the sympathetic affections?” In Beyond Good and Evil a few years later, he objects to utilitarians that, “Well-being as you understand it – that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible . . . . ”

Does a focus on happiness really make people “ridiculous and contemptible”? Nietzsche offers a more ambitious explanation in Beyond Good and Evil:

The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? That tension of the soul in unhappiness which cultivates its strength, its shudders face to face with great ruin, its inventiveness and courage in enduring, persevering, interpreting, and exploiting suffering, and whatever has been granted to it of profundity, secret, mask, spirit, cunning, greatness – was it not granted to it through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?

Most suffering is nothing more than misery for its subject, and most happy “comfortable” people are not exemplars of human excellence. Nietzsche surely knew this. (He was no “tourist” when it came to suffering – even before his disability-related retirement from Basel in 1879 and continuing on until his final mental collapse in 1889, he suffered from excruciating physical maladies, probably due to untreated syphilis). What Nietzsche noticed is that suffering, at least in certain individuals (including himself), could be the stimulus to extraordinary creativity – one need only read a biography of Beethoven to see a paradigm example. But even if Nietzsche has correctly diagnosed the psychological mechanism at work, why should a morality of pity for suffering present an obstacle to sufferers realizing their creative potential? Nietzsche’s crucial thought is that in a culture committed to happiness and the elimination of suffering as its goal, nascent Nietzsches and Beethovens will squander their potential in pursuit of both those aims, rather than in pursuing creative work. After all, if it is bad to suffer, then all your efforts should be devoted to avoiding suffering; and if it is good to be happy, then, that should be the aim of everything you do. But human excellence is compatible with neither the pursuit of happiness nor the flight from suffering.

If Nietzsche’s speculative psychology is correct, then we arrive at a startling conclusion. In a hedonistic and sympathetic culture, which devalues suffering and prioritizes its relief, the glorious spectacle of human genius will be missing from the world: no Beethovens, Nietzsches or Goethes.



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