Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Contra Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche is one of those favorites among dilettantes because he wrote accessible prose that flatters the individualist yearnings of stunted middle class children. This is not to disparage Nietzsche's very real accomplishments in meta-ethics and the history of morality, just to disparage all the modern fans who take his arguments as an excuse to be conceited dickheads in their Philosophy 101 courses. You know who I'm talking about.

Nietzsche famously differentiated Classical and Christian ethics, defining the former as a good/bad dichotomy and the latter as good/evil. Classical ethics, rooted in a warrior elite from Achilles down to Charlemagne, prized courage and personal honor, using these virtues to define themselves as separate and above the greater mass of humanity and thereby justifying their own privileged position in society.

Christian ethics, in contrast, seek to promote a universalist altruism and therefore concern themselves first with evil, rather than virtue. This evil often constitutes the same privileges enjoyed by the Classical elite - wealth, sensual pleasure, mastery over their social inferiors. Nietzsche saw in this a slave revolt, hence his christening of Christianity as the "slave morality" which shames those who display the Classical virtues.

Nietzsche, being the prototypical angry white boy, bristled at this shaming. And his critique has served as inspiration for alienated youth in Western Civilization for generations. However, as much fault as Nietzsche found with Christian ethics, his own description of "master morality" doesn't sound all that better:

To see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more: this is a hard saying but an ancient, mighty, human, all-too-human principle which even the apes might subscribe; for it has been said that in devising bizarre cruelties they anticipate man and are, as it were his "prelude."

Much as the abused might come to identify with her abuser, her Nietzsche has fetishized the abuse on which Western nobility built its reason for being. This indeed makes him all-too-human, as it echoes Hegel's parable of two men at the beginning of history vying for dominance. Because, as David Graeber points out, the archetypal everymen "in all such stories, they appear to be 40-year-old males who simply rose out of the earth fully formed." Which speaks more to the historical forces that shaped modern Western philosophy, rather than any essential Human Nature.

Further, this is usually where some readings of Nietzsche identify him as a fascist. And with good cause - his Will to Power and injunctions to embrace an aristocratic ethos is entirely in line with the reactionary tradition as described by Corey Robin, who traces every disparate strain of conservatism, from George Will to Sarah Palin, back to the Counter-Enlightenment sentiment "that some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others." A sentiment Nietzsche ran with in his otherwise laudable resistance of Victorian moralizing.

Where Nietzsche identified the pathology of Victorian Christianity, Lewis Mumford identified the pathology of Classical kingship:

Murderous coercion was the royal formula for establishing authority, securing obedience, and collecting booty, tribute, and taxes. At bottom, every royal reign was a reign of terror.

The enforcement of such a reign necessitates the same "submissive faith and unqualified obedience" Nietzsche spurned in Christianity, but instead directed towards the desires of a sovereign, whose very station both breeds and rewards an anti-social neurosis:

The rigid division of labor and the segregation of castes produce unbalanced characters, while the mechanical routine normalizes - and rewards - those compulsive personalities who are afraid to cope with the embarassing riches of life.

To see the apotheosis of this pathology, just look at Donald Trump's Twitter feed.

Nietzsche did necessary work in dismantling the shoddy foundations of Western morality. He just didn't go far enough. Excavating down to the fetid and worm-eaten base of kingship, he declared "This is good!" either out of a limited imagination or the artist's desire to shock the middle-brows. Would that he'd gone further and dynamited the whole edifice, we might actually have tasted that freedom he talked about so often. Instead, we just traded the white collars for power ties, vicars for venture capitalists. The same song of power since Ur, now dumber than disco.

Works Cited
David Graeber. "Consumption." Current Anthropology, Vol. 52, No. 4.
Lewis Mumford. The Myth of the Machine.
Friedrich Nietzsche. On the Genealogy of Morals.
Corey Robin. The Reactionary Mind.

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