Friday, January 31, 2014

Harsh Truths for a "Squeamish Age"

Curtis Cate gives us a good overview of the primary areas covered in Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. It should be noted that the secondary title "Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future" reveals that Nietzsche intended this work as the starting point for a grander philosophic project that was ultimately never completed.  Nietzsche aimed to develop a new basis for high culture, societal values, and personal style by clarifying how the mechanics for existing culture and morality actually work.  Beyond Good and Evil discusses many of these basic mechanics in an often provocative way.

Nietzsche continued to build upon many of his earlier fundamental constructs. For example, the relevant and insightful concept of being a "free-spirit" is still very much present in his new work. "The very title, Beyond Good and Evil, summed up what had long been a cardinal tenet of Nietzsche's Freigeisterei: the ability of any 'free-spirited' thinker must display to rise above the level of moral and prejudices which, partly thanks to Plato (Sections 1,2,3), lie concealed in contrasts such as 'true' or 'false', 'good' or 'bad', 'beautiful' and 'ugly', 'useful' and 'useless', and which are embedded in the grammatical structure of everyday speech (Section 24).  In a 'multicolored' world that is full of nuances, to judge everything in black and white terms is to display the simple-minded 'faith of governesses' and to blind oneself to the 'brighter and darker shadows and tonalities of appearance...' (Section 34)." (page 472)

"While Freigeisterei - free-spiritedness and the ability to rise above the normal level of prejudice and faith - is an essential quality on those who are all philosophically inclined, religion in the past has proven itself to be an invaluable asset in permitting an incipient ruling class to establish dominion over subjects who are offered spiritual solace, 'manifold peace of the heart', and contentment with their humble lot.  Nietzsche was even willing to admire 'asceticism and puritanism are almost unavoidable means of education and ennoble meant when a race seeks to establish its mastery over it rabble origins and works its way up towards its future domination' (Section 61).

"But having made this 'utilitarian' concession, Nietzsche hastened to add, in the next section (62), that religions become dangerous when they cease to serve a sound philosophical purpose and become supreme and sovereign, choosing to forget that all societies are ruled by minorities, and espouse the cause of the suffering majority.  Nothing had contributed more to the 'deterioration of the European race' than this willful forgetfulness, this refusal to recognize 'the abysmal chasm in the Order of Rank which separates man from man' - displayed by those who, in coining the slogan 'equal before God', had ended up producing a 'diminished, almost ludicrous type, herd-animal, something obliging, sickly and mediocre...the European of today'." (page 474)

"What is true of religion is no less true of morality.  In a mini-masterpiece of an essay (Section 188), Nietzsche pointed out that Morality, like genuine Art, is a form of necessary tyranny imposed upon the lawlessness and extravagance of Nature, and consequently is the very opposite of laissez-aller.  The stern restrictions and constraints imposed  by every strong morality - by Stoicism, Puritanism, as in the severe Catholicism of Pascal's Port-Royal - were not fundamentally different from the strict rules and disciplines that have made languages what they are: necessary instruments of grammatical coercion offering freedom of expression along with solid strength; just as what made poetry possible was 'metrical compulsion, the tyranny of rhyme and rhythm'.  These 'laws' and 'principles' may seem arbitrary and capricious - as certain utilitarian blockheads and freedom-loving anarchists now claim - but it is they that made possible music, dance, 'rhetoric and persuasion', poetry and the arts in general. What fashioned the 'European spirit' over the centuries was precisely this discipline and drilling, imposed within the framework of 'guiding rules' laid down by ecclesiastical authorities or noble courts, or according to Aristotelian precepts.

"In this process of disciplining and rearing, a great deal of 'strength and spirit' was suppressed and stifled; but that is how it is with Nature in her prodigal and indifferent magnificence, 'which is infuriating but distinguished.... Nature it is that teaches us to hate all forms of laissez-aller, excessive freedom, and 'which implants the need for limited horizons, for immediate tasks - which teaches the narrowing of perspectives and thus in a sense stupidity as a condition of life and development.

"Typical of the 'drift' was the ever-growing hue and cry, voiced not least of all by 'male flatheads' for the 'emancipation of women' (Sections 238 and 239).  The result was certain to be the defeminization of the 'weaker sex'. For what, Nietzsche now declared in more trenchant terms than ever before, from time immemorial and in all 'higher cultures' had always characterized Woman was her fear of Man.  When she loses her 'protected' status, she ceases to be a companion and becomes a rival.  The 'woman as clerk' ideal - today we would call it the 'woman in the office' - was a sure sign of the extent to which a new industrial ethos was now subverting and corrupting age-old aristocratic and military values.  Traditionally, when men were still men, they had looked upon Woman as a 'delicate, curiously wild, and often agreeable domestic animal which had to be maintained, looked after, protected, and spared'.  This essentially 'slave-like' condition was taken for granted , since no 'higher culture' has been able to exist without an element of slavery." (pp. 474 -475)

It is interesting to note that in many ways Nietzsche's "philosophy of the future" seems to be based upon notions of the past, specifically upon the revitalization of the classical period with its acceptance of class privilege, enslavement, and misogynistic values. Whether or not I agree with his perspective, I nevertheless respect the fact that Nietzsche possessed a clear and distinctive understanding of the forces at play between the classical period in competition with the so-called "progress" of modernity.  

To shift focus briefly, Julian Young clarifies Nietzsche's contextualization of the classical period with modernity. "The revival of Western culture is, then, a matter of rediscovering classical values, and, of course, reinterpreting them so that hey make sense in the modern world....it is important to keep in mind as a corrective to the impression he sometimes gives that he is a 'decisionist', that he adheres to the - self-determining - thesis that ultimate values are a matter of ungrounded, and hence arbitrary choice.  Really, it seems to me this is not at all what he believes.  When he asks us to 'give style to' our characters and culture, what he means is classical style." (page 403)

I find Nietzsche's critique of individuals who consider being a "free-spirit" as a way to an easy, gentle, and harmonious style of living to be particularly insightful and relevant.  La-La land is not the answer to the strict demands of attaining a higher sense of humanity. 

"In Europe and America, a species of bogus 'free spirits' has arisen who were preaching an easy-going, pain-avoiding, pain-eliminating 'philosophy' which had found favor with the 'herd'.  Theirs was the cult of  facility, of the 'green pasture happiness of the herd'.  They preached and promised security, lack of danger, cosy comfort, and their two great maxims were 'Equality of Rights' and 'Pity for all who Suffer'. The dominant and indeed the only tolerated type in Europe was now the 'herd-animal', who had to be pampered by 'leaders' smitten by a guilty conscience.

"In this general climate of aristocratic abdication and bourgeois laissez-aller, in which the last vestiges of moderation and tasteful refinement were being thrown to the winds, Nietzsche could not help wondering where European culture would end up in its mad haste to unburden itself of all 'old-fashioned restraints....A sense of measure is alien to us, let us admit it; our thrill is precisely the thrill of the infinite, the measured.  Like the rider on his snorting, onward-galloping steed, we let fall the reins before the infinite, we modern men, we semi-barbarians - and only attain our highest bliss there - where we are also most in danger' (Section 224)" (page 476)

Nietzsche found the forces of democracy to be more corrosive than beneficial to the cause of higher culture and personal achievement.  In fact, they were down-right harmful to society as a whole. 

"...Nietzsche (Section 242) returned to his pet theme:  the present leveling and 'democratization' of society was producing a type of 'useful, hard-working, deft and highly adaptable herd-animal type of man' - something that was likely to give rise to 'exceptional human beings of a most dangerous and attractive species'. Why so?  Simply because the democratization of Europe was bound to mass-produce highly malleable and will-less human beings who needed to be ruled;  and the strong men who undertook to rule them, being uninhibited by age-old (i.e. aristocratic) restraints, would become formidable despots.  In short, as Nietzsche summed it up, 'the democratization of Europe is at the same time an involuntary arrangement for the rearing of tyrants - taking the word in all of its meanings, even the most spiritual sense'.  A somber prediction that was dramatically fulfilled in the next fifty years by the appearance on the European stage of four of the most awesome tyrants the continent had ever seen: Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin." (page 477)

An extended section of the work is devoted to a critique of various cultures, with emphasis on Germanic and English society, the later being soundly (and unfairly in my view) condemned.

"It is regrettable the Nietzsche should have shown himself less indulgent towards the English.  Had he known that the motto chosen for the first 'public school' to have been established in England (at Winchester, in 1382, more than 100 years before Pforta) was 'Manners Makyth Man', he who valued good manners above all else might have been less severe and intemperate with his judgments.  But he was unquestionably right on considering the English, as represented by their most famous thinkers - Bacon, Hobbes, Hume, Locke - as not being a 'philosophical race'.  The trouble with British empiricism was that, willy-nilly, it elevated 'common sense' and everyday 'sense data' to the status of valid criteria for judging Truth and Falsehood.

"What Nietzsche found most objectionable about the English was the stubbornness with which they clung to religion. John Wesley and his 'Methodists' had, typically 'English clumsiness and peasant seriousness', sought to popularize and demean the 'language of Christian gestures' through prayers and psalm-singing.  They had made it acceptable to a 'herd of drunks and rakes', before inventing the Salvation Army in a kind of 'penitential spasm', which, all things considered, might be regarded by some as 'the highest achievement of "humanity".'" (page 478)

Nietzsche felt the forces at work in modern society were making culture weak and unworthy.  I agree with much of his reasoning here.  Simultaneously, I acknowledge that this is yet another example of what I have been calling throughout this blog as his Prussian cultural nature.  Nietzsche is probably not as free of his up-bringing as he would like to believe.  Still, ours is a world where everything seems to have been dumbed-down for the sake of the lowest common denominator often at the expense of focusing upon rising the best and brightest to their fullest potential. Kitsch is a manifestation of simpletons in power, for example.  "Equality" means no one gets "left behind" but at the same time (theoretically) no one gets to "rise above", at least not without being singled out for massive progressive critique and disdain.  Everything is (theoretically) leveled for the sake of the mediocrity of the herd.  

"The harsh truth, Nietzsche roundly declared, from which almost everyone in an increasingly squeamish age was now recoiling, was that every enhancement and elevation of the type of 'Man' had so far been the work of aristocratic society: of a society displaying a 'long ladder in the Order of Rank' based on an implicit recognition of a 'pathos of distance, of significant differences between men and mans, one therefore requiring a certain degree of slavery. In and absolutely egalitarian society, in which all human beings enjoy the same status, there is no inner incentive for the individual to strive to 'improve himself' and to attain a higher level of 'manhood', since the longed-for 'goal', for the 'common man', has, at any rate in theory, already been reached.

"The truth, Nietzsche continued, is harsh, and anyone brave enough to look facts in the face should not yield to 'humanitarian illusions'.  Every higher culture that has so far existed on earth resulted from an initial act of aggression. Men with a 'still natural nature', which is to say 'barbarians in every frightful sense of the word, men of prey still possessing an unbroken strength of will and lust of power, hurled themselves upon weaker, better mannered, more peaceful races, perhaps traders or cattle raisers, or upon old, decaying civilizations whose last signs of vitality were flickering out in brilliant fireworks of wit and depravity'." (page 479)

"For what is absolutely vital in any good, thriving aristocracy is that it should not feel itself to be a mere function, whether of a monarchy or of a commonwealth, but its very raisin d'ĂȘtre, its supreme significance and justification. The basic belief of any truly healthy aristocracy, Nietzsche declared without beating about the bush, was not that it should exist for the advantage and benefit of society as a whole, but, quite the contrary, that society should exist for its sake, as the necessary foundation and framework of a social system in which members of a select elite could fulfill 'higher tasks' and thus attain a supreme form of being." (Page 480)

Most famously, Nietzsche for the first time explores the dynamics of "democratic" morality, and how those dynamics work politically to the detriment of individual (noble) human achievement.   

"'Life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, the overcoming of what is alien and weaker, subjugation, harshness, the forcible imposition of one's own forms, incorporation and, at the very least and mildest, exploitation' - a term which (thanks to Karl Marx and his followers) had come to acquire a stupidly 'slanderous' connotation.  Any truly living body - and this was true of every healthy aristocracy - 'will have to be incarnate will to power, it will want to grow, enlarge itself, attract, and acquire predominance - not because of any morality, Nietzsche went on (Section 260), he had come to realize that, despite all sorts of variations, there have always existed two basic types that are radically distinct.  The first he robustly asserted is a master-morality, the second a slave-morality - although, he hasten to add, in all higher and mixed cultures attempts have been made to reconcile the two only to often giving the rise to misunderstandings, not only in society in general but within the individual.  The salient characteristic of a master-morality is self-confidence and a feeling of superiority...

"Diametrically opposed to the basic tenets of the 'master-morality' were the characteristics of the 'slave-morality'. These were rooted on a general lack of confidence and a 'pessimistic' suspicion of everything 'superior' in human behavior.  This suspicion and distrust, on the part of those who feel themselves to be abused, oppressed, and thus 'unfree', is directed against everything regarded as 'good' by the 'master-caste', the real creator of all values. Compassion, the obliging hand, the warm heart, patience, industry, humility, friendliness are honored, for these are the most useful qualities for the suffering and oppressed." (page 481)

Nietzsche would expand upon his Master-Slave Morality concept in his next work.  Indeed, it would serve as a cornerstone for this phase of his philosophic life.