Response to comments on my Nietzsche blogs
|April 17, 2015||Posted by Joseph Keysor under Blog|
Dear * * * *,
I was dissatisfied with my response of the other day and thought I really needed to give your comments the time they deserved.
Like you, I do not claim to expertise in Nietzsche, however I have found with philosophers that evaluating them is not merely a matter of expertise, but also of basic approach and world view. Expertise in a given thinker does not necessarily bring real understanding. Some people are so intoxicated with Nietzsche that they refuse to see, or at least minimize or explain away, some very serious issues.
About his personal turmoil and madness, that does not reflect on the basic questions of “Is there a God?” or “Is there some sort of higher spiritual reality beyond what is physically seen?” Someone can be seriously disturbed, even mad, yet still be right about some things. Yet, on the other hand, if I am talking people about physical health, while being in poor physical shape myself, overeating, smoking and so one, that does call my credibility into question.
If someone who had a failed marriage or many debts was giving someone marital or financial advice, it is not hard to perceive that something is amiss. Similarly that Nietzsche should have claimed to found the truth about life and the nature of happiness, yet have been such a pathetic and miserable failure as a human being, should raise some questions.
For example [R. J. Hollingdale. Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy (Cambridge University Press 1999), pp. 126-127]:
Peter Gast, one of Nietzsche’s early and devoted admirers, spent some time with him in 1880. He described his efforts to help Nietzsche in the following terms: “You have no idea of the exertions . . . Nietzsche’s presence costs me.” “I am fed up with the patient’s complaining the whole day long.” Also mentioned was Nietzsche coming to his room at 5:30 in the morning and stating that they needed to start walking right away – but this sort of demanding thoughtlessness is only to be expected of someone who thought that nothing was more important than his own will to power, for whom truth was nothing but his feelings, his instincts, and his opinions.
Gast continued: “Here it rains almost without ceasing. How Nietzsche – who is sensitive to every cloud that appears in the sky – is faring you may imagine.” He doesn’t sound like much of an Overman to me. This is what Gast had to say about spending five to six hours a day with Nietzsche: “You have no idea what I endured . . . I was often filled with such rage that I threw myself into contortions and called down death and damnation on Nietzsche . . . Then, when I had at last managed to get to sleep at four or five in the morning, Nietzsche would often come along at nine or ten and ask if I would play Chopin for him.” This is only to be expected from the high priest of selfishness and egotism, who taught that all that really matters in life is me-myself-and-I.
Getting back to your comments, the distortions of Nietzsche’s sister do not of course apply to the many comments Nietzsche made in books either published by him in his lifetime, or completed by him and now available as he wrote them. I have used only those writings, and there is enough in there to show many serious problems with Nietzsche’s thought and personality – and personality is a relevant issue for someone who claims to know what life is about and how it should be lived.
You state that seeing Nietzsche as an antisemitic proto-fascist does not lead to fruitful conclusions. I think that his hatred for democracy and the common people, as well as his emphasis on elitism, and his repeated statements of hostility towards Jews as a nation, are relevant in and of themselves. They may not negate all of Nietzsche’s ideas, but they do help to explain why the Nazis were attracted to him in a way that they were attracted to no other philosopher.
Does focusing on such ideas make us miss other important outcomes in the history of thought? It might, if people stop there, but if they consider them as parts of the Nietzsche puzzle there is still the possibility of moving on and discussing other ideas of Nietzsche that need to be evaluated in their own right, apart from Nietzsche’s troubled personality. And, since I think modern thought has been going in consistently the wrong direction, I question the value of Nietzsche’s influence which (without trying to substantiate that charge here) I personally consider to have been entirely negative.
I agree we need to consider Nietzsche “in direct relation to his immediate and not-so-immediate interlocutors,” and not just the question of his relationship to the Nazis. If we do that, apart from antisemitism and fascism, I think it is possible to raise other questions about the value of Nietzsche’s ideas.
You mention his critique of Kant. I think Kant needs to be taken off of his pedestal, and has been vastly overrated, but Nietzsche’s approach to me is irrelevant. He objected to Kant’s emphasis on moral duty, and on Kant’s belief that there was something other than immediately physical reality, but in my view completely missed the real problem at the heart of Kant’s philosophy (completely misunderstanding the nature and limits of human knowledge due to an insufficient appreciation of human spirituality).
About the development of the genealogical method, Foucault, and Deleuze, no one I think denies Nietzsche’s great influence on modern thought, but what if modern thought is all wrong? And wasn’t Foucault a miserable and neurotic person? Such personal questions are not irrelevant. In my view, Nietzsche has contributed nothing positive, but only led to deeper and deeper estrangement from higher realities.
You go on to say that Nietzsche did not have anything against individual Jews. I agree he was willing to accept individual Jews (such as Heine) who were sufficiently intelligent and free spirited, emancipated from traditional religious views. I also agree that he was speaking of Jewish values and morality, not of individual Jews. However – when one goes on and on about the Jews being destructive, negative, harmful, and concoctors of plots to enslave humanity, it is hardly surprising if the next generation goes to act upon those ideas, attacking individual Jews and not merely an abstract Judaism. Some people have raised interesting questions about Nietzsche’s responsibility here. Is someone really entirely free from blame if their words are later taken literally and put into action in a harmful way by others?
Secondly, what if Nietzsche’s critique of Jewish / Christian values and morality was wrong? I realize I lose a lot of people here, but if there is a God and higher spiritual laws to which we are subject – not as miserable slaves, but for our own benefit – then Nietzsche’s attempt to liberate us from that higher reality was destructive and misguided. His belief that we can only be truly free if we invent our own values and do whatever we like, even to the extent of violence, cruelty, and brutality, without any moral restraint, is – in my view – destructive.
I do not appreciate Nietzsche’s “conceptual clarity and originality” at all, but think he was wrong. And is it really true that a philosopher should never be completely denigrated for what he seems to recommend? If a philosopher says that the weak and the unfit should be exterminated; that peace is soft and weak while war is brave and heroic; that we can invent our own realities and our own truths without any regard for spiritual realities – can we divorce someone’s abstract thought so surgically from the implications of that thought? If philosophy has anything to do with how we live, then we need to consider both the ideas and the logical implications of those ideas as people try to apply them.
You say “if their outlook on the world turns out valid” – and what if Nietzsche’s view is invalid? I know many people love his idea of complete and total freedom, but what if that is the result of a false concept of life, based on a false concept of human nature and its origins? I understand that one is not supposed to speak of such things nowadays – a true concept of life!? But Nietzsche did that all of the time. He constantly stated that other views of life and morality were wrong and false, but his view was the right one. A complete conviction that he was the first one to really understand life, ethics, and morality is at the foundation of his work. He was one of the most dogmatically certain people (based on faith in his own convictions) that ever put pen to paper in the name of philosophy.
As to Nietzsche describing “more clearly than anyone else . . . the unfortunate nihilistic turn of Western Europe and its values,” I believe he was happy with that turn, and supported it as the first step towards real freedom. He mocked the poor people who had lost their way and killed God but did not know how to live with this knowledge, and he scoffed at conventional bourgeois society, but in tearing down walls and barriers he contributed significantly to a worse world.
Personally, I feel that the Nazis were the ones who really understood Nietzsche’s superman. They understood that people who were above right and wrong were justified in exercising vicious brutality and cruelty on the weak and less fit in the name of a ruling elite; that kindness, mercy, justice, forgiveness, peace were nothing but Jewish tricks and that the real strong man despised such cowardly and soft things while practicing hardness and brutality. Many people who admire Nietzsche are simply too fundamentally decent and humane to understand the literal meaning of his calls for violence and cruelty as being more authentic than dull and boring conventional ideas of right and wrong.
I agree that Nietzsche was acutely aware of some aspects of his times – people often are aware of that is wrong with society – but in his diagnosis of the reasons and in his advocacy of a solution, I believe he was hopelessly confused.
Also, about your comment that “his turn to madness is a sort of symptomatic response,” some comments have been made about the extent to which Nietzsche’s madness was the result of his ideas. However, a number of authoritative biographers have stated that it is now a certainty or near certainty, based on medical records, that Nietzsche died of syphilitic insanity. Some have tried to minimize this because they like Nietzsche, but Hollingdale’s biography and others give solid documentary evidence. So, Nietzsche’s madness may have been exacerbated by his lonely and unhappy emphasis on the self as the source of ultimate reality, but I think it had medical origins – which means that it was at work long before his final breakdown. In fact, in the year before his final breakdown, Nietzsche was making many bizarre and weird statements, and people had been questioning his sanity for some time.
He was as you say free of some of the limitations of the so-called Enlightenment, and did not share their smug complacency in reason and progress, but one does not need to be an atheist who despises morality to avoid that error.
You add that “His remaining limitations are, I feel, to be addressed through a larger critique of the partial assumptions of the whole lineage of Western philosophy, basically since Socrates and Plato.” I think Plato and Socrates were correct in asserting that this physical world is not the highest reality, and Nietzsche was wrong. Of course, I am not supposed to say nowadays that Nietzsche was “wrong,” as if I am privy to the truth, but Nietzsche did that all of the time. He not only said that people who believed in a higher spirituality were “wrong,” he ridiculed them and despised them, with completely certainty in the rightness of his own instincts.
Anyway, I think Nietzsche was wrong, and his problem of unbelief needs to be considered not in the context of the whole of Western philosophy, but in the context of the decline of religious belief in Europe in the modern era.
Finally, I am not familiar with Derrida, Logocentrism, or the Metaphysics of Presence. Generally, I am not interested in modern or post-modern philosophy, and find that for my personal growth and spiritual benefit older writers are much more insightful. I only got interested in Nietzsche, as I think he does reveal something of the climate out of which Hitler emerged.
About your essay, you say “Nietzsche is first a style.” While recognizing that Nietzsche’s unique style was critical to his writing, I believe he was first and foremost an advocate of ideas – that there is no God, no higher law or morality, and we should be free to do whatever we please, to follow our own inner development even if that led to extremes of violence, brutality, and cruelty, which were justified and allowable.
I agree Nietzsche is cardinal to the history of modern philosophy, but fear his influence has been harmful, negative, and bad. He did question “the hegemonic hold of certain traditions,” many of which were dubious and in need of challenging, but I can’t agree that Nietzsche’s repudiation of conventional ethics and morality was a “breakthrough.” True, there has been much falsehood and emptiness in conventional ethics, but the solution to that problem I think is not to repudiate them altogether and embrace their radical opposites, but to reclarify the source and purpose of morality. In other words, the foundation needs to be repaired, the whole building does not need to be scrapped.
Nietzsche is one of many people who pointed to real faults, and then by his misguided attempts at reform only opened the door to something worse farther down the road.
You state that ethics was conceived “at the crossing of post-Socratic Greek philosophy and Christian charity,” but I believe the origin of ethics is vastly different. It is not merely a human invention, but has to do with our origins. In every culture at all times, a coward who runs away in battle or someone who betrays his friends has been looked down on. These and other elementary concepts come from our human natures, which must be explained by reference to our non-scientific spiritual origins. Nietzsche’s intellectual and spiritual poverty in this area was a severe limitation on his thought.
True, much morality – such as that of Kant – has been groundless and naïve, but to dispense with morality altogether? That is entirely different. And to say that morality is merely an invention of the weak who resent their stronger masters – I believe that is a wholly fictional account of the origins of morality, which Nietzsche invented out of thin air and then presented dogmatically as certain truth with a complete confidence in his own instincts.
Also, to reduce human life to a will to power – again, in my opinion – shows a profound ignorance of human nature. Moral laws from God do not deny us our real humanity, but rather provide a framework within which we can really grow. For example, a man who abandons his middle-aged wife and children to run off with a younger woman may be “free” in the world’s eyes, but true freedom is not just doing whatever I please with no regard for anyone but myself. The man who says “I would really like to run off with this hot babe, but it would not be fair to my wife or to my kids, so I will deny myself and sacrifice myself for the sake of my family” – he might, and almost certainly will, find more real happiness in the end than the cruel and selfish jerk who thinks only of his momentary pleasure.
Much of morality is dull and conventional, but it does not need to be. Much of Western philosophy has been only word games as you say, but if there is a higher spiritually reality, the solution does not have to be a Nietzschean one of violent repudiation. Ethics are not merely an escape for frustrated people. They reflect higher spiritual realities, which do exist even if Nietzsche could not see them.
If as you say Nietzsche’s arguments on ethics and morality were in their reception a response to Kant, then I would say Nietzsche made a bad mistake in taking Kant too seriously. In my opinion, Kant’s ethics are false, empty, and ridiculous, without substance or foundation. If one really wants to understand ethics a good first step is to ignore Kant completely, as he had no idea of what he was talking about. Ethics cannot be based on human reason alone. If they exist at all, they must have a higher origin. That we have no access to higher spiritual truths was one of Kant’s many bad mistakes.
If Nietzsche wanted to repudiate Kant and strike off in a new direction, fine – but what if the direction Nietzsche chose was the wrong one? By all means let’s have a critique of moral values – but can we also critique a system that calls callous cruelty, hardness, and coldness right and good? Can we critique everyone except Nietzsche? He is badly in need of a critique as someone who despised common people and imagined himself to be the first purveyor of truth in 2,000 years.
Much of your essay deals with Nietzsche’s critique of philosophy, but I consider much of modern Western philosophy, including that of Kant, to be useless, and so don’t feel a need to go into Nietzsche’s rejection of it. I will say that I believe Nietzsche’s understanding of the origins of morality to be completely wrong.
I also think he did not understand the Greeks at all. True, the Greeks before Socrates, such as we see in the Homeric poems, could war, raid, fight and kill without worrying too much about ethics, which Nietzsche thought was really splendid – however, there were limits. They did believe that there were higher spiritual powers which they needed to be mindful of and obey. Nietzsche forgot that at the end of the Odyssey, Odysseus did not go on a rampage and slaughter all of the relatives and friends of the suitors, but stopped his killing in obedience to the command of Athena. The Greeks could attack a city, plunder it, kill people and take slaves, and then go off with a clear conscience as if they had done nothing wrong, and Nietzsche was very happy with that – but there were limits, and there were higher powers to which they were subject. To say it all changed with Socrates is one of the many ignorant statements Nietzsche made about the Greeks, whom he never really understood because they were too far above him.
The Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, before Socrates, are full of questions about truth, right and wrong relative to the higher powers to which we are subject, and are deeply ethical and religious in a way Nietzsche was not capable of grasping. Socrates’ belief in an afterlife where the good were rewarded and the bad punished was not a radical new innovation at that time.
Also, Nietzsche had no understanding of Christian morality. If someone burns down my house and kills my wife and children, and I do not take revenge on him and his wife and his children, relatives and friends, returning evil for evil, this does not mean I am a soft, weak, spineless person who has been corrupted by the Jews and is justifying my weakness with an imaginary reality. It means, I do not participate in the cycle of evil, and become evil myself. It means I have faith in the ultimate judgment of God. If I am wrong, I am deluded. If I am right, Nietzsche was deluded.
So, the real question is, “Does God exist?” The next question is, “If he does, how can we find him and know him?” When it comes to this, I believe there is more wisdom in any one page of the Gospel of John than in the complete writings of all of the philosophers who have ever lived. If you could combine Nietzsche, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Descartes, Leibnitz, Wittgenstein, Aristotle and multiply it all by one thousand, it would still not come close to the first page of the Gospel of John.
I believe the hidden mystery of the ages, which none of the philosophers could find or agree on, has been revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. I understand that such views are not fashionable nowadays, but I feel an increased obligation to be more outspoken on this subject.
With many thanks for your time and interest in these important questions,