Christopher Ryan’s Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress presents the hypothesis that humanity’s move from a forager/hunter-gatherer existence into agricultural societies–and from there modernity–was the first step in our decline as a species. The further we progressed towards modern life, and away from our forager origins, the more we stepped away from our natural state, where we were happier, healthier, and more in tune with our environment, and became the sad, sickly, fragile creatures we are today.
First things first, there are several parts of the book I found interesting, such as the distinction between life span vs. life expectancy to show that our prehistoric ancestors lived much more fruitful and full lives than many of us are keen to believe. I’m also someone who’s not opposed to the notion that the sharp increase in anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and general listlessness seen in modern society is in no small part aggravated by (if not caused by) the luxuries we have adopted in our daily lives (social media being an obvious example of a contributor to this malaise). However, all in all, I don’t think Ryan makes a convincing case for the underlying issues he raises, and there are several holes throughout his one-sided narrative.
Ryan relies heavily on the self-reported happiness of current-day forager societies, and uses that to infer that prehistoric man must have been equally satisfied with his existence. But as anthropologists are quick to point out, foragers today are not prehistoric, and shouldn’t be though of as such, in that they live in the current world same as we do. The conditions of their environment are not necessarily equivalent to those of prehistoric man, and their demeanor and customs have undergone as long of a development and adaptation as that of societies living in industrialize cities. Meaning that short of a time machine, we can’t simply infer the case that the behavior of current-day foragers/hunter-gatherers (Ryan used the two terms as synonyms) is a reflection of prehistoric humans. At best, we can try to piece together narratives that seem plausible in light of available evidence, but in the hands of someone like Ryan these ultimately become unfalsifiable just-so stories, as he has a proclivity to dismiss any opposing views to his as stemming from people being indoctrinated into the neo-Hobbesian view of human nature that demands for modern life to be seen as a point of progress in human development. Thus, any pushback one might give can be readily set aside as just mere squabble from the brainwashed.
Ryan wants to make the case that the selfishness, tribalism, and aggressive tendencies that are seen as innate parts of human nature are actually just things conditioned in us by modernity, and that such traits are entirely absent in forager communities, which he takes to mean that man’s natural disposition is one of harmony, humility, and peace with its environment and fellow man. However, in one part of the book he also states that forager communities will early one engage in customs like banter and roasting of members who show greater talents as a means of keeping their egos in check and instill in them a sense of humility. Ryan never contends with (or seems to realize) the fact that if such behavioral conditioning is needed then it calls into question his hypothesis that humility is the natural disposition of even the foragers he wants to uphold as the hallmark for us all to strive for. It simply implies that they partake in a level of social conditioning to ensure a harmonious society, same as we do when we teach children to share and empathize with those around them, whether we do it around the camp fire or in the daycare centers.
Ryan also engages in a set of conjectures when he appeals to the peaceful bonobos as evidence that man (as a fellow member of the great ape family) is also a pacifist species when allowed to remain close to his natural (forager) state of being. What Ryan fails to address is that we are as closely related to the common chimpanzee as we are to bonobos, and the former—despite having never developed agriculture that set them down the treacherous path of modernity—is still famously tribal, aggressive, and warlike in its demeanor. And that’s not to mention other great apes, like gorillas, which are hierarchical and routinely commit infanticide, and orangutans, whose males often mate via forced copulation of females (aka rape). In light of all this, the peacefulness of the bonobos seems to be the exception in the great ape family rather than the rule.
A final point of neglect that stuck out is that, while Ryan was quick to draw a comparison between humans and our evolutionary cousin the bonobo to support his narrative, he never says a word about our evolutionary forager sibling, the Neanderthal, who was displaced (by one means or another) by our supposedly pacifist prehistoric ancestors. While I’m sure there are ways to make this caveat fit his narrative, the fact that Ryan doesn’t even bother to try gives the impression that he would rather we simply ignore it as a data point in history so he doesn’t have to think about it, and hopes we do the same.
As I said before, I’m actually quite open to the idea that modernity has come with drawbacks that society is failing to deal with (the mental health crisis of the last few decades being a prime example), and I’m even open to the notion that there are lessons we can learn from prehistoric humans about life, happiness, leisure, and purpose. But I don’t think Christopher Ryan’s Civilized to Death does much to add to that important topic of conversation, and in many ways stands in the way of it, as it’s a topic that appears to be too far out of the author’s wheelhouse to deal with.
In Part Three of Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche gives a detailed synopsis of his perception on the prominence of religiosity in human consciousness.
It is noteworthy that Nietzsche is unique amongst atheist thinkers—past and present—in that he never bothers to argue against the existence of deities, but simply asserts the nonexistence of gods as a given fact about reality (a reader might suspect that the philosopher would consider anything more as too generous of a move towards the religious mindset and its supernatural tenets).
To Nietzsche, gods (in all their varying forms and quantities) exist solely as elaborate conceptions of the human mind. Hence, the philosopher approaches the topic of religion from an entirely psychological standpoint, treating the occurrence of faith as an obvious neurosis plaguing the mind of man.
He states: “Wherever on earth the religious neurosis has appeared we find it tied to three dangerous dietary demands: solitude, fasting, and sexual abstinence.”
Nietzsche views such manifestations of the religious spirit as indicative of its desire to both control and undermine the base nature of man; i.e., to rob man of his very humanity. He sees this as a reflection of religion’s unrealistic (in the sense of being anti-realistic) and inherently irrational temperament, making it futile for a person to try to decipher the cause and effect of its various supercilious decrees:
Among its most regular symptoms, among both savage and tame peoples, we also find the most sudden, most extravagant voluptuousness which then, just as suddenly, changes into a penitential spasm and denial of the world and will—both perhaps to be interpreted as masked epilepsy?
Nietzsche recognizes how the idea of God serves as a testament to the creative capabilities of the human mind, but also paradoxically sees it as a catalyst of its ultimate deprecation—a “spasm and denial of the world” whose inevitable progress is bound to deprive mankind of his reasoning intellect, adding, “no other type has yet been surrounded by such a lavish growth of nonsense and superstition.”
An apt criticism one could make of Nietzsche is that his polemics against religion seem to be largely centered on Abrahamic monotheism (particularly Christianity) with little regard given to the vastly divergent expressions of theistic godliness found throughout non-Western cultures. As far as Nietzsche’s major writings are concerned, this is not an unfair criticism, and it leads to two possible assumptions: the first being that Nietzsche may not have been familiar with non-Abrahamic faiths, and therefore is in no position to offer any viable commentary on them. While this is the simplest answer, it is also the more dubious.
In his younger writings Nietzsche actually does show a familiarity with Hindu theology (indicating that he had at least read the Upanishads), as well as other variants of Dharmic spirituality. A more plausible answer is that Nietzsche is doing what any good marketing professor would advise their intro-level students to do when selling an idea: know your audience. Nietzsche is writing in a predominately Christian country, to a predominately Christian readership; thus, one can see how spiraling off into protracted diatribes against ideas the majority of Nietzsche’s readership already rejects (there is no need to convince Christians that Hinduism/Buddhism/ Islam, etc, is false; they’re already convince of that), can appear like an unproductive effort for a philosopher who is looking to reform the values of his society—which in Nietzsche’s case happens to be largely Abrahamic (and more specifically Christian). Due to these reasons, Christianity receives the full brunt of Nietzsche anti-theistic polemics, because in his opinion it serves as the clearest embodiment of what he resents about religion as a whole:
From the start, the Christian faith is a sacrifice: a sacrifice of freedom, all pride, all self-confidence of the spirit; at the same time, enslavement and self-mockery, self-mutilation.
To Nietzsche, Christianity symbolizes the decay of true moral values away from a positive affirmation of life through one’s personal innovation and will to power, and the embrace of a pitying death-cult that seeks to devalue the individual to a perpetual state of self-deprecation at the whims of a concocted, eternal higher power. The philosopher refers to this as the slave revolt of morality, because it illustrates the practitioner’s unrelenting wish to take on the lowly attributes of the common slave and demand that his weaknesses be seen as graceful virtues. And the dominance of this mentality in the consciousness of man Nietzsche traces to the rise of the Christian faith. Nietzsche emphasizes his point by adding, “Never yet and nowhere has there been an equal boldness in inversion, anything as horrible, questioning, and questionable as this formula: it promises a revaluation of all the values of antiquity.”
He characterizes the rise of Christianity, and its slave morality, as a revolt against the earthly power which held dominance over it in its infancy, “it is the Oriental slave who revolted himself in the way on Rome and its noble and frivolous tolerance.” One might want to challenge Nietzsche on his reference to Rome as a “tolerant” power, as much of its early dealings with Christianity (and many other groups) conveys the Empire’s high level of intolerance towards its subjects. But, I suspect, Nietzsche would counter this challenge by affirming that Rome’s often claimed harsh treatment of Christians stemmed from the faith’s inability to view itself as anything other than the meek, the victimized. Nietzsche maintains that to the Christian it is not the suppression of religious expression that infuriates its pious congregates, but the free expression of it, because such a state robs it of its ability to take on the perpetual role of the victim:
It has always been not faith but the freedom from faith, that half-stoical and smiling unconcern with the seriousness of faith, that enraged slaves in their master—against their masters. “Enlightenment” enrages: for the slave wants the unconditional; he understands only what is tyrannical, in morals, too; he loves as he hates, without nuance, to the depths, to the point of pain, of sickness—his abundant concealed suffering is enrages against the noble taste that seems to deny suffering (Beyond Good and Evil, “What is Religious,” section 46).
Although there may be something to be said about the seemingly inherent nature of Christianity to everlastingly cast itself in the role of the downtrodden outcast in an antagonistic world (after all, it cannot be forgotten that this is the same religion that at its most prominent and most powerful in the middle ages, still managed to continuously conjure up a never ending list of enemies in need of combating for the feeble and defenseless mother church), it is also undeniable that Nietzsche is heavily romanticizing ancient Roman values, simply to create a negative contrast against what he sees as the less virtuous Christian morals.
Ancient Rome, though capable of great pluralism in its multicultural Empire, was also capable of much cruelty against its subjects and anyone who dared show a semblance of discontent with its customs and practices. This is far from what we might call an enlightened society (though it is entirely possible that Nietzsche would agree that it may be far from what “we” call enlightened, but that this sentiment of ours merely stems from our passive acceptance of the slave morality, which seeks to undermine the virtue of strength in favor of submission, under the guise of egalitarianism).
Nietzsche’s primary contention with religion is that in contemporary society true religiosity is unfeasible, even among those who refer to themselves as religious.
It is unmistakable that people no longer refer to the divine to guide their lives’ affairs; not in any literal sense anyway. Pious devotion once implied a certain degree of sacrifice on the part of the practitioner, but this devotion today has been reinterpreted by adherents to conveniently avoid them any bodily discomfort. Take for instance the following Bible passage:
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off, and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
Very few people—and no sane person—living today would even bother trying to adhere to the mandate prescribed above, because it demands of the person to willingly partake in an act of self-mutilation—self-amputation—for purposes that have no spiritual bearing on his existence. Modern man cannot accept the value of this archaic decree, thus he must find ways to rationalize its seemingly clear implications away, without having to abandon the theological foundation on which the directive stands. Thereby, the whole matter becomes an elaborate metaphor to the believer. Why?—Because to be told to accept it as anything more would prevent her/him from being able to remain thoroughly satisfied in her/his superficial piety towards the divine. It is an example of preserving the emotional sentiment of one’s religious traditions, without having to commit to any of the clearly stated demands that modernity has rendered irrational. As Nietzsche characterized it:
This is what I found to be causes for the decline of European theism, on the basis of a great many conversations, asking and listening. It seems to me that the religious instinct is indeed in the process of growing powerfully—but the theistic satisfaction it refuses with deep suspicion.
The contemporary shift to the vagueness of religious expression, the spiritual but not religious outlook, is to Nietzsche an indication of an intellectual retreat. Full confidence in the will of God is no longer an assailable aspiration, as indicated by the tendency to turn every uncomfortable divine command into some kind of broad metaphor or another.
People have reached a point at which the self, the I, occupies the role of the commander, the decider, the judge of values, a move that Nietzsche characterizes as antithetical to the Christian faith, because if man recognizes his role as the interpreter (not to mention the creator) of moral values, no need remains for divine guidance from above.
Nietzsche credits the advent of philosophy as a catalyst to the thinking person’s move away from the theistic mindset, even if the full implications of his actions are not readily apparent to the philosopher:
Modern philosophy, being an epistemological skepticism, is, covertly or overtly, anti-Christian—although, to say this for the benefit of more refined ears, by no means anti-religious.
The early philosopher sought to use his reasoning to get closer to his deity, but Nietzsche argues that this very desire to probe deeper within ones theology for more substance on the religious question, betrays an overt dissatisfaction with the theistic explanation that was on offer. In other words, this sincerely pro-religious curiosity to ground one’s spiritual beliefs in something substantive resulted in the death of sincere religious belief, as man gradually began to discover that there wasn’t much substance for the divine to rest on. Nietzsche goes on to postulate that devout belief in God, and all things godly, will continue to decline, causing mankind to leave matters of the pious behind as a relic of our species’ infancy, though the basic longing for external values may remain:
Perhaps the day will come when the most solemn concepts which have caused the most fights and suffering,, the concept “God” and “sin,” will seem no more important to us than a child’s toy and a child’s pain seem to an old man—and perhaps “the old man” will then be in need of another toy and another pain—still child enough, and eternal child!
Nietzsche recognizes how nowadays religious expression has evolved to more of a cultural identification as much as a point of genuine belief. To these individuals, religion holds no real relevance in their lives, partly because they understand that religion holds no real relevance in assessing reality. What results, however, is not so much a disdain for religious matters, but a personal indifference towards its presence:
They are not enemies of religious customs; when participation in such customs is required in certain cases, by the state, for example, they do what is required, as one does so many things—with a patient and modest seriousness and without much curiosity and discomfort: they simply live too much apart and outside to feel any need for any pro and con in such matters.
In other words, religion becomes a non-issue to the individual. At most s/he feels a sense of obligation to partake in the customs and celebrations of the once-devout society, but now it has been diluted to the point that one cannot even be bothered to evaluate any deep meaning behind the rituals (either favorably or unfavorably)—the whole debate is essentially meaningless to the average observer.
Nietzsche has little patience for the apathetic nonbeliever; or the sophisticated philosopher who knows better but chooses to indulge the masses with the musings about the seriousness of supernatural claims, because it allows him to “treat the religious man as an inferior and lower type that he has outgrown, leaving it behind, beneath him.” (This makes the religious philosopher the most condescending of all nonbelievers.) Nietzsche has no interest to differentiate between the various expressions of religious faith; it is the religious mindset as a whole, in all its forms, that he opposes so vehemently:
It is the profoundly, suspicious fear of an incurable pessimism that forces whole millennia to bury their teeth in and cling to a religious interpretation of existence: the fear of that instinct which senses that one might get hold of the truth too soon, before man has become strong enough, artist enough.
The idea here is that there exist those who know better than to cling to the promises of religion, but refuse to divorce the supernatural framework as an invalid interpretation of reality. They are like artists who use their talents to falsify reality to the observers by making the images they create more enjoyable to the naïve eye. Deep down, these individuals have long ago reached the conclusion that the version of reality they are promoting is flawed and baseless, but they continue to cheer on the masses they view to be too puerile in their reasoning to accept the truth about the nonexistence of gods, and the falsehood of religion:
Piety, the “life of God,” seen in this way, would appear as the subtlest and final offspring of the fear of truth, as an artist’s worship and intoxication before the most consistent of all falsifications, as the will to the inversion of truth, to untruth at any price. It may be that until now there has been no more potent means for beautifying man himself than piety: it can turn man into so much art, surface, play of colors, graciousness that his sight no longer makes one suffer.
Nietzsche’s position is that man is no longer invested in the factual validity of religious claims, but only in the emotional satisfaction gained from them. It’s not about developing an accurate assessment of reality; it is about making life easier to cope with for the individual who thinks his existence (and his mistakes and failures) unbearable if it is not all ordained by some divine cosmic plan or another.
The specific decrees set out by religious scripture and traditions are meaningless to the religious person, since s/he will never tire of performing the mental gymnastics necessary to reevaluate and “metaphor-ize” any and every passage that s/he—as a rational, modern specimen of the human species—feels personally uncomfortable with.
The dietary restrictions, the sexual and anti-sexual demands, the call to bodily harm and sacrifice, have all become negligible trivialities to the religious person of today. What it really boils down to is the personal satisfaction gained from one’s religious experience—making it solely an internal pursuit, pretending to be externally based.
Nietzsche sees this fully reflected in the ease by which political players utilize the sensibility of religion to cement their self-serving authority over a pious populace, readily willing to ignore the hypocrisy of their leaders, and submit obediently to what is seen “as a bond that unites rulers and subjects and betrays and delivers the consciousness of the latter, that which is most concealed and intimate and would like to elude obedience, to the former.”
The submission to a king-like figure comes easy to those who recognize an eternal higher power that will govern over them for all of existence, causing Nietzsche to speculate how consenting to earthly rulers claiming to be representatives of heaven gives people “the instruction and opportunity to prepare themselves for future ruling and obeying,” in their coming kingdom of God.
Although Nietzsche appears to be suggesting how it would be best for people to abandon and move away from the religious instinct, he also grants the reality that for most people this is an impossible request:
To ordinary human beings finally—the vast majority who exist for service and the general advantage, and who may exist only for that—religion gives an inestimable contentment with their situation and type, manifold peace of the heart, an ennobling of obedience, one further happiness and sorrow with their peers and something transfiguring and beautifying, something of a justification for the whole everyday character, the whole lowliness, the whole half-brutish poverty of their souls.
The concoction of a higher power that stands above all of humanity, is for Nietzsche a means by which those who lack the innovation, creativity, and confidence to elevate themselves as individuals, compensate for their inability to stand on their own and affirm their allegiance to this one and only life. It is an escape from their own ineptitude as individuals, a psychological prop that allows them to lower everything down to their level of destitute:
Perhaps nothing in Christianity and Buddhism is as venerable as their art of teaching even the lowliest how to place themselves through piety in an illusory higher order of things and thus to maintain their contentment with the real order, in which their life is hard enough—and precisely this hardness is necessary.
The act of turning the downtrodden and meek into the noble and ideal is the means through which this mindset gained dominance in the contemporary conscience of man, because it finally gave a means by which the plebeian masses (who make up the majority of the human species) could shame their stronger counterparts into lowering their own standards in the name of empathy for those who not only embody suffering, but seek to preserve it as the highest of virtues:
They agree with those who suffer life like a sickness and would like to make sure that every other feeling about life should be considered false and should become impossible.
As Nietzsche sees it, those who postulate and desire to gain access into paradise after death, are by definition proclaiming their despondency with this life. Thus, the religious tendency to extend hope to those who are suffering in life is also paradoxical a move that perpetuates it by not seeking to eradicate any source of suffering, but instead preserving it as a symbol of heavenly grace; heralding sufferers not as individuals being afflicted with a malady, but as blessed by the Almighty, who will reward their suffering in an unimaginable, yet-to-come, reality.
For Nietzsche, this is a deplorable view of one’s own existence, as it not only asks the individual to deny the reality of his state, but become content with his displeasure and pain as a necessary fulfillment of a higher will, making him forevermore dependent on an external authority for the hope of solace and happiness. As the philosopher summarized it, “the sovereign religions we have had so far are among the chief causes that have kept the type “man” on a lower rung—they have preserved too much of what ought to perish.” All in the name of a God, who (if you agree with Nietzsche) is nothing more than a self-delusional extension of the believers who have created him so they can sheepishly submit to Him.
Therefore, to Friedrich Nietzsche the answer to “what is religious?” is best characterizes as the ultimate denial of reality, the deprecating wish to be a slave, and the negation of life.
 Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil, “What is Religious,” (1886) section 47.
 Nietzsche, “Letter to Freiherr Karl von Gersdorff,” Naumberg, April 7, 1866.
 References to Buddhist imagery are made throughout Human, All-Too-Human, The Gay Science, and The Antichrist.
 Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886), section 46.
 Ibid, section 48.
 Ibid, section 50.
 Matthew, 5:29-30.
 Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886), section 53.
Although Friedrich Nietzsche makes references to it in much of his earlier writings, his first essay of On the Genealogy of Morals most thoroughly outlines the philosopher’s famed concept of the disparity between master-slave moralities that are found within human societies, and how this disparity—and the ensuing conflict from it—greatly influences our perception of moral values in modern times.
Nietzsche begins his prose by denouncing the basic tenants of utilitarianism, the ethical position that the value of an action’s goodness is innately correlated with the utility it holds for maximizing the collective well-being or happiness of a group, as nothing more but the ‘idiosyncrasy of the English psychologists” (undoubtedly, a reference to English utilitarian philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, but also sociologists like Herbert Spencer).
Nietzsche’s attack on utilitarianism is noteworthy for two reasons: 1. It distances him from the other leading secular moral philosophies of his day, ensuring no confusion will arise in the reader’s mind about Nietzsche’s allegiances on account of his own irreligious convictions. 2. It gives him the opportunity to explain the primary objective he is hoping to achieve through his essay. The first reason is self-explanatory, and a minor add-on to the greater context. The second, on the other hand, cuts to the core of the matter in how Nietzsche’s criticism of utilitarianism stems from his desire to seek the origin of human morality (to trace its genealogy), and explain how and why good and bad have come to be assigned the values they currently possess; the modern function of moral values—defining good as that which increases happiness—is of no importance to Nietzsche’s project.
To Nietzsche the claim that utility is the measure of morality would have been something to reject instinctively, since he spent a great deal of time showing how mankind willingly subjects itself to a number of moral virtues that hold no utility to its happiness whatsoever (his extensive critique of religion is a good example of this); hence, he would argue, that to maximize utility could not have been the origin of our morality, but exists solely as an arbitrary ethical maxim of modern times.
Instead, Nietzsche proposes a far simpler origin for moral values, one in which what he calls the aristocratic nobility “seized the right to create values and to coin names for values.” To support his proposition, he makes large use of the etymological roots found across differing languages in relation to the moral conception of good:
I found they all led back to the same conceptual transformation—that everywhere “noble,” “aristocratic” in the social sense, is the basic concept from which “good” in the sense of “with aristocratic soul,” “noble,” ‘with a soul of a higher order,” “with a privileged soul” necessarily developed: a development which always runs parallel with that other in which “common,” “plebeian,” “low’ are finally transformed into the concept “bad.”
Here, Nietzsche is plainly stating that modern thinkers are approaching the issue of moral values backwards, mistakenly attributing the origin of concepts like good to the lower ranks of society, rather than the high-ranking nobility, who alone [according to Nietzsche] held the creative aptitude to assign meaning to such values. The reason why this is little explored is explained by Nietzsche as a result of the ineptness of modern thinkers to contemplate the topic objectively due to their reasoning having been polluted.
With regard to a moral genealogy this seems to me a fundamental insight; that it has been arrived at so late is the fault of the retarding influence exercised by the democratic prejudice in the modern world toward all questions of origin.
In other words, most of us are too blinded in out idealistic devotion to populist sentiments about the virtue of egalitarianism, and other such “democratic prejudices,” to ever consider the possibility that the origin of moral values resides within a much more exclusionary, hierarchal framework—that it is the privileged who rightly define the good, because the downtrodden are too sickly in conscience to possess the capability to do any such thing; hence, all they create will by definition be bad.
This line of reasoning reinforces much of the same preference for the individual few, over the herd-instinct masses, found throughout Nietzsche’s other writings. As Nietzsche probably sees it, his willingness to bluntly state that the lowly, underprivileged members of society are a representation of the decadency—not the preservation—of good moral values, would have been an affirmation that, unlike his contemporaries, he is not afraid to explore the genealogy of human morality from all conceivable angles. To support his case, Nietzsche makes extensive use of his academic training as a philologist, and offers up a plethora worth of linguistic examples to support his aristocratic-origin proposition (sections 5, 10, 11, 15, and a brief note on the importance of linguistics on the subject, by Nietzsche himself, can be found in section 17).
A fair criticism of Nietzsche’s method would be to point out that (with the exception of a handful of examples) the etymological evidence he presents is largely Eurocentric, and therefore might be deemed as insufficient to explain the origin of all moral values. Of course, it is unlikely that Nietzsche would have seen this critique as much of a counter to his ideas, since his goal is to show the true origin of the modern values we currently hold. And given the influence Westernization has had on the rest of the globe (even by Nietzsche’s time) the philosopher would most likely have made the point that the morals of Europe have also largely been imposed as the morals of the world [for better or for worse].
As mentioned, Nietzsche points out that the origin of words like good, light, noble, courageous, all trace to an aristocratic root, whereas words like “bad,” “ugly,” “dark,” “cowardice,” all trace back to the lower plebeian masses. It is clear that Nietzsche sees more worth in aristocratic over plebeian values, however he does also state that this highest caste will also inevitably splinter itself into contending knightly and priestly sects, out of which a conflict between concepts of “pure” and “impure” will emerge, causing a rift in the aristocratic value judgment. Given Nietzsche’s hostility towards all things religious, a decent argument can be made how this description is a subtle critique of this perceived higher aristocracy, whose superiority the philosopher appeared to have been praising hitherto, but is now admitting to a defect in its structure; namely, the emergence of this priestly aristocracy:
There is from the first something unhealthy in such priestly aristocracies and in the habits ruling in them which turn them away from action and alternative between brooding and emotional explosions, habits which seem to have as their almost invariable consequences that intestinal morbidity—must one not assert that it has ultimately proved itself a hundred times more dangerous in its effects that the sickness it was supposed to cure?
It is telling that Nietzsche does not attempt to blame the emergence of the priestly aristocracy on a corruption of the higher caste by the lower masses, leading to the conclusion that this unhealthy sect is a natural product of the nobility itself—leaving room for the assessment that the noble aristocracy is ultimately unstable. As to why Nietzsche chooses not to state this observation openly, one can only speculate that since he sees the influence of the priestly morality as a far more detrimental force on the values of the modern world, he reasoned that its direct refutation held more urgency. Or, perhaps, this subtle hint of a critique against aristocratic morals was an appetizer to an upcoming larger work Nietzsche was planning (i.e. his never written tome The Reevaluation of All Values), which might have included a broader critical assessment of the higher caste, too. Whatever the case, Nietzsche is clear in his assessment that the priestly aristocracy is a natural branch-off from what he calls the knightly-aristocracy:
The knightly-aristocratic value judgments presupposed a powerful physicality, a flourishing, abundant, even overflowing health, together with that which serves to preserve it: war, adventure, hunting dancing, war games, and in general all that involves vigorous, free, joyful activity. The priestly-noble mode of valuation presupposes, as we have seen, other things: it is disadvantageous for it when it comes to war! As is well known, the priests are the most evil enemies—but why? Because they are the most impotent.
At this point Nietzsche’s narrative can become a bit murky, and care must be taken in order to thoroughly follow along, without falling into the trap of generalizing and misreading key parts of the text.
Having proposed that the aristocratic nobility is the only plausible contender to serve the role of being the original arbitrators of goodness, and subsequently all moral values, Nietzsche then goes on to suggest that the perversion of this true origin of moral concepts must have arisen from within the aristocratic caste, too—namely, the impotent priestly aristocracy—because the lower masses are not capable of assigning any sort of unique value judgment on their own, unless they are guided by the corruption or stupidity of greater minds.
Now, is the part where Nietzsche’s essay gets very controversial, by which I mean statements like the following:
The Jews, that priestly people, who in opposing their enemies and conquerors were ultimately satisfied with nothing less than a radical evaluation of their enemies’ values, that is to say, an act of the most spiritual revenge. For this alone was appropriate to a priestly people, the people embodying the most deeply repressed priestly vengefulness.
Famed Nietzschean writer, Walter Kaufmann, is adamant about the fact that Nietzsche’s views here should not be confused with the ramblings of a bigoted anti-Semite, on account that Nietzsche’s reference to the ancient Jewish people places them amongst the superior aristocratic nobility, and not with the inferior herd-like plebian masses. In chapter 10 of his biography of the philosopher (conveniently titled Nietzsche) Kaufmann explains that, to Nietzsche, ancient Jerusalem (and its inhabitants) served as a representation of the priestly-aristocratic values, in contrast to ancient Rome’s (and its inhabitants) knightly-aristocratic values. Thus, Nietzsche’s mistakenly attributed anti-Semitism is actually just his desire to give historical context to his ideas. And, of course, Nietzsche, who sees himself as the foremost opponent of Abrahamic values, decided to go right to the originators of what he deems to be the cause of today’s ignorance and degeneration of moral values.
[Note: Personally, I don’t consider it my job to defend Nietzsche’s views against charges of bigotry, and the fact that the man often seemed to go to great pains to be misunderstood by the layperson is his problem, not mine. Having read his writings, and being aware of his personal bouts with everyone from his sister, to former friend Richard Wagner, to even his own editor, over their adherences to anti-Semitic prejudices, it would be disingenuous of me to act as if I find the charge of this specific bigotry against Nietzsche in the least bit convincing. On the other hand, it is no secret that Nietzsche openly professed a deep prejudice against all things religious, in particular all things Christian. Thus, as he must have seen it, since his aim is to attack the heavily Christian influenced morality of his day, it would be incomprehensible for him to not mention (and denounce) the precursory faith to Christian values.]
To Nietzsche, what sets the (“knightly”) aristocracy apart from the masses is its ability—one might even say compulsion—to exhibit a great sense of physicality to meet its need for self-affirmation, to act in accordance to one’s creative impulses, and to do so unashamedly. The priestly-aristocracy is different, in that it’s impotence on matters of physical assertion causes it by necessity to retreat to the concocted realm of spirituality, in a spiteful attempt to satisfy its creative compulsion. In doing so, the priestly aristocracy inverts the aristocratic values-equation by surreptitiously redefining moral concepts into spiritual terms. Meaning that where it was once understood that it is the strong, the noble, the cunning, and the healthy that stand as embodiments of the morally good, it is now perverted to a monstrosity of contrary assertions:
Wretched alone are the good; the poor, impotent, lowly alone are the good; the suffering, deprived, sick, ugly alone are pious, alone are blessed by God / and you, the powerful and noble, are on the contrary the evil, the cruel, the lustful, the insatiable, the godless to all eternity; and you shall be in all eternity the unblessed, accursed, and damned!
This, Nietzsche argues, is the birth of the slave revolt in morality. And he attributes its origin squarely on the emergence of Abrahamic moral virtues, beginning with Judaism, but perfected by Christianity, with its emphasis on the meek and mild, and the wish to place hope in the sheepish entrance of a heavenly kingdom, rather than an affirmation of life incarnate. Leading to Nietzsche’s proclamation, “What is certain, at least, is that sub hoc signo (lat. “Under this sign”) Israel, with its vengefulness and revaluation of all values, has hitherto triumphed again and again over all other ideals, over all nobler ideals.” And this is the moral tradition the modern world has inherited today.
Nietzsche anticipated the protestation that such an assertion would bring out in his contemporaries, and faces the charge of anti-egalitarianism that his views are guaranteed to arouse headfirst. The philosopher attributed this reflexive defensiveness as a symptom of how deep the poison of the slave revolt in morality has permeated into the core of social consciousness; declaring that even his fellow irreligionists (so-called “free spirits”) are also helpless to its affect, mockingly stating, “Apart from the church, we, too, love the poison.”
Nietzsche summarizes the psychological development of this slave mentality as follows:
The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge. While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is “outside,” what is “different,” what is “not itself”; and this No is its creative deed.
It would be a mistake to translate Nietzsche’s usage of ressentiment to refer to a simple emotion of “resentment” or jealousy exhibited by the impotent priestly aristocracy against their active knightly counterparts. It is better thought of as a mode of reaction against hostile external stimuli. The priestly slave moralists are too impotent to act spontaneously and are therefore entirely dependent on perpetually exerting themselves against what they perceive to be hostile external forces. In contrast to their noble counterparts, whose moral mode of valuation does not seek out an opposition in order to validate its own convictions, slave morality tries to compensate for its inferior position by reassigning its own weaknesses into purported strengths, which is done by decrying the strengths of its superiors as wicked and sinful—everlastingly depending on the acts of the supposed sinner to give itself relevance. All of this causes a shift in the moral pendulum, and a subversion of what was oncegood (being strong and active), to mean what is now good (being meek and passive). This subversion is at the heart of ressentiment.
Nietzsche acknowledges that this does not mean that the noble mode of valuation is infallible, in any sense, only that when it commits, “blunders and sins against reality, it does so in respect to the sphere with which it is not sufficiently familiar, against a real knowledge of which it has indeed inflexibly guarded itself.” Meaning that the noble mode of valuation makes mistakes, but out of ignorance, not malice.
This sounds like another subtle criticism by Nietzsche against the noble aristocracy, expressing that their disposition can cause them to express a certain degree of naiveté about the common man of the lower orders. Presumably, because when one looks at an opponent from a higher plane, it becomes too easy to forge a falsified image of one’s enemies. However, this does leave the question open as to why the noble aristocracy seems to not be able to properly evaluate the morally corrupt priestly (“slave moralist”) caste, which resides within the same higher ranks of the intellectual hierarchy? The answer Nietzsche gives to this question is that since noble man “live in trust and openness with himself,” he is left defenseless against the underhanded slave moralist, because, “a race of such men of ressentiment is bound to become eventually cleverer than any noble race; it will also honor cleverness to a far greater degree.”
Despite common misconceptions, Nietzsche does not see cleverness as a needed trait of the noble individual, seeing it as less essential to a healthy mind than the possession of sound instinctive cognition. Another point of clarification is also the issue of whether or not ressentiment ever appears in the psych of the noble man. Nietzsche’s position is that if it does, the great physical exertion of the nobility will cause it to be exhausted before it has any chance to corrupt the noble man’s mind. The inactive, and impotent, slave moralist, on the other hand, has no means to relieve this poison from its body, and thereby inevitably becomes consumed by it.
Nietzsche is thoroughly convinced that modern culture is completely infiltrated by its unwavering devotion to slave morality, as demonstrated by the domestication of man:
The meaning of all culture as is the reduction of the beast of prey “man” to a tame and civilized animal, a domestic animal, then one would undoubtedly have to regard all those instincts of reaction and ressentiment through whose aid the noble races and their ideals were finally confounded and overthrown as the actual instruments of culture.
For Nietzsche, the cultural progression of mankind over the centuries has in reality been a regression of man’s true nature. With every step forward representing a step further into the abyss of a decadent moral framework:
We can see nothing today that wants to grow greater, we suspect that things will continue to go down, down, to become thinner, more good-natured, more prudent, more comfortable, more mediocre, more indifferent.
The slave revolt of morality has spread its impotence over the masses, in fact, has given leverage to the lowly plebian ranks, and now we lie content with our mediocrity and herald our indolence as a show of virtue against barbarianism:
To demand of strength that it should not express itself as strength, that it should not be a desire to overcome, a desire to throw down, a desire to become master, a thirst for enemies and resistance and triumph, is just as absurd as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength.
Our egalitarian sentiment, according to Nietzsche, is a result of the poison we have all blindly swallowed. Our demand for universal moderation, for the value of humility, our aversion to boastfulness as being too impolite in the presence of weaker, stupider individuals, and our desire to reduce the feeling of inadequacy from an opponent’s failures, are all manifestations from the original slave revolt of morality that is promulgated by those who seek to vindicate the virtue of their inferiority by means of social cohesion—to rationalize away personal failure in favor of mass victimization.
Also, according to Nietzsche, religious and spiritual expressions are the primary venue by which this slave revolt, this ressentiment, was made possible. The moral shift of emphasis on an unearthly paradise, the call to be mild and meek in face of opposition, while simultaneously proclaiming one’s spiritual superiority on account of one’s physical weakness. And, above all else, to claim this faux-superiority by proxy of an otherworldly Being, who will issue a final judgment on the submissive slave’s behalf, is to Nietzsche the perfect expression of what he calls ressentiment; primarily, because this is the very origin of the slave revolt of morality:
In faith in what? In love of what? In hope of what?—These weak people—some day or other they too intend to be the strong, there is no doubt of that, some day their “kingdom” too shall come—they term it “the kingdom of God,” of course, as aforesaid: for one is so very humble in all things!
Or, as the philosopher put it in a more historical context:
“Rome against Judea, Judea against Rome”:–there has hitherto been no greater event than this struggle, this question, this deadly contradiction.
Personally, I remain largely unconvinced by Nietzsche’s a priori attempt to glorify ancient Rome as a last remnant of sound moral value, as it ignores the fact that much of Rome’s claim to conquest was shrouded in myth and superstition. Which brings up the subsequent issue of whether Nietzsche’s emphasis on physical assertion as a buffer against spiritual thinking holds much weight under historical scrutiny (though it should be acknowledged that Nietzsche is right about ancient Rome not placing much value on passive-aggressive virtues like humility and modesty).
As I mentioned earlier, Nietzsche’s statement that a corrupt priestly caste will branch off from the aristocratic-value judgment, is a base admission that the noble aristocracy is not all too stable to withstand long-term opposition, in particular because it exhibits no trait in wanting to subvert its moral opposition. Bringing up the question of just how superior their moral-value truly is, if it is incapable of surviving the assault of a weak and impotent foe? But, undoubtedly, these would have been seen by Nietzsche as minor objections to his primary goal of overturning the popular conception that what we in the modern world perceive as morally good, is an absolute reflection of reality, and to contemplate about the possibility that our judgment has been clouded through generations worth of social conditioning. Furthermore, I will give credit to Nietzsche for not laying claim to the final word on the subject, and urging readers to not cease the quest for the origin of moral values here:
Whoever begins at this point, like my readers, to reflect and pursue his train of thought will not soon come to the end of it.
 Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals, “First Essay: ‘Good and Evil,’ ‘Good and Bad,’” 1887, section 2.
You can tell we just got past an election year when buzzwords like “class warfare” are getting thrown around without reservation. I’m told class warfare is the hostile means by which we in the lower bracket of the economic hierarchy unfairly try to undermine the integrity and work ethic of the wealthier individuals in the country by redistributing their wealth down to ourselves. How we’re doing this I’m a little fuzzy on, since as the years have gone by the only redistribution of income I have seen is the consistent loss of my own to utilities, a rising rent, and various other life necessities. Whatever devious scheme we poor folks are supposed to be up to, I’m obviously doing it wrong. (Apparently the memo informing me of when, where, and how we are to topple the Bastille got lost with my shipment of freshly polished battle-axes. And, honestly, what fun is any kind of “war” without battle-axes, anyway?)
I’m told that my distrust of both faceless conglomerates and faceless bureaucrats is contributing to all the vile, unjustified antagonism from my economic ranks against those who can afford to buy my home, car, and soul, trice over. For that I’m sincerely sorry, and in the future I will take into consideration that just because these entities have the ability to influence significant factors in my personal life, is no excuse to fail to consider how possessing such power must be a burden on their fragile humanitarian hearts. To put their minds at ease, I hereby declare to these caring, faceless conglomerates and bureaucrats that anytime the stress of controlling my finances and civil freedoms becomes too much to bear, I will be more than willing to take some of the load off their hands. It’s a small gesture on my part really, but I think ultimately it’s the thought that counts.
All joking aside, I’m getting the impression that a small segment of the population is getting somewhat paranoid that any day now their neighbors from outside the Country Club roster will come to storm their gated-community’s ivory entrances, demanding some sort of economic overhaul, or whatever. Often the sentiment of concern lingers on the fear that we uncultured brutes might turn to violent rebellion to sooth our misguided aspirations. To ease these fears let me inform any affluent citizens who might be reading this that they have nothing to worry about, because the majority of crimes we poor people commit are now, and will always be, against other poor people. Why? Well, firstly, because low-income individuals are located at a nearer proximity to petty criminals (for instance, I’m almost certain that the young man who attempted, and failed, to rob me a few years ago lived within a few blocks from me). Secondly, robbing low-income individuals of the meager possession they have carries a little-to-no-risk factor of getting caught, because essentially nobody gives a damn about Angelo’s stolen George Foreman Grill (honestly, he should take it as a compliment that anyone would even bother stealing that piece of crap), as much as when some shady hedge fund manages swindles Joe Millionaire out of a few zeros from his bottom line.
If there is class warfare in this country, rest assured it is an intra-class warfare. We poor people will turn on each other before we will ever think of undermining our more socially powerful counterparts. As for the rich, your immediate fears ought to lie with your equally affluent competitors who actually have the means to put a real dent in your earnings. Trust me, waitress Susan asking for affordable healthcare coverage for her children will not be the catalyst that erodes your trust fund.
And if I’m wrong, I’ll see you all at the Bastille!
It should be a crime how little appreciated James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinnersis (1824) is in Gothic literature.
James Hogg’s novel is a unique take on the subject of the material and spiritual world, in that it offers the reader both perspectives through two rivaling narratives of a single event. The first, “The Editor’s Narrative,” gives a strictly materialistic view of the seemingly supernatural events and characters. Unlike the second narrative (titled “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner”, and told from the point of view of the main character Robert Wringhim Cowan), the Editor’s suspiciously does not give much focus to Hogg’s devil-character, Gil-Martin. Instead, the few scenes in which Robert is shown conversing with the yet-unnamed character, any unnatural occurrence observed are immediately brushed off and rationalized by the secondary characters, “It is a fantasy of our disturbed imaginations, therefore let us compose ourselves till we investigate this matter farther.” This serves to set a mood in this part of Hogg’s novel, where the prose recognizes the presence of something perplexing in the atmosphere, but is unable to acknowledge the extraordinary source behind it. This has the effect of suggesting to the reader that it makes no difference whether or not one chooses to believe that demonic forces are among us (and the Editor giving the first account appears not to), as our inability to perceive the supernatural has no binding effect on its ability to manipulate this world.
Although, the devil-character, Gil-Martin, is admittedly incomprehensible in his demeanor and appearance to the characters that observe him, there is no indication in the narrative that he has any restrictions on his ability to freely interact with those around him; moreover it can be deduced that because he apparently transcends any physical form (this will become clearer in the second narrative), his existence is in no way shaped or bound by the material world. Thus, rather than being merely a religious concept, residing solely within the minds of convinced believers, Hogg’s devil is an agent operating entirely independent of our limited sensory and mental faculties.
The second narrative, structured as the personal memoir of Robert Wringhim Cowan as he unknowingly becomes an agent of Gil-Martin, gives a much more satisfying account of the devil, simply because Robert has no apprehensions about identifying his experiences with the spiritual realm. This is shown by his first encounter with Gil-Martin, whom he initially perceives to be his personal angel because of their uncanny resemblance; this tendency of Robert to identify everything he encounters with his Christian faith serves as a major tool by which the devil comes to manipulate the young man’s actions.
At one point, Gil-Martin himself explains the peculiarity of his changing facial features later to Robert, “If I contemplate a man’s features seriously, mine own gradually assume the very same appearance and character.” The basic message Hogg is telling the reader here is that the devil has no true face of his own, meaning that at any given moment he could take the form of anyone, and essentially be everywhere. Attaining someone’s likeness also gives Gil-Martin the ability to know that person’s mind, possess his thoughts and secrets, implying that the metamorphosis is entirely emotion driven, and inaccessible to rationality.
Gil-Martin is completely aware that he is an anomaly to observers, and in devilish fashion toys and winks on occasion to suspicious laypeople as an affirmation to how, indeed, you are seeing me as a wholly unnatural part of this natural world, and try as you may, you are incapable of explaining me by any empirically logical standard. An example of this is shown in his coy salute to Mrs. Calvert and Mrs. Logan, both of whom are completely ignorant of his true identity, but nevertheless sense something irregular about the faux-man. All of this points to the notion that Gil-Martin as an entity, is in no way dependent on anyone’s belief in his person for survival, because he knows that he exists independent of any mind’s perception of him; he is his own mind.
He even occasionally gives hints to Robert as to his demonic identity, such as his explanation, “I have no parents save one, whom I do not acknowledge,” an obvious reference to Lucifer’s fall from God’s grace. Here, Gil-Martin could simply be relying on the fact that even a person as spiritually inclined as Robert will not possess the ability to cope with the logical conclusion of his statement, and will instead rationalize it and then conform it with his already presupposed religious convictions. But it also reflects on his nonchalant attitude towards keeping his demonic character hidden. Certainly when it comes to Robert, Gil-Martin uses the young man’s strong Calvinist faith in predestination to corrupt his mind, and get him to surrender his free will, but at no point is it insinuated that the devil needs Robert to believe him to be a man in order to carry out his sinister plot (and at times Robert seems to question this very notion). If anything, it is Robert who thoroughly goes mad by surrendering his identity to this devious doppelganger that is gaining more and more control of his mental and physical recesses: “But the most singular instance of this wonderful man’s power over my mind was, that he had as complete influence over me by day as by night.”
To James Hogg, the devil is a real agent operating in the material world. Although, Gil-Martin’s face is defined by the individual observer, his identity is clearly not. One can even argue that besides giving him a means to enter the thoughts of those whose features he adopts, Gil-Martin’s metamorphosis also acts as a way to disarm those he seeks to manipulate by letting them believe that they themselves are the dominant personality between the two (since, after all, he is adopting their face), blinding them to the reality that the devil is subduing their very person.
Hogg’s devil-character is implied to be everywhere, manipulating people at any given times, his presence has no bearing on whether or not his influence is recognized as demonic or not, the end result will ultimately still be the same (as can be seen by the unexplainable political fight stirred up in the Editor’s narrative, and the ease by which Robert can be rhetorically swayed to commit one sin after another; both examples credited directly or indirectly back to Gil-Martin as the causal source).
Standing as a precursor to later Gothic novels to follow in the same century, James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinners is certainly a dark genre read well worth looking into to get a feel for the earlier incarnation of the transition from Romantic to Gothic literature, and the various literary elements explored therein.
 Hogg, James. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, p. 110.
Nietzsche writes in the first section of his autobiographical Ecce Homo, “Hear me! For I am such and such a person. Above all, do not mistake me for someone else.” Possibly foreshadowing the innumerable misinterpretations and false generalizations that politically-minded individuals will be determined to make out of the philosopher’s writings in the generations to come.
The most useful interpretation of Nietzsche’s politics is to simply reject the notion that the man had any clear political inclination to begin with, or at least not any that fit clearly within the political models commonly made reference to in his day, or ours. Indeed, over the past few decades, academia has done its best to instil just such a post-political framework into Nietzschean philosophy. Unfortunately, the effort has yet to trickle down to the self-styled public intellectuals, who have cleverly deduced that context-void quotations, from context-heavy philosophers, make for a more digestible expression of their own personal ideologies than actual self-reflection (why bother thinking about defenses for your own position on sociopolitical matters, when someone long dead has already done all the work for you, right?).
Now, since there is little point disputing the fact that Nietzsche directly called himself anti-political (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Wise,” Section 3), the only reasonable question left to consider is what sort of political implications a person might be justified in deriving from the philosopher.
Above all else, if there is one consistent fact that must be understood about Nietzsche’s relations to the politics of his day, it’s that (in stark contrast to many of his claimed admirers today) the man loathed and ridiculed everything associated with his native Germany; from its culture right down to its cuisines:
Against the Germans I here advance on all fronts: you’ll have no occasion for complaints about “ambiguity.” This utterly irresponsible race which has on its conscience all the great disasters of civilizations and at all decisive moments of history had something “else” on its mind / now has “the Reich” on its mind—this recrudescence of petty state politics and cultural atomism (from NIETZSCHE’S LETTER TO OVERBECK, October 18, 1888).
Only the complete worthlessness of our German education—its “idealism”—explains to me to some extent why at precisely this point I was backward to the point of holiness (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever, Section 1).
The German climate alone is enough to discourage strong, even inherently heroic intestines (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 2).
The few cases of high culture I have encountered in Germany have all been of French origin (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 3).
The Germans are incapable of any notion of greatness (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 4).
The way I am, so alien in my deepest instincts to everything German that the mere proximity of a German retards my digestion (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 5).
As far as Germany extends, she corrupts culture (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 5).
This is just a small sample of the disdain Nietzsche repeatedly expresses for his place of origin in his writings.
It is a clear reflection of the philosopher’s rejection of ideological identification, illustrated by his extensive attacks on what he considered to be the most evident of its mindless incarnations: the growing sentiment of German nationalism in the late 19th century. To Nietzsche this sentiment represented the antithetical of critical thought, and he was not shy about using the grand image of its idolatry (i.e. the German “Reich”) as the irredeemable symbol of all things decadent in modern civilization. Thus, it becomes highly ironic to consider how in popular thought today the man has been cast into the same ranks with nationalists and fascists, and their wannabe modern descendants; not to mention the bemusing fact that many of these nationalists and fascists will ignorantly promote Nietzsche as their intellectual muscle—bearing to all just how sickly and illiterate their cognitive fitness truly is.
Very well, Nietzsche has no place in nationalist politics, or any traditional Left/Right political spectrum. But what about something less categorically restrictive? After all, Nietzsche talks a lot about individualism, and the need for self-creation, doesn’t this give credence perhaps to anarchist thinkers, or (on a more moderate tone) at least libertarians? In short, no. Just as people make the mistake of radicalizing Nietzsche in with fascist-crackpots, the folly of romanticizing the man as some sort of idol of individual strength and responsibility would be equally mistaken.
At its core, Nietzsche’s philosophy is not about individualism, nor does he promote the notion of self-governance; what he really aimed at was to promote the message that one must be strong enough to conceive reality as it is, for “only in that way man can attain greatness” (Ecce Homo, “Why I am A Destiny,” Section 5). Following a political narrative would have been pure poison to Nietzsche’s program, as the parameters of any such narratives are by definition restricted solely to the acceptable party platforms.
As far as individualism goes, the man clearly states in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “For, my brothers, the best should rule, the best also want to rule” (“On Old and New Tablets”). It is true that Nietzsche believed that society placed too many restrictions on the individual, but it is also true he considered human society to be a long trial, with the herd-mentality being an innate manifestation for most people. Nietzsche’s rejection of free will (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Wise,” Section 6; also see Nietzsche on Free Will) leaves no room for personal self-improvement. You are either one who rules or you are with the herd, hence to act in any other way than your innate nature dictates for you to act would be nonsensical to Nietzsche. Most the majority of us, we cannot and we will not, rise above our herd-minded instincts, according to Nietzsche, hence a political model celebrating individualism (or emphasis on individual responsibility) would have have seemed self-defeating to the philosopher.
The point of the matter is that you simply cannot defend your political ideology through anything Nietzsche wrote, without negating one or more important aspects of his broader philosophy. And, on that note, you shouldn’t want to. And shouldn’t need to waste time defending your convictions by desperately attaching them to the musings of any one philosopher or another. As is the repeated theme throughout this article, Nietzsche is not someone to be admired or canonized to an infallible guru status. Like all thinkers, past and present, he is to be examined and scrutinized, allowing little to no romantic idolatry to cloud one’s judgment.
Whatever politics you personally support you are to defend it by the merit of its own tenets, not by the virtues you think some third party would approve of. Especially, not by the virtues of Friedrich Nietzsche, who would no doubt instinctively scoff at and ridicule any such attempt.
There is a docu-series on Netflix on former NFL player Aaron Hernandez, who was arrested and charged for murder in 2013. In 2015, Hernandez was found guilty of first-degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In 2017, he was found dead in his cell after having committed suicide. He was 27 years old at the time of his death.
The life of Aaron Hernandez is certainly interesting enough to look into, in and of itself, but the real story doesn’t end at the young man’s death, as he would be posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is speculated to have contributed to the violent and irrational behavior that led to his homicidal crimes.
CTE, being a neurodegenerative disease, is commonly found among individuals who sustain repeated (concussion-level) blows to the head. Hence, it is no surprise that the disease has been in the news for years to explain away the destructive behavioral problems exhibited by athletes who played contact sports known for their high frequency of head trauma.
There are often cited studies that confirm a higher than average CTE diagnoses among such athletes compared to the general population, however, because CTE is only able to be diagnosed through an autopsy (meaning the person in question by default has to already be dead in order to confirm if they had the disease) skeptics argue that the statistics used in these studies are bound to be overinflated since the dead athletes being tested for CTE most likely exhibited the behavioral issues indicative of the disease to begin with. An unbiased diagnosis rate would require a large and diverse sample pool of athletes who play concussion-prone contact sports, who would need to be tested posthumously for CTE, and the results would then need to be compared to the rates of CTE diagnoses to the rest of the population that didn’t partake in such sports (which would also require a large and diverse sample pool of test subjects to avoid skewing the data through selection bias).
Obviously, this is an issue that will not reach a satisfying conclusion any time soon on the science alone, if ever, for the very cumbersome reasons of testing for the disease outlined above. But how much data would even be sufficient to convince us that some percentage of these athletes are at risk of suffering unalterable brain damage before we are willing to draw any ethical considerations on the subject? Moreover, what percentage is considered an acceptable sacrifice in this situation? 50%? 25%? What if it’s definitely proven that only 5-10% of athletes who engage in these sports are going to sustain brain damage that will lead them to possibly hurt others and/or hurt themselves? Is that an acceptable number for us to accept as just part of an athlete’s life and experience?
I wasn’t personally raised in a household that cared a whole lot about sports, but I do still understand how all of us can get very attached to our preferred pastime, and get quite protective of it. And it’s not just about enjoying a game; it’s about the thrill of the competition, and the camaraderie between likeminded fans coming together to cheer for their team (at times with nothing in common except for maybe their mutual dislike of the opposing team). Sports to a lot of people aren’t just games, but a form of community, and arguably even a shared worldview. And to be told that something that brings you joy in life is inherently harmful to the very group of people you’re idolizing (i.e. the athletes) can be enough to put anyone on the defensive as it’s all to easy to interpret such arguments as a personal indictment against ones very character.
Although I didn’t watch much conventional sports growing up, my home TV was often set to the bi-weekly professional wrestling shows from the 90s to the mid 2000s. I watched pro wrestling from a young age (possibly too young), and was enamored by the characters, storylines, theatrics, and yes, the violence of it all. If I’m being honest, I also did eventually grow bored of it year to year as the storylines got repetitive, and I became desensitized to the spectacle of watching people genuinely put their bodies through hell in scripted fights for my entertainment. But I continued to tune in despite my waning interest, because it was a point of shared interest with my family and friends that I did not want to let go of. And I didn’t, until mid-2007.
If you’re a wrestling fan, you probably already guessed what I’m about to reference. In June 2007, WWE wrestler Chris Benoit murdered his son and wife, before committing suicide in his Atlanta home. It was an event that shook the pro wrestling community, and left many people bewildered as to what could have compelled a man who so many fans admired as a decent guy to do something so heinous.
We may never know what exactly motivated Benoit to do the horrible things he did that day, but a leading theory of the underlying cause is CTE, as confirmed by an autopsy which revealed the wrestler’s brain to be severely damaged and resembling an Alzheimer’s patient, caused by years of repeated head trauma and concussions. The findings sparked a new debate among wrestling fans, where they asked if it was right to hold the man fully responsible for his actions, or if his state of mind was such that he had no control over his actions. Meanwhile, a different sort of debate crept up in my own mind: Am I partly responsible for this?
After all, I cheered every head blow, steel chair collision, punch, kick, and fall for years and years right along with everybody else. It was done for my enjoyment, and I never once questioned the ethics of it. These are adults, after all. They know the risk they’re getting into. I neither created this sport, nor controlled how it’s managed and presented. What they chose to do is beyond me, and if I stopped watching, it would still exist, completely indifferent and independent of me. All of this was and is true, yet it still didn’t feel right anymore. I simply couldn’t watch another match without feeling uncomfortable about the possible damage I was passively encouraging through my viewership.
My family and friends still watched, and I never tried to argue them out of it (nor anybody else). I didn’t go into detail about why I stopped watching, choosing to simply say I was bored with it (which was true enough) and not participating in the conversation if the topic came up. Everyone accepted it wasn’t my thing anymore readily, and things moved on without issue.
The feeling of discomfort never left though. There are even residual traces of defensiveness still lurking, ready to stand up for my past viewing habits, so I’m not being flippant when I say I understand the reflexive agitation football fans, soccer fans, boxing fans, etc. etc. etc., are feeling nowadays from the scrutiny aimed at their favorite sports, and the implied judgment accompanying screeds about the physical, measurable harm done for their entertainment value.
Just as I had no intention of talking anybody out of watching pro wrestling 14 years ago, I have no intention of arguing for sports fans of any sort to give up their preferred pastime. I don’t believe attempting such a thing to even me possible, honestly. And I also don’t believe that a legal ban on specific sports is the productive way to go about mitigating the perceived harm being committed here, either. The only question I ask of anyone is to consider what the value of your entertainment experience is, and if this cost happens to be laced with bodily trauma, and pain, and agony, and tragedy for the athletes that make said entertainment possible, is it a cost that’s worth paying?
Her: (being grumpy) “You mean Singles Awareness Day Eve.”
Me: “Funny, did you come up with that on the spot?”
Her: “No, I read about it online, but the point still stands. Valentine’s Day is a sham.”
Me: “Because you’re single?”
Her: (getting defensive) “No, it’s not that. I hated it just as much last year when I was dating.”
Her: “It’s a stupid marketing scam that tricks women into forcing men to ‘proof’ their love for them by buying cards with cliché sayings, chocolate that will be gone by the end of the day, and flowers that will be dead by the end of the week. I didn’t like it then, and I don’t like it now.”
Me: “Now, when you’re single, you mean?”
Her: “I told you it has nothing to do with that.”
Me: “Did you still accept the gifts back when you weren’t single?”
Her: “I didn’t have a choice. And it’s not the gesture that bothers me, it’s the fact that its so forced; so contrived. You know?”
Me: “Well, I don’t know my feelings about all of that, but you have a point about the flowers being dead in week thing. Which is why some time back I opted to give someone a large bouquet of roses, all made out of plastic. Symbolizing how our love will transcend the mortal limitations of life itself, and be everlasting. Explained all of that on the card and everything, too.”
Her: “Nice. Did she like it?”
Me: “I’m standing here celebrating Singles Awareness Day Eve with you, aren’t I? That should give you your answer.”
Final Verdict: Don’t bothering arguing the meaning of it all and just buy your partner the stupid cards, chocolates, and flowers, and then get yourself laid. Happy Valentine’s/Singles Awareness Day.
Last week I found myself trappedgleefully engaged in conversation on a topic I cared nothing about, and could contribute nothing to. This apparently caused no grief to the woman that was torturing my eardrumsproviding me with a pleasant new outlook on life…by any means necessary. However, as my short attention span (the tolerance of which I had clearly underestimated up to that point) began to waver, I decided to mentally pen a short list of steps that can help others survive such an ordeal, and in the long run possibly even save society…possibly.
How to Talk to People Without Hurting Yourself
Step 1: Find Person
Step 2: Ask a question that implies interest in person’s life/activities/relationships.
Step 3: Remember to look alert and express concerned/amused facial expressions as the situation demands. Note: there is no real need to actually listen to what the person says since most people use the same tiresome set of topics/inquiries, which require minimal thought process to respond to. Besides, the immense level of boredom ensured by actually listening has high risks of suicidal outcomes. Proceed with caution.
Step 4: Keep asking vague questions that can be applied to anything or anyone. For example, “How was your day?”, “How was the movie?”, “How cloudy will it be tomorrow in your opinion?”
Step 5: Ignore all answers.
Step 6: Hum song to yourself to avoid possible suicidal/homicidal thoughts.
Step 7: In the circumstance that Steps 1 to 6 cannot be completed, properly dispose of person and start over. [Methods of disposal vary and are limited only to one’s imagination and duct tape availability. No purchase necessary].
There is some confusion and misunderstanding floating around concerning Friedrich Nietzsche’s thoughts on the concept of free will. By which I’m referring to the willful inability of many admirers of the philosopher to accept the fact that he wholeheartedly rejected the existence of anything akin to free will.
To Nietzsche, free will is a concept that cannot be separated from its religious underpinnings, thus: “God has been thoroughly refuted; ditto, ‘the judge,’ ‘the rewarder.’ Also his ‘free will'” (Beyond Good and Evil, “What is Religious,” section 53).
Since Nietzsche gives no credence to the religious worldview, he sees no reason why religious concepts ought not to be rejected right along with the rest of the divine packaging, “The desire for ‘freedom of the will’ in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated (Beyond Good and Evil, “On the Prejudice of Philosophers,” section 21).
He does acknowledge, however, that many of his irreligious peers still try to preserve some notion of a non-supernatural version of free will, a sentiment that Nietzsche describes as the need for individuals to hold onto a sense of personal responsibility, “some will not give up their ‘responsibility,’ their belief in themselves, the personal right to their merits at any price” (Beyond Good and Evil, “On the Prejudices of Philosophers,” section 21). The mindset of the naturalistic thinkers who hold to the existence of free will, is their attempt to salvage the idea of accountability (their own, and that of others), and by extension, the institution of justice and due punishment for one’s actions.
But Nietzsche rejects this desire as a misdirected conflation of two separate issues; namely, a conflation of justice with punishment, and a further conflation of both of these with free will:
The idea, now so obvious, apparently so natural, even unavoidable, that had to serve as the explanation of how the sense of justice ever appeared on earth–“the criminal deserves punishment because he could have acted differently”–is in fact an extremely late and subtle form of human judgment and inference: whoever transposes it to the beginning is guilty of a crude misunderstanding of the psychology of more primitive mankind (On the Genealogy of Morals, “Second Essay,” section 4).
Nietzsche proposes that the origin of justice can be more accurately characterized as a form of trade, serving as a method to equalize two competing parties, and not necessarily as a punishment for one’s freely chosen actions (i.e. free will). In fact, in such a framework the emphasis on punishing offenders is superseded by the notion that, “every injury has its equivalent and can actually be paid back, even if only through the pain of the culprit” (On the Genealogy of Morals, “Second Essay,” section 4).
As already mentioned, Nietzsche’s rejection of free will is tied in with his general rejection of theism.And he feels that the efforts of atheistic philosophers to retain the faulty concept, while still proposing a godless reality, is misguided; not to mention counterproductive:
Surely, that philosophers’ invention, so bold and so fateful, which was then first devised for Europe, the invention of “free will,” of the absolute spontaneity of man in good and in evil, was devised above all to furnish a right to the idea that the interest of the gods in man, in human virtue, could never be exhausted (On the Genealogy of Morals, “Second Essay,” section 7).
Nietzsche argues that the reason free will was originally invented as a concept was to give religiously-minded philosophers a means by which to allow for unconstrained supernatural intervention on the part of the various gods man had hitherto created. In short, free will is a trump card conveniently utilized to give deities a meaning to exist:
The course of a completely deterministic world would have been predictable for the gods and they would have quickly grown weary of it—reason enough for those friends of the gods, the philosophers, not to inflict such a deterministic world on their gods! (On the Genealogy of Morals, “Second Essay,” section 7).
Now, a fair question for a reader to ask is how Nietzsche’s rejection of free will does not also lead to a dismantling of much of Nietzsche’s own philosophy, in particular his conception of “the will to power,” and his continuous call for individuals to create their own values in life? Although a good point, it nonetheless rests on a superficial reading of Nietzsche’s thoughts on the subject.
It is true that Nietzsche heralded the idea of individuality, but not in any sense that would imply self-improvement. He fervently maintained that, “independence was for the very few” (Beyond Good and Evil, “The Free Spirit,” section 29), and even these individuals had no choice in the matter, because their instinct for individualistic expression is also deterministically confined, just as the herd-instinct of the masses can’t help itself but to subvert the independence of the few (On the Genealogy of Morals, “First Essay,” section 2). In this regard, there is nothing “free” about Nietzsche’s “will to power,” which is itself entirely instinctive, driven not by any conscious intent or choice-value, but on purely mechanical responses to environmental and genetic factors. Thus, in Nietzsche’s own language, the will to power is nothing more but the instinct for freedom (On the Genealogy of Morals, “Second Essay,” section 18), which of course is an instinct no one can freely choose to have.
Nietzsche understood how his views on this matter would make some uncomfortable (in particular his call for persons to abandon a concept like free will, upon which so much of the popular conception of personhood is based on), to which he bluntly responded: “One should guard against thinking lightly of this phenomenon merely on account of its initial painfulness and ugliness” (On the Genealogy of Morals, “Second Essay,” section 18).
According to Nietzsche, free will–being fundamentally an illusion–necessitates that we have no choice but to act as if our decisions are free agents. Therefore, the disdain individuals feel about the fact that their actions are entirely deterministic is itself a causal result of the way by which human perception has evolved to relate to its environment. We have no free will, but we are determined to behave as if we do. Whatever, “painfulness” or “ugliness,” people imagine will result from acknowledging this point is moot on principle.