The Politics of Friedrich Nietzsche

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.       

CTE: Entertainment at Any Cost

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?

My answer is no, but your mileage may vary.  

Happy Singles Awareness Day!

Me:  (being polite)“Happy Valentine’s Day.”

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.”

Me:  “Why?”

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.

How to Talk to People Without Hurting Yourself

Last week I found myself trapped gleefully 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 eardrums providing 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].

Humanity, you’re welcome.

Nietzsche on Free Will

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.

The Intellectual Value of Comic Books

Although the previous two decades saw a great surge in the respectability afforded to comic book characters adapted brilliantly to cinema screens, I don’t think the same level of appreciation carried over to the colorful, panel-style pages that all these characters originate from. What I mean is, while moviegoers might have cheered on at the sight of the Avengers, I predict very few people cared enough to go out and read up on the multitude of Avengers comics in publication since the mid-20th Century. I would argue the same probably holds true for many of the other top comics-to-cinema franchises.

Some movie historians point to the success of the 1978 Superman movie, or Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, as the beginning of the mainstream acceptance of comic book adaptations, but I’m not too sure it’s reasonable to cast such a far-reaching net. Movie genres, I believe, come in arcs and trends, and I don’t think the recent rise the comic book movie is anymore linked to the success of the two aforementioned movies than the rise of popularity of action movies throughout the 1980s and 1990s in general.

I’d argue that the precursor to the current comic book movies craze started just at the close of the 20th Century, with a movie called Blade.

For readers too young to remember 1998 too well, the first Blade movie was a humongous hit at the time of its release. Despite most moviegoers probably not being aware that they were in fact watching a comic book movie, Blade set the stage for Marvel’s superhero film adaptations that continue to this day. Moreover, it shifted the zeitgeist away from comic book movies needing to have an air of lightheartedness and child-friendly whimsy, and showed that you can have superheroes be dark, serious, and directed in a way where it looks as if they’re grounded in a reality that could plausibly overlap with our own (Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy would utilize a similar formula when adapting the caped crusader to the big screen in 2005’s Batman Begins).

Nevertheless, the theatrical success of Blade the movie, didn’t elevate the Blade comic book in the wider audience. Nor did the mainstream embrace of the subsequent comic book movies that enjoyed massive commercial success uplift most of it’s printed character counterparts to an equal footing with their cinematic namesakes’ successes.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I am not making some nerd-elitist “we true fans liked it before it was cool,” and in fact I’d argue that some comic book characters like Thor and Iron Man are not just adaptations, but superior works of storytelling in their big screen form than they ever were on the printed page.

What I am saying is that, despite the mainstream acceptance and success of movies based on comic book characters, and the widespread enjoyment the public gets out of the stories being told therein, comic books themselves are still not afforded the intellectual respect of being viewed as something beyond children’s entertainment, regardless of the maturity or complexity of the actual story being told within the drawn panels. Furthermore, if a comic book does reach a point where it is mature enough, raw enough, complex enough that it does crossover into the domain of being legitimate adult-approved entertainment, it immediately gets rebranded from mere “comic book” status up to the more reputable sounding category of a “Graphic Novel.”

So, there were some conversations about graphic novels… – Idaho Commission  for Libraries

Arguable the differentiation between what counts as a comic book, and what counts a graphic novel, could very well have its place. However the truth remains that, while a lot of people are willing to defend the intellectual worth of graphic novels like Watchmen, Maus, or Sin City, not too many bother to standup for the literary value of the common comic book; often this includes those of us who grew up enjoying comic books. And I would argue this seemingly minor oversight causes us to ignore a major contributor to a child’s introductory development to the world of literature, which can and does give rise to a lifelong appreciation of storytelling as a whole. Stories that can, and ought to, still be enjoyed well into adulthood.

Personally, comic books were a gateway into appreciating the written word at a young age, and laid the groundwork for understanding the importance of syntax structure when communicating one’s ideas through prose.  Now, I certainly didn’t realize as a kid, as all I did was enjoy the stories I followed in the printed panels, but the seed was planted for me to have a foundation to grasp the classics of literature once I was mature enough to engage them firsthand. Nowadays, I am surrounded by the greats (and some not-so-greats) of the literary world on my bookshelves, but I still feel no shame in openly indulging in the cheap, department store comic I bought along with my morning snickers bar. 

To me, comic books are a form of literature. Like all literature, some of it is good and some of it is bad; some of it is fascinating, and some of it is corny; some of it is engaging, and some of it is dull. But to dismiss the entire genre, so critical in shaping a one’s early sense of imagination and reading comprehension, just seems like a betrayal to the very foundations that introduced us to the world of literature to begin with.

Pronouncing Nietzsche

A reader sent a pretty good question to my inbox:

This will sound really really stupid but do you know how ‘Nietzsche’ is supposed to be pronounced? I mean the way he would have pronounced it himself. I always feel like I’m saying it wrong.

There is nothing stupid about asking something you genuinely don’t know the answer to, and I personally have little regard for individuals who make it a habit to put down anyone eager to correct their confusion on a particular issue. Now that I got that out of the way, dear reader, let me address the question.

The most often mistake I hear is “NEE-chee” (with an ending that rhymes with “see” or “fee”), and it’s probably the way most native English speakers have been thought to say it; this includes both academic professors and the average layperson. I suppose the reason why this mispronunciation is so widespread amongst Anglophones is because the pronunciation of the man’s name is of no real consequence when it comes to analyzing his philosophy–except to those who happen to have a particular fixation on these sort of issues. That last bit was not meant to be judgmental, just an observation on my part. And I can actually see how such fixations can be a healthy sign of a person’s intellectual curiosity, as long as you don’t start thinking of other people as your intellectual inferiors over something as trivial as the fact that they mispronounce a name whose linguistic origins they don’t happen to speak. 

The other mistake is to simply pronounce the name as “Nitch” (with the false assumption that the “e” is silent); this one’s rarer, but I’ve heard it said once or twice in college so it’s worth mentioning.

The confusion people seem to have is how the heck you’re suppose to say the ending of the philosopher’s name. This site gives a decent rendition of the standard German pronunciation (with audio included), and I encourage readers to follow the link to hear it for themselves. In the linked site, the pronunciation is transcribed as something close to “NEE-cheh”, but this can be confusing to some English speakers because the closing “h” syllable is relatively soft; coming across as a quick exhaling sound, so it sounds kind of like you’re saying it under your breath (as you’ll hear on the audio recording on the link provided). This can be made even more confusing by the fact that depending on which German speaker you ask, the pronunciation you hear can either come across sounding like “NEE-ché” (ending “é” used as it is in French, but with a guttural stress; which brings it very close to the “NEE-cheh” pronunciation shown in the link).

For all the years I’ve been fluent in German (i.e. since early childhood), and all the time I spent talking to native Germans (also since early childhood), I have always used the former pronunciation (the guttural “é” sound at the end), but one needs to keep in mind that I learned to speak German in Hannover, Lower Saxony, which is often cited to be as close to an accent-neutral region as German can get (sort of the German equivalent of what Americans would call a “Midwestern accent” in their country). However, in college (here, in the U.S.) I ran into several professor who also spoke fluent German, and they vehemently insisted that it’s supposes to be “NEE-cha”. Rather than pointlessly argue over it, I’ll just let people know about the supposed discrepancy, even though I almost never encountered it myself while communicating with German speakers.

In closing, this is a common question English speaking have when looking the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, and it’s always difficult to transcribe linguistic sounds from one language to another. I think the linked site’s phonetic transcription of “NEE-cheh” is a good compromise between the two (allegedly) disputing accounts of the German pronunciation of “Nietzsche”. Just keep in mind that the closing “h” is more of an ending breath, than it is a proper syllable. 

Or you can simply keep on pronouncing it as you always have, because how you say the name of any writer or philosopher shouldn’t have any bearing on how well you understand and analyze his/her ideas.

The Bum and the Professor: A Hypothetical Conversation

Bum:  “Spare some change?”

Professor:  “No.”

Bum:  “Not even a quarter, or a nickel?  No change at all?”

Professor:  “Sorry. If I had some, you can rest assured that I’d give it to you, but I just don’t have any.”

Bum:  “Why can I ‘rest assured’ of that? I don’t know you.”

Professor:  “True, but I know you, more or less. I have spent decades lecturing and writing on the plight of the underprivileged. So I understand your hardship enough to know that if I honestly had any money to spare, I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to you at once.”

Bum:  “All these decades you’ve spent lecturing and writing about someone like me, did no one ever pay you?”

Professor:  “Of course they did.”

Bum:  “And yet, you haven’t got a quarter or nickel to spare with the guy that earned you a paycheck?”

Professor:  “I resent that remark. I’ll have you know that I have given a large sum of money over the years to various charities to help people in need.”

Bum:  “Good for you. That still doesn’t put either a quarter or a nickel in my hand, right now.”

Professor:  “You’re judging me for not being able to give you money, right now? A bit self-righteous for a man who spends his days begging for a portion of other peoples money, don’t you think?”

Bum:  “No judgment here, honestly. I’m just following your train of thought, which I admit can seem pretty ‘self-righteous’. Probably about as self-righteous as being told that someone knows me, just because they’ve written something about poor folks here and there.”

Professor:  “I see. Well, allow me to clarify: While I don’t know you personally, I do understand, because of my extensive research and studies on the subject, the hardship that comes along with residing within the parameters of today’s socioeconomic hegemony.”

Bum:  “Parameters of what?”

Professor:  “Socioeconomic hegemony.  It’s a phrase I coined in one of my papers. Roughly it means that the conditions of a person’s environment are so dominating that they are naturally setup to be disadvantageous to the underprivileged in said environment. You understand?”

Bum:  “I understand what you said. I don’t understand what good it does to have it said.”

Professor:  “Identifying and defining a problem is the first step to having it resolved.”

Bum:  “When did you first write this?”

Professor:  “About 30 years ago.”

Bum:  “How long until it starts to ‘resolve’ the problem?”

Professor:  “It doesn’t work that way.”

Bum:  “Why not?”

Professor:  “Because social theories aren’t meant to fix people’s problems just by the power of the pen.  People have different perspectives, and one social theory can yield an innumerable sub-theories on how to implement reforms. Not to mention, there is always nuance to consider.”

Bum:  “So some other guy can come up with a different ‘social theory’ about the exact same problem your social theory talks about, and his would be just as good as yours.”

Professor:  “I think you’re getting confused, remember we’re talking about hypothetical thought experiments here.”

Bum:  “So they’re imaginary.”

Professor:  “No, they are normative descriptors of reality.”

Bum:  “How do you know they’re describing reality, if they haven’t been tried out yet?  That is what hypothetical means, right?”

Professor:  “It’s more abstract than that.”

Bum:  “I bet. But I still don’t see the point of coming up with all of these social theories, if they can’t actually resolve the problems they’re addressing. Seems to me like a man might as well be doing nothing and still get the same results.”

Professor:  “I told you, social theories recognize a problem and allow for the future assembly of working models to be implemented by society.”

Bum:  “Hypothetically.”

Professor:  “Yes, hypothetically.”

Bum:  “See that building over there? 30 years ago I was part of the crew assembling the foundation of dozens of buildings just like it, all over town. Most of them are still around. People can use them, live in them. They can like them or hate them. But they can’t ignore them. If they decide to get rid of them, they have to put some physical effort into removing them from the spot we put them on. You understand what I’m driving at?”

Professor:  “Not really, no.”

Bum:  “Before we put down the foundation, when we were barely carving out the dimensions on the ground, the buildings were what you would call hypothetical. Now, 30 years later, I guess someone a little better with words than me, would say that these buildings are ‘descriptors of reality’, at least in the little, tiny spot of reality where they stand. You couldn’t describe the area where these buildings are without mentioning the buildings themselves.”

Professor:  “Okay, I get what you’re driving at, but you’re wrong. This is completely different from my academic discipline; you’re simply not comparing like with like.”

Bum:  “Yeah, probably. All I know is that 30 years ago, we identifies a problem: no building in this spot. Now, 30 years later, problem is resolved: building is there, whether someone likes it or not. 30 years ago, you identified a problem; now, 30 years later, you’re identifying of the problem all those years ago hasn’t done squat to resolve whatever problem it is you felt needed to be identified in the first place–because if it had I wouldn’t be sitting here like this, would I? So, let me ask you, are you sure your social theories are actually describing reality, or are you just defining reality to your liking, and cramming your social theories into it so you can have something to lecture people on?”

Professor:  “My theory is sound, but to understand it properly would take many years of study.  Hence, this conversation is inconsequential. Here’s your quarter, and have a nice day.”

Bum:  “Much appreciated, good sir. You have yourself a good one, too.”

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians Trilogy

Years back, I had originally given up on Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy halfway through Book Two because the main character, Quentin Coldwater, is such an insufferable, self-absorbed piece of shit that the thought of being trapped in his head for another book and a half seemed unbearable at the time. But the Covid quarantine got me to revisit the trilogy from the start again, and while my first impression of Quentin remains unchanged for that first half of the trilogy, the character’s development by the end of Book Two does actually soften me to his flaws and failures, to the point that I found myself fully emphasizing with him by Book Three as the hero of the story the narrative seemed so eager to convince me that he is not. Perhaps it was a clever ploy of reverse psychology, or subverting expectations on the part of the author, but whatever it was, it worked perfectly in the grand scheme of the narrative as a whole.

Throughout the books, we see Quentin be a lousy friend (practically dropping all his past contacts once he gets to Brakebills), a dishonest boyfriend, and a bit of a glory-hog whose concerns lie less with the safety of those around him, then fulfilling his own interest in coming out on top of the adventure he thinks he needs so he can escape the monotony of his life. But it’s in the aftermath of having experienced all of this (roughly at the closing of Book Two) that we get to see a shift in his perspective. Which retroactively makes a lot of sense, on account that he would need to experience the consequences of his hubris before being able to set out on a genuine journey of growth and finally learn from his mistakes. As a character, it wouldn’t make sense for him to have either the knowledge or experience to understand how to deal with the situations around him maturely, nor would it have been realistic or relatable. In fact, I’m pretty sure that had Book One started out with a character that was mature, reserved, amicable, and fully resourceful right from the start, I probably would have complained that such a trope is too boring and lacked any real character depth to bother with (being a nitpicky critic comes so easy to us in the audience, doesn’t it?)

Some worthwhile reads payoff eventually is the lesson here, and deserve to be carried through to the end. And having gotten to the end of The Magicians trilogy, I see why the author wrote Quentin as such a little shit at the beginning of the story, and why it was even necessary to do so, regardless of how much it irked me at the time of reading on the first go at it.

Nietzsche’s “Overman” and “Last Man”

Breeding Nietzsche's Superman. The Most Important Concept in… | by The  Modern Platonist | Interfaith Now | Medium

The concept of the overman[1] (Germ. Übermensch) is one of the most recognizable (not to mention, most misinterpreted) philosophical propositions associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, most prominently explored in what is arguably considered to be the philosopher’s magnum opus, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

From the prologue onward, Nietzsche’s title character conveys the importance of the overman in the greater scope of human development:

What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape.[2]

Here Zarathustra is emphasizing how the intellectual evolution of humanity is largely encapsulated by mankind’s repeated (some would even say, obsessive) desire to identify where and how our species truly fits in with the rest of the natural order. In this pursuit, we have almost always began and concluded with the presupposition that, as a living organism, man must—by some measure—stand apart from and ultimately transcend the rest of his material surroundings. Hence, in our reasoning of ourselves as the most exceptional of living creatures, we inadvertently declare our existence (i.e. human existence) as the most serious of considerations rationally conceivable; thereby clumsily demoting the existence of all else as something far less serious, in comparison to our own, and giving credence to the anthropomorphic ideal that all of physical reality exists with human priority in mind. And just as in this view we—i.e. modern man—have “transcended” in our perspective beyond the lowly underpinnings of the natural world all living beings are undoubtedly slaves to, so too Zarathustra claims will the overman “transcend” over the lowly underpinnings that intellectually, spiritually, and morally, enslave us.

Nietzsche reasons that because nothing within the harsh reality of nature itself warrants a belief in the transcended existence of man, the means by which we have come to justify our presumed higher status in the natural order is by appealing beyond the confines of nature, declaring the true spirit and virtue of man in the world to be a matter ordained by something wholly otherworldly. All on the assertion that we are not egotistically designating ourselves a favored status in physical existence, but are just humbly accepting the role that has been cast for us by something greater than physical existence itself. This is where Zarathustra draws a contrast between man and overman, because while the overman also identifies his existence as residing on a higher “spiritual” plane to the rest of the living world (at least in comparison to modern man), he will feel no need to credit his transcendence beyond the realm of the physical world—because “the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!”[3]

According to Zarathustra, the reason we are inclined to look beyond the confines of the earth to give our lives on earth value, is ultimately due to our innate feeling of helplessness over the frailty encompassed in our finite existence. Thus, we seek—and, if need be, concoct—infinite answers on which to escape the dread of mortal life; an exercise that only serves to take man’s mind and hopes away from the earthly domain he resigns in. Zarathustra sees this as a great toxin paralyzing the spirit of human life, and calls on man to emancipate himself from such restraints:

I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they decaying and poisoning themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.[4]

Zarathustra considers mankind’s continued attempt to give meaning to life by virtue of appealing to a “greater”, “higher”, “transcendent”, otherworldly “beyond” to be a misguided effort that prevents man from ever overcoming the harsh reality of life—and death—because it causes them to repeatedly look for guidance from assumed metaphysical forces, instead of coping with the physical forces causing them grief in the first place. By Zarathustra’s standard, one cannot be truly fulfilled in life as long as the knowable source of life (i.e. earth) is marginalized in favor of a presumed better, unknowable, realm of existence:

To sin against the earth is now the most dreadful thing, and to esteem the entrails of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth.[5]

Such a perspective breeds contempt for the earth, and, by extension, the life housed by the earth; fostering a sense of resentment towards one’s own physical existence, and an unyielding desire to be free from it permanently. Zarathustra proposes the dawning of the overman to be the antidote to this depressingly nihilistic view of life.

However, the overman should not be mistaken as a bringer of happiness and contentment. Quite the opposite, as the hour of the overman is described by Zarathustra as the “hour of the great contempt. The hour in which your happiness, too, arouses your disgust, and even your reason and your virtue.”[6]

Zarathustra does not view happiness and contentment as necessarily benign reactions, because they often serve to numb the individual to the depressive forces pulling him or her down in life. To truly overcome the depressive forces suffocating one’s existence—i.e. to be the overman—one cannot steer clear of the chaotic, destructive, and frantic realities of life, because these deemed displeasures of life are as much a part of life as any deemed model of happiness could ever be.

The true means by which man overcomes such chaotic forces is to embrace them wholeheartedly; not seek to escape their destructive reality, but to motivate oneself through them and rise higher in one’s own being:

“Where is the lighting to lick you with its tongue? Where is the frenzy with which you should be inoculated?

“Behold, I teach you the overman: he is this lighting, he is this frenzy.”[7]

It is clear that Nietzsche conceives of the overman as the symbolic representation for humanities potential progression towards a more life affirming existence. However, it is a progression that Nietzsche did not foresee as anywhere near set in stone in our social evolution:

Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss. A dangerous across, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking back, a dangerous shuddering and stopping.

Despite what has come to be the dominate perspective on this subject in popular culture, Nietzsche did not envision the overman to be any one individual or group [and he certainly did not envision it as any one particular race or nationality]. Rather, the overman to Nietzsche is a frame of mind human existence ought to be striving for if it is to mature past the confines that are suffocating its creative and intuitive spirit.

However, Nietzsche did not believe that modern man was heading towards the path of the overman. Rather, the philosopher foreshadowed that if society continues to advance forward in its current direction, the likely outcome will be a degenerate caricature of what once existed of humanity, having Zarathustra declare to his unreceptive audience: “Let me then address their pride. Let me speak to them of what is most contemptible: but that is the last man.”[8]

Overcoming a Spirit of Hopelessness – Help for Today

The last man is the antithesis to the overman. He is the zenith of mediocrity and degradation of life. He does not aspire, he does not innovate. He cannot create anything or progress anywhere from the spot he happens to be standing on; nor would he ever want to. He is content, and wishes nothing more than to remain in his contentment. The last men do not care about overcoming the harsh realities endemic to life; they simply wish to be sheltered from it; festering away in a mundane existence of riskless bliss:

Becoming sick and harboring suspicion are sinful to them: one proceeds carefully. A fool, whoever still stumbles over stones or human beings! A little poison now and then: that makes for agreeable dreams.[9]

Because they avoid all manner of conflict and discomfort, the last men will be too fragile to confront the hardness of life (ironically causing them to recoil for more of the sort of sheltered existence that has left them so vulnerable to begin with). And by attempting to avoid—or more accurately, deny—the cruelties and chaos that make up life, they are avoiding and denying a vital aspect of life itself.

To the last men the concepts of ambition, success, and power have too many possible dangers associated with them to even be contemplated, because to attempt to succeed and advance creates the potential to fail and disrupt one’s cozy contentment in life. Thus, partaking in work no longer stems from a desire to accomplish a particular task, or even to earn a living, but to preoccupy one’s time with an inoffensive routine:

One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion. Who still want to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion.[10]

The world of the last man is bland and colorless; where creative fortitude has been sacrificed in favor of comforting sameness. The problem Nietzsche sees with this mentality is in its capacity to render human ingenuity sterile and restrain the most creative elements in society, because it is a world where “everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.”[11] Although all will claim and even believe themselves to be happy due to the contentment surrounding them, it is a very artificial happiness made possible solely by the fact that the imaginative spirit of humanity will have been dulled too much for anyone to be capable to protest the mediocrity that is their mundane existence. “‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink.”[12] In other words, when one seizes to care enough about life to find things within it worth combating against, life has become equivalent to death.

Zarathustra’s brief proclamation that, “one must have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: you still have chaos in yourselves,”[13] conveys that Nietzsche did not believe that contemporary man had reached the level of debasement of the last man, yet. However, he does make it clear that he believed that modernity was gradually setting us on that path.

No doubt he would have considered such modern values as egalitarianism and democratic governance to be antecedents of this trend. And admittedly there is certainly something to be said about the paradox of how it is exactly that with the advancement of security and comfort in the modern world, the continued rates of severe depression has increased exponentially (with no signs of leveling out). These may be issues that modern society ought to take seriously, and seek possible remedies to, but whether the ideal of the overman is the means by which these issues are to be best resolved remains to be seen.

Perhaps it’s manageable to contain the chaotic and destructive realities of life, and embracing their rightful place within the natural order; all while striving for greater security and comfort for as many people as possible. It may be true that by seeking to find a middle ground between Nietzsche’s dichotomy of the overman and the last man, we are sacrificing the creative and spiritual potential of humanity, in favor of finding simple contentment in life (i.e. instead of living truly fulfilling lives, we are just trying to survive through them). By all accounts, the answer to this dilemma depends on what priorities one has for oneself as an individual and society as a whole. And finding a consensus on the path forward human nature ought to be taking is certainly an obstacle too challenging to overcome—possibly even for the overman.

[1] The German word Übermensch is variably translated as both overman and superman, depending on the translation one uses. For this essay I decided to use “overman”, popularized by famed Nietzschean scholar Walter Kaufmann, as I believe it better conveys the philosophical underpinnings that the term is meant to encompass by its originator.

[2] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Prologue”, section 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, section 5.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.