Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Nietzsche and Me

by Hanno

When I first began my philosophical studies ages ago at the University of Texas (Hook Em!), three philosophers gripped my attention: Plato, Nietzsche and Parmenides. With any true love, an ember always remains long after the fire burns out. I never lost my love of Plato, nor Parmenides, and I will always be in the debt of Paul Woodruff, Professor of Philosophy and Classics at UT, for having introduced me to both. Nietzsche on the other hand...

It was late great philosopher Louis Mackey who, in a course called 'God and Man' made me read Niezsche for the first time. Niezsche's challenge to conventional morality, his joyful maliciousness, and his love of individualism, of turning things upside down, all griped the young Hanno. I began a serious study of his work, but quickly found myself reading, but not understanding. I spent an entire summer working my way through Niezsche's 'Beyond Good and Evil' as well as other pieces, and while I a was amused, I was not any the wiser. I felt the content disappear the closer I read.

And I became disenchanted with just what I was reading. The abolition of morality as a value scheme sounds fine when you do not like the rules of morality, but when you think about its consequences, it is uncomfortable at best. Mackey told me once that there was no need to worry about 'what if everyone thought like that,' because not everyone would think like that. Only those who can challenge morality are able to do so, and the vast numbers of people are closer to sheep, living in the way only sheep can live. While that makes some sense, I began to fear the non-sheep among us, and that fear was greater than my youthful chaffing under the rules I did not ask for and did not particularly like. After I read other philosophers, like Hume, I began to see those rules as far more important than I understood before. I turned from Nietzsche, and I studied him only in passing while in Graduate school.

But I never left him entirely. When I taught my first Introduction to Philosophy, I was able to choose any works and any theme whatsoever to teach. Much to my surprise, I choose Nietzsche as part of the course, and it has stayed there for 20 years. In the beginning, I loved the reaction he got, but my lectures were empty. I could not teach for more than 1 week in him, as I ran out of things to say. I remember one test question I asked was 'Nietzsche sure is fun to read, but is there anything to what he is saying?' The question itself shows how dismissively I took his writing. Yet I still taught him, and read him.

I did learn in graduate school (from the noted Nietzsche scholar Alexander Nahamas), that there was more to what I read than I thought, but it still seems awful, and false. Nietzsche, I was told, did not believe in truth at all, but in perspectives. He was no a relativist, however, as he believed that some perspectives are better than others. All value was the product of an perspective, of an interpretation of the world, and there was no way around this. The critique of morality lies not on its being false (that would be inconsistent), but in its origin, which was the product of weak, sickly minds, the sheep huddled together for protection. Maybe, I thought. But what serious alternatives are there? The values of the wolf? Indeed, it seemed as if Nietzsche wanted us to return to some barbaric warrior ethos. A moral scheme that raping and pillaging and using/destroying the weak seems straightforwardly misguided. But was that what Nietzsche was advocating? To be sure, many read him that way.

I will in the coming weeks try to make sense of some of Nietzsche's writing, and show that there is more to his view than the idiotic love of 'strength,' whatever that may mean. Stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

Could a wolf survive w/o his values? Are you saying he has alternatives?

Hanno said...

Well, for Nietzsche, the critique of free will is hand in hand with his critique of morality. On his view, the wolf can only be a wolf, the sheep only a sheep. Morality is using the value scheme of the sheep to judge the wolf. IE because the wolf is free to not be a wolf, she can be judged for her choice in being a wolf. this, he thinks, is absurd.

I do not believe I said anything implying that the wolf has an alternative. But i do think the sheep is right to eliminate the wolf if the wolf cannot but be a wolf. And I find it funny that the 'strong' wolf who preys on the 'weak' sheep as a problem with that.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that the strong wolf's got a problem with what the sheep think...

Hesiod, "Works and Days"

(ll. 202-211) And now I will tell a fable for princes who themselves understand. Thus said the hawk to the nightingale with speckled neck, while he carried her high up among the clouds, gripped fast in his talons, and she, pierced by his crooked talons, cried pitifully. To her he spoke disdainfully: `Miserable thing, why do you cry out? One far stronger than you now holds you fast, and you must go wherever I take you, songstress as you are. And if I please I will make my meal of you, or let you go. He is a fool who tries to withstand the stronger, for he does not get the mastery and suffers pain besides his shame.' So said the swiftly flying hawk, the long- winged bird.

Anonymous said...

Man's problem, according to Nietzsche (and Freud), is that he's always trying to surpass himself... become something he's not, something overman.

..."and man would rather will nothingingness, than not will..." (GoM, Essay 3, #28)

ce said...

He was no a relativist, however, as he believed that some perspectives are better than others.

Better in what way?

Maybe that can be your next piece.

Hanno said...

FL: What if the group of sheep is stronger than the lone wolf? And, I will argue, that is indeed the case. If we sheep allow the wolf to remain, it is on our terms. Do do not cry, little wolf. Many far stronger than you now holds you fast, and you must go wherever we take you, songstress as you are. And if we please we will make our meal of you, or let you go.

Hanno said...

FL: It is just those passages that I hope to unravel. But I do not now think that Nietzsche actually meant to defend the wolf. What is the overman? He is not the wolf or the bird of prey. But forgive me, a blog is too short to write the whole story. I hope it will come.

Hanno said...

ce: yes, I hope that to be next.

Anonymous said...

FL: What if the group of sheep is stronger than the lone wolf? And, I will argue, that is indeed the case. If we sheep allow the wolf to remain, it is on our terms. Do do not cry, little wolf. Many far stronger than you now holds you fast, and you must go wherever we take you, songstress as you are. And if we please we will make our meal of you, or let you go.

A warning to the sheep, "What does not kill me makes me stronger..."

...and each of you grows smaller and smaller...

*licks lips*... *stomach rumbles*

Anonymous said...

The overman *winks*

Anonymous said...

...but alas, he's only a man.

Sarah said...

Nietzsche was one of my favorites in intro. Wasn't it Nietzsche that said he "toys" with his readers and does not wish to have followers? It seems ironic that anyone would say such a thing, yet publish his work........I look forward to reading about this in the upcoming weeks.

Krista said...

Coming from Illinois (land of Richard Schacht), it was blasphemy to say that Nietzsche does not have a positive view about morality. Nehamas came to visit us once. That was entertaining.

A dear friend of mine is writing a dissertation arguing (in part) that Nietzsche is an intersubjectivist about value (rather than a substantive realist or an expressivist/fictionalist) like McDowell or Wiggins. Values, in that case, are essentially found in the interaction between the valuer and the world. So, value creation for Nietzsche, is not creation ex nihilo, but rather a process of reappropriating things from master morality and from slave morality that we then transform into our own new values. The trick is, of course, figuring out what "transform" means and how we go about it.

Hanno said...

Do you think he has a positive view of Christian morality? As it was in the 1870's-80's?

Hanno said...

And by that, I include your beloved Mr. Kant.

Anonymous said...


Lo! I show you the last man.

"What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?"- so asketh the last man and blinketh.

The earth hath then become small, and on it there hoppeth the last man who maketh everything small. His species is ineradicable like that of the ground-flea; the last man liveth longest.

"We have discovered happiness"- say the last men, and blink thereby.

They have left the regions where it is hard to live; for they need warmth. One still loveth one's neighbour and rubbeth against him; for one needeth warmth.

Turning ill and being distrustful, they consider sinful: they walk warily. He is a fool who still stumbleth over stones or men!

A little poison now and then: that maketh pleasant dreams. And much poison at last for a pleasant death.

One still worketh, for work is a pastime. But one is careful lest the pastime should hurt one.

One no longer becometh poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wanteth to rule? Who still wanteth to obey? Both are too burdensome.

No shepherd, and one herd! Everyone wanteth the same; everyone is equal: he who hath other sentiments goeth voluntarily into the madhouse.

"Formerly all the world was insane,"- say the subtlest of them, and blink thereby.

They are clever and know all that hath happened: so there is no end to their raillery. People still fall out, but are soon reconciled- otherwise it spoileth their stomachs.

They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.

"We have discovered happiness,"- say the last men, and blink thereby.-

And here ended the first discourse of Zarathustra, which is also called "The Prologue", for at this point the shouting and mirth of the multitude interrupted him. "Give us this last man, O Zarathustra,"- they called out- "make us into these last men! Then will we make thee a present of the Superman!" And all the people exulted and smacked their lips. Zarathustra, however, turned sad, and said to his heart:

"They understand me not: I am not the mouth for these ears.

Too long, perhaps, have I lived in the mountains; too much have I hearkened unto the brooks and trees: now do I speak unto them as unto the goatherds.

Calm is my soul, and clear, like the mountains in the morning. But they think me cold, and a mocker with terrible jests.

And now do they look at me and laugh: and while they laugh they hate me too. There is ice in their laughter."

Krista said...

Sorry, I meant "positive" as in he has his own theory of what morality ought to be (in opposition to "negative" as in he is only a critic; breaking things down with no ideas about how to fix it). If I'm not mistaken, there are lots of Nietzsche scholars (perhaps Nehamas is in this category) who don't think Nietzsche has any theory of what morality ought to be. I agree with the Schachtians -- he has a theory of morality. We just have to figure out what it is.

Oh, he hates Kant, no doubt! I'm a huge fan of his nickname for Kant: "the moral tarantula". How cool is that?

Hanno said...

I thought there was some confusion about that.

But I think there also is confusion about the term 'morality.' If you mean a set of values that are or ought to be universal, either by God's will, reason itself, or human nature, then I do not think he has a positive view of morality.

I also think he is an incompatibalist about morality, that moral judgments are incompatible with the absence of free will, and he thinks that there is no free will, no choice we make in our actions. Hence, he does not regard such moral judgments as in any way valid.

But if you mean value in general, then I think he does have a positive view, but one he insists should not be projected onto others.

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