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Nietzsche Still Influences

By Roger Kimball
UPI: Entertainment and Media News

NEW YORK, March 5 (UPI) -- Of all 19th-century thinkers, perhaps only Karl Marx surpassed Friedrich Nietzsche in his influence on the 20th century. And not even Marx has exercised the intellectual and spiritual fascination commanded by his unhappy countryman.

As more and more of the political regimes erected under the banner of Marxism repudiate Marx's ideas, it becomes ever clearer that much of what makes the modern world modern also makes it Nietzschean.

Nietzsche's glorification of power and his contention that "there are altogether no moral facts" are grim signatures of the age. So, too, is his enthusiasm for violence, cruelty and the irrational.

This is not to say that Nietzsche, 1844-1900, would approve of the societies that his ideas have shaped so profoundly. On the contrary, he would regard both the proliferation of democracy and the triumph of mass media and popular culture with a distaste bordering on horror.

He would abominate the widespread attack on rank, hierarchy, and social distinction; the political emancipation of women in particular he would reject as (to quote from his book "The Genealogy of Morals") "one of the worst developments of the general uglification of Europe."

Even the casual atheism, relativism, and hedonism of our time -- even, that is, behavior and attitudes that might seem (in Nietzsche's arresting phrase) "beyond good and evil" -- would earn his contempt precisely for being adopted casually.

It was a first principle with this enemy of first principles to make nothing easy for himself -- or for us.

With his famous announcement "God is dead," Nietzsche foresaw the rise of anomie, the spreading sense of angst and meaninglessness, what the Czech novelist Milan Kundera called "the unbearable lightness of being." All this Nietzsche diagnosed under the heading of nihilism.

One of Nietzsche's greatest fears was creeping mediocrity. If the "bermensch" represented his ideal -- the ideal of a being strong enough to create his own values, strong enough to live without the consolation of traditional morality -- the opposite of the bermensch was the timid creature Nietzsche called "the last man."

"What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?" thus asks the last man, and he blinks.

"We have invented happiness," say the last men, and they blink. They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one needs warmth. One still loves one's neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth.

One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment become too harrowing.

No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.

The last man, Nietzsche predicted, would be one response to nihilism. But the full implications of the death of God had yet to unfold. "The event itself is far too great, too distant, too remote from the multitude's capacity for comprehension even for the tidings of it to be thought of having arrived as yet."

And when they did arrive, what certainties would not suddenly become dispensable! -- "for example, the whole of our European morality."

To say that Nietzsche welcomed this development would be only half true. He thought that it meant liberation, yes: with the death of God, Nietzsche believed that man would be free to create values that accord more generously with human nature than do inherited religious values.

But Nietzsche also knew that the loss of religious faith also threatened man with a terrifying rootlessness. What happens when "the highest values devalue themselves"? Who or what will take the place of God? What prodigies will fill the vacuum left by a faltering morality? What unfathomed comforts will man devise for himself in the absence of faith?

To a large extent, Nietzsche's philosophy is an attempt to live with these questions: to probe the loss, the temptations, the opportunities that they imply.

Nietzsche also seemed to believe that he had fashioned a novel response to nihilism. It is not always clear, however, that his answers are usefully distinguishable from the problems that they are meant to address.

Nietzsche liked to think of himself as "untimely." He believed that his solitary wanderings and meditations had brought him insights far too advanced and devastating for most of his contemporaries.

And indeed, some of Nietzsche's writings on truth, language, and morality seem extraordinarily prescient -- or at least extraordinarily contemporary.

But Nietzsche was also very much a product of his time -- strikingly "timely" as well as untimely.

His apotheosis of art, his "immoralism," his celebration of instinct at the expense of reason, his attack on the middle-class, religion, etc.: all this was part of the heady intellectual atmosphere of the fin de sicle, in England and America as well as in France and Germany.

Even as Nietzsche was suggesting that "to tell the truth is to lie according to a fixed convention," so, for example, Oscar Wilde was bemoaning the "decay of lying" and warning readers not to be led astray "into the paths of virtue."

It is worth remembering, however, that attacks on virtue are most attractive when virtue remains well established, just as the homage to power, violence, cruelty, and the like seems amusingly bracing only so long as one doesn't suffer from them oneself.

In 1887, such glorification of violence and "the voluptuousness of victory and cruelty" may have been merely piquant; by the 1930s, when the Nazis appropriated Nietzsche's rhetoric as a garland for their murderous deeds, it had become impossible to view such passages neutrally.

It is one of the curious features of Nietzsche's mature thought that he wished to question the value of truth while upholding honesty as his one remaining virtue.

Traditionally, the moral virtues have been all of a piece. For example, Aquinas observes that "nearly all are agreed in saying" that the moral virtues are interconnected, that "discernment belongs to prudence, rectitude to justice," and so on.

It is worth asking whether honesty, sundered from the family of virtues, remains a virtue -- whether, in the end, it even remains honest. Untempered by other virtues, honesty functions not so much to reveal truth as to expose it. Is that honest?

Nietzsche clung to honesty after abandoning the other virtues because it allowed him to fashion the most ruthless instrument of interrogation imaginable.

Difficulty, not truth, became his criterion of value.

Nietzsche never tired of pointing out that the demands of traditional morality fly in the face of life. One might say, Yes, and that is precisely why morality is so valuable: it acknowledges that man's allegiance is not only to life but also to what ennobles life -- that, indeed, life itself is not the highest court of appeals.

But for Nietzsche the measure of nobility is the uninhibited pulse of life: hence his penchant for biological and physiological metaphors, his invocation of "ascending" and "descending" forms of art and life. He defines the good as that which enhances the feeling of life. If "to see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more," then violence and cruelty may have to be granted the patent of morality and enlisted in the aesthete's palette of diversions.

In more or less concentrated form, Nietzsche's ideal is also modernity's ideal. It is an ideal that subordinates morality to power in order to transform life into an aesthetic spectacle. It promises freedom and exaltation. But as the German poet Novalis pointed out some years before Nietzsche, such an ideal is really the ultimate attainment of the barbarian.


(Roger Kimball is managing editor of the New Criterion.)


Copyright 2001 by United Press International.

All rights reserved.


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