In the course of wrestling with a half-written post about the influence of neoconservative thinkers (especially Leo Strauss and Alan Bloom) on current US politics (foreshadowed here), I’ve found myself being diverted onto exploring the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, not least because my almost-partner Jen, a classic practical Nietzschean if ever there was one, professes an intention to read Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
I’ve read bits and pieces of Nietzsche and have a vague general idea of his thinking (Superman, the herd, will to power etc), but I haven’t read any of his major works in toto, and certainly not Zarathustra. I guess I’ll have to get around to it now, if only to be able to converse intelligibly with Jen if she makes good on her latest planned obsession. In the meantime, I’ve perused the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries on Nietzsche (here and here).
But more interestingly, I came across a web page of uncertain provenance, dealing with the influence of Nietzsche across a wide range of intellectual disciplines. It doesn’t discuss his influence on neocons like Strauss and Bloom (something my half-written post attempts), but I was struck by the author’s summary of Nietzsche’s influence on popular culture ideas of human personality, psychology and personal development. In fact, although some of them have a rather trite pop psychology flavour, Nietzsche’s ideas seem to reflect quite closely many of my own values and personal aspirations:
If there are few names from the second half of the 20th century cited above it is not because Nietzsche’s influence has dwindled. Rather it so pervades modern culture that many who have never read him are influenced by his thought indirectly. Consider the following ideas circulating in American culture today, all of them traceable at least in part to Nietzsche, although many of them are much simpler than similar ideas held by him:
- The goal of life should be to find yourself. True maturity means discovering or creating an identity for yourself.
- The highest virtue is to be true to yourself (consider these song titles from a generation ago: “I Gotta Be Me,” “I Did It My Way”).
- When you fall ill, your body is trying to tell you something; listen to the wisdom of your body.
- People who hate their bodies or are in tension with them need to learn how to accept and integrate their physical selves with their minds instead of seeing them as in tension with each other. The mind and body make up a single whole.
- Athletes, musicians, etc. especially need to become so attuned to their bodies that their skills proceed spontaneously from the knowledge stored in their muscles and are not frustrated by an excess of conscious rational thought. (The influence of Zen Buddhism on this sort of thinking is also very strong.)
- Sexuality is not the opposite of virtue, but a natural gift that needs to be developed and integrated into a healthy, rounded life.
- Many people suffer from impaired self-esteem; they need to work on being proud of themselves.
- Knowledge and strength are greater virtues than humility and submission.
- Overcoming feelings of guilt is an important step to mental health.
- You can’t love someone else if you don’t love yourself.
- Life is short; experience it as intensely as you can or it is wasted.
- People’s values are shaped by the cultures they live in; as society changes we need changed values.
- Challenge yourself; don’t live passively.
It is notable that none of these ideas flows from the traditional Judeo-Christian culture which dominated Europe for a thousand years. Many of them have their roots in Romanticism, with Nietzsche merely articulating impulses that others shared; but he is a major transmitter of them to the modern world.
What Nietzsche’s thought conspicuously lacks is any clear conception of the personal qualities needed to co-exist successfully in human society, whether or not you see yourself as a Superman whose life and morality are beyond the “herd”. Advanced post-industrial societies necessarily involve increasing interdependence and require high levels of flexible interpersonal co-operation. That in turn necessitates mutual respect, tolerance, civility and a fair degree of acceptance of diversity: qualities that are in many ways antithetical to Nietzsche’s solitary Superman. Is it possible to exemplify both sets of personal qualities, I wonder?
This article (or rather book chapter) by Peter Levine about Nietzsche, Strauss and Bloom suggests one reason why each of these thinkers devalued civility and social co-operation, and might hold some clues about the extreme adversarial, confrontational nature of neoconservative politics:
Strauss imagines all humans, except Overmen like himself, as absolutely committed members of herds (cultures) whose values are incompatible with those of other herds. He sees no possibility of communication among cultures, which he imagines as completely discrete entities. One integrated set of values defines each culture precisely and serves as the foundation of all its members’ lives; these values have no validity for members of other cultures. Like Nietzsche, Strauss believes that one either follows herd morality, or else one plunges into an abyss of nihilism. In Chapter IX, I will argue that “cultures” are terms that we use to categorize people according to salient characteristics which they share; but such categories can be conceived in numerous, overlapping ways. We each differ from those around us in fundamental aspects of our character and background, just as we may be similar in some respects to people living far away or long ago. A paradigm that dispenses with reified notions of culture will avoid the nihilist conclusions that Strauss reached because of his crude Weltanschauung-historicism. In order to live and act in the world, we do not require an absolute commitment to values that all the people around us share; in fact, it is rare for such a situation to occur. Therefore, nihilism will not overtake a civilization that is aware of cultural difference; and Strauss’ program seems an unjustified exercise in deceit.