Saturday, January 17, 2015

Nihilism, Elitism, and Moralism in Nietzsche

Review of "Living with Nietzsche", taking a positive view of Nietzsche.

Nietzsche gets rapped as a Wagnerian proto-Nazi and nihilist, not only declaring god to be dead, but engaging in a revaluation of all morals from which he appeared to arrive at an elitist, devil-take-the-hindmost stance with the Übermensch. But according to Robert Solomon, this view tends to mistake the bluster for the substance.

First, take nihilism. Solomon provides an extended exposition about how that term is routinely applied to any morality one disagrees with.
"It often functions as a kind of accusation, a bit of abuse. Some traditional but much in-the-news Christians use the term as a more of less crude synonym for 'secular humanism,' on the false assumption that a person without God must be a person without Christian values as well. ... But note that I say 'Christian' values, for the accuser might well allow, indeed insist, tha the nihilist does have values, subjective, self-serving,and securely narrow-minded though they be. ... Similarly, an orthodox Jewish friend of mine calls 'nihilists' any people without a self-conscious sense of tradition, assuming that others must lack in their experience what he finds so essential in his own. Marxists use the term (sometimes but not always along with 'bourgeois individualism') to indict those who do not share their class-conscious values. Aesthetes use it to knock the philistines, and my academic colleagues use it to chastise anyone with 'looser' grading standards and higher grading averages than themselves." 
"In the pseudo-book of Nietzsche's collected notes, 'The Will to Power', there are many indications about the scope and nature of the nihilism he describes. But perhaps the most important point is this one: for the most part, Nietzsche describes nihilism as a concrete cultural phenomenon rather than *endorsing it as a philosophy. So I want to bracket the above uses of nihilism ('push what is falling', and the urge to promote 'a complete nihilims') as more Nietzschean hyperbole, for as his texts make perfectly clear, Nietzsche's aim is to overcome nihilism, not promote it."

Obviously, Nietzsche was for something, filling his books with declarations and "shoulds" and "musts" of various sorts, the more florid the better. But what was this morality that he was striving for? Firstly, it was not based on tradition or on an objective source. It was fundamentally subjective. He had only bad things to say about Christianity, for example, though Solomon notes an implicit dedication to rather bourgeios values in terms of truth, duty, and artistic value. He thought Kant and most other philosophers fundamentally mistaken in their attempts to make up absolute moral rules, based on some rational treatment of the human condition. What could be more contradictory?

He was also far more congenial to Aristotle than is generally realized, being a thorough classicist, even if of a more Dionysian than Apollonian stripe. Aristotle was a product of his time, and promoted a typical virtue ethics, focusing on good character that achieves the mean between excesses that can turn any virtue into a vice. Be neither too brave (reckless) nor cowardly, neither too abstemious nor too hedonistic, and so on through all possible virtues. These did not have to be (and were not) based on any objective condition of the cosmos, on deities, etc., but rather simply upon the wisdom of what promotes happiness personally and generally. This justification is ultimately utilitarian, (and subjective), taking happiness in the broadest (terrestrial) sense as the condition that needs to be satisfied, even optimized.

One wrinkle in the classic system, however, is that it isn't the happiness of everyone that matters, but the happiness of the system as a whole, and especially of those who are its leading lights- who both raise the cultural level, and run the society, including writing its philosophy. Slaves certainly were of little account, and Aristotle and his class hardly thought much more about women or other lesser classes. They vied to tell the rulers what to do, Aristotle personally tutoring Alexander the Great, for example, in a tradition that reaches down to Machiavelli.

Nietzsche, despite his choleric and bombastic nature, was fundamentally pushing the same elitist program, seeking to free people from the resentful, leveling, "slave" ethos of Christianity. Nietzsche urged his Übermensch to excellence and competition, even war, though never crass bigotry or bad taste. It is a fundamental and interesting question in moral philosophy- even if you grant a utilitarian / subjective justification to the whole edifice, and even if you make its justification empathetically broad-based in the modern sense, what is the better system- ethical democracy, or ethical elitism?

On the one hand, recognizing the fundamental value and talents of each person seems like an all-around good thing, a bedrock of modern moral and political theory. It is the right thing to do. On the other hand, we have to recognize that people are not created equal, and that society gains far more from the cultivation of some than of others. Moreover, we retain in many spheres a relentlessly, even mortally, competitive system that gives hardly a glance to egalitarianism- the corporation, sports, economics, the marriage market. We are very confused in this respect, with our natures and institutions tugging in all directions.

Looking at our politics in particular, the conflict reaches absurdly affecting dimensions, with highly egoistic and talented individuals yearning for vast power power while vowing fealty to the basest prejudices, vanity, and superior judgement of the mass of voters, while at the same time promising unwavering attention to the upper crust- the moneyed class which funds their campaigns. One might call it checks and balances, but it is also a little schizoid.

Democracy is supposed to combine the benefits of both ethical systems, harnessing the cultural elite to do the bidding of the society at large. But it can also combine the worst of both ethical systems, weakening the power of (if it does not sicken and turn away entirely) the most talented leaders and institutions, while also exposing the state to mob rule when emotions run high.

Nietzsche took a rather one-sided approach, at least rhetorically, favoring the elitist, competitive side of the equation. This was in line with the tenor of his time, saturated with German romanticism, sentimentalism and nationalism, and was the kind of thing that did indeed lead straight into world war 1 and all its ensuing miseries. This ethic even rubbed off oddly onto the socialist strain of German romanticism, leading to the even more shocking horrors of communism- an ethical fox in sheep's clothing if ever there was one. While his affections may have been with Greece, his ethical model seems quite a bit more like Rome, which ran for so long on blood and conquest. So, while Nietzsche may be more subtle than his worst bluster makes him appear, and diagnosed significant ills of the philosophy and atmosphere of his time, his degree of overall wisdom remains highly questionable.

Aristotle is a much surer guide, (if transposed into a modern ethical setting), counseling moderation and balance. In the present time, the elite have once again gained the upper hand, and are threatening our political, cultural, and economic fabric with a neo-feudalism that coursens and degrades so much that we have achieved through communal action. A competitive landscape that benefits society can only happen when everyone has a fair start in life, with fair rules as it goes on, and where the many other features of our society that require common action and investment are respected, well-managed and not hobbled by the self-serving ideology of what passes as our current elite.

  • Which side is more virtuous in politics? Which side is committed to narrative?
  • Pity the religions, victimized by their believers!
  • But does religion has just a little to do with our craziness?
  • What keeps left economics outside of public policy? MMT is taking Washington by storm.
  • How about a federal inflation constraint for budgeting, in place of a revenue constraint?
  • We need thorough and long-ranging claw-back policies against officers of corporations.
  • Krugman on weaponized, carbonized, and anything but humanized ... Keynesianism.
  • Credit is part of the peonage, low-wage system.
  • Water pollution, thanks to the "Halliburton loophole".
  • New science-y word: "defaunation".
  • The social cost of carbon is $220 per ton.
  • The cloistered life is not for everyone... nuns gone bad.
  • Map of the week: Who has what in Syria, from the wall street Journal.

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