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Nietzsche- The Good and the Bad

Posted on: October 10, 2021

Category: Theology

Nietzsche- The Good and the Bad

Our postmodern era very much rests on the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Many have repeated, and many have been right, that Nietzsche is the event that turned modernity into postmodernity. Nietzsche himself said that he was no human being but dynamite. He was the deconstruction of modernity and the turn to a new age.

Nietzsche can sound arrogant, and some of his most outrageous, if not delusional, claims about himself came as he was sinking into a madness that would eventually take his life. During his last year of sanity, he was planning to write a series of books under the title The Reevaluation of All Values. It was to be his great work, and The Case of Wagner was the first installment. But Nietzsche called this yet to be completed work, “the greatest philosophical event of all time”—almost sounding like Donald Trump. Then, in a letter to Conductor Hans von Bulow over Bulow’s refusal to play The Lion of Venice at the Hamburg Symphony, which Nietzsche had recommended, Nietzsche scolded Bulow saying, “the foremost mind of the age has expressed a wish to you.” Seriously? Nietzsche was great, but he was not that great.

Nevertheless, Nietzsche was right about one thing. He was living during the age of the Death of God, and we are still living in that age. He saw more clearly than his contemporaries the impending collapse of the modern era and he caught a glimpse of the postmodern age to come: again, the age we are living in now.

What was great about Nietzsche? Let me quickly name three things. Then, let me address what was bad and ugly about Nietzsche—things that were not Nietzsche’s intention but did become part of his legacy.

The first great thing about Nietzsche is the art of interpretation. Nietzsche broke apart modern science that defined natural laws as objective and stationary. He anticipated what we now understand as the dynamics of quantum physics and relativity. Nietzsche was not a scientist, and he did not even like Darwin. He did, however, have a natural philosophy, and he understood that nature was energy. Things do not descend from a sky-god to earth. Things arise from nature as forces and dynamics.

When natural philosophy is applied to the human condition, Nietzsche’s second great strength is exposed. Human beings are manufactured from nature. What makes us great is the ability to embrace natural forces creatively. Nietzsche supports environmentalism in this way. The relationship to nature is not one of human conquerors to a conquered nature. The relationship is cooperative and creative. Human beings overcome nature not by defeating nature but by becoming new beings with nature. Natural human powers and desires are redirected to just causes and peaceful living.

The third great thing about Nietzsche is his encouragement of suspicion. If there was one piece of advice that Nietzsche could give us, I think it would be “don’t just accept things as they are.” In the case of morality, this advice spells out as do not accept what everyone thinks is moral. Learn to challenge the accepted norms, to question them, and to fearlessly pose a new order. Feminism, racial justice, rights for the differently-abled, and the green economy all reflect the Nietzschean attitude of questioning what previous generations assumed were “normal” ways of life.

Nietzsche can sound great, and he was great, but some things went wrong. In some ways, the things that went wrong were not Nietzsche’s fault. After all, he lived in the 1800s and could not know what would arise after his death in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Yet, he might have known, and could have known, some of the troubles that hid in his thought. Nietzsche seems to lack a social conscience. He places so much emphasis on the individual set against the “herd” (his word for the masses) that he forgets you cannot be an individual without the herd. The herd and its social institutions (education, health care, insurance) make it possible to become a great individual. Without the herd, there is only loneliness and despair.

Nietzsche also forgets, or seems oblivious to, the power of language and images. He relies on “supra-history,” heroic images that transcend the contexts of history. For example, he upholds the Greeks as noble figures from antiquity, and he bemoans how we are no longer great people like that. This picture of the Greeks, though, is remarkably short on details. A hero or heroic images from antiquity cannot simply be “supra-historically” raised up and transported into our time. When Nietzsche uses language like “noble” and “strong” and when he refers to the “blond beast” (a reference to the strength of a lion), he only invites misunderstanding and misappropriation. He fails to grasp a realistic understanding of history, which is ironic because Nietzsche’s critique of philosophers is that they do not know history.

In our postmodern times, the good things about Nietzsche are now common. We do appreciate interpretation. We do honor, or try to honor, diversity as a good thing. We do understand that morality is not something that descends from the heavens but something we have to create together. We are also suspicious of large corporations and huge government projects that are done “for our good” without our voice being heard and, often, with profit ahead of people.

Yet, these good things about Nietzsche backfire partially because Nietzsche was an extremely lonely person who failed to understand the benefits of a society. People of the Alt-Right today, who are largely composed of the Christian Right, who promote misinformation at an astounding rate, are also Nietzsche’s legacy. Anti-vaxxers repeat the mantra of distrust for government and suspicion of “big pharma,” which is consistent with Nietzschean social critique. The Christian Right is also highly individualistic. It promotes thinking for yourself and not buying into the herd, but this advice too is based on misinformation. Plus, the Christian Right has created its own version of herd mentality based on half-truths and fabrications.

The ugly part of Nietzsche arises from his inability to admit that sometimes a government is a good thing. It is good to have a strong government to guide a society of so many different people through a pandemic with extremely well-tested, vetted, and peer-reviewed vaccines. It is good that a government holds a high standard for things that can be used, bought, sold, and consumed by the public. The independence of a strong government of the people regulating standards of safety, wages, and environmental health is a good thing.

Nietzsche demonized democracy for setting a low bar in which individuals were not challenged to be great. Nietzsche did not recognize that sometimes government is a good thing and that democracy (demos or people) is better than “noble” unaccountability to society.

Nietzsche was great. But some things he said in a bad way, and the things he said in a bad way can get ugly.

-- ©By David Galston

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