Thursday, 1 October 2015

Nietzsche, all too Nietzsche

People who took no interest in politics, Pericles famously remarked, were not just minding their own business, but they had no business living in a democracy.

If people were not to submit to a tyrant, or descend into lawlessness, they must engage in collective deliberations – and that involves learning about each other’s perspectives, discussing contested proposals, and reaching decisions on rules and policies they would subsequently live by.

But in recent decades, as voter turnout drops, political literacy declines, there is correspondingly a rise in what may be described as Nietzschean individualism.

Against the ethos of respecting the needs of others and cooperating with one’s fellow citizens to work out shared strategies for the common good, the Nietzschean outlook insists that individuals should stand alone and consider solely what they ought to do to improve their own selves. Joining with others is dismissed as losing oneself in a crowd. Caring for the weak is deemed a sign of weakness. Only those who focus on making themselves better than what they had been stood any chance of becoming Übermensch (commonly translated as ‘super human’, but more accurately, ‘over-and-above the normal human self’). Otherwise, they are to be lamented as ‘human, all too human’.

Nietzsche of course has often been misunderstood. His ideas were deliberately misappropriated by the Nazi regime when he in fact detested people with anti-Semitic views and treated blind nationalism with disdain. He was not adverse to the development and display of physical and military strength. But for him, it would only be meaningful if such strengths were directed at opponents stronger than oneself. To target those who were weaker would be for Nietzsche simply pathetic. He admired creative geniuses like Beethoven and Goethe for being determined to bring forth what no one else had conceived of before, and scaling new heights of aesthetic achievement.

There’s nothing wrong with striving to be a pioneer, but the distinctive Nietzschean flavour comes with what one is supposed to exclude in the process. Nietzsche wants the passion for overcoming one’s mundane self to be so all-consuming that there is no place left for considerate interactions with others.

As Nietzsche’s philosophy is inherently opposed to rules and prescriptions, what greater self one strives to become is entirely left to individuals to decide with no reference to social implications. A Beethoven may write music that enriches countless lives, while the founder of a tobacco company may cause millions of premature deaths. Morally, it’s all the same to Nietzsche.

This indifference to the fate of others, combined with the exclusive push to meet one’s self-selected challenges, has not surprisingly bred the notion of the ‘striver’ as a contemporary hero. Such ‘strivers’ are to be praised, and they deserve to take whatever they can get, because they are relentless in pursuing their own ‘self-determined’ goals.

Some ‘strivers’ may by chance make the world a better place, but experience tells us they are more likely to ruin the lives of others with barely a shrug of their shoulders. If making one’s corporation stronger means thousands would lose their jobs or left with barely enough to live on, one should press on and not be distracted. If expanding one’s fossil fuel empire generates vast environmental problems for others, one should proceed without hesitation.

Ultimately, the trouble with the Nietzschean notion of Übermensch, is that it encourages the discarding of social bonds when people need more than ever to understand each other and cooperate more effectively. Since Nietzschean strivers will always overlook the impact of their actions on the wider society as simply not their business, they have no business calling the shots in any democratic society.


Woodman59 said...

SO valuable your expounding on this, as I've been profoundly shocked as to how far this kind of individualism has affected even ostensibly fierce socialists. Never connected this kind of problem to Nietzsche. He's obviously been far more influential than most of us will have realised.

Henry Benedict Tam said...

The Nietzscean attitude has become all too pervasive. It's particularly the 'why should I care what others think' mentality that fuels the growth of callousness.