By Wael Al-Mahdi (2011)
Why does philosophy appear so difficult? I think one of the biggest reasons is that it’s not written for clarity. Either the author is adopting an outdated style or he’s intentionally complicating a relatively simple concept because people generally dismiss simple concepts. Apparently many philosophers had the feeling, be it conscious or unconscious, that if what they have to say is instantly transparent, nobody will take it seriously.
Unfortunately, this puts off many intelligent people from trying to understand philosophical concepts. But why should we try to understand philosophy? Well, if you have a need to broaden your horizons, gain new perspectives, and think in a more mature way, then philosophy is for you. There’s no rule that says that philosophy is a must in everybody’s life, but for a lot of smart and educated people, philosophy counts as intellectual experience that is vital for inner growth, in the same way that outer life experiences are necessary to grow a person to maturity.
Nietzsche was an eminent 19th century German philosopher whose powerful and original ideas did a lot to refresh our perspectives on such thorny issues as free will and morality. He also anticipated many of the intellectual problems of the 20th and 21st century. But Nietzsche’s intricate arguments might have scared away many a potentially interested reader. Even contemporaries found him a tough nut to crack: when a scholar complained that he understood not one of word of Nietzsche’s masterpiece Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche replied that understanding even six sentences of this work put a person above the level of mere mortals.
Nietzsche, like the ancient Greek philosophers, felt that philosophy is not just semantic acrobatics but a way of life, and he tried hard to put his words into action (to put it in Socratian terms, philosophy is “an apprenticeship for death”). I’m not suggesting that anybody should imitate Nietzsche, who had a unique life and unique ending, nor should we imitate any philosopher for that matter. Each individual is a case unto himself and has his own needs and paths of growth. But I believe that by putting aside misunderstandings of Nietzsche and trying to decipher the words of this iconoclastic philosopher, the thinking man of today can uncover fresh insights that are as relevant as to our age as ever.
Personally, I have learned many more useful principles from Nietzsche than I could’ve learned in any find-your-true-potential-and-become-an-instant-millionaire workshop. And so we don’t need to be above the level of mere mortals to understand Nietzsche. The following represents my own understanding and is not a strict scholarly discussion of the finer points of Nietzsche’s philosophy.
1. Self-reliance. Nietzsche was very big on self-reliance. This is especially relevant in an age besotted with psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, life-coaches, gurus, consultants, etc. Even in the late 19th century Nietzsche recognized that people were becoming increasingly dependent on the magical advice of experts, institutions, the state etc, and he criticized a popular self-help book (yes, they had self-help books even then) that promised health and a long life based on a special diet. Nietzsche incisively recognized the flaw with this one-size-fits-all approach to the problems of life: it works for the person giving the advice, and people of similar temperament, but it doesn’t work for everybody. He also exposed the difficult issue of the cause-and-effect of happiness: does good living lead to happiness, or does a happy person automatically live a good life suited to his temperament?
I’m not saying that modern experts have nothing valuable to say, but I am simply pointing out the danger of distrusting one’s own mind and relying too much on the ‘wisdom’ of others. Nietzsche emphasized the uniqueness of an individual’s path and asked people to find themselves first, while cautioning against excessive trust in self-designated experts. In practice, this means that an individual must really get to know himself or herself, but first and foremost to have true self-confidence in one’s judgment. This sounds easy but requires a lot of psychological strength and insight. And with a plethora of self-help books, programs, workshops, etc, promising everything from a perfect memory to enormous wealth, it might prove difficult to listen to your own voice in the din of idealized advice.
On another note, Nietzsche also recognized that religious people might rely excessively on their deity. Now, I’m not recommending that religious people instantly disown their religion, but I agree with Nietzsche that sometimes people can expect inordinately much of their heavenly father while neglecting to do the necessary work to achieve their goals. Expecting God to solve our problems for us free-of-charge might be even worse than leaning on his created mortals; this attitude of ‘let God do the work’ is more widespread than you realize, especially in religious countries, and is one unfair argument atheists use against god-believers. But the truth of the matter is that God only helps those who help themselves.
To Nietzsche, what counted was the realization of one’s individual destiny, and not blind obedience to the herd. As we shall we see further on in this article, this doesn’t mean that it’s okay to do whatever you want. One of Nietzsche’s so-called ‘granite’ sentences (granite here is a metaphor for strength and solidity) sums up the goal of the thinking individual:
“What does your conscience say? You should become him (or her) who you are”.
Lesson: Rely on your mind and action and don’t expect others, including a deity, to solve your problems for you.
2. Say no to self-serving pity. If you asked me, the biggest tip to understanding Nietzsche is to start from the text, and to understand Nietzsche in his own terms, not from the point of view of other frameworks or purposes. This means that we should listen to the philosopher himself and not try to fault his argument at every turn.
So it is with Nietzsche’s advice against pity. In fact, he called pity ‘the ultimate sin’. This doesn’t mean, however, and Nietzsche thought that we should be callous, heartless and inhuman. As always, he was warning against the negative aspect of a feeling. Nietzsche rightly recognized that pity, like all other human emotions, can be used as a weapon to demean, manipulate, or take advantage of others. What’s more, the apparent do-gooder disguises his ulterior motives as virtue and is thus beyond reproach. But what was most galling to Nietzsche was not people who unconsciously used pity as a weapon, but those who knowingly employed it to terrible effect.
Anyone who has received anything out of pity, including sympathy, will know how humiliating it can be to be in such a situation. Nietzsche emphasized that pitying a person simply puts them down. But isn’t doing good out of pity a good thing? No, Nietzsche said. If you want to help somebody, do with shame; avoid any hint of pity, don’t allow th helpee to feel inferior. Better still, don’t even let the person know you’re helping them. All of this might seem positively anal-retentive in our emotionally-sloppy modern culture, but we should remember Nietzsche’s focus on psychic hygiene, that is, a wise and prudent management of what we feel and how strongly we feel it.
Nietzsche especially hated how some apparently religious people used pity to control others. This might seem irrelevant now, but Nietzsche was criticizing the clergymen of his age. And who’s to say that today’s representatives of religion don’t use their authority, reenforced by shows of pity, to manipulate and psychically sully others? The recent sex scandals among priests give us an idea of what could go wrong when we lose track of psychic hygiene. And anybody who lives in a religious country knows how apparently religious people can use psychological dominance to get their way, especially politically.
One reason that Nietzsche warned against pity was that he might’ve had too much of it. Indeed, there’s a legend that seeing a horse being whipped was the last straw that pushed Nietzsche to madness. I’m speculating that Nietzsche had so much pity for the condition of man that he risked losing his psychic balance because of it; his solution was to ban pity altogether. In this he would be confirming his own observation that all philosophy is a personal confession of the philosopher. The flipside of the issue of course is that for those who lack all empathy for others, the opposite truth is valid: pity is a moral must. On the other hand, for those bleeding-hearts who suffer from their pity, the Nietzschean advice might be to the point. It saves you from pain and makes you strong, and saves the other person from humiliation, and well-meant but misdirected help.
Lesson: Avoid the kind of pity that puts others down or makes you feel superior. Keep your emotions decent and don’t use apparently positive emotions to impose your will.
3. The will to power doesn’t mean dominating others. This is perhaps the most misunderstood of Nietzsche’s ideas. If you’re unfamiliar with Nietzsche’s work, you might think that this means that any action in the pursuit of power is okay, or that it’s acceptable to impose your will on others and control them. But Nietzsche was much more subtle. He wasn’t interested in control for the sake of control, and he always stressed the importance of individual freedom.
According to Nietzsche, any worthy achievement that required planning, hard work and excellence is an example of the will to power. In fact, the best examples of the will power involved controlling oneself and not others. All effort, all building, all becoming, and life itself was a result of the will to power. The artist, he said, exercised power over himself through discipline and hard work, and thus creativity itself is a prime example of the will to power. The person who controlled his desires in the pursuit of an important goal, like an athlete for example, was also exerting his will on himself. The will to power also drove us to conquer difficulties in the environment, including ignorance, which eventually culminated in the pursuit of scientific truth.
Nietzsche believed in the will to power, and its manifestation in the will to create, as the ultimate form of redemption. He says: “All feeling suffers in me, and is in prison: but my willing ever come to me as my emancipator and comforter.” And take this gem of Nietzschean wisdom:
To redeem what is past, and to transform every “It was”
into “Thus would I have it!”—that only do I call redemption!
Will—so is the emancipator and joy-bringer called: thus
have I taught you, my friends!
The way I understand it, our most treasured moments derive from the will to power. This includes every time you work hard to master a skill, pass a difficult exam, or excel in a competition. That is why you have a sense of achievement and feeling of mastery over yourself, in other words, a feeling of the will to power. Similarly, when you make a decision on principle or command yourself towards a worthy goal, you’re feeling the effects of the live-advancing will to power. In fact, the most extraordinary example of the will to the power is the promise we make ourselves every morning to persevere in life and make today better than yesterday.
Lesson: The will to power means controlling yourself in order to achieve worthy things. It doesn’t mean imposing your will on others arbitrarily.
4. ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ doesn’t mean it’s okay to kill people. Since Nietzsche called himself the ‘first immoralist’, and since he wrote a book intitled ‘Beyond Good and Evil’, it’s easy to see how this idea of his could be misunderstood. To make a long story short, Nietzsche did not in any way advocate immoral acts like murder, theft, or manipulation. What he was trying to explain to his readers was that morality was relative and that societies, at different times, might invent their own moral values to suit their circumstances. For example, a society that needed men as soldiers would value marriage, and a society that had to deal with its aggressive impulses might sanction human sacrifice; because we have different needs and ideas today, past values might seem irrelevant or even immoral in some modern cultures.
Like any good philosopher, Nietzsche wanted to step back and take a dispassionate view of the subject: What is morality? Where did it come from? Why is it so important?
Nietzsche might’ve set himself up to be misunderstood, but what he was actually attacking where the negative aspects of morality. He saw the hypocrisy, self-interest and falsification that stood behind many supposedly moral acts. Nietzsche praised self-knowledge and thought that people should not disguise their selfish acts by lying to themselves and calling their acts moral. He also criticized what he considered the pettiness of people who did good acts only for an expected reward, either in this word or the next.
In many ways, Nietzsche’s discussions of morality were not a recommendation. In other words, Nietzsche wasn’t saying, “Do this, do that” or “Don’t do this or that”. He was simply trying to look at morality, a subject we usually take for granted, in a new way. This different way of looking things would yield new and instructive insights.
If we should avoid hypocrisy and not seek rewards for good behavior, why then, according to Nietzsche, should we do the right thing? Nietzsche’s answer is difficult to disagree with: he suggests that psychologically healthy people spontaneously perform healthy acts. He puts it clearly in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
That your virtue is your Self and not something alien, a skin, a covering: that is the truth from the bottom of your souls, you virtuous!
If you’re healthy, you’ll act healthy. You won’t need to lie to yourself or others, nor will you need the promise of earthly or heavenly reward.
Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped superficially minded people from misrepresenting Nietzsche’s nuanced ideas on morality. In 1924, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb tried to commit the perfect crime by murdering a 14-year old boy. Loeb claimed that as a Nietzsche ‘overman’ (Nietzsche’s word for the man who loves his fate so much that he was prepared to relive it eternally) he was above ordinary laws, but all he was doing was justifying his murder-lust by distorting Nietzsche, who never advised people to kill with impunity. And the ‘philosopher’ Ayn Rand used Nietzsche to justify her childish rational objectivism movement which glorified contempt for people she saw as weaklings and parasites, while recommending ruthless self-interest. Tellingly, her hero was William Hickman, a monstrous sociopath and cannibal who murdered and dismembered a 12 year old girl. Rand admired this about him: “Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should. ” Perhaps not surprisingly, Allan Greenspan is an avid reader of Rand’s work. But Nietzsche, who was sensitive man with delicate feelings, never advocated child murder as a way to greatness.
Rand, in her shallowness and obsession with self-interest, was a perfect example of all that Nietzsche stood against. If anything, Nietzsche stood for nobility of mind and purpose, and to rephrase a saying of Nietzsche, all that people like Ayn Rand do is “creep around and make dirty what they feed on.”
Lessons: Nietzsche says that we should recognize that morality is relative and not set in stone. There is nothing holy or divine about morality. However, this does not justify harming others.
5. Why so serious? This might come as a surprise to anyone not acquainted with Nietzsche’s writings, but Nietzsche loved cheerfulness and light-heartedness, despite his dead-seriousness when it came to intellectual matters. In his autobiography, he describes periods of wonderful joy and joie-de-vivre when he was by the sea or trekking in the mountains. Nietzsche fell epically in love with a marvelously beautiful and intelligent young Russian lady and described this period as one of the best in his life. Although he fell into a deep depression when the young woman left him for his friend, he managed to nurse himself back to health and embarked on the most creative period of his life.
Nietzsche called seriousness ‘the spirit of gravity’ and described it as his devil and arch-enemy. He might also have been referring to other retarding feelings, like depression. With characteristic eloquence, Nietzsche complains of the nefarious behavior of the spirit of gravity as “paralyzed, paralyzing; dripping lead in my ear, and thoughts like drops of lead into my brain”. Who of us has not felt these terrible, leaden moments?
But as always, Nietzsche the fighter, the willer, the creator, bounces back. What’s the best antidote against the spirit of gravity? ‘The courage that attacketh,’ replies Nietzsche. He characterizes the pain that has been our characteristically Adamic heritage:
But there is something in me which I call courage: it hath hitherto slain for me every dejection. This courage at last bade me stand still and say: “Dwarf! Thou! Or I!”—
For courage is the best slayer,—courage which attacketh: for in every attack there is sound of triumph. Man, however, is the most courageous animal: thereby hath he overcome every animal. With sound of triumph hath he overcome every pain; human pain, however, is the sorest pain.
Nietzsche loved to use the image of ‘dancing’ as a metaphor for light-heartedness and freedom from seriousness. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the sage Zarathustra, who has come to teach humanity new values, is walking through a forest with his disciples. He comes to a clearing and finds young maidens dancing, who stop their dance when they see Zarathustra. He reproaches them: “Cease not your dancing, you lovely maidens! No game-spoiler has come to you”. Zarathustra goes on to say that his enemy and the enemy of dancing maidens is the devil, the spirit of gravity: “God’s advocate I am with the devil; he, however, is the spirit of gravity. How could I, you light-footed ones, be hostile to divine dances? Or to maidens’ feet with fine ankles?” Far from being a grumpy old grouch, Zarathustra, along with the rest of us, could not resist the sight of fine ankles nimbly dancing.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Nietzsche stated that he could only believe in a god that knew how to dance. Although Nietzsche was notorious as a philosophical lone ranger who liked to turn conventional truths on their head, he agrees with all of us that joy is what makes life worth living. He puts this in a sweet little poem near the end of Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
O Man! Attend!
What does midnight’s voice contend?
‘I slept my sleep,
‘And now awake at dreaming’s end:
‘The world is deep,
‘Deeper than day can comprehend.
‘Deep is its woe,
‘Joy – deeper than heart’s agony:
‘Woe says: Fade! Go!
‘But all joy wants eternity,
‘Wants deep, deep, deep eternity!’
Lesson: Take your life seriously, but don’t be a spoil-sport. Yes, I know it’s a difficult balance, but that’s the point, isn’t it?