What do you think Nietzsche would say about today’s society? His often severe criticism of his contemporary society makes me wonder if he would feel the same about ours, or be more approving of today’s society. Is the slave morality still as dominant, are there more “free spirits,” do have a more realized vision of the will to power, etc.?
Answer by Martin Jenkins
Interesting question Christopher! As you note, Nietzsche was violently critical of his society and the then emerging ‘modern ideas’ of equality, democracy espoused by Republican, Liberal and Socialist movements. He opposed such modern ideas diagnosing them as the continuation of themes central to the slave revolt which was symptomatic of the degeneration of the type ‘man’.
Behind the slave morality and modern ideas was a populace who suffered from a physiological illness of chaotic drives. Their frenetic activity imbued exhaustion and depression in people. This also signalled a decline in affirmative will to power for power quanta, manifested in organic drives of the human subject had no directionality or focus-no ‘will’. Drives struggled with themselves for expression imbuing what Nietzsche termed the ‘anarchy’ of drives. Consequently, People longed for a different, peaceful world and significantly, vented their frustration at the strong, healthy original, noble aristocrats [I.e. ressentiment]. For why should they be happy when we are not?
As you know, this led to the slave revolt in morality and the subsequent hegemony of its valuations and perspectives for two thousand years. This was systematised in Western Christianity, its metaphysical philosophy and Theology. All were judged equal before God and no exceptions were permitted to this rule. Those with strong drives-once valued as ‘Good’ by the now overthrown Noble Aristocrats-were condemned as Evil, a threat to the community and its established values. The experienced misery of existence was explained as guilt for the committing of sin. Mutual pity for the suffering slaves became a universal soporific and a universal prescription of a negative view of life and living to all. Redemption from all this and escape into a better, higher other world is offered by further engagement in the Christian worldview; which as institutionalised ressentiment, entailed that the believer must hate themselves and their existence ever anew: cursed with sin and perpetually repaying the debt they owed to their God. What did the Christian Church have to do to achieve its aims?:
"Stand all valuations on their head – that is what they had to do! And crush the strong, strike down the great hopes, throw suspicion on the delight in beauty, skew everything self-satisfied, manly, conquering, domineering, every instinct that belongs to the highest and best turned out type of ‘Human’, twist them into uncertainty, crisis of conscience, self-destruction; invert the whole love of the earth and of earthly dominion into hatred against the earth and the earthly – that is the task the church set and needed to set for itself until, in its estimation, ‘unworldly’, ‘insensuous’, and ‘higher man’ finally melded into one single feeling." [BGE # 62]
All this, proposes Nietzsche, prevents humanity from becoming what it could.
As the hegemony of Christianity gave way to alternative explanations of natural science and secular social movements, its main themes continued in secular guises. Science continues its belief in universal laws which like people, all phenomena must obey universal laws thereby failing to account for the necessary and immanent activism of power [macht] [BGE #22 The democratic movement Nietzsche views as the heir to Christianity. [BGE 202] Most notably it proffers Equality and Pity/Sympathy for all that suffers.
The prescriptive valuations of Christianity have created a physiological proximity of European peoples so that there is a homogeneity of accepted drives and their expressions. This has led to what Nietzsche pejoratively terms ‘herd animal morality’. Not only has this moulded a uniformity-an Identitarianism [to use post-modern speak] – it also limits exceptional, irruptive expressions of will to power-which is contrary to life itself [BGE #258,259, WP # 125]. For all Life – including the human – is, Will to Power and nothing else. So again, the higher potentiality of the human type as underpinned by Will to Power, is offset.
Such uniformity not only prevents strong expressions of Will to Power, it instead offers conformist valuations of timidity, of insipidity monopolised by the herd itself as a community -‘one and indivisible’. In this context, fear is the mother of morality as drives valued [under other names] in times of war and community endangerment – such as ‘enterprise, daring, vindictiveness, cunning, rapacity, a dominating spirit – are now condemned.
“When the highest and strongest drives erupt in passion, driving the individual up and out and far above the average, over the depths of herd conscience, the self-esteem of the community is destroyed – its faith in itself, its backbone as it were – is broken. As a result, these are the very drives that will be denounced and slandered the most. A high, independent spiritedness, a will to stand alone, even an excellent faculty of reason, will be perceived as a threat.” [BGE #201]
Accordingly, the ‘equalising attitude’ and the ‘mediocrity of desires’ are valorised and made virtues. Yet the ultimate aim of herd morality is to abolish fear, it wants nothing more to fear. For Nietzsche, this is a recipe for a totalising morality of timidity. Further, it removes adversity and struggle which as well as its opposites, are essential ingredients to the development of humanity. [BGE #44]
Nietzsche castigates anarchists and socialists – who wrongly claim the mantle of ‘Free thinkers’-for advocating sympathy and pity to those who they view as victims of ‘traditional social structures’ [BGE #44]. This is to stand truth on its head: it is not society that creates suffering, it comes from the people themselves. Sympathy reinforces this suffering substituting the Christian’s hope of deliverance in an after-world with deliverance through revolution. Sympathy and pity will assume that the suffering of people [due to the anarchy of their drives] is normal. Further, it’s outlook will be universalised so that even those who don’t suffer, will be made to. Yet Nietzsche maintained that suffering can make people stronger, it is just as essential as happiness in enhancing the type ‘man’. Suffering which gives rise to creativity is preferable to the acquiescent, passive suffering of the creature [BGE # 225]
In sum, Nietzsche believed that modern ideas would triumph and their levelling would in the 20th or 21st centuries create the optimum conditions for the emergence of ‘New Philosopher Creators’.
So used to obeying rather than commanding, herd animal people would feel guilty about commanding. This bad conscience about commanding is offset argues Nietzsche, by the success of Napoleon, it gives the masses palpable relief that they have a commander and lawgiver which free’s them from the responsibility.
An unintended consequence of modern ideas will be that it creates the conditions for the emergence of such Philosopher-Creators: tyrants, including the most spiritual. As just written, the mass herd animal would welcome such a development. Also it has, by means of modern ideas, made itself useful, serviceable, industrious so as to be of use to the ascendant Philosopher-Creators. Nietzsche is quite sketchy about what such new aristocrats will do, save they will re-evaluate the European values that have dominated for 2000 years. He writes of his admiration for the Romans, their values against those of Judea [GM1 #16] so perhaps this indicates the type of society he would like to see? In place of universalism will be a hierarchy of moralities based on order of rank [BGE #228]. Petty politics of Nationalism’s and Anarchism’s will be replaced [BGE #242], by the single Will of Grand Politics of a united Europe led by the Philosopher-Creators which, will confront the single will of Russia [BGE #208] for domination of the Earth.
It appears that as humanity needs to Will [even will nothingness at all so as to will], neither the Ascetic Ideal of Christianity, nor the levelling of Modern Ideas, provided a Will that would enhance society to its optimum Will to Power. They both represented decadence, deterioration. Physiological decline was arrested but not wholly cured. It appears Nietzsche believed and hoped this would be achieved by humanity following a new Will set by the Philosopher-Creators; aristocratic situated at the top of an hierarchical society where the will to power of each was ordered, the physiological chaos cured, because it was incorporated into the overarching Will.
If we maintain Nietzsche’s categories such as slave morality, then as universalism is dominant in the juridical and political regimes of Europe then the slave morality has triumphed. Certainly, Europe has not sought to expunge the morality it has inherited. Nietzsche wrote nothing [as far as I am aware] about Capitalism but he did condemn and deride ‘industriousness’ and the cult of work. Despite brief predictions of a leisure society, capitalism has not delivered this; capitalism has become global. Would it appropriated by Nietzsche to the slave morality? Probably as it does not correspond to the Aristocratic society he preferred. [or perhaps it does for different reasons??]
There are no Philosopher-Creators that have emerged from the levelled, democratic societies. What of Fascism/National Socialism? Many scholars try to implicate Nietzsche with Fascism/National Socialism. Although he favoured hierarchy-as did Fascism, Nietzsche would have opposed the anti-Semitism of the Nazi’s. He would also have opposed with the Nationalism that both are built upon.
At present, I would describe Nietzsche as a thinker who opposed the onset of Modernity with the prejudices of a reactionary. A reactionary who preferred a society where all knew their place, were happy if left there and who deferred to their betters. All this was threatened by the onset of Capitalism and the Socialistic responses to this. So Nietzsche tried to prescribe a post-modernity with a revamped pre-modernity. [?] What do you think Christopher?
One thought on “What would Nietzsche say about today’s society?”
I think this is one of the better (of all short) interpretations of Nietzsche I have ever come across. Very refreshing. Thanks!