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Nietzsche and meaning

08/05/2016

In our modern world, there is no shortage of noise. Amidst the daily clamour of opinion, conjecture and self interested narrative it can be extremely difficulty to cut through to what is important and actually means something.

Meaning, in a modern world of declining religious belief, can be very challenging to find but a 19th century German philosopher can offer some suggestions about how we can begin our search.

Since reading Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the last man wherein the author posited that the decline of the Soviet Union meant liberal democracy had asserted itself as the ideological endpoint for man’s socio-political organisation, I have been fascinated by the philosophical meaning behind those three words*.

Philosophically literate people will be well aware, without having read Fukuyama’s book, that he was referring to the rather intense German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche whose iconoclastic Thus Spoke Zarathustra assaulted Christian beliefs and all comfortable religious frames for leading a moral life.

In Nietzsche’s book, his protagonist Zarathustra shakes the prevailing orthodoxy at the time when he comes down from the mountains to declare to all who will hear him that “god is dead”.

When Zarathustra does so, he is attacking not solely a belief in a single supernatural deity who resides in some place in the sky but the entire moral and philosophical framework which underpins this belief.

Zarathustra is an unpleasant and misanthropic figure at times, deriding those who he sees as weak and dismissive of those who fear to see his truth.

Nietzsche fears the arrival of a group of so-called last men, these are sad figures who, living a comfortable modern existence, are suddenly bereft of the struggle to live morally and the meaning said morality afforded them.

Man is unique among animals in that he learns of his own mortality before he confronts it, the prospect of death is frightening and forces man to create meaning for his own existence.

Religion long offered a comforting means to answer this question. In enlightened form religion said man should respect his fellow men by following the golden rule “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

In malignant form religion gave (and gives in the case of modern extremists such as members of ISIS) meaning in the form of violence as a means to overcome godlessness and convert the non believers. If, as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra suggests, God is dead, then man faces a discomforting new reality.

This is a world in which he must create his own new meaning. This is a daunting task to undertake when most of us are simply concerned with the minutiae of everyday life.

For Nietzsche the creation of our own meaning leads those who choose his path towards becoming ubermensch or “supermen”. It is at this point that many learned people point out that Hitler, perpetrator of perhaps the 20th century’s most ghastly crime against humanity in the holocaust, was supposed to be a follower of Nietzsche and the philosopher was some inspiration for the dictator’s putrid racial doctrine of the aryan master race.

Yet this observation is a misunderstanding of what Nietzsche is trying to say. The quest to become an ubermensch is an intensely personal one and therefore not one that can be universalised in the cruel fashion in which Hitler sought to impose his beliefs on ordinary people.

What Nietzsche is really saying is not that there is one best group to rule over the rest of humanity but rather that each man should aspire, throughout his life, to realise his best self. As Zarathustra explains, “man is something that should be overcome”.

Nietzsche is an elitist and doesn’t believe that all can achieve this goal. To that end, the book is subtitled a book for everyone and no-one. Nietzsche is challenging his serious readers to take up this lifelong project of self improvement.

However, unlike previous religious and philosophical doctrines, Nietzscheanism (for want of a better philosophical descriptor) cannot be universalised because the task of reaching ubermensch status is not something we can abdicate to any higher power. Zarathustra makes this explicit in the book when he says “I am a law only for my own, I am not a law for all.”

It is in this fashion that I think Thus Spoke Zarathustra is most useful for the modern day truth seeker. Nietzsche, through Zarathustra, is at his core a profound sceptic of what he sees as simplistic universal doctrines.

Had Nietzsche survived to see Hitler rise to power through his warped ideology, I think Nietzsche would have been highly sceptical of Nazi doctrine.

What Nietzsche teaches us through Zarathustra is the power of a willingness to question and challenge ideas within society.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra offers a means to critically consider ideas and how we can go about the difficult project of trying to realise our best selves.

Nietzsche’s approach is limited because, like objectivists who follow the gospel according to their holy mother Ayn Rand, it leaves no room for genuine compassion towards others which many conceptions of the good, certainly my own, find essential.

It is also flawed because of the philosopher’s sexism which seems to stem from a belief that women had less capacity for reason. As women surpass men in university graduation rates and scale the heights of many professions such a view has proved demonstrably false.

Despite these flaws, Thus Spoke Zarathustra offers a useful starting point towards the admirable goal of the pursuit of meaning in life and encourages us to question conventional wisdom. For these reasons, this book is well worth reading.

*I ultimately came to read Nietzsche via Allan Bloom’s 1987 polemic The Closing of the American Mind which I have discussed previously.

Additional links:

Philosophy now podcast on the thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche.

A school of life primer by Alain de Botton on Nietzsche.

 

 

 

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