Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Nietzsche Primer

Today's thoughts (but mostly thoughts from about two weeks ago):

Given my desire to write about Nietzsche (I'm still writing that proper essay in my head) I thought it best to share this synopsis of his philosophy. Obviously, given how complicated he is, it's not a full explanation of his work but just a basic description of some of his ideas. It's exercepts from an essay I wrote for uni, from which I've removed the political analysis and just left the more descriptive elements. I know it's not as readable as my usual work (which I've previously admitted is not very readable) but bear with it.

In Nietzsche’s The Gay Science,* it is a madman who proclaims “God is dead”. He is searching for God in a marketplace and is mocked by the atheists who congregate there, but he rounds on them and accuses them all of being God’s murderers. He concludes that he has “come too early” since none there understand the meaning of his words; none can see the implications of their deicide. What Nietzsche refers to here is not the physical death of any divine being, but the secularism and atheism that had arisen primarily as a result of the Enlightenment. To Nietzsche, “belief in the Christian god has become unbelievable”. Humanity is left without “transcendental principles or forces to guide them” and have thus lost the foundations of their morality and meaning; these in turn are the foundations of society, politics and order. Such a complete destruction of our systems and institutions, Nietzsche believed, constituted the “greatest recent event” in human history.

However, like the atheists in The Gay Science, secularism has not yet come to terms with the death of God. Our secular politics and governments are still based on the ideas of morality and meaning, only without God or a metaphysical to give these ideas any basis. Nietzsche calls this the shadow of God: “God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. - And we - we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.” Without their source, these shadows are no longer philosophically tenable, but Nietzsche understands that it will be a long time before we acknowledge this.

In God’s place, Nietzsche sees only what he calls “will to power”. This is not an ideology or a morality – the death of God has brought an end to such things. Will to power is rather what is left after God has passed: the only truth in a world now devoid of truths. He writes "... do you want a name for this world? ... This world is the Will-to-Power — and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will-to-power and nothing besides!" It is crucial to understand that the will to power is an observation, not a creed – the pleasant blindfold of order and meaning that God represented has been stripped away, and we are left with the truth: will to power. The need to emphasise the disparity between will to power and previous understandings of the world arises because this dichotomy is so important to Nietzsche’s writing.

Will to power is, to Nietzsche, the constant desire for life to expand its influence and exercise its strength. This is not strictly about dominating others or seizing “power” in any political sense, but rather enjoying agency over one’s actions. Nietzsche writes that not just humanity but any “living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength — life itself is will to power”. Nietzsche viewed any morality as an attempt to limit the will to power of the individual, and so was firmly opposed to its constraining influence. He saw a world “beyond good and evil” and the death of God laid it bare.

Ultimately, Nietzsche’s works suggest an observation that morality and the politics that necessarily spring from them are baseless after the “death of God”. Both behoove humanity to act in a particular fashion, but in a secular society they lack the metaphysical foundations that lend them any credence and are thus doomed to dissolve once the “shadow of God” is finally banished. Nietzsche presented no specific idea of what post-morality society would look like, although there would be no state and no morality to limit the free exercise of the will to power, because “where the state ceases… [there are] the rainbow and bridges of the √úbermensch” who discharge their strength freely. The impact of the death of God on politics is to destroy its foundations and herald its demise, and reveal the truth of will to power.

Outside of Nietzsche’s own writings, the secularism that “death of God” describes still has profound political impact – whether or not one accepts will to power as “life itself”, the observation that without a metaphysical we no longer have any basis for a universal morality is particularly resonant in our contemporary “slave morality” democracies.

* Oh, grow the fuck up.