Friday, September 21, 2007

Nietzsche’s writings first made belief in cultural relativism truly possible

Atheism in Philosophy: Marx, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche
Marijo Cook
At one time, Marxism appeared to offer a viable alternative to theological ethics, but, curiously, it seems to have been refuted through scientific experiment. I like this. The evidence of the real world should be admissable to the argument. And the evidence on Marxism is that the communities fail after a period of time. The predictions do not come true. The theory fails its own test for verification. Even The Farm has given up their original communistic ideals.
Rationally, there's no real problem with communism-- if we all work together, we should be able to create heaven right here on earth, and the theological bases of ethics are simply replaced by the secular goal. Unfortunately, without coersion, we won't all work together, and introducing coersion undermines the ethics. Even the socialistic compromise seems to work only in communities which are relatively prosperous to begin with and racially homogenous.
Kierkegaard and Dostoievsky are generally considered the forerunners of existentialist thought. I'll probably have to do a whole other page on Dostoievsky, but we can start with Kierkegaard here.
S.K. was a Christian, although he didn't think he was a very good one, and the church fathers of his day were certain that he wasn't a very good one. I find his formulation of Christianity facinating, and his analysis of faith is probably the best anywhere. In S.K.'s theology, God exists, but you'd almost have to be crazy to have utter faith in His plan for the world. Having complete faith is the only way to be genuinely comfortable with life, but it means believing that God's values, which are clearly not the same as our human values, are the correct ones.
The famous example of this comes from the writer's repeated attempts, in Fear and Trembling, to get inside the head of Abraham as he heads out to kill his only son, because God told him to do it. Abraham is a perfect man of faith-- he obeys the command without a shudder. But how can an ordinary person understand this? If it was a neighbor hauling his kid off to a mountaintop, we'd have Child Protective Services and the police and the men in white coats out to intervene so quick he couldn't get the donkey loaded before he and kid were separated, probably for life.
The point is that God's plan for the world always includes things that we simply cannot approve of or understand, which is both why faith is necessary and why it is so difficult to genuinely understand or achieve. Faith would be superfluous if God's plan were rational and in agreement with our values. There's no leap to approving a rational plan with which we agree. Faith is required because God's plan doesn't make sense to us, with our limited point of view and understanding. 19 years ago, when I was first studying this in college, my professor used the Ayatollah Khoumeni as an example of a man of faith who appeared insane to us. Events since then have provided many more examples of people (and not only Muslims) who use faith to justify actions which the rest of us find appalling. How can we know they are wrong, if we also believe in a God? Doesn't our God also command some appalling things?
Of course it's a short step from here to dispensing with the notion of God altogether. Who needs an incomprehensible God? The other existentialists (Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus) take a look at the life which is left without God, and they find it pretty bleak. Human beings are caught in a world which really doesn't consider our heightened sensitivities or show any concern for us. The alternatives are to dull our senses and plod through tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, measuring out life with coffee spoons, or else to embrace the phenomenon of life with all of its pain and agony and joy, but refusing to buckle, insisting on finding the pleasures of life wherever we can and relishing them as much as we can.
This is nearly as difficult a leap as faith is (at least, it was for me with my depressive tendencies and taste for drama and crisis), and actually a similar one. The focus is turned elsewhere, however. Instead of having faith that there is a plan somewhere which makes sense, we must have faith in our own ability to manage the pain of life without being, well, driven to insanity, I suppose, or suicide. We trust that we will be able to look at life with fully open eyes, yet find a way to appreciate it.
This is the "humanism" of secular humanism. Our faith is in the strength and power of the human being rather than in the plan for the world which God keeps in his infinite mind. This is Philip's "complete human, the idealized human, acting out of enlightened self interest".
Okay, so far, so good. Except that there are no natural limits to self-interest in this formulation, I would argue.
Well, then, on to Dostoevsky and, judging from the indignant comments, it looks like we’d better review a little of Nietzsche, also.
Crime and Punishment has been one of my favorite books for many years, and if you’ve never read it or haven’t read it in a while, there is a very good new translation out (well, its from 1992– that’s new for some of us...) by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky which I recommend. I’ve adopted their spelling of Dostoevsky for the remainder of this entry. (Also note that even though I "give away" part of the story in what follows, this should by no means diminish the pleasure of the person reading the book for the first time. My synopsis of what happens doesn’t begin to touch the depth and beauty of this masterpiece.) Dostoevsky wrote during the latter part of the 19th century, some 50 years or so before the revolutions which eliminated legal religion in Russia for most of the 20th century. Dostoevsky was very aware of the intellectual turn away from religion in his country, and many of his novels address the issue and the dangers which he saw in the trend. In Crime and Punishment, a young student who is a believer in the new ideas formulates a plan to kill a rich old woman with no redeeming qualities in order to save himself from abject poverty and his sister from a marriage of economic convenience.
Raskolnikov, like most students, believed that his ideas would be an important contribution to society, if he could just get enough money to stay in school and finish his research and writing. His sister was willing to marry an unpleasant rich man in order to get this money for her brother. Raskolnikov reasons that by killing the old pawn-broker, he can get the money, save his sister, and make a huge contribution to society, and the only cost would be this insufferable old woman who causes more misery than anything else. The cost/benefit analysis is clear, and the reasoning is as sound as any that justified any war in the history of mankind. Rationally, killing this old woman should be no more of a crime than killing a stray dog would be– and she caused more damage than most strays. Only his fear, his inferiority, held him back. By overcoming this fear and going forward with the plan, Raskolnikov could join the ranks of those extraordinary men who are able to leap over the common moral laws in order to perform feats which benefit themselves, and which benefit society as a whole by providing it with the best, bravest, most daring leaders.
Napoleon is the prime example of this sort of man–the son of a lawyer, he rose through the military to become the emperor of France at the age of 30. He was the first emperor in history (as far as I know) to ascend through his own talent rather than through his birth to a royal family. Even though Napoleon dismantled the French parliament upon his assumption of power, it was still the French revolution which created the opportunity for him to govern. Napoleon was the first to capitalize (spectacularly) upon the possibilities for ordinary men within democratic nations. (Remember that the U.S. was still inconsequential in international affairs in 1866, when C&P was written.) His success fired the ambitions of young men everywhere, I imagine, but perhaps especially in Russia, where the revolutionaries were still actively proselytizing. (Prince Andrew, in War and Peace, is another young man fascinated by Napoleon, even as he fights against him.)
Crime and Punishment acts out the conflict between the atheist’s and the religious points of view. Raskolnikov never gives up his belief in the possibility of rising above the ordinary moral code; he just decides that he is not one of those destined to do it. And his friend Sonya likewise clings to her belief that shedding the blood of another human being is always wrong, a sin against the earth itself.
I find myself hesitant to get started in writing about Nietzsche, and I’m not sure why. Probably because he’s difficult– terribly brilliant yet annoyingly adolescent, groundbreaking and chauvinistic, poetic, yet draping his philosophy in layers of value-laden terms. There’s no doubt that his writings have had a tremendous influence on the way we perceive ourselves today, but to go back and read him again now, I almost want to wonder, "How were we taken in by this?"
Nietzsche was not the first atheist, but he is probably the most notorious. His writing was deliberately incendiary, so it is not surprising that his words "God is dead,"would be the ones most commonly associated with the advent of atheism in Western culture, even though they were published the year that Marx died and after Darwin had published his major works.
Nietzsche was a philologist, an expert in Greek and Roman language and texts, and his admiration for the ancients colored his philosophy. Unlike the British romantic poets who were also enamoured with Greece, (almost 100 years previously) Nietzsche did not believe that we should emulate their polytheism or convert it into a variety of Nature worship. Rather, Nietzsche adapted the (homoerotic?, narcissistic?) Classical idealization of man to the scientific nineteenth century. In Nietzsche’s thought, the gods were always creations of man, addressing a cultural need of one kind or another. Man is the creative power, creating values and the gods who represent them. This is a nice inversion of both Marxist thought, which holds that the gods are created by the ruling class to keep the lower class in check, and, of course, of Christianity. It is Nietzsche’s vision of Man as the ruler of his own destiny, the creator of gods who operate in his service, which will carry culture through the 20th century’s industrialization and warfare.
To give but one example of his methods, from The Genealogy of Good and Evil, Nietzsche contrasts the Classical values "good and bad" with the Judeo-Christian values of "good and evil". The Classical values, he contends, stem from the nobility’s sense that they are the fortunate, happy, and good people, and that the lower classes are the poor, unfortunate ones having bad lives. The value judgment springs from the vivacious and brutal, but successful, way of life of the powerful. They say of themselves "This is good", and a value is created. On the other hand, he says, the Christian values of "good and evil" spring from the resentment and envy of the lower classes, who decide that the behavior of the upper classes, when they are warlike and dangerous, is evil, thereby leaving the lower classes on the moral high ground: the good becomes the meek and humble. Nietzsche is explicitly on the side of the aristocracy– another admirer of Napoleon– and he is unashamedly opposed to democracy, and Buddhism, which he equates with nihilism. In these latter choices, he foreshadows Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and the novels of Ayn Rand. Nietzsche’s noblemen are the ones saying ‘yes’ to life, even though life can be brutal, destructive and indifferent in its growth and self-assertion. They are dragging the human race forward with their enthusiasm, while the "Priestly class" is trying to hold it back, to say "no" to the nobleman’s conquests.
In the new turn-of-the-century century world of industry and business, however, Nietzsche’s ideals found a home. The businessman was expected to leave his Christianity at home with the wife when he went to work– in the marketplace, transgressions against the moral code were profitable and even admirable, at times. He who had the nerve to overstep the rules could accumulate more and more power. The mighty European industrialists and imperialists and the American "self-made men" were the glittering celebrities of the next century. Money was power, and those who had it were self-absorbed and indifferent to any destruction they left in their wake (cf. The Great Gatsby), and those who didn’t have it were endlessly imagining and scheming ways to get it, hanging on the coattails of the powerful and imitating everything they did. ‘Morality’ becomes a secondary consideration to the celebration of life, virility, and potency being carried on by the rich. These are also the notions which gave the 20th century rulers of nations the idea that their cruelty in war need not be restrained– they felt they had the right to do whatever was necessary to preserve the ‘good’ way of life in their homeland. This goes for Roosevelt, Churchill, and Truman as well as for Hitler.
Nietzsche was so brilliant and perceptive, and so wrong at times, that it is difficult to summarize all of the contributions he has made to our ways of thinking. One which I find important, however, is that Nietzsche’s writings first made belief in cultural relativism truly possible. He did this by taking the disagreement between cultures out of the realm of "the civilized vs. the savages" (or at least by inverting this dyad) and plunking it down squarely in our own backyards, showing us the conflict between those values which descend from our Judeo-Christian heritage and those we inherited from the Greeks and Romans. Nietzsche showed us how values could develop from cultural practices, and, to his credit, I believe, he insisted that we could still evaluate, from the present, the different systems, instead of having to blandly affirm that any values are as good as any others– or none. I don’t agree with his choices, but I have a tumultuous 150 years of history to consider that he didn’t have in his past.
I do believe that it is important to recognize, however, that there is a system of valuation which begins with atheism and which does not assume that everyone will or even should put the interests of the community above their own narrow self-interest. Some would say that to do so is to hold some people back from achieving all that they are capable of, and from exemplifying the glorious possibilities of the human being (Man, that is). Morality castrates our leaders, they would say, so we should not expect them to follow the rules which are perhaps necessary for common folk.
I am deliberately using the language of masculine sexuality here, by the way. I do believe that this is all very penis-driven thought. But my purpose in this piece is not really to criticize Nietzsche, but to try to present his strongest arguments. My criticism will have to wait for later. What happens when you tell a lie? an atheist looks at spiritual principles HomeAbout the Title'Is it wrong to lie?' : The short answerhow to tell a lie © Copyright 2003 Marijo Cook. Last update: 10/5/2003; 12:41:32 PM.

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately our "culture" called be called "lies all the way down".

    This essay describes the ruling paradigm, and its anti-"cultural" manifestation.


    This references describes the lies at the root of our "christian" heritage.