People can’t escape thinking in terms of good and evil; right and wrong; moral and bad. The question Nietzsche wrestled with, and which I have been reflecting on as a result for a few months, is: are these categories real, or are they socially constructed like so many other cultural phenomena?
Let me back up: How do we summarize Nietzsche’s ethic in a way that he may approve of?
I’ve said before that Sir Friedrich was less of a philosopher and more of a sledgehammer, and when you fully grasp the scope of his project, you realize that anything less would have failed outright and his name would have blown away in the winds of history like most everyone else. So what made him rise up above most other notable philosophers? What causes young men to flock to his writings in droves, still today?
I think it’s the radical liberation from the chains of restraint and moral imperatives.
Nietzsche, upon declaring that there is no God and the idea of Him was no longer necessary, but had begun dying in the human psyche, gave with it a warning. He cautioned people that if they disposed of God, then they would also dispose of all morals, ethics, and codes of order as we had always known them historically. If you removed (or attempted to) all traces of Judeo-Christian ethics from the world, you would face chaos and violence unseen heretofore.
In other words, he warned that a storm was brewing and that the death of God could very likely send humanity into a free-for-all tailspin reminiscent of the book of Judges where “Everyone did as he saw fit.”
Nietzsche outlined this idea in a book fittingly titled Beyond Good and Evil. He rationed that the ideas of good and evil (as deontological concepts, for you nerds) inherently require a deity to define them, or hand them down to humans.
Put even more simply, if there is such a thing as good and evil, there must be a God who dictates them.
So if there is no god, what are you left with? What Nietzsche constructed to replace morals, as simply as I can understand it, is the idea of strength versus weakness.
The deist will say that good is better than bad.
In a similar way, Nietzsche would say that strength is better than weakness.
From this developed the idea of the übermensch, or overman/superman, and the üntermensch, or underman. There are those capable of making their own free decisions, and therefore, their own systems of ethics, and those who like sheep follow in their footsteps.
Nietzsche consistently railed against Christianity because it not only praised weakness and humility, but its founder was someone who voluntarily laid His life down for His enemies. It’s a religion for weakness, he would say over and over. And in the mind of Nietzsche, nothing is worse than weakness.
Now, on a personal level, reading Nietzsche can always be dangerous despite your circumstances, but reading him while your government seems to be fear mongering its citizens into wearing masks and staying away from other humans, because…they’re dangerous…can lead to some ballsy rebellion. I revolted against the idea of masks, not only because they made it hard to breathe, I already had had Covid, and then got vaccinated, but because they also made me into another rule-following sheep.
Is that all I am? Am I just someone who follows rules and does what I’m supposed to because I’m told to?
Suddenly the thought that I’m just another sheep became more scary than Covid itself. What if, ontologically, down to my core, I am just an underman who does what he’s told and is incapable of thinking for himself?
These were the sorts of things I was wrestling with toward the tail end of the pandemic, but fortunately it ended before too long and I could once again live in bare-faced freedom. It wasn’t just about the inconvenience of wearing a mask, but the mark of submission to an authority for authority’s sake—not science or safety’s sake. After all, the undermen outnumber the overmen a thousand to one…Would I rise up?
Anyway, the entire pandemic rant aside, we are still left with Nietzsche’s core question: are right and wrong real, or are ethics simply invented by those in power at the moment? You could easily come up with examples of shifting ethical stances which have changed in the last 100 years. A century ago, being gay was outlawed by nearly every US state. It could get you arrested. Those in power were WASPy and narrow.
Now, the reverse is true. Any hints of discrimination against the LGBT+ community could get you doxxed, disbarred, cancelled, and so on.
The voices in power have spoken.
The people follow.
Is it a matter of right and wrong, or a matter of power vs. weakness? Which is wrong—being homosexual, or discriminating against it? Depends on who you ask…or when you ask. Or if you can think for yourself.
We could explore the same idea through the lens of tattoos, women, sexual liberty, nationalism, slavery, race, and a plethora more. Do ethics change, does power change, or does the constantly shifting power dictate what’s ethical at the time?
Is power the only thing that really matters?
I think Nietzsche might say yes. His idea of The Will to Power, which was left undefined but seems to have implicit meaning in his writing, underscores this entire idea. It has woven its fingers into the fabric of our cultural vernacular, like when we hear phrases like “Our greatest fear is not that we are weak, but that we are powerful beyond belief.” He thought these was an inherent desire inside humanity to rise up and overcome. In this sense, it’s easy to see why 20-year-old men gravitate toward his ideals.
But is he correct? Would his narrative seem to (in the words of Wendell Berry)
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias…
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts…
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts…
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Does his ideal produce more life than death?
One need look no further than the previous century to find the answer to that question. The century of ideologues led to more death and bloodshed than any sort of warrior-god belief before it. It led to more technological advances—advances which Nietzsche may have seen as sacrifices in the name of progress; in the name of strength growing where it can—but to more utter moral failures than ever seen before.
Are these advances necessary for humanity to progress out of our tribalistic barbarism, or is that barbaric specter an inevitable element of humanity which will haunt us until the resurrection? Something we may never fully exorcise until our sanctification is complete? The Christian says yes. We should opt for slower progress in the name of preserving life and humanity.
We may be distracted when certain leaders appeal to power, offering us freedom and power beyond our wildest dreams, not to mention technological advances which better our lives, but which historically make worse the lives of others we don’t know (read: how first world technology consistently leads to more destruction of developing countries).
Whose lives matter? This question and those like it are where Nietzsche’s philosophy begins to fall apart. If strength dictates what is right and wrong, then there is no value to the lives of the weak. Strength conquers.
There is more to say to this, but I’ll wrap this one up here. Nietzsche is a compelling voice, especially to those who like him believe that God is dead, and we can construct our own morals. But beware of embracing this mentality fully—first off, because I believe you can’t, and secondly, because you will inevitably discard the humanity of many people. Your ego may swell in an effort to live out your own perceived truth, but the violence done to your fellow humans by this explanation is not excusable.
Without further contending with Nietzsche, how is this for a universal ethical principle:
Pursue that which produces more life than death.