Nietzsche famously wrote that he was writing to be understood only by his friends, which raises the obvious question of why so many people who don’t like what they think he says claim to understand him. This weekend I listened to a few conversations that seemed to get him totally wrong. I resisted the urge to correct them at the time since it wasn’t completely material to the conversation, so I’m dominating that urge into a blog post to get writing practice.
Note that Nietzsche didn’t write this way, presumably for a good reason. You may superficially understand what I’m saying but fail to internalize it, unless you follow up by reading the original until you understand how this is the same thing as that.
According to Nietzsche, in the beginning, there were people and power relations.
Words are Powerful
Words are one of the main ways people interpret, keep track of, and interact with their world. Words like “one” and “two” and “tree” and “sheep are important tools of agriculture, trade, etc. But words like “good,” “wicked,” “proud,” “sinful,” “man,” “woman,” “justice,” and “sexism” also affect people’s behavior in profound ways. One simple example of this is that in standard English the default pronoun for one person it’s always either male or female. This makes it much more natural to make statements about men or women rather than humans, and it cuts against the grain to make sex-neutral statements. For another consider the Christian sin – but Aristotelian virtue – of pride. For more on this, read 1984 by George Orwell.
But they’re Made Up
The framework of ideas we use to understand our world is not an attribute of the things themselves. It is a behavior of our minds. It’s made up! And someone made it up. Whoever made up the thoughts you use determined not which propositions you affirm or deny, but which ones are thinkable in the first place.
The ancients seem alien and incomprehensible because their basic ideas are so different from ours that only a truly deep thinker can understand them. The Greek “soul” is not necessarily separable from the body, or entirely rational in nature – Aristotle thought a soul was something a body did, even an animal’s or plant’s body – but the moderns think either that there are no souls (“Huh? Do the bodies just lie there motionless our something?” – Aristotle) or that only humans have them and they go to heaven or hell after we die.
Now Everyone is a Wizard
Modernity (the legacy of Hobbes, Machiavelli, Locke, Descartes, Hume, etc.) is not that it’s the first time anyone said that the people should rule. That’s old. These are the features of modern ideas:
Baconian science means that you can add to our stock of true attributes we know about nature without understanding your tools.
Algebra means you can perform lots of calculations without understanding math.
Liberalism means that lots of people are allowed to talk about different “moralities” and choose a god, ethos, and role in society as one might choose a shirt. We don’t have a unified cultural elite controlling how we’re allowed to talk about things. Instead, our elite believe in and endorse total freedom of speech. Which means that anyone can playing around with the lens through which humans are able to think about their world and decide right from wrong.
You can’t get arrested for killing the gods, because after all, it’s only words. Not that it makes the gods any less dead.
With no unified control over language, controversy over what to call things is a power struggle more akin to war than to politics, because the goal is not to enact a set of preferred practical policies, but to permanently destroy the enemy’s ability to fight, by ripping out their tongues. At the same time, seeing that all values are questionable, people lose faith in words about rightness and wrongness, the just and the true and the good, so nothing holds them back from this return to the war of all against all.
The Nietzschean Hero
You can’t fix this with arguments about what the good should be. Arguments are just another piece in the Game of Words. Which set of ideas you use determines which combinations of words you evaluate as true propositions. Aristotle is correct when he says that animals have souls, but Descartes is correct when he says they don’t.
Is there a way out? Not an easy our a likely one. We’re probably doomed to this forever. But if someone were to make up – and popularize, at least among the elite – a new set ideas, one with a new set of values appropriate for out times and circumstances, who would that person have to be?
They would need a sufficiently deep understanding to know that the words they have received are not the only words that can be, that to make a new thing you have to destroy, distort, or forget the post.
And they would have to be profoundly creative. Creative enough to be able to come up with a totally new set of ideas adequate to give modern people the power they need, while taking away the curse of infinitely malleable values.
That is the Nietzschean superman.