Repost from 2009

Nietzsche’s enlightenment

Nietzsche was not a rationalist philosopher like Voltaire, but belonged in the camp of the irrationalists — although it may be considered very rational to point out how and where and why humans deviate from logic, reason and common human decency.  He may be considered reasonable, then, in observing the limits of the human capacity to be rational and drawing a line.   (He stated that rationality was the one thing humans were not capable of, due to their irrational drives._) Rather, for Nietzsche the irrational elements of the human psyche were to be harnessed to the optimum effect, by the kind of culture that would enable the best of the best to express themselves supremely, whereas those whose natures made them the worst of the worst would be denied expression, and would serve at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

In The Antichrist, Nietzsche speaks of using already existing religious systems, such as the Hindu “Law of Manu”, with its caste system, in order to furnish the basis for a different kind of value system than that of Christianity. He thought the hierarchical basis for society provided in terms of the Hindu caste system would have allowed those who were intrinsically better endowed by Nature to flourish best, whilst preventing those who lacked positive attributes in a Darwinistic sense from getting in the way of the others. Christianity, he thought, encouraged the opposite – the social dominance of those who were, in evolutionary terms, “botched and bungled”. Christianity, he thought, gave too much scope to dominate to those who had a kind of inner illness which made them unable to enjoy life and therefore made them want to suppress other people’s enjoyment of life.

The key aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy that makes him an “irrationalist” in the pejorative sense, according to my view, is his tendency to essentialise – to view people in such a way that their attributes seem to spring from “Nature” alone, rather than from other complex factors as well, such as social conditioning, freedom of opportunity, and socialisation.  I speak only of his small blind spot — his seeming inability to grasp the nature of social class and gender.  In these areas, Nietzsche’s seeming assumption that our characters spring from our “essence” that is given to us by Nature is extremely one-sided and starkly incongruent with the rest of his views, and discounts a great number of the social variables that go into making us who we are. It would be too simple to say that Nietzsche wants to replace Christianity with the religion of social Darwinism, but that is the direction in which many of his followers have taken his subtle analysis of cultural and social movements and his provocations – much to their discredit.

Nietzsche is at his best when he uncovers the large-scale psychological dynamics that go towards creating a religion like Christianity. He is at his worst when his followers turn his undeniable rhetorical power to blaming the victim:  The events of the 20th Century, if they can teach us anything, remind us that brutality and a noble essence are not automatically conjoined and that Nietzsche’s reliance on Darwinism as a mechanism to sort out the sheep from the goats was more than a little misplaced.  After all, he assumed that was noble throughout the ages would have been consolidated to the extent that higher order activities (like those of the intellect) would retain their value in the face of social Darwinism.  But this ideology has proven to be on the side of those who do not think or feel too much beyond the average, not on the side of those who want more from life.


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