WHAT DOES NOT KILL ME MAKES ME STRONGER: WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
by Joseph Suglia
The following is a partial transcript of a YouTube video in which I lecture on Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols: Or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer [Götzendämmerung: Oder, Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophiert] and muse over the aphorism “Lesson from the School of War: What does not kill me makes me stronger,” which appears in this book.—Joseph Suglia
It is impossible to believe in an ideal and still sufficiently love yourself.
Hello, everyone. My name is Joseph Suglia, and I will be holding a lecture on Götzen-Daemmerung: oder Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophiert, translated as Twilight of the Idols: Or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer, by Friedrich Nietzsche.
Let me begin by expatiating on the title.
The main title Twilight of the Idols, Götzen-Daemmerung recalls the fourth part of Richard Wagner’s Ring opera, which is entitled Twilight of the Gods, Götterdämmerung. Twilight of the Gods concerns Ragnarök, which is the spectacular destruction of the world and the gods by submersion in water. However, Twilight of the Idols means something quite different. Nietzsche is suggesting by his title that there are no gods, but there are certainly idols.
All idols are anti-life, and all idols should be demolished. An idol is the deification of nothingness, and Nietzsche proposes that we would be better off without any idols, that we would do well to dispense with all idols, idolatry, and idolization.
If you idolize an imaginary entity, you diminish yourself. Even to hold up rationality as an ideal and to call the human animal “the rational animal” is to disgrace the body and to disgrace the totality of the human beast. The vital impulses, such as selfishness, are diabolized, and the anti-life impulses—such as asceticism, such as chastity, such as meekness—are angelized by classical morality and classical religion. What Nietzsche does first is depose the angelized impulses, such as self-denial. Then, he valorizes the demonized impulses, such as selfishness. Finally, he displaces the difference between “virtue” and “vice” altogether. There are no virtues, and there are no vices. There are, however, values, and each human being should invent one’s own values. A common value is no value at all, since value is based of rarity, not on commonness. That, in a nutshell, is Nietzsche’s argument.
The secondary title How to Philosophize with a Hammer, Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophiert: What does this mean? It has at least two connotations. The first is that Nietzsche intends in this book, as well as in most of his others, to shatter ideals, to blow them up, to explode them into flinders, to de-idealize the idealization of ideals. All of Nietzsche’s late polemical writings have as their object the defamation of ideals.
What is an ideal? An ideal is any principle, any idea, any concept that is placed above humanity. Such as the soul, such as the gods, such as the Beyond. If you believe in ideals, this means that you believe in the ideal world, the ἐπέκεινα. And if you believe in the ideal world, this implies that you are defaming the this-world, the actual world, the only world there is.
If you believe in the purity of ideality, then you are devaluing yourself.
As I said: It is impossible to believe in an ideal and still love yourself. And what Nietzsche wants to do is to raise humanity, elevate humanity to the status of gods. Be your own idol, be your own hero, be your own god. (Do not even have Zarathustra as your idol. To paraphrase Zarathustra: “Follow me with the piety of a traitor. If you betray me, then I will come back to you again”—this is the inversion of what Jesus said.) Every human being has the desire to become a god, and all idols deserve to be slaughtered (not in the literal sense!).
So, Nietzsche’s philosophizing is the hammering of ideals, the destruction of all ideals, for every ideal posits a transcendence, a beyond, a world that is higher than the world in which we are living.
Ideals are a slander to life. Every ideal humiliates humankind, lessens humankind, which means that ideals narrow human possibilities.
So, that is the first connotation of “philosophizing with a hammer.” The second connotation that is likely intended is that of the reflex hammer. This book was published in 1888, and guess what else was released in 1888! The tomahawk reflex hammer—also known as the Taylor reflex hammer—was developed by John Madison Taylor in 1888, in the United States of America. Now, perhaps Nietzsche was unaware of this development, but he did read newspapers, albeit with a thick admixture of contempt and disgust, and this was the first reflex hammer ever invented. The second connotation, then, is that Nietzschean thought tests the soundness and healthiness of ideals—and always reveals such ideals to be hallow. (“Healthiness” means “the degree to which an ideal intensifies or promotes life.”)
Nietzsche does not exactly write, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Or: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” This statement is one of the most famous statements that have ever been attributed to Nietzsche, and one can find it in the music of Kayne West and all over MySpace.com. The original statement is Aphorism Number Eight, and it occurs in the first section of the book (after the Preface) entitled “Epigrams and Arrows,” Sprüche und Pfeile. However, again, Nietzsche does NOT exactly write, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” This is one of the most miscited passages in the history of philosophy.
What Nietzsche actually writes is this: “From Life’s School of War: What does not kill me makes me stronger,” Aus der Kriegsschule des Lebens.—Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker.
What does Nietzsche mean by this, precisely?
When he writes, “What does not kill me,” Nietzsche is referring to the crisis of deep suffering. The loss of a parent, the loss of a child, the loss of one’s property, the loss of a spouse, any gnawing, debilitating illness, forms of abuse, forms of violence: All of these things are examples of profound crisis and the crises of deep suffering.
What does Nietzsche mean by the first “Me”?: “What does not kill me.” Who am “I”? I am anyone, anyone who is not yet distinguished, anyone who is not yet distinctive, anyone who is not yet differentiated, anyone who is still immature and not yet vornehm. At this stage, I am mobbish; I am a member of the mob, of the crowd, of the canaille.
What does Nietzsche mean by “makes me stronger”? He means this:
What does not kill me makes me distinguished, distinctive, elegant, dignified, vornehm. Deep crisis confers upon me the right to separateness—the ability to experience long solitude. Deep suffering makes me capable of living separately from other human beings; it also makes me more profound. The crisis of deep suffering transforms me into a free spirit.
What does not kill me kills me.
Deep suffering makes one deeper. Deep suffering makes us profound—but who are we? We are the free spirits. And what transforms us into free spirits? The crisis of profound suffering or pain.
(I know that “pain” and “suffering” are not identical concepts. What distinguishes pain from suffering is time. Pain is short; suffering is long.)
To put it another way: Deep trauma gives birth to the sovereign individual. It is not just that trauma allows us to grow; it is that trauma is necessary for growth into the sovereign individual.
What does not kill me, the crisis of deep suffering, transforms me into the free spirit.
Now who is the free spirit? The free spirit is, negatively, one who does not think according to a program, an ideology, a dogma, a policy, or a party. The free spirit is capable of thinking for oneself and is capable of thinking two or more thoughts at once, both Pro and Contra, both “Yes” and “No” simultaneously.
Another word for a free spirit is “libertist” or “antinomian.” A free spirit is opposed to all idols, to all traditions, and the free spirit destroys ideals in order to clear a space for one’s own freedom.
The free spirit, the libertist, the antinomian, makes trauma the organ, the function, of one’s own power.
So, the free spirit converts trauma into strength. The free spirit transforms trauma into an appendage of the will-to-power.
Now, we should discuss the will-to-power.
The will-to-power means that the whole of life is a perpetual sequence of power struggles and that every living entity seeks to exert its superiority, its sovereignty, its preponderance over all other living entities. Life is violence, but not violence in the literal sense. Life is violence in the sense that every living organism seeks to overthrow obstacles that impede its growth and wants to escalate its degree of power. This is a peculiarly Nietzchean idea: Life is violence.
Ressentiment is inimical to life, it is an anti-life position. You might not know what I am talking about. If this sounds strange, please watch and listen to my videos on On the Genealogy of Morality, especially the second and the third video in the series, in which I discuss ressentiment.
Ressentiment is what Nietzsche calls, in On the Genealogy of Morality, “misarchism” because it denies that all organisms seek mastery, domination, lordliness over all other organisms. Misarchism holds that all government, all administration, is evil, but it is a necessary evil, whereas anarchism holds that all government should be annihilated.
Life, by its very essence, is dissymmetrical and hierarchical, according to Nietzsche.
Let us not be ungrateful toward those who have power, he is suggesting, for they impel us to take power away from them.
Nietzsche is no conservative or reactionary (I will return to this matter below.)
So, Nietzsche is affirming life as the power-will from an extramoral perspective, beyond Good and Evil, without the interference of moral prejudice, more judgment, or moral evaluation.
Nietzsche developed the theory of the will-to-power on the basis of Schopenhauer, who conceived the Will as a metaphysical force of Nature, the will-to-life. Nietzsche modulates Schopenhauer’s will-to-life and transforms it into the will-to-power. The point of life is not to promote life (that is Schopenhauer); the point of life is to promote power.
Some assume that Nietzsche must be a fascist because he developed the theory of the will-to-power. Those who believe this have no understanding of fascism and no understanding of Nietzsche. Nietzsche was a lifelong anti-nationalist and vituperates endlessly against anti-Judaism or what he calls “anti-Semitism.” Nietzsche was a friend of the Jews. He loved the Jewish people and even loved the Hebraic Bible, the central text of Judaism. Let no one therefore mistype Nietzsche as a “fascist” or a “proto-fascist.” Nietzsche was an enemy of, if not fascism, then at least of many of the lineaments of what would come to be known as “fascism.”
Neither was he a misarchist or an anarchist, for hierarchies do exist in nature, he thought.
He had a certain sympathy for the idea of an aristocracy, it is true. But he was no proto-fascist, not at all.
So, what affects me calamitously, what affects me catastrophically paradoxically intensifies my personal power. That is what Nietzsche means when he writes, in this book, “From life’s school of war: What does not kill me makes me stronger.”
* * * * *
The first idol that Nietzsche smashes is “the problem of Socrates.” What is the problem of Socrates? The problem of Socrates is the following problematical equation: Reason = Virtue = Happiness. Vernunft ist gleich Tugend ist gleich Glück.
We learn from Socrates—particularly, in the Charmides—that the wise person is the one who restrains one’s desires and the person who restrains one’s desires is the happiest person. This restriction of the impulses, of the desires, of the inclinations, of the appetites, of the proclivities, of the predilections is called sophrosyne, and it is linked to human flourishing or eudaemonia.
Nietzsche never actually uses the term sophrosyne in this text, but he is clearly thinking of it.
The Socratic problem, then, is that the restriction of the desires leads to virtuousness or the virtuous character and the virtuous character leads to human flourishing or eudaemonia.
Now, there are massive problems with this Socratic equation. The first—and the one on which Nietzsche fixes his attention—is that restraining one’s impulses will lead to happiness. No, it will not.
Nietzsche writes: “When people need reason to act as a tyrant, which was the case with Socrates, the danger cannot be small that something else might start acting as a tyrant,” Wenn man nöthig hat, aus der Vernunft einen Tyrannen zu machen, wie Sokrates es that, so muss die Gefahr nicht klein sein, dass etwas Andres den Tyrannen macht (“Das Problem des Sokrates,” Paragraph Ten).
What might that “something else” be? Nietzsche does not give us a direct answer to this question, but I think that I know. Restraining the desires by reason will lead to the recrudescence, the resurgence of the desires in their fullest force. The more you try to repress your desires, the more your desires will surge upward. This is what Freud calls “the return of the repressed,” Die Wiederkehr des Verdrängten.
(Freud based his psychoanalysis on Nietzsche; there would be no modern psychology without Nietzsche, who is unavoidable. All roads lead to Nietzsche, despite the attempts of contemporary psychologists to commit parricide against him and against Freud, his unofficial student and successor.)
Repression is one attempt to manage the unruliness, the untrammeledness, the fractiousness of the riot of emotions and the other feelings and moods. But there is another form of self-maintenance, and that is the justification of the feelings and the moods.
For instance: Rationalized love.
Rationalized love is not instinctual love. Think of a woman who tries to find a man attractive, even though she has no genuine passion for him. She rationalizes her desire for the man—that is to say, she gives reasons to desire him. This sort of thing seldom works. Rational desire is not authentic desire at all.
Happiness comes from the release of the instincts, the liberation of the desires, the affects, the feelings, the instincts, not from the repression of the desires, the affects, the feelings, the instincts (according to Nietzsche). I hope you don’t mind, but I’d like to say something in German: Die Moral ist eine Qual. Morality is a kind of torment. That is to say, the inhibition of the inclinations is a form of torment. Every child knows this, but let no one suppose that Nietzsche is a hedonist. Let no one suppose that Nietzsche is a eudaemonist, a sybarite, a hedonist. No, not at all.
In the section of the book entitled “Morality as Anti-Nature,” Moralität als Widernatur, Nietzsche makes it quite clear that he is not endorsing the running-wild of the desires, the running-amok of the desires, the running-riot of the desires.
No, not at all. The passions ought to be intellectualized, cosmeticized, sublimated, rather (Nietzsche is suggesting). And the name of the intellectualization, cosmeticization, and sublimation of the passions has a name. Its name is “love.”
Nietzsche writes: “The intellectualization of sensuality is called love: It represents a great triumph over Christianity,” Die Vergeisterung der Sinnlichkeit heisst Liebe: sie ist ein grosser Triumph über Christenthum.
Well, first of all, let me say that this is reminiscent of something that Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future: “What is done out of love always occurs beyond Good and Evil,” Was aus Liebe getan wird, geschieht immer jenseits von Gut und Böse.
The meaning of both of these statements is essentially the same. Classical religious morality separates two different kinds of romantic love. The first kind of romantic love is the pure kind, the sacred kind. And the second is what is called concupiscence—that is to say, carnal love or lust.
Now, classical morality condemns carnal love. It seeks to extirpate desires that are inextirpable. Morality is inimical to the impulses; it rebels against life, it revolts against the impulses of life.
Nietzsche is affirmative of the impulses of life, but he is not a carnalist, either. He doesn’t believe in a rigid distinction between “pure love” and carnal love. (He suggests this, as well, in the third essay of On the Genealogy of Morality.)
This is a false antinomy, according to Nietzsche, even though he does not explicitly write this in the passage that I am citing. The antithesis between “pure love” and fleshly passion is a false distinction. What Nietzsche names “the intellectualization of sensuality” is the supersession of the false dualism between the so-called “spiritual love” and the so-called “carnal love.” I believe that this is the main point which Nietzsche is making, even though he does not make this point explicit.
What is love in the Nietzschean sense?
Love—Nietzschean love—exists beyond conventional morality because it is the synthesis of the pure and the crude; it is the marriage between the dove and the pig.
Happiness comes from the feeling of the enhancement, the intensification of one’s vitality. But this is not some kind of do-whatever-you-want, let-chaos-reign, all-hail-disorder. It is not some kind of unconstrained scruffiness, some kind of laisser-aller.
Nietzsche teaches us this in a different book, but one that was written in the same year as this book was written, The Anti-Christian: “What is happiness?—The feeling that power is growing, that some resistance has been overcome,” Was ist Glück?—Das Gefühl davon, dass die Macht wächst, das ein Widerstand überwunden wird.
According to Nietzsche, Socrates had a pathological obsession with reason. Socratic philosophy is the pathology of rationality (according to Nietzsche).
Nietzschean thought is not a rationalism. It is an agonistics and an erotics.
* * * * *
The second ideal that Nietzsche explodes is the idea of absolute being, the permanency of absolute presence. The idea of a permanent being behind the whirlwind of the senses. Now, this permanent being might be the stability of the “I” (the unchanging center of the Self). It might be the eidos of Plato, which would exist in some spaceless space, in some timeless time.
It might be the idea of a signified meaning that would exist behind words, behind language.
Meaning does not exist behind words—it is generated by the relations among words and among letters and syllables, their interwebbing.
Permit me to quote Shakespeare, Henry IV: Part One, which is relevant to this context. The lines are spoken by Falstaff:
“What is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? Air. A trim reckoning!”
What Falstaff says about the word honour may be fairly said about all words, all signifiers. What is a “man”? “Man” is a word, first of all. What is within that word? Air.
The subject “I” is a grammatical superstition, and our concept of the Self (as an unchangeable and unageable center of consciousness) comes from a prejudice of Western grammar. Because so many of our sentences begin with the word “I” (or some other subject), we assume, unconsciously, that every action has an agent.
As Nietzsche writes in this book, famously, “I am afraid that we have not got rid of God because we still have faith in grammar,” Ich fürchte, wir werden Gott nicht los, weil wir noch an die Grammatik glauben…
It is quite rare for a philosopher to write about the body. Schopenhauer was one of the first philosophers to take the body seriously, in a positive manner. In fact, he was one of the philosophers to take animals and animality seriously.
Nietzsche, fascinatingly, writes about the nose, the nose which can detect motion (I have no idea whether this is scientifically accurate). Nietzsche thinks that the nose can distinguish subtleties that a spectroscope would miss. That is an intentional allusion to a Brian Eno song. Nietzsche inspired many musicians, including Marilyn Manson. It is clear that Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christian inspired many of Marilyn Manson’s lyrics (there are many correspondences between them).
I’m not sure if the nose can detect motion, but I do know that the olfactory sense plays a role in hearing and gustation (the sensation of taste).
Nietzsche writes about the nose in order to highlight his argument that the so-called world of the appearances, the world of phenomenality, IS the so-called “true world.” Our senses do not lie, as Plato believed. The sensorium gives us the only information about the world that we can have: sensory information.
All of this is to highlight the argument that the nose and the other sense organs bring us into closer contact with reality than do mathematics or logic. This might be another Nietzsche contradiction; it is an apparent contradiction or a quasi-contradiction. As I have written in other essays, Nietzsche contradicts himself often, but this is not a flaw in his thinking. Nietzsche bashes logic, yet elsewhere in this text (to be precise, in Paragraph Seven of “What the Germans Are Lacking,” “Was den Deutschen abgeht”), he bemoans the fact that fewer and fewer late nineteenth-century German students are mastering logic.
There is no logos behind the maelstrom of appearances. There is no Parousia, no permanence of absolute presence. Everything is motion without fixity, everything is change without stasis. (Nietzsche is here making a concession to Heraclitus.)
Neither is there the absolute origin or the absolute finality. The “absolute” is what is without conditions, qualifications, exceptions, or pre-origins. What seems to be a terminal point is a node in a web. There are no absolute beginnings or absolute endings. There is only becoming, not being—if by “being,” one means “the stasis of presence.” Another way of saying this is the distinction between being and nothingness is a false distinction; again, all is becoming.
So, appearances—what appears to our senses—are not errors. The dichotomy between the so-called “true world” and the so-called “world of appearances” is a false dichotomy. There is only one world, and that is the world of the senses. This is why Nietzsche writes, in italics: “[W]e got rid of the illusory world along with the true one!” [M]it der wahren Welt haben wir auch die scheinbare abgeschafft!
The true world is a fiction (I mean “fiction” in the sense of “something that has been fabricated”).
The importance of art, for Nietzsche, is that art reminds us that phenomena are all that we have. Art repeats “the world of appearances.” Art highlights, emphasizes, accentuates phenomenality—works of art illuminate the “fact” that there is only one world, the “fact” that the only demonstrable, probative, provable, livable world is the phenomenal world.
* * * * *
The third idol that is twilit in this book is imaginary causation.
We know now that devils do not cause illnesses. We know now that angels do not heal the sick; most do not believe that the COVID-19 patients are healed by the grace of an angel. We no longer believe that daemons imprecate humanity by diffusing plagues throughout the world. But there was a time when such things were believed.
There was a time when people believed that meat gave birth to maggots. Maggots emerge from meat left out in the sun. This, of course, is imaginary causation. There was a time when people believed that grain gave birth to mice. This is another form of imagination causation.
There was a time when people thought that certain babies were evil. I don’t believe this! Don’t blame me! They also believed that evil babies came from incubi—the mother mated, perhaps unknowingly, with an incubus who crawled into her bed at night. The products of such an unholy union were called cambions, half-human, half-daemonic hybrid offspring.
Imaginary causality works in this fashion: A phenomenon is experienced and then an imaginary cause is superadded after the fact. A chimerical cause is chimerized where a natural explanation would do much better. Instead of applying Occam’s razor, one introjects an imaginary cause to a natural process. Flies are attracted to meat and lay their eggs on meat to which they attracted; the larval stage of a fly is a maggot. Mice are attracted to the grain in the barn. The farmer sees a mischief of mice in the barn and assumes, erroneously, that the grain gave birth to the mice. A child is born, and that child is fractious, unruly, unmanageable. The father believes, falsely, that his wife coupled with an incubus. This superstitious nonsense is imaginary causation.
This false logic might also take the form of the confusion of chronology and causality. I went to a Japanese restaurant and woke up sick this morning. I am now convinced that the food that I ate last night sickened me. This might be the case, but it is not necessarily the case. A creepy, irritating man leaves an insulting comment on someone’s YouTube channel. The next day, the person who runs the YouTube channel deletes it. I suppose that the manager of the YouTube channel deleted her channel because she was offended. But there is no immediate evidence that would support this assertion. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, “after this because of this,” is the confusion of chronology with causality. Simply because something happens first does not mean that it is the cause of something else.
* * * * *
Morality is based on imaginary qualities or causes, such as human responsibility or the free will, to which I shall presently return. There is a great deal of talk in this culture about whether or not it is necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person. Then there is the theodical cliché: How can you reconcile the idea of a beneficent god with a world that is overflowing with misery?
But one doesn’t have to go that far. Atheists have the tendency to attack theists for believing in an intervening God, but that seems hypocritical to be. So many of the godless seem to believe in the imaginary. Consider the imaginary presuppositions of traditional morality. Traditional morality, even without religion, is based on the imaginary; it is fraught with imaginary causalities.
There are a number of famous atheists who seem very religious to me, for these atheistic public intellectuals believe in imaginary causes, such as moral responsibility. It has never been proven that any human being is morally responsible. Now, one might say that being morally responsible has its benefits, but isn’t that another question?
If someone believes in moral responsibility, that person believes in imaginary causation. And it is very likely that such a person believes that morality is universal, as well, which it is not.
I have expanded on this subject elsewhere, but let me say a few words to refute the fallacious claim that morality is universal.
Anyone who believes that morality is universal is ignoring the historical fact that marriage, for example, was at one time regarded as something transgressive—transgressive because private. Today, marriage is regarded as a virtue; at other times, it was regarded as a vice. For instance, throughout Europe, there was a practice known as the droit de seigneur. That is the putative right of a feudal lord to take possession of a bride on the day of her wedding or at any time he wanted to. This was a practice that we would regard as disgraceful today, but the point is that marriage was once regarded as something that was contrary to the right of the lord.
Hubris was regarded as a transgression in Ancient Greece. Consider the myth of Prometheus—Prometheus stole fire from the gods and was punished by being shackled to a rock. Every night, an eagle would devour his liver, which would then regrow only to be re-devoured. In Ancient Greece any violation of nature (the gods were emblematical of nature) was seen a transgression, but look at the violation of nature which is mountaintop blasting! This is something that is often practiced in our societies.
Revenge was considered a virtue in Ancient Greece (read the Orestia), but we disapprove of it today, etc., etc.
* * * * *
The fourth idol which is toppled from its pedestal is the argumentum ad consequentiam, “the argument from consequence,” though Nietzsche does not use this term. The argumentum ad consequentiam is a logical fallacy. It gives me pleasure to believe that I will be revived, after my death, as a hammerhead shark, or an Ashera cat, or an Egyptian wolverine; I believe this with every fiber of my being. But pleasure proves nothing. The pleasure produced by an idea proves absolutely nothing about the soundness of that idea. Nietzsche makes the point that hope ferments comfort—it could just as easily be argued that hope ferments discomfort, but fine. Irenicism might bring me comfort, I might desire with my entire being for there to be peace in the near future, but that doesn’t mean that one can look forward to the prospect of an irenic future. It is impossible to make absolute statements about the future with any degree of justification, and the future doesn’t care about me and my emotional state. Just because I desire a comforting cause, this doesn’t necessarily imply that the ostensible cause is the cause.
* * * * *
The fifth mythology is already one of the best-refuted mythologies in existence: voluntarism, the mythology of the freedom of the will. Nietzsche doesn’t actually demolish the concept of the freedom of the will in this book. He already annihilated the factitious concept of the free will in other of his books. Instead, Nietzsche is wondering: What is the benefit of having other people believe in the freedom of the will? Cui bono?
This is the argument, and it is an interesting one: Those who are invested in the propagation of free-will theory are practicing a form of sadism. “Whenever a particular state of affairs is traced back to a will, an intention, or a responsible action, becoming is stripped of its innocence. The notion of will was essentially designed with punishment in mind, which is to say the desire to assign guilt,” Man hat das Werden seiner Unschuld entkleidet, wenn irgend ein So-und-so Sein auf Wille, auf Absichten, auf Akte der Verantwortlichkeit zurückgeführt wird: die Lehre vom Willen ist wesentlich erfunden zum Zweck der Strafe, das heisst des Schuldig-finden-wollens [Paragraph Seven of “The Four Great Errors,” “Die vier grossen Irrthümer”].
Epexegesis: “There must be a free will because I have the emotional need to believe in the free will” (this is another version of the argumentum ad consequentiam). But there is a specific emotional need at play here:
Epexegesis: “There must be a free will because I want to punish people. And I cannot punish them by inflicting them with guilt unless they believe that they are free to choose whatever they choose.”
The entire criminal-justice system is built on the concept of the freedom of the will (cf. United States v. Grayson, 1978).
Now, we were taught in the second essay of On the Genealogy of Morality that all human beings are cruel, but some of us interiorize our impulse toward cruelty. When cruelty is reintrojected in the human self, that is called “guilt” and “the bad conscience.” And the inculcation of guilt actively negates my self-esteem, my feeling of self-worth.
But all human beings are cruel. Nothing is more natural to the human animal than a taste for cruelty (it might take the form of watching horror films, “fail videos,” or other malicious spectacles). Though Nietzsche never writes about sociopathy, this idea makes me rethink modern psychology’s take on sociopathy. Perhaps it is inaccurate to throw certain people into a bucket labelled “Sociopaths.” Perhaps there is an economy of sociopathy. Perhaps everyone has the capacity for sociopathy. If I am wrong about this, why do so many people enjoy violent sports, such as boxing or tauromachy (bullfighting)? Is there a certain moment at which any human being can read about the destruction of other human beings with coldness, with indifference?
* * * * *
The sixth idol which is blown into smithereens is the ideal that life has a transcendent purpose. Another of the most famous statements that Nietzsche ever made also appears in this book, and you will find it in form of memes all over social media. It is Aphorism Twelve: “If someone has a Why? in life, one can get along with almost any How?” Hat man sein warum? des Lebens, so verträgt man sich fast mit jedem wie?
However, this aphorism has been often misinterpreted. Nietzsche is suggesting that the idea of a purpose in life makes life tolerable, to be sure, but he is not suggesting that life actually has a real purpose. Life has no purpose at all, according to Nietzsche. As I wrote in my essay on Human, All-Too-Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für freie Geister:
All is purposeless yet necessary.
Life does not move in the direction of some transcendent goal, unless death and decomposition would be considered a “goal.”
But everyone is necessary in relation to the whole economy of life. There is an amazing profusion of human types in the economy of life. And one should never wish to wish away any human being, for each human being is necessary for the operation and self-maintenance of the whole economy of the human species. Every mediocrity is essential to the economy of life; without the mediocre, the remarkable would be unremarkable. To cite one example of this: Bad books are essential because they are consonant with the tastes of undiscerning people.
* * * * *
The seventh idol is that the idea that humanity is progressively improving, which it manifestly is not, and it is refreshing to read Nietzsche’s counter-argument to the Enlightenment, the Aufklärung. If you’d like an example of the Enlightenment hypothesis that humanity is gradually refining itself, read Lessing, “The Education of the Human Race,” Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts.
I already discussed Nietzsche’s diagnosis of modernity in my lecture series on Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. The malady of modernity, for Nietzsche, is the paralysis of the will. Nietzsche also writes about the stupidification, the idiotization, the mediocritization, the banalization of culture in the modern world. In Götzen-Dämmerung, Nietzsche has a slightly different critique of modernity. In modernity, according to the logic of this book, progression and regression are one and the same. The ostensible “refining” of humankind is really a taming, a domesticating, a making-docile of the human beast. Animals are trained—this doesn’t mean that they become sophisticated. Neither is it the case that the human beast becomes sophisticated, becomes refined simply because it is trained to be “civilized.” Making-civilized is retrogressive; it is the manipulation and curtailing of the life-instincts. An uncaged animal is more advanced than the modern human being.
Nietzsche is in good company. Kafka said something similar to Gustav Janouch: “In the light of Darwinism, human evolution looks like a monkey’s fall from grace.”
H.L. Mencken wrote something quite similar, but regrettably, I can’t find the citation. Mencken made the argument that the human being devolved from the ape. Of course, it is a falsification to think that human beings evolved from apes; they did not. Mencken, who journalistically covered the Scopes trial, was inverting the common misconception of Darwinian evolution.
As I have said above, Nietzsche is an antinomian. He reminds us, again and again, not to believe in any traditional concept that you haven’t evaluated yourself. It makes no sense to believe in a concept merely because it is old. To do so is to enter the logical fallacy known as the argumentum ad antiquatitam, the argument from tradition. Simply because an idea is hoarily old, this does not imply that such an idea is valid.
Permit me to enumerate all of the ideals that are detonated in this book, all of the idols that are twilit:
False Idol One: Reason leads to virtue, which leads to happiness.
False Idol Two: Absolutes exist. There is such a thing as absolute, motionless, changeless being, whether it is the Self, permanency, an unconditional origin, absolute finality, signified meaning that comes before language, etc.
False Idol Three: Imaginary causes are real causes.
False Idol Four: A belief that gives me pleasure is a true belief.
False Idol Five: There exists something like a free will.
False Idol Six: Life has a transcendent purpose.
False Idol Seven: Humanity is progressively improving.