Book Review: Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One (Penguin Classics) by Friedrich Nietzsche.
Have you ever met one of those blokes? You know the type. You’re in a quiet pub – maybe you’re waiting for the trains to be less crowded, or perhaps you’re an alcoholic. There’s only one drinker there and he says hello. You start talking.
This fellow, there’s usually something silly about his hair. Maybe it’s long and he’s way too old for it. Perhaps a giant beard. But you get talking to him and you find that you’ve discovered a soul mate. One of those very rare people who actually thinks how you think, even those unpopular things that are verboten on both left and right. Indeed, he says those things before you do. There’s no one eavesdropping. It’s just the two of you. You both chuckle conspiratorially and say, ‘No one else can see it, can they? Normal people don’t want to accept the truth. We’re not normal though, are we? We’re the effing Illuminati, we are. But keep it under your hat, of course. Most people aren’t ready for this stuff and they never will be.’
Actually, I’ve never had an experience like that. I could imagine it happening though. That’s what reading Nietzsche is like. On almost every page I inwardly scream, ‘Of course! That’s right! It’s so bloody obvious but no one dares admit it!’ And yet Nietzsche, a hundred-odd years later, remains popular. Where are you, all you evil, Nietzschean bastards? Let’s have a beer some time.
Ah, evil. That’s what we are. But as the mustachioed one says, “When men no longer believe themselves to be evil, they cease to be so.” What else does he say?
Morality has shown herself to be the greatest mistress of seduction ever since men began to discourse and persuade on earth – and, what concerns us philosophers even more, she is the veritable Circe of philosophers.
As a student of ethics it hurts to say it, but he’s right. This is where Nietzsche and I part ways with just about everybody. ‘Who says what’s right and wrong?’ we demand in unison. ‘What makes it so?’ Every attempt at answering this question fumbles. More frequently it is opposed not by argument but by outraged spluttering. But me and my mate Nietzsche don’t care. We know the score. The old fella goes on,
. . . when confronted with the ingrained immorality of nature and history, Kant was, like all good Germans from the earliest times, a pessimist: he believed in morality, not because it is demonstrated through nature and history, but despite its being steadily contradicted by them.
You tell ‘em, Fred. Look at nature. Animals are total cunts. A magpie swooped me today for no good reason I could determine. Seagulls, discarding their former camaraderie, fight bitterly over a few chips. Sticking with the bird theme, I saw some ducks try to peck ducklings to death and the mother was unable to defend them all. Why wouldn’t they peck them? Not their offspring. Just more bills to feed and no corresponding increase in worms available.
One might claim that such low creatures lack our human reason. But hey. First, some animals are pretty clever but nevertheless act like vile criminals. Chimpanzees can use tools, teach each other new skills and learn sign language but they still cannibalize cute little baby chimps. Second, how much good does reason actually do humans? Dumb as birds are, I’ve never seen them burn each other at the stake. Anyway, back to The Dude:
Savants are quite correct in maintaining the proposition that men in all ages believed that they knew what was good and evil, praiseworthy and blamable. But it is a prejudice of the learned to say that we now know it better than any other age.
For example, the ancient Greeks knew homo love was super. Then the stupid medieval mob forgot. Now we’ve figured it out again. And one day it will become evil again. God commanded the ancient Jews to wipe out enemy tribes or he will punish them. Some traditional Aborigines demand that someone – anyone – receive payback for anything bad that happens, even if it is a drunk driver who has killed himself. You, brother! You should have looked after him better. Here’s a spear through your leg. There, all fixed. The latest evil we have discovered is not letting blokes in frocks use the ladies’ room. How could we have stumbled through centuries of public lavatory use without noticing our reprehensible behaviour? And what will we notice next? And what reprehensible, criminal acts today shall be as super as homo love tomorrow? Live long enough and you’ll see the reversal and re-reversal of every single moral precept Man has ever known. Ha! I said ‘Man’ instead of ‘Humans’. That’s evil at the moment. No worries; I can wait.
The free man is immoral, because it is his will to depend upon himself and not upon tradition: in all the primitive states of humanity “evil” is equivalent to “individual,” “free,” “arbitrary,” “unaccustomed,” “unforeseen,” “incalculable.” [. . .]
And every individual action, every individual mode of thinking, causes dread. It is impossible to determine how much the more select, rare, and original minds must have suffered in the course of time by being considered as evil and dangerous, yea, because they even looked upon themselves as such. Under the dominating influence of the morality of custom, originality of every kind came to acquire a bad conscience; and even now the sky of the best minds seems to be more overcast by this thought than it need be. [. . .]
It is sad to have to say it; but for the time being all higher sentiments must be looked upon with suspicion by the man of science, to so great an extent are they intermingled with illusion and extravagance.
He’s presumably talking here of great thinkers like Galileo, Darwin and his good self. There are plenty of others in modern times: Jason Richwine, John Derbyshire, Larry Summers . . . There are still things you’re not allowed to think and not allowed to say, and there always will be. That kind of original thinking is, you see, immoral.
And what do these morals do for us?
Men have become suffering creatures in consequence of their morals, and the sum-total of what they have obtained by those morals is simply the feeling that they are far too good and great for this world, and that they are enjoying merely a transitory existence on it.
The modern reader will understand that morals also have an adaptive purpose, which is why they exist.
May I take a moment to offer one minor criticism: I wish Nietzsche had written more about his alleged youthful weakness for German whores. Surely this would be relevant amid his universal dismissal of morals. And also a little about what it’s like to have a name so difficult to spell.
Anyway, how do morals change?
ALTERATIONS IN MORALS. – Morals are constantly undergoing changes and transformations, occasioned by successful crimes. (To these, for example, belong all innovations in moral judgments.)
George Washington – from traitor to freedom fighter!
Abraham Lincoln – from invader to emancipator!
Martin Luther King – from uppity black to saint!
Jesus – from blasphemer to Messiah!
Adolf Hitler – oh hang on, he lost. Unsuccessful crimes do not produce a hero. Had he won, he would be so considered. Think I’m wrong? Find the successful criminal who is still frowned upon. This was the topic of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment – a foolish young fellow believes that if the cause is great enough any crime can be justified. Dostoevsky’s point is that without God, anything is permitted. Nietzsche would perhaps agree with the premise and yet reach a different conclusion. Oh, I’d love to see those two have a chat.
But why isn’t all this obvious to everyone? Nietzsche has an answer:
MAN AND THINGS. – Why does the man not see the things? He himself is in the way: he conceals the things.
It is very hard to see that which we don’t want to see. Did you hear about the uncontacted tribe who worshiped a rock they carried around with them? No? Well, they did. I wonder if ever, just once, one of the tribal chaps looked at the magic rock and thought, “Maybe it’s just a rock.” But all his culture, morals and way of life are caught up in that rock. Everything he’s ever worked for, and his ancestors have worked for. He can’t see the rock as it really is because he’s always in the way. And so are we. In the same vein:
And so far have not all the great passions of mankind been passion for something non-existent? – and all their ceremonies – ceremonies for something non-existent also?
The dull scientist is unique among people for his passion is in something real. Rocks, for example, even if bereft of magical powers. Nematodes. Nebulae. The rest of us (the lion’s share of humanity) are far more interested in things that only exist in our own heads like politics, love and irritation.
Away from morals for a bit. The pub has called ‘time’ and our shaggy friend wants to chuck another shrimp on the barbie before we’re thrown out:
BE THANKFUL! – The most important result of the past efforts of humanity is that we need no longer go about in continual fear of wild beasts, barbarians, gods, and our own dreams.
THE MALCONTENT. – He is one of the brave old warriors: angry with civilization because he believes that its object is to make all good things – honour, rewards, and fair women – accessible even to cowards.
And here both Nietzsche and I, timid and retiring as we are, raise our glasses to those old warriors who enabled our cowardly existence. Cheers!
He rushes off back to his life of isolation but he suddenly pauses at the door and announces:
When we take the decisive step, and make up our minds to follow our own path, a secret is suddenly revealed to us: it is clear that all those who had hitherto been friendly to us and on intimate terms with us judged themselves to be superior to us, and are offended now. The best among them are indulgent, and are content to wait patiently until we once more find the “right path” – they know it, apparently. Others make fun of us, and pretend that we have been seized with a temporary attack of mild insanity [. . .] the more malicious say we are vain fools . . .
And then he’s gone.
When I believed more acceptable things my thoughts were an open book. Now that I have less popular ideas I jealously guard them against exposure. But you, dear reader, get to see them. If those ‘nearest’ to me knew, I would be scolded or denounced like a man who had despised a magic rock.
But again, Nietzsche is well known. Where are you hiding, you Nietzschean devils? You must be around here somewhere!
I stumble home. As I zigzag past the 7-11 the police stop me and check my Alien Registration. I cooperate, terrified. They let me go and I continue. I suddenly remember that I gave the funny man my card. I think, will he message me? Has he messaged already? No, it’s still too early. I’ll check tomorrow morning. Well, I’ll check when I get home. Oh fuck it, I’ll check now. And there’s a message!
NEVER FORGET! – The higher we soar the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.