Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Rise of the Goobermenschen

I read an article recently in the Nation about Nietzsche and Hayek. I'm not certain the author firmly establishes the link to Hayek--the main thrust of the argument seems to be that they were both from late 19th century Vienna--although some quotes near the end may nail his thesis, namely that Hayek did not favour liberty for the masses, but only for the elite. Frankly, I've always thought Hayek's work on distributed systems of information supported democracy and egalitarianism, but Hayek himself may not have seen it that way.

But what I was struck by, yet again, was the crude elitism of Nietzsche's philosophy, the ebuliant rush to kneel before the ubermensch. Yet despite all of his appeals to classical standards, Nietzsche's overman is a hero without virtues. All forms of morality are simply the imposition of the masses upon the Great Man. And the obvious question is that, if someone really is a Great Man, how is it that the masses were able to tame and subjugate him?

The answer is, they don't, nor was Christianity the origin of the virtue of charity. Generosity has always been the trait of great leaders; in the early sagas of northern Europe and Iceland, the great king is called the ring-giver, a man, or woman, whose exercise of charity and generosity sometimes takes them to the point of penury, and in this way inspires the loyalty that makes him or her a great leader. Christianity did not make charity a virtue, it simply recognized what was already regarded as a virtue in the ancient world, for Christianity owed as much to the philosophy of the Greeks and Romans as it did to that of the Jews. And in all of these cultures, charity was a virtue.

The truly great man or woman will rise in any society, and will do so with the blessing of the masses, because they will combine at least some of the classic virtues that all admire: generosity, humility, loyalty, courage, intelligence, creativity, honesty, wisdom, and knowledge. Any system of governance that discourages these or does not reward them will be quickly surpassed. Competition does not merely exist between individuals, but between groups. And any society that does not respect the full range of virtues will find itself in trouble.

Moral realism is a consequence of epistemological realism. If nothing is true, nothing can be good, and conversely, if one recognizes that there are facts that are the case, one must eventually accept that there are certain rules of social conduct that are better than others. Curiously, Nietzsche fell prey to a vestigial dogma; when he gave up Christianity, he did not give up the idea that all morals came from God. But he was no fan of evolution either. If he had been, he might have realized that we have evolved a conception of what is fair and good--indeed, we came to this point before we were human. All of the great apes share this sensibility. A chimpanzee, given a root vegetable when his neighbor is given a piece of fruit, will throw the vegetable away in protest, even though he is hungry. Even dogs know what is fair; a dog who plays roughly, and who does not bow and apologize for too rough play, is ostracized--a penalty that is usually lethal.

Because Nietzsche ignores the virtues, he became the champion of mediocrity, however much he wanted to be otherwise. Everyone thinks they are the ubermensch. Everyone thinks they are above average--it's a well known cognitive defect of our species. By stripping the hero of virtues, Nietzsche made it possible for anyone to claim to be a hero. His lowbrow descendant, Ayn Rand, painted greed as the mark of the hero, a development that Nietzsche would have despised--indeed, he despised most of his descendants. His sister married a proto-nazi, whom Nietzsche despised, and they came to blows with Nietzsche the loser.

It is astonishing how many intellectuals praise the marshal ethic, even though it is at best the willingness of the strong to protect the weak against thugs, while at worst (and most often), it is simply the ethos of the thug. Physical courage is of course a component of intellectual courage, but this does not mean a willingness or the capacity to beat people up. Rather, it means a determination to stand ones ground against physical threats. This is the essence of the Hegelian Master-Slave dialectic, in which the master becomes master by his refusal to accept any other role, and the slave overthrows him by doing the same. Christopher Hitchens, who, after forty years without physical exertion could not even be reasonably expected to be able to run away, much less fight, still stood his ground against physical threats and made no attempt to hide himself from those who meant him harm. Feminists would do well to take note; physical prowess is not required for physical courage, only the determination to stand one's ground. Only when feminists do this without resort to the protection of male officialdom will they be taken as equals, rather than delicate flowers to be coddled--and managed--by the man folk.

And yet, the thug is another example of the ubermensch gone to seed; the man of a single virtue, and a dubious one at that. A person with the virtues to avoid war, and to defeat the thugs with words, is worth a thousand who can win a war, because if you are at war, you've already lost.

Nietzsche didn't understand that. And so, we have the Goobermeschen.