Thursday, December 6, 2007

"the most revolutionary political proposition ever advanced"

That is how Mitt Romney, a Mormon who is one of the contenders for the Republican nomination to be U.S. President, described this idea: "The conviction of the inherent and inalienable worth of every life." Admittedly, in the American context, this is partly code language for opposition to abortion, but putting the parochial peculiarities of American politics to one side, Romney is surely right that the "inherent and inalienable worth of every life" is, indeed, "the most revolutionary political proposition" of modernity (perhaps ever). It is equally clear that the basis he offers for it--namely that "every single human being is a child of God"--is (viewed as a cognitive, rather than an emotive, proposition) false.

But when Nietzsche mocks the "free thinkers" who "oppose the Church but not its poison" (GM I:9) is he not thinking precisely of those who reject the false cognitive proposition but still accept that "most revolutionary political proposition," precisely the one discovered by those Nietzsche calls the "slaves" at the birth of Christianity?


Anonymous said...

It seems obviously so to me. The doctrine of "the inherent and inalienable worth of every life" is merely a rejection of the order of rank, of the pathos of distance. Every human has worth -- well, perhaps, Nietzsche might say, but only in a trivial sense. What is important is that some human beings have more worth than others. It is therefore not a question of whether or not one has worth, but of how much worth one has.

That modern men and women have an antipathy for this order of rank, of course, is merely a sign that they still blindly accept theistic morality, even after its only possible ground has failed.

Sam Clark said...

But theism rather obviously isn't the only possible ground of a belief in equality, or at least of a 'rejection of the order of rank'. Hobbes (and many other humanists) appeal to our equal vulnerability, for instance:

'Nature hath made men so equall, in the faculties of body, and mind; as that though there bee found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind then another; yet when
all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one an can thereupon claim to himselfe any benefit, to which another may not pretend, as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himselfe.' (Leviathan xiii.1)

That is: no matter what small advantages you have, the others can always gang up on you, and they know where you sleep. The superman's head can be bashed in with a rock as easily as anyone else's.

Rob said...

Nietzsche is indeed referring in GM 1:9 to those who reject the cognitive proposition but nevertheless accept the “political” proposition, but I think this is also true of the kind of reader he intends the Genealogy to unsettle into self-awareness -- the crucial difference being that Nietzsche’s intended audience recognizes (or comes to recognize) that the acceptance of the “political” proposition is genetically connected to the cognitive proposition in ways (explicated by the Genealogy) that render every effort to emancipate the former from the latter ultimately unsatisfying. Nietzsche seems to suggest that the very form of this self-awareness -- a function of the recognition that one is an irreconcilable “battleground” (GM 1:16) of the evaluative propensities of master and slave morality – is distinctively affective, marked by an acute vulnerability to “great disgust,” “great compassion,” (GM 3:14) and the even greater hazard of their effect in combination. Hence, my growing suspicion that perhaps the best indication of how well one really apprehends the Genealogy (in all its argumentative and performative glory) is how sincerely and acutely one is conflicted within by such disgust and compassion.

Douglas Struthers said...

Luckily, the individual no longer has to chose between being a Last Person or a Overperson. Instead, one can come out as a "bright" and we can accept the burden collectively.

Charlie H said...

I think it's right that Nietzsche denies the sort of "equal worth" Romney preaches. But what's not clear to me is what the denial is supposed to imply practically. There are many passages where Nz says the worthier people can treat the less worthy as mere means (e.g., BGE 265: "...other beings have to be subordinate by their nature, and sacrifice themselves to us"). But then there are passages which suggest that the worthier people have some sort of obligation toward the less worthy ("e.g., A, 57: "When the exceptional human being treats the mediocre more tenderly than himself and his peers, this is not mere politeness of the heart -- it is simply his duty"). I'm not saying there is a contradiction here, but I have trouble bringing both elements into focus at the same time. Any thoughts?

Rob said...

I suspect Nietzsche would regard "Brights" and the "New Atheism" (Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, etc.) with derision as merely the latest popular incarnation of the "free spirit" he mocks in GM 1:9. Accordingly, perhaps Muslim fundamentalism will prove to have accelerated the tempo of (or otherwise intensified) the "toxication" and "poisoning through the entire body of humanity" than anything else these days. I suppose this will depend to a great extent on how the West manages to comes to terms with the particular descent of its political conceptions. As Mark Lilla has recently put it:

"Though the principles of modern liberal democracy are not conceptually dependent on the truth of Christianity, they are genetically dependent on the problems Christianity posed and failed to solve. Being mindful of this should help us to understand the strengths of our tradition of political thought, and perhaps also its limitations."

A lot turns, of course, on what exactly this genetic dependency consists of, and what, if any, bearing it has on the supposed conceptual independence. I think Nietzsche is an invaluable resource in pursuing such a project.

Not, I hope, entirely unrelated to this is a point nicely made by Jeffrie G. Murphy (Arizona State) in his review of Miller's EYE FOR AN EYE:

"Just as the concept of absolute human rights depends, in my view, on the religious framework in which it was originally imbedded, so may many of our ideas of retributive justice -- or even justice in general -- depend on ideas of revenge, of paying back, of getting even -- ideas that most contemporary philosophers want to reject as primitive, irrational, and even evil."

Douglas Struthers said...

The lesson of Nietzsche's failure is that any escape from metaphysical fictions and the possiblity of a 'revaluation of all values' must be a collective endeavour.
The genius of the concept of the "brights" is that it represents a challenge primarily to the assorted "free spirits", sceptics, Nietzscheans, atheists et al to have the courage to form a self-identified constituency/open conspiracy of those grounded in a naturalist worldview.
We can then move on from the nihilistic 'To be, or not to be' as the question, to the life-affirming 'Are you a Bright or a Super(naturalist)?'

Rob said...

In "Nietzsche's Antidemocratic Rhetoric" (Southern Journal of Philosophy, 1999, vol. XXXVII, Supplement, pp. 119-141), Maudemarie Clark argues that one finds in BGE a commitment not to the promotion of aristocratic *political institutions*, but rather to the promotion of an aristocratic *society* within a culture ordered by liberal-democratic political institutions -- because, she argues, the individuality (among, presumably, other goods) Nietzsche so highly values was made possible by the development of such institutions, and this value he ascribes to individuality outweighs the damage he attributes to that development (characterized, as she notes, in BGE 203, as a "decay of political organization").

Accordingly, I suppose one use of GM might be as a tool for the cultivation of an attitude or outlook which harmonizes or, more realistically, finds some kind of honest accommodation between, the commitment to an aristocratic society and the commitment to liberal-democratic political institutions.

Though she doesn't argue for this in her article, Clark states that she believes that Nietzsche's principles are in fact committed to democratic political institutions, that he recognizes this, and that this recognition is rooted in his "commitment to science and his explicit and repeated recognition of science as an essentially democratic enterprise" (p. 119).

Undoubtedly, Clark and Dudrick will take this matter up more fully in their upcoming book on BGE.

I wonder, though, despite Nietzsche's characterization of it as a "supplement and clarification" of BGE, whether Clark's reading holds as well for GM.

Anonymous said...

I suppose the trouble with saying people have unequal worth is that there seems to be no way to assign the worth to people in any meaningful way. What does it really mean to say that Einstein is a more worthy person that Jones? Is Einstein more worthy because he is more intelligent? Because he is more useful? More attractive? The most effective at wielding power? What makes someone worthy? Is there any way to quantify it? Furthermore, as someone pointed out, what does it mean, practically, to say one person has more worth than another? Does Einstein get to cut in line? Does he get a discounted rate on his groceries?

Also, saying we should simply value some people inherently less than others seems to start us down a slippery slope. The Turkish people simply did not think that Armenians were worthy of any sort of decent treatment.

Finally, I think one can distinguish between someone simply having more of an admirable quality (patience, intelligence, utility, physical beauty, etc.), and saying that that person is somehow worth more because of it.

Rob said...

Nussbaum on Williams:

"I believe that much of his interest in Nietzschean pessimism and irrationalism was in the service of warding off a powerful depression, even perhaps despair. Over the years I began to notice that he was never angry (whereas I am angry more or less all the time). Contempt, world-weariness, cynicism, even an irritability linked to the world-weariness, but never just anger, the sense that wrong has been done and that one had better go out and right it. I think his non-angry attitude to tragedy was of a piece with his critique of the Enlightenment: doing good for a bad world did not energize him, because his attitude to the world was at some deep level without hope. The world was a mess, and there was no saving or even improving it. It was childish, naïve, to suggest that improvement was possible. (His liberal politics were difficult to reconcile with this view, and this perhaps explains his increasing withdrawal from politics and even political thinking in later life.) Nietzsche called this attitude amor fati and connected this embracing of necessity with a kind of cheerfulness, the cheerfulness that comes when we abandon the hope of real change. Similarly, what energized Bernard, cheered him up, was a kind of elegant assertion of the hopelessness of things against the good-newsers, a contemptuous yet brilliant scoffing."


Rob said...


"I am most offended by the passages in which Nietzsche expresses contempt for weakness, and especially by the passages which argue that there is something wrong with Christianity because it originated among slaves. So it did, but those slaves had a good idea: namely, that the ideal human community would be one in which love is the only law. So it would. One can separate this Christian ideal from the ressentiment characteristic of the ascetic priests, but Nietzsche never made that distinction."


david said...

Nietzsche says (somewhere in WP) that "justice, "truth" "humanity" etc, are in fact, useful slogans in an ideological battle, but are never to to taken seriously and confused with what those (often self-deceived)sloganeers actually want and are. I take this to be 100% true.

Given that I see no convincing evidence whatsoever that Nietzsche wished to present himself as a "political thinker", I ask myself why? Essentially for two reasons: firstly, "politics" was the domain of "lesser heads" concerned with society at large, rather than the extremely rare (Nietzschean) "valuable individuals"; secondly, Nietzsche recognised that, regardless of his nausea, the sociopolitical momentum of history was an ever-increasing democratisation.

In addition, echoing BGE 287, where Nietzsche recognises that both "actions" and "works" are never signs of "nobility" (both are ambiguous and ultimately unfathomable), rather it is a notoriously elusive "faith" and "reverence for oneself", a state of mind and general psychological disposition that matters(let's not forget, for example, that the "Jews" for Nietzsche, were in fact the "counterparts of decadence" who found themselves placed in "impossible circumstances")(AC).

Therefore I think the "poison" is not to be found in the macro tenets of Liberal Democratic Capitalism (which I support), but in the "evaluative equality" agenda (which I oppose) that increasingly dominates. However I see no coherent method of avoiding this nihilistic advance.

Rob Sica,
could you expand on your "Muslim fundamentalism" comment?