Sunday, January 3, 2010

Clarence Darrow on Nietzsche

This is from his famous summation by defense attorney Clarence Darrow, arguing against the death penalty for Nathaniel Leopold and Richard Loeb, two precocious teenagers who murdered another boy to show that they could do it. Leopold claimed inspiration from Nietzsche. Here is Darrow on Leopold:

He became enamored of the philosophy of Nietzsche. Your Honor, I have read almost everything that Nietzsche ever wrote. He was a man of a wonderful intellect; the most original philosopher of the last century. Nietzsche believed that some time the superman would be born, that evolution was working toward the superman. He wrote one book, Beyond Good and Evil, which was a criticism of all moral codes as the world understands them; a treatise holding that the intelligent man is beyond good and evil, that the laws for good and the laws for evil do not apply to those who approach the superman. He wrote on the will to power. Nathan Leopold is not the only boy who has read Nietzsche. He may be the only one who was influenced in the way that he was influenced.

At seventeen, at sixteen, at eighteen, while healthy boys were playing baseball or working on the farm, or doing odd jobs, Babe [Leopold's nickname] was reading Nietzsche, a boy who never should have seen it, at that early age.

Nietzsche held a contemptuous, scornful attitude to all those things which the young are taught as important in life; a fixing of new values which are not the values by which any normal child has ever yet been reared. Nietzsche's attitude is but a philosophical dream, containing more or less truth, that was not meant by anyone to be applied to life.

Nietzsche says, "The morality of the master class is irritating to the taste of the present day because of its fundamental principle that a man has obligation only to his equals; that he may act to all of lower rank and to all that are foreign, as he pleases."

In other words, man has no obligations; he may do with all other men and all other boys, and all society, as he pleases. The superman was a creation of Nietzsche.

The supermanlike qualities lie not in their genius, but in their freedom from scruple. They rightly felt themselves to be above the law. What they thought was right, not because sanctioned by any law, beyond themselves, but because they did it. So the superman will be a law unto himself What he does will come from the will and superabundant power within him.

Here is a boy at sixteen or seventeen becoming obsessed with these doctrines. There isn't any question about the facts. Their own witnesses tell it and every one of our witnesses tell it. It was not a casual bit of philosophy with him; it was his life. He believed in a superman. He and Dickie Loeb were the supermen. There might have been others, but they were two, and two chums. The ordinary commands of society were not for him.

Many of us read this philosophy but know that it has no actual application to life; but not he. It became a part of his being. It was his philosophy. He lived it and practiced it; he thought it applied to him, and he could not have believed it excepting that it either caused a diseased mind or was the result of a diseased mind.

Here is a boy who by day and by night, in season and out, was talking of the superman, owing no obligations to anyone; whatever gave him pleasure he should do, believing it just as another man might believe a religion or any philosophical theory.

You remember that I asked Dr. Church about these religious cases and he said, "Yes, many people go to the insane asylum on account of them," that "they place a literal meaning on parables and believe them thoroughly"? I asked Dr. Church, whom again I say I believe to be an honest man, and an intelligent man, I asked him whether the same thing might be done or might come from a philosophical belie£ and he said, "If one believed it strongly enough."

And I asked him about Nietzsche. He said he knew something of Nietzsche, something of his responsibility for the war, for which he perhaps was not responsible. He said he knew something about his doctrines. I asked him what became of him, and he said he was insane for fifteen years just before the time of his death. His very doctrine is a species of insanity.

Here is a man, a wise man, perhaps not wise, but a brilliant, thoughtful man who has made his impress upon the world. Every student of philosophy knows him. His own doctrines made him a maniac. And here is a young boy, in the adolescent age, harassed by everything that harasses children, who takes this philosophy and believes it literally. It is a part of his life. It is his life. Do you suppose this mad act could have been done by him in any other way? What could he have to win from this homicide?

A boy with a beautiful home, with automobiles, a graduate of college, going to Europe, and then to study law at Harvard; as brilliant in intellect as any boy that you could find; a boy with every prospect that life might hold out to him; and yet he goes out and commits this weird, strange, wild, mad act, that he may die on the gallows or live in a prison cell until he dies of old age or disease.

He did it, obsessed of an idea, perhaps to some extent influenced by what has not been developed publicly in this case-perversions this case were present in the boy. Both signs of insanity, both, together with this act, proving a diseased mind..

Is there any question about what was responsible for him?

What else could be? A boy in his youth, with every promise that the world could hold. out before him, wealth and position and intellect, yes, genius, scholarship, nothing that he could not obtain, and he throws it away, and mounts the gallows or goes into a cell for life. It is too foolish to talk about. Can Your Honor imagine a sane brain doing it? Can you imagine it coming from anything but a diseased mind? Can you imagine it is any part of normality? And yet, Your Honor, you are asked to hang a boy of his age, abnormal, obsessed of dreams and visions, a philosophy that destroyed his life,
when there is no sort of question in the world as to what caused his downfall. I know, Your Honor, that every atom of life in all this universe is bound up
together. I know that a pebble cannot be thrown into the ocean without disturbing every drop of water in the sea. I know that every life is inextricably mixed and woven with every other life. I know that every influence, conscious and unconscious, acts and reacts on every living organism, and that no one can fix the blame. I know that all life is a series of infinite chances, which sometimes result one way and sometimes another. I have not the infinite wisdom that can fathom it, neither has any other human brain. But I do know that if back of it is a power that made it, that power alone can tell, and if there is no power then it is an infinite chance which man cannot solve.

Why should this boy's life be bound up with Frederick Nietzsche, who died thirty years ago, insane, in Germany? I don't know. I only know it is. I know that no man who ever wrote a line that I read failed to influence me to some extent. I know that every life I ever touched influenced me, and I influenced it; and that it is not given to me to unravel the infinite causes and say, "This is I, and this is you." I am responsible for so much; and you are responsible for so much. I know that in the infinite universe everything has its place and that the smallest particle is a part of all. Tell me that you can visit the wrath of fate and chance and life and eternity upon a nineteen-year-old boy! If you could, justice would be a travesty and mercy a fraud.

Leopold was not, obviously, a good reader of Nietzsche, and Darrow is, of course, not engaged in Nietzsche scholarship, but trying to make the case for sparing the boys from the death penalty on account of psychological disturbance. Still, as popular readings of Nietzsche go, this one may have had more influence than most. Thoughts from readers?


Rob said...

I wonder if Darrow is not doubly indebted to Nietzsche as both an extenuating factor and as the inspiration behind the grand pathos of that responsibility-dispersing vision of cosmic interconnectedness concluding the passage you quote (cf. HH 34, 39, 106, 107; AOM 33; WS 23, 24).

By the way, a good film about Leopold and Loeb (which even uses some of the actual courtroom text); and, unrelated, a scene from Desplechin's A Christmas Tale in which a character reads the opening of the Genealogy.

Anonymous said...

The German cobbler in Babyface (the Barbara Stanwyck movie) has a similar take.

From what I understand, the censors forced them to cut all the Nietzsche references, but the uncensored version was unearthed in 2004. The DVD I have contains both versions.

Later on, the cobbler sends her a copy of "Thoughts Out of Season" with these words underlined:

"Face life as you find it, defiantly and unafraid! Waste no energy yearning for the moon! Crush out all sentiment!"

Rob said...

Hilarious. More details here.

Jimmy said...

The Overman (no confusion with Clark Kent that way) was Nietzsche's attempt to recreate God, so that a new set of values would have a reference point. He knew that a radical and attention-grabbing story was necessary to get the herd to listen, and like with the Bible, there will be those who take it too literally.

Just my reading, anyway.

Richard said...

To Rob,

The movie is incredible. The Nietzsche stuff is just icing, as far as enjoying the movie is concerned.

But it is interesting and kind of exciting to see her character take these exhortations to heart so readily. I read and reread Nietzsche's works, but would never dream of modeling my behavior on what I've read in them...or at least not in such a knee-jerk way.

Even though I don't really believe one can be a "Nietzschean," Babyface is as good a Nietzschean in her way as Foucault's was in his.

Anonymous said...

A Nietzschean would seriously contemplate and reflect on the dangerous ideas Nietzsche puts forward for our time and future times to consider. Zarathustra was not hoping to be aped. To take Nietzsche dogmatically also seems like a paradoxical position. It also seems difficult to support that the herd is ever a part of his intended audience.

Rob said...

Thanks, Richard: looking forward to seeing the film...

By the way, as part of Julian Young's forthcoming biography, 17 downloadable musical compositions by Nietzsche are now available for free.

Rob said...

The Turin Horse, Béla Tarr's reportedly final film.

SirJohn said...

Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope" (1948)is another movie related to that case. There is also an answer at the end which may be indirectly applied to the case. (I won't tell it so that you can watch and enjoy the movie. And another movie is Tom Kalin's "Swoon"(1990), which I haven't seen.

On the other hand, "ubermench" is only a very tiny and actually quite secondary part of Nietzsche's philosophy. Nietzsche prefers people to be themselves rather than being ubermench- or at least before being ubermench.Nietzsche is suspicious of all moral attachments based on his observation that people actually find their moral values before they find (or know) themselves.
Even if we wrongly assume that ubermench is the architect of Nietzsche's philosophy, its destructive features are to be applied to moral foundations, not people on the street. Even if we again quite wrongly assume that "being an ubermench" requires exterminating others (i.e the weak), we cannot attribute any special position to Nietzsche for any purposes of defense or accusation in a legal case like this; since all the religions or moral foundations easily provide such standards correlative to any age and intellectual-moral capacities.

I find it funny that Darrow treats Nietzsche like a video-game in which teenagers have to kill each others to win.What would be Darrow's second move? Suggesting a legal ban on Nietzsche? An age restriction maybe? I take this defense as a vice of the legal system itself which is based on winning. And I really wonder what Darrow would have said about Nietzsche if he had been the prosecuting attorney.