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Nietzsche and Postmodernist Nihilism

Douglas Groothuis

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A study of recent publications addressing postmodernism yields a myriad of materials and a panoply of perspectives. When did we or will we "cross the postmodern divide"? Is modernity really dead or only wounded? What identifies, if anything, the postmodernist posture? Although postmodernist philosophy is too diverse to corral into a tidy definition, one way of understanding it and assessing some of its common themes is to look to the thought of a predecessor, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche, once hailed as a father of existentialism, has now come a kind of posthumous prophet for postmodernism, which often deems him a pioneering voice for its suspicion of universal rationality, morality, objectivity, and Western Christian sensibilities in general. Postmodernists also find in him an emphasis on the conventionality and contingency of all institutions and moralities, which, when deconstruct (a la Michel Foucault) end up as no more than self justifying arrangements of power. Thinkers such as Richard Rorty look to Nietzsche as an inspiration for their escape from the orbit of modernity, especially from its emphasis on objective truth and meaning that exists apart from evaluating agents.

Nietzsche's thought, though invigorating in its boldness and passion, is often enigmatic and difficult to form into a coherent whole. Therefore, we find no overwhelming consensus on the real Nietzsche. The interpretative difficulties arise from his frequently aphoristic style, scorn of systematizing, development as an author, radicality of conceptions, and use of intentionally inflammatory and hyperbolic language. Hermeneutical matters are not improved by Nietzsche's esotericism. Nietzsche wrote for the worthy few. "My writings are very well protected: whoever, having no right to such books, takes them and thereby mistakes them immediately makes himself rediculous." This preemptive strike against potential critics clouds matters considerably. Obscuring things further is Nietzsche's questioning of the basic laws of logic as descriptive of reality. If loosed from these strictures, contradictions are no longer stigmatized and anything can follow. Post modernists following their mentor may defend their opacities as esoteric profundities.

Although Christians and Jews have been ill-disposed toward Nietzsche, given his denunciations of the "slave morality" of the Bible and his heralding of the "death of God," some frequently invoked charges against him have little substance. Nietzsche is often regarded as a key ideological source for Nazi anti-Semitism. Scholars such as Walter Kauffmann, however, have given plausible textual arguments defending Nietzsche against this charge. Much of Nietzsche's supposed hostility to the Jews appears to have been a product of his sister Elizabeth's tampering with his writings during his years of derangement and after his death.

However, Nietzsche may not be defended against all criticisms of his ethics. And these charges, mutatis mutandis, are applicable to many of his postmodernist progeny as well. Irving M. Zeitlin has cogently argued in Nietzsche: A Re-examination (Polity, 1994) that crucial components of Nietzsche's thought justify the reign of the strong over the weak, even if he eschews anti-Semitism per se.

Given the "death of God," Nietzsche rejected any transcendently warranted system of ethics. This is no one universally binding Morality; there are only moralities, which come in two basic types: slave morality and master morality. Slaves compensate for their lack of power by their feelings of resentment toward their masters, whom they label as "evil." "Blessed are the poor" translates as "I hate the rich." Masters, however, discharge their powers without resentment, in accordance with their expansive ambitions. They are fettered neither by humility nor altruism, although they may elect to show kindness--when it suits them.

For Nietzsche, the herd of slaves exists for the sake of the master who realizes that "exploitation . . . belongs to the nature of the living being as . . . a consequence of the intrinsic Will to Power, which is precisely the Will to Life." Nietzsche champions the ultimate master as the Ubermensche, or Overman, who actualizes himself by destroying the old values and creating his own values ex nihilo. "Overman is the meaning of the earth," declares Nietzsche's Zarathustra (who elsewhere says life has no meaning).

Zeitlin cogently argues against Nietzsche defenders that this reduction of ethics to force is nothing but a classic example of "might makes right." Nietzsche glorified in the oligarchy of pre-democratic Greece and esteemed tyrants such as Napoleon as heroes. Yet Nietzsche's partiality for the strong really reduces to a kind of aesthetic preference, given his rejection of objective moral standards as the grounding for ethical evaluations. This entails that neither Nietzsche's commendations nor condemnations have any real moral consequence for anyone else, however passionately he ventilates them.

Zeitlin finds Nietzsche's nihilistic megalomania presaged in Dostoevsky's atheistic criminal, Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, who strikes out "beyond good and evil" by murdering an old misery woman he deems worthless. Sounding hauntingly Nietzschean, Raskolnikov says, "The great mass of the people--the masses exist merely for the sake of bringing into the world by some supreme effort . . . one man out of a thousand who is to some extent independent." These are men like Raskolnikov who are free from the conventions of morality. Zeitlin notes that "in powerfully dramatic terms Dostoevsky thus called attention to the dangerous moral vacuum created by the doctrine that God is dead--a danger to which Nietzsche gave no consideration." The Hitlers, Stalins, Maos, and Pol Pots of this century all subscribed to some variation of this philosophy of power, and created their own earthly hells.

In C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape describes the philosophy of hell in terms suggestive of Nietzsche: "The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good, and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same." Although Nietzsche sometimes lauds friendship between the strong and consideration (but not pity) for the weak, his dominant theme is the strong's expropriation of others. Christian love is impossible--given the philosophy of hell, that is. The Golden Rule melts before the Will to Power.

Inasmuch as postmodernist thinkers such as Rorty and Foucault jettison any enduring or objective sense of meaning, truth and value, they enter the same amoral vacuum advanced by Nietzsche and indicated by Dostoevsky. Although postmodernists often advocate the recognition of "alterity" or the appreciation for "the other" supposedly marginalized and silenced by Western, hegemonic forces (whether it be indigenous peoples, women, or nonheterosexuals), this imperative founders without a moral foundation; it reduces to mere preference or suggestion. Why not glorify the hegemonic as the heroic, as exemplary embodiments of the Will to Power? Why give ear to those denied a voice? "What have we to learn from the losers?" Nietzsche might well ask.

If power, both individual and political, is not tempered by a conscience capable of contact with and submission to an objective moral law and Law Giver, it becomes its own justification. No amount of postmodernist whimsy, irony, or aestheticism can defuse this peril. As Pascal said, "might without right is tyrannical."

Nietzsche is sometimes dismissed because of his lapse into insanity in 1889, which continued until his death in 1900. The politically correct opinion is that Nietzsche's ruthless atheism and brutal intellectual battles with nihilism had absolutely nothing to do with his breakdown and everything to do with a case of syphilis. A.J. Hoover's Friedrich Nietzsche: His life and Thought (Praeger, 1994) dares to challenge this on historical and philosophical grounds by arguing that it is not beyond question that Nietzsche suffered from syphilis. The insanity that results from the disease rarely lasts eleven years, and "Nietzsche's sex life was cool to nonexistent" (although Hoover mentions the theory that Nietzsche was infected during the Franco-Prussian War while attending to wounded soldiers).

Although Hoover does not condemn Nietzsche's thought because of his eventual insanity, he does carefully explore the features of Nietzsche's thinking that might have helped topple one of the greatest minds of his day. In so doing, he also exposes several vertiginous elements in the postmodernist posture that could similarly lead to a cognitive crisis, if not a total collapse.

Particularly troublesome is Nietzsche's perspectivism, a staple of postmodernists who are "incredulous toward metanarratives" (Jean Francois Lyotard). Having deconstructed the untrammeled intellect as a means of ascertaining objective truth, Nietzsche avers: "There are many kinds of eyes. Even the Sphinx has eyes--and therefore there are many kinds of 'truths,' and therefore there is no Truth." Viewing the world as a text with an indeterminate profusion of subjective meanings, Nietzsche affirms that there are no facts, only varying interpretations. But should we take that statement to be a fact--or only an interpretation? If it is an interpretation, the whole idea self-destructs.

However, as Hoover points out, Nietzsche is not consistently perspectival, particularly when he makes absolute metaphysical claims such as this one from The Will to Power: " This world is the Will to Power--and nothing else. And even you yourselves are this Will to Power--and nothing else!" When Nietzsche speaks of the eternal return--which he calls "the most scientific of all possible hypotheses--and the emergence of the Overman, he is describing what he must claim to be the Truth, not just his truth. This vacillation between subjective projection (my truth) and objective evaluation (the Truth), a recurring feature in postmodernist philosophy, is not the elixir of intellectual insight; it could even contribute to madness.

When Nietzsche sees the cosmos in objective terms, he finds a world bereft of intrinsic or God-given value: "The nut of the universe is hollow," declares Zarathustra. This hollowness leads to a "feeling of valuelessness" and "weightlessness," which Nietzsche tries to overcome through his faith in the appearance of Overman and his doctrine of the eternal recurrence, whereby all things are recapitulated endlessly. Since the latter lacks any teleology, Nietzsche says that it entails "the nothing (the 'meaningless') eternally!" Nihilism threatens. Yet through a kind of compensatory psychological alchemy, Nietzsche labors to transmute eternal recurrence into a beatitude without a Benefactor (as if nothing multiplied by infinity could produce Meaning)--a beatitude, at least for the Overman who embraces it without reservation through amor fati.

Zeitlin and Hoover convincingly argue that irrespective of Nietzsche's intellectual travails, he failed to neutralize the leaven of nihilism laced throughout his outlook. Against the cottage industry of Nietzschean apologists, they rightly indict him as a nihilist whose unfettered philosophy has no resources for either restraining evil or fostering virtue. When Rorty confesses that there is no objective, rational reason not to be cruel, and when other postmodernists dismiss any objective foundation for morality, they betray their fatal embrace of the emptiness of being. If the passion and brilliance of Nietzsche failed to escape the intellectual and ethical consequences of nihilism, the burden of proof is on the postmodernists inspired by him who purports to do otherwise.

Copyright 2002. Douglas Groothuis. All rights reserved

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