“One has to get rid of the bad taste of wanting to be in agreement with others”

My book club read Beyond Good and Evil last month, and I’ve been meaning to write it up for a while now. It is a complicated book, and contains passages that span the full spectrum from disgust to inspiration. That being said, I enjoyed it.

Wenzel Hablik - Wikipedia
Cover art from the Penguin Classics edition – Wenzel Hablik’s “The Path of Genius” 1918

His philosophy is deeply individualistic. This is borne of necessity, not choice. Modern science and skepticism have destabilized traditional reference points like God and the philosophical belief in Capital T truth; we can no longer assert confidently that there is something true or real. The individual and their confused experience of the world is all we possess. Meaning, values, and morality are therefore personal. There is only that meaning which the individual can construct from the cacophony of experience; individuals must create themselves and their values.

Nietzsche is unsparing in how difficult – nigh impossible – he thinks this task is. It is a road filled with suffering, loneliness, and doubt. There is no benchmark or reference point which is not self-referential, no salve you do not have to prepare yourself.

So, we oppose ourselves in conspiracy with the world. We shrink from the task, and would rather conform to the social world around us. We crave the reassurance of conformity.

This helps contextualize Nietzsche’s infamous antagonism to Christianity. He saw Christianity as teaching a denial of the self, of individual identity, of freedom. It sought to subsume the individual into another identity – consider the words “become more Christ like.” For Nietzsche this was a kind of suicide.

He is remembered for his attacks on Christianity but he reserves equal venom for democracy and socialism, which he also saw as stultifying the individual by venerating the masses. In fact, his broadsides against Christianity are historically contingent. They reflect an antagonism to all conformist social beliefs, Christianity just happened to be the most dominant in his time. Today he would be writing long polemics against New Age spiritualism and consumer culture.

With these temptations within and without, Nietzsche thought true independence was only possible for a select few, his creative, meaning making elite. The vast majority of humanity was doomed to the herd. Contrary to later Marxists, Nietzsche was most concerned that elites would be subjugated from below. The common man and his homogenizing instincts threatened to drown the few independent spirits under waves of mediocrity.

Here him and I part ways.

Independence does not demand antagonism to others, anymore than social life need always undermine our independence. His insight – that individual’s must make their own identity and meaning in a creative process always threatened by self-deceit and conformity – can be married to a social ethic which seeks a world where all of us can do so.

It is possible – I think necessary – to believe that kind of independence is available to us all.

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