A Noble Lie?

Lately it’s been scaring me how much I’ve been thinking about Nietzsche.  When I read him in College, he made me angry.  Admittedly, I didn’t properly entertain his ideas.  Or, maybe I did, but then immediately rejected them.  Either way, my reasons for rejecting him were more emotional than intellectual.

While in College, I made the decision that it was right to help economically-disadvantaged people and that this was the only moral way to occupy one’s life.  I empathized with Kant when he said that there are two things that filled him with wonder and awe: the starry heavens above him and the moral law within him.  Along came Nietzsche questioning this presumption of morality, calling my righteous indignation the will to power:

“It was morality that protected life against despair and the leap into nothing, among men and classes who were violated and oppressed by men: for it is the experience of being powerless against men, not against nature, that generates the most desperate embitterment against existence.  Morality treated the violent despots, the doers of violence, the “masters” in general as the enemies against whom the common man must be protected, which means first of all encouraged and strengthened.  Morality consequently taught men to hate and despise most profoundly what is the basic character trait of those who rule:  their will to power.  To abolish, deny, and dissolve this morality – that would mean looking at the best-hated drive with an opposite feeling and valuation.  If the suffering and oppressed lost the faith that they have the right to despise the will to power, they would enter the phase of hopeless despair.  This would be the case if this trait were essential to life and it could be shown that even in this will to morality this very “will to power” were hidden, and even this hatred and contempt were still a will to power.  The oppressed would come to see that they were on the same plain with the oppressors, without prerogative, without higher rank.”   –Nietzsche, Will to Power

He even went so far to say that this will to power made me no different than the materialists I so hated by claiming that my desire to help the needy is really a desire for possessions.  By helping someone, I render him faithful and submissive.  (Aphorism 194, Natural History of Morals, Beyond Good and Evil).

This haunts me.  Even Kant says that we can never know our true motivations for why we do things.  Is it possible that morality is purely utilitarian?  It can be used on an individual level as a way to rationalize our actions, as perhaps Kant proposes, or it can be used on a macro-level by the powers-that-be to subjugate, which is closer to what Nietzsche suggests.  Recently, I saw Bronson and this idea of morality as necessary to national security became even more apparent.

For those who don’t know, Charles Bronson is England’s “most violent prisoner.”  He has been locked up for 34 years, 30 of which were in solitary confinement.  He has only been arrested two times, both of which were for robbery.  The severity of his sentences are due to his violence within prison.  He beats guards into bloody pulps at random and is prone to taking them hostage, once he kept one for over 40 hours.  He is now currently serving a life sentence.

The film was disturbing.  Bronson is presented as a bit of a lunatic, but at the same time, the film does not present him as someone not to be taken seriously.  It presents us with his viewpoint, which I spent the entirety of the film trying to figure out.  I couldn’t help but think while watching that Nietzsche would be proud of Bronson – strength is his value, not good nor evil.  Perhaps strength is the only value in prison generally.

Outside of prison, the value system is apparently much different.  It appears to be based on morals: abstract good and bad valuations.  If this construct did not exist, we might all be like Bronson all of the time: strength would be the only value.  National security?  Non-existent.  But, here is Hobbes!  Life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.  Quick, get a government and some moral values!

This is cursory, but plausible.  When I help people who need help, and I enjoy it, is that pleasure coming from my power being asserted over them?  Have I been socially-engineered to use my will to power in this way, i.e., in a way that is conducive to democratic society?  Indeed, from a foreign affairs perspective, it could be argued that strength really is the only value.  But, in order to maintain America’s strength, we all have to have a different set of values than our nation itself.

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One response to “A Noble Lie?

  1. Chelsea

    If I were being a scientist, I would say that human actions have a relationship of correlation with self-service. Every thing that we do is “selfish” in a way, even if the act gives us feelings of good will and charity. But, as we all know from 8th grade science, correlation does not prove causation. So do we act because we serve ourselves, or do we happen to serve ourselves with every action? That seems to be a matter of belief rather than science.

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