Relatively speaking

On the enduring attraction of a quarrelsome German philosopher who went bananas.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics

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  • Crazy guy, crazy theories

There seems to be a glut of books about Friedrich Nietzsche.

Rudiger Safranski’s Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography and the English translation of Zarathustra’s Secret by Joachim Kohler are but the most recent additions to this already crowded market. So what is the enduring attraction of this quarrelsome German philosopher who went bananas?

Primarily, he has a cool name that nobody can spell. As a lonely, disappointed, cantankerous homosexual with a crazy moustache, he also cuts a tragic-romantic figure. There is, however, no doubt that he remains a significant thinker. Behind all his incoherent ramblings one can detect a system of thought that bears a lasting legacy on today’s society.

Nietzsche is the godfather of postmodernism, the first thinker properly to argue that there is no objective truth, but only perspective; that the desire to establish truth is driven by the will to dominate; that the Enlightenment notion of the rational individual is poisonous nonsense. Although much of these sentiments will be familiar to the disciples of Derrida and Foucault, these latter-day philosophers owe a great debt to Nietzsche, whose ideas they only either distilled or expanded upon.

Nietzsche’s book The Gay Science (1882), for instance, articulates one of Michel Foucault’s core themes; that science, in containing its own presuppositions and aims, betrays its own bias – that ‘knowledge’ is inescapably culture-bound. The Genealogy of Morals (1887) maintains that a system of morality is only created by those seeking to dominate: Foucault took much of this to formulate his power-knowledge thesis. Nietzsche also revealed how ahead of his time he was when he argued that much of our secular moral codes are merely Christian ones in disguise. And stripped of all transcendental authority, they lack foundation and thus legitimacy.

Whether Nietzsche’s influence was good or not is open to question, depending on your point of view (ho, ho). Relativism remains a problematic area, not least when it becomes a dogma itself. As one of Nietzsche’s translators, Douglas Smith, has pointed out: ‘If objective truth is a violently imposed fiction, then so is any interpretation founded upon it. But to assert that objective truth is a fiction is to make a statement of objective truth, which thereby denounces itself as a fiction.’

Perhaps of more concern is his influence in today’s common discourse. The contemporary and contemptible cry, ‘all cultures are equal’, owes much to Nietzsche, as does the flight into passive irony as a corollary of people’s reluctance to hold to any principles. He may have proclaimed the death of God, but as a result of our unwillingness to denounce anything as wrong or patently false, religious systems – which Nietzsche so despised – have been given a lease of life. Relativism does not combat will-to-power truth systems; it legitimises them. ‘Evolution and Creationism are merely two different forms of faiths’ is, for instance, an argument one hears with alarming frequency today.

All Nietzsche’s most appealing sentiments seem to have gone ignored. Besides his atheism, he celebrated energy, dynamism and individualism. He despised ‘compassion’, envy and the desire to stigmatise hierarchy and excellence. Today we have no supermen; we have Big Brother contestants. ‘The mediocre alone have the prospect of continuing on and propagating themselves’ he wrote in Beyond Good and Evil (1886). ‘They are the men of the future, the sole survivors; “be like them! Become mediocre!” is henceforth the only morality that has any meaning left.’

  • Against compassion

A video showing homeless people fighting each other and mutilating themselves has become a massive underground hit with the British public, reports the Observer. Bumfights, originally from America, features the down and out brawling, running headlong into walls and pulling their own teeth out. They are doing this because the makers of the film have paid them to do so. Debbie Lyne, a spokesman for the homeless charity, London Connection, has denounced the video as ‘sick rubbish’.

It does indeed sound very sick, particularly when the homeless are already the targets for many unprovoked attacks. But is the opposite reaction, to feel ostentatious compassion for the homeless, really any better? Two years ago, Victor Adebowale, chief executive of the youth homelessness charity Centrepoint, warned the public that giving money to the homeless only made their situation worse, as it decreased their incentive to seek help to get off the streets. Research in Nottingham has showed that 80 percent of those arrested for aggressive begging were living in council houses. Similarly, a study in Camden, North London, showed that 67 percent of beggars were living on income support. The homeless charity Crisis has said that most people who beg do so to buy drugs and booze.

There are of course many homeless people who do not beg. And if you want to give people money to buy drink, that’s grand, but don’t pretend you’re helping them get off the streets. Compassion, and the warm glow of benevolence it generates, often only benefits the people doing the ‘caring’.

  • For sympathy

Everybody seems to be disgusted that Stephen Byers tried to discredit survivors of the Paddington rail crash – with whom he had been consulting about the future of Britain’s railways – by trying to find out if they had any political agenda.

What should have been questioned long ago was why these victims were listened to in the first place. Everyone sympathises with the horror these people have gone through, but being a victim does not make one an expert. It was the same story with the Dunblane tragedy and the Lawrence inquiry. It is not all the victims’ fault: politicians and the media use these people to turn tragedies into dramas, with heroes and villains. This is Kilroy politics.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics


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