Assuming We are Dealing with Men: Taking Nietzsche Out of Context
by Mark Gullick (October 2014)
The French philosopher René Descartes was a worried man. His concern was that his memory resembled a sheet of paper which was constantly being written over with his experiences, with facts and events. Realising that it is in the nature of paper eventually to become filled with writing, he avoided wherever possible being told extraneous facts for fear that insufficient room would remain in his mind for things of importance to this polymath. Thus, he hoped to avoid the fate of Homer. Homer Simpson, that is. The yellow father of three noted the same phenomenon, cheerfully asking of wife Marge whether she remembered ‘that time I learnt how to make tequila and forgot how to drive’.
With Cartesian concern on my mind (as it were), I now refuse to use Google to retrieve a half-remembered fact. I am too likely to be distracted and, in addition, I wish to keep my memory as supple as is possible for a middle-aged man, and not reliant on modern prosthetics. So it is that I can remember only the sketchiest detail of a Radio 4 Today programme interview which took place some years ago.
One of Today’s presenters was talking to a religious spokesman who had been caught saying something culturally - or rather multiculturally - contentious in a conversation he erroneously believed had gone unrecorded. His repeated defence was the (post-) modern default excuse; his words had been taken out of context. As the interview progressed, it became clear that the unfortunate man believed that ‘taken out of context’ was equivalent to ‘repeated without my permission’. His confusion was increasingly apparent to the listener and to the interviewer, who declined to point out the error, fearing perhaps for community relations. The loose-tongued interviewee – a religious man, as noted – and his fear of decontextualisation, bring us to another philosopher, himself the son of a religious man.
In 1888, shortly before his complete mental collapse, Lutheran pastor’s son Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a book criticising Christianity, and by extension all religion. The short work was not published until 1895, by which time Nietzsche had been insane for six years, but it would go on to become something akin to the ‘dynamite’ Nietzsche believed and wished his work to be. Nietzsche, for demonstrable reasons, is a writer often quoted out of context, but this book is more cohesive than his others, with their intentional lack of systematising, and has much to say to the West of today, embroiled as it is in a problem which could be described as religious. The book was Der Antikrist.
Like much of Nietzsche, The Antichrist (or The Antichristian; the German signifies both) is worth reading through quickly and returning to at leisure. Familiar Nietzschean themes are present and correct: The Christian as homme de ressentiment; Christianity as the religion of pity (which Nietzsche despised); the Church’s enervation both of pragmatic Rome and of a culturally vibrant Europe. Nietzsche also targets the psychology of Christianity as morbid, with ‘sombre and disquieting ideas… in the foreground.’ Men of the Christian kind, he writes, ‘have a vital interest in making mankind sick.’ Religion in itself, he writes, is the enemy of life and thought; ‘Theological blood is the ruin of philosophy.’
Nowadays, of course, books critical of religion per se tend to avoid one religion in particular. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion is a good example. Indeed, Nietzsche has more to say about Buddhism (of which he broadly approves) than Islam, but the few mentions of ‘Mohammedans’ in The Antichrist repay inspection, even if read out of context.
Nietzsche’s work is easy to take out of context because, with the aphoristic style of much of his work, there is often no context. Look at the witless booklet of ‘Nietzsche’s sayings’ that Hitler had issued to his frontline troops. Nietzsche’s criticisms of the Teutonic ‘blond beast’ and his ridicule of the ‘beerish’ Germans were, presumably, not included. The aphorism is an art form; think of the miniaturism of La Rochefoucauld, Blake or Montaigne. There is something of the East about them. But Nietzsche’s aphorisms were not, or not only, a stylistic nicety. The appalling myopia the philosopher suffered (along with a range of digestive disorders) forced him to write with his nose practically touching the paper. With every line he wrote threatening to bring on crippling migraine, much of his writing is correspondingly gnomic, pithy, aimed to inflict its wound locally. Even given this aphoristic style, however, it is still possible to quote Nietzsche out of context. Most people recognise ‘that which does not kill me makes me stronger’, from The Joyful Wisdom, but not necessarily its parenthesised coda; ‘from the military school of life’.
In The Antichrist, Nietzsche finds in Islam an ally in his destruction of Christianity, which he blames for destroying Moorish culture. Continuing his familiar mantra of disgust with Christian leaders, Nietzsche writes of them that;
Nature neglected – perhaps forgot – to give them even the most modest endowment of respectable, of upright, of cleanly instincts… Between ourselves, they are not even men… If Islam despises Christianity, it has a thousandfold right to do so: Islam at least assumes that it is dealing with men… (Ellipses in original; Italics added).
Nietzsche often described his writing as ‘fish hooks’ and here he has landed, as we shall see, a monster.
Here in the West, liberal, progressivist, and often feminist cheerleaders for Islam conveniently forget that it is a religion which does not exactly show the male character in its best light, while at the same the Koran extols what were, at one time, considered to be the manly virtues of strength, courage and ruthlessness. Now, the laudable advances in male and female parity of opportunity made in the West are not exactly all the rage in Arabic countries although, when it suits them, feminists will defend the cultural rights of institutionalised misogyny against perceived ethnocentricism. But what of those male traits which, while not necessarily a feminist’s cup of tea, are now gaining ground – literally, in the case of Islamic State - in the real world? Islam at least assumes that it is dealing with men…
Bravery, for example, is traditionally viewed as a manly virtue, its opposite as unmanly. It is also a jihadist trait. This is a conundrum Socrates would have enjoyed. Mark Steyn criticises George W Bush for describing the 9/11 attacks as ‘cowardly’. As Steyn notes, standing in a cockpit with your chest bared while the plane you are in screams into a building may be indicative of many things, but cowardice is not one of them. Defend Islam, if you will, but be aware that whatever concerns the modern jihadi has, stereotypical gender pronouns and transsexual discrimination are unlikely to figure prominently. In a feminised and emasculated Europe, our leaders’ declamations of jihadist acts are sounding increasingly fey.
Take David Cameron’s appraisal of the killers of aid worker David Haines; 'They are not Muslims, they are monsters'. Nietzsche, famously, has advice for those who would fight monsters; to beware that he does not himself become a monster. But by putting that aphorism in context by completing it, we may glimpse the utter vacuousness of the Western, neutered response both to IS and to Islam; If you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you. The West’s response to IS – or whatever acronym their brand people and our media have come up with this week – has truly been abysmal.
If we take The Antichrist as representative of Nietzsche’s singular moral system, it is difficult to imagine a more Nietzschean religion than Islam, at least as practised by the butchers of Islamic State. If the principles of cultural relativism are rigorously applied, we can’t say that the desert decapitator ‘Jihadi John’ is a bad man. He has just exercised his cultural prerogative and, with Milton’s Satan, declaimed ‘Evil be thou my good’. Nietzsche’s view of the good life in The Antichrist is unequivocal;
What is good? Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself.
Nietzsche’s will to power is much misunderstood, usually by cultural pundits who have read no Schopenhauer, but even in its comedic, Marvel-comic version, the ‘superman’ (Übermensch is more like ‘overman’ in English) is not a title we would associate with Mr Cameron. To a new generation of apprentice jihadists, however, Jihadi John more than fits the bill.
Television helps, of course, and by extension YouTube and the other associated media. Iconic small-screen prestige is yet another Western habit Islamists have adopted, along with training shoes, rap music, and the ability to fly planes into skyscrapers. Perhaps they have put into context Andy Warhol’s famous assertion that ‘in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes’ by supplementing it with Warhol’s later pronouncement – in A to B and Back Again – that ‘in 15 minutes, everyone will be famous’.
The family of the latest ISIS hostage to be paraded on TV screens in a gruesome version of reality TV asked, in an appeal, that their relative, be treated as a man of peace. Unfortunately, their wish is likely to be granted. Islamic State are not men of peace. That is the whole point of their existence. They know, however, how to deal with those who are. Much has been made of Osama Bin Laden’s own aphoristic pronouncement that when people see a strong horse and a weak horse they will prefer the strong horse. Although a witless race-track platitude is hardly oratory, the late Mr bin Laden had a point. And for Islamists, just as for Nietzsche, history is about winners and losers, and about wars and warriors.
There is always a tiresome laziness about talk of writers ‘coming back into vogue’ but, with Nietzsche, his relevance was never ours to decide, was never an airport bookstore lifestyle choice. The myopic German, with his military bearing, his fake Polish lineage, and his impeccable manners, is a Cassandra for our crippled epoch. Islamic State assume the West knows it is dealing with men. The West is not sure what that means any more. When we view an IS video, we are forced, for context, to recall the title of Nietzsche’s slim volume of autobiography; Ecce Homo. Behold the man.
The West is at war; that is our context. Nietzsche may have had little to say explicitly about Islam, but implicitly he tells us much about this cultish, mannish ideology. From Human, All Too Human:
For the time being, we know of no other means to imbue exhausted peoples, as strongly and surely as every great war does, with that raw energy of the battleground, that deep impersonal hatred, that murderous cold-bloodedness with a good conscience, that communal, organised ardour in destroying the enemy, that proud indifference to great losses, to one’s own existence and to that of one’s friends, that muted, earthquake-like convulsion of the soul.
Mark Gullick has a PhD in philosophy and lives and works in London, England. Visit his weblog: Postcards from Traumaville.
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