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.

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.

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 often described his writing as ‘fish hooks’ and here he has landed, as we shall see, a monster.

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.

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.

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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