Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Thoughts on Nietzsche: Christianity's "Kung Pao Defense"

In his 1887 book On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche offered the following critique of the deceptive and weak approach to life that motivates the Christian value system:
“ – and powerlessness which does not retaliate is being falsified into ‘goodness,’ anxious baseness into ‘humility,’ submission before those one hates to ‘obedience’ (of course, obedience to the one who, they say, commands this submission – they call him God). The inoffensiveness of the weak man, even cowardice, in which he is rich, his standing at the door, his inevitable need to wait around – here these acquire good names, like ‘patience’ and are called virtue. That incapacity for revenge is called the lack of desire for revenge, perhaps even forgiveness (‘for they know not what they do – only we know what they do!’). And people are talking about ‘love for one`s enemy’ – and sweating as they say it” (First Treatise, Section 14).
I have been thinking much about that last line: “– and sweating as they say it.” What does Nietzsche mean by this phrase? Two possible interpretations occurred to me when I first read it. One, the Christian is “sweating” because he or she hates another person, but is trying hard to suppress that hatred. Two, the Christian is lying about loving the person, but is nervous and fearful he or she may be found out as one who secretly hates.

Upon some thought, the latter meaning strikes me as the correct reading. Consider what David Ellington says to Brother Jerome in “The Howling Man,” one of my favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone: “Honest men make unconvincing liars.”

In an excellent 1990 lecture entitled “Nietzsche: Knowledge and Belief,” the late Duke University philosophy professor Rick Roderick explored Nietzsche’s harsh scrutiny and assessment of Christian values with a number of thought-provoking points that are worth quoting at length:
Nietzsche is not trying to argue demonstratively, or to prove a syllogism, but rather to raise suspicions. To raise the kinds of suspicions that, as I say, I think many of us have when we look at the content of the values that have come up to us . . . ah, you know . . . through our traditions. That’s what Nietzsche is powerfully and importantly good for. Not to deny – again, not to say “All is relative” – but to try to remind us of something of the origins of what we call “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong” and so on.

Ah, by the way these values have come out in other contexts. I remember in an earlier war General Westmoreland saying “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” But it was not an irony. He meant it. I mean, so did the early Christian communities that settled in this country mean it. That for a witch’s own good, one had to dunk her repeatedly in water. Now we’ve come a long way since then haven’t we, because now we lock people away in prisons and in institutions, torment them with drugs, lock them up in the most dangerous environments, have more people in prison in this country per capita than any country in the world except South Africa . . . But we haven’t gotten as far ahead in this regard as we think, and this argument has been updated by people like Michel Foucault.

We still have… the idea that we would send someone to prison in order to rehabilitate them. Now we’re getting to be more honest about that. We’re getting a little more barbaric, and for Nietzsche that would be better. That’d be a little more honest. We’re sending them to prison because we’re scared of them and that we know if they go there really bad things will happen to them and it will ruin their lives and that will make us happy. That’s what we should say when we send one to prison, if you have to be honest. And as Nietzsche said, “In the name of minimal honesty,” don’t send them to prison and go “Ah, that was the best thing for them.” You know, you were spanked by your father, maybe once, and he just beat the hell out of you, and he went, “That hurt me worse than it did you,” and you go “I guess…”

Reading the text of Nietzsche makes us suspicious of people who do things for our own good. It makes us suspicious of people who “love” us – you know – in a kind of abstract way especially.
I feel the very suspicion Roderick speaks of whenever I hear of special-interest groups attempting to use the force of government to ban high-fructose corn syrup, “for our own good.” This suspicion is potently present when I hear that the United States went to war to liberate the people of Iraq with bombs and bullets “for their own good.” And I feel this suspicion whenever I hear Christians arguing that preventing homosexuals from marrying is “good for the homosexuals.”

Most, if not all, of what people generally call “Christian morality” is nothing more than the result of cowardice and of lame, pathetic self-justification. The Christian approach to faux forgiveness, for example, is perfectly exemplified in the New Testament saying, “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). In other words, as many modern Christians have said to me on many occasions, “You can mock what I say, and I cannot do much about it. But that’s okay. My Savior can kick your ass, and he is going to do so very, very soon!”

When I hear Christians tell me and others this canard, I get the distinct impression they are being extremely dishonest; that is, they would much rather just slug me themselves, even wage a holy war against all unbelievers and skeptics, and doing so would make them honest.

Nietzsche would very likely also say that the Christian can and should aim to become a Superman, because then any carping from unbelievers at his or her faith would not bother such a Christian in the least. But nonetheless, as Roderick points out, the element of at least being honest about one’s values must still be taken into careful account. Christians who threaten me and other atheists with eternal damnation for not believing as they do should openly say “We hate you bastards,” not “I forgive you and love you, but my God ain’t forgivin' you when your time is up” or “I don’t want you to go to burn in hell for all eternity, but these are God’s rules, not mine.” Get the fuck out of here, is my proudly abrasive response. What a load of fakery and cowardice that argument is!

Another common Christian claim I hate to hear and with which I have less and less patience the more I hear it is the charge that atheists are on a level with Hitler, Stalin and other brutal dictators. When are such Christians going to see the asinine absurdity of comparing secular and freethinking individuals, who value reason and free inquiry, with racist genocide practitioners? To such Christians I say: if you think you can iron out all differences so that all intellectual and cultural “combatants” to your worldview are equally villainous - so that you can excuse your own cowardice - go right ahead, you lily-liver!

We ought always to foster this hermeneutic of suspicion about everybody, not least of all our own selves. This is part of being a healthy skeptic and a true freethinker. Brother Nietzsche (as I like to refer to him) is a great philosopher to consult to inspire us to remain honest.

Nietzsche’s image of Christians “sweating” as they speak of love for sinners is an image that succinctly represents to my mind a summation of my own thoughts on the nature of the fa├žade erected by Christians when they speak of how very forgiving and how very loving they are toward all people. Whenever they speak of themselves in this way, my mind’s eye immediately conjures an image of such Christians letting slip nervous laughter accompanied by nervous sweat.

I also think of the following dialogue from the show Seinfeld:
Wilhelm: “Are you feeling all right George?”

George: “*Hemmm!* . . . Fine!”

Wilhelm: “You look a little warm.”

George: “. . . It's the chicken.”

Wilhelm: “You're a terrible liar, George. Look at you, you're a wreck! You're sweating bullets.”

George: “It’s the Kung Pao. George likes his chicken spicy.”
Christians certainly are adept at using the “Kung Pao Defense," are they not?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Thoughts on Nietzsche: Suicidal Ideation as Consolation

“The sword of time will pierce our skins / It doesn't hurt when it begins / But as it works its way on in the pain grows stronger . . . watch it grin, but . . . Suicide is painless / It brings on many changes / And I can take or leave it if I please.” ~ Marilyn Manson, ‘Suicide Is Painless’

I came across a line in Friedrich Nietzsche’s great book Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (first published in 1886) that I found morbid but, strangely, at the same time not at all disheartening:

“The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets successfully through many a bad night” (Chapter IV, Aphorism 157).
It does not take a Nietzsche scholar to infer and understand that Nietzsche must have been very depressed when he penned this. But what exactly is the sense he is trying to convey? Is he saying that if life becomes unbearable, at least we each have a way out? Or is he saying that his life is unbearable and that he could commit suicide, but that he does not and is therefore in a position to see his clinging to life as a sign of great strength?

Readers could interpret Nietzsche’s words either way, but my sense is that it would be very difficult to take comfort or consolation from the latter interpretation. Nietzsche must be arguing the first idea, i.e., I do have an out. Life looks and feels supremely bad, but there is an escape hatch available to me at all times: suicide. This is the thought that immediately strikes me when I read these words. And I must admit to feeling slightly disturbed when I found it rather encouraging.

It is interesting in this regard to note a surprisingly similar line of thought (expressed of course from the perspective of a theist, which I am not) found in the New Testament epistle of 1 Corinthians: “There hath no temptation taken you, but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that you are able: but will with the temptation also make a way of escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (10:13). This is the verse that reinforced the Stoics’ firm belief that the best, God-given way out of protracted misery is suicide.

I find I share Nietzsche’s depressing but true conviction. Is it not preferable for somebody about to experience excruciating torture to end their own ill-fated life? The force of this reasoning is powerfully demonstrated in the 2003 remake of the classic horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. At one point in the story, Leatherface hangs victimized character Andy from a meat hook in the basement, leaving the foot from his one remaining leg dangling above a piano, planning to wreak unspeakable depredations upon him later. His friend Erin later discovers him when she is also captured and thrown into the basement, which Leatherface has momentarily vacated. Erin is unable to do anything to relieve her friend’s pain and suffering, let alone rescue him, since lifting him off the meat hook would alert Leatherface upon the body’s contact with the piano keys below his foot. Knowing this to be the case, Andy begs her to kill him herself, insisting she provide him with a clean and quick death now since he is very soon going to die horribly anyway. Erin does mercifully kill her friend, though she experiences severe emotional trauma as a result which nearly debilitates her.

Better it is indeed to die quickly at the hands of one’s friend at one’s own request than to be hideously tortured and maimed first before death, similar to the gruesome description of torture related in the seventh chapter of 2 Maccabees .

Death is certainly not fun to contemplate, nor is it a rosy prospect. But as Bram Stoker’s famous vampire says in the 1931 film version of Dracula, “There are far worse things awaiting man than death.” I strongly suspect Brother Nietzsche thought the same, and so do I.