Critique of a received Nietzsche

Yesterday, I was asked the following question on Facebook by my friend Fr. Nate Bostain in response to my post “Christianity as ‘a technique of survival for the oppressed'”:

Nietzsche’s critique of Buddhi-Christian morality in places like “Genealogy of Morals” is that it is a slave morality meant to hold the powerful and capable down by the dictates of the masses. The herd is driven by ressentiment to hold in bondage the excellent and superior through sanction and shame. Thus we must transvalue all of these values by rising above them and overcoming the herd. Do you think that sentiments like Thurman’s prove Nietzsche right? Or is there another dialectic at work here? I have my own thoughts, but I want to hear yours.

Now, I’m not widely read on Nietzsche. I’ve encountered too many different interpretations to speak with confidence about his ideas like the Übermench, the will to power, or the death of “God”. But I do know of this received Nietzsche that’s understood by some critics to be an inspiration for Hitler, by some admirers as Ayn Rand’s continental counterpart, and maybe by both as an example of social Darwinism. So, I’ll try to speak, briefly and generally, about this received Nietzsche and whether his received philosophy rebuts people like Thurman and Thurman’s reception of Jesus.

First, I don’t understand personhood and individuality to allow for this received Nietzschean paradigm to work. This may be due to several years of introducing students to Buddhist and Confucian thought but as with the Buddhists, I can’t fathom reality without a recognition of our absolute interconnectivity. In fact, I place such philosophical weight on this idea, that Indian monism and Spinoza’s god have been ideas I’ve been giving a lot of thought. This isn’t to say that I’m a determinist or a Calvinist in the Christian tradition. I do believe in will. Whether or not we should use the term “free will” is something I’m still pondering. I might say we have “free-within-limits will,” which is something I presume most defenders of free will recognize but is something I want to emphasize. I can’t will myself to fly to the moon in my body alone; I can’t will myself to have the body-type necessary to qualify as a potential NBA or NFL or even MLB player. There are limits and those limits are determined, in part, by who I am as a person and the systems/societies/cultures of which I’m part.

Since our interconnectivity goes all the way down, I look at people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk not as a geniuses that rise above the system but as the eventual beneficiaries of a system that has evolved to create such people. If Bezos and Musk weren’t Bezos and Musk, someone would be them, because our forms of hyper-capitalism (or techno feudalism!) functions to create these people. Again, this isn’t to say Bezos and Musk didn’t contribute to their eventual standing, just to say that they didn’t will it independently of the system that made it happen and the people who build Amazon, Space X, etc.

We’ve lived through the perfect example of the point that I want to make: the Covid-19 pandemic. Our current globalized system of trade and travel made it almost inevitable that this virus would spread across the planet. Were some decisions made by powerful people that may have contributed, like the discarding of the Obama Administration’s pandemic-playbook by the subsequent administration, factors? Yes. Were powerful individuals involved? Yes. But could have the former president made the decisions that were made by his administration had he not been elected and been elected in a system where the majority vote wasn’t the determining factor? No. He would’ve been just a famous TV star and wealthy real estate mogul with a Twitter account.

Systems are powerful realities that mean more for our understanding of the world than “great men”. Systems cause people sick with a virus on one side of the world to eventually impact people on the other side of the world—people they never met and never will meet. If, god forbid, nucular powers like India and Pakistan engaged in atomic war, it doesn’t matter than I live in Texas. I will feel the impact.

My person is not isolated; my person is determined by the networks of which I’m part and in turn contributes to those networks to influence others. This is why I mentioned Confucianism because I agree with the idea that rituals form us—doing the same thing over and over again becomes normalized for us and shapes us and changes who we’ll be, whether this is brushing your teeth, pledging allegiance to the flag of your country, or saying prayers.

Second, and related, while there’s no doubt that certain elites benefit from the social-power constructs of a given age, that does not follow that they themselves are inherently/ontologically “excellent and superior”. As I said regarding Bezos and Musk, as individuals they’re not completely accidents of the system but there’s nothing that says that those two men had to become who they became or that two other people couldn’t have arisen to create a massive online trading platform or a privatized NASA. I liken Bezos and Musk to men bench pressing with people holding up the bar on each end and then mocking the person next to them for being unable to lift as much weight.

A while ago I listened to a podcast series that explored how Blockbuster collapsed and Netflix rose to prominence (season 2 of Land of Giants). And yes, there were decisions and individuals to blame for how that happened—but as you listen to how everything unfolded, you realize that this sort of thing is more than any one person, and more than any one decision. And now, Netflix looks weakened. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re the next to topple. If this happens, some individuals will play a part but no one person will determine Netflix’s survival or demise.

Third, I’d note that those in power are completely dependent upon the systems they inhabit and often are lucky that those systems aren’t easily toppled. Engels mourned the reality that London was full of people who had the combined power to overthrow a system that oppressed and used them but wouldn’t (couldn’t?). And history shows that most people stay in power because gaining unified mass and mass resistance is very difficult (once again, because systems are powerful). As the architects of the United States Declaration of Independence wrote, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” In other words, powerful people’s power is at the mercy of the basic, observable fact that it takes a lot for the masses to move together toward their own liberation. This doesn’t prove that the masses are full of weaker, less competent people; it proves that systems are difficult to change when people are used to them and the alternative is unknown. (Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, as it’s said.) Didn’t The Matrix teach us this? And Plato?

In summary, I don’t believe in the Übermench as he has been received. (I don’t know enough about Nietzche’s thought to directly address his concept.) I don’t believe in the “great men” of history, even Jesus. In fact, whatever its historical value, the canonical value of the Book of Acts for the Christian New Testament is that it decenters Jesus in order to center him. In other words, Jesus’ greatness is determined by, as the Fourth Evangelist (John 14:12) presents Jesus as saying, “I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” Jesus’ greatness is determined by the community and his absence. (Yes, I know that Johannine “absence” is still presence by the Spirit but that only adds to my point that Jesus-multiplied in his movement, i.e. Jesus-absent from his movement, is what makes Jesus great in the logic of the Gospel of John and the Book of Acts.)

I believe that the Buddhists are right that I have no-self outside of the variety of external contributors to the located collection I am. I believe the Confucians are right that I have no-self outside of the rituals and practices that form me, many which I receive, passively, from my society. I believe Thurman is correct in inviting the oppressed to see hope in the way of Jesus but also in inviting the oppressor to repent because the oppressive actions we do against others—others who are not ultimately as separate form us as we imagine—will harm us. There’s only so long that you can pour the pollution downstream before there’s no where for it to go—as the rapid change of our global climate is showing us in real-time. And you can contribute only so long to a culture of harm before you’re harmed by that culture—see how America’s belief that redemptive violence is the solution to everything has created a culture of violence here at home, where most Americans own more than one gun—not because they fear people from the other side of the world but because they fear their closest neighbors. This is what Thurman knew; what Jesus knew.

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