22. Sep, 2017



“Misanthrope, subvert, cynic, pessimist!”
How could anyone with that on their CV, like Friedrich Nietzsche, be all bad?

During my enforced absence from the internet I have been re-reading him. Born in Saxony in 1844 and dying in Weimar in 1900, he is recognised as having had a profound effect on western thought.

Trying to reduce his enormous philosophical output to the length of a blog is far beyond me, but faced with a similar task, not Nietzsche…
“It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.”

Fortunately he had a gift for the aphorism so I am able to quote some of them to at least provide the froth on a pint if not the beer itself.

On Freedom of Thought
1a. “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely, often scared and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
Hence the need, assuming we have the courage, to cultivate critical literacy and automatically question everything in our experience?

1b. “When 100 men stand together, each of them loses his mind and gets another one.”
This is a dire warning against “The dilution of responsibility,” of which there are many examples. Not so long ago a group of youths up in north Norfolk, tortured a couple of prize goats to death. Monsters? Far from it. When questioned alone, each of the boys was pleasant and harmless, yet as a group they had seemingly assumed that it would be the group and not them as individuals that was responsible. Somehow they had sunk their individuality into the group.
The best example, however, was provided by Shakespeare in “Julius Caesar”, the Cinna the poet scene. Mark Antony has turned the people of Rome against the conspirators who have just assassinated Caesar to the point where mobs are out hunting them for revenge. One such mob, comprised of ordinary, reasonable people come across a lone citizen. When asked his name he replies, “Cinna”-unfortunately for him, the same name as one of the conspirators. At this, the mob lose all self control. Cinna proclaims his innocence, “I am Cinna the Poet!” The response? “Tear him for his bad verses” and eventually “Tear him! Tear him!” Exeunt. I will refrain from quoting soccer violence…

2. “The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.”
Needless to say, this sums up my 35 years at the chalk-face but I would like to leave an example provided by the late Colin Welland on his return from a visit to Apartheid South Africa. When asked what appalled him most, he described being invited to Stellenbosch University and watching 2,000 students march past in full support of their elders.

On Education.
3. “In large states public (state) education will always be mediocre for the same reason that in a large kitchen the cooking is usually bad.”
That minority of us who got much from state education might well bridle at this but it is this mediocrity that prevents the majority from becoming critically literate, (by accident do you think?) Could the answer lay in smaller restaurant clienteles (classes) and better chefs (teachers) in Nietzsche‘s kitchens (schools)?

On Perception.
4a. “There are no facts, only interpretations.”
4b. “All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time, is a function of power, not truth.”
Regarding the former, think Bob Woodward, the great American journalist at the heart of the Watergate disclosures that brought down a president. When asked how he would define journalism, he replied, “To present the best possible version of the truth.”
Do we all see the same thing in the same way like a two-dimensional photograph? If we did then why do court witness statements vary so much, allowing for memory loss, etc? When faced with a phenomenon, do not some aspects of it strike us as individuals more strongly than others? Do not our brains then assemble our individual impressions into a whole with different emphases? Is it not until we have compared so many other perceptions with our own that Bob Woodward’s “best possible version of the truth,” emerges?

4b. Can be summarised as “It is the winners that write history,” (see a previous blog). Churchill was asked how secure he felt his place would be in history . He replied “Very, as I intend to write it!”
(My paraphrase). I am not sure of how many people actually read his “History of the Second World War” but I do know how many uncritically swallowed the BBC’s 1950’s television adaptation of it to the point where it became The Authorised Version.
Consequently, any subsequent historians who have questioned it have been seen as heretical fuel ready for the burning.

5a. “Convictions are more dangerous foes to truth than lies.”
Writing this on the day after the Manchester Arena terrorist attack, is there anything more dangerous than the closed mind, the “Ignorance of Certainty“? Is this not something that all extremists have in common - the absolute certainty that they are right and everyone else is wrong, completely blind to any argument to the contrary? Is it not the acknowledgement of this failing that enables newspapers like “The Sun”, “The Daily Mail,” “The Express” and certain “quality” newspapers to sell so many copies to uncritical readers?

6a. “I counsel you my friends. Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful.”
6b. “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby becomes a monster.”
These two cover an enormous field of violence.
Child misbehaves, what do you do you do? Hit him.
Child again misbehaves. What do you do? Hit him.
Child again misbehaves. What do you do? Hit him.
Hitting them is not working. What do you do?
I would talk to them. So why did you not talk to them to start with? Have you any idea of what you were gradually turning into with your repeated beatings?
ii) “Bomb the shit out of them.” Guernica, The Blitz on Britain, the RAF/USAAF assault on Germany, the invasion of the Soviet Union, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and now Syria. All were attempts to secure a victory without having to put boots on the ground and regardless of collateral damage to civilian populations. The bombs are the same, the only difference being the insignia on the wings of the aircraft that drop them.

So, misanthrope, subvert, cynic, pessimist or on the strength of these quotations was Nietzsche simply trying to encourage us to be more honest with ourselves?

My favourite quote?
“He who has a why to live can bear almost anything.”