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Nietzsche as teenage philosopher

If we imagine teenagers reading a philosopher it’s Nietzsche. Why?

[Dwayne fetches Frank for dinner and, with sign language, instructs him to come]
Frank: What, dinner? What you don’t talk anymore?
[Dwayne shakes his head]
Frank: Why not?
[Dwayne rolls his eyes]
Frank: You can talk, but you choose not to.
[Dwayne points to painting of Nietzsche]
Frank: Is that Nietzsche? You don’t speak because of Friedrich Nietzsche?
[Dwayne walks off unemotionally]
Frank: Far out.
Dialogue between teenager and adult from the film Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Nietzsche and Marx are the philosophers we most readily associate with adolescence.

But, I suggest, we associate these philosophers with our teenagehood for very different reasons.

Their common characteristic is not to be found in extravagant facial hair, but as philosophers of defiance — specifically as philosophers of revolution and renewal.

It’s hackneyed to say that the teenage period is a time when young people test parental boundaries, experiment, and find their adult identity.

Hackneyed, but true.

Teenage life is a social revolution, a revaluation of all values. The very language of Marx and Nietzsche describe the moment in our lives when we question our family’s mores, and break the actually existing social relations by removing our bodies from the property relations embodied in living in our parents’ house.

We make ourselves for the first time in our defiance — whether that consists of eating meat when our parents are vegetarians, or becoming vegetarians when our parents are meat eaters — these philosophers abet us in our project.

We do not associate other philosophers with age. Plato and Aristotle seem ageless. Do thirty-somethings read Spinoza? No. And Kant isn’t particularly for your mid-twenties.

Schopenhauer is probably most associated with bitter divorces, perhaps he is the philosopher for forty-somethings? He deals in disillusion, and that is a disillusioned age.

There is, of course, much to be said for being disillusioned.

The teenage affection for Marx is usually associated with the desire for practical political action, marches, and protest meetings.

Marx told us that the philosophers have only interpreted the world, but the point is to change it.

And so he is the action man.

Teenagers — along with politicians, celebrities, and middle management — often suffer from the delusion that they can change the world.

Marx aids them in this delusion.

Teenagers are also ready for physical and mental action. Their excess energy means that they often literally cannot sit still. Marx tells them to use that energy. Marxist figures, such as Che Guevara, imbues this energy with a sexual charge.

Sex and violence in a just cause: there is no more happy hunting ground for a human.

Marx offers fully drawn up plans along with a solution for those who come to realise the terrible injustices and tragedies of the world. This is granted provided that they have developed their rational faculty to such a degree that a naive account of God no longer satisfies.

The Marxist solution is so total, so satisfying that many people never leave it. There are many people who still profess Marxist beliefs. They carry on with faded, half-remembered platitudes into middle age and beyond.

We live in secular, rational societies where lazy, pseudo-Marxist explanations are acceptable for the events we see around us.

A new religious cult has formed? Well, the preacher is simply exploiting the poor and ignorant. Marx’s view that religion is the opium of the masses is as a respectable opinion for an adult to hold in our society as for a teenager.

This means that Nietzsche is more the philosopher of adolescence because the very notion of a Nietzschean movement is inimical to his politics.

Nietzsche is anti-politics politics, though this does not means there have not been political movements with Nietzschean characteristics.

If one has comprehended Nietzsche one does not become Nietzsche, but if one comprehends Marx there is a tendency in society for you to join.

We should also remember — though I write this with levity and occasional gravity — that people like to dismiss Marx and Nietzsche as a teenage phase because both are dangerous thinkers, even now.

Nietzsche’s very way of life managed to be characteristically adolescent in a way Marx’s life was not. Marx might not have been good at making a living, but the way he conducted his life was as a scholar or a clerk. He had a family life — even if Engels was footing the bill a lot of the time.

Nietzsche’s life is more adolescent in nature. He takes to the hills for long, lonely, and reflective walks. This is a very teenage activity, which is sometimes interpreted as ‘sulking in his room’ or ‘hanging out with no particularly purpose outside the corner shop – probably ‘up to no good’.

Nietzsche was engaged in more than an adolescent sulk, but the superficial resemblance between how he lived and typical teenage behaviour makes him seem all the more characteristically teenage.

His tendency towards what can be perceived as egomania and grandiosity — we are talking about a man who could write on ‘why I am so great’ and ‘why I am so wise’ — is also typical of adolescent bravado.

One suspects, however, that while the adolescent boasts about himself because he knows that he has achieved nothing, Nietzsche boasted because he knew full well what he had achieved. In understanding what he had achieved he was honour bound to say it.

The teenager often feels he has something desperately urgent and important to communicate, but this — potentially world changing — news never seems to coalesce into an actual thought.

This is because the teenager has nothing to say, but he is under the delusion that new found self-consciousness has imbued him with a special insight.

Nietzsche — whose thoughts had very much coalesced — can give aid to the floundering teenager, for his aphorisms shamelessly announce the depth of his thoughts. This support for the teenager’s ego — an ego as weak as a wobbly fawn slipped from the doe — can turn the teenager unbearable.

The teenager is the empty pot that rattles with the greatest noise, but Nietzsche is the deep well with the booming splash.

Nietzsche is a keen analyser of power — particularly the psychology of human power — and this is again a teenage concern. The teenager’s body and mind have reach a point where it is, for the first time, possible to challenge an adult in dialectic, or even in bodily struggle.

This moment, for a healthy adolescent, is a take off, a rush towards a greater power to come. No philosopher is more explicit about the possibilities of power and realising one’s power than Nietzsche — especially if read in a superficial, quasi-Nazi way.

Nietzsche also calls out social hypocrisy, another element he shares with Marx. The Marxist tells us that everything is really about social relation to the means of production. The church that one attended every week was a sham for the bosses. ‘Love’? What does ‘love’ conceal except the desire for sex, or power manifested in sex?

The teenager becomes aware of social hypocrisy, which is necessary in order for society to function. Indeed, one may call it not ‘hypocrisy’, which has moral overtones, but a ‘performance’.

This moment of disillusionment opens the way to questioning: Does my mother really love my father? Does my mother really love me? Why do people say things they do not mean? And why do they not admit this when I call them out?

These are actually rather good questions. Questions that are not resolved as one grows older.

The usual solution for asking too many questions is hard work, which soon reduces Nietzsche’s hermeneutics of suspicion to workaday, utilitarian suppositions about which colleague is trying to screw you over for a promotion, and whether your wife is planning to divorce you in three or five years’ time.

Nietzsche is ridiculed as a teenage philosopher because, as with all philosophers, he continued and deepened the child-like question, ‘Why?’

And deepened it in particular regard to social relations. This disturbs adults who tucked away the question many years before.

The teenager often experiences righteous indignation that they have found out the role of power in social relations. They have been brought up with certain rules, and whether they were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ the rules were the rules.

Now it emerges that the rules are quite arbitrary, self-serving — but one cannot simply give up setting rules, for rules run deep. And so the teenager gets on their soapbox to lecture the world — even though the foundations upon which they stand are as insecure as any person’s base.

Nietzsche was better than an adolescent here. He saw the foundations, but he also saw his own foundations, and that those were marshmallow too.

Teenagers do not get that far, and neither do most adults — it is only that people learn to shut up about their complaints in public.

Another possible adolescent reaction to the hypocritical world is to go into a sulk. ‘The world is meaningless’ and ‘woe is me’ followed by remaining in one’s room for hours at a time.

This response is often conflated with Nietzsche because Nietzsche’s name is associated in a superficial way with nihilism. ‘Nihilism’ in colloquial speech is associated with being fed up with the world, or finding it meaningless.

Nietzsche is confused here with Marx. He is seen as an advocate philosopher — a man who is advocating for nihilism. But Nietzsche only described nihilism. He was really searching for a way to transcend it.

The advice to ‘keep busy’ or ‘find meaning in work’ are the very nostrums that Nietzsche associates with nihilism: a movement towards nothing.

The desire to create a new identity requires the capability to be destructive.

Marx gives us permission to destroy our social foundations in the name of justice, and Nietzsche tells us that our values must go as well.

Again, this is useful fodder for the teenager. A good deal of time is spent by parents training their children not to destroy — toys, crayons on walls, faeces on the carpet, and so on. If a human is anything from the start it is destructive.

We bite, we crush, and we knock over what belongs to others — particularly our siblings.

Teenagers rediscover this destructive potential, and the creative aspects contained within it; and sometimes the results are fatal — even in economically advanced countries, the price for adulthood can be death.

What is teenage in Nietzsche is a misunderstanding of Nietzsche, and what a teenager takes from Nietzsche is not necessarily what he would wish them to take.

His injunction to ‘become what you are’ is a mature, not adolescent, position. The adolescent begins to try on many new roles, an actor is always adolescent in this sense — for unless they are sure in a primary identity they may become a whirligig of roles.

The adolescent is usually not stone cold enough to ‘become what they are’, and must instead pretend to be what they are not — a situation that is the essence of peer pressure.

When the heat is over and the protean elements solidified then a person may become what they are.

Nietzsche is a philosopher for all seasons. We are always dying and renewing ourselves.

The manner in which we die and renew ourselves is what remains constant in us.

Nietzsche shows us that what begins in adolescence will be repeated throughout life — and possibly beyond.

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