Get over yourself! How Nietzsche’s philosophic firepower devastates today’s ‘culture of confusion’
The German artist-philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s view, or vision, of the human situation, or predicament — his psychological critique of 19th century values and culture (he lived from 1844–1900) — was that we are always out of sorts, suffering from a kind of malaise for which the complexity of the civilisation we have created has to take a share of the blame.
His role as a philosopher was not to generate any ‘system’ but to counter the prejudices, the illusions of his day, to ask the pertinent questions and present the pressing problems, to identify the disease in culture and society and to try to usher in conscious trends to tackle it.
In this way, he was an existentialist because he drew philosophical issues about how to live not from the disputations of the schools but from the actual discords of the period.
Nietzsche admonishes us for being ‘human, all too human’, that our vision of life and of the universe is also jaded, and that we must get beyond that to a higher state of being, a new consciousness, a life of superior order — to the ubermensch, the ‘above-man’ or ‘superman’, typified by an act of ‘self-overcoming’. The question is, of course, how?
Naturally, this question, of which Nietzsche himself was doubtless well aware but unable to answer, cannot be avoided in Patrick West’s application of Nietzsche’s thought to the mores and memes of today — Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche for our times (Imprint Academic, UK £9.95 / US $19.90, August 2017).
Nietzsche’s idea of the necessity of a kind of cultural freefall, a kind of generalised ‘negative capability’ in which labels and identities are avoided and where we continually struggle to recreate ourselves — for him, all ‘isms’ are manifestation of lazy, herd-thinking — is hard enough to envisage, let alone to put into practice, although one realises these are aspirations worth having.
Nietzsche ‘acclaims eternal self-doubt and war against certainty and oneself’, West tells us — the complete opposite of where we stand nowadays. Happiness, meanwhile, comes ‘through embracing, employing and then overcoming stress, anxiety and depression’: easier said than done. But, for Nietzsche, salvation lies in the struggle.
Of course, for more than a century, Nietzsche, one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted philosophers, has been appropriated by a plethora of disparate groups: anarchists, feminists, religious fanatics, Nazis, Marxists, socialists, vegetarians, avant garde artists, modernist writers, to mention just a few — and his iconic firepower has now been turned on 21st century society.
West asks what Nietzsche would think of our digital age — our identity politics, therapy culture, ‘safe spaces’, religious fundamentalism, virtue-signalling, Twitterstorms, public emoting, ‘dumbing-down’, digital addiction and the politics of envy. If he were here today he would probably despair that, fundamentally, nothing much had changed in human nature since his time, and in many respects had worsened with technological advance.
West performs a laudable task in highlighting a caustic Nietzschean corrective to today’s melange of competing virulent and partisan beliefs and attitudes — what combines to create a culture of confusion — even if, sadly, it lies beyond the cognisance of most of those who hold them. At the same time, Get Over Yourself makes for a lively introduction for those who would like to go deeper into to Nietzsche’s often confounding and puzzling works.
Essentially, Nietzsche was a thinker wrestling with his own fate. Perhaps more clearly than any other, he exemplifies the existential truth that a philosopher who endeavours to make himself representative but creates a (literary) persona to assuage his own deepest needs cannot really offer an enclave for others but can greatly enrich the resources which others might use to build.
West has built in this way. It’s in a compelling and forthright manner — summed up succinctly in the title of his book which encapsulates clearly the notion of self-overcoming — that he uses Nietzsche’s philosophy to highlight the ills and misdirections of today: ‘In our times, Nietzsche is a tonic against rage, certitudes, intolerance and idealism, against both the elites and the herd, against resentment, envy and selfishness. He exhorts us to live with doubt and be free of grand ideas imposed by others, to live our lives to the full and without fear.’
Nietzsche remains invaluable, West says, because he demands bravery and honesty and integrity ‘in a digital world of echo-chambers, one evermore divided into conformist and righteous tribes’. Ultimately, we are asked to live life with courage and sincerity.
Through readings of Nietzsche we can help liberate ourselves from ideology and group-think, to be fearless in our thoughts, actions and words. New words and challenging ideas won’t kill you — they might make you stronger. Nietzsche would have recognised how the politics of identity leads to self-obsession and self-aggrandisement, and from there to belligerence and intolerance.
But Nietzsche is beset with paradox: he calls upon us to incorporate his aphoristic message into our lives yet at the same time wants us to be sceptical about him. West insists that, although Nietzsche has shortcomings — his self-contradiction, his misogyny, frequent vagueness and juvenile hyperbole — he remains relevant ‘in this tumultuous age of religious fundamentalism and populist rage’.
However, West adds that, while we might sympathise with the power fantasies of Nietzsche as a weak and handicapped failed writer — he was not recognised in his time — his strong counsel to ‘live dangerously’ as a ‘superman’ jars with what we know about him as a person: ‘Conan the Barbarian he was not’.
Nor are most of the rest of us.
* Patrick West is a journalist and author who has written for The Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, The New Statesman, The Catholic Herald and Tablet. His previous books include Conspicuous Compassion (Civitas, 2004) and The Poverty of Multiculturalism (Civitas, 2005). He writes weekly for Spiked and lives in Kent, UK.