Friday, October 3, 2014

Building an Übermensch

Second week of college is over. I think I am starting to get the hang of things, but I still make mistakes all the time. I worry about the wrong things and miss opportunities and flail about ineffectually. I say really stupid things in class and embarrass myself, or I stay silent and hear someone else lauded for a thought I was too cowardly to express.

But I am still learning interesting things, thinking thoughts I have never thought before. I am managing my own schedule and making executive decisions about what I want to attend or skip. My bike riding skills have not yet reached the level where I can signal turns, but I am improving. I have the sense of entitlement to campus resources that lets me chill in the lobby of a restaurant that primarily serves grad students and type this post without worrying that I'll get kicked out. Maybe I haven't made this my school yet; but it still is my school.

Back to the point about thinking interesting thoughts: I may have mentioned that I am taking a class called Evil. Naturally, we are reading Nietzsche, and I wanted to examine some of my thoughts around his treatise "'Good and Bad' and 'Good and Evil'," because discussion section is not enough.

Among other things, including some truly hateful rants, Nietzsche contrasts two moral systems: good v. bad, good v. evil. The first is born out of an essentially selfish "aristocratic" mindset, which is life and pleasure affirming, and casts as good all that is powerful and dominant. The second, Nietzsche terms the "slave revolt" of morality because power is seen as aligned with evil while the good are those who are weak, patient, meek, etc.

The problem with reading Nietzsche is that he brings out my power-hungry side. Humans want to think well of themselves; we want to be good. And given the choice between being good+powerful and good+weak, it is natural to choose the first option. At least, I would rather be powerful than weak, would rather be an aristocrat than a slave.

If you've read this blog since c. autumn 2012, or if you knew me IRL in junior year, then you know I had a Nietzsche phase. I read Thus Spake Zarathustra and felt as though my mind had been set on fire. Some friends and I even started calling ourselves the Ubermenschen and discussing weighty philosophical questions. Bottom line: too much Nietzsche makes me into a pretentious brat. (More of one than usual, that is.)

The classroom discussion today was, as one might expect, not favorable to Nietzsche, which primed my naturally-Nietzsche-sympathetic mind for criticism of his ideas. So. What is wrong with Nietzsche's Übermensch, Nietzsche's favored "aristocratic" morality of good v. bad?

First, I must note that saying he favored the good/bad moral system is an oversimplification. He seems to approve, covertly, of the way that the good v. evil system creates new values and makes man "interesting."

Second: No matter how wild his gesticulations on the ills of civilization, which he equates (scientifically, correctly) with domestication, one supposed that he doesn't actually hate progress. Science, art, technology, culture--all the trappings of civilization present a far greater expression of human creativity than the animalistic hedonism he ascribes to the "aristocrats." Nietzsche's real Übermensch thus has at least one characteristic beyond power and absolute selfishness: it has creativity.

Power, fine. Creativity, fine. A certain amount of self-possession, self-centeredness, self-affirmation--fine. But this absolute selfishness I cannot abide, even though what I am doing right this instant is selfish, because I am appropriating others' philosophies in order to construct a moral system tailored to me.

How much selfishness is too much? My idealism sets the upper bound that if your actions hurt someone else, you should seriously consider not acting. Look at this equation:

Attractiveness of action = (my importance)*(benefit or harm of action to me) + (importance of others)*(benefit or harm of action to others)

What are the coefficients? My importance is a positive term and greater than importance of others, but importance of others is greater than zero. Am I 1.5 times as important to myself as others are to me? 2 times? Only 1.1? (We are looking at the ratio my importance/importance of others.)

I think the equation needs another term, a factor that is a function of the number of other people affected. Likely, this function would be asymptotic. But I cannot think of an appropriate function now.

Note too that different people may get different importance weights. Family and friends get higher coefficients than strangers; people I dislike might get negative coefficients if I'm feeling mean. This equation could get complicated very quickly.

(This is what you get when I resume work on a post after two hours of vector calculus.)

We seem to be getting off the point. The Übermensch we are building here is powerful, creative, and somewhat but not completely selfish. Let us take a closer look at the idea of power, because Nietzsche's use of the term does not square with my intuition. His aristocrats are powerful because they can use their will to power on other people. But they lack self control and are slaves to their own nature, whereas the "priestly class" he derides as unnatural and dangerous is defined by its extremes of self restraint and mastery of natural impulses.

I think that one cannot claim to master others before one has mastered oneself, which sounds like a Zen copout. But think of how easy it is to disdain or disrespect someone who nominally has authority if their defects of character are all too visible. If you follow only instinct you might as well not be conscious--not have a mind, that is to say, or a distinct identity. You certainly would lack self-awareness.

Awareness includes awareness of one's defects--and what kind of Übermensch could one be if one abided by one's defects? The Übermensch I am constructing must have ambition: ambition to improve oneself, to become stronger. Pride in one's strengths will lead to a desire to have more of which to be proud. Thus does humility emerge from the virtues of the Übermensch.

The last virtue I want to discuss tonight may seem like a strange one given that Nietzsche served as our point of departure, because that virtue is responsibility. But I hope I've made clear that my Übermensch is not Nietzsche's: my Übermensch is what I think the ideal human would be, and that is responsible. Self awareness and ambition and power may not seem like an adequate breeding ground for empathy, and they may not be, but ambition will lead my Übermensch to problems of greater and greater difficulty. That catapults it (gender neutral terms for me; we'll figure out an alternative for the -mensch part later) straight into social responsibility.

Let us take stock. The Übermensch we have built is powerful, creative, moderately selfish, self-controlled, self-aware, ambitious, proud-humble, and responsible. There are certain traits missing, like depth of thought/insight and patience, but this is enough to start.

The question "What makes an Übermensch?" really means "How should I comport myself?" Remember what I said about the power-hungry side? Of course I want to be an Übermensch--but only, as it happens, on my own terms.

Have a good weekend.

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