(Edit: Like Abraham of old, we are sometimes required by the Lord or His messengers to do utterly immoral things. In other words, sometimes we have an obligation to act immorally. This post is aimed at explaining why this sounds like a contradiction in terms to our modern ears.)
Democracy is horrible and Aristocracy is fantastic. While there is much to disagree with in this claim of Nietzsche’s (he has nothing but condemnation to say regarding all forms of inter-personal obligations and authority), there is also a great deal of truth that we Mormons would do well to address. After all, the secular world clearly exalts the values and morality of the former while the church is quite obviously an Aristocracy (of sorts) that repeatedly insists that it is not a democracy in which “the people” rule. What are the tensions between these two moralities and to what extent to these tension manifest themselves within the modern, Mormon mind?
Nietzsche sees stratification as a normal and health aspect of life which Democrats, Moderns, Utilitarians, Kantians, Socialists, Classical Liberals, Capitalists, Proletariats, Materialists, Christians and a whole slew of others conspire against. Whereas Kierkegaard objected to the ways in which these various movements where making faith cheap, easy and weak, Nietzsche rejects them since they make life itself cheap, easy and weak. Both of these men had nothing but contempt for “the world” and it just so happened that “the world” at their time was largely Christian. When framed in these terms, that Mormons might also harbor a similar contempt for the now less-Christian world that we see around us.
The modern morality that Nietzsche objects to seeks to minimize suffering as much as possible, goals which he thought to be trite, vulgar and base. Greatness cannot be reduced to any quantity or quality of suffering. Indeed, it is only through suffering – sometimes enormous suffering – that greatness can ever be achieved. (This is not to say, however, that all suffering produces greatest or is morally justified.) It is in this sense that Aristocrats/Nobles/Masters have continually striven and fought to rise above and distinguish themselves from the “rabble” of mediocrity, aka “the world”. The more stratified a community is, the higher its nobles are, by very definition, able to soar! The world, in turn, responds by resenting this stratification by devaluating or, in some cases, actively demonizing these accomplishments and the distance that they have created between the two groups. The world has thus
“… waged a deadly war upon all feelings of reverence and distance between man and man, which is to say, upon the first prerequisite to every step upward, to every development of civilization – out of the resentment of the masses it has forged its chief weapons against us, against everything noble, joyous and high-spirited on earth, against our happiness on earth… Nowadays no one has courage any more for special rights, for the right of dominion, for feelings of honorable pride in himself and his equals – for the pathos of distance… The aristocratic attitude of mind has been undermined by the lie of the equality of souls.” (The Anti-Christ, 43)
It is absolutely central to Nietzsche that any type of other-worldly greatness was a mere disguise for a resentment aimed at those who were great within this mortal life. Mormons, however, find themselves in a unique position to take (rather massive) liberties with Nietzsche’s own views by extending “this life” to include pre- and post-mortal existences that, according to Joseph Smith, are supposed to be very similar to this life. (Quite obviously, Nietzsche despised the idea of an afterlife.) In other words, pain and suffering are almost certainly not limited to this (not so) “wretched” existence. The greater the similarity between this and the afterlife, the more enthusiastically we proclaim “yes!” to both; and the more we proclaim “yes!”, the more we too must confront the strong tensions between the Aristocratic and Democratic values that organize both lives.
A historical overview of the movements and people that Nietzsche loved and hated gives us a better feel for the tensions that he sees between the two moralities:
- He loved Homer and the Sophists, but hated Plato.
- He loved the Old Testament, but hated the New Testament.
- He loved Rome, but hated Judea.
- He loved Jesus, but hated Paul.
- He loved the Medieval Nobility, but hated the Clergy.
- He loved the Renaissance, but hated the Reformation.
- He loved Machiavelli and Absolutism, but hated the French Revolution.
- He loved Napoleon, but hated Moral/Bourgeois Society.
It is this last, Moral/Bourgeois Society that I wish to honed in upon, it being the morality that Nietzsche and Kierkegaard had both loathed so much. To illustrate, Nietzsche’s Germany had very recently been unified, becoming the first modern welfare-state which both created a strong spirit of nationalism that Nietzsche hated and (more to the point) created an enormous demand for well-educated administrators and professionals. This increased demand in education forced the very highly renowned German education system to open its doors to and be flooded with middle-class students who were totally ignorant to and uninterested in the Aristocratic subjects and tastes that had, up to that point, defined those elite institutions. This influx of middle-class students had the following effects: 1) It created a leveling effect within the school curriculum as the “publish-or-perish” dictum diluted the literature with mediocre work, which 2) created a market for the popularization (a worse insult from Nietzsche could hardly be imagined) of science, literature and philosophy, which 3) shifted the Mandarin academics of Germany to the political right in direct and intentional opposition to all nearly all the groups mentioned above.
The lesson to be taken from this phenomenon was as follows:
The number of people to which any speaker/leader/noble must justify himself is the degree to which we undermine and constrain their potential greatness.
In was in this sense that Socrates was able to make his noble interlocutors look so ignorant and stupid – they had never felt compelled to justify their actions before, let alone to a commoner. This is exactly what Nietzsche saw wrong in the Enlightenment rise of debating clubs, serial journals (Nietzsche often makes fun of newspaper readers), lodges, the Republic of Letters, the Encyclopedie and everything else that Habermas would include under the label “the public sphere”. Gouldner’s account of the rise of the Culture of Critical Discourse in his The Dialectic of Ideology and Technology tells a very similar tale.
It should be noted that these are the exact same associations, practices and mechanisms by which intellectuals still attempt to constrain and subvert Priesthood authorities within the church. They are a clear manifestation of the tensions between Aristocracy and Democracy that occupy Nietzsche’s attention. When my last post provided a Nietzschean argument for not forcing our living prophets to answer to the judgements of dead prophets or modern morality, this is exactly what I had in mind. Compare the way in which Bloggernacle participants try to force their priesthood leaders to answer to an ever-larger audience with Nietzsche’s depiction of the priests of slave-morality:
“[They] know no other way to protect themselves against their bad conscience than to pose as the executors of more ancient or higher commands (of ancestors, the constitution, of right, the laws, or even of God). Or they even borrow herd maxims from the herd’s way of thinking, such as ‘first servants of their people’ or ‘instrument of the common weal.'” (Genealogy of Morals, 199)
Getting back to the modern invention of morality, it should be noted that the word “moral” was not used to describe persons until the 17th century. It was within this context that Absolute Monarchism had, due to the civil wars of religion, demoted all religious and moral beliefs to the status of “personal” opinion, stripped of all pretensions to public legislation. But within this strong separation of the private and public spheres emerged what would be called “moral society”. These were groups who sought to purify their private opinions through the process of mutual and public criticism that we now associate with “peer review”. John Locke was one of the first to theorize the importance of such free associations and their potential for moral development. Indeed, it was precisely the freedom of these associations which gave credence to their pretensions to universality and equality. It was shortly after, in the mid-18th century that Pierre Bayle first theorized that the morality produced by these self-proclaimed universal and equal societies ought to have legislative authority over the state and religion. The French Revolution was thus a clear manifestation of this pretension by such groups to compel their noble masters to answer to “the people” which they very conveniently claimed to represent. This historical process was the modern invention of the “dictates of morality”.
It is for this reason that we can only find the word “moral” within the scriptures once, and even then it seems closely bound up with the political freedom of association. Consider the following 19th century quote which should sound very familiar to Mormon ears:
“Where there is no free agency, there can be no morality. Where there is no temptation, there can be little claim to virtue. Where the routine is rigorously proscribed by law, the law, and not the man, must have the credit of the conduct.” (William H. Prescott, “History of the Conquest of Peru,” 1847)
Moral agency is spoken of here as a sphere of free association in which the rule of law (ecclesiastical or absolutist) did not hold sway. More importantly, it is only when such a freedom of association is protected, that moral praise and blame exist, according to this line of thought.
Modern morality, then, was the product of a relatively recent process in which i) religion lost its privileged access to political legislation, ii) private opinion intentionally purged itself of supernatural and sacerdotal influence by way of mutual criticism, thus becoming the iii) “public opinion” which sought to reclaim the privileged access to same political privileges that had previously been occupied by religion. Morality is not the same thing as (Kierkegaard’s) faithfulness or (Nietzsche’s) virtue; It was a replacement for such things.
What annoyed Nietzsche most about these moderns was how they pretended to be the one and only morality that earlier men had only seen vaguely:
“Morality in Europe today is herd animal morality … merely one type of human morality beside which, before which and after which many other types, above all higher moralities, are, or ought to be, possible. But this morality resists such a ‘possibility,’ such an ‘ought’ with all its power: it says stubbornly and inexorably, ‘I am morality itself, and nothing besides is morality.’” (Beyond Good and Evil, 202)
It was the Enlightenment coalition (especially the French philosophes) who would conflate their own particular morality that they had quite recently cultivated with the universal, timeless and “natural” laws to which all men were supposed to submit. The British expression of this tendency – which Marx rightly attacked – was to give the illusion of ahistorical “naturalness” to their own preferred Laissez Faire political economy. The German approach had largely been that of Hegel in which modern philosophy had been synthesized with and thereby become a “higher” expression of the Christian faith. The Enlightenment coalition, then, specifically branded their own particular morality as the universal, ahistorical and natural one as a socio-political strategy whereby they could gain and wield legislative control over the recently formed state. (It is worth pointing out that the vast majority of the scriptures were written to an audience that did not live in the shadow of the rationalized state that we know today. Missouri and Illinois clearly wouldn’t qualify.)
Nietzsche also had nothing but contempt for the modern metaphysics by which this Enlightenment Coalition sought to legitimize their own claims to “moral” authority:
“If one would explain how the abstrusest metaphysical claim of a philosopher really came about, it is always well (and wise) to ask first: at what morality does all this (does he) aim? Accordingly, I do not believe that a ‘drive to knowledge” is the father of philosophy but rather another drive has, here as elsewhere, employed understanding (and misunderstanding) as a mere instrument.” (Beyond Good and Evil, 6)
The modern metaphysics that Nietzsche objects to was meant to make man tame and calculable. It reduced all life to physical matter which was totally disinterested, lacking in any kind of willful activity and utterly equal (each and every quantifiable object is never any more nor less than another). It saw evolution in terms of the most “efficient”, mechanical and therefore passive response to changing conditions (this is why he hated Darwin). It forced the nobles to answer to the dictates of “nature” as judged by the crass sense-experience that was equally and universally available. Whereas leaders had previously made willful decisions of their own accord, they now were expected to calculate the mathematical optimum and obey the dictates of “reason” accordingly. These optima were calculated – especially within that most modern of all social sciences: Economics – according to the organizing assumption of equilibrium, harmony and reconciliation. The pre-modern virtues of triumph, overcoming, strength and greatness were now mere epiphenomena, at best.
How often are these interpretations leveraged against our own nobles within the church? How often do people within the Bloggernacle demand that these nobles answer to an ever wider critical audience as Socrates did to his interlocutors? How often do such people attempt to hide their preferences and intentions behind the disinterests of nature and reason? How well, finally, do their complaints fit the following description:
“What they desire they call, not retaliation, but ‘the triumph of justice’; what they hate is not their enemy, no! they hate ‘injustice’.” (The Genealogy of Morals, I-14)
In summary, the moral indignation that often defines Mormon moral society and the Bloggernacle in particular stands condemned on two fronts: On the one hand, Nietzsche objects to it because it stands as an obstacle to mortal greatness within this mortal life. On the other, I object to it because it stands as an obstacle to spiritual greatness.