Sunday, May 9, 2010

Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Tea Party

As it happens, I just read two book reviews at the NY Times, one of a book about Nietzsche and the other of two books about Martin Heidegger. Before that I had been reading about Tea Party Republicans.

And it struck me that I had been reading about the same thing throughout, the discomfort created by modern society.

Nietzsche was an aesthete who felt nothing but revulsion toward the mass of his contemporaries: their materialism, their petty moralism, their hypocrisy, their ignorant rejection of great art. It also offended him that modern civilization seemed to have no guiding principle or unifying theme. He liked to fantasize about ancient Athens, where the whole people came together to watch plays by the great dramatists, to debate political questions at a high level, and to honor the best among them. He became obsessed with the notion of a "superman" who could create an artistic or cultural vision of such power that it would reunite all the noble souls of the world into a new community, either leaving the mass of moderns behind or lifting the up sufficiently that they would recognize the superman's greatness.

Heidegger's philosophy was directed toward the fundamental problems of human existence, like trying to define in what sense a person can be said to exist at all. He found no comforting answers, only questions, and he came to hate the triviality of 20th century life. He eventually decided that the only hope for humanity was to throw ourselves into Nazism. He told his students in 1933,
the question of the awareness of the will of the community is a problem that is posed in all democracies, but one that of course can become fruitful only when the will of the F├╝hrer and the will of the people are identified in their essence.
A few years of actual Nazi rule seems to have cured Heidegger of his enthusiasm for them, but he continued to hate democracy and mass culture.

Modern democracy means, at least in a large country, abandoning any sense that the political nation is a single community. For a patriot, it can be very painful to realize that most of the people in your country don't share the views you think are the essence of your nation. This leads nationalists to define a core group of people who are the "real America" or the "echt Deutchland," turning those who disagree into outsiders. Old-style communists used to have similar fantasies; their Revolution was supposed to remove all class divisions and unite everyone into a monolithic People. The disquiet of diversity is not limited to bigots and radicals, but can extend to anyone who cares about unity. Benjamin Franklin, great promoter of public libraries, public hospitals, public fire insurance, and America, was bothered by the presence of so many Germans in Pennsylvania.

For a cultural snob like Nietzsche, revulsion toward society usually leads to a celebration of outsiderism, like those artists who devote their lives to skewering the middle class. The weird ambivalence of our age is summed up in the careers of those artists who have risen to great wealth and prominence by attacking our culture -- insulting their own audience, really. Many philosophically minded people are revolted by our materialism, our shallowness and the mindless cacophony of our mass culture. Whether they are on the left or the right, their main motivation seems to be a distaste for idiotic herd.

Neither philosophically, nor artistically, nor politically, are we comfortable in the huge, diverse societies we inhabit. We evolved in small communities where everyone espoused the same values and honored the same gods, and parts of our minds are still set up to think in those terms. We are all vulnerable, in different ways, to fantasies of a unified people struggling together toward high and noble goals. The reality of our world -- disagreement, disunity, tawdry materialism, schlock culture, the lack of any sort of overarching purpose to life beyond comfort and amusement -- can be hard to swallow.

What we have that is worth having is freedom. But none of us can be free if we don't accept the right everyone to be free, and that means living with chaos. So be it, I say. I wish to be free, and I am willing to tolerate, even celebrate, the right of my fellow citizens to be into Ultimate Fighting or celebrity gossip or gambling or Tea Party rallies, if that secures my freedom to live as I think best.


Unknown said...

"Neither philosophically, nor artistically, nor politically, are we comfortable in the huge, diverse societies we inhabit. We evolved in small communities where everyone espoused the same values and honored the same gods, and parts of our minds are still set up to think in those terms."

In the first sentence, who's we? I and many folks I know ARE comfortable philosophically and artistically. And politically . . . well, discomfort with other people's ideas is in the nature of politics, isn't it?
To the second sentence, I have to say the small communities I've looked at don't seem especially unified. Often their ferocious divisions can make contemporary America look like a mere peaceable kingdom.

True, we did evolve in small communities, but it seems to me that variety from person to person--the same variety that creates artistic, philosophical, and political differences--has been essential to that evolution. A group of say, 200 people, is probably best placed if it has a few hawks, a few doves, a few mom types and family guys, a few casanovas, a few saints, a few of both workaholics and slackers, etc., etc.

John said...

I would never maintain that we are comfortable in small communities, either. Discomfort seems to be our condition. But big societies with mass culture seem to create particular kinds of uneasiness.

I am working to be comfortable with our world. I used to be a snob, full of contempt for large categories of people, but I have shed a lot of that and learned to enjoy the madness of our chaotic society.