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Jawohl, Herr Nietzsche!

July 14, 2023

Though I think our culture has suffered a decline in masculinity, this fellow’s gone too far and awry. Yes, we need more “Run to the sound of the guns” and “Don’t let the whiners get you down,” but not more “Run over helpless folks as you pursue your interests.” Whatever this guy thought he was saying with these tattoos, he came off badly. (I took this shot while standing in line behind him at Duluth Trading Center. I don’t think anyone saw me doing this, thinking I was gay.) He sounds more ready to sign up for the 1940, German Blitzkrieg through the Low Countries (Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) than for the 1944, Allied, Normandy Invasion, which overran the Blitzkriegers who’d crunched their way down to the northern coast of France.  


Adolph Hitler, who commissioned the Blitzkrieg, appears in a famous photo contemplating the bust of Friedrich Nietzsche in 1934. Though Nietzsche scholars argue that Hitler hijacked the philosopher’s thought, using it to justify his savagery, one can readily see how his work could inspire the Führer.


A quick word on Nietzsche’s provenance. Over in England in the seventeenth century, John Locke argued that we get our knowledge as receivers of experiential input; we’re like blank slates on which the deliverances of our senses and sensations write; and then we sort out what we’re given. Other “empiricists,” George Berkeley and David Hume, generated variations on this theme, the former an “idealist,” the latter a “skeptic.”


Over on mainland Europe, an eighteenth-century German named Immanuel Kant engineered a revolution, explaining that Hume had awakened him from his “dogmatic slumbers.” In his Critique of Pure Reason, he argued that we don’t receive our world (though there is a reality of some sort “out there,” the “noumena”); rather, we construct and shape it automatically through templates and mechanisms of the mind, giving us the pre-chewed “phenomena” which make up our universe. And following in his train were a host of “continental” philosophers who, one way or the other, magnified the power of mind and will to generate our circumstances and mark our character—men like Fichte, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Sartre.


My first big dig into Nietzsche came when I was a teaching assistant at Vanderbilt. The lead professor assigned Beyond Good and Evil for a text, and we TAs led the breakout discussions. As the title suggests, Nietzsche was a gun-slinging hombre, not at all PC. (And, by the way, an engaging read.) The message: Rather than be subservient to conventional morality and niceties, we should aspire to transcend bourgeoise norms and be scary. It offered up quotes like, “The great epochs of our life come when we gain the courage to rechristen our evil as what is best in us.” (BTW, I used this ironically in an “Evangelical” way when we inerrantists of the SBC conservative resurgence were being called everything but saved; I applied it to say we should put their slams on our resumes.”) And, for the ladies, he observed, “In revenge and in love woman is more barbaric than man is.”


Over the next five or six years, I went on to read Thus Spake Zarathustra, a work of fiction wherein a traveling hermit seeks the superior Superman (Übermensch) instead of God. The work inspired Richard Strauss to write Also Sprach Zarathustra, the opening movement of which (“Sunrise”) accompanies the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, with dramatic deployment of timpani, trumpet, and organ. The notion of Supermen also inspired, in the 1920s, elite young Chicagoans, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb (ages 18 and 19) to plan and execute the murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks, essentially to demonstrate to themselves that they were above it all morally.


On the Genealogy of Morals is a polemical book, a broadside against Judeo-Christian ethics. Nietzsche “explains” that the original meaning of ‘good’ meant “intimidating,” but then squirrely Jews and Christians turned things upside down, making kindness, patience, gentleness, and such to be virtues rather than signs of weakness. That way, these devout worms have denigrated truly noble men and turned society into pathetic mush. (One can see how his take on the Jews could please Hitler.)


And yes, there are more works, some with useful insights. (I think, for instance of his distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian elements in Greek drama, spelled out in his The Birth of Tragedy.) And, later in life, some quite crazy stuff like “Why I Am Destiny” came out under the influence of the syphilis that was eating at his brain


Well, enough on Nietzsche. Back to our friend in the store. He may have thought he was resonating with our “Don’t tread on me” flag, or with an impatient “Get on board or get out of the way,” directed at lame souls not up to the big, important tasks.” But he came off more as a “Jawohl, Herr Führer!”—“Yes, indeed, Sir Ruthless Leader.”