In the last reading Nietzsche began to talk about the role of perspective and how it not only affects how we see the world but affects the world as well. And yet, this realization doesn’t change the fact that some people, particularly “we artists,” refuse to see the world as it actually is:
Even “natural law” sounded to him like a slander against God; really he would have much preferred to see all mechanics derived from acts of a moral will or an arbitrary will. But since nobody was able to render him this service, he ignored nature and mechanics as best he could and lived in a dream. (II.59)
Nietzsche also uses the example of a man who has fallen in love and then refuses to see the gritty reality of humanity in the woman he loves; instead he closes his eyes to all the fleshy bits that go along with being human and insists that only the soul is what matters. This is the way some people see Christianity, as holding to an abstract and idealistic worldview that is somehow disconnected from the day-to-day machinations of physical reality. Interestingly, Nietzsche does not automatically dismiss such people, instead pointing out that this sort of “blindness” (not his word, but I think it’s probably implied) actually enables them to live courageously in the world. And while he will eventually reject Christianity, Nietzsche is unafraid of giving credit where credit is due.
Except, that is, when it comes to women. Sections sixty through seventy-five are almost exclusively about either women or human relationships (in the context, I think we can assume the latter means relationships that have a feminine aspect). I am tempted to simply skip over this section because I’m not entirely sure I understand it, and frankly there are ideas and comments here that I’d rather not go near in any case. And yet, I think it at least needs to be touched upon if only for the sake of consistency. To that end, a few observations on Nietzsche’s observations on women:
1) Coming into this book, I had the loose impression that Nietzsche was some kind of radical chauvinist. (Prior to preparing for this walk-through of the Gay Science, I hadn’t read any Nietzsche in nearly a decade so I’m not entirely sure where that impression came from.) This may still be the case—we’ll see as we go through the work—but at least here Nietzsche has a somewhat complex and apparently respectful view of women and their place in the world. Given the role they play in life, he argues that they have a thoughtful and considered view of their own place in the world and the ability to take full advantage of it—possibly more so than most men (II.64-67, 69-71).
2) Related to that, this understanding is somewhat mysterious to men and generates a respect and consideration for women that elevates them in the male mind to (unrealistic?) heights. In a world of chaos and uncertainty, they appear to be the islands of calm and peace (II.60).
3) The virtues of women and the virtues of men are necessarily different, given both biology and social roles. As with good and evil, both appear to be necessary to the impulse to existence that drives the human race. I think this may be part of the point behind II.73, given its context right after a reflection on mothers as a combination of loving and dominant (II.72). One way to look at II.73 is that it is a picture of two men trying to figure out what to do with an unlovely child. Given the statements about motherhood in the previous section, the feminine perspective is necessary to answer the question in a way that is palatable. Or maybe I’m being too generous, and Nietzsche really did want us to side with the holy man…
4) Both friendship and love, neither of which are confined to women, come in the context of these passages about women (II.61-62). I don’t know what to make of this, other than to suggest that for Nietzsche there may be an inescapably feminine aspect to each of these kinds of relationships. At the very least this would put him at odds with Aristotle (and to a lesser extent, Plato), who tended to assume that friendship and the good kind of love were fundamentally masculine.
And that, I think, may be all that I have to say about women. Or at least, all that I have to say about what Nietzsche has to say about women. I could say more about women on my own, but that doesn’t seem wise…
It appears that in II.76, Nietzsche is turning from the feminine back to the more traditionally “masculine” virtues of rationality and order. And it is here that we begin to get some of Nietzsche’s best social and political insights. He argues that the imposition of reason and order on society and then the solidification of the rule of these characteristics is what keeps mankind from utterly destroying itself:
The greatest danger that always hovered over humanity and still hovers over it is the eruption of madness—which means the eruption of arbitrariness in feeling, seeing, and hearing, the enjoyment of the mind’s lack of discipline, the joy in human unreason. (II.76)
The problem is that the imposition of this reason on man is itself unreasonable and unverifiable—an act of faith. Which means that the opposite of this anarchic, chaotic irrationality that always threatens to erupt is not reason, but rather “faith.”
Man’s greatest labor so far has been to reach agreement about very many things and to submit to a law of agreement—regardless of whether these things are true or false. (II.76)
So long as we don’t poke at the foundations of our “rational” society, everything holds together. And yet this impulse to chaos still exists within all humanity, but especially in the few who are capable of digging more deeply into the truth (the disaffected folks we talked about a couple of posts back). These individuals begin to realize the falsehood that society is built on and try to kick against it. This is not a bad thing per se, and may even be the way in which change happens in a society (Nietzsche doesn’t talk much about that here), so long as the dominant imposition holds steady.
what is needed is virtuous stupidity, stolid metronomes for the slow spirit, to make sure that the faithful of the great shared faith stay together and continue their dance… We others are the exception and the danger—and we need eternally to be defended.—Well, there actually are things to be said in favor of the exception, provided that it never wants to become the rule. (II.76)
These fringe thinkers are necessary, so long as they do not replace the main body of stability in society. It is important to have someone telling us that the one percent is dominating American life or that the evil liberals have corrupted our country and that what we need is a new version of the Boston Tea Party—these ideas stimulate change and generate energy. It is only when they become mainstream that what once was a sharp prod to a cow that would otherwise grind to a halt (to steal Burke’s placid phrasing) becomes an unstoppable bleeding out as people cease believing in the irrational underpinnings of society. The prescription is for us simultaneously to protect these countercultural “exceptions,” while keeping them where they belong—on the edges of society rather than at its center. The crude free-thinker has as much right to exist as the mainstream of society, even when he pulls off its mask and tries to tell everyone what’s underneath—so long as we don’t all go along with him and begin pulling the masks off ourselves (II.77). The facade, after all, is the only thing that holds our society together.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.