Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Gay Science: III.174-III.229


Today’s reading is a continuation of Nietzsche’s observational/reflective aphorisms (‘proverbs’?) that make up the second half of Book III. As with the last post, rather than engaging everything I’ll take on a few that jumped out at me, and encourage you all to do the same in the comments.

“Look! Look! He is running away from people, but they follow after him because he is running ahead of them: they are herd through and through.” (III.195)

I find it interesting that Nietzsche makes no comment on the reason the individual is running from people. He might be a holy hermit seeking isolation in the pursuit of God (usually wrongly, in my opinion); or he might be a deviant seeking solitude to indulge in activities otherwise culturally forbidden. In either case, the fact that the crowd follows after him says much about the crowd—we’re always expanding at the edges and following after the very people who have rejected the crowd for good reasons or bad. In practical politics, this is one reason we are now so polarized (not the only one, of course).

“Those who want to mediate between two resolute thinkers show that they are mediocre; they lack eyes for seeing what is unique. Seeing things as similar and making things the same is the sign of weak eyes.” (III.228)

The footnote suggests that Nietzsche is thinking of his sister’s attempts to reconcile him to Wagner, which may be the case. But I also think there’s a broader point to be made here. There is a cottage industry in academia (and beyond) dedicated to reconciling differing thinkers. Now I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all of the authors engaged in that work are “mediocre” thinkers (some of them are quite excellent), but there is something to be said for realizing that two great thinkers might actually disagree in a way that cannot be reconciled. For example, however much Aquinas really, really, wanted Aristotle to be a proto-Christian, at the end of the day he simply wasn’t. This isn’t to say Aquinas wasn’t himself a great thinker (he was), that Aristotle didn’t have true things to say (he did), or that Christianity doesn’t have something philosophical to propose (it does); it is to say that Aquinas may have let his desire to reconcile two things blind him to certain irreconcilable differences. That is, in this case he might have had “weak eyes.”

“Virtue bestows happiness and a kind of bliss only on those who have not lost their faith in their virtue—not on those subtler souls whose virtue consists in a profound mistrust of themselves and of all virtue. Ultimately, then, ‘faith makes blessed’ here, too, and not—mark it well—virtue.” (III.214)

If I knew more about the rise of Higher Criticism in Germany in the 19th century I’d be able to say more about the context of this aphorism, but from what I do know about it in America this is a fairly keen insight into the way theological liberalism works. To put the weight of happiness upon faith (as theological liberals do) instead of on the object of faith (as traditional Christianity does) is to undercut traditional doctrines in the name of happiness “here, too”—the very project of the 19th century theology. This leads to the next aphorism, which rightly asks “are you a noble enough stone to be made into such a divine image?” (III.215) Nietzsche would not have us reject orthodox Christianity in the name of a watered-down social gospel. We must be consistently fully Christian, or jettison the whole thing. And of course we know which he would have us do.

“Kant wanted to prove, in a way that would dumbfound the common man, that the common man was right: that was the secret joke of this soul. He wrote against the scholars in support of popular prejudice, but for scholars and not for the people.” (III.193)

This just says to me that Nietzsche had read Kant. Even the arguments Kant makes that I disagree with tend to appear to be common sense wrapped up in impenetrable language.

“Parliamentarianism… flatters and wins the favor of all those who would like to seem independent and individual… Ultimately, however, it is indifferent whether the herd is commanded to have one opinion or permitted to have five. Whoever deviates from the five public opinions and stands apart will always have the whole herd against him.” (III.174)

Nietzsche is on to something, as traditionalists are out finding in contemporary America. Up until the last decade or so we’ve been one of the five opinions that were tolerated. It doesn’t look like that will be the case in the next decade, which raises the question of how to live with the herd against you.

More next time.

Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.

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