I normally try not to write on Nietzsche, despite his implicitly affecting much of my own work and personal outlook in many ways over the past few years. Among the many reasons I hesitate writing on him is that I don’t want to fall into one of the main pitfalls he seeks to diagnose: that the assumption one understands a topic ironically keeps one in an uncurious, shallow lack of understanding. A layer underlying this impulse is the tendency to derive a subtle feeling of notoriety from having something to say on a topic, which Nietzsche had seen becoming more prevalent in 19th century Europe with the replacement of meditation on the classics and philosophy with the day-take one-shotting of newspapers. Indeed, with his non-linear, aphoristic style and his use of often extreme metaphors and extended analogies, he actively seeks to mislead and make things harder for shallow readers, obscuring the thread of his arguments and warnings in plain sight.
Thus, to simply read a work by Nietzsche and write on it—in this case, Dawn: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality—would be to miss one of the core lessons in his writing: that the best works and the best type of reading is like the untying of knots—the bigger and more deeply bound, the better. Because of how easy it is to misread him (and look like a wannabe hipster edgelord while doing so), I set an initial, informal rule to not speak or pass judgment on a work by Nietzsche until I’d read it twice.
I haven’t kept up with my rule, having only read Beyond Good and Evil twice. However, it was a good caution, as was the prudence not to approach him in the first place until after reading the Bible, much of Aristotle, all of Shakespeare, and finishing both two degrees in literature as well as my more passion-driven twenties. While I’m still cautious about speaking too much about him in public milieus (both because of what he says and how others read him—in the very ways he anticipated and yet tried to prevent), if anything I’m being comparably quite liberal: I’m told Heidegger allegedly wouldn’t let his students read Nietzsche until they had studied Aristotle in the original Greek for a decade.
Nonetheless, though I officially hesitate to say I know what the hell that guy was talking about at any given time (again, I don’t want to think I found the gold and thus stop digging), I’m constantly faced with the conviction that though he’s popularly seen as the patriarch of cultural revolution (or would be, were it not for his being co-opted by the very Nazis he foresaw, despised, and tried to prevent), I believe his most scathing shots would be aimed at the very movements that trace their origin to him. This is because much of his aphorisms seek to look deeper than the apparent and conscious sources of action, both in individuals and cultures. When he describes the strong-souled man, he more often means the man who, among other things, is internally powerful enough to face his drives and to stand alone in living a life placing them under control—and learning to enjoy them! The idea of a political leader (he saw the beginnings of such a thing in Bismarck) at the forefront of an imposed ideology would have struck him as a laughable sign of weakness, both in the man who needs such external affirmation (and permission to stop investigating his inner weakness) and the culture that takes refuge in such a man.
Recognizing the truth seen by other 19th-century figures from Dostoevsky to Ibsen, and altogether forgotten by the 20th century, Nietzsche maintained that the strongest man is the man who can stand most alone; he saw philosophical introspection as the most extreme form of standing alone, since it involves standing alone even from one’s idea of oneself—indeed, making war on one’s persona to test how much truth it contains. Indeed, in Beyond Good and Evil, he also contends that strength is proportional to how much truth one can bear—and, implicitly, how much pretended truth one can stand to lose; the difficulty of such a harrowing by philosophical introspection shows why such people are often so alone.
This breaking away of untruths is only one example of his goal of “philosophizing with a hammer,” as he says in Twilight of the Idols. Elsewhere, in Ecce Homo, he declares “I am not a man, I am dynamite!” Because of this particular method—that of breaking down the perceptions, assumptions, and, to quote his opening chapter of Beyond Good and Evil, prejudices that can hold people back from seeing or seeking truth—it’s debatable whether what Nietzsche did even was philosophy, since much of what he wrote more often sought to break down (or, to use the modern word, deconstruct) others’ ideas than build his own.
Still, he was no post-modernist of today; from his writing, I think he would have considered the identity-group-focused tactics and methods, as well as the often distraught simpering, of many in today’s deconstructionist movement as indicative of the very cultural weakness he saw confessed by and tried to prevent in Bismarckian Germany. Though it’s debatable whether such a thing would even be possible, he was trying to move past the empty shells of affected belief with a positive purpose: to help humans reach their full potential as humans. His was not an infinite regression of deconstruction, as one sees in much of today’s nihilism, which, judging by many of his aphorisms, he would have considered a devolution; his was a clearing away for the sake of future construction, for his envisioned revaluation of values.
To his credit, Nietzsche took his skepticism seriously, eschewing popular atheistic movements based on evolution and socialism as being just as religious as had been the preceding structures of the European church; both, in his view, were collective evasions, with the former not, in truth, an opposition but a continuation of the faith-based impulses of the latter. That is, because of the impulses to which it would give permission, the “discovery” of evolution may obscure man’s reason (under the guise of reason) as much as had the revelations of faith, both being, for most of their subscribers, essentially dogmas. Though he takes much of Darwinism for granted, he does not experience the same gleeful relief as others did, then or now. “Perhaps at the end,” he says in Dawn I.49, “[humanity] will be standing even lower than at the beginning!” As in all things and creating a philosophical wedge that would open the door for, among other things, deconstruction via psychoanalysis, Nietzsche’s eye was on what a certain stated belief or reaction says about what is really going on beneath the surface—which often did not align in the way people believed or hoped.
The rest of this post will focus on aphorisms from Nietzsche’s Dawn, which, itself, serves as a transition between the man’s initial work and his later, well, more Nietzschean works. Its style is wholly aphoristic, and it eschews the Hegelian-Kantian systems for reflection, jumping around, and layering. Its arguments aim at topics as diverse as the history of Christianity (namely St. Paul and Luther’s inherent pessimism about mankind and the implications thereof), to the differences between Christendom’s stated virtues and those opposite ones of the Greeks (debatable, as are any of his conclusions regarding Christianity, but consistent in its presentation), to the nature of criminality and madness, to more arguably lighter topics as diet’s, pets’, and marriage’s effects on the individual psychology.
I won’t lie—it took me longer to finish than other works by him that I’ve read, in the same way that reading through Shakespeare’s Sonnets, each as dense as the next, takes more time than reading through any one play. Nonetheless, I’ve seen many topics that he would distill and explore in later works. I’ll focus on aphorisms I deem relevant to todays’ cultural discourse, with a special eye for those that might argue against the deconstructionist movement that often claims him as founder, as well as ones which, though one rarely hears it about Nietzsche (N hereon), might argue for an attitude of conservatism about certain things (a topic I wrote on a while back). I’ll treat them generally in order, though I’ll skip around if there are related aphorisms. While I strive not to be a slouch, my reflections are to be taken as just that: reflections, and not an attempt at rigorous, expert explication.
Book I.2: Prejudice of the Learned.—Savants are quite correct in maintaining the proposition that men in all ages believed that they knew what was good and evil, praiseworthy and blamable. But it is a prejudice of the learned to say that we now know it better than any other age.
As a philologist, N had not only studied ancient history, culture, languages, and philosophy, but had also seen the methodology thereof. He was self-aware enough to realize and point out the implicit chronology bias in historians of his time, especially as that field and others were being co-opted by Bismarck’s attempts to promote the political culture of Germany via all of the country’s institutions. While one can see the beginnings of what would later become a key element of one version of multiculturalism, his focus on the “knowledge” that we know more than the past as a prejudice—an assumption that halts knowledge—sets the tone for much of the book’s later disruption of assumptions, even while including a jab at recency bias from the Enlightenment to now.
I.17: Goodness and Malignity.—At first men imposed their own personalities on Nature: everywhere they saw themselves and their like, i.e. their own evil and capricious temperaments, hidden, as it were, behind clouds, thunder-storms, wild beasts, trees, and plants: it was then that they declared Nature was evil. Afterwards there came a time, that of Rousseau, when they sought to distinguish themselves from Nature: they were so tired of each other that they wished to have separate little hiding-places where man and his misery could not penetrate: then they invented “nature is good.”
One of the many aphorisms devoted to human projection (and the negative identification of values from one’s projection), here N identifies the mirror that can be cultures’ view of nature. The “at first,” may be a veiled reference to the transition provided by Darwinism, but I doubt it’s that simple, since such a deep element of human psychology cannot be changed so quickly. It may, rather, be an example of the Greek-Christendom dichotomy he sets up in other places, but that doesn’t fit either. Perhaps it’s simply prehistory vs history, or prephilosophy vs philosophy. At any rate, the touchstone of Rousseau—whose “noble savage” myth still, explicitly or implicitly, energizes much post-French-Revolution worldview, culture, and politics—nonetheless stands as yet another example of nature being used to displace humanity’s implicitly low view of itself (which N critiques at other spots). Many today have noticed how much of today’s environmentalism consists less in a love for actual nature (which it often romanticizes) and more a hatred of humanity—something that would not surprise N, who saw such an act as uniquely human.
III.163: Against Rousseau.—If it is true that there is something contemptible about our civilisation, we have two alternatives: of concluding with Rousseau that, “This despicable civilisation is to blame for our bad morality,” or to infer, contrary to Rousseau’s view, that “Our good morality is to blame for this contemptible civilisation. Our social conceptions of good and evil, weak and effeminate as they are, and their enormous influence over both body and soul, have had the effect of weakening all bodies and souls and of crushing all unprejudiced, independent, and self-reliant men, the real pillars of a strong civilisation: wherever we still find the evil morality to-day, we see the last crumbling ruins of these pillars.” Thus let paradox be opposed by paradox! It is quite impossible for the truth to lie with both sides: and can we say, indeed, that it lies with either? Decide for yourself.
Taking Rousseau’s opposition to civilization seriously, Nietzsche here examines a possible counterpoint: whether or not civilization, as experienced by Rousseau, is not a result of something more, the (implicitly Christian) definitions of good and evil and the degradation of the definitions and values of the Greeks. Thus Rousseau (and those who follow him) is not as countercultural as he believes himself; indeed, those who oppose 18th and 19th (and, presumably, 20th and 21st?) century civilization may be the most willingly unreflective products of it. This argument has been made about the self-styled counterculture of the 1960s, who, in their wholesale emphasis on nonconformity, were pathologically conformist.
In this aphorism one also sees N’s identification of those individuals branded as evil by society as, possibly, the greatest of men—for whose abundant spirit (explored below) they were branded as evil, despite their being essential to a culture’s survival. Not to be missed is N’s caveat that neither perspective may be true; he does not close the question by answering it for his reader.
I.73: For the “Truth”!—“The truth of Christianity was attested by the virtuous lives of the Christians, their firmness in suffering, their unshakable belief and above all by the spread and increase of the faith in spite of all calamities.”—That’s how you talk even now. The more’s the pity. Learn, then, that all this proves nothing either in favour of truth or against it; that truth must be demonstrated differently from conscientiousness, and that the latter is in no respect whatever an argument in favour of the former.
One of N’s many separations of the early Christians’ passion and martyrdom and their argument, wherein he sees an insecurity of the latter in the fervence of the former (granted, in a much more even-handed way than his other, later treatment of the subject). Ignoring the strawmanning of early Christianity (the arguments for which are better left to Augustine and Aquinas, etc), here I’ll focus on the idea at issue: the confusion of personal life and vehemence with the truth of one’s arguments—that is, the confusion of a person’s ethos and their logos.
This has application everywhere, from judging the truth of certain groups/organizations/movements’ claims vs their methods or from judging the (in)effectiveness of presidents vs their personal lives or public personae. Indeed, one application can be, as with anything from N, to use it negatively: the better someone like, say, a politician tries to make themselves look (ethically, aesthetically, whatever), the less one should take the truth of their arguments for granted. Keep in mind—I may be thinking of a different politician than you! This only speaks to the broad applicability, if not truth, of N’s present insight.
I.82: The Theological Attack.—“You must arrange that with yourself; for your life is at stake!”—Luther it is who suddenly springs upon us with these words and imagines that we feel the knife at our throats. But we throw him off with the words of one higher and more considerate than he: “We need form no opinion in regard to this or that matter, and thus save our souls from trouble. For, by their very nature, the things themselves cannot compel us to express an opinion.”
Here N stylizes what he takes as the essentially pathos argument utilized by some Christians, then and now, to frighten others into conversion, identifying it with vivid imagery as an unsolicited act of extortion. Nietzsche responds with the words of another (I couldn’t find either note or explanation of whom he’s quoting—closest I’ve found is either Plato, Aristotle, or Locke; ANYONE WHO KNOWS OR HAS A MORE ROBUSTLY ANNOTATED EDITION THAN MINE, PLEASE COMMENT BELOW!).
As if hearing other such extortions of opinion (and confession?) implied by similar ultimatums in the future (“Educate yourself!”), N offers a simple “No,” maintaining the prerogative to save his soul from trouble and relieving a certain perspective of the moral pathos placed onto it by someone who might wish to force others to see it the same way they do. That N identifies it as, by nature, a theological or religious attack only underscores how he would most likely see such types of arguments today—which have less to do with the argument, itself, and more to do with its method—as more faith- rather than reason-based.
III.155: Extinct Skepticism.—Hazardous enterprises [“Bold and daring exploits” in another translation] are rarer in modern times than in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, probably because modern times have no more belief in omens, oracles, stars, and soothsayers. In other words, we have become incapable of believing in a future which is reserved for us, as the ancients did, who—in contradistinction to ourselves—were much less skeptical regarding that which is to be than that which is.
Touching on the larger emptying of abstract and mystical belief he would, in The Gay Science, sum up in his famous dictum “God is dead, God remains dead, and we have killed Him,” N here briefly examines whether or not a baby had been thrown out with the bathwater of belief (his sentiment, not necessarily mine; perhaps not even his!). Others have asked similar questions—why hasn’t universal education led to a universal populace of Shakespeares? etc.—and N provides the answer: a lack of belief in “omens, oracles, stars, and soothsayers” may very well also be a lack of belief in significance of action, and action’s primary drive, per se. The question of belief in any one person’s or group’s having a future “reserved” for them, to the exclusion and, one would no doubt hear today, detriment of other people or groups, has become a major issue of debate and division, from individuals disagreeing about the merits of celebrating their own country’s independence or founding day to the global politics of countries eschewing vs those following an unquestioned mandate—the latter of which N may have more likely bet on for the future.
III.174: The Moral Fashion of a Commercial Community.—Behind the principle of the present moral fashion: “Moral actions are actions performed out of sympathy for others,” I see the social instinct of fear, which thus assumes an intellectual disguise: this instinct sets forth as its supreme, most important, and most immediate principle that life shall be relieved of all the dangerous characteristics which it possessed in former times, and that every one must help with all his strength towards the attainment of this end. It is for that reason that only those actions which keep in view the general security and the feeling of security of society are called “good.” How little joy must men now have in themselves when such a tyranny of fear prescribes their supreme moral law, if they make no objection when commanded to turn their eyes from themselves and to look aside from themselves! And yet at the same time they have lynx eyes for all distress and suffering elsewhere! Are we not, then, with this gigantic intention of ours of smoothing down every sharp edge and corner in life, utilising the best means of turning mankind into sand! Small, soft, round, infinite sand! Is that your ideal, ye harbingers of the “sympathetic affections”? In the meantime even the question remains unanswered whether we are of more use to our neighbour in running immediately and continually to his help,—which for the most part can only be done in a very superficial way, as otherwise it would become a tyrannical meddling and changing,—or by transforming ourselves into something which our neighbour can look upon with pleasure,—something, for example, which may be compared to a beautiful, quiet, and secluded garden, protected by high walls against storms and the dust of the roads, but likewise with a hospitable gate.
I won’t be able to get to everything in this aphorism, but it touches on the apparent cause and eventual effect of seeking to ridding life of all danger: pathological timidity. Pointing out the Christian assumption that “sympathy=moral” that he investigates at several parts of the book, N sets up a “fear-sympathy-security-morality” axis. N points out that the result, if not the goal, of such a perspective is to reduce the joy people take in themselves as human and to increase the searching not for greatness but for distress and suffering.
N foresees the types of people who would grow out of such a thing: small, virtually indistinguishable, who will search, tyrannically and in meddlesome ways, for parts of life that are not sufficiently sympathetic—for others’ own good! One is reminded of C.S. Lewis’s quote from God in the Dock: Essays in Theology on the tyranny done for the good of its victim.
Elsewhere N points out that the Enlightenment was a necessary result and child, and not a contradiction, of Protestantism. Similarly, one irony of this sentiment is that the modern push against Christianity as being intolerant—as can be seen every time an SJW quotes Christ’s injunction not to judge on behalf of actions and lifestyles that scripture arguably explicitly judges elsewhere—would, from the aphorism’s perspective, be itself a continuation of Christianity, or at least what N identifies as its softer, timid-making, and (thus) implicitly tyrannous morality. One wonders who would be less enthused by the relation, the parent or the child.
IV.214: What Indulgence!—You suffer, and call upon us to be indulgent towards you, even when in your suffering you are unjust towards things and men! But what does our indulgence matter! You, however, should take greater precautions for your own sake! That’s a nice way of compensating yourself for your sufferings, by imposing still further suffering on your own judgment! Your own revenge recoils upon yourselves when you start reviling something: you dim your own eyes in this way, and not the eyes of others; you accustom yourself to looking at things in the wrong way, and with a squint.
The last aphorism I’ll examine here (though by no means the last one arguably relevant today) involves the expectation of others to indulge one’s misbehaving out of a state of supposed suffering. The primary negative effect of seeking such indulgence (besides causing others to suffer) is that the aimed-at indulgence makes the individual less able to deal with suffering (or reality) in the future; one learns to live with “a squint,” metaphorically a psychological handicap. In other words, it solidifies the suffering, rather than learning to rise above it using virtues N elsewhere identifies as greater, stronger, and more resilient. Furthermore, it causes them to be unable to understand things correctly in the future.
Once again, N was a prescient diagnoser, especially when this aphorism is applied to our modern culture of trigger warnings and safetyism. In The Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry (Vol 61, “Trigger Warning: Empirical evidence ahead,” pp134-141), Benjamin W. Bellet, Payton J. Jones, and Richard J. McNally found that trigger warnings were self-reinforcing—that they tended to increase people’s emotional vulnerability to trauma (incidentally enough, upon reading Crime and Punishment’s murder scene). The implication is that the best and most truly sympathetic way to help someone suffering in this way may be to not indulge the unjust acts committed by the person, but to rather require (and help) them rise out of the suffering by being able to endure and overcome it.
These are only a few thoughts from a book often overlooked when one approaches N. I would not recommend Dawn as an entry into the man’s writing (I started with “Birth of Tragedy” and Beyond Good and Evil, reading Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist alongside). Nonetheless, the book includes many of the ideas he would later explore and which would become his most well-known.
Ironically to his method, aim, and effect on history, many of N’s conclusions in Dawn would most likely brand him firmly as a conservative today. In a sense, he was a conservative (according to Roger Scruton, everyone is about the things they love): he was trying to conserve what he saw as the best virtues available to mankind, which he saw embodied more in the ancient Greeks than virtually any country in 19th-century Europe. Because of this, and the fact that his method—Nietzsche’s Hammer, vs a Razor—is just as dangerous for those who would claim him as a source and muse as it was designed to be at the time he developed it against those of his day, he would most likely be canceled today as a member of the right.
A greater irony is that such a censoring would only confirm his evaluation of “the evil of weakness [,which] wants to do harm and see the signs of suffering it has caused” (IV.371, italics in original); it would also be a willful cutting off of one possible means whereby the canceling (and necessarily weaker) entity might gain the confidence to develop actual, and not just stated, tolerance of things different. To quote one last aphorism on actions that reveal one’s psychology, “to believe that one is in possession of the good cause and to know that one is not adept at defending it—this makes for a furious and irreconcilable hatred directed against the enemies of one’s own cause. Let everyone calculated from this where his worst enemies are to be found!” (IV.416, italics in original). According to Nietzsche, the desire to utterly destroy an enemy perspective is, itself, not just revelatory but self-destructive; that may be the most salient idea we can get from the man, at least today.