Nietzsche, Romanticism, Reason, Nazism, and Squished Worms

imagesThe other day in the post office I saw two caregivers wheeling severely disabled people – and I do mean severely. Such sights are disturbing to me, like seeing squished worms is disturbing. But my second thought was that these people were not squished – to the contrary. I doubt they were even capable of having any kind of lives, but our society does its damnedest for them. Maybe it doesn’t make sense from a strict utilitarian standpoint. But we do it anyway, because we consider it a moral imperative. I exited the post office feeling very good about our society.



Shortly after, I happened to read an article about Bertrand Russell and his attributing Nazism to German philosophical antecedents. The article actually criticized Russell’s analysis. But in any case, a basic point should be clear: We’re often told that the Holocaust was the (perhaps inevitable) end product of The Enlightenment’s “cult of reason.” Yet in fact, the Holocaust was not the child of Enlightenment philosophy, but of the reaction to it – romanticism – not the cult of reason but of feeling, the cult of abjuring rationality.

Of course, Nietzsche’s name was prominent in the article, whose author sort of defended him against Russell’s critique.

Nietzsche Nietzsche Nietzsche Nietzsche

Nietzsche Nietzsche
Nietzsche Nietzsche

Though dressed up in a lot of grandiosity and histrionics, what Nietzsche was really all about was the supposed moral rightness of squishing worms – or, rather, human beings, some of whose lives he deemed worth less than others, and hence they should be victimized by their betters. The article’s author denied that Nietzsche was necessarily thinking of himself as one of his superior beings. I don’t see how that matters. This is still a crock of garbage; the antithesis of humanist Enlightenment rationalism. And one can easily see how such bad ideas get you to Nazism, squishing people like those I saw in the post office, and of course a great many others, whose lives were considered unworthy in exactly the Nietzschean sense, who were thus exterminated not merely from expediency but as a positively right thing to do.

images-2But, to be fair, I too believe that some people should be killed. Like the Nazi leaders hanged at Nuremburg.


17 Responses to “Nietzsche, Romanticism, Reason, Nazism, and Squished Worms”

  1. Alfredo De La Fe. Says:

    My personal views are considered “wrong” by the PC world we live in. I DO believe that individual humans have different value as a whole. BUT- I believe that we contribute to our own “value”.

    I am not talking about comparing a doctor to a maid. While arguments can be made that a doctor contributes more to society I think that is rubbish because the maid contributes to her family which may contribute to a future doctor and so on.

    An example of what I mean- you have people that are violent sociopaths. Can these people change? Sure, anything is possible, however unlikely. But as long as someone is a violent sociopath and actually becomes a burden on society, they are worth less than those that are “good citizens”,in fact, their value is a big negative. (Thus the reason why I have no moral qualms with the death penalty) The same can be said for pedophiles, certain classes of rapists, nazi leaders, etc.

    As for the severely disabled. I do not view them as worth less than other members of society. Even in the worst of cases, these people contribute to society by reminding us of how fragile life is and in the very act of caring for them teaches us the need for compassion and responsibility to care for those that are less capable of caring for themselves. They give us the opportunity to be better individuals and as such, contribute to society as a whole.

  2. Moses Wildermuth Says:

    It has been shown that even the Neanderthals cared for their elderly and injured or disabled tribe members as best they could. As Spock might say, “It’s the ‘human’ thing to do.” Being human is not about making the most logical choices. They have recently shown that 80% of our actions are guided by our ‘illogical’ subconscious mind.

    But this seems related to why military training almost always includes some sort of indoctrination to dehumanize the “enemy”, whoever that might be at the time. In the US a short list would look something like: the French (when we were allied with the British), the British (when we allied with the French to break away from Britain), the Indians (When we were stealing their land and destroying their food sources), the Mexicans (when we thought it would work out better if some of their land was part of our land), then we almost got into with the Brits and Canadians again over the Northwest Border, but then the Spaniards came along (when we wanted to build world-wide navy bases and also needed a place to build a canal to connect them), the Germans (WWI- our big chance to redraw the map of Europe), the Japanese (even before WWII officially started, they were attacking our friends in mainland China), the Germans AGAIN (WWII), the Commies (McCarthyism, N. Korea, N. Viet Nam, Mainland China, Soviet Union, Cuba, etc.), and finally let’s not forget the Terrorists (Iraq, Afghanistan and the “War on Terror”; though considering the actions of a handful of humans on 9/11, dehumanizing ‘Terrorists’ kinda writes its own script, but Identifying a ‘Terrorist’, that’s where it a little more tricky). This all sounds pretty bad. I obviously didn’t try to sugar coat it, but I’d be willing to bet all the major European countries have lists just as bad but they could go back 2 or 3 thousands of years, not just 2-300. In Ruanda Civil War, one group of people were constantly referred to as “cockroaches that should be hunted down and killed”. The Cro-mags probably dehumanized the Neanderthals too. but history has shown again and again that current and former “dehumanized enemies” can easily become future allies. Even the Cro-Mags eventually seem to have blended with the Neanderthals rather than exterminating them, but can the indoctrination, not just of the military but of the general population as well, be so easily reversed?

    I’m not sure whether there is a point to all that or not. It’s just what this article made me think about and then it just came out. The Germans were indoctrinated (by the Nazi leadership) to consider Jews, Gypsies, disabled people, and others as dehumanized enemies of the state, along with actual enemy soldiers. They were probably considered even less human than an enemy soldier, because with an enemy soldier you may still consider him and all his kind to be a monster while admiring his ability to fight back. Meanwhile, you were told that Jews, disabled humans and all the others were worthless parasites that were either stealing or otherwise draining away your country’s resources and probably stealing the food from your baby’s mouth too. On the surface this smacks of Nietzcheism, But I think it was the red herring. The leaders needed an angle that both the people and the military could not only believe but accept as ordinary truth, but the real motive behind much of it could be as simple as Greed. The Nazi regime confiscated untold millions of dollars in cash for the war effort, valuable plots of land, and rare, valuable treasures (some of which are still coming to light in 2013) from these dehumanized ‘enemies’. An insane effort to actually achieve some impossibly high level of ‘genetic purity’ is probably a genuine motive behind most of the persecution of the Disabled and others who were just “different”. Not ONLY were they stealing food because they couldn’t or didn’t work for it, but worse than that, Nazi leaders probably honestly believed that the very presence of the disabled in society makes that society less genetically pure. To be clear, one motive is just as sick and twisted as the other, but its possible that Nazi leaders were telling the people one thing (everyone must work to insure survival of the fittest) but believing another (genetic purity and greed).

    Sorry I didn’t mean to write a book, but sometimes I can’t help myself. In this case, there is no actual ‘good” answer as to why they did what they did, but at the same time, it happens every day to one degree or another and in nearly every country in the world, someone is the “enemy” and is not “human” like us.

  3. frank S. Robinson Says:

    People who commit what society defines as crimes — that is, acts that harm other people (at least that’s MY definition) — should be punished. It’s to minimize such harms. It has nothing to do with whether any person, or any class of persons, is more “valuable” than another. We can make such judgments as individuals — but when society makes such judgments, that’s the road to Hell.

  4. Alfredo De La Fe. Says:

    Frank, I don’t entirely agree. One of the problems we face as society is that we are so afraid of “judging” and assigning value to individuals. Look at all of the debates over how to handle pedophiles. Quite frankly, the value of the potential victims is so much greater than the pedophile that I would not object to the death penalty for pedophilia. (Based on the actual definition of pedophile)

    The last comment posted a company name, but these are my opinions, I don’t know why it changed it in my settings…

  5. Frank S. Robinson Says:

    The equal dignity and worth of every human life is a fundamental principle. But it has no applicability to punishment of crimes by individuals. Pedophilic rape is a grave crime that merits severe punishment.
    (I changed the identification of your earlier comment to your name.)

  6. Alfredo De La Fe. Says:

    How do you define value? Is it who’s life is more important? Is a pedophile of equal worth to his victim? Or a pedophile to a homeless person suffering from mental illness? In certain circumstances the answer is easy enough to come up with. As much as we like to think otherwise, we assign “value” (or worth) to individuals all of the time whether or not we realize it.

    There are very few circumstances where a persons value is impacted by their actions and/or inactions. But there are certain people that are still breathing that are not worth the air they inhale.

  7. Karl Miller Says:

    Ah, Nietzsche-bait! I suppose I’m obliged to take it, given my endorsement of his work on free will and consciousness in your other posts. I came to Nietzsche by way of his earliest (and most lucid) work, The Birth of Tragedy, whose insights on aesthetics are invaluable and will likely survive his insights on … race relations.

    Suffice it to say, Nietzsche hung far too much import on the notion of race, what it could determine and what it could explain. His exploration of the innate, unconscious, inherited traits and drives led him to use this word race when the more clinical and accurate term would be something like “super-ego” (for what is an Uber Mensch but a Super-Duper Ego?). Throughout his career, he teased out a proto-psychology that Freud – no friend of Nazism, he – would later applaud, embrace and expand. And one of the great, sporting philosophical hypotheticals remains: what the hell would Nietzsche have made of the Nazis had he not died of syphilis at the dawn of the 20th century?

    (Ricky Gervais has a stand-up bit about this:

    Your example of the severely disabled people at the post office is especially apt since Nietzsche – bedeviled by infirmity his whole adult life – would fall into the care of his anti-Semitic sister for a decade of total helpless madness before he died. I’m sure you’ve heard (or maybe that article points out) that Nietzsche’s manuscripts were somewhat mangled by his Jew-hating sister. His explicit discussions of the Jews were much more ambiguous. He deeply admired their heritage, the way they cast off their own slavery and marched into the blank desert with nothing but … well … racial cohesion to keep them going. He thought their religion introduced new, pernicious ethical systems, but he thought Christianity did the same only more so and much worse. And the only people he criticized more heavily were … the anti-Semites: people too dumb, too enamored of their own “ressentiment” to be capable of anything beautiful or good in the world.

    Thank you for pointing out the Romanticism/Rationalism distinction. (Might you favor us with a link to the article you found?) What’s chilling about the Nazi conquest is not just its psychopathy, but the fact that its various foreign and domestic atrocities dove-tailed so easily with good, polite, rational, scientific imperatives for business, industry, efficiency and cleanliness. At the time, Marxists thought they had the final word on the rational organization of society and Hitler’s rise owes as much to a collusion with fearful business titans as it does to his skills at mass-hypnosis. This perverse relationship between the baser appetites for murder and fuckery on the one hand, and rational, ethical justifications on the other … was what Nietzsche and later Freud would spend their careers trying to anatomize: we feel first and then we rationalize, which makes noble hypocrites of us all. We say we’re humanitarian when other humans are listening, but the rest of the time, we show far more allegiance to our country, class, state, city, family … and individual self. Some people even subscribe to noxious horse-shit like Objectivism, under the banner of an undefined, transcendent principle of fair and judicious Reason, all the while craving the Objectivist eschatology of global destruction, rape and … yes … triumph of the superior will and intellect.

    Germany was barely a state (and democratic nation-states were barely a thing) before the Kaiser plunged it into destruction and humiliation. The democratic second Reich presided over the agonizing fallout and then Hitler galvanized the young and hobbled German psyche by giving it an inner enemy to blame (Jews, Communists, cripples) and an outer enemy to pursue (the rest of earth). That is the mass psychology at work — and psychology, as Nietzsche and Freud showed, does not hew to the rational or the emotional; it aspires to engage them both, give them both their due. Consider: Hitler’s spell got millions of Germans to march and murder in blind servitude – all while convincing each clone and conscript that *they* were the real masters! This is Nietzsche’s “herd morality” at its finest and he would have laughed at all the goose-stepping. Now, if Hitler made everyone his herd, then surely Hitler himself must have been an example of Nietzsche’s “master morality” yes? Well maybe Nietzsche would have admired Hitler’s … um … tenacity? Will-to-power? But the most Hitler ever *built* was a nice highway system. For that, he flushed away everything that was exalted and sublime in German art, science and philosophy. He was in far greater thrall to death itself, death for its own sake. It’s the only way you never run out of enemies. It is the height of “ressentiment” – which is to say, the height of everything Nietzsche found ugly and cringe-worthy in his own people.

  8. Frank S. Robinson Says:

    The article was in Philosophy Now magazine:
    But only viewable by subscribers.
    I confess I have not studied Nietzsche. I have no desire to do so, since everything I’ve ever read about him and his philosophy has struck me as repulsive. He was all into masters and slaves and the natural rightness of that relation. I prefer what Jefferson said: “The mass of Mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them.”

  9. Karl Miller Says:

    Well, Frank, if you’re going to spill so many words against him you might boost your case by reading, quoting or analyzing a few from the primary source.

    And if your going to talk of masters and slaves you would do well to find a better spokesperson than the master of Monticello.

  10. Frank S. Robinson Says:

    Touche. But Jefferson himself was acutely conscious of the contradiction. In his time, he could not figure out how to resolve it. And in his time, extremely few white people did not regard black people as inherently of lesser value and lesser humanity. But at least Jefferson’s thinking was more on the right track, about humankind in general, than Nietzsche’s. While again I have not read any of his books, I’ve been exposed to plenty of discussion about his thought. He vaunted the strong lording it over the weak (the “master” paradigm) as noble, and disparaged kindness and charity as reflective of an ignoble “slave” paradigm. To me, that’s as insane as Nietzsche in fact proved to be.

  11. Karl Miller Says:

    I admire TJ deeply for his stewardship and his writings on religion and statecraft, but it’s very difficult to read about all the effort he put into sparing tea-drinkers a couple pennies while keeping scores of people shackled and illiterate so his nail factory could hum along in retirement. The man founded the country, led the country, doubled the country … and still wanted a nail factory to his name. I suppose it’s too much to ask him to integrate the country he just founded, led and doubled. But, sheesh, he might have at least freed his own slaves on his deathbed, like Washington. I guess the mendacity and hypocrisy of that stings me more sometimes than the syphilitic ravings of Friedrich the Hermit.

    Nietzsche’s aesthetics, psychology and critique of religion is brilliant and I hope his awful politics don’t turn you off from The Birth of Tragedy, The Antichrist or The Gay Science someday. I’ve often wondered why Nietzsche had so little to say about America, apart from a couple dismissive references. He would have known about our slave trade and our Civil War by the time he was writing about masters and slaves. And Nietzsche railed against “equal rights” so much, you’d think he’d have something to say about the first country to be constituted according to that ideal.

  12. Frank S. Robinson Says:

    Jefferson couldn’t free his slaves because he couldn’t afford to. He ended his life deeply in debt, a great problem for his heirs. The fact is that he was a spendthrift who lived beyond his means. Nobody’s perfect. I still love him

  13. Karl Miller Says:

    What’s a little slavery if it affords one man’s caprice? Oh well, both legacies live on …

  14. Zack Burley Says:

    Frank I must say your disparaging comments on Nietzsche are disconcerting. You say you haven’t studied hum but are quite willing to disagree with him.
    Several things you need to understand. Nietzsche is a materialist first and foremost. His largest gripe was questions of value. Not limited to the value of people, but the value of everything. His method for answering questions of value was a genealogical method. Tracing the history of things and the various ways things came to hold significance. Any assertion that Nietzsche had a rule or list that could be settled into a number of maxims or commands on how to live one’s life grossly misunderstands Nietzschian perspectivism. He argued that there is NO transcendent morality, there is no set of value on one group or another in an absolute sense. Value is something created, it has a genealogy, just like everything else. This genealogy is the will to power, the make-up of forces. Nietzsche only works to interpret what the will to power is, which is a continually changing process, of becoming. If Nietzsche can be said to value anything, it is the ability to interpret the phenomena around oneself.
    What you call moral rightness is something Nietzsche would scoff at. He did not ask if something was right or wrong. Belief in an ascetic metaphysical unity, like “all jews have less value” or “people who do this have more value than people who do that” amounts to nihilism, a belief in nothing, which is exactly what Nietzsche rails against.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    Well put, Zach.

  16. Frank S. Robinson Says:

    So I guess Nietzsche does have his fans. I sincerely thank those who have shared their knowledge. We can always learn.

  17. Ben Says:

    Well this is a late comment on the article but I’m going to have to say this to the writer:
    A few years ago I would have outright agree with you. As a secular humanist who read Nietzsche I loathed what he had to say and saw it as the major influence of Nazism. But over the years I grew into being Nietzschean, and this is not to convert you or anything. But if you actually read Nietzsche as some of the earlier posts pointed out Nietzsche is about addressing the origins of our values. Nietzsche sees ourselves as self deceivers, people who constantly wish our lives were a certain way and have deep “Ressentiment” toward those who we wish we were; like how in his genealogy of morals he applies his theory of “Ressentiment” to Christians who condemned and demonized everything that came from greco-roman classed base society because the people of Galilee lived in poverty, and this makes sense even when you read something like Reza Aslan’s “Zealot”. So in short I’ll have to say Nietzsche is all about self honesty and affirming life regardless what happens. Admit to yourself when you are upset at yourself or another person, be weary of ideals (like the historical example in socialism) because the world doesn’t necessarily follow our ideals, and regardless the amount of suffering or lack of socio-economic success you attain; affirm this life to yourself that you would re-live your life for all of eternity going through even the bad again.

    Quickly on Nazisim on Reason in regards to Nietzsche. Nietzsche was first and foremost against antisemitism, thought it was an example of human “Ressentiment”, and it was one of the key issues that ended the friendship between him and Richard Wagner. Nietzsche also thought “the state” was a monstrosity that shamed the people (Nietzsche thought the most inhumane thing was to shame someone, Having lived with shame I concur) and he also thought nationalism was another blind ideal, in fact some people called Nietzsche as one of the first real European since he loved french and ancient greek literature and despised German culture. Lastly on Reason, Nietzsche sort of picks up the mantle from Rousseau as being the Anti-Reason (see how both were accused of influencing dangerous social upheavals such as the french revolution and Nazism due to misunderstanding) because nietzsche saw Reason as the destroyer of the Gods by trying to create an objective lens to discredit those beliefs but then Reason turns on itself because we now see there is no “Truth” with the capital T but just truths in the world. Things start becoming relative and even something like empathy allows to understand why somebody would do something outside the Norm. I could go on forever on Nietzsche but I’ll end it here.

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