Nietzschean Nonsense and the Nazis

Apart from his claim that “God is dead,” Friedrich Nietzsche is best known for his doctrine of the Superman, a superior being who treats all other human creatures as his vassals and inferiors, doing with them whatever he pleases, while paying not the slightest regard to their needs and desires. There have been many admiring readers of Nietzsche’s works who have sought to defend his ideas against their expropriation by the Nazis as a justification for their barbaric actions. To explain the behaviour of these Nietzschean Ninnies, it is only necessary to know that admiration and contempt are incompatible, and while they clearly admire Nietzsche, they feel nothing but contempt for the Nazis. Hence, they conclude from their feelings – and not from the facts – that the two doctrines are different and cannot possibly have anything in common. But their view is wrong, for the truth is that there was nothing that the Nazis did that was inconsistent with Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Superman.

Nietzsche showed a strong preference for the values of the aristocrats, the celebration of strong warlike heroes, over the Christian morality of compassion for the weak. […] His artistic heroes like Beethoven and Shakespeare were far superior to the herd. The message seems to be that Christian values, which emerged from envy in the first place, were holding humanity back. The cost might be that the weak get trampled on, but that was a price worth paying for the glory and achievement that this opened up for the powerful.

In Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-92) he wrote about the Übermensch or ‘Super-Man’. This describes an imagined person of the future who is not held back by conventional moral codes, but goes beyond them, creating new values. Perhaps influenced by his understanding of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, he saw the Übermensch as the next step in humanity’s development. This is a bit worrying, partly because it seems to support those who see themselves as heroic and want to have their way without consideration of other people’s interests. Worse still, it was an idea that the Nazis took from Nietzsche’s work and used to support their warped views about a master race, though most scholars argue that they distorted what Nietzsche actually wrote.[1]

He represents the higher stage of humanity, but LISTEN! This stage is only reached when the masses are sacrificed to the élite!
In other words, the sine qua non of the Superman’s existence is man’s exploitation of man.

Just as Marx and Engels mistakenly attributed humanity’s meekness and subservience to the teachings of Christianity and to religion in general, Nietzsche made the same mistake when he attributed humanity’s mediocrity and lack of progress to this same maligned source, namely Christian morality. But these limitations are actually due to an innate feature of humanity – namely, inhibition – which restrains and limits our behaviour and prevents us from doing things that we haven’t observed other people doing before.

If God is dead, what comes next? That’s the question Nietzsche asked himself. His answer was that it left us without a basis for morality. Our ideas of right and wrong and good and evil make sense in a world where there is a God. They don’t in a godless one. Take away God and you take away the possibility of clear guidelines about how we should live, which things to value.[3]

In rejecting God, Nietzsche failed to understand the true source of human morality, which does not arise from God or any religious texts,[4] but from the observation of what is most commonly done and, just as important, what is not done by other people.

Like so many other philosophers and their numerous imitators, Nietzsche had a very poor understanding of human behaviour; moreover, like other philosophers, he believed that, godlike, he could refashion humanity, or encourage others to refashion humanity, according to his cherished but mistaken beliefs. His vision of the Superman has appealed to many individuals who scorn the majority of people as stupid, worthless, uninspiring, unimprovable, and fornicating masses who perpetuate their mediocrity in their equally mediocre and worthless progeny. Moreover, it has confirmed their contempt of, and sense of superiority over, others by giving a pseudo-historical justification for it, namely, the belief that all progress results from the struggle of the outstanding individual against the envious hatred and inhibiting conformity of the masses.

Many people have interpreted Nietzsche’s philosophy of the Superman to mean only an overcoming of societal conventions and limitations, and not a wholesale subjugation of all those who are weaker than oneself to oneself, merely because one has the will and the power to do so. Moreover, most of Nietzsche’s admiring readers do not identify themselves with the mediocre masses who will one day be overcome by, and made subservient to, the Superman.

To understand how odious Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Superman really is, we need only consider the fact that the manner in which we human beings treat other living organisms – by killing, enslaving, subjugating, eradicating, castrating, selectively breeding, and experimenting on them in order to satisfy our appetites, improve our chances of survival, or enhance our comfort and convenience – is exactly the manner in which Nietzsche advocated that the Superman behave towards all those human beings who are inferior to himself. For in our relations with other organisms, we have become Nietzsche’s hateful Superman, the so-called superior being that subjugates, enslaves, eradicates, and annihilates other living creatures whenever and wherever it pleases him to do so in order to achieve his glorious aims.

Nietzsche believed that, at some time in the future, there would arise a race of human beings who are superior – physically, intellectually, and morally – to the present lot of people, and therefore these members of the superior race could do whatever they liked with them.[5] This is precisely what has happened in the development of humanity. Whereas, for most of human history, our ancestors were on the same level as other creatures, neither dominating over nor being dominated by them, beginning a few thousand years ago, we gradually came to dominate over them, due to our cultural achievements, and not to our genetic evolution.

Many are the paeans that glorify our innate superiority over the rest of Creation because of our great wisdom and intellect, proclaiming that the Earth and all its living creatures were put here solely to satisfy our needs and desires, and to do with whatever we please. But this egotistical view ignores the fact that the Earth and its many living inhabitants existed for a very, very long time before we achieved our present state of transient dominance.

According to this myopic mode of reasoning, it could just as legitimately be said that the zebra or antelope was put on the Earth in order for the lion or crocodile to have something to eat, that flowers were put on the Earth so that honeybees could collect their pollen and nectar to feed their numerous colonies, that small fish were put on the Earth for big fish to swallow, and that human beings were created expressly for rats, bacteria, hyena, worms, crabs, vultures, fungi, and other organisms to feed on after their deaths.

The basic fact about Life is that, in one way or another, all forms of life depend on and use or consume the living bodies or the dead remains of other life forms in order to survive, in addition to depending on the non-animate things, conditions, and processes that exist on the Earth and enable Life to flourish, such as copious amounts of water and rainfall, regular sunlight, a protective atmosphere and electromagnetic field, and moderate temperatures. Hence, the very fact that we exist means that there will exist things on this planet that we can consume and use in other ways in order to live our lives and develop; for if these things did not exist, then we too would not exist. But it does not follow from these facts that that was their sole purpose – that they were created solely for our survival, pleasure, and development as a species. According to this sort of overly simplistic reductionist logic, the sole function of human beings is to beget offspring in order to perpetuate our species, a view that would be strenuously denied by many people living today who do not regard parenting as the sole or even the most important purpose of their lives.

Merely because we are able to use the wood, skins, furs, bones, seeds, fruits, leaves, milk, and flesh that are produced by other organisms does not mean that this is their sole reason for being. Contrary to this view, a tree produces wood, not so that we can cut it down and transform it into furniture, houses, kindling, books, paper, ornaments, chopsticks, toys, shelves, or toothpicks, but so it can grow above other forms of vegetation and collect the sunshine it needs in order to grow and reproduce itself. Moreover, this sturdy and majestic wooden skeleton, besides providing a support for its large canopy of leaves, enables it to withstand the elements – the wind, rain, and freezing winter cold that would kill any human being that had to remain outside, like most trees, all the time, year after year after year.

This egotistic attitude towards the rest of Creation is encapsulated in the phrase “natural resource,” which regards all other living organisms as mere inputs into our infernal industrial machines and processes that transform them into things that we want to buy and consume, without any regard for their feelings, well-being, or survival. This incredibly narcissistic interpretation of the wonders of Creation is evidence of a stunted and limited understanding that has been radically divorced from the generous Nature that is the source of all Life on Earth. The Biblical story of the fall from the state of grace in which Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden symbolizes our profound separation from the nurturing harmony and balance of Nature. Collectively, more and more human beings that are alive today are behaving towards other living organisms as if they were Nietzschean Supermen and Superwomen, assured of their superiority and their moral right to do with them whatever they please, for the sole reason that they can, and not because what they do is right, good, or even sensible or necessary.

Other creatures take from their fellow living creatures what they need in order to survive and perpetuate their kind, but they do so in a restrained manner that does not threaten the prey species’ survival. Lions and crocodiles do not threaten the survival of the zebras, antelopes, and other animals which they hunt and devour, whales do not threaten the survival of any of the fish, crustaceans, and plankton which they consume in vast numbers, hawks do not threaten the survival of the smaller birds and animals which they prey on, and microbes, viruses, and bacteria do not threaten the survival of the host species which they kill in order to multiply and survive. It is only we immoderately gluttonous human beings that inconsiderately crowd out, overhunt and overfish, or simply annihilate other living species with our many deadly artificial chemicals, while we take up more and more space to house and feed our ever-multiplying numbers. All of these selfish actions make it increasingly difficult for a great many of the Earth’s other living creatures to survive.

To illustrate what Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Superman really means, let us suppose that an intellectually or physically superior species were to reach the Earth, or one day evolve, and conquer our species. According to Nietzsche’s argument that might makes right, the members of that species would be justified in doing whatever they like with us, including devouring us, imprisoning us in cages until we are fit for whatever purpose they choose to use us, castrating our males and artificially impregnating our females, separating children from their parents, perhaps to consume their tender and uncorrupted flesh, milking lactating mothers and drinking the milk or making cheese with it, experimenting on us as the Nazis experimented on Jews and other “degenerates,” and perhaps eradicating us as a dangerous and pestilential nuisance.

In contrast to the stupidly immoral Nietzschean view that the strong can do whatever they like with the weak, without restraint or limitation, here is an alternative view of our species’ superiority to all other forms of life and the responsibilities it entails:

As H. Fielding Hall reported from Burma:

To him [a Burmese] men are men, and animals are animals, and men are far the higher. But he does not deduce from this that man’s superiority gives him permission to ill-treat or kill animals. It is just the reverse. It is because man is so much higher than the animal that he can and must observe towards animals the very greatest care, feel for them the very greatest compassion, be good to them in every way he can.[6]

Until Copernicus advanced the idea that the Sun, and not the Earth, lies at the centre of the solar system, it was widely believed that our puny little planet lay at the centre of the Universe. Today, there are many people who believe that human beings occupy the centre of the Natural world. According to this belief, we are the greatest and most important of all of God’s many wondrous living creations, around whom all the other inferior organisms revolve, to do with as we please. It is time for this preposterous belief to be exposed for the dangerous falsehood that it is, for it will lead to our destruction, and, moreover, it is completely unworthy of the superior creatures that we so often flatter ourselves to be.

[1] A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton, chapter 29. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2011.

[2] Nietzsche for Beginners by Marc Sautet, 4th movement. For Beginners LLC, Danbury, Connecticut, 1990.

[3] A Little History of Philosophy, chapter 29.

[4] Religious texts or what some people believe are divine commands, such as the Ten Commandments, are able to influence morality only to the extent that they are able to influence the dominant models of behaviour. In places, times, and among groups of people where this influence is absent, such as the present age in the case of some of the Ten Commandments, they have no effect on people’s behaviour.

[5] I suspect that most people are not aware that Nietzsche would have been outraged by the comic-book depiction of his concept of the Superman, since the comic-book Superman uses his superhuman powers to save and serve those who are weaker than he is, which is a complete perversion of Nietzsche’s idea, rather than using his superior powers, strength, and intellect to dominate over and subjugate them in order to accomplish his aims, whatever these happen to be.

[6] Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher, p. 86. Hartley & Marks, Point Roberts, Washington, 1999.