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26 April 2012
Here’s another essay I wrote about a year ago as a response to an exam question. We were to look at American culture and decide whether it would be something in line with what the philosopher Fredrick Nietzsche would have approved of. Nietzsche used words like the “will to power.” To him power was everything and the truly superior people would act according to their own free will which would protect them from slavish fear and degradation. (Sound familiar? Watch Green Lantern again.) Nietzsche popularized the notion you may recognize when phrased like this, “God is dead, and we have killed him.” Below is the result of my labors.
From my limited knowledge of his thoughts, I understand Nietsche’s ideal society to be a place of raw individualism, free of society’s constraints. In such a place, individuals would live for themselves and their own interests. Freely chosen action without regard to anyone’s opinion but one’s own is the theme of Nietzsche’s writings. By following this path, humanity would be purified of its weaker elements. He saw Christianity as one of the greatest hindrances to this cause. In his own words, “The Christian church has left nothing untouched by its corruption; it has turned every truth into a lie, every integrity into a vileness of the soul.”
Nietzsche was absolutely right to predict a complete turnabout in our society from Christian values to something else, whatever that “else” is. The writing was on the wall since the Renaissance. It was particularly noticeable during the eighteenth century when every major European country seemed to brace itself against revolution. It is interesting to observe how Christian values have been trumped in large part over the last century or so. Pride has become the ultimate virtue and humility the worst vice, almost at the very top of the seven deadly sins. Being sexually active outside of marriage is no longer frowned upon as long as one practices safe sex (whatever that is) to avoid contracting a baby or some other nasty disease. We have replaced old values with even older vices and switched their names. In fond memory, we have retained some of the old values in shell form. We like to go to church and poke our Pillsbury dough boy in the sky whenever we feel discouraged or saddened by life. Few “Christians,” however, know the Christian experience–the anguish that comes from living in the world while continually fighting its pull, wanting to be accepted but finding an invisible wall in the way. There is no struggle anymore. You can do your own thing and go to church on the side. Still, for the most part, the Christian perspective has been overturned. If Nietzsche could be here now to see this transformation, would he be pleased? I doubt it. Certainly, he would be pleased with the dethroning of Christian values. Free will in society, however, is still a missing ingredient. Tagging along with the new value system is a new political correctness, and woe to those who violate it.
It seems logical that Nietzsche would recognize the importance of protecting the rights of individuals to follow their own self-interests unhindered. Rights are an interesting topic. It seems that everyone in the United States has had them at one time or another except the minority. It’s been that way from the beginning. First, we had rights but not the slaves or the women. Then women got their rights, but not the freed slaves. Then blacks got rights, but not the homosexuals. Now gays are getting their rights as more people come around to their persuasion, and people opposed to this had just better shut up and leave off the hate speech. Freedom of speech is flying out the window for the small minority of people who dislike gay pride. Depending on where Amercans live and when they live and who they are, they have rights. But every day, somebody is getting his rights trampled on…by the authorities who are supposed to be protecting them. This is not Nietzsche’s society.
Our society is sexually free and easy. Maybe it’s just a little less free and easy than Europe, but not much. We get condoms in school along with a pat on the head and an admonishment to, “Run along and have a fun time. Just be responsible.” Need information on sex? It’s out there in every conceivable form, from the magazines in the grocery isle to your Yahoo homepage when you log on in the morning. You don’t even have to look for it. It is the topic that everyone seems to have a working knowledge of in spite of the woeful lack of sex ed in our schools I’m always hearing about. We can do practically anything we want as long as we don’t force anyone into it, and as long as we are of a certain government-mandated age. But even amidst all this freedom, the pressure from society is on, whether it be the pressure to use protection, or the pressure to grow up already and get laid. I remember talking to a young friend several years back. She was disturbed and unhappy because she did not want to have sex yet, but she was constantly being picked on and teased because she was still a virgin. This type of thing may be isolated, but the fact remains that being sexually active in a healthy, baby and disease-free way is the new norm, and anyone who deviates from this standard is considered strange, repressed, a closet homosexual, perverted, you name it. The person who decides to remain celibate for whatever reason is considered odd at best. Conversely, the person who does not care if he gets a disease and dies, is considered unbalanced and in need of help. Nietzsche would say this man was exercising free will. If the man should die in the process, I could imagine Nietzsche saying, “Good riddance! One less weak person to clutter the earth.”
Originality, creativity, self-esteem, self-expression, the glorious and almighty self–these are the gods we worship now. It’s almost monotonous. I use wedding cake as my example. (In spite of the sexual revolution, marriage is still a popular activity for whatever reason.) I work at a bakery, and one of my jobs is to sit down with engaged couples and assist them in the process of ordering a wedding cake. I can spot and recognize them through the window before they even walk through the door. She’s carrying a large binder stuffed full of clippings from wedding magazines, color swatches, photos of the beadwork on her dress, and even pictures of the flowers her bridesmaids are carrying. Behind her she drags him, who is either bored out of his mind or intensely interested and supportive throughout the whole process. (I’m not sure which kind of groom is most disturbing.) I sit down with them and ask them what they have in mind.
She says, “Well, we really don’t like the traditional cake, you know with all the heavy decorations? We just want something more simple, kind of unique, more…us, you know?”
Of course I know. They want square tiers, preferably offset so that the corners do not match up, a simple scrollwork design or poke-a-dots or a combination of both, a monogram on the front of one tier, and a silver monogram ornament on the top tier. I know this even before I hear another word because I’ve been doing wedding cake orders for the last six years, and all the unique, original, creative, self-expressive cakes look like that–nearly the same as the last one. It’s the same story throughout every aspect of life. In our earnest efforts at self-expression, we end up copying everyone else. We even rebel the same way. At some point in time, someone decided to fight against the establishment by getting a nose ring and dying his hair some odd color. Now, body art is almost yawn-inducing. “Look, there goes another guy with an ear ring or a nose ring, or an I-shudder-to-think-where-else ring.” Human beings are not original by nature, with or without Christian ethics. I don’t think it’s a bad thing in and of itself, but Nietzsche would.
Our post-modern society, nearly stripped of Christian values, is certainly not Nietzsche’s dream. On some consideration, I wonder if there is such a thing as free will. If free will is acting without reference to anyone or anything but the self, then I’ve never witnessed it. Nietzsche would roll over in his grave at the present society just as violently as he would the previous one dominated by Christian values. The controls have been switched, but that’s all.