After my confused rant in last week’s post, and with the sting of my failure to understand Part 25 still fresh, I’m pleased to say that the message in Part 26 of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil is nice and plain. It’s simply worded, apt, and easy to understand.
It’s also extremely snooty.
It starts with a simple statement that’s reminiscent of last week’s bewildering installment of Nietzschean wisdom:
“Every choice human being strives instinctively for a citadel and a secrecy where he is saved from the crowd…where he may forget ‘men who are the rule’…”
Nietzsche continues by describing how unpleasant it is to associate with common folk, and how to do so causes disgust, sweating, gloominess, and other hyperbolic symptoms. But he goes on to say that any “choice human being” who doesn’t voluntarily submit to interaction with the masses, and who stays shut up in their citadel, was certainly not “[made and predestined] for knowledge.”
The desire for isolation might be the mark of an intellectual, according to Nietzsche, but that doesn’t mean that such a person should give in to that desire every moment of every day.
This is because “The long and serious study of the average man…constitutes a necessary part of the life-history of every philosopher, perhaps the most disagreeable, disappointing and odious part.”
Basically, it’s important for people to try to understand the average man, but only as an intellectual exercise whose every moment will be unbearable.
Thankfully, however, a person who’s taken it upon themselves to wade into the common crowd in search of knowledge will find great help from a particular sort of common person, according to Nietzsche. These people, who he refers to impersonally as “shortcuts,” are the Cynics, “…those who simply recognize the animal, the commonplace, and ‘the rule’ in themselves, and at the same time still have that degree of spirituality and that itch which makes them talk of themselves and their likes before witnesses…”
It’s from these cynics that a seeker of knowledge can most effectively learn from the average people with whom they surround themselves, according to Nietzsche. We should, he says, be glad for every chance we have to hear some “…coarse or subtle cynicism…”
“It happens more frequently…” Nietzsche declares, “…that a scientific head is placed on an ape’s body, a subtle and exceptional understanding in a base soul…”
These are pretty brutal descriptions, and I doubt all of the flattery in the world could make up for the use of terms like “ape” and “base soul.” Nietzsche is being unkind here, but the point at the bottom of his vitriol holds true.
He’s correct that it’s an impediment to knowledge to shelter yourself from people you find disagreeable. An academic’s understanding of the world will atrophy if they don’t spend time with working class people, just as a conservative does themselves no favors by shunning all liberals, and vice versa.
Nietzsche makes his point in a very specific and elitist way, but it’s a valid point nonetheless. There is no downside to exposing oneself to a wide variety of people, save for discomfort. And discomfort is no reason to avoid something worth doing.
Just because someone fancies themselves an intellectual doesn’t mean they won’t learn anything from those they hold to be “common.” From people who are “the rule,” as Nietzsche puts it.
Now, Nietzsche describes ways in which cynics might talk of people and existence in unflattering terms. They will be wont to talk about ugly subjects, and he gives the example of someone describing “…man as a belly with two requirements, and a head with one.” In this case he’s referring to hunger, lust, and vanity.
These are just the sort of things you should expect to hear from a cynic, Nietzsche says, but there’s wisdom in them. There’s wisdom in them, assuming they’re spoken without any prejudice or bitterness.
According to Nietzsche, there’s much to be learned from people who are unafraid to speak uncomfortable truths or make unpleasant observations.
“…in short, when anyone speaks ‘badly’—and not even ‘wickedly’—of man, the lover of knowledge should listen subtly and diligently…wherever people talk without indignation.”
Nietzsche attributes just such a manner of speaking to the cynics, and it’s for this reason that the “choice man” should seek out cynics among “common” people in order to make his time among them as profitable as possible.
It’s best to steer clear of anyone who complains about the human condition or any of its ugly aspects. It’s one thing to cheerfully accept even life’s less pleasant truths. But it’s another entirely to dwell on them and grow bitter.
Nietzsche sums up this point nicely in the final sentence of part 26 when he simply states that “…no-one lies as much as the indignant do.”
Part 26 of BGaE is pretentious, preachy, and downright dickish. But its message is quite clear. When you trim away the fat, Nietzsche has a couple excellent points to make here.
The first one is to Make sure you look for understanding outside of your comfort zone.
This couldn’t be simpler. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you shut out people who you’d rather not associate with. Nietzsche approaches this concept in a very biased manner—one that almost seems to invoke opposites, which I’m sure he didn’t mean to do, since he’s taken pains to discredit the notion of opposites—but that doesn’t make it a bad idea. It’s just a good idea laid out in an extremely obnoxious way.
The second good idea presented in Part 26 is that we should Be suspicious of observations accompanied by indignity or other strong emotions.
This is one case among many where Nietzsche leaves out any real evidence for his assertion, but where it just intuitively seems right. Of course someone can’t be trusted to offer a measured accounting of…whatever it might be…if they’re too worked up. If someone is indignant, it’s hard to say the claims they make are true, and therefore are the source of their indignity; or if they were already indignant, and their observations were made while in the throes of their indignity.
It’s all very reminiscent of the first section of Part 25, where Nietzsche casts suspicion on the endeavor of defending the truth. When emotion becomes involved, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell if someone’s actually certain of what they’re saying, or if they just want to be validated. Hence the claim that the indignant are liars.
Maybe I should reread Part 25 of this book with that in mind. After all, it could be that I just misunderstood one lone concept, and then misunderstood the rest of the section on purpose, rather than admitting to a momentary lapse in attention.
Maybe. Or maybe Nietzsche’s just a big Jerk, and maybe no-one knows what he’s talking about.