NIETZSCHE and THE PROBLEM OF VALUES
What has made, and what now makes, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche(1844-1900) so important, is that he recognized with great force, clarity and impressive foresight the most troubling and persistent problem of modernity: the problem of values. His writings, though, at least for millions in the last century or more, lack a simplicity for readers. For millions of others, of course, they know nothing of Nietzsche and, like so many things in our knowledge explosion, they will not miss what they don’t know.
As a student and teacher of philosophy over several decades, 1963-2015, first in the classroom and lecture-hall, and then in cyberspace, I have found that Nietzsche’s writings have kept both me, my students, and my many colleagues in cyberspace, busy unravelling what is often the obscure and enigmatic literary idiom of this 19th century philosopher. Nietzsche uncovered many of the depths and complexities of value-issues, and these value-issues have defeated generations of the best efforts of philosophers and social scientists to articulate for modern man, a basis for both the individual and community rooted in a coherent set of relevant values.
Nietzsche saw modern man’s values as an incoherent pastiche of bits and pieces from a hundred sources. He called this collection of values that most people possess “a multi-coloured cow”. The smorgasbord of faiths and value systems on offer in the West today wonderfully illustrates what Nietzsche foresaw: values as mix-and-match consumer goods, a type of marketplace for the consumer society. The mix on offer, however ingenious it often is in the internet marketplace, is an absurd collection of stuff, and the results are pitifully anaemic for a mass society in search of a central survival core, in search of a map for the human journey ahead.
Just how and where human beings are to find the set of values on which to base a life of meaning and coherence is still an enigma, a dilemma. In some ways our global society is a victim of over-choice. We have so much information, at least those with WWW access, but what is the big-picture in which we are to place this plethora of wisdoms, this vast soup of knowledge. Vague sentiments of good will, however genuine, are not enough. Some explicit agreement on principles is required for any co-ordinated progress. And principles are often iffy-things.
Nietzsche’s dilemma is our dilemma. His analysis of our modern situation has become an explicit dilemma, a conundrum, for modern humanity, just as he predicted. Nietzsche is the author of the expression God Is Dead. What he meant by these words is that Western culture no longer places God at the centre of things. The death of God has knocked the pins out from under Western value systems, and revealed an abyss below. The values we have continued to live by, that we have put in the place of tradition, in the place of those values that have lost their meaning, result in our being cast adrift, whether we realize it or not. The question is, what do we do now?
Since 1900 we have done many things in our state of being cast adrift. One thing we have done, that western society has put in the place of that tradition, can be seen in the expression: be yourself.1 It is an absurd dream of contemporary culture that people, just by being themselves, can try to live according to what Nietzsche calls their own values. The values people choose are usually not their own values: they are bits and pieces picked up in the bazaar of modernity, and they usually have no idea where these values come from and, even when they do, the package is pastiche and panorama, a panoply of pluralism.
Nothing is more obvious to Nietzsche than the fact that people don’t generally know how to create values. Due to this fact, they fall back on tradition. Fundamentalism in all its forms afflicts a beleaguered humanity. There have been many values and meaning systems in the last century or more that have had great power to move great numbers of people. Modern 20th and 21st century history is littered with the results of these values. To Nietzsche, values have power and they spring from power: like works of art, their greatness is in their power to move us. The plethora of schools of philosophy and art, literature and culture, music and medicine, are a testimony to some of these powerful systems of ideas.
There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. The world has long been struggling with enormous new social and material forces. The context for this struggle increasingly is pointing toward the necessity of unity in diversity or the world will tear itself apart in its attachment to sectarian, political, nationalistic, and racial loyalties of the past. This it is doing with greater and greater efficiency.
The values of materialism are built on the enormous power of science. I take a deep satisfaction and personal meaning in the advances that society has made in the last century or more, and particularly from the processes that have knit together the earth’s peoples and nations through science and technology. But humanity yearns desperately, and it has all my life, for its Soul, for the God that Nietzsche said so presciently had died.
I was born in July 1944, in the midst of a war that saw the death of some 60 million people. The one Power that can fulfil the ultimate longing of the peoples of the world for peace and unity, is to find that God again. But in our pluralistic secular and sacred world individuals and societies have found many gods. The print and electronic media present modern man with a cornucopia of values and beliefs, gods and ultimate meaning systeme. Nietzsche saw the media as a manipulator of popular sentiment and as possessing the power to create all sorts of values and meanings. The result, at least for this 19th century philosopher, is that almost everybody is merely a member of the herd or the proponent of an individualism that gets in the way of any genuine sense of community, a community of communities. -Ron Price with thanks to 1Eric Walther, Nietzsche, Our Contemporary, Philosophy Now, November/December 2012. Eric Walther taught philosophy from 1967, and computer science from 1983, at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University; he retired in 2003. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from Yale University, and an MS in Computer Science from Polytechnic University.
As I was studying history
and philosophy in the fall
of ’63 and ‘64, the counter-
culture began to be felt in my
north American home in both
the USA and Canada,1& quite
visibly at Berkeley with the free-
speech movement.2…I got caught-
up in this student movement & got
my picture on the front-page of the
local newspaper.3 ...But I could not
be identified with the counter-culture
because of my religion which was the
ultimate source of my worldview, my
physical & social reality; namely, that
the world was but one country, human-
kind, mankind, were its world citizens.4
1 The term counterculture is attributed to professor emeritus of history at California Theodore Roszak(1903-2011), author of The Making of a Counter Culture. The term became prominent in the news media amid the social revolution that swept North and South America, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand during the 1960s and early 1970s. In North America the counterculture of the 1960s became identified with the rejection of conventional social norms of the 1950s.
2 Gary North, Robert Nisbet: Conservative Sociologist, LewRockwell.com, 2002.
3 The Civil Rights Act of July 1964 prohibited racial discrimination in employment and education. It outlawed racial segregation in public facilities. In the summer of 1964, over forty Freedom Schools opened in Mississippi. These schools were part of Freedom Summer, a project of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, with the goal to empower African Americans in Mississippi to become active citizens and agents of social change. In the late summer and early autumn of 1964 and into the first months of 1965 I was associated with the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee which, at the time, had a philosophy of nonviolence. But after the mid-1960s that philosophy migrated to one of greater militancy.
In October of 1964 Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and, by the end of the spring semester in April 1965, I had ceased my participation in that movement.
4 As a student of sociology both at university as a student, after university as a teacher, and on retirement, I came to read: Toqueville, Nisbet, Durkheim, Bell, and many other social theorists. They each and all reinforced the views I had begun university with as a Baha’i. See Robert Nisbet, Dogma and Democracy, The Sociological Tradition, Heinemann, London, 1966, pp. 232-237.
4/11/’12 to 19/6/’15.