One of the failings of the human beast is not to recognise and accept their own limitations, not just with respect to strength and speed which are easy enough to assess and measure against other people, but in regard to intellectual abilities. Every single person has their upper limit, but very few accept this as being a fact and either strive to prove that they are better, or do not make the effort to attain this limit. It is hard to say which one of the two is worse: those who constantly bray and shout about their intelligence tend to be caught out very quickly and cut down to size, which is often a good thing; those who do not try to reach up and grasp what they could do are often unfulfilled, and are missing out on some of the most interesting aspects of our brief lives on this planet. That is not to say everyone has the same potential, or everyone can be as intelligent, as educated, as successful as everyone else; that is most certainly not so, but we can learn, we can enjoy, and we can do many things which others have told us, because of our gender, our ethnic origin, or parents or our financial situation, have said are impossible.
The idea that this is the dumbest generation there has ever been is something I can both agree, and disagree, with. On the one side we have all the possibilities to improve ourselves, to advance, to learn and enjoy. On the other, there have been so many distractions created that we do not see these possibilities or, worse still, do not feel the necessary energy to go out and get, to enjoy them. Why bother learning, some say, when you know you have no chance of getting a job, a decent house, of being recognised as a person? Why go to all the bother of doing things when someone in a higher position is going to laugh in your face and slam the door against you? Or even, why bother when you can cruise through life, living from one small meal to the next, as long as the bandwidth on your cell phone is paid-up and you can get Facebook.
It is not all that long ago that education was banned for some people, or made exceptionally difficult to achieve. We all know about segregation, and about all the badness this sad disbelief in our own species brought with it. We all know how that still happens, and that there are people who are still pushed down and pushed aside, and we are all, in our own way, doing something to change this. At least, I hope we are! A hundred years earlier it was different: back then this lack of educational possibilities was extended to the poor regardless of colour, regardless of origin. If the family did not have money to pay for an education, then that was it, end of story. Real education, which was in the liberal arts and humanities originally, was kept for those who could afford it, and they were generally finished, with college and all, at fifteen. Then the real education of life began in earnest, and they had to go out and learn for themselves, taking the foundation stones of official education and building upon them. Those who did not, failed, but through their own fault. Today we force too many people to fail, or we give them an excuse not to try to succeed. Despite all our advances, this is one of several things which make me exceptionally sad: so many advances in society, and we’ve still got this hoodwink on which stops us seeing properly. I know the ideal of the greatest generation, but the American greatest generation wasn’t after World War Two, it was more likely during and after the Great Depression, when the building of the United States began again. Sadly that building resulted in the same people who had caused the Great Depression, who had brought famine and other miseries on their fellow-man through their greed and stupidity, being placed back into the positions they had held before. The ordinary people, though, came out of it with a different view, and we have seen the results, since the war especially, as more social work has been done and a lot of the ancient, historical wrongs have been, at least partially, corrected.
The greatest generation here in Europe was indeed during the years after the war, simply because everything had been destroyed, and it all had to be built up once more. Here people really rolled up their sleeves and got down to work despite all the hardships, and made something of their lives, left something for their children and grandchildren to be proud of, to inherit and make their lives better. That the grandchildren do not appreciate this, and are more interested in Facebook and all the other anti-social web sites claiming to be social media is not their fault; they did their best, and it is up to everyone else to make their choice, to do their best too. One of the major changes, which you briefly speak of in your letter, is that of the change in social structures. It has become the normal way of life for children to leave the family home as soon as they possibly can, to branch out for themselves and make their own lives, often losing contact with those very people who had made their lives possible, with all their friends and colleagues who had accompanied them over the first fifteen or twenty years of life. It is all very well-being independent, but grateful and connected are much better. So everyone is striking out on their own where possible, and the old families which stuck together, sometimes three generations living together, have disappeared. For some this may seem to be a good thing, but we are social animals, we need to closeness and comfort of those we know and love, and cutting ourselves off too early is bad for the soul.
I’m not suggesting that a forty-year old man should still be living at home, unmarried, but breaking out into the world too early, before you’ve had a chance to gain any experience outside of the safe school or college environment, before you’ve had a chance to make new contacts and set down a firm foot in the business or working world is a bad thing. We all need that fall-back safety net, and that is what our families are, whether we agree with all that they do or not. What makes me really sad is when I see a major newspaper or a television station giving air time to someone who has helped someone else, jot because I think this a bad thing they’re doing, on the contrary, but because it should be normal. The fact that a television station features a person for helping someone else shows the world how special this is, because it is unusual, and that sign of it being out of the ordinary is what is sad.
A very wise man was once confronted by a student who wanted to debate the Truth with him. The wise man sent him away. The Truth cannot be debated because it is the Truth, and there is nothing that you can hold against it; the Truth is not open to debate, it simply is the Truth. The way to the truth is something else, and all these facts and figures people trot out now and then to prove their theories or their opinions are a line towards the truth of a certain matter, but they are most certainly open to debate. It is rare that we can find the truth in anything, there is always a little spark of light shining in a different direction, or a person who has a different perspective, or a fact which we have not taken into account.
Many people involved with philosophy begin their learning phase by trying to find out about truth and how we should arrive at it, and use the allegory of the cave, from the great philosopher and student of Socrates, Plato, as their guide. This is basically so: a group of people sit chained in a cave and all that they can see are shadows dancing on a wall in front of them. These shadows on the wall are, for them, all that there is and must be, then, the truth of their lives. One of them manages to break free, turns, and sees that the shadows are cast by the flames of a fire, which the other people next to him, chained and unable to turn, cannot see. This is a new version, a new fact which negates the version of the truth that everyone else has. The freed person moves, and sees that the flames are fed by other people, and that there is a longer cave behind them through which he can move., The information he is receiving, by looking, by moving, increases, but it is not the Truth, because he can see, by each and every step taken, that there is more just beyond what he could see before and he can assume, based on what he has learned so far, that there is more he cannot yet see. This is the idea of philosophy: we begin with an idea of what is, and then learn that our idea is a very small one, there is a much bigger world out there, and we need to move away from the old, static beliefs and explore. Some do it, some break the chains, some sit and watch the dancing shadows.
If you cannot find yourself as an individual, then you cannot find your rightful place within society. There are many who look at the big picture, especially when it comes to themselves, and leave the minor details out. The Challenger exploded because an o-ring wasn’t secure, a small thing, but it destroyed the big thing. It is of the utmost importance that we find ourselves first – and this is the thinking of many movements such as Freemasonry – so that we, knowing ourselves, can understand the standpoint of other people, and see things through their eyes as much as through our own. Anyone can be a part of society, because society has so many different forms and so many people doing different things within it, but few can make society better unless they know the individual within society, unless they can speak to the individual on their level and to their interests. No one goes to a chess game with a checkers board, even though some people there will play checkers, which means that they only talk about one thing, which interests everyone else, but not about the one thing with several others which interests them. So much easier to talk to, and with, the individual than try to address the whole room and have no personal feedback, no conversation.
I think this is why I enjoy letter writing so much, as well as personal conversations with those here about me. With a book you can learn a great deal, but it is almost impossible to have a conversation with the author, to discuss different aspects of what has been written, to find sources to further your own understanding from their personal recommendations. With letter writing you are in a one-on-one relationship – although I am a firm believer in sharing letters, as were the Victorians in England in their time – where you can question as much as offer your own opinion on a wide range of interesting and mutually acceptable subjects. And ones which are not necessarily acceptable too, after all, if you cannot discuss things where your opinions differ, where you have different experiences and ideas, what is the point of debating in the first place?
The main point about being a member of society is that we are individuals, and it is the individual which makes up society, which makes it interesting, vital and alive. Once we know who we are as an individual, we can see where we fit into the whole, what our role in society is, and how we can, and should, relate to other people in the same society, or in another society we might come across at some stage.
Friedrich Nietzsche is, indeed, a very fascinating subject to study, and many of his thoughts have been incorporated into philosophical thinking today even though most people find them very complicated and, certainly from a religious point of view, find them hard to stomach. You have to bear in mind that he was born in 1844, in a time when the world had begun to change – yet again – in massive ways, before Germany, as we know it today, was formed and in a time when war and famine governed the lives all but the ruling classes in the many small countries which existed then. He was influenced by many of the great names in philosophy and learning, rejecting some, accepting others, working and expanding on all their ideas. His words – it would be better to be able to read them in the original German, as something is always lost in translation – have to be taken in light of the times and his education. His parents, for example, influenced him a great deal: his father was the priest in a small village near Leipzig, and his mother the daughter of a priest in a village near Weißenfels. Well educated, beyond a shadow of a doubt, but limited by the order of their religion. Nietzsche studied the history of art, archaeology and philology in Bonn. In 1865 he moved back towards Leipzig and discovered Schopenhauer, and that changed his life. His works started, then with Arthur Schopenhauer, but that is not how it all begins. Taking on the works and ideas of Schopenhauer is one thing, but he, in his turn, was influenced by Immanuel Kant so, following through, if we want to understand Nietzsche, we need to understand Schopenhauer as his first influence, then Kant as Schopenhauer’s first influence. Kant is known as one of the most important propagators of the German Enlightenment period.
The four question of Kant’s philosophy: What can I know?, What should I do?, What may I hope for?, What is man? are ones which still fascinate students and philosophers to this day, whereby the last should not be seen as man = male, but the German meaning of Mensch, which is Homo Sapiens and encompasses all human life as we know it today: Homo Sapiens being the only art of the genus Homo to survive from six different types. Taking Kant you’ll see what I meant by looking to the individual first: his first three questions are addressed to the person, to the individual, and the fourth is then a question on what we – Homo Sapiens – are. So, if we wish to take a look at Nietzsche, we need to start with Kant which, as is the nature of things in our world, is also not the beginning of the whole story since he was involved with ethics, with religious, legal and historical philosophy and, as a leader in the Enlightenment, would have taken much of his thought from the classical thinkers: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, in that order.
That is not to say that someone wishing to study philosophy shouldn’t begin with Nietzsche or, at the very least, read his works, but it should also be remembered that he took his influences from earlier writers and thinkers, and it is often necessary, in order to understand how he comes to a certain position, or where he draws his ideas from, that a student reads the other works too. It is also necessary to have a good and clear understanding of the position of religion in his society during his lifetime, since many of his works cover his thoughts on religion, the position and existence of a God or gods, and their relationship to man, society, the world. Philosophy is not an easy subject to follow, but very rewarding indeed, very enjoyable and very time-consuming!
Also Sprach Zarathustra is a long and complicated, fascinating work comprising a series of stories or parables or tales set around different situations, different personalities and greatly influenced by his learning – it is taken as the third part of his writing and philosophical life, therefore influenced by many years of study and thought – as much as by his beliefs. And by beliefs I do not just mean religious, but also social and political. He was not a believer in democracy, but in the caste system, or class system as we know it today, where everyone had his or her place according to birthright more than anything else. The story from Zarathustra is that he went up into the mountains at the age of thirty and, ten years later, turned his face towards the rising sun and asks the sun how it would be blessed if it did not have mankind, and all of nature, to give warmth and light to. He then tells the sun that he wishes to return from his mountain and tell the people, of all classes, of the richness of the sun, and the riches that life has given them, and bring them to appreciate what they have. He asks for the suns blessing for his plan, to go down and teach, and for a blessing for his cup which should overflow with the goodness of the sun and show the people how blessed they are to have the sun. Then Nietzsche writes:
Also began Zarathustras Untergang.
Which can be taken two ways: either as his going down the mountain, or his destruction. The latter is the one we are told to take as being the meaning, as Nietzsche then has his hero meet up with a Holy Man who has also turned his back on society, and who now, recognising Zarathustra from the days he went up the mountain to hide away and think, and warns him off following his plan. They talk for a while, and the Holy Man is convinced that Zarathustra is on the wrong path, that he should stay away from mankind who are, as he calls them, the Sleepers. And as they separate, Zarathustra says:
Dieser alte Heilige hat in seinem Walde noch nichts davon gehört, daß Gott tot ist.
This holy man, he says to himself, stuck in his woodland hideaway, hasn’t heard that God is dead.
The speech that you quoted in your letter comes in the next section of this long tale, as Zarathustra enters a market town and there, in the marketplace, finds the people gathered to watch a fair show, or a trapeze artist performing for their pleasure. And he opens up as an introduction to them, without saying that God is dead, that he has come to show them that there is a supreme being above mankind, and that the being of mankind is something which needs to be overcome, needs to turn its thoughts to greater things and improve itself to become one and part of this supreme being, rather than lessening its status and returning to the days of cave dwelling and a lack of properly regulated society.
This is the beginning of his talks against democracy, that each person there, in that crowd, and the whole of humankind should turn their thoughts to improving themselves, and to upholding the status of society as it is – the feudal system or similar – rather than wrecking it by considering a turn towards democracy. Having considered the aims of mankind – who started out as worms, worked their way into being apes and then Man – to be that of a folk who wish, through their actions and beliefs, to return to the level of the apes, he goes on to claim that the supreme being is the reason for the Earth, that mankind should remain true to the Earth and not to any alien powers or hopes which poison-mixers try to teach, meaning the priests. Then he tells them his belief that their God is dead, and that all who teach the ways of this dead God are fighting against the purity of the Earth, which should be the highest valued thing of all mankind.
To understand Zarathustra we need to know about Nietzsche’s religious beliefs as much as about the area in which he lived, and the times in which he lived. Once we have all of those things together, and that means seeing the works of his influencers as a part of his writings, and seeing the turn of his life, his experiences and travels as another part, then we can begin to interpret what he wishes to say through Zarathustra’s words. And we need to know about the religious beliefs of those he would speak to, and the manner in which he felt society was falling apart; the influences which were bringing the ordinary people away from the old system of King, Lords, Citizens and Peasants.
Alternately, we can also leave Nietzsche out of the whole thing. This may seem like a surprising way of looking at things, but we can leave Nietzsche out and just take his words if we abandon the idea of his society and his times and turn towards our own. We can take our own experiences and our own knowledge of life – be it German, American, British or whatever – and judge his, Zarathustra’s, words according to our knowledge, according to the way society is working, or not working, today. The work is, after all, a timeless piece of philosophical thinking aimed at a society which is being misled, or misgoverned, or which has simply moved away from the path which recognises the value of the Earth and Nature, with all its abundances and chances, to idolise a mythical god, or gods, far removed from reality.
Bear in mind that I am reading Nietzsche in German, and that he wrote in German, and our translation of his language and our interpretation of his meanings can differ. What I read into his words depends a good deal on my experiences, my life and understanding of a supreme being, of the Earth of a God or gods and acceptance of the whole or part of the whole. Someone who has translated the work, as a middleman, for you to read could be influencing their work, their translation, with their own biases, with their own interpretation of what Nietzsche meant to say. Or, better, what they wish Nietzsche meant to say. It is easy enough to twist the words of a person in translation by changing a meaning slightly, so that it corresponds to your own way of thinking rather than what the original author necessarily thought as he or she put pen to paper. We see this in the political world every single day, and it is not unusual in philosophy either: the great Italian Renaissance writer and interpreter Marsilio Ficino took Plato’s writings and philosophy and tried to twist and turn all of his works to fit the Christian religion.
Is it possible to take the opening words of Zarathustra, speaking in the marketplace, out of context? Most certainly. The aim of this man, coming down from his mountain, are explained in an earlier section of the text, after he has spoken to the sun and explained his reverence for its powers, and when he explains himself further to the holy man in the forest before getting to the town. If you read this introduction to Zarathustra first, then you understand what he is going to say, initially, before he opens his mouth, and it places all the rest of his very long speech – hard to believe the audience didn’t get fed up and turn back to the trapeze artist for some light fun – before the people.
Does this opening speech in the marketplace speak of empowering the people and offer them an understanding of their place within the world, within society? Yes, it does, according to Nietzsche’s wish and understanding of their position. He was keen that the feudal system – the class system – remained in place, that democracy did not have a chance to rear its ugly head, and that the mind’s of the people were not turned by religious preachers. So it is not empowering people as we would understand it today, it is telling them to throw off the yoke of religious oppression – perhaps – by ignoring the words and offers of the priests in the name of a god he believed to be dead, or fictitious, hut to keep society exactly as it was. That is, with the yoke of oppression caused by the class system. Bear in mind that this was long after the French Revolution, but only a few short years after the attempted revolution – in 1848 – of German peoples against the oppressors, and the first raising of a German flag, but not yet the call for complete German unity. Bear in mind, too, that this is the time of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and that the Communist Manifesto was published in London in February 1841, shortly before the March Revolution in Germany, although I think I am right in saying that the first edition published in Germany itself came out in 1851, before Zarathustra.
So, something of an explanation and less, perhaps, of an explanation, but still a few thoughts to work with. And also an incentive for me to read Nietzsche again: I have a good copy of his collected works from 1930 – luckily in Roman script and not in the German script (fraktur) which was common at the time, and which is a laborious challenge to read.