Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Nietzsche contra Watson

Tyler Cowen reports that Peter Watson has a new book out on The German Genius. Perhaps by now, Watson has developed an understanding of Nietzsche less disappointing than in his claim-to-fame book The Modern Mind:
Nietzsche's concept of the "superman," the Ubermensch, lording it over the the underclass certainly sounds like evolution, the law of the jungle, with natural selection in operation as "the survival of the fittest" for the overall good of humanity, whatever its effects on certain individuals. But of course the ability to lead, to create values, to impose one's will on others, is not in and of itself what evolutionary theory meant by "the fittest." The fittest were those who reproduced most, propagating their own kind. Social Darwinists, into which class Nietzsche essentially fell, have often made this mistake.
This is the kind of thing that sends one straight to the notes, to find out where Watson got his notions about Nietzsche. Sure enough: one citation to The Will to Power (= N's notebooks as selectively edited after he went mad) and several to a secondary source (one Arthur Herman's The Idea of Decline in Western History).

Nietzsche was not a "Social Darwinist." He was not under the least mistake that there was any necessary tendency towards the evolutionary success of the "overman." Far from it. Had Watson left aside his secondary source and a book Nietzsche never published, and read just one book, Beyond Good and Evil, he would've been clearer on that. From section 203 (in the breathlessly caps-for-italics online version of the Zimmern translation):
There are few pains so grievous as to have seen, divined, or experienced how an exceptional man has missed his way and deteriorated; but he who has the rare eye for the universal danger of "man" himself DETERIORATING, he who like us has recognized the extraordinary fortuitousness which has hitherto played its game in respect to the future of mankind--a game in which neither the hand, nor even a "finger of God" has participated!--he who divines the fate that is hidden under the idiotic unwariness and blind confidence of "modern ideas," and still more under the whole of Christo-European morality--suffers from an anguish with which no other is to be compared. He sees at a glance all that could still BE MADE OUT OF MAN through a favourable accumulation and augmentation of human powers and arrangements; he knows with all the knowledge of his conviction how unexhausted man still is for the greatest possibilities, and how often in the past the type man has stood in presence of mysterious decisions and new paths: --he knows still better from his painfulest recollections on what wretched obstacles promising developments of the highest rank have hitherto usually gone to pieces, broken down, sunk, and become contemptible. The UNIVERSAL DEGENERACY OF MANKIND to the level of the "man of the future"--as idealized by the socialistic fools and shallow-pates--this degeneracy and dwarfing of man to an absolutely gregarious animal (or as they call it, to a man of "free society"), this brutalizing of man into a pigmy with equal rights and claims, is undoubtedly POSSIBLE!
Nietzsche is acutely aware that natural selection favors the herd, the "last men," for whom security and satiety is all. That is precisely why he thinks that artificial selection, the "creation of values," is essential if humankind isn't to degenerate and lose its capacity for greatness. One may disagree with Nietzsche as to the value of security and satiety; one may observe that, politically speaking, he hasn't the least clue what is to be done; but for God's sake, in an "intellectual history of the 20th century," don't confuse him with Herbert Spencer, whom Nietzsche classed with Darwin and Mill as a "respectable but mediocre Englishman." (Unfair to Darwin, but then, N. probably knew Darwin through Spencer, at best. One must remember how poor N's eyesight was by 1886; reading caused him eyestrain and headaches.)

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