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Dan Sportiello | Thursday, March 22, 2012

It is sometimes said that Nietzsche believes that “might makes right.” This is not wrong, exactly, though it is sufficiently ambiguous to be seriously misleading.

Nietzsche believes that all living things – and that category includes, in his more mystical moments, all things whatsoever – have a fundamental drive toward … well, toward something difficult to define. What is the difference, after all, between that which is alive and that which is not? Well, living things are those that strive to preserve themselves – both at the level of the individual and at the level of the species – within a world that is indifferent to that preservation, a world that continually threatens to destroy them. A living thing is a system that acts such that it can continue to act similarly in the future – whether its environment acts to help or hinder it. It is, in other words, a thing with integrity.

What is the fundamental drive shared by things with integrity? One is tempted to call this “aggression,” though that has a destructive connotation that is certainly wrong. Perhaps a better word would be “assertion,” though that has a linguistic connotation that is wrong just as certainly. Ultimately, Nietzsche uses the phrase “will to power” to describe this drive: it is general enough to characterize all living things, even if it is not very informative. For the will to power takes countless forms. The will to power of a tree, for instance, is quite different than the will to power of a lion: the former carries nutrients from the soil to its leaves, where sunlight transforms those nutrients into the energy required for the tree to keep itself intact, both in itself and in its descendants, while the latter uses its senses and muscles to hunt and teeth to kill prey that it eats for the energy required to keep itself intact, both in itself and in its offspring.

Humans, likewise, manifest their will to power – though in a unique way: each human acts to preserve not only his own integrity and that of his offspring but also that of his culture. This, among other things, is what it means to say that humans are rational animals: They can identify not only with themselves and with those biologically like them but, though abstraction, with anyone who shares their culture – and, at the limit of this process, with all human beings whatsoever, perhaps even with all things whatsoever insofar as they can be seen as part of a single architecture in which humans have a special place. No other living thing – none, anyway, that we have encountered – can do that.

This is actually an old Stoic idea – one inherited, through Kant and Schopenhauer, by Nietzsche. This is the sense in which might makes right: Power – that is, assertion of oneself against an environment that would perhaps destroy one – is something of which everyone necessarily approves. For it is something that everyone cannot help but seek: If something did not seek to preserve itself – to maintain power over an environment that might destroy it – it would not be a living thing at all and so would not be reading this essay. So power does indeed make right – but Nietzsche’s point is that this power can, in humans, take profoundly interesting forms, such as power over even the will to power.

And this power over the will to power is just the self-control – that is, the autonomy – that led men and women from the barbarism of lions to art, religion and science – to culture, in other words. And culture is, in some sense, itself a living thing: it strives to preserve itself by teaching those within it to identify with it more strongly than they identify with themselves. This is, presumably, why men and women are sometimes willing to die for something larger than themselves.

In principle, Nietzsche objects to none of this – indeed, how could he? He is himself a product of decades of self-control, of an education that transformed him from a mere animal – that is, a child – into a relentless seeker after truth. What really bothers Nietzsche is the lack of willingness of his fellow men and women to question whether this process has gone to far – whether a will to power turned against itself might become not just a will to truth but even a will to death. He worries, in other words, that the only way for a culture to preserve itself with absolute assurance is for it to destroy the troublesome humans who bear it – to lead them, in other words, to the crushing degree of self-effacement required for socialist democracy to function.

Freud – a disciple of Nietzsche – would later call this will to death neurosis – indeed, would call European civilization the most neurotic of history. For when self-control – one manifestation of which is justice – is carried too far, one begins to hate oneself even for existing, for having desires to control in the first place, since their mere existence threatens the rights of others and the supremacy of the state. Witness the population crash in Europe and Southeastern Asia – or, better, the hedonistic and nihilistic society everywhere in which each attempts to shrink down into himself and spend the day consuming Music Television. Or Facebook, if he is of that generation.

What, then, should we do? Well, Nietzsche argues, we need an Overman – we need, that is, one who can turn his will to power even against his self-control, can learn to assert himself again. Such an Overman would be one who retained the capacity for art, religion, and science but also moved beyond those, creating his own values rather than accepting those of the civilization that was killing him.

Such an Overman could teach us how to move beyond where we are – where we seem very much to be stuck. Is such an Overman possible? I fear that, to whatever extent I do not doubt it, I am in the grip of a fantasy in which I very much need to believe. Perhaps Nietzsche would have said the same of himself.

Daniel John Sportiello is in his fourth year in the philosophy Ph.D. program. Listen to his radio show on WVFI. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.