Against myself: Saying goodbye to Nietzsche
Jim Moster | Wednesday, April 20, 2022
Nausea. Suffocation. Disgust. Have you ever spent time in a room and found yourself dying to leave it? Maybe you were choking on cigarette smoke, sweating in a stale heat or engulfed by a clique of people who drive you mad. Friedrich Nietzsche faced this kind of discomfort nearly everywhere, and for his entire life. As graduation approaches, I find myself struggling with it more and more under the Golden Dome. I am anxious to leave.
Nietzsche’s fundamental project, as stated by himself, is “the revaluation of all values.” If we are honest with ourselves, Nietzsche thinks, everything that Western civilization holds dear is already dead. We are no longer driven or inspired by our values in a way that affirms life, in all of its beauty, chaos and creative potential. In response, Nietzsche aims to raze our dead doctrines once and for all and challenge humanity to create something better.
This “revaluation” is a response to the pessimism and nihilism that Nietzsche saw in modernity. For the most part, we have inherited the sorry world that Nietzsche foresaw: we have neither grand conquests nor silent, solitary moments of peace. Instead, we live in the world of Nietzsche’s “last man,” a passive soul who seeks comfort and security over growth and self-actualization. We live the opposite of the self-reliant lives that Emerson, young Nietzche’s idol, called upon us to live. (Are you ready to admit that, American readers?)
In order to create new values, we need to believe that society runs on obsolete, degenerate ones. And so, in my column, I aimed to disrupt Notre Dame’s daily order with provocative questions and tentative answers. For example, does Mendoza College really “grow the good in business”? I suggested that our Catholic values do very little to actually make business good. Is school pride healthy and normal or a dangerous distraction? I interrogated the belief systems that make us venerate elite education, including meritocracy and capitalism. What about academic philosophy? What does it contribute to our education? I posited that current philosophy needs more of the playful Romanticism of thinkers like Nietzsche.
For my last article, I’m shifting gears and turning the critique toward myself. What value does this column hold for me? Did I benefit from writing it? The question of its outward benefit is less ambiguous for me. Overall I succeeded in provoking others toward thought and debate, which I’ve learned through conversations and digital interactions. So why am I so — nauseous? Why am I itching to end this column? To vacate the room and take a gulp of fresh air? Nietzsche, do I feel how you felt roaming the pristine streets of Basel, Switzerland, yearning to escape into the inscrutable Alps?
At this moment, perhaps I am closer to understanding Nietzsche than ever. I understand him because I need to leave him. In “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” the titular hero descends from his mountain home to preach to the people. To his disciples, Zarathustra says, “I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you.” Here, Zarathustra warns against making oneself contingent upon another. Those who find their meaning in others become parasites, incapable of inventing values for themselves.
I am ready to deny Nietzsche. In fact, I have been ready for a long time. To some degree, I believe in egalitarianism, socialism and democracy, a trinity of evils to Nietzsche. He argues that social equality cripples society, leveling the inherent differences that allow free spirits to thrive. Every time I cite Nietzsche’s work, I feel his icy stare on my back, questioning why I use him to uplift this cause. I wonder if I am becoming a parasite.
But the very next moment, I feel the warmth of his approving smile. I have exploited Nietzsche, appropriating his ideas for my agenda. Exploitation, Nietzsche believes, is the essence of life itself. To be alive is to exert your “will to power,” an innate drive to recreate the world and other people in your own image. Yes, I am alive.
It is because I am alive that I must say goodbye to Nietzsche. Other voices beckon me. New destinations await. In fact, I suspect that it cannot be healthy to sit with Nietzsche for too long. During his life, Nietzsche drove away everyone close to him, or he left them himself. To Nietzsche, most people are simply too weak to handle a drink as strong as his. Only the most noble souls can stomach the task Nietzsche sets in front of us.
Maybe I’m not noble. Frankly, I don’t care. The Alps of my future await. Nietzsche, like Zarathustra with his disciples, will return to me when I am ready. I thank him for the nausea.
Jim Moster is a senior from Chicago majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and political science. He spends his days chasing serotonin and sleeping. For comments and inquiries, he can be reached at [email protected] or @jimmoster on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.