Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Melville and Modernism
April 23, 2016
This idea of a Superman arising from internal characteristics rather than recognized authority is an extraordinarily modern idea.
What makes our world modern, that is, different from previous eras? I think the basic answer is that authority is no longer absolute: not just the political authority of monarchy or the state, but the moral authority of the church.
What triggered this erosion of moral and political certitude?
That is of course a complicated topic, but the basic answer is 1) nearly universal literacy in the West and 2) widespread prosperity that enabled a new class (the middle class) of people who were educated and enjoyed leisure.
History is chockful of ironies, and one is that the universal literacy that eroded the moral authority of the church can be traced back to the Protestant Reformation and the conviction that every Christian should be able to read the Bible themselves, in their own language.
Do philosophers create new movements, or do they simply codify changes already afoot?
Some of both, perhaps, depending on the philosopher and the movement. But in the case of Modernism--broadly speaking, Question Everything--the ideas floating around the Western world were codified by Friedrich Nietzsche.
I first heard about Nietzsche as a teen, and I attempted to read one of his books at 16, with no success. I found his writing impenetrable: reading a paragraph several times did not aid my comprehension.
(I had the same experience with two other giants of philosophy, Hegel and Heidegger. I don't think it's coincidental that all thought and wrote in German.)
The difficulty wasn't just Nietzsche's dense prose; I lacked the context to make any sense of his writings.
Nietzsche had a knack for catchy phrases that captured key elements of "Question Everything" Modernism: God is dead and Man/Superman (ubermensch).
Since his father was a Lutheran pastor, Nietzsche was well-versed in Christianity and briefly pursued theology in university.
The entire phrase is "God is Dead. We killed Him." This reveals that the subject of Nietzsche's inquiry is not just atheism per se, but the death of moral certainty as defined by the church.
In other works--and Nietzsche wrote a staggering amount on a variety of subjects--he made a distinction between the Church's emphasis on belief in Jesus and attempting to live in accordance with the teachings of Jesus.
This is the spirit of Modernism: to not blindly accept the interpretation of authorities, but seek one's own interpretation.
This focus on the individual discovery of Truth defines Nietzsche's entire project. With certainty dead, it was now up to each individual to pursue his/her own interpretation of Truth.
This led rather naturally to the idea of a Superman, an individual who was beyond the reach of conventions, a person who made their own truths and rules.
This idea of a Superman arising from internal characteristics rather than recognized authority is an extraordinarily modern idea. In the past, individuals were imbued with what we might call the Superpowers of divine or semi-divine authority, but these powers were bestowed by institutions: the church or the state, which can be viewed as a secular church of sorts when emperors, kings and queens assume divinely authorized authority.
My favorite anecdote of how this notion of the Superman unbound by conventions plays out involves Winston Churchill. Winnie had responded with characteristic rudeness to a manservant, and the man had protested the unfairness of Winnie's rebuke. Churchill responded with an almost hurt peevishness: "But I am a Great Man." In other words, I'm allowed to make my own rules, because I am a Superman.
This dissolution of moral certainties is obviously dangerous, for the reason noted by the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky: If there is no God, everything is permitted.
Dostoevsky is often considered the first Modern novelist, and his 1864 novella Notes From Underground is certainly unlike any conventional narrative.
Nietzsche (1844-1900) admired Dostoevsky (1821-1881), for self-evident reasons: Dostoevsky's masterworks dealt with moral decisions made in the vacuum of modern life.
I don't know if Nietzsche had come across the American novelist Herman Melville's work (most famously, Moby-Dick), but Melville is also widely recognized as one of the first Modernist authors.
Of Melville's novels, the one that best captures the spirit of Modernism in my view is The Confidence-Man, a book I discussed in a 2006 blog entry The Con in Confidence. (I was surprised to find my review is at the top of the 46 reviews on Amazon...)
The novel is a collection of 45 conversations between various people on the riverboat--beggars, absurdly dressed frontiersmen, sickly misers, shysters, patent medicine hucksters, veterans (of the Mexican-American War) and the "hero" in the latter part of the book, the Cosmopolitan.
In typical Melville fashion, you also get asides--directly to the reader, in several cases, as if Melville felt the need to address issues of fiction outside the actual form of his novel. The lack of structure, action and conclusion make this a post-modern type book, but if you read each conversation as a separate story, then it starts to make more sense.
For what ties the book together is not a story but a theme: the nature of trust and confidence. In a very sly way, Melville shows how a variety of cons are worked, as the absolutely distrustful are slowly but surely convinced to do exactly what they vowed not to do: buy the "herbal" patent medicine, buy shares in a bogus stock venture, or donate cash to a suspect "charity."
Melville also raises the question: is it always a bad thing to be conned? The sickly man seems to be improved by his purchase of the worthless herbal remedy, and the donor conned out of his cash for the bogus charity also seems to feel better about himself and life.
In other words, if we can no longer trust authority, how can we trust anything?
Melville is exploring a peculiarly Modern task: sorting out who to trust in a multicultural society of highly diverse and highly mobile citizens.
I think this gets close to the underlying dynamics of Modernism: the great expansions of travel, migration, literacy, education, leisure and ideas in the 19th century can ultimately be traced back to the vast increases in energy consumption delivered by coal. As a young man in the early 1840s, Melville was a sailor, serving on merchant ships that sailed to the South Seas of the Pacific. By the end of the 19th century, wind had largely been replaced by coal-powered ships. Railways, electric lighting, subway systems--the vast amounts of information and energy flowing into the networks of Modernism gave freedoms to the middle class that had once been reserved for royalty and nobility.
The educated person of 1890 had more information and energy at his/her fingertips than the nobility possessed in the previous era.
Is it any wonder that authority has crumbled under the scrutiny of millions of newly empowered individuals?
This essay was drawn from Musings Report 2015-35. The Musings Reports are emailed weekly exclusively to subscribers and major contributors ($5/month or $50/year). More information about subscribing to the Musings can be found in the right sidebar.
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