If you’ve ever done any real digging into Nietzsche’s philosophy you should know there is a lot sitting beneath the surface. Plenty more than you’re apt to hear about through second hand sources. So much of what he wrote on was not seemingly clearly understood or at least simply not translated into derivative works in a way that easily reached the masses. So much of what Nietzsche’s actual philosophical tenets were, goes unnoticed.
Nietzsche is famous for saying that “God is dead”. He remarked on the philosophical underpinnings of classical as well as modern western society. In his writings, Nietzsche is famous for rejecting Aristotle, Aristotelian philosophy, and those classical works which followed from it. Similarly, he is known for his rejection of Abrahamic religions not just on the materialism presumptions of his contemporaries, but on grounds that they themselves were not the best possible effort for humanity to undertake.
To Nietzsche’s credit, he worked tirelessly in his philosophy to fight against the dark night that follows the rejection of religion. That is, that Nietzsche worked to solve the issue of nihilism. Much of his writing is on this subject, wherein he seeks to point humanity towards to goal of self-betterment, and expressive, creative living. He even justifies existence in his works, on the basis of aesthetics.
One has to ask… what what he thinking?
If you look closely at the actual work Nietzsche produced in his life. It seems that his rejection of Abrahamic religions was only then later refuted by his own accidental clinging to many of the same “accidental” (nod to Aristotle) pillars thereof.
I am intending to break these posts apart and make a series out of them, as there is a lot to unpack here. We’ll tackle one issue at a time, working through them in a single article (though follow up articles may always be warranted if there is more to discuss). Today we will discuss how Nietzsche rejects, and then champions “transhumanism” both… and by doing so, contradicts himself.
There is a modern idea, pulled out of a form of love for modernism, that says humanity, the age old nature of man, will be replaced by advanced beings who are ‘super human’ in their nature. I say this idea in it’s modern form comes from an expression of love for modernism because there is not seemingly apparent reason why this event should naturally occur – to which it must be understood as a belief informed by another love. To briefly summarize why, encounter the two main proposed mechanisms for this movement from man to superman.
In popular consciousness, there is an idea that evolution will guide man to become more than he is today. However, this is simply and readily rejected by any meager analysis of natural selection. It is completely unapparent why this would be the case, and in fact, it is far more likely that the opposite is true.
As humanity increases in technological competence, the ability of nations and peoples to save from death those that otherwise would have failed decreases the power that natural selection holds over man. It is only at the point of death, to stop the reproduction thereof, which natural selection may definitively ‘choose.’
This idea that evolution will guide us toward something greater is petty and dark. It holds no truth to it. Envisioned versions of this idea in popular culture are naturally, inclined towards the childish. Take for example, what is likely the most well known of these, the ‘X-Men’. A children’s comic book, but an idea somehow held in popular consciousness without analysis all the same.
Modern humans in the west praise the realized goals of their societies (though the reason for this is also unapparent – yet somehow commonly accepted). They view themselves through the lens of the ‘humanist’; and by this crown themselves the greatest achievement of nature. That evolution produced them, in their minds, speaks to a natural ‘progressive’ nature of it. This could not be further from the truth.
As humanity learns to rescue from death and support those who would have otherwise been selected away by nature; the far more likely result is ‘Idiocracy’. Though evolution never has any goal, but only works to fit the environment in which it acts.. this would likely be termed by humans with speech as “de-evolution”.
To this end, the selective pressure that would be used to ‘evolve’ humanity would need to be unnatural in origin, as the power of humanity slowly removes the power of nature to choose. It is under this banner of artificial selection (Eugenics) that Nietzsche makes his case (in part) for the future superman. It is also under this banner that much of the strife of the 20th century rides into battle, to make war on the chosen ‘weak’.
“Eugenics itself, in large quantities or small, coming quickly or coming slowly, urged from good motives or bad, applied to a thousand people or applied to three, Eugenics itself is a thing no more to be bargained about than poisoning.”G.K. Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils
The great achievements of the last century in any area other than war has most certainly been in the advancement of scientific knowledge, and that application of that knowledge to engineering (for both necessary, and unnecessary ends). That we have placed the footprint of a man on the moon is an achievement crowning all others in the history of man. Perhaps soon this achievement will itself be surpassed!
But there is no reason to assume, and in fact to assume as so would be unjustified, that this advancement in scientific knowledge will in any way better or improve the human condition in any but it’s superficial aspects. Material power has very real limits. Though this idea may surprise many, it is in fact quite apparent. You can no further express material mastery in the humano-sociali than you can demand the love of others at the barrel of a gun.
Faith in technology as a savior arises from pseudo-miraculous achievements such as the moon landings, or the detonation of the Tsar Bomba. The power of these events instills awe in the man that observes them. To who is this awe deserved? It would seem that the man behind the controls, and the society of men which supports him would be owed the credit. But by society, we do not mean man as a whole. Rather it is the society of science and the body of engineers upon which the credit is heaped (“I f****** love science!”).
This awe at the magnificent then is reapplied in smaller, more mundane improvements. As he steps on a stage to showcase a new product, it is as if he leaves his footprints on the moon. The miracle workers of science deliver us the great works of man, and the affordable necessities of modern life. This belief in the efficacy of technology then leads to an assumption in many, that the same magnificent works – or a derivative thereof – will be done in their lives.
There is no reason to assume this is true. Some transhumanists argue that humanity will be ‘improved’ by the continued advancement of technology. But this dubious explanation expects modification to naturally lead to improvement of human condition, though it gives no justification for how this would actually be accomplished. It shows examples only of flashy ‘magnificent’ acts to gain adherents. For example, the idea that humanity will one day be able to interface our thoughts together. This would certainly be a technological marvel. It is also not at all apparent that this would make being a human anything more. It many ways, it sounds absolutely terrible.
Look at the smart phone as a microcosm of this future event. The smartphone doesn’t allow access to the mind of the user directly. But in some way, the characteristics of telepathy are expressed by these devices. Certainly, a person’s search history is a glimpse into their thoughts. Smartphones have made us far more connected, and yet, also lacking for personal connection. They have made us far more productive, and yet we have largely spent it on vanities. There is ample compounding evidence that smartphone use is leading to negative psychosocial outcomes. To which end, one can only ask, if there is an improvement, what does it improve?
It seems obvious that there is an increasing mechanization of humanity. Technology has made us far more powerful, and far more productive. This serves society, and the benefits are very real. But it should be clear that the benefits are almost exclusively inhuman and impersonal. There will never be a magical pill that makes man great. There will never be a robot arm that creates something worthy of being called ‘next’. Imagine a perfect skin, perfect face, inhuman cyborg twerking on TikTok, and you have a vision of the missing component in this vision of ‘perfection’.
Nietzsche in fact, even appears to reject this vision of future humanity, calling it a regression in what he terms the ‘last man’. That future race that would eliminate the problems of their world, and leave themselves with a hollow perfection that bores them to point of poisoning themselves. He warns us that we should reject this vision.
“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”Friedrich Nietzsche
It should be clear at this point, that neither of these commonly accepted mechanisms for the advancement of the human race will accomplish anything but regression. If you look outside, you can almost certainly already see that in motion. Nature recoils at our perversions of it. Modern science predicts a coming ‘fever’ that will boil us off the surface for what we’ve done. The world will survive, we may not.
The Birth of Tragedy
Nietzsche identifies something fascinating about Abrahamic religions, and therefore by extension the western world in his work ‘The Birth of Tragedy’. He notes the works of ancient Greece, in that their gods all exemplify powerful humans. They are human in their actions and deeds. They are human in their shortcomings and defeats. They are only gods by nature of their power and immortality. On occasion they even come to earth as men for the enjoyment of what human experience has to offer.
This is of course not only seen in Greek mythology. Many if not most of all religious traditions have this type of deity. It is an apparition that the Abrahamic religions do not. Nietzsche notes that the God of Christianity and Judaism is decidedly beyond human. He in this work notes that this God’s existence is used as a refutation of the nature of humanity. He appears to characterize this as a negative thing. That is is better for the gods of Greece to urge men on to see themselves in the gods in a transfigured nature; than in the Abrahamic tradition wherein humanity is rejected to be supplanted by a new nature.
The idea of rebirth in Christian tradition through baptism makes this idea explicit. Certainly Nietzsche is not wrong in his analysis of the nature of this tradition. What he seems to miss is that this idea of birth to a new nature to a calling “up to God” exists beyond his and others ‘transhuman’ ideas in both power and hope. So one must then simply ask, what was Nietzsche thinking?
The Rebirth of Christian Ideals
In his attempt to reject Christianity, it seems that Nietzsche has simply re-invented it. He claims that the rejection of human nature is an evil of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and then turns around and immediately does the same. It’s not an accident in his writing either. His work towards the idea of the ‘superman’ explicitly rejects man.
Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman–a rope over an abyss. A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal: what is lovable in man is that he is an OVER-GOING and a DOWN-GOING. I love those that know not how to live except as down-goers, for they are the over-goers. I love the great despisers, because they are the great adorers, and arrows of longing for the other shore. I love those who do not first seek a reason beyond the stars for going down and being sacrifices, but sacrifice themselves to the earth, that the earth of the Superman may hereafter arrive.Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Far from rejecting the idea that man should point themselves at something greater than man, Nietzsche asks for man to sacrifice himself. To “sacrifice themselves to the earth, that the earth of the Superman may hereafter arrive.” Nietzsche has not unearthed a new humanism. Far from it, he has simply created a weaker ideal of a superman, far from God, that would replace the heavenly hope of man with an earthly one.
Ask any great Christian philosopher, they will tell you that the human formation of God must always be the infinite greatest of any good. That is that God is the expression of the highest hope, the highest love, the highest good. God exists outside the universe, and into this universe creates these things. These things flow from him, and have only meaning in him from this philosophical perspective. To put aside arguing about the existence of this God, we should focus cleanly on the offered idea to see… it stands far above Nietzsche, and yet he strove to reach it; seemingly unbeknownst to him.
In his running, did Nietzsche find God? It seems without his knowledge, the path he was along may have one day led there.