We seek for our times a reactivation of a philosophical ethos similar to the reactivation observed during the eighteenth century European Enlightenment. This seemed a simple and straightforward enough thing to be seeking – until we started thinking about it. Then, not a single part of it seems simple or straightforward – especially as we are attempting to restrict ourselves to learning how we might act, and respond actively to our time, to what is different in our time. ( The deed is everything! But what exactly is the deed?) We seek action(s). We do not seek a “brilliant” exegesis or explanation or interpretation of events past or present – we don’t seek a beautiful life or destiny or behaviors which will be satisfactorily harmonious with what’s around us. We might very well be seeking actions which will produce an ugly, blatting clash. But it’s got to be right somehow, and that’s what’s weird, and difficult to explain and get at, on many levels.
If we seek to reactivate a philosophical ethos, it is because the philosophical ethos we have inherited has become passive, deflated, and deadening. I think that this is the case is clear enough, but not so clear that it makes knowing how to perform a reactivation any easier. I think that part of the problem is that the source of the deadness and passivity is somehow intimately linked with the very success of the model of reactivation we’ve taken it upon ourselves to study – that of the eighteenth century European Enlightenment. It’s proven to be worthless for our cause to attempt to sort out what elements were responsible for success in that prior movement, and then analyze how these elements dialectically became responsible for failure in our time. For example, what do we learn when we state that purely formal freedoms were revolutionary in the eighteenth century but are counter-revolutionary in our own? It doesn’t mean that we gain anything by removing purely formal freedoms from the books, I don’t think.
I want to look at Mr. Nietzsche’s solution to the problem of the meaning of the purely formal, which I think is exemplified in the following philosophical parable he tells,
“That lambs dislike great birds of prey does not seem strange: only it gives no grounds for reproaching these birds of prey for bearing off little lambs. And if the lambs say among themselves: "these birds of prey are evil; and whoever is least like a bird of prey, but rather its opposite, a lamb—would he not be good?" there is no reason to find fault with this institution of an ideal, except perhaps that the birds of prey might view it a little ironically and say: "we don't dislike them at all, these good little lambs; we even love them: nothing is more tasty than a tender lamb."
To demand of strength that it should not express itself as strength, that it should not be a desire to overcome, a desire to throw down, a desire to become master, a thirst for enemies and resistances and triumphs, is just as absurd as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength. A quantum of force is equivalent to a quantum of drive, will, effect—more, it is nothing other than precisely this very driving, willing, effecting, and only owing to the seduction of language (and of the fundamental errors of reason that petrified in it) which conceives and misconceives all effects as conditioned by something that causes effects, by a "subject," can it appear otherwise. For just as the popular mind separates the lightning from its flash and takes the latter for an action, for the operation of a subject called lightning, so popular morality also separates strength from expressions of strength, as if there were a neutral substratum behind the strong man, which was free to express strength or not to do so. But there is no such substratum; there is no "being" behind doing, effecting, becoming; "the doer" is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything.”
So here it is: as always in the writings of Nietzsche, I find much to admire and much to detest. It’s not even uncommon for me to experience admiration and detestation in the same sentence, paragraph, or group of paragraphs, and that’s true with the above.
First of all, I have always felt great uneasiness with Nietzsche’s image of the lambs and the birds of prey. Here’s why:
1. Nietzsche seems to be presenting a naturalism underlying human social relations. He is suggesting the naturalness of strife, competition, aggression, among human beings, which he appears to be explaining on the natural observation that some people are strong and others weak. He suggests that it is by nature that the strong prey upon the weak, and also that it is to oppose nature itself to try to prevent this predation of the weak by the strong. Nietzsche attempts to make us believe that it is “against” nature, is to wish for the unnatural, to want the “strong” to make their livelihood some way other than by attacking the weak, or possibly even to question this method of livelihood (predation.)
2. Nietzsche’s story presents the essence of human reality as an opposition of strength to weakness. If there are some people who could be exemplified as birds of prey ( bird of prey as essence,) and others who could be exemplified as tender lambs ( tender lamb as essence,) then there are some people who are essentially strong and others who are essentially weak. Nietzsche believes that there are essentially strong individuals who stand out against an essentially weak mass of people. He believes in the exceptional individual who stands separate from the groups of amassed mediocrity and who is in danger of being engulfed by them and their mediocrity. On Nietzsche’s way of looking at these things, I don’t see how he would account for the curious combinations of strengths and weaknesses found in humans and societies, the complementarities and complex interplays of these strengths and weaknesses, or the existences of strengths and weaknesses as the result, not of essences, but of relationships between people as combinations of strength and weakness.
3. Nietzsche’s presentation involves rhetorical ploys in the form of analogy which give an illusion of necessity where in fact there is none. The bird of prey MUST have prey; a human being need not. We do not need to be carnivores, even. In Nietzsche’s parable, he works with birds and lambs, but what he’s referring to are in both cases human beings, (otherwise, his words are without sense,) and this sleight of hand of Nietzsche’s is incredibly cunning. Even if humans did require prey to survive, humans do not have as a necessity for survival, the need of other humans for their prey. One bird of prey might attack another bird of prey, but I don’t think it is generally true that a bird of prey will prey very often on members of its own species. An eagle might eat its goslings if their prospect of survival was low, but not as a demonstration of its own strength and power! It’s a response to adverse conditions. A human attacking other humans is not demonstrating strength and power. Such a human may perhaps be said to be responding to adverse conditions of one sort or another, but that’s about the best that can be said for such a human.
4. I have often responded to Nietzsche’s words about the birds of prey and the lambs as if they asked me to “identify with” the birds of prey… to try to identify with what’s strong, (vital?, creative? intelligent? athletic?) within me…. To act (affirm?) on that… And to over-ride(Dismiss? Deny? Repress?) as a consideration of action those parts which are reflective, compassionate, considerate, and concerned. Additionally, in this parable Nietzsche seems to suggest to me that I need to think twice about opposing what’s strong and successful in the world and in politics, and to be proposing that if I do oppose, I be certain that in my actions I am not joining those who hamstring the “strong” (with regulations, laws, taxation, etc.) out of hatred of their very strength – out of jealousy and resentment of their very strength and success. I would read the parable of the birds of prey and the lambs almost as suggesting that the brutal part of me is strong, while the compassionate part of me is weak, and that I do well therefore to suppress the compassionate part of me; I also read it as if it suggests that laissez-faire capitalism is best, or maybe libertarianism. I do think that if I took Nietzsche’s meaning just from this one passage, unmodified by anything else he’s written, that anti-compassion and laissez-faire capitalism would be a just reading of his positions.
In these four items I may be attacking a straw man. (In which case, I apologize, but this was something I had to get off my chest.) Later, I want to try to engage whether Nietzsche succeeds in deflating the formal notions which were his real target in the passage I quoted.