"The delight in the herd is more ancient than delight in the I; and as long as the good conscience is identified with the herd, only the bad conscience says: I" wrote Nietzsche.
Every generation seems to fight harder and deeper to defend the sacred threads of a contemporary self, paradoxically defined by the herd around it. Over time, mediums come along that alter the nature of these threads — a Pandora’s box of possibilities that include the Guttenberg Press, the Industrial Revolution, and the Information Age we find ourselves in now. They have all, in different ways, extended the reach of a 'self' — from our voices, to our physical movements, to our inner thoughts. Yet over time, we find ourselves arguing not over deeper observations about ourselves within these inventions, but who has the right to draw the most convenient conclusions about them — conclusions that often covet the most digestible, unthinking opinion while punishing those of dissent. Having witnessed these arguments countless times, it seems we can overestimate our abilities for thoughtful perceptions, often seeing only what we wish. Perhaps the 'identity' movement of this era's immediate feedback has given us a skewed sense of a world created only for the simplicities of 'likes' or 'dislikes'?
• • •
I have long heard criticisms for what art, science, myth and philosophy represent or should represent. Becoming anti-art, anti-science, anti-myth, anti-intellectual or anti-populist has become somewhat fashionable, preferring to bend reality into whims and desires with little need to articulate what gives them their deeper shape. Perhaps this is rooted in the idea that any person or group who feels the need to tackle the world of perceptions is merely a great egoist? I've encountered this in my own experiences from those close, to those far, especially when hidden by distance. The irony is, of course, that the many who simply destroy in the name of a freedom are those who blindly follow. But truthfully, the disciplines of the arts and sciences can sometimes hide behind their own myths of freedom providing little effort to contextualize or connect their discoveries. Those who remain dedicated to their craft and its thinking are voices that question our foundations, and more importantly, question the sometimes wondrous and disastrous measures of a past. It remains necessary for us as both audiences and authors to connect in these moments and the influences shaping them (be it through art, science or philosophy) and to not fall victim to what Nietzsche described as herd moralities — a blending together of objectivity and subjectivity into a moral void.
Exploring parts of Nietzsche's thinking reveals an often uncompromising thinker. Nietzsche's ideas shatter many of the comfortable assumptions of religion and science. His was a world not just bereft of God, but of many of humanities common beliefs. In the wake of the death of God and its implications on a moral culture, he spoke of a type of 'revaluing' in the possibilities of our nature. Central to his philosophy was the idea of 'life-affirmation,' which candidly questions the attitudes of power, however socially innate they may be. His work was awe-inspiring in magnitude and originality. Yet the beliefs in his work were also amongst the most distorted and devastatingly misaligned in history, as was reflected in the movement of the Third Reich, which bent his thinking into their own disastrous ideologies. Had he been alive to witness it, he would have been crushed. Nietzsche's approach was far more subtle and nuanced than history can sometimes summon. Although he understood the sufferings and pains of life, he set out on quest to find life's grand affirmations.
For Nietzsche, the concept of herd thinking was one that he objected to because he felt that it placed a certain automatic value where none had ever been tested. It was a belief that would impose a false sense of power while abandoning any meaningful responsibility to it. He felt the 'herd' movement was vulnerable to these lower aspects of our being, without the higher possibilities of uncomfortable thought — a process of working out difficult issues.
These ideas placed a certain importance on one's familiarities — or things that simply feel right — that could often create herd-like thinking with herd-like beings. Nietzsche thought that this was a devastating way to live and could have devastating effects on our whole. It could hold us from the rigour of higher moral meaning, while submitting to the simplicity of only digestible beliefs.
This critique continues to similarly reverberate in our current media driven landscape. As he foresaw in his philosophy, our 'living' equations can sometimes reinterpret themselves in public discourse. Nietzsche adds a compelling summary in his Genealogy of Morals and our sometimes vulnerable ways of reinterpreting things:
"impotence becomes goodness of heart, craven fear becomes humility, submission becomes ‘obedience’, cowardice and being forced to wait become patience, the inability to take revenge becomes forgiveness, the desire for revenge becomes a desire for justice, a hatred of one’s enemy becomes a hatred of injustice (from Genealogy of Morals)."
What keeps these ideas so current is that Nietzsche probes our thinking as a base 'operating system'. He believes morality uncovers a system of errors that we have incorporated into our habituated ways of thinking, feeling and living. For him, they are a reminder of our profound ignorance to ourselves in the world. We see ourselves incompletely, with illusory features, through ‘false ranks’ that seem inherently above others and nature, while inventing and accepting ever new, unwavering standards of what is 'right'. However, he suggests we shouldn't feel uneasy about this — they are a drive that can propel us forward. But to do so, he believed we would need to think beyond the simple polarities of 'good and evil'. For Nietzsche these defaults seemed to simplify moralities and could often get in the way by assuming a knowledge of things it simply didn't have.
Like most thinkers and artists that endure, Nietzsche lays down a challenge to his readers, setting them a task of learning to read not just him, but ourselves as well. He acknowledges that his forms of writing can cause difficulty, but emphasizes that for a full understanding of his aphorisms requires an ‘art of interpretation’ that unfolds our meanings in practice (the German word is Auslegung, or a laying out). This idea is one that my own practice exercises through the two volumes and holds especially dear. The paradox of Nietzsche's profound thinking lies in the fact that despite the vulnerabilities of herd beliefs, it also holds the transformative power to unify and transcend us as groups — think of concerts, communal gatherings or our own political collectives. However we choose to navigate them, his thinking remains an essential tool to help distinguish meaning and purpose from both life in the herd, and life outside of it.