Nietzsche talking about the European state
of mind at the end of the 19th century, so Nietzsche says: well, we’re in this terrible
situation, right? God is dead, we’ve killed him, what does that mean?
Well, we’ve taken our evolved metaphysics which structures our moral viewpoint and undermined
it by rational criticism – peculiar move philosophically because it was never established
on rational grounds anyways. We’ve undermined it rationally and replaced
it with, well, nothing, nothing. What’s the consequence of that?
Well, he outlines that here. “Of what is great, one must either be silent or speak
with greatness.” And you can think about this as a prophesy on the events of World
War I and World War II and the Gulag archipelago and the 60 million people dead in the Soviet
Union and the whole unfolding of 20th century history and the great ideological battles
that characterized that unfolding. So this is something Nietzsche sees coming
and knows why. He says: “of what is great, one must either be silent
or speak with greatness. With greatness. That means cynically and with innocence. What I
relate of the history of the next two centuries, I describe what is coming, what can no longer
come differently. The advent of nihilism, right, the belief in nothing. Our whole European
culture is moving for some time now with a tortured tension that’s growing from decade
to decade as towards a catastrophe, restlessly, violently, headlong like a river that wants
to reach the end that no longer reflects. It’s afraid to reflect. He that speaks here
has conversely done nothing so far but to reflect as a philosopher and solitary by instinct
who has found his advantage in standing aside outside. “
Why does the advent of nihilism become necessary? Well, because the values we’ve had hitherto
thus draw their final consequence because nihilism represents the ultimate logical conclusion
of our great values and ideals because we must experience nihilism before we can find
out what value these values really have. We require at some time new values. Nihilism
stands at the door whence comes this uncanniest of all guests.
Nihilism, right? Your beliefs are undermined once, what’s the consequence of that? Well,
one consequence is the belief is undermined. The other consequence is more metaphysical,
which is: fooled once, you no longer have the belief. But maybe it’s even worse than
that because human beings can generalize. Fooled once, you never have any, you no longer
have any belief in beliefs, which means you say something like this: I
don’t care what you think, doesn’t matter what you think, the world is such a terrible
place that no interpretation whatsoever can possibly suffice. That’s nihilism. No meaning
system whatsoever can possibly suffice. Well, what’s the flaw? Well, the flaw is:
well of course no system of coherent belief can suffice because most of the world’s
transcendent. You can’t encapsulate everything that is, in your sphere of belief
and what you might say then is that if you ever believe that what you believe is what
should support you, the facts you know say, or the interpretation you place on the world,
then your faith is badly misplaced. You don’t believe in what you believe, you believe in
something that’s deeper than that And so then you see what’s wrong with Tolstoy,
right, and Tolstoy’s story and Tolstoy says, accounting for his collapse in the stability
of Christian belief, he said: this all happened, this collapse
of my belief, when I was not yet 50 years old. I should have been considered a completely
happy man. I had a good, loving, beloved wife, fine children and a large estate growing and
expanding without any effort on my part. I was respected by friends and acquaintances,
praised by strangers and could claim a certain renown. I was not physically nor mentally
unhealthy. On the contrary, I enjoyed a physical and mental vigour I had rarely encountered
among others my age. I could keep up with the peasants working
in the fields and work eight and ten hours at a stretch without suffering any after-effects
from the strain. And in such a state of affairs, I came to
a point where I could not live and even though I feared death, I had to employ ruses against
myself to keep from committing suicide. It was as though I had lived a little, wandered
a little until I came to a precipice and I clearly saw that there was nothing ahead except
ruin. And there was no stopping or turning back,
no closing my eyes so that I would not see that there was nothing ahead except the deception
of life and of happiness and of the reality of suffering and death, of complete annihilation.
I grew sick of life. Some irresistible force was leading me to somehow get rid of it. this
thought was such a temptation that I had to use cunning against myself in order not to
go through with it. And there I was, a fortunate man carrying
a rope from my room where I was alone every night as I undressed so that I would not hang
myself from the beam between the closets. And I quit going hunting with a gun so that
I would not be too easily tempted to rid myself of life. I myself did not know what I wanted,
was afraid of life. I struggled to get rid of it yet I hoped for something from it. My
position was terrible. I knew that I could find nothing in the way of rational knowledge
except a denial of life and in faith I could find nothing except a denial of reason.
And for me this was even more impossible than a denial of life. according to rational knowledge,
it followed that life is evil and people know it.
I described my spiritual condition to myself in this way: my life is some kind of stupid
and evil practical joke that someone is playing on me. In spite of the fact that I did not
acknowledge the existence of any someone who might have created me, the notion that someone
brought me into the world as a stupid and evil joke seemed to be the most natural way
to describe my condition. I could not be deceived. All is vanity, happy
is he who’s never been born, death is better than life, we must rid ourselves of life.
Having realized all the stupidity of the joke that is being played on us, and seeing that
the blessings of the dead are greater than those of the living and that it’s better
not to exist, the strong act and put an end to this stupid joke and they use any means
of doing it – a rope around the neck, water, a knife in the heart or a train.
Now the interesting thing about this, I think, is first of all, a Russian wrote it; and second
of all, it was written in the late 1900s. And even more particularly is that you note
that when the strong act, using a rope around the neck, water, a knife in the heart and
a train, well, Tolstoy’s talking about suicide. There’s no necessary reason to presume that
this should only be violence engendered against the self, right? If life is a stupid and evil
joke, then what’s stopping you from benevolently putting an end to the suffering of others,
right? Benevolently in theory at least. Well, you know that’s one perspective, right,
but then there’s always the perspective of the lady who went to see the psychiatrist
in T.S. Eliot’s poem, which is: well, if when your eyes are open life appears as nothing
but suffering and pain to you, it could be that that is how life is. But it could also
be that there’s something wrong with the way that you’re looking at the world.
And in some ways, that’s a much more humble perspective, right, because the alternative
is: well, I know what’s going on and I just look out there and there’s the world and
I’ve pretty much got it, like I know what it means and what it means is pointless suffering
and pain and that’s my model and I don’t see any reason to question it.
But then the alternative is: well, wait a second, there’s always the possibility that
I don’t know absolutely everything and this final and horrible judgment that I’m placing
on the conditions of existence could conceivably be misplaced, given the sort of presumptuousness
of the claim, right? I’m in a position to render final
judgment on the moral value of existence as such. It seems to me reasonable to presume
that that’s not the kind of statement that you should easily make
And I remember when George Bush launched his most recent war, the initial terminology,
I think this was for the Afghanistan battle, was: Operation Infinite Justice. But he retracted
that phrase after a number of religious leaders objected to its kind of presumptuousness –
which I thought was quite reasonable because infinite justice is something that most people
should probably not hope for, right, because you never know precisely what infinite justice
means because it might just mean that every bloody
mistake you’ve ever made, you’re going to pay for. And I suppose that would be just
as applicable to George W. Bush as it would to anybody else
And then Milton again describes the development of this adversarial spirit. He says: first,
pride, pride and worse, ambition, threw me down.
That’s Satan’s lament when he’s in hell. And Milton’s description of hell is extremely
interesting. He said: the reason that hell is characterized
by its structure is not so much because of its nature precisely, it’s because of its
distance from the good. So the farther you are away, say, from what
constitutes the good, the more suffering is endemic to that state. So it’s the distance
away from something that constitutes the suffering. And then Milton says: it’s very interesting
to do an analysis of Satan’s character and the notion of hell per se because how in the
world can you reconcile the idea of a good God with the notion of this continual suffering?
Milton says: well, Satan can step out of hell in one moment, all he has to do is admit that
he was wrong. And that’s the one thing that he will not do under any circumstances whatsoever
So then we put one more twist on the story and we say something like this:
OK, we already know that part of the reason that people have belief systems is so that
they can structure their interactions with the world. It’s a tool box, say. We’re
playing a game, we share the rules, that’s fine, we can cooperate with one another. It
could be other than it is but it’s the way it is and it works for us, that’s fine.
There’s nothing absolute about it except that a structure like that is necessary.
Now whenever there’s a threat to that shared view of the world, well then we’re afraid
and for good reason and it’s not surprising under those circumstances that we fight to
defend what we’ve made ours. But then you say, say you adopt this perspective,
right, and it’s this vengeful desire to destroy that extends beyond other individuals
and beyond society even to the structure of experience as such.
And then you think: well, what’s the best mask for that and how do these two processes
sort of interact? And you think: well, the most efficient way
to do terrible things is to mask them with the highest order of morality and that’s
precisely what the totalitarian does. So that way, he gets to have his cake and
eat it too. He’s perfectly well protected from apprehension
of the world because his belief system is complete, plus his underground motivations,
which is this constant desire for revenge, can find their expression within the totalitarian
structure and remain invisible even to himself. So he can say to himself: well, the reason
I threw all those farmers out of their house in 1920 and stole their soup and their food
and their grandmother’s blankets and everything they’d worked to own was because I was building
a socialist paradise, right? And it was a good thing for me to go into that house and
not a bad thing. And as long as he believes that, or acts as
if he believes that, then he can look in the mirror without screaming and there’s no
recognition whatsoever of precisely the sort of game that he’s involved in, so he has
it both ways, right? He can do everything terrible that he always
dreams of doing and consider himself not only good but good even at a higher level than
the people that he was actually afflicting. And of course, that’s just standard description
of what happened in the Soviet Union. Nietzsche says, I love this, his definition
of morality, it’s the most cynical thing Nietzsche ever said, I think: “the idiosyncrasy
of decadence with the ulterior motive of revenging oneself against life successfully. I attach
value to this definition.” He said: well, why be an ideologue?
Well, it’s a good way to simplify the world, right? It’s a procrustean bed, you just
chop off everything that doesn’t fit, then you don’t have to think, right?
So that’s good because thinking is difficult and it’s troublesome and it takes courage
and so forth to transform chaos into order is no trivial matter.
And if it’s all ordered for you, well then there’s really nothing left for you to do.
But then Nietzsche goes even below that. He says: yeah, well there’s more to the
story than that, isn’t there? It’s like once you got this little procrustean bed all
arranged for your enemies, then you can allow your most base, vengeful instincts full flow
by just continually chopping people so they fit. And you do it, all the while saying:
well, it’s obviously the best thing that could possibly be done.
And so then you look at Stalin, say, because not everybody who’s adopted a vengeful tack
on existence is sort of like the archetype of vengefulness or adversarial spirit.
But you get now and then the people like Stalin, who are good counter-examples, say, to the
people like Gandhi. And so Stalin’s very instructive and so
we could start by looking at what he did in the Ukraine.
So at the end of 1929, the Kremlin decreed that millions of peasants from individually
owned farms would be forced into agricultural collectives or kolkhozes seen in the eyes
of the politburo as pliant providers of Soviet agricultural needs.
In defiance of the facts, Soviet ideologists hammered out an appropriate Marxist terminology
to explain what was going on. Throughout grain-producing areas, it was said:
resistance to this scientific scheme was being organized by so-called rich peasants or Gulaks.
With his customary brutality, therefore, Stalin decreed the liquidation of the kulaks as a
class Well, Stalin liked this idea of like group
guilt, that was a major theme for Stalin. That meant I really didn’t have to pay attention
to you as an individual. I could just decide if you were a doctor or engineer or a kulak
or a German or whatever ethnic, racial or educational division happened to characterize
a particular target at the time. And it didn’t matter if you were guilty
as an individual. That whole notion never even obtained. It was class guilt that mattered
and if you were in one of those classes, well we’re better without you.
And of course, the nature of the class just changed constantly. But it was a perfectly
logical thing to think if you believed in like historical determinism. If your parents
were rich bourgeois, what was the probability that you’re going to be a useful part of
the workers’ collective? It would be easier just to get rid of you ahead of time so you
didn’t cause too much trouble. So then you think about these kulaks, rich
peasants, well who were these people? Like when we get down to the individual level?
So you go in a village, the village was full of serfs, like not 40 years before, so these
are people just struggling out of the feudal society,
right? And you got some people in there who’ve managed to be successful enough as farmers,
which is no easy thing, to like have a house and maybe hire one person. And you know maybe
have a little extra food in the larder and a few kind of material possessions.
So these are successful people and so you could say: well, they’re the ones that actually
knew how to farm. That’s one theory. Or you could say: the reason they had all this
stuff was because they stole it from all the other people, right?
And then you think: OK, so I march into town, I’m a Soviet revolutionary and I say: hey,
guys, you know those rich people, they stole everything they have from you.
And then you think: OK, which of you guys is going to listen to that? Well, it’s not
going to be the sort of struggling people just underneath them, who are really trying
to get ahead, right, because that’s where they’re hoping to get.
It’s going to be the resentful and revengeful few who think: well, the world’s fundamentally
unfair and it’s obvious that those sons of bitches got what they want from stealing
it form me and here it turns out that if I just go down the street and steal it back,
well, not only am I allowed to do that but, according to this new emergent ideology, man,
that’s the best thing I could possibly do. So then multiply that story by several million
participants and you have like the first five years of the Soviet empire. And so what do we have there? The result was
a catastrophic onslaught on millions of peasant households. At first, party activists and
local officials, read bullies, right, brutalized peasants, forcing them to surrender their
homesteads and their possessions. Deportations, arrests and killings soon followed
as terror generalized. The violence mounted to full-scale rebellion
in various places, with regular troops engaged for months. For example, suppressing peasant
uprisings. Resistance took various forms, usually reflecting
the hopeless, desperate anguish of a doomed population.
In the Ukraine, there were even women’s rebellions, spontaneous uprisings of peasant
women who attacked the local Kolkhozes to demand the return of confiscated farm products.
With a colossal impact on the Soviet economy, peasants slaughtered their animals by the
millions rather than see them seized. For two years, the fighting raged. As the
dreadful process of de-kulakization continued, Stalin ordered a further assault on the recalcitrant
peasantry. What Conquest calls the terror-famine of 1932.
Moscow, writes Conquest, it’s from a book called The Harvest of Sorrow, knowingly decreed
grain procurements from the Ukraine and elsewhere exceeding by far what the local population
could produce, right, which meant that everyone who lived there was forced and ordered to
deliver more grain than they had ever grown. Communist brigades roamed the countryside
forcing agriculturalists to disgorge the little they had been able to produce under conditions
of severe dislocation. Grain sat unused in state reserves while the local population
starved. This is from Wisdom, apocryphal Biblical writings:
for the reasoned unsoundly saying to themselves: short and sorrowful is our life and there
is no remedy when a man comes to his end and no one has been known to return from Hades.
Because we were born by mere chance and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been because
the breath in our nostrils is smoke and reason a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts.
When it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes and the spirit will dissolve like
empty air. Our name will be forgotten in time and no one will remember our works. Our life
will pass away like the traces of a cloud and be scattered like mist that is chased
by the rays of the sun and overcome by its heat. For our allotted time is the passing
of a shadow and there’s no return from our death because it is sealed up and no one turns
back. So a piece of writing thousands of years old
and so Nietzsche says at the end of the 1900s: well, rationality undermines our faith in
religion. But we have a piece of writing from more than
2,000 years ago that says: look, what is it about being alive? It’s short and there’s
nothing to it, right? Our thoughts are biologically produced and when we die there’s nothing
left. Well, that’s a very modern thought yet it
was expressed thousands of years ago so you know, I think, merely from observing that
that the crisis of faith that characterizes modern society is a reflection of the permanent
crisis of faith that characterizes human beings. and you say: well, what’s happening with
the totalitarian? Well, the totalitarian is afraid of the unknown, for good reason, I
mean and he’s very interested in sustaining his own belief structure.
And the combination of those two things, it can start off trivially is that the more you’re
convinced that you have to maintain the stability of your current belief structure, the more
afraid you are of anything that’s unknown. And the more afraid you are of anything that’s
unknown, the less likely you are to go out and explore.
Then the less likely you are to go out and explore, the weaker you get because you stop
gather information. And then the weaker you get, the more necessary it is that you have
to have this frame of reference and it has to remain intact.
And this sort of thing starts to cycle and cycle. So you undermine your own sense of
your own autonomy and ability and you make yourself more and more a rigid tool of the
propagandistic system. And you more and more adopt a sense of enmity towards anything you
don’t understand. And that’s a spiral that goes rapidly down
hill, right, rapidly into a state that’s characterized by complete internal chaos
And I think that’s a good definition of what is meant in metaphysical language by
hell, right? Hell is a bottomless pit. Why? Well, I don’t care how bad things are
for you or around you, there’s always some bloody thing you could do to make it worse,
right? There’s always some suffering you can extend
to others, there’s always some bit of stubbornness or rejection that you can pull off that will
make your already terrible situation worse, right? So there’s no bottom and that seems
to me to be right. If you do just a cursory historical analysis, no matter what terrible
account you can come across with regards to, say, concentration camp brutality, in some
other book there’s some worse story. Like limited only by the absolute ends of
the most brutal form of imagination, all a consequence, I think, of this process, right?
And you can’t really say what causes it because on the one hand, there’s cowardice
and lack of faith, right? Anything I don’t understand – cowardice, pride and lack of
faith. Anything I don’t understand doesn’t exist, plus I’m not the person to confront
it anyways, right? That’s the lack of faith. Each of those things feeds into the other
and it’s very difficult to say where it starts.
And the thing that’s kind of interesting about these self-referential processes is
that they don’t have to start dramatically. Like the loop can start very, very small and
it picks up speed very, very rapidly. So you imagine you’re speaking into a tape
recorder and the speaker’s on. You get too close to the speaker with the microphone and
you get some feedback. And if you bring the microphone a little closer, the feedback develops
more and more intensely. It can blow up the whole system.
It doesn’t have to start dramatically to move forward very, very rapidly. And what
that means, at least in principle, is that even small mistakes anywhere along this circle
can start the development of precisely this kind of spiral.
And so you say: well, people, do people need to be abused to become totalitarian? Well,
and the answer to that is no because everyone’s been abused sufficiently by some occurrences
in their life to justify taking a negative tack on the nature of experience.
You say: well, how cowardly do you have to be in order to run away from things? And you
think: well, not that cowardly because under most circumstances your life is characterized
by sins of omission, right? It’s there are things you left undone
and like just exactly how rigid do you want your belief systems to be? And you say: well,
I like them to be stable because without that stability, then I’m terrified. And then
you can say: well, fair enough but that’s all a sign of a kind of existential weakness.
And then if social circumstances come around and give your life a good tweak, say like
they did with the Germans prior to World War II, you just never know what side you’re
going to end up on. And so all these little tiny mistakes you
know, mistakes that I think are marked by your own conscience, are precisely that, leads
you down this terrible path. And if you think: well, no, that can’t be
right – well, then you have to remember that in these processes, say, of de-kulakization
and the immense wave of death that characterized the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, most people
were involved. And if they weren’t involved in direct acts
of commission, they were absolutely involved in direct acts of omission, right? They knew
but they didn’t say anything. Well, classically sins of commission are regarded
as much more evil, say, than sins of omission. But I actually think that’s backwards.
The sins of omission are worse because every time you walk away, I mean what do you do?
You walk away from a Nazi, what are you walking away from? Well, we know what you’re walking
away from, right? If you’re walking away from a domain that’s likely to expand into
something that’s completely undifferentiable from hell, and it’s no wonder you walk away
from that, but the fact that you walk away from it makes it much more likely that it’s
going to happen So then I think, to end this, something like
this. We look for economic reasons to explain great terrible acts, right? We look for social
reasons, we look for political reasons but we have Nietzsche’s observation, which is
something like this: I don’t care whether or not your life’s
been characterized by suffering and deprivation. The mere fact of suffering and deprivation
does not allow you to draw a particular conclusion. You can’t say that there’s a causal path
between economic deprivation, say, and the rise of a totalitarian state because any event
is susceptible to multiple interpretations. Well, how do these states come about? Well,
I think: well, we look for political and economic and social reasons because that’s the easiest
place top look, right? If you ratchet up the level of description
to social forces that are beyond your control, then you never have to worry about what it
is that you’re doing or not doing that’s actually causing this sort of thing.
But I think if you look at the historical record, especially if you look at it from
a mythological perspective, the story is basically clear and it goes something like this:
Every time you make a mistake that you know is a mistake and you don’t fix it, the world
moves more towards that. And it might be trivial, maybe, but it might not be.
So you look at Adolf Eichmann, for example, and he’s a little bureaucrat who planned
the Final Solution and you find out he’s just a little ratty guy, right?
You see him in a bar, you don’t even notice him, he’s a negligible nobody. But he’s
the guy who planned the Final Solution. He was a normal person, I mean maybe even slightly
less than normal, right? He is no monster, he wasn’t the sort of person you’d remark
on if you saw him. Precisely the opposite: invisible, quiet, unassuming, presuming no
doubt, at least until he was arrested, that he was just doing what he was told and that
was just fine.