Prologue, Confession and Disclaimer
I thought I would offer this post as a part review/dialogue. On the one hand it reveiws an essay contained within the book The Lord Of The Rings And Philosophy, whilst on the other it enables me to post a dialogue on an area of philosophy that I know significantly little about. From an early stage in my philosophical education I had been warned away from the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, with the unexplained declaration that he was a ‘poisionous shit’. Ordinarily, like Jung before me (who recieved similar warnings), this dismissively critical generalisation of someones work would be sufficient to motivate me to scoure every bookshop possible for copies of his writings. However on this occasion I did not, and I cannot understate how strongly we were warned off him. Now of course one cannot be involved in Philosophy without encountering Nietzsche at some stage and thus I gained a very general and not particularly approving view of his philosophy and its implications. So I must confess that like many philosophers I simply either ignored him or dismissed him summarily, in the same fashion as I had been forewarned.
The chapter I am reviewing is entitled Uberhobbits: Tolkien, Nietzsche and the Will to Power. And I will present the review/dialogue under three headings; Comprehension (presenting the Nietzschean content), Comparison (presenting Tolkiens response to the Nietzschean ideal), and Critique (the only original work here, presenting my questions).
As I tell my students to do, I will attempt to leave my preconceptual baggage at the door. But having not read Nietzsche widely I will limit myself to using the texts selected in the essay, and the interpretations likewise presented by its author. Only the critique presents my view.
Comprehension: A very brief overview of Nietzsche
According to Nietzsche, life is all about supression of the weak by the strong.
Exploitation does not pertain to a corrupt of imperfect or primitive society: it pertains to the essence of the living thing as a fundamental organic function, it is a consequence of the intrinsic will to power which is precisely the will to life. FN, Beyond Good and Evil
At first glance the implicaions of this cause many moral philosophers to retch uncontrallably. But Nietzsche intervenes, let us consider the birds of prey who exploit (eat) lambs for their own purpose. The lambs dislike the birds, perhaps even regard them as evil. But does this make the birds morally defective? Are they evil, or are they not acting in accordance with their nature? And is it not the nature of strength to control, dominate and exploit?
To require of strength that it should not express itself as strength, that it should not be a desire to conquer, a desire to subdue, a desire to become master, a thirst for enemies and resistances and triumphs, is just as absurd as to require of weakness that it should express itself as strength. FN, On the Genealogy of Morals.
But what of the poor lambs, is not their conception of the ‘evil’ of the birds of prey, equally as valid as the birds of preys’ conception that they are acting in accordance with their nature? Nietzsche answers:-
There are no moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation of phenomena. FN Beyond Good and Evil.
In other words both views are interpretations, differing perspectives of the same phenomenon. Neither has any binding significance, beyond the possibility that one may force its interpretation upon the other, the strong may dominate the weak.
Nietzsche also argues that God is dead, by which he means that the deity has not died, but that humans have reached the conclusion that the deity did not actually exist. That:-
belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable. FN, The Gay Science.
Nietzsches intent through this act of deicide is to awaken us to the realization that life is meaningless. God does not exist, humans are not divine creations, they are not designed for any specific purpose, they exist for no purpose.
We invented the concept of ‘purpose’ in reality purpose is lacking. FN, Twilight of the Idols.
We live in an alien world, devoid of meaning, but full of pointless suffering. Truth is ugly and:-
Honesty would bring disgust and suicide in its train. FN The Gay Science.
The search for a reasonable, good and beautiful truth, by which we may ground the meaning and purpose of our lives, is a search in vain. To cope with this fact and to avoid the inability to function caused by knowing the truth is to deceive ourselves. Art, Nietzsche proposes, is a means to veiling our eyes to the truth of the meaninglessness of life. Beauty surpasses truth, taste overrides reason.
What is decisive against Christianity is our tasre, no longer our reasons. FN, The Gay Science
Nietzsche offered the view of eternal recurrence in history as a justification for these views (although some believe he did not literally believe in eternal recurrence). The idea of eternal recurrence is to deny that history is linear and progressive, to disavow us of the idea that history is heading towards some sort of destination, or purposeful point. Furthermore though it provides us with a new guiding standard, instead of viewing ones actions with regards a conclusion of a cause and effect, thus rejecting heaven and hell, he proposes amor fati a love of fate.
that one wants nothing other than it is, not in the future, not in the past, not in all eternity. FN Ecce Homo.
In summary:- God is dead, good and evil are interpretations we assign to things and not derive from things. The world is ugly and full of suffering, life is meaningless, beauty helps us to cope with the lack of purpose but cannot change it. History is a series of monotonous repetitions, heading nowhere but back upon itself again and again.
So God is dead, all would seem downhill from thereon. But not so according to Nietzsche, it is a cause for celebration.
How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, console ourselves?…Must we not ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it? FN The Gay Science
What are we being told here. This, life is meaningless, get used to it, God is dead, all that was held true in the past is wrong, morality holds no grip over you anymore. You are like a painter with a blank canvas, embrace the meaninglessness of your lives and make for yourselves a life magnificent according to ones tastes.
As an aesthetic (or, perhaps, artistic?) phenomenon, existence is still endurable to us, and through art we are given eye and hand, and above all a good conscience, to enable us to make of ourselves such a phenomenon. FN The Gay Science.
Taste overthrows reason, it is the will to power, and whoever achieves such a thing is the new man, the overman, the superman, the Ubermensch.
Comparison: Tolkiens rejection of the Will to Power
Sauron with the One Ring, a Ring of Power, is on a quest to dominate. It is a gamble; for the destruction of the One Ring would lead to his destruction, so infused is it with his malevolent will and power. But who would or could challenge him? The very power contained in the Ring would corrupt and dominate those who used it.
Saurons quest to dominate reached its zenith in the One Ring.
it contained the powers of all the others, and controlled them, so that its wearer could see the thoughts of all those that used the lesser rings, could govern all that they did, and in the end could utterly enslave them. Letters p152
Is Sauron the Superman? Is his will to power the fulfilment of Nietzsches assertions about the death of God?
Sauron desired to be a God-King, and was held to this by his servants; if he had been victorious he would have demanded divine honour from all rational creatures and absolute temporal power over the whole world. Letters, pp.243-44
The Lord of the Rings is the chronicle of the great conflict that consumed Middle Earth, as a result of Sauron’s will to power, his desire to make for himself a life magnificent according to his own taste. And Tolkiens account of this conflict is bourne of great distaste and a simple and plain characterisation of good versus evil. The violence of Mordor and its Dark Lord compares unfavourably with the beauty of Iluvatar’s children fighting against them. The Ring, according to Tolkien symbolizes:
the will to mere power, seeking to make itself objective by physical force and mechanism, and so also inevitably by lies. Letters, p160.
The whole of Tolkiens tale seems to revolve around community and acts of personal sacrifice. Frodo, the Ring bearer, is accompanied on his task by Merry, Pippin and Sam. Even the faithless Boromir contributres to Frodo’s odious task. Sam in particular accompanies Frodo from the beginning to the end of the journey, and in the light of events wisely so, for the quest may never have come to fruition if Frodo had to make his own way.
Others too played their part. Fatty Bolger stays at Frodo’s house to maintain the impression that he is still there. Tom Bombadil rescues the hobbits, Merry and Pippin twice so. Nob, from the Prancing Pony, rescues Merry from the Nazgul. Bill the pony bears the hobbits burdens including Frodo from Bree to Moria. Glorfindels horse carries Frodo to the Ford. Gwaihir the Windlord. the Great Eagle, rescues Gandalf from Orthanc; Shadowfax provides the wizard with speed when he most needs it. Bilbo gives Frodo his sword Sting and Mithril shirt. Elrond heals Frodo’s wounds and establishes the Fellowship. The Galadrim provide shelter to the fellowship from the Orcs, in their sanctuary at Lothlorien, Galadriel provides gifts that they all eventually need.
The essay presents three in-depth accounts of the element of community and sacrifice in the LOTR. Particularly Gandalf’s sacrifice of his own life on the bridge at Khazad-dum. Frodo’s spares the life of Gollum and takes pity on him, ultimately relevent in the outcome of the quest to destroy the Ring. And the faithful Sam, who subordinates himself at all times to the good of the quest and the fellowship. It is a telling demonstration of his strength of character when he resists the temptation presented to him in a vision by the Ring of Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age.
The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command. Return of the King, p186.
Tolkiens portrait, opposite to the world view presented by Nietzsche, is one of community, humility, love, and sacrifice. Despite the individual flaws of its characters, the heroes of Middle Earth overcome their weaknesses not through power plays and the domination of others but through humility and self sacrifice. It is a view of the world where true power manifests itself through the subordination of ones own will to others.
The greatest examples of the action of the spirit and of reason, are in abnegation Letters, p246.
Tolkiens alternative world view is presented (interestingly enough) by means of artistry rather than argument, thus challenging Nietzsche on his own terms.
Similarly I find that my opposition to Nietzsche has always somewhat been originate in a gut-instinct. A sense of revulsion or a feeling that it just doesn’t seem right. In other words my rejection to the Nietzschean world view has always originated from my distaste, only then progressing to a reasoned opposition. My opposition to Nietzsche, once I go beyond simple distaste has to lie in ethics, but even then it must take of itself a logical positivist stance. My ethical objections are perhaps not simply because what Nietzsche proposes is evil, but because what Nietzsche proposes is wrong, or not to my taste.
Therefore I propose to ask two questions in my critique, that may open dialogue.
Firstly, ethical implications of the will to power, and the will to dominate. If the bird of prey is acting in accordance to its nature by attacking and killing a lamb, and is not committing an evil act. Is it not then by equal extension the same subordination to nature for me to kill an animal for my own designs? To eat, or to use as clothing etc. If so is there any demarcation between where I should stop in my quest for power? Am I not entitled, with my blank canvas to (if I have accumulated such power) eliminate my opponents by means of nuclear holocaust?
Furthermore in my quest for domination, shouldnt I choose to ignore (where it suits me) those taboos that have previously provided me with a moral restraint upon my actions, i.e. racism, sexism, homophobia and so on?
I am told that Nietzsche did not intend for his philosophy to be used in such a way, and that he specifically railed against uncultivated taste and technological tedium. But is it not also the case that he did not explicitly rule out the justification of brute force as a means to the will to power?
The LOTR presents an alternative to Nietzsche’s view using art as its medium, as opposed to reason, which seems to make the LOTR a particularly effective weapon against Nietzsche, when compared to other criticisms of him. If then reason is no longer a valid basis for ones actions, and good and bad are relative terms, and taste is the only guiding principle to be followed in our will to power, then by what authority does Nietzsche have the ‘right’ to tell us that martial or military action, that action by brute force, that uncultivated taste, in the quest for the will to power, is not the right way to go about doing things?