Sunday, 17 December 2017

Creative Destruction: An Exegesis of Friedrich Nietzsche's 'David Strauss, the Confessor and the Writer' (1873 essay)

Friedrich Nietzsche’s David Strauss, the Confessor and the Writer is not really about David Strauss. The polemic’s target is first mentioned ten pages in, and nowhere in the introduction. Nietzsche’s focus is the difference between productive thinking and lazy thinking, or in his terms, the difference between ‘culture’ and ‘cultural philistinism’. The cultural mind seeks to improve itself, to seek that which is good outside of itself, and weed out that which is bad within itself. The cultural philistine’s mind, however, believes it does not need to improve itself, for everything within itself is good, and thus needs no weeding, while everything outside itself is misguided, and thus deserves no seeking.

At the outset, I will comment that while Nietzsche uses the word ‘culture’ he ends up talking about individuals. His definition of culture, as a society-wide phenomenon, is a ‘unity of artistic style in all the expressions of the life of a people’ (5). Nietzsche says ‘of a people’, but throughout the essay he identifies culture with genius. And cultural genius is defined by one thing: ‘productivity’. Productivity is a philosophical attitude, a constant weeding, replanting, and remodelling of your intellectual garden, an attitude the philistine lacks.

Thus, a cultured nation would be a nation of such geniuses, a nation of people never settling for their preconceived values. This becomes nonsense when Nietzsche gives examples of cultured nations: ancient Athens, and France. No offence to any Athenians or French people, but at least a few of you are not geniuses. Nietzsche may mean these nations have more geniuses, i.e. they are conducive to the creation of geniuses. Nevertheless, geniuses will always be a minority, hardly identifiable with ‘a people’. Nietzsche says his concern is culture, but in effect his concern is individuals. A ‘cultured’ individual is one who challenges values, follows ideas through to their potentially destructive ends. An uncultured individual, a philistine, is one who thinks only so far as to rationalise their own values.         

You should not accept ‘reality’ as you initially understand it, because all this ‘reality’ tends to be is a collection of beliefs and values you received unconsciously from your society. Cultural philistinism is the half-awake acceptance of current values, a ‘grovelling before the realities of [the] present-day’ (27). Most readers of this, I assume, live in liberal democracies. We believe in the values of liberal democracy, i.e. that every able-minded person should be able to do as they please, and have a say in the government which serves them. We believe this as strongly as the peasant believed the King ruled by God’s grace. This is not to argue all political and moral values are relative. But to most people, all political and moral values may as well be relative. Most accept the value system they received as the right one. Perhaps it needs a little tweaking, but it is fundamentally sound. They would believe this regardless of which value system they were born into.

Or say a peasant is dissatisfied with the values of his feudal society, and so he moves to the land of liberalism. This migrated-peasant has questioned his old set of values, he has taken on liberal values, but will he go on questioning values? Or will he settle with receiving these new liberal values? The difference between culture and cultural philistinism lays in the answer to these questions. True culture involves always ‘seeking’ truth (9), while never believing you, or anyone before, or around you, has ‘found’ a truth which you may settle on forever more. A cultural philistine believes the discovery of truth has been accomplished, and all that they are required to do is ingest the fruit of dead men’s gardens. Actually, cultural minds must ‘go on seeking … and not to grow weary of doing so’ (9).


Complacent people want the fig-leaf of knowingness, the pseudo-justified belief that inquiring further than their current beliefs would be fruitless. It is a misconception that people love texts which agree with them; rather, people seek texts which make them feel intelligent for agreeing, which intelligently justify their preconceived conclusions, without challenging them. Writers of such texts gain followers not because they have anything improving to say, but because they can make intellectual complacency seem correct. To Nietzsche, David Strauss writes these un-subversive texts, texts whose conventionality Strauss conceals behind a façade of modern science and philosophy. (Were Nietzsche writing today he may have chosen Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Malcolm Gladwell, etc.) Strauss uses a façade of science and philosophy for if he followed the breadcrumbs of science and philosophy to their end, he’d wander off a cliff, or, at the least, far from the garden in which he began.

Strauss’ attempt to justify old, Christian values with new, atheistic reasons is a botched sleight of hand. The magician swipes away the table-cloth and expects the tableware to remain in place – except Strauss doesn’t swipe away the table-cloth, he swipes away the entire table. The bible is not a true document, but if the bible is a true document, you can draw conclusions. If you believe the bible, then it is sensible to believe its statements about the value of humans and about the content of morality. Strauss does not believe the bible is absolutely true. He is a man of science, a believer in Darwinism – but see how little this change of doctrine affects his morality. From Darwinism – which states humans are animals, which states humans, by differences in their abilities, triumph or flounder to each other in the survival of the fittest – Strauss somehow concludes that humans are above the beasts of nature, and that, despite all our differences, we have the same needs and wants, and, as such, should be treated equally. See how the tableware hovers. These are Christian conclusions grafted onto Darwinism.

Nietzsche argues this is why the cultural philistine loves this reasoning. The philistine finds new rationalisations for their values, and so can avoid the hard work of constructing new values in the face of new facts. Nietzsche suggests that from Darwinism Strauss should have ‘derived a moral code for life out of the bellum omnium contra omnes [War of all against all] and the privileges of the strong’ (30). As a morality drawn from Darwinism, Nietzsche’s suggestion falters. Darwin’s theory privileges not the strong, but those fittest for their environment. And if cooperation (i.e. the opposite of the war of all against all) allows an individual/species to fit their environment, then a Darwinian morality could praise cooperation. Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s suggestion has value not in content, but in intention. Nietzsche makes sure his understanding of nature informs his morality. Strauss has his morality, the past’s morality, and selects and distorts facts of nature to support said morality.

To Nietzsche, Strauss’ sophistries always shy away from their implications. Strauss approaches the truth, by grasping a post-Christian fact, but never approaches close enough to shake his Christian values. Strauss’ attempt to justify philosophical Optimism with materialistic determinism, Nietzsche attacks with especial contempt. Strauss’ argument runs: given fixed laws of nature which ensure a cause can have only one predetermined effect, the universe-wide chain of cause and effect follows a single, unchangeable path; to object to any single effect (e.g. a branch falling on a child, or a tsunami wiping out a village) is to object to the laws of nature, thus to repudiate nature itself; a rational person must thus take no issue with undesirable effects, for to object to this one undesirable effect is to object to the whole universe. This is sophistry. As Nietzsche notes, Strauss gives moral and intellectual weight to nature’s laws merely because they are real and inevitable. To say ‘X is the case’ says nothing other than ‘X is the case’. It says nothing regarding the goodness or badness of X. If a car hits me, then my getting hit by a car is not automatically made good merely because it was an unavoidable effect of our deterministic universe.  

Nietzsche chastises Strauss not just because this Optimism is illogical, but because Strauss castrates a potentially productive idea. A deterministic universe guided inextricably by itself alone, lacking a good God’s guidance – this is a productive idea, if you comprehends it. The values you can draw from this idea of the universe are uncertain, but they will not resemble those values drawn from the idea of the universe as one lovingly crafted and shepherded by God. As Nietzsche says, Strauss has not the courage to upset cultural philistines, or his own cultural philistinism. That is, Strauss has not the courage to challenge current values. ‘[Strauss] does not dare to tell them honestly: I have liberated you from a helpful and merciful God, the universe is only a rigid machine, take care you are not mangled in its wheels!’ (33).  

This Optimism is a symptom of cultural philistinism to Nietzsche, for it swells and bloats the philistine’s contentment with society as it is into a contentment with the universe as it is. The heart of philistinism is settling for what you have, for believing you have achieved culture. To settle, you must be too lazy to go on achieving culture, too lazy to challenge current values. To be lazy and retain peace of mind, you must believe that spending any extra effort would be a waste. We have culture, we have values, we know good taste and good morality. Why question, question, question when, at best, you will end up at the start, merely showing there was nothing other than our good taste and morality; at worst, you will question yourseld out of good taste and good morality. But extra effort in this endeavour is never a waste. To look at your taste, morality, and values and ask, ‘Do these stand up?’, and to change your taste, morality, and values when they do not stand up, that is the heart of culture.


Quotes taken from:
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “David Strauss, the Confessor and the Writer.” Untimely Meditations. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Ed. Daniel Breazeale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016, 1-57. Print.


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