Nietzsche and Modern Culture
Updated: May 4
Friedrich Nietzsche believed himself to be a philosophical doctor of sorts.
One of his primary missions in life was to help others understand the sickness modern society was, not only infected with, but the variety of cures available to the corrupted value system. Nietzsche knew his philosophical diagnosis were unlikely to find acceptance in the late 19th century. He wrote, of the time he lived as, “the fact that no one listens to me, that no one knows how to receive from me today, is not only comprehensible."
So how would Nietzsche’s ideas apply to some of the major problems of the 21st century? It's a wide range to include digital addiction, social media shaming, virtue signaling, academic censorship and the rise and worship of the new God known as government statism.
A defining trend of the 21st century has been the rise of mobile technologies and a remarkable amount of time spent staring at the small screens. In short, we have become a generation of digital addicts. While the long-term effects of this behavior remains unknown, there is evidence to suggest it impairs our cognitive abilities. In his Pulitzer Prize nominated book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr wrote, “what we're experiencing is a metaphorical sense a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization. We are evolving from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest." More than a century before the technological revolution, Nietzsche pinpointed the ill effects smartphones would have on the capacity to reflect and cultivate self-knowledge. “One thinks with a watch in one's hand, even as one eats one’s midday meal and while reading the latest news on the stock market. One lives as if one always might miss out on something.” Coupled with the cognitive costs associated with spending hours a day on our devices, another problem created by the technological revolution is the power it grants to the mob. The mob has been an ever-present threat to the well-being of individuals since the dawn of civilization. Group think and madness is something rare in individuals observed by Nietzsche. However, it does become the rule of the masses. Socrates is an excellent example having been put to death due to the mob of Athens as they declared his philosophical explorations to be a corrupting influence on the youth. Today smartphones and social media have propelled the madness of the mob to a new level. Simply to join a mob no longer requires even leaving your own home. Instead we assemble globally on social media and seek a common scapegoat to satisfy what Nietzsche called “our lustful greed, bitter envy, sour vindictiveness in mob pride that every poor devil finds pleasure in participating within. It gives a little of the intoxication of power. Even complaining and wailing can give life a charm for the sake of which one endures. It there is a small dose of revenge. In every complaint wonder approaches those who are different, for ones feeling file for the dawn of day. The act of cruelty in community refreshes itself and for once throws off the gloom of constant fear and caution.” Cruelty is one of the oldest joys of mankind and one of the weapons the mob makes frequent use of for its ends. It’s when virtue signaling is done to appears as a solely altruistic action. With that action they find the sake of a moral pedestal for which a person can feel justified in attacking and censoring someone who views things differently. In virtue signaling, people hide a streak of malice behind outward displays of compassion. Albert Camus, who was highly influenced by Nietzsche’s writings, observed that humanitarian feelings are always accompanied by misanthropy. “Humanity is loved in general to avoid loving anybody. If Nietzsche were alive today, he would have likened modern virtue signalers to the hypocritical Pharisees of the Bible. They do not practice what they preach. The book of Matthew wrote of them and their outward displays of virtue camouflaging desires for revenge." Virtue signaling, Nietzsche would say, is the will to power of the weak. Or as he would late explain, how they themselves are at bottom to make one pay for how they crave to be. Among them is an abundance of the vengeful disguised as judges who constantly bear the word justice in their mouths like poisonous spittle. Always with pursed lips. Always ready to spit upon all who are not discontented as they are, but instead go their own way in good spirits."
"The will of the week is a manner to represent some form of superiority. Their instinct for devious paths to tyranny over the healthy where can it not be discovered this will to power of the weakest is another way in which the venomous and envious seek to obtain power by censoring ideas they deem offensive." In her book, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity, Joanna Williams, a professor at the University of Kent notes there is a strong trend among university students to censor views of which they disagree. Many students have come to expect freedom from speech and argue the university campus should be a safe space free from emotional harm or potential offense. Students are beginning to resist history simply because it makes them "uncomfortable". Nietzsche would have found the idea of safe spaces ludicrous, as Patrick West points out in his book, “Get Over Yourself”. Rather than safe spaces, Nietzsche would have advocated for dangerous spaces. Areas designated solely for intellectual sparring where no belief or opinion is immune to criticism or attack. The function of dangerous spaces would not be to offend or humiliate another person. Instead, their function would be to provide a space for individuals to participate in age-old game - the battle of ideas. The goal would be in the discovery of truth. Nietzsche regularly urged you seek out an enemy and wage a war for opinions. And if your opinion is defeated, your honesty should dictate you reflect on your experiences with confidence and a feeling of triumph. As he wrote, “a very popular error is having the courage of one's convictions. Rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions.” Unfortunately, rather than encouraging an open battle of ideas, university professors seem to support academic censorship, or as Joanna Williams wrote, “today far from championing academic freedom we see examples of scholars seeking to keep debates away from the public or to censor views which they find personally or politically objectionable.” Based on his time as a tenured professor at the University of Basel, Nietzsche observed firsthand when it comes to academic censorship the fault does not lie solely with professors. In his mind, the problem partly was due to their being state funded and forced to obey states laws and regulations. Resulting in their being employees of the state with university professors ultimately serving the ends of the state. “The man who consents to be a state philosopher must also consent to be regarded as renouncing the search for truth.”
As expected, Nietzsche saw this as symptomatic of society at large facing the gradual reduction of a Christian God's importance. He understood the need for a God which applied a morality and code to the masses. He did believe society would always need to worship and we would eventually begin worshiping the "shadow of God".
Nietzsche thought the shadow of God would result in the worship of government. He also predicted the modern rise and worship of the state on two main fronts. Firstly, he predicted socialist experiments could be paid for with a tremendous expenditure of human lives. The socialist experiments, in numerous countries in the 20th century, tragically proved Nietzsche’s forecasts correct. Secondly, and more relevant to our times, Nietzsche wrote of the way in which the state would co-op democracy as one of its demigods. To trick the masses into believing the people held the ultimate reins of control. “The state is the coldest of all cold monsters”, Nietzsche wrote. “The state lies in all languages of good and evil. Whatever it says, it lies.” In addition to stealing from the citizens, either overtly through taxation or covertly through money printing, modern states are heavily reliant on narratives of fear to maintain control. Narratives of fear to maintain control prove to be one of the surest ways to conditioning a populace to accept and even venerate an institution. The population is kept in a “constant state of anxiety and fear. Then taught only the state has the power to save them", wrote HL Mencken. “The goal is to keep the populace alarmed and clamorous to be led to safety by an endless series of hobgoblins. Most of them imaginary.”
Nietzsche took similar note of modern man's reverence for the state taking the place of God. He explained, “state slavery is a form of worship. The state, like the church, demands enthusiasm with self-sacrifice and love.”
With views on today’s society, it would be expected to hear his solutions to digital addiction would likely have urged more time in personal reflection and less time staring at screens. Nietzsche wrote extensively about that need in “Human All Too Human”. In terms of censorship, he would advise we promote open debate in social circles and touch on topics important to us even if they trigger or offend others with respect to the state. He would likely recommend we look with a more critical eye and see through the political machine for its true nature. The state is not benevolent nor all powerful like a God. It is only an institution composed of men and women who desire to control and exploit.
Regarding social media shaming and the general the hostility found online? Nietzsche would most likely advise to set a good example and practice the cardinal virtues. Advocating for politeness is not something commonly attributed to Nietzsche. However, if a philosopher preaches first and foremost by the example he sets in his personal life, Nietzsche was reported to be both kind and modest. It’s interesting to note his descent into madness began when he collapsed in empathy at the sight of a beaten horse. In his volumes of works there are numerous examples related to a high degree of compassion for others. The angry and mean spirited stereotype doesn't fit, if you've read the works.
To value his work, Nietzsche would have wanted people to forge their own way in life. A starting point for that path could easily be the basic lessons shown above prior to diving into the books. The books - works can be a deceivingly quick reads, but the understanding? It's a lifetime.