Nihil ex nihilo – nothing from nothing – the thesis argued by Parmenides, usually given in its Latin form as a compete sentence – Ex nihilo nihil fit. Nothing comes from nothing – nothing ever could.
No wait, Captain Von Trapp and Maria sing those same words to each other in the Sound of Music. That’s not philosophy – that’s an emotionally manipulative Broadway musical, later transformed into an excruciatingly wholesome and depressingly uplifting movie. Maria has spunk, kids are cute, edelweiss will make you cry and Nazis are very bad people – yeah, yeah, you should climb every mountain and all that – whatever. Baby Boomers prefer to think of the Beatles’ good friend, Billy Preston. He did Nothing from Nothing up right – doing the Funky Nietzsche, as it were. But that Billy Preston song was hardly philosophy either. And no one really knew what he was talking about anyway. The groove was good.
But the idea that nothing at all can come from nothing is part of most every philosophic system – you know, basic cosmology. There is no time interval in which a world didn’t exist, since it couldn’t be created ex nihilo in the first place. God was always there, or something was – a singularity of cosmic dust or whatever. Take that as a given and build your religion or philosophy on that. And there is modern science. Things cannot disappear into nothing, just as they can’t be created from nothing – things are only transformed. That’s that basic Conservation of Matter business. And most all of modern science, and certainly everything about chemical reactions, builds on that – modified later by Einstein, who pointed out that it seems that sometimes matter actually does disappear. But not to worry – it turns into energy, and he had that famous formula about mass and energy and the speed of light to account for that. Nothing is ever lost. Everything was always here, one way or another. And it’s not going anywhere. Einstein simply provided the theoretical basis for thermonuclear weapons, after all – mass converted to energy, as predicted. But he wasn’t a nihilist. He was quite the opposite.
In fact, the western world seems to have agreed that true nihilism – the philosophy of nothing – is impossible. You can say that nothing matters, and life is a bad joke, and there are no values really, and there is no god, or all of science is a myth, and say that everything we see, touch and feel, and everything we think we know, is an illusion – but that is probably because you’re in a snit about something or other. And you’ve probably read too much Nietzsche.
Some of that is Stanley Kubrick’s fault – opening “2001: A Space Odyssey” with the fanfare from Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra – the tone-poem based on the philosophical novel or whatever it was from Friedrich Nietzsche, the one that contains the parable on the “death of God” and all that business about Ubermenschen – the “over man” above all the nonsense everyone else takes seriously, who doesn’t have to follow any rules and can damned well do what he pleases. It’s sort of Master Race stuff and rather dangerous, but in this case young men watched the movie, put two and two together and ran out and read Nietzsche. And young men, who felt that they were smarter than everyone else, or thought that they should be, lapped it up. Late adolescent boys, feeling put-upon and powerless and much aggrieved, love Nietzsche – Nietzsche provides detailed philosophical justification for noble and thoughtful sneering, and nodding your head sadly about all the hopeless fools around you. What’s not to like?
Stanley Kubrick had something else in mind – Ubermenschen from Outer Space or whatever – but the damage was done.
Of course in 1924 Leopold and Loeb believed they were Nietzschean Ubermenschen who could commit a perfect crime – kidnapping and murder in their case. Clarence Darrow defended them – and he managed to get them life sentences, not the death sentences everyone expected, and wanted. Darrow successfully argued that a defendant might not be guilty of his crime because of his inherited traits – these two were naturally genetically dim and somewhat crazy, or at least in Darrow’s term, Leopold and Loeb were “broken machines.” An unhappy life and Nietzsche can do that to you. It’s a bad mix.
And now here we go again. In Slate, Matt Feeney offers Angry Nerds: How Nietzsche Gets Misunderstood by Jared Loughner Types – and this is a variation on the Darrow argument. But here the “broken machine” is a guy who really doesn’t understand Friedrich Nietzsche. And that may be because Nietzsche, when you read him closely, doesn’t actually make a whole lot of sense. And that’s also a bad mix.
But ever since Leopold and Loeb in the twenties, we do know the routine:
If we never discovered that Jared Lee Loughner honed his murderous outlook while sitting alone in his bedroom, reading Nietzsche and thinking about nihilism, that would have been real news. Instead of real news, though, we’ve gotten a dreary iteration of a cultural cliché. The New York Times and other media are saying the addled and alienated young man arrested for trying to assassinate Gabrielle Giffords, and for the murders of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green and five other people, took himself to be a Nietzschean. Of course he did.
Ah, it’s just one more Nietzschean nihilist thinking he is one of the rare Ubermenschen. We know this story – been there, done that, got the t-shirt. But Feeney argues that’s too easy:
I suppose we could start plucking out incendiary quotations from Nietzsche’s works and assess how much blame to lay on his head for Loughner’s alleged crimes and the crimes of other young men with similar philosophical interests, but such a project would tend toward philistinism or obscurity.
Feeney, on the other hand, suggests we “leave aside the indictment and treat the nexus of Nietzsche and troubled young manhood as Nietzsche himself would have.” One might look at this:
The attraction of Nietzsche to socially maladjusted young men is obvious, but it isn’t exactly simple. It is built from several interlocking pieces. Nietzsche mocks convention and propriety (and mocks difficult writers you’d prefer not to bother with anyway). He’s funny and (deceptively) easy to read, especially compared to his antecedents in German philosophy, who are also his flabby and lumbering targets: Schopenhauer, Hegel, and, especially, Kant. If your social world fails to appreciate your singularity and tells you that you’re a loser, reading Nietzsche can steel you in your secret conviction that, no, I’m a genius, or at least very special, and everyone else is the loser. Like you, Nietzsche was misunderstood in his day, ignored or derided by other scholars. Like you, Nietzsche seems to find everything around him lame, either stodgy and moralistic or sick with democratic vulgarity. Nietzsche seems to believe in aristocracy, which is taboo these days, which might be why no one recognizes you as the higher sort of guy you suspect yourself to be. And crucially, if you’re a horny and poetic young man whose dream girl is ever present before your eyes but just out of reach, Nietzsche frames his project of resistance and overcoming as not just romantic but erotic.
What’s not to like?
If you’re a thoughtful and unhappy young man, in other words, why wouldn’t you want to read someone who seems to reflect both your alienation and your uncontainable desire back to you as masculine bravery and strength? Indeed, there’s something in every book you’re likely to pick up – some enticement of form or content or both – that addresses your horniness/alienation and flatters you in the pretense that, though you have no formal training and are actually kind of a crappy and distracted reader, you are doing philosophy.
In short, Nietzsche is seductive – if you’re unhappy and lazy and shallow and horny. Is there a better description of late-adolescent American males? Of course it is the ones who are seriously unbalanced and heavily armed that we should worry about.
But Nietzsche doesn’t help, and Feeney reviews the canon starting with The Birth of Tragedy – “Nietzsche’s first work, it’s the celebration of anarchic and sexually with-it Dionysus over boring Apollo, who’s like the Greek god of algebra or something.”
That’s silly enough, and then there’s Zarathustra – “It’s the beckoning first-person narration, a crazy novel or memoir kind of thing, a heroic story of Zarathustra ‘going under,’ gathering spiritual strength in hermetic solitude that reminds you of your own bedroom, and then ‘rising’ to ‘shine’ upon a people who don’t even understand or deserve him.”
Now that’s a book for psychopaths, or more precisely sociopaths. And then there’s The Genealogy of Morals – “It’s Nietzsche examining the real history of that Bible stuff your lame pastor barks at you in church (which you understand as saying two main things: no sex, no touching yourself) and proving that morality originates not in God but in the will to power – ancient priests seizing power over ancient masters by guilt-tripping them about the suffering of slaves. (Christianity is just ‘slave morality’ – so much for that dilemma.)”
And Feeney covers Ecce Homo with its amazing chapter headings – “Why I Am So Clever” – “Why I Write Such Good Books” – and so on. Any high school English teacher who has sat quietly, drinking heavily, grading student papers late at night, has read such things.
And there is Beyond Good and Evil – “It is, well, the awesome title of the book itself, and that hilarious opening line (‘Supposing truth is a woman -what then?’), and that first chapter where he mocks all those philosophers you don’t have to read anymore, now that Nietzsche has told you how lame they are.”
It seems Feeney doesn’t like Nietzsche much and this detail is telling:
And, also in Beyond Good and Evil, it’s the aphorisms – a section entitled “Epigrams and Interludes” comprising over a hundred one- and two-sentence masterworks of moral paradox and counter-intuition, calculated outrage and elegant eye-poking. Nietzsche is aphoristic even when he’s being systematic, and when he’s being aphoristic, his writing is simply unmatched in its beauty and mayhem, its uncanny mix of compression and infinite suggestion. And for a young guy who is intellectually hungry but doesn’t much enjoy reading, finding this section of philosophy-bits in the middle of this famous book is like a homecoming. You don’t even have to know what these epigrams mean to enjoy them. You just feel manly and brave in entertaining them at all, not flinching but laughing when Nietzsche says: “One is best punished for ones virtues.” (You even get to work out some of your girl-troubles by lingering over Nietzsche’s several jabs at women.)
Nietzsche scholars do say not to take the aphorisms too seriously, and for good reason:
You need to understand them in the context of his larger body of work, in which he often circles back to themes, again and again, revising and even contradicting his earlier writings. You have to understand the aphorisms as part of a vast poetic project of self-creation or becoming in which nothing is truly settled. Nietzsche himself predicted he would be misread, acquire misguided disciples, and so he has.
But casual readers do not heed such admonishes. That’s no fun.
But in Tucson there was a bigger problem:
Loughner’s favorite book, according to news reports, fits with these troubled-guy tendencies and their associated pitfalls. It’s not Beyond Good and Evil, but rather The Will to Power, the notorious compilation of Nietzsche’s working notes (which Nietzsche’s sister peddled, wrongly, as his great systematic work). The observations are longer-form in The Will to Power, but, like the “Epigrams and Interludes,” they are too-easily separated from Nietzsche’s other work. They have a tidy thematic organization that is largely his sister’s. This scheme is helpful to the scholar who knows his other books. It’s also helpful to the troubled young man obsessed with one thing in particular. In Loughner’s case, this one thing was apparently nihilism, which happens to be the first topic in The Will to Power.
And it seems that Jared Lee Loughner fancied himself a nihilist of the first water – or of Nietzschean proportions – even if the news stories muddied those waters:
That Loughner was reading Nietzsche on nihilism fits so perfectly into a template for such tragedies that it’s easy to miss the gaping confusion in news stories about the shooting. These stories echo claims by some acquaintances that Loughner was a nihilist, and by others that he was “obsessed with nihilism” – as if these are the same thing. But Loughner didn’t see himself as a nihilist. He saw himself as fighting nihilism. This is evident in his fixation in his YouTube videos on the idea that words have no meaning, or have somehow lost their meaning in a process of nihilistic decline – a fixation that seems to lie at the basis of his tragic grudge against Gabrielle Giffords.
You see, there can be no philosophical nihilism. There cannot be – Ex nihilo nihil fit. You wouldn’t write or even think if there were… well, nothing. What would be the point?
And Feeney says even Nietzsche knew that:
Because of his assault on religion and rationalist metaphysics, and because of the hints of anarchy in his assorted visions of the future (e.g., “the transvaluation of all values”), he’s taken as the West’s über-nihilist. But he saw himself as the scourge of European nihilism, and possibly also its remedy. Nietzsche saw nihilism as a disease… It presents itself as mindless hedonism and flaccid spirit, but also as fanaticism.
So does that make Nietzsche and Jared Lee Loughner philosophical brethren? Are they joined in the same obsessive fight against nihilism?
In a word, no, and Loughner’s pathological fixation on the meaning of words is the giveaway. One way of looking at Nietzsche’s project is that he set out to teach himself and his readers to love the world in its imperfection and multiplicity, for itself. This is behind his assaults on religion, liberal idealism, and utilitarian systems of social organization. He saw these as different ways of effacing or annihilating the world as it is. It is behind his infamous doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence – in which he embraces the “most abysmal thought,” that the given world, and not the idealizing stories we tell of it, is all there is, and he will affirm this reality even if it recurs eternally.
Well, that’s a lot to think about – but not too hard. But this is puzzling too:
Jared Loughner’s despair that everything is unreal and words have no meaning amounts to hatred of the world (a mania of moralism and narcissism) for its failure to resemble the words we apply to it. Faced with a choice between real people and some stupid abstraction about words, themselves mere abstractions, Loughner killed the people to defend the abstraction.
This, then, really is a kind of nihilism, only not the kind that people think Nietzsche was guilty of. It’s the kind of nihilism that Nietzsche was trying to warn us about, and help us overcome.
And of course it’s impossible. Nothing comes from nothing – nothing ever could. You just couldn’t tell that to the man with a gun. He’s read Nietzsche, badly.