The Intellectual Poverty of the Nietzsche Hipster
by Benjamin Studebaker
I have been seeing a lot of casual quoting of Nietzsche lately, and I think I have discovered a new breed of amateur philosopher: the “Nietzsche Hipster”. The Nietzsche hipster loves quoting the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, embracing Nietzsche for the very simple reason that Nietzsche is very different from most other philosophers, both in the content of his ideas and in the style in which he conveys them (he is famously polemical). These Nietzsche hipsters are no different form hipsters in the ordinary sense–they are drawn to Nietzsche not because he has something worthy to say, but because he is different, against the mainstream, and radical. Nietzsche declares that “God is dead” and “Plato is boring”. He declares modern ethics to be a “slave morality” that keeps people down, and makes war on metaphysics (the notion that there is a truth that can be known) as a branch of philosophy more broadly.
It all sounds very exciting, but the actual philosophy of Nietzsche, when examined closely, results in one of two broad groups of interpretations, and I find neither commendable.
- Fascist Nietzsche: Nietzsche has a coherent philosophy, and it is one of proto-fascism.
- Nihilist Nietzsche: Nietzsche has no coherent philosophy beyond the rejection of previous philosophies, and is a nihilist.
Let’s examine the two broad tents of Nietzsche interpretation and see what Nietzsche has to offer.
The interpretation of Nietzsche as a fascist is more or less the interpretation offered up by Bertrand Russell in his A History of Western Philosophy. It goes something like this:
- Nietzsche declares all existing ethics and morals to be arbitrary and to serve the interests of the powerful, keeping the powerless in their place. This is called “the slave morality”.
- Nietzsche proposes that instead of embracing the slave morality, we become Nietzsche’s superman (the Ubermensch in the original German), who is unconcerned with popular ethics (things like compassion, kindness, mercy, virtue, temperance, or any of the values expressed in the ethics of the ancient Greeks, the medieval Christians, or the enlightenment liberals).
- The superman, liberated from the constraints of the slave morality, can then pursue his own power and desires uninhibited by popular morality, because he has “killed God” and all religious or otherwise socially derived ethics.
Bertrand Russell summarises it this way:
It does not occur to Nietzsche as possible that a man should genuinely feel universal love, obviously because he himself feels almost universal hatred and fear, which he would fain disguise as lordly indifference. His “noble” man–who is himself in day-dreams–is a being wholly devoid of sympathy, ruthless, cunning, concerned only with his own power. King Lear, on the verge of madness, says: “I will do such things–what they are yet I know not–but they shall be the terror of the earth.” This is Nietzsche’s philosophy in a nutshell.
This interpretation was fuelled in no small part historically by Hitler’s affiliation with Nietzsche. For the fascists, Nietzsche quotes like this one were intellectual fuel:
The sick are the great danger of man, not the evil, not the ‘beasts of prey.’ They who are from the outset botched, oppressed, broken those are they, the weakest are they, who most undermine the life beneath the feet of man, who instill the most dangerous venom and skepticism into our trust in life, in man, in ourselves…Here teem the worms of revenge and vindictiveness; here the air reeks of things secret and unmentionable; here is ever spun the net of the most malignant conspiracy – the conspiracy of the sufferers against the sound and the victorious; here is the sight of the victorious hated.
If the fascist interpretation of Nietzsche is correct, his philosophy would most certainly be an abomination, and the Nietzsche hipsters would be inadvertent endorsers of fascism. That said, there is another interpretation of Nietzsche that has become more popular in recent years. But, while it’s certainly more benign than the fascist interpretation, it is still not the least bit helpful intellectually.
Holders of this view generally believe the fascist interpretations to be slanders of Nietzsche that have come about due to Hitler and company’s misreading of his works. They believe that what Nietzsche really means is:
- All socially constructed morals are in reality unprovable–morality is subjective, and if you embrace an ethical position just because it is the popular one in your society, you are embracing a slave morality that intellectually limits you.
- The superman or Ubermensch is just a person who makes his own ethics rather than accepts the ethics of the external society
- The various actual ethical positions Nietzsche takes (such as the one quoted above), are his own beliefs, but Nietzsche recognises that even his own beliefs are unprovable and the superman can adopt any position as long as it is his own and not the social default.
This interpretation assumes that Nietzsche’s moral scepticism just flatly contradicts the ethical positions that Nietzsche appears to take in his writings, that Nietzsche is just not a consistent thinker and that perhaps he even rejects consistency of thought as a desirable objective. Someone who thinks Nietzsche is worth reading and holds this view is certainly not a terrible person the way a fascist is, but the end result of this line of thought is nihilism–if all ethics are arbitrary, then all ethics are equal in value, which is just the same as saying that no ethic is better than any other ethic and consequently there is no basis for moral debate. This line of thinking leads to a society in which there are no external ethical constraints, where everyone does whatever he or she thinks best. It creates a society of individuals who cannot cooperate, negotiate, or come to agreements, and it leads to an anarchist society in which no law can have the moral force to bind anyone to anything. It suffers from an excess of individualism at the expense of the group and of the benefits that groups can provide to individuals. The advocating of not advocating a social ethic is very nearly as bad as the advocating of a malevolent ethic, because it leads to broad social misery just as swiftly. The sort of moral relativism expressed in this interpretation isn’t unique to Nietzsche either–observing that there is no way we can be certain about whether an ethic or a moral is correct or incorrect is typically one of the very first observations a person investigating ethics for the first time makes (I myself had my moment of “wait a second, morality has no objective basis” long before I read Nietzsche, at age 15). There are a great many people who think this view of Nietzsche is wonderful, and I would certainly never accuse such a person of being a Nietzsche hipster (though I would accuse such a person of being a nihilist, and reproach such a person for being so).
So on the one hand, it’s fascist, and on the other, it leads to a nihilist ethical vacuum where social cooperation and law crumble. Most importantly, both are miserable. The Nietzsche hipsters are either endorsing an ethic that is either fascist or nihilist or some combination of the two, or they never bothered to investigate the material to which they pay their homages. In either case, they strike me as quite silly.