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What Would Nietzsche Think of 21st Century Society?

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The following is a transcript of this video.

Friedrich Nietzsche believed himself to be a philosophical physician. One of his missions in life was to help others understand the sickness into which modern society was falling and to offer a cure to the poison of a corrupted value system.

“To be a physician here to be inexorable here, to wield the knife here – that pertains to us, that is our kind of philanthropy, with that we are philosophers.”

Nietzsche, The Antichrist

Nietzsche, however, knew that his philosophical diagnoses were unlikely to find acceptance in the late 19th century, the time in which he lived.

“My time has not yet come…some are born posthumously… I should regard it as a complete contradiction of myself if I expected to find ears and eyes for my truths today: the fact that no one listens to me, that no one knows how to receive from me today is not only comprehensible, it seems to me right that it is so.” 

Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

In declaring that he would be born posthumously, that is, born after his death, Nietzsche knew that his philosophy would be better suited for the future. Could it be that his time has finally come? In this video, we are going to explore this question by using Nietzsche’s ideas to philosophically diagnose some of the problems of 21st society, problems such as digital addiction, social media shaming, virtue signalling, academic censorship, and the rise and worship of the new god of statism.

 One of the defining trends of the 21st century has been the rise of mobile technologies and the remarkable amount of time many of us spend staring at our screens. We are a generation of digital addicts. While the long-term effects of this behavior are not known, there is plenty of evidence to suggest it is impairing our cognitive abilities. In his Pulitzer Prize nominated book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr wrote:

“What we’re experiencing is, in 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.”

Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

Over a century before the technological revolution, Nietzsche, with impressive foresight, pinpointed the ill effects smartphones would have on our capacity to reflect and cultivate self-knowledge.

“Even now one is ashamed of resting, and prolonged reflection almost gives one a bad conscience. One thinks with a watch in one’s hand, even as one eats one’s midday meal while reading the latest news on the stock market; one lives as if one always “might miss out on something.””

Nietzsche, The Gay Science

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.

“Madness is something rare in individuals” observed Nietzsche. “– but in groups, parties, peoples, ages it is the rule.”

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Socrates, as a paradigmatic example, was put to death because the mob of Athens declared his philosophical explorations to be a corrupting influence on the youth. But smartphones and social media have propelled the madness of the mob to a new level. To join a mob no longer must we even leave our homes, instead we can assemble from all ends of the earth on social media and seek out a communal scapegoat, and satiate what Nietzsche called our “lustful greed, bitter envy, sour vindictiveness, mob pride.” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

“…every poor devil finds pleasure in scolding – it gives him 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, one reproaches those who are different for one’s feeling vile”. (Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols)

Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

Or as he wrote in the Dawn of Day:

“In the act of cruelty the community refreshes itself and for once throws off the gloom of constant fear and caution. Cruelty is one of the oldest joys of mankind.”

Nietzsche, Dawn of Day

One of the weapons the mob makes frequent use is virtue signalling. One says or does something which appears altruistic, solely for the sake of gaining a moral pedestal upon which one feels justified to attack and censor anyone who holds different values or ideas. In other words, through virtue signalling one hides 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 [hatred of mankind]. Humanity is loved in general in order to avoid loving anybody in particular.” (Albert Camus, Just Assassins) 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. Their outward displays of virtue camouflage their desires for revenge. Virtue signalling, Nietzsche would say, is the will to power of the weak. Or as he explained:

“…how ready they themselves are at bottom to make one pay; how they crave to be hangmen. There is among them 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 but go their own way in good spirits…The will of the weak 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!”

Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality

Another way in which the venomous and envious seek to obtain power is 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 they disagree with.

“…many students have come to expect freedom from speech.” she writes. “They argue the university campus should be a ‘safe space’, free from emotional harm or potential offence.”

Joanna Williams, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity

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 in which no belief or opinion is immune to criticism or attack. The function of dangerous spaces would not be to offend or humiliate another person. Their function would be to provide a space for individuals to partake in a sacred and age-old game, a battle of ideas, the goal of which is to discover the truth. As Nietzsche urged:

“You should seek your enemy, you should wage your war – a war for your opinions. And if your opinion is defeated, your honesty should still cry triumph over that!”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Or as he further wrote:

“A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions.”

Nietzsche, Letters

Unfortunately, rather than encouraging an open battle of ideas, university professors seem to be, on the whole, supporting academic censorship. Or as Joanna Williams writes:

“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.”

Joanna Williams, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity

Based on his short time spent as a tenured professor at the University of Basel, Nietzsche observed first-hand that when it comes to academic censorship, the fault does not lie solely with professors, but exists in the fabric of the university institution itself. “A really radical living for truth just isn’t possible in a university.” (Nietzsche, Letters) The problem he saw is simple. Most universities to this day are at least partially State-funded, and all must obey the State’s laws and regulations. And thus, as employees of the State university professors must ultimately serve the ends of the State. Or as Nietzsche wrote:

“The man who consents to be a state philosopher, must also consent to be regarded as renouncing the search for truth in all its secret retreats. At any rate, so long as he enjoys his position, he must recognize something higher than truth – the state.”

Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations

Recognizing the State as higher than the truth is, unfortunately, not a stance confined to university professors. Nietzsche saw it as symptomatic of society at large. For with the death of the Christian god, Nietzsche knew that the need for a god would still remain. The masses, he thought, would always need an idol to worship, a “shadow of god” to which they can bow.

“God is dead, but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will still be shown.”

Nietzsche, The Gay Science

While the shadows of god will morph and change as humanity tumbles onward, today, in our rational and scientific times, Nietzsche thought the shadow of god we worship most fervently is the State.

“The state? What is that? Well then! Now open your ears, for now I shall speak to you of the death of peoples.”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Nietzsche predicted the modern rise and worship of the State on two main fronts. Firstly, he eerily wrote of the possibility of a “few great experiments” that would “prove that in a socialist society life negates itself, cuts off its own roots”; and furthermore, he predicted that these socialist experiments could be “paid for with a tremendous expenditure of human lives.” (Nietzsche, The Will to Power) The socialist “experiments” in numerous countries in the 20th century tragically proved Nietzsche’s forecasts right. Secondly, and more relevant to our times, Nietzsche wrote of the way in which the State would co-opt democracy as one of its demi-gods, and therein trick the masses into believing that they, “the people”, held the ultimate reins of control.

“The state is the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies too; and this lie creeps from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people.” It is a lie! It was creators who created peoples and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life…But the state lies in all languages of good and evil; and whatever it says, it lies – and whatever it has, it has stolen… ‘There is nothing greater on earth than I, the regulating finger of God’ – thus the monster bellows…”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

 In addition to stealing from the citizens either overtly through taxation, or covertly through money printing, modern states are also heavily reliant on narratives of fear to maintain control. For one of the surest ways to conditioning a populace to accept and even venerate an institution and the people behind it who repeatedly rob and lie to them, is if the populace is kept in a constant state of anxiety and fear and then taught that only the State has the power to save them.

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

H.L. Mencken, In Defense of Women

It is perhaps but a coincidence that the God of the Old Testament promised to save only those who worshiped him through the easily impressionable emotion of fear: “He will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him”, says the Book of Psalms, “He will also hear their cry and will save them.” Or as Nietzsche wrote of the State:

“It is destroyers who set snares for the many and call it the state: they hang a sword and a hundred desires over them…It will give you everything if you worship it, this new idol.”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Carl Jung, who was greatly influenced by Nietzsche , took similar note of modern man’s peculiar form of reverence:

“The State takes the place of God…” wrote Jung, “and State slavery is a form of worship…The State, like the Church, demands enthusiasm, self-sacrifice, and love, and if religion requires or presupposes the “fear of God,” then the…State takes good care to provide the necessary terror.”

Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self

So, if these would have been Dr. Nietzsche’s diagnoses of 21st century society, what would his antidotes have been?

With respect to digital addiction, Nietzsche would likely have urged us to spend more time in prolonged reflection in nature and less time staring at screens. “We like to be out in nature so much because it has no opinion of us.” (Nietzsche, Human All too Human) In terms of censorship, he would advise we promote open debate in our social circles and touch on topics important us, even if they trigger or offend others. With respect to the State, he would likely recommend that we look at it with a more critical eye and to see through the political machinations that cloak its true nature. For the State is not benevolent, nor all-powerful like a god; it is an institution composed of men and women who desire to control and exploit us and who are drunk on their own power. And concerning social media shaming and in general the hostility which abounds online, Nietzsche would say: set a good example, and practice the cardinal virtues he called “the good four”:

“Honest towards ourselves and whoever else is a friend to us: brave towards the enemy; magnanimous towards the defeated; polite – always.”

Nietzsche, Dawn of Day

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 kind and modest. It is interesting to note that his descent into “madness” commenced when he collapsed in empathy at the sight of a beaten horse. In his corpus of works, there are numerous aphorisms which display a high degree of compassion for others and a recognition of the suffering that pervades all mankind.

“There is not enough love and kindness in the world to permit us to give any of it away to imaginary beings.”

Nietzsche, Human All too Human

While he wanted us to be hard and demanding on ourselves, he promoted patience and understanding towards others.

Ultimately, however, if Nietzsche were alive today he would ask that we outgrow the need for his philosophical antidotes.

“One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil.”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

To accept Nietzsche, paradoxically, we must strive to overcome his rich insights. We can use him as a guide to navigate the turbulence of modern existence, but above all else Nietzsche would have wanted us to forge our own way. For while Jesus pronounced:

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Jesus, Book of Matthew

Nietzsche said:

“I have no use of disciples. Let everyone be their own true follower.”

Nietzsche, Letters

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

Friederich Nietzsche
David - The Death of Socrates
The Genius and the Crowd
Duccio di Buoninsegna - Christ Accused by the Pharisees (detail) - WGA06802
A face expressing hatred and jealousy (left) and a face expr Wellcome V0009406
John Knox preaching
Emanuel Krescenc Liška – Cain (1885)
Julius Hübner Disputation
Thomas Hay and Sir James Stirling, arguing. Etching by J. Ka Wellcome V0006717
Cima da Conegliano, God the Father
'Old Man Praying', drawing by Vincent van Gogh
Giovanni Battista Piazzetta - God - The Father - O 3837 - Slovak National Gallery
Charles Nuttal - The Opening of the First Commonwealth Parliament - Google Art Project
Stamp Soviet Union 1955 CPA 1848
Pieter Brueghel the Younger, 'Paying the Tax (The Tax Collector)' oil on panel, 1620-1640. USC Fisher Museum of Art
'Destroy this mad brute' WWI propaganda poster (US version)
Léon Bonnat - Job
Thomas Gainsborough - Wooded Landscape with a Woodcutter - 61.9 - Museum of Fine Arts
Francesco Hayez - Self-Portrait in a Group of Friends - WGA11210
A presidential conjuror LCCN2012647292
Ernest Joseph Bailly - In Contempt of Hate
Carl Spitzweg - Jugendfreunde (ca.1855)