In Part One of Friederich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, there is a particularly provocative section entitled ‘Of the New Idol.’ Remembering that this pivotal writing of the great German thinker/philosopher, so often misinterpreted, was written in 1881, it is surprising how relevant and invigorating its strong language remains in 2011. In his Introduction to the Penguin edition of Zarathustra, R.J. Hollingdale, the distinguished Nietzsche scholar and translator writes, “[t]he book’s worst fault is excess.” But excess can also be constructive, making us think harder. The cultural historian, Norman O. Brown, once remarked during a lecture that “[i]n psychoanalysis only the exaggerations are valuable.” Why? It makes us consider even awkward realities beneath the surface that are usually outside the box of what is treated as ‘responsible debate’ according to establishment pundits who set themselves up to be the arbiters of convention at a given society, at a given time. The dynamics of denial, so well known to psychologists, are a particularly virulent mechanism by which we protect our comfort zone from intrusion by inconvenient truths.
It should be understood that Zarathustra as a character in the treatise is presented as the prophetic voice of Nietzsche, the person who stands outside and in solitude so as to understand better what is taking place inside; a voice that is shrill with anger, impassioned by conviction, and dedicated to truth-telling, however heretical. It should be remembered that Nietzsche was experiencing a young German state that was seeking unity by promoting an intense cult of nationalism that would eventuate in self-destructive major wars twice in the 20th century. Also, Nietzsche’s pre-existentialist outlook emphasized the absence of metaphysical guidance in our life experience. We are on our own, and cannot validly rely on church or state to shape our own future. We cannot, without false conscience, escape the burdens of freedom and responsibility. Our lives unfold as if on a pathless journey unassisted by reliable signposts. In other words, it takes courage and strength to live life authentically. In this regard, subjection to the will of the state was, and remains, a prevalent and unacceptable form of escape from these burdens.
Such an escape is often glorified as ‘patriotism,’ underscoring the stark difference between the obedient subject and the conscience-stricken citizen. Most individuals in sovereign states are willing or unwilling subjects, few are willing to risk the travails of citizenship so conceived. The risings in Tunisia and Egypt, regardless of what will happens during the long morning after, can be understood as spontaneous, unexpected, and brace embrace of citizenship under most difficult conditions, risking a life-threatening punitive response by challenging the authority of the repressive regime in power.
In “Of the New Idol”, Nietzsche exclaims: “The state? What is that? Well then! Now open your ears, for now I shall speak to you of the death of peoples.” The passage goes on, “[t]he 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.'” In this theatrical language, Nietzsche is reminding us that for many the state becomes an idol to be unconditionally obeyed as if an infallible god, a forfeiture of freedom, a renunciation of citizenship in a humane political community, and a voluntary acceptance of subjugation of the spirit. Such a ‘patriotic’ process has drastically diminished the quality of democratic life almost everywhere, and has given the state a green light to wage wars of choice, regardless of their bloody consequences.
The coldness of the state, so far as human solidarity is concerned, is often most vividly revealed by extreme behavior: the Nazi death camps, the atomic bombs dropped on Japanese cities, the genocidal dispossession of indigenous peoples throughout the world, the cruelties of colonial rule, the long siege imposed on the people of Gaza, and on and on. The United States, claiming the mantle of leader of ‘the free world,’ remains ready to incinerate tens of millions of innocent civilians for the sake of regime survival for itself and allied governments. What could be colder? What could be more anti-human?
Yet this kind of violence is always rationalized by reference to the evil of the other, which is supposed to contrast with the good of the state. Yet we find that the protected national population (composed of patriots) is not treated much better. The person of conscience who speaks in public against a war of aggression being waged by his own government can be charged with treason if the message is viewed as giving aid and comfort to ‘the enemy,’ and sentenced to death in many countries. The crime of treason is another symbolic expression of the coldness of the state, as are the tactics often exhibited in a civil war or in violent responses to insurgent challenges. Current events also manifest this icy coldness of the state: shooting unarmed demonstrators in the towns and cities of Syria and Libya, or along the borders of Israel. This coldness that Nietzsche so resented is acutely present when those who press their grievances peacefully against the state are met with violence.
And yet we must be careful. Nietzsche’s excess, however eye-opening, is still excel. History vindicates the case for limited government. We need protection to live moderate and satisfying lives, to avoid crippling feuds. Nietzsche, shouting to be heard, exaggerated in some ways that are not instructive. We must not deify the state, or renounce our responsibilities as citizens to speak truthfully, or free the government from its obligations at home and abroad to act within the law, but even most of those among us who try to be citizens in the proper sense would still not opt for the chaos of an ungoverned social order if given a free choice. Our task is to build a just and ethically accountable state, not to abandon the enterprise as futile. It is not a middle ground that we seek that is content with more moderate forms of secular forms of idolatry. The struggle I support is what the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, called for, I believe, when speaking of ‘the democracy to come.’
We need to listen carefully to the words of Nietzsche, but not be seduced by them to indulge idolatry in its negative form. To remove the blindfold, and see the state as the coldest of monsters is a necessary wakeup call for which we should thank Nietzsche, even now, 140 years after Zarathustra was published. And yet we also need to resist the temptation to fall into a deeper sleep by adopting a posture of unrealizable and unacceptable negation of this strange political creature called the state. In the end, the state is not a monster, but a work in progress.