It is the New Year, and I am excited.
The days between Christmas and New Year’s Day have always been some of my favorite. One, they give me an excuse to take time off in ways that I just don’t do in other times of the year, though as a friend has pointed out to me, I’m not that good at that because I somehow feel weird about it. My buddy Jason has wisely told me that I need to keep telling me “I am not what I produce” and actually enjoy these days when I’m just at home with family. Jason is a smart dude.
The other thing I like about these interim days is I feel like I have permission to be so much more optimistic than I usually am. I’m putting a year to rest, whether it was a good one or a bad one, and looking forward to a new one, and there is always some part of me that thinks, “This is going to be MY year!” and I look forward to what is coming.
This year is a bit different on that front. We’re not just putting away a bad year. 2020 wasn’t just kind of gloomy. It wasn’t just a rough patch for me. The whole world had a bad year. America specifically had a really bad year. And we’re hopeful that 2021 will be better, but we are afraid to be certain. Everybody is thrilled to see 2020 go. But nobody knows what to think about 2021. It’s a different kind of New Year. And we can’t even get together to celebrate the end of this god-awful travesty of a year. We just have to watch it end from where we are, far away from each other, and hope 2021 brings brighter days and that in a year we’ll be in a more hopeful spot.
So all of this has put me in mind of one of the most maligned thinkers in rhetoric, but I think he’s the perfect guy to end the year with – Friedrich Nietzsche. I think he has a lot to tell us about our approach to the coming year, so I thought I’d give him a few minutes before I signed off of 2020.
When many people think of Nietzsche they think of nihilism. Nihilism is the belief that values are baseless and nothing can be known or communicated. Often people associate nihilism with pessimism or skepticism. There are the famous nihilists from “The Big Lebowski” who cause chaos and havoc whose motto is “we believe in nothing” that brought nihilism into the pop culture lexicon for a generation, who, while maybe are a bit more aggressive that what nihilism generally implies, at least got the philosophy down. Nietzsche argues that nihilism would destroy all moral and religious convictions. For Nietzsche, there is no objective order or structure in the world except what we give it. Nihilism is often thought of in terms of existential nihilism, which is not just extreme skepticism, but the idea that life itself is meaningless.
And nihilism is certainly kind of depressing, and that may be why you think I think he is appropriate for this New Year. If you were ever going to be a nihilist 2020 seems the year to do it. We are all pessimistic and skeptical and it’s hard to know who or what to believe except to want to throw your hands in the air and declare it all a wash right now. It’s all pointless and valueless and based in NOTHING, right? But that’s not really why I think Nietzsche is a good place to end the year. Nihilism is tempting. But I think there is more to this story than initially meets the eye.
Friedrich Nietzsche was born in 1844 in Prussia. As a young man he studied classical philology at the universities of Bonn and Leipzig. His words have, admittedly, have to have gone under some rehabilitation over time because after he dies his sister became curator of his work and she published his writing to fit her German nationalist ideology. She intentionally contradicted some of his ideas on nationalism and anti-Semitism and as a result, his works became popular with extremist movements like the Nazis. Nietzsche’s work has had to be rediscovered and rehabilitated to really understand what he had to say hand how he influenced Western thought. But, to be fair, those earlier understandings of his work continue to influence fascist and nationalist ideologies and philosophies in the current day.
Nietzsche made the radical argument that there is no such thing as truth as we understand it. He argued that truth is just a social arrangement and is only needed because of out capacity to lie. Lying, however, has to be understood in terms of metaphor. Lying is when a person misrepresents something. But truth has to be understood discursively. Things like circumstances and acts can’t accurately be converted into language. What is “real” is not the same as the words used to represent them. The words are just metaphors. Language is our impression of things – it is where we negotiate meaning. In this sense it is reality building! But that is also a problem – because it is metaphorical. All we have are metaphors with which to build our reality, and metaphors are inherently interpretive. So metaphors are fundamental to the human experience, but they also can disrupt any notions we have of “truth.” So these metaphors are both essential but also really problematic. They are the only way we have to communicate subjective ideas. Truth is just the effective arrangement of metaphors. So basically, there is not truth, this is just the creative organization of lies and metaphors.
Nietzsche argues that the driving force behind human action and the way we organize ourselves is the will to power. This sounds really big and scary, but all it means is that desire to control chaos and is necessary for ethical action. It leads to self-control. He acknowledges things like obvious displays of power, like one group trying to subjugate another, but he argues that things like art and philosophy are also examples of the will to power because in each of these the creator is just trying to control their circumstances. The will to power is not good or bad – it is simply motivation. Nietzsche’s ubermensch was a person who successfully mastered the chaos. They behaved ethically and were in control of their surroundings.
Nietzsche is every freshman’s favorite philosopher. He is just dark and brooding enough to make you cool, but well-known enough to keep you accessible. If you go around quoting Gracian nobody is going to know who you are talking about. But Nietzsche is just the right blend of pop culture notable philosopher chic to get you into the cool kids’ door. But then, where are you? Nihilism? Pessimism? Why on earth would I think he is appropriate for the New Year?
At first blush you might think it’s because 2020 was such a soul-crushing year. Between the brow-beating politics of the year, and coronavirus, and conspiracy theory, and what seems to be a race against reason in public discourse, it might seem like nihilism is the perfect fit. After a year like 2020 it might be tempting to say, that’s it – values are baseless, and I believe in nothing. The project of humanity is forfeit and there is no point in pursuing any of the projects I once thought fruitful or beautiful. I get it. That temptation is STRONG. But I encourage you to look beyond nihilism to some of the rest of Nietzsche’s work as we think about heading into 2021.
First, think about truth. I know – it seems depressing at first because Nietzsche says there IS no truth. But at the same time he says that truth is something we construct through out creative organization of metaphors.
Just think about that for a second. – You’re a truth builder!
You have the power to create worlds and realities. Your creativity and your ideas can construct whole worlds and truths based on the words you use and the metaphors you organize. How powerful are you? How much potential do you have? What worlds do you want to see come into being?
You can think of this absence of truth as oblivion, but for 2021 I encourage you to think of it as a starting point. What would you like to see in the world? How can you bring it forth? How would you like to organize your reality? Can you get your metaphors to mesh with other people’s metaphors to form a cohesive discourse? Can you use your power responsibly?
This sounds like a recipe for chaos because we could all just be creating our own realities, willy-nilly without regard for anything or anybody. But that’s not the case at all. The metaphors are defined in relation to one another. We can’t exist in a bubble. My reality doesn’t exist outside of your reality because our metaphors are linked. This is a consubstantial activity. Nietzsche might not have put it this way, but our metaphors need each other to survive. So as we build realities, we are building them around each other. And that’s a rather lovely, empowering way to enter 2021. We have the ability to create any world we want to, but that world is dependent on those around us. You know what that is called? Building community. It’s not traditionally Nietzschean, but I’m extrapolating, here.
The other part of Nietzsche’s project that I think is useful to think about for 2021 is his idea of the ubermensch. This is easily his most misconstrued idea. A lot of bad dudes have tried to paint this concept as some kind of superior human that will lord over the rest of us because of his innate characteristics. But that’s not what it is at all. The ubermensch is simply a person who can control the chaos around them and behave in an ethical manner. They can assess the discourse they find themselves in and master the matter at hand. They are master artists or teachers or athletes, perhaps, but more importantly, they are self-actualized and recognize their own power over their circumstances.
Now, look, 2020 threw us a lot of curveballs. There were a lot of things outside of our control. So for 2021 what I wish for you is that you have the self-confidence to look at your self and your situation and realize what is and is not in your control and take hold of your life. That may mean spending a bit less time stressing and a bit more time working out or playing with your pet. That may mean getting a bit more organized. That may mean spending an hour a day reading a trashy romance novel instead of doomscrolling. I want you to do what you need to do to bring some order to your chaos. This is a 21st century kind of discipline. Maybe it means more baking. Going to be earlier. Making more time to chat with a friend. The world out there is a mess. Our lives have been chaotic. How will you take hold of the chaos and master it a bit? There are a lot of things you can’t control. You can’t control the politicians who are screaming about electoral fraud or when you will get the vaccine. You can’t control the family members who refuse to wear a mask in public and then have get togethers on the weekends. But there ARE things you can control.
The ubermensch is also based in ethical action. You have all of this self-control, and you use it to make the right decisions. So you have the power to create your own reality, you are mastering what you can, now it is time to be and ethical person. This is why I don’t think the nihilism of Nietzsche’s project is really fitting for 2021. We want to be superpeople! And Nietzsche’s superpeople were people of ethical actions! Ethics implies that even if there isn’t a right and wrong, per se, there is a code to follow. That’s part of being in control of the chaos around you. Following that code. Is it part of your code to help others? Take opportunities to do that. Is it part of your code to be kind to people you don’t know? Take opportunities to do that. Is it part of your code to support the oppressed? You will have a lot of opportunity for that in the coming year. THAT’S how you become a superman. Your reality has a code and part of mastering the chaos is abiding by that code. THIS is what the will to power is all about. Mastering yourself. Not others.
So, look, I have taken a few liberties with Nietzsche here, but I think he had some basic ideas that, when expanded upon, make for a really solid way to head into 2021. You have the power to make your own world. Make it well. Remember your world is dependent on others. So keep those others in mind. And the height of human achievement is not mastery over another, but mastery of oneself, and that doesn’t’ have to be harsh discipline, but just bringing a little order to the chaos, which I believe you can do.
It would be really easy to be hopeless right now. I know that. The last year has been unlike anything in my lifetime.
And my use of Nietzsche to get you to welcome 2021 is a bit tongue in cheek. He’s generally seen as one of the grumpiest and most pessimistic of rhetorical theorists so I’m being a bit generous in my interpretation when I use his work to wish you a Happy New Year. I’ll grant that.
But consider this a lesson by example. Nietzsche is undeniably dark and nihilistic. He is the favorite of brooding pseudo-intellectuals all the world order. He’s the guy who told us God is dead, for crying out loud. It doesn’t get much darker than that. But we have found ways that he can help us see a light at the end of the tunnel. With a bit of imagination we have discovered in Nietzsche some hope and some heart, after all.
That’s all I want for you for 2021. 2020 has just been awful. There’s no way around it. But if we look hard, we can see places where the light comes through. And with a bit of imagination we can dream that 2021 will be something good. And that’s all we can ask right now.
For New Year’s Eve this year my whole family will be spending the evening together. It’s the first year we’ll be allowing my son to try and stay up until midnight, and he is very excited. I’m sure he’ll crash right after that, but it will be our first New Year’s Eve as a family. We might teach him how to play Settlers of Catan. I don’t know.
But I’m happy. I’ll spend a long night with the two people I love the most, probably playing games and watching movies, and I’ll probably drink cheap champagne. I’ll put on a decent outfit and do my hair and make-up for nobody to see except them because I’ll want to start the New Year looking good, which will baffle my husband, but he’ll roll his eyes and let it go. My son might get tired and go to bed early, or maybe he’ll make it until 12am – we’ll see. No parties. No big celebrations. Just the three of us ushering in the New Year as a family. And then the next year on New Year’s Day we will have a bunch of our favorite appetizers spread out throughout the whole day instead of a big fancy meal. But that means things like my much beloved homemade bean dip (which has black-eyed peas in it) and crab stuffed mushrooms at various points in the day – so we are looking forward to it as much as any special dinner.
In short, it is the perfect way to start 2021.
I am building my world as I see fit. And it is lovely.
Happy New Year to you. I hope your 2021 starts out exactly as you want it to. And goes from there.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.
Charlene Ibrom says
Very interesting take on Nietzsche. Also – an interesting concept of reality/truth. There is, then, no objective “facts” or are “facts” not considered “truth”?
Very healthy attitude to take control of that which we can control.
One of the big questions I ask my grad students to contend with is “is there a difference between reality and truth?” Which really gets to the question of what is the difference between fact and truth. For example, it may be “true” that all people are created equal. It’s certainly a truth that our country was founded on. An inalienable one, at that. It is an unquestionable truth that all people are equal! But is that the reality? Unfortunately, it is not, and that is also very clear. So in that example I would say there is a difference between what is true and what is factual. As for objectivity, I guess the easy way out is to turn to what Vico had to say – there are different kinds of truths – the truths that don’t change from situation to situation and the truths that do. But that’s a whole other podcast. 🙂