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Was Friedrich Nietzsche a Transhumanist?

IEET Fellow David Pearce is interviewed by IEET Contributor Adam Ford about whether or not Nietzsche was a transhumanist.

Bioconservatives often quote a line from Nietzsche: “That which does not crush me makes me stronger.” But alas pain often does crush people: physically, emotionally, morally. Chronic, uncontrolled pain tends to make the victim tired, depressed and weaker. True, some people are relatively resistant to physical distress. For example, high testosterone function may make someone “tougher”, more “manly”, more resilient, and more able to deal with physically painful stimuli. But such strength doesn’t necessarily make the subject more empathetic or a better person. Indeed, if I may quote W. Somerset Maugham, “It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.”

"To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities - I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not - that one endures."
(The Will to Power, p 481)

"You want, if possible - and there is no more insane "if possible" - to abolish suffering. And we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever. Well-being as you understand it - that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible - that makes his destruction desirable. The discipline of suffering, of great suffering - do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far?"
(Beyond Good and Evil, p 225 )

"I do not point to the evil and pain of existence with the finger of reproach, but rather entertain the hope that life may one day become more evil and more full of suffering than it has ever been."
Friedrich Nietzsche
(1844-1900)


Of course, suffering doesn't always enfeeble and embitter. By analogy, someone who is emotionally depressed may feel that despair is the only appropriate response to the horrors of the world. But the solution to the horrors of the world is not for us all to become depressed. Rather it's to tackle the biology of depression. Likewise, the solution to the horrors of physical pain is not to flagellate ourselves in sympathy with the afflicted. Instead it's to tackle the biological roots of suffering.
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COMMENTS
Evil and suffering is okay. Even a third world war is okay. As long as it happens in the scope of art, of narration, of antirealism. This is what Nietzsche always wanted us to understand and translate into our practice: As long as one plays, like children do [1], anything is possible. But never ever declare your mental state as law to others. If you do, the game ends in the reality of evil, suffering and even worse.

This is what the whole Tech-Transhumanist and Singularitarianist church forgot about. They strive for reality and this will end like human authorization always ends with: Ruin.


1 See: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, First part, The Three Metamorphoses
So you say, kptn blizz. To keep it brief: I say if the historical Nietzsche were alive today, he would be a convinced transhumanist. For what else would there be for him? Today's junk religion? Stagnating mass politics? Dumbed-down commercial celebrity culture?
Kptn Blizz, I don't doubt you're expressing a thoroughly Nietzschean sentiment. But do you personally really want to endorse a third world war? On reflection, you might want to reconsider.
David,
to be pettifogging about it, we're now in a fourth world war. The Cold War was WWIII, today's war is WWIV.

At any rate, IMO there's no doubt Nietzsche had proto-transhumanist tendencies; he would be a transhumanist if he were alive now.
Instamatic, yes, in a sense - though the Cold War never reached thermonuclear temperatures, unless we assume human survival is some sort of anthropic selection effect.

You're right to say that Nietzsche had proto-transhumanist tendencies. But much of Nietzsche's work harks back to the brutal power politics of the African savannah - and a primitive social Darwinism that I hope we can transcend.
... much of Nietzsche's work harks back to the brutal power politics of the African savannah - and a primitive social Darwinism that I hope we can transcend.

He had no choice: all major (and many minor) 19th century European powers considered it ungrateful to reject social Darwinism/imperialism/even genocide.

Good news is war is ending; bad news is economic war isn't. The former can be changed. However to end economic warfare would mean we'd have to change the entire way we think and act--we'd well-nigh have to de-animalize in ending economic warfare. But at least in the future it is unlikely nations will be invaded to gain resources or nukes will be used.




Instamatic, I hope you're right about the end of physical warfare. The 1.5 trillion dollars currently spent on arms world-wide each year could certainly be put to better use. The “furor Teutonicus" is clearly better expressed in the economic arena rather than on the battlefields of Europe. But will even economic struggle endure? The growth of digitisation means that even the humblest worker can now enjoy greater cultural riches on his or her smartphone than a Renaissance prince or a nineteenth-century Rockefeller.
Agreed; unfortunately the consensus in the transhumanist *community* (diversity = motley crew) doesn't exist concerning 'Defense'. I asked Anders Sandberg once, and he replied militaries are necessary to thwart enemies and parasites. And if a Swede would say that, then I'm nonplussed.
However it does appear Pinker was correct, and think of how less than 50 yrs ago America was roasting Vietnamese with napalm; today even so much as killing one civilian via a drone is unfashionable. Not to mention expensive.

The growth of digitisation means that even the humblest worker can now enjoy greater cultural riches on his or her smartphone than a Renaissance prince or a nineteenth-century Rockefeller.

Only caveat is the above is true for every murderer, rapist, glom. Yet that fits in with the downsizing of violence. Rather than nuke Hiroshima, Nagasaki, a bad guy does his thing. Cold comfort for the victim, but it beats mass carnage. And as you know, the majority of crimes are property crimes
"And if a Swede would say that, then I'm nonplussed."

Don't be. The Swedes got rich supplying the Nazi war machine, and continue to have a formidable war industry. It's great that they've developed such a good economic model and commitment to global welfare and multilateralism, but let's not make them out to be saints. Not even Borg-like ones.
"the Cold War never reached thermonuclear temperatures, unless we assume human survival is some sort of anthropic selection effect."

So.....in our actual past, the Cold War doesn't achieve thermonuclear temperatures. But this may be some sort of anthropic selection effect, in the sense that going back to the onset of the Cold War, some - perhaps even the overwhelming majority - of the futures emanating from that event (or series of events) do lead to nuclear holocaust.

What I'm wondering, I guess, is what that might mean with regard to how we should be living our lives today. That's always the question I have when considering "anthropic principle"-type arguments, or for that matter the possibility that we are living in a simulation. Any thoughts? I suppose it would make us more cautious regarding lessons learnt from (in this case) the fact that in our actual past we survive the Cold War, but what else?
Let me repeat the comment I left on David's Youtube video:

Nietzsche, a complete halfwit whose insane ramblings helped to bring about the awful anguish of the Second World War and its horrendous consequences. David is right; research has consistently shown that happiness and allied emotions make us more resilient, not suffering! Get the word out folks (Google if you don't believe us) and get the idea that suffering strengthens thrown in the dustbin of history.
Hmmm...not sure that calling Nietzsche "a complete halfwit" is particularly helpful. But I take your point Taiwanlight: sometimes we revere these enlightenment philosophers far too indiscrimately. Some of the others came up with really valuable insights, but I've never found anything Nietzsche said particularly helpful.

Re happiness and related emotions making us more resilient, and not suffering, I basically agree, but I do think it needs to be nuanced somewhat. I'm pretty sure that suffering does build character, in the right dose and at the right time. Happy to explore this further if you have specific links to share; one of my favourite sources on this and related subjects is Jon Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis.
Remember how Prussia was a state within a military. Given that, Nietzsche appears ahead of the game. Going by today's lights, Jesus would seem quaint. Paul is archconservative by today's standards. However, we judge someone by their time; originality within their time.

To return to Nietzsche and transhumanism: is there any doubt if he were alive today he'd be interested? What else would fire him up? He believed one ought aspire to the highest ideals, and transhumanism would probably fit the bill.
Am here stringing together a group of nonsequiturs- due to not wanting to think too deeply about Nietzsche. Not because he is uninteresting, but because there are many others more interesting who have lived since the 19th century. Main thought coming to mind is that a present-day Nietzsche wouldn't necessarily think transhumanism plausible-- but he would almost certainly think h+ conceivable. And intriguing.

As for Nietzsche being a Nazi progenitor, Taiwanlight: yes; though not deliberately. Otherwise throw in Bismarck, Hindenburg and slew of others as having whelped Nazism. It would be a stretch to write Nietzsche was a good person; but goodness does not apply to him via conventional virtue any more than Rembrandt's virtue applies to Andy Warhol.

One final random observation: I would link Nietzsche with a philosopher such as Machiavelli, just say. Both were amoral yet not always immoral. Machiavelli was more or less writing on how Christian piety was not always practical. Nietzsche could be said to have updated certain aspects of what Machiavelli discussed; since then other philosophers have gone farther in that direction. At any rate, Nietzsche, like Machiavelli, was an original. Will leave it there.
Points taken guys, however, I get the sense you both sympathize with my general feelings about the damage his philosophy has done. I don't deny the man's brilliance; however, sometime genius leads to a very dark alley and not just for the original thinker (in N's case he had a breakdown, attributed to Syphilis but whether he was not off-kilter well before then is an open question).

I grew up in an Irish Catholic family and because of the historical and religious experiences of such, the cult of suffering is unfortunately well established and I tend to react badly to those like N and, I learnt recently, Pythagoras who argued for it.
I think Maciavelli was genuinely insightful. Like you say, Instamatic, he was more or less writing about how Christian piety wasn't always practical. He was writing, in an admittedly disturbingly amoral, essentially Hobbesian way, about power politics and how it works. One can learn from that, and then decide how to what extent to follow his advice. Whereas I'm not actually sure what one can learn from Nietzsche.
No more than what one can learn from Machiavelli, Pete. Nietzsche's offered a break with the past; he wrote about a great many philosophical topics.. his value was in his eclecticism more in substance, IMO.
What Machiavelli did was discuss from a Christian perspective-- he was a Christian-- truth needs a bodyguard of lies, to paraphrase Churchill.
Machiavelli was also a practitioner, albeit not a very successful one, and developed his theories based on his experience. It was relatively specialised experience, namely that of an advisor to princes, much like a political aide today. Perhaps more than anyone else he codified certain (relatively) timeless principles regarding the game of power politics, and how to win it. (Probably the reason he wasn't very good at it was that he was more interested in developing his theories than in actually winning the game.)

The problem with eclecticism, IMO, is that one can end up failing to develop really deep or groundbreaking insights on anything in particular. Also, Machiavelli seems to have been driven very much by curiosity, and that makes him a reliable guide (though again, one may decide that there are better ways to live one's life than becoming good at power politics). I don't actually know Nietzsche that well, which perhaps explains why I'm not sure what we can learn from him, but I suspect there was more going on emotionally than just curiosity. For example, when he wrote, "God is dead, and his stench lies all over Europe," he produced a memorable phrase, but what motivated it? And is it actually insightful? I don't really think so.
but what motivated it? And is it actually insightful?

No. He was being provocative to get his readers to think on it. But it is the era which matters. As a 19th century philosopher, he was being daring. Today saying God is dead, and his stench lies all over Europe would be merely grandstanding. The century someone lived in is a factor that should be emphasized. Someone saying 'forgive your enemy' in 2014 is not original. However the historical Jesus having preached it circa 27 CE is a different matter.
Nietzsche hasn't aged very well. Nevertheless, it doesn't change his originality for the 19th century. Plus, as Jesus, his writings are a lingua franca. (For better and worse). Though of course Jesus is the more important and famous of the two. BTW, Nietzsche isn't to be taken as seriously as many philosophers; he was provocative in an aesthetic way-- not ethical. His were artistically written tomes with classical allusions. We are better off with Bertrand Russel, yet still, Nietzsche is of some importance as a pioneer of 20th century philosophy; a bridge to the 20th century.
Whereas Machiavelli was a Renaissance philosopher perhaps looking towards modern times- in moving away from medieval naivete'.
Now, would the historical Machiavelli be interested in transhumanism?: possibly for nationalistic reasons. He might tell Italians to pursue transhumanism so other nations wouldn't get too far ahead of Italy.

Taiwanlight is correct on Nietzsche's influence to nihilism and Nazism. But reckon with the fact he was a 19th century German. I don't remember if he was Prussian; but if he was, then no wonder.
"Now, would the historical Machiavelli be interested in transhumanism?: possibly for nationalistic reasons. He might tell Italians to pursue transhumanism so other nations wouldn't get too far ahead of Italy."

That sounds about right: if you can't beat them, join them.
He was Renaissance, not Enlightenment. Machiavelli was more interested in beating than joining. Nietzsche was the same. Nonetheless, though Taiwanlight is right in,

"I don't deny the man's brilliance; however, sometime genius leads to a very dark alley."

Let's not suppose Taiwanlight is surprised at Nietzsche's legacy. A 19th century German almost had to be a racist warmonger... Nietzsche was a symptom- not a cause.

Are you surprised by how any of America's Founders had extremely violent sentiments for Native Americans? Unlikely you would be surprised at their feelings- or that genocide was committed.
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