Last week, I talked about personal power. While I was writing that, I was reminded of Friedrich Nietzsche, who made the subject of power his life’s work. I’m not going to run down the man’s biography, we’re on the Internet for God’s sake, if you’re that curious it won’t take you long to find it. And I’m not going to delve too deep; frankly I’m not as familiar with his work as I am with that of, say, Jean-Paul Sartre…and I’m trying to keep these things relatively short.
So today, I just want to quote one passage from one of Nietzsche’s most famous works, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
The book itself is interesting as a book: the philosophy within is not written from Nietzsche’s own perspective, but comes out of the mouth of a Prophet, the title character, who expounds to his disciples in a series of sermons which the narrative finishes with the title of the book. It is a fictionalized philosophical treatise written in the manner of a religious text.
Say whatever else you want about him, Ol’ Freddie didn’t give much of a shit about convention.
Which leads me right into the quote in question:
“I say unto you: one must still have chaos in himself to be able to give birth to a shining star. I say unto you: you still have chaos in yourselves.
Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer be able to give birth to a star. Alas, the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself. Behold, I show you the last man.”
Taking this one paragraph at a time, Nietzsche was, to put it mildly, not a fan of social order, at least not the existing one, regarding it as a tool by which institutions enslaved the individual intellect. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is written the way it is in part so the author can thumb his nose at the most powerful globe-spanning social institution of the day, the Catholic Church, which he regarded as pure evil. There’s a passage where Zarathustra describes a battle where a Camel undergoes a metamorphosis into the Lion I Will and defeats the Dragon Thou Shalt.
Agendas don’t get much plainer than that.
So, if Order is bad, then its opposite, Chaos, must be good. This is why the Prophet encourages its nurturing by his disciples in themselves. To an extent, he’s got a point; after all, absolute Order is absolute stagnation: Order cannot arise from Order, because the existing Order will brook no imposition on itself. For metamorphosis, or growth, to occur, the order has to be mixed up at least a little bit.
That being said, let me point out that mixing up the order completely, which is absolute Chaos, is not mere anarchy, it is, well, it’s indefinable. To call it a soup of infinite possibility is to give it a structure, which is not Chaos itself, but a reflection of it that reason can handle.
In this, it is akin to the Quality that Robert Pirsig wrote of in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and its sequel, Lila. In the first book he wrote,
“Quality is a characteristic of thought and statement that is recognized by a nonthinking process. Because definitions are a product of rigid, formal thinking, Quality cannot be defined.
…but even though Quality cannot be defined, you know what Quality is!”
Pirsig went on, over the course of two thick books disguised as novels, to show that Quality is neither a subject nor an object, but instead is the source of both. The source of everything. Infinite possibility.
That is what Zarathustra told his disciples they had in them. An undefinable wellspring of whole Universes. Infinite possibility.
So then why does he go on, in that second paragraph, to lament that a time will come when a man arises, the Last Man, who is “no longer able to despise himself?”
Why would a power enthusiast exhorting his disciples to fan a Universe-birthing flame inside themselves place self-loathing on a pedestal?
Because the Last Man is he who neither follows nor leads, stays all courses, cowers within the iron-clad safety of conventionality…and is completely incapable of thinking, “this sucks.”
Nietzsche, if I read him correctly, was positing that self-loathing was the goad by which the Overman (the opposite of the Last Man) could prod himself out of societal chains, evolve, and better himself.
To a point, he has a point. If you don’t look at something about yourself and dislike it, you’ll never change. You’ll have no reason to.
The pitfall here is when self-loathing is allowed to perpetuate itself; when it eclipses self-belief.
I’ve been there. Spent a lot of time there.
Those two words should be the extent of one’s ability to “despise himself.” A radar blip that isn’t full-blown self-loathing, but a pinprick of sensation which indicates that something could be better. Just enough to inspire you to move on, to evolve. A friend of mine likes to remind me that “shame and guilt are useless emotions,” and beyond that one instant, she is quite correct.
The trick here is to admit that there’s something you want to change…and then get off your ass and change it. Don’t wallow in hating that thing; it’s a part of you, hating it is hating yourself. That extreme is counterproductive, not just because when you hate yourself you waste the energy you need to evolve, but you lose the will to even try. In a way, it’s a form of arrogance: you would have to be pretty damned important for the whole Universe to be so against you that it’s pointless to try.
If you were that important, the Universe wouldn’t be against you.
On the other hand, there’s a line between being confident, and being an obnoxious asshole. This opposite extreme to self-loathing, hubris, is a whole ‘nother form of arrogance, one that is a lot more obvious because it never lets you forget just how damned important the bearer is. We all know someone like this, and if you don’t, then you are that someone, and you should probably find a way to dial it back a tad, before someone else strangles you on general principles.
If you were that important, you wouldn’t need to be a dick about it.
The Truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between the extremes. Let’s bring this magilla from the abstract to the asphalt.
Bikers are very good at living and partying in that in-between. You won’t find many extremes on motorcycles. Both self-loathing and hubris are equally fatal on 600 pound explosion-powered transports with no protective shell. Once again, the bike is a perfect metaphor for life.
Somewhere in between these extremes, Bikers defy convention, we wear outlandish costumes, decorate ourselves and our machines, and those machines are chaotic, irrational in the sense that “why the hell would you want to go highway speeds without a protective shell?”
This is why more conventional people think we’re nuts.
On the other hand, we have our own convention; those costumes and decorations can be pretty stereotypical–when you think “Biker,” an image pops into your head. The bikes couldn’t exist without order holding them together, without hard science making them work. They are rational in the sense that “why the hell wouldn’t you want to travel in a way that makes you a part of the journey instead of just a spectator?”
This is why we think we’re the sanest people on the planet.
When a Biker conforms to any convention, even our own, it’s because they want to, not because they have to. I couldn’t wait to get my badass biker vest and start attaching pins to it. My friend Road Runner couldn’t wait to get his badass biker vest, but he prefers patches to pins. Our mutual friend Justin wants no truck with any of this crap and rides around on his bike in a T-shirt and sneakers.
And no Biker gives any of us any shit for any of it.
That’s the beauty. We make our own worlds, our own conventions, we keep giving birth to shining stars…and we respect the shining stars of others. We look and find inspiration, or say, “that’s cool,” or say, “I’m just going to go be over here now,” as we please.
We’re confident, even when we don’t like something about ourselves. We have our codes of honor and forms of etiquette, but none of them are imposed as controls from above. It’s not a system, it’s a way of life.
I think Nietzsche would have approved.
And I think he would have agreed, that Truth rides a motorcycle.