Loughner’s Terrible Violence and His Misunderstanding of Nietzsche

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Warren Hynson is a history graduate student at Boston University.

“God is dead.  God remains dead.  And we are the ones who killed him.”

The name Friedrich Nietzsche, the author of this oft-quoted (and oft-misunderstood) assertion, has recently continued to surface in major currents of American media, particularly in the coverage of recent acts of abominable violence and the nihilistic philosophical underpinnings that their perpetrators were supposed to have personally invoked to justify them.

Most recently, the New York Times featured an article on Jared Loughner—the 22 year-old Arizona assassin—which repeatedly referenced the gunman’s philosophical propensity for nihilism, and quoted Zane Gutierrez, a contemporary of Loughner’s, as describing the shooter as “a nihilist” who, moreover, “loves causing chaos, and that is probably why he did the shooting, along with the fact he was sick in the head.”

This same article shortly thereafter mentioned Loughner’s reading of The Will To Power, a compilation of Nietzsche’s journals posthumously published and ideologically contorted by Nietzsche’s anti-Semitic sister, Elizabeth.  The implied connection between Loughner allegedly imbibing the “destructive effects” of The Will To Power and his heinous rampage that killed six individuals and wounded fourteen more is subtle, yet discernible.  For the reader unfamiliar with Nietzsche’s philosophy, biography, and The Will To Power, uninformed lines of causality can be drawn here all too easily.

But does Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the death of God justify the death of others?  What does it even mean to say that God is dead?  Was Nietzsche a nihilist of “chaotic” proportions?

Sean Kelly, chair of Harvard’s department of philosophy, published in early December a piece in the New York Times entitled "Navigating Past Nihilism," in which he unequivocally asserted that nihilism finds “no sustained treatment” in the texts Nietzsche himself “prepared for publication during his lifetime.”  However, Kelly aptly suggests that if one were determined to find a kernel of nihilism in Nietzsche’s thought, then perhaps one may need to look no further than Nietzsche’s infamous declaration of God’s death in The Gay Science.

Nietzsche was a unique thinker, a writer who often expressed his most complex and fundamental philosophical points through deceptively simple yet enigmatic metaphors, his proclamation of God’s death not least among them.  Kelly shares the increasingly normative scholarly interpretation of this passage, asserting that God’s death implies that the monotheistic deity of the Judeo-Christian tradition has ceased to carry any meaningful moral or ethical weight in an increasingly modern, secular, and pluralized world:  “He no longer plays his traditional social role of organizing us around a commitment to a single right way to live.”

Hailing from a long line of German Lutheran ministers, and possessing a keen and deep knowledge of the Bible and Christianity, Nietzsche was fully cognizant of the theological and philosophical implications of his contentious statement.  As a seminal existentialist thinker, Nietzsche was also sensitive to the fact that the death of God meant individuals were severed from their traditional ethical anchors and were now freely drifting on the open seas of morality. 

Nietzsche was not proclaiming all moral values null or void, nor did he maintain, as Dostoyevsky implied in The Brothers Karamazov, that if God did not exist then all was permissible.  Instead, Nietzsche was asserting the need for a reorientation of moral authority from a traditional law-giving God to the internal moral compass of individual conscience.  The notion that conceptions of personal purpose or moral meaning must now be created from within was an integral tenet of arguably Nietzsche’s most fundamental (though, again, often ill-understood) idea, the will to power, which appeared inchoately in Daybreak (1881), The Gay Science (1882; first edition), and perhaps most thoroughly in Thus Spake Zarathustra (first released in full, circa 1885-86).

Metaphors are slippery slopes and Nietzsche’s were no exception.  At its best, the bellicose rhetoric Nietzsche employed to describe the will to power reflects the psychological rigor and self-mastery Nietzsche considered necessary for human moral development, self-realization, and thus individual moral responsibility.  At its worst, the belligerent symbolism used to define the will to power can readily lend itself to misappropriation in service of atrocious actions from Auschwitz to Tucson.

To say that Nietzsche was a nihilist is to presuppose that he considered existence devoid of any and all meaning; by extension implying that Nietzsche considered life “chaotic” and individuals dominated by their respective wills to power could justifiably pursue the most heinous crimes in a God-less universe without fear of retribution.  However, this sort of dark and destructive interpretation would be a grave misunderstanding of Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Nietzsche was an affirmative thinker, one who endorsed the value of life and saw in humanity the potential to overcome the malaise of modernity in late nineteenth-century Europe.  The will to power was a constructive doctrine:  the conscious subjective striving to distinguish oneself as a unique individual, one who has overcome their most base instincts to create a sound moral system and achieve their true human potential.  The will to power was ultimately a means to self-control, not the infliction of pain on others.       

Is Nietzsche’s rhetoric prima facie capable of inspiring acts of outrageous and unspeakable violence?  History and current events have occasionally answered affirmatively, much to the intellectual historian’s chagrin.  The Will To Power was a distortion of Nietzsche’s authentic philosophical intentions, and if Loughner’s fateful shooting rampage at his local “Congress on Your Corner” was even partially inspired by this text, then this doubly distorted misinterpretation demands to be recognized for its fallaciousness.

Ideas have consequences, contorted ideas all the more so.  Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s rhetorical proclivities for metaphorical enigma and hyperbole have been exploited as potential sources of inspiration for egregious acts of terror, most recently in Arizona.  Ideas, and Nietzsche’s specifically, must be situated in both their proper intellectual and historical context to be properly understood.

It would be outrageously insensitive to suggest that a more nuanced interpretation of Nietzsche would have prevented Jared Loughner from pulling the trigger on January 8.  Clearly, as we have learned from recent revelations of Loughner’s writings and ideas, he was, as Zane Gutierrez attested to, mentally deranged.  To incriminate Nietzsche, though, would be anachronistic and based on a specious understanding of his philosophy.  In a world of media communications defined by sound bites and a concomitant lack of context, historians have a responsibility to the public to provide the necessary context, the full picture, the long view, whatever one chooses to call it, to promote a more informed and productive public discourse.

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james joseph butler - 1/18/2011

I enjoyed this, I learned something, but I couldn't help but be amused at the author's idea that "historians have a responsibility to the public to provide the necessary context". Warren Hyson is right, the sane and insane would benefit from an enhanced overview of the subject, whatever it may be, such that a "productive discourse" might move us towards enhanced understanding. Which reminds me of Loughner's query regarding words and power when he asked Giffords in a 2007 townhall type meeting, "What is government if words have no meaning?" Giffords chose to not respond.

Is it irresponsible to suggest that had Rep. Giffords responded to the Nietzschian, nihlistic, "words have no meaning", with a modicum of respect he might have been tortured by something else and shot a clerk not a Congresswoman? The usual. How does a historian intercede to intercept random gun violence in America?

If nihilism is an understanding that life is unfair and random, to a point,how can historians get Americans to understand that while we'll always have crazy people and intemperate politicans only America thinks WMD R us as long as it's not my Safeway.