Nietzsche: “When the highest and strongest drives, breaking passionately out, carry the individual far above and beyond the average and lowlands of the herd conscience, the self-confidence of the community goes to pieces, its faith in itself, its spine as it were, is broken: consequently it is precisely these drives which are most branded and calumniated.”
Nietzsche’s distrust of the social system is well known. As he saw it, our current cultural achievement as a species is merely a staging area for the next great breakthrough. What’s on the far side is creative freedom and a full understanding of our place in the universe. Where we are now, however, is caught in the collapsing frame of late-modern consciousness, what he elsewhere called “the twilight of the gods.”
Traditional society has several distinctive features. It is hierarchically arranged, with tribal authorities at the center and top of the social order who are regarded as enjoying a privileged connection to god. It is managed by an intricate network of customs (Nietzsche’s “morality”) that work to pull otherwise spontaneous, creative and potentially deviant behavior into conformity with the group. It is based in a system of stories (a mythology) that tie contemporary life to the sacred past and clarify a divine purpose for the future of the faithful.
So at the dusk of the modern era (late nineteenth century) when Nietzsche and others began to realize that mythology – not only other people’s stories, but our own as well – is a human production, the whole thing started to collapse.
If myths of revelation are actually fictional constructions, then we need to ask about the particular historical contexts that shape the storytellers’ worldview and way of life. Flipping the sacred stories of mythology on their head in this way – as coming “up” out of the human situation rather than “down” out of heaven – urged new questions about perspective, hidden agendas, and ulterior motivations of those who made up the stories in the first place, and of those who have a stake in telling them now.
Nietzsche was especially ruthless in his criticism whenever he spotted or got a whiff of moralism. He cautioned that we should always inquire into whose position in society is served as we stand together, with hands on our hearts, reciting the creed that supports the story that describes the world that humans built.
Instead of simply sweeping morality into the cultural junk bin, however, Nietzsche offers an explanation of its origins and why we (the tribe) protect it so fiercely. If we understand that mythology orients the tribe under the sovereignty of god, and that morality orients the ego under the rule of the tribe, then specific moral disciplines are how the ego manages the body – or better, how the tribe manages the body through the ego.
When you pull back on a particular urge out of fear of being caught, the “herd conscience” is controlling your behavior. For a long time such prohibitions were believed to come ultimately from god, and you don’t want to mess with god. So you do what is “right.” But why is that right? Or what’s the “wrong” that is being ruled out by your obedience?
Nietzsche’s reference to our “highest and strongest drives, breaking passionately out” reveals his deep respect for the body and our animal nature. For millions of years the survival intelligence of instinct has been marvelously successful – at least as it concerns you and me – in keeping our ancestors alive, reproducing, and adapting to or overcoming the challenges of their environment. As society grew more complex and unstable, it became increasingly important to bring the body’s animal nature under control. The vital drives of instinct, which had served the advancement of human evolution so faithfully and for so long, needed to be domesticated and trained for life in the tribal role play.
I’ll take just three of what I regard as the more obvious of such survival drives to illustrate what I think Nietzsche is saying. If we soften our definition of selfishness to mean the driving desire to take what is needed to stay alive, then beneath all the social cooperation of this planet’s ecosystems, this impulse for survival is most basic. At least for long enough to make copies of your genes, which segues to the sex drive as second on my list. Any prehistoric individual who lacked one or the other of these first two drives either didn’t live long enough to reproduce, or didn’t care enough to try. Either way, the outcome was a genetic dead-end.
At a more distant third place, I would put aggression on the short list of “highest and strongest drives.” I don’t mean by this the urge to pick fights and make trouble, but rather the internal uprising of emotional energy that motivates the individual to confront a challenge(r) or persist in the determination to overcome an obstacle in the way of fulfillment. Higher organisms strive, struggle and compete to stay alive and protect their interests.
Tribal morality is uneasy with these behavioral impulses of the body. For the sake of propriety and the social order, it discourages selfishness (“Share your toys!”), regulates sexuality (“Wait till you’re married in this type of partnership”), and sublimates aggression (“Try to win, but play fair!”). And in a religiously moralistic society, as Nietzsche saw in late-modern Christianity, even the urges beneath these behaviors are “branded and calumniated” (falsely accused) as sinful.
But what happens when you try to repress the “will to power” of our animal instinct? Answer: It will get frustrated, amplified and perverted on its way back to the surface. Immorality is rarely due to a lack or ineffective use of social controls, but is rather the predictable outcome of an oppressive and puritanical morality. As the self-confidence of the community goes to pieces, it works harder and turns the screw tighter on individual freedom, which only serves to further aggravate the frustration and exacerbate the problem. And so it goes.
Is there any way through it? The implied message of Nietzsche is that our future as a species will be determined by the degree to which we can relax into our bodies, listen to our deeper drives, and learn to trust the natural intelligence of our animal instinct. This also entails that we rediscover a very ancient talent which has fallen asleep under the trance of tribal morality – if it hasn’t already expired by asphyxiation: to live with respect for the body and its living ground.
If we could (re)learn this, there just may be time enough for the creative emergence of genuine freedom and community – on the far side of our present challenge.