Noble and Common

“The higher type of human being is more unreasonable, for those who are noble, magnanimous, and self-sacrificial succumb to their instincts at times. When they are at their best, their reason pauses. An animal that protects its young at the risk of its life, or that during the mating period follows its mate even unto death, does not think of danger and death; its reason also pauses, because the pleasure in its young or in its mate and the fear of being deprived of this pleasure dominate it totally: the animal becomes more stupid than usual—just like those who are noble and magnanimous. They have some feelings of pleasure and displeasure that are so strong that they reduce the intellect to silence or to servitude: at that point heart displaces head, and we can speak, in truth, of passion.”—Friedrich Nietzsche, “Noble and Common,” The Gay Science (1887)

Malcolm XNormal people, average people—people like you and me—find it easy to relate to heroes and villains, great saints and great sinners. We can do this because we’re not especially good. Nor are we especially evil. Instead, we’re somewhere in the respectably decent middle: sketchy enough to understand why the bad guys are doing what they’re doing, and yet noble enough to understand why the good guys are doing what they’re doing. We can sympathize with both because we are both, more or less.

But there are exceptional people, Nietzsche maintains, at either end of the spectrum, who fail to appreciate how thoroughly exceptional they are, and simply cannot sympathize with those unlike themselves. For instance, exceptionally selfish people are, he says, deeply suspicious of noble intentions, magnanimous motives, and altruistic drives. Since they deem selflessness of any kind to be essentially stupid and irrational, they assume that those who claim to be motivated by feelings of this kind are either liars (concealing their real motivations) or deluded idiots (unaware of their real motivations).

They snicker cynically and smile knowingly when they hear about the heroic deeds of others. Their knee-jerk skepticism is obvious, as is their contempt. Indeed, says Nietzsche, you can tell that what they’re thinking, what they’d really love to blurt out, is: “Oh, come on! Don’t be so gullible! Trust me, dig a little deeper and you’ll see: there’s some sort of selfish motive behind all of this. Always is.” But what if you managed—somehow, against all odds—to convince these skeptics that the noble man was in fact devoid of selfish intentions when he behaved heroically? What if you could demonstrate, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he gained nothing, and lost much? Would they be willing, after that, to concede the point? Would they be willing, after that, to admit that the noble man really is noble? Nietzsche says NO. They will not. Instead, they’ll go from thinking him a liar, to thinking him a fool.

Sneaky people equate being smart with being sneaky. They don’t recognize other kinds of intelligence, and, as a consequence, they tend to assume that all of the honest and straightforward people they know are idiots. In fact, many honest and straightforward people are capable of being just as clever as sneaky people; they merely choose to refrain from being devious. Alas, Hannah Arendt always insisted that this was the central thesis of her much misunderstood classic, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963): namely, that evil is, despite all of the hype, actually quite boring and predictable.

We didn’t get to the top of the food-chain because we’re the strongest (sorry, gym-rats, your muscles ain’t worth shit on the Serengeti), nor did we get to the top because we’re especially good at rugged individualism (sorry, survivalists, go fuck yourselves in rural wherever); we got to the top of the food-chain because we’re exceptionally good at tool-making, technology, and teamwork. That’s why, after the zombie apocalypse, when we start running out of food, I propose that we eat the Ayn Rand fans first. Being rugged individualists who eschew cooperative, pro-social behavior, my guess is that most of them will be isolated, alone, and easy to pick off.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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