by Chris Waldburger. Also published on his Substack
With this piece, Chris Waldburger begins a series in which he examines the philosophical underpinnings and ramifications of the Covid Event. He begins by looking again at the ways in which Nietzsche provides critics of the Covid Event with a potent perspective in understanding our revolutionary age.
“I think people’s sense of what is possible in terms of control changed quite dramatically between January and March. [The Chinese] claimed to have flattened the curve. I was sceptical at first… But as the data accrued it became clear it was an effective policy… It’s a communist one party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought… and then Italy did it. And we realised we could.” ~ Neil Ferguson, December 2020 interview with The Times
“However, Covid-19 also offers us an opportunity to accelerate the implementation of some long agreed-upon structural changes to enable reconstruction, development and growth. These opportunities call for more sacrifices and – if needs be – what Amilcar Cabral called ‘class suicide’, wherein we must rally behind the common cause. The coronavirus knows no class, race, gender or geographical location.” ~ Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, South African Minister in charge of South Africa’s State of Disaster, press conference May 2020
We imagined we lived in secular, liberal democracies, in which elected representatives were accountable to the people, and committed to resolving policy issues by means of reasoned and open debate.
We imagined gross errors in policy would find themselves checked by an adversarial and free press.
We imagined that open scientific inquiry would allow rational measures and ideas to win out in the public square.
We were wrong.
The State is never secular, but always embedded in its own mythology.
The State is not predicated upon rationality, but power.
The State is never for, of, and by the people, but is inherently elitist.
Thus, the Covid Event is not simply an aberration. The Covid Event is best understood as an Apocalypse – a Revelation, an Unveiling of the true political reality beneath the veneer of democratic discourse.
Nietzschean Will to Power
The great insight of 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, was that our lives are not really motivated by truth and facts, but by ‘the will to power’. We are not primarily scientists or mathematicians. We are humans in a story, first and foremost. And humans are motivated by power.
This power can be decadent or ‘overcoming’. By decadent power, Nietzsche meant power that is motivated by resentment, that is crafty, that seeks power over others to cover up one’s own insecurities.
Healthy power is direct. Its mastery reaches to a level where strength can be turned into kindness, where compassion is not given simply to score points or show virtue, but is a descent of a grand spirit.
Society should therefore be understood as being constituted of people driven by a Nietzschean will to power. This should immediately make us sceptical of any political order which portrays itself as neutral and motivated by democratic consideration for the rational interests of the citizenry. Once we understand this hard truth of modern psychology, once we achieve a clear-eyed view of our liberal democracies, we can determine a path against the decadence and nihilism of our corrupt elites.
Nietzschean thought, despite its explanatory power, has an undeserved reputation for amoralism and heartlessness. Christians see Nietzsche as the thinker behind the famous statement ‘God is dead.’ Liberals think of his Übermensch concept as a forerunner of National Socialism. But the truth is far more complex than that.
Nietzsche’s statement that God is dead is less a call to stamp out religion as it is a tragic announcement that Enlightenment Europe has no grounds for morality anymore, and is threatened by a terrible nihilism – a terrible temptation to believe in nothing but base pleasure, to will nothing but conformity and bland collective happiness centered on materialism; both of which may escalate into a catastrophic resentment toward all beauty, all greatness, and thus a politics of revenge and slaughter. (As the revolutionary puts it in Dostoevsky’s Demons: “Starting with unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism.”)
His Übermensch concept is not a call to merciless supremacy, but a desire to achieve a kind of eternity and transcendence of one’s life, a sacredness in the midst of modern nihilism. Even his tirades against Christianity are more nuanced than is popularly believed. The Catholic philosopher, Henri de Lubac, recounted this anecdote concerning Nietzsche, related by his Christian friend, Ida Overbeck:
“Ida Overbeck confided to him that she did not find peace in Christianity and that the idea of God did not seem to her to comprise enough real content. Quite moved, Nietzsche replied to her: ‘You are only saying this in order to come to my own aid. Do not abandon it ever, this idea of God that you have! You possess it unconsciously in yourself…’ … Then he burst into sobs.”
In Beyond Good and Evil, despite his admitted disdain for Christian morality within the second German Reich, Nietzsche mocked free thinkers who believed in their superiority to Christians:
“…how much naivete, respectful, childish, and boundlessly foolish naivete lies in this belief of the scholar in his own superiority… in the unsuspecting, unsophisticated certainty with which his instinct treats religious people as a less worthy and lower type… the scholar, the small, presumptuous dwarf and member of the rabble, the diligent and nimble head-and-hand-worker of ‘ideas,’ ‘modern ideas’!”
These words seem prophetic to us now after the fanatical disrespect shown to religious sceptics of the new bio-medical statism..
Nietzsche was also a tragic philosopher. Happiness is not to be found in avoiding death or suffering. That is impossible. Any system of utilitarianism is therefore contrary to reality. The absolute fear of death pervading society, to the extent that we are willing to live in masks, behind screens and plastic, is something Nietzsche would have abhorred.
He believed that life can only be justified if it is willing to reach a kind of eternity in which we love our fate and take the risks of an adventurous life. Nietzsche himself was a famous hiker, and he believed that only thoughts experienced at height and outdoors were worth anything. Indeed, he abandoned (presciently) a life in the corridors of academia after achieving acclaim therein at a very young age.
This sense of the tragic and an awareness of the primal nature of power are both necessary in understanding the Covid Event.
A Decadent Will to Power
How do we explain our obsessive deference to ‘science’, even as it experiences a grave crisis in its own credibility?
I refer here to the massive replication crisis, in which the majority of medical studies cannot be reproduced with the same findings, ensuring that the product of institutional science – the peer-reviewed, journal-published study – has had its legitimacy shattered.
We knew this before Covid. We knew that the food pyramid had killed countless numbers of people. We knew of countless examples of pharmaceutical products being authorized and marketed under the false pretences of fraudulent or incomplete studies.
Yet this reality was ignored. It was ignored because noticing it was not in the corporate media’s chosen interests, and those outside the power structures of modern states, namely the mere electorate, had no power to ‘notice’ it in the public square.
The power structures of liberal states depended on a credibility created by the valorizing of neutral, transcendent science. Science had eclipsed religion and superstition, and thus a political order of pragmatic science somehow overcame politics.
But the great critic of modern rationalism knew that scientists were just as motivated by power as anybody else. Because, for Nietzsche, it is nothing but decadent hubris that allows anybody to imagine that they are one of the chosen few soaring above basic humanity, that they are Science or Rationality itself (with Al Gore perhaps being the 90’s precursor to Fauci in this regard).
We see this most clearly today in the replication crisis and in scientific hypocrisy. Clearly the experts are not simply motivated by neutral truth. Otherwise they would apologise for lockdowns which have plunged millions into starvation.
Yes, scientists, like everybody else, can have a healthy drive for power. This power is not motivated by the need to impress others or to be a part of an accepted narrative so as to enjoy herd privileges, but instead it is motivated by attention to craft, to health, and to expressing even uncomfortable truths for the culture at large. We have fortunately seen many examples of such scientists within the Covid Event.
But we have also seen that the scientific will to power operating within the regime is ugly.
Exaggerated death counts, love of publicity, vicious attacks on sceptics (is science not meant to be based on scepticism?), associating oneself with science itself, and the desire to control, even using police powers over children, are examples of an ugly will to power, a decadent will to power. This in itself is a symptom of a society in decay, a society that has lost its hunger and passion to live.
We see this same resentful decadence in the people who post selfies of their vaccinations, who vent about how stupid the masses are not to wear masks, who enjoy a newfound ability to show a strange religious loyalty to public health policy and pharmaceutical companies, all to show virtue without any real cost or sacrifice.
And worst of all, we see this same decadence in our political leaders, who wheel out these chosen experts to borrow their supposed credibility, to demonstrate their great deference to all things ‘enlightened’.
This same impulse is visible in the oppression of protestors against western lockdowns, only for Chinese protests against ‘Zero Covid’ months later to be lauded as heroic: the true modern psychology upon which our rational democracies are built.
The ‘free spirits’ of the Last Men
Nietzsche predicted this age of the ‘Last Men’.
In his fable, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s alter ego Zarathustra asks the common citizenry to seek the Übermensch, to take the risk of a tight-rope walker, seeking the stars. The citizens mock the concept. When Zarathustra implores them to avoid the fate of the ‘Last Men’ – those who crave merely warmth and company, who seek merely to extend life and thus avoid goal and purpose, who want neither to be poor nor rich, who want to imbibe small amounts of poison for the sake of pleasant dreams and later an easy death, who want little pleasures, but are primarily concerned with their health – the crowd interrupts him, and demands the life of this last man.
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche describes with irony these last men as ‘free spirits’:
“In every country of Europe, and the same in America, there is… a very narrow, prepossessed, enchained class of spirits, who desire almost the opposite of what our intentions and instincts prompt… Briefly and regrettably, they belong to the LEVELLERS, these wrongly named ‘free spirits’… all of them men without solitude, without personal solitude…”
“What they would fain attain with all their strength, is the universal, green-meadow happiness of the herd, together with security, safety, comfort, and alleviation of life for everyone, their two most frequently chanted songs and doctrines are called ‘Equality of Rights’ and ‘Sympathy with All Sufferers’—and suffering itself is looked upon by them as something which must be DONE AWAY WITH.”
In short, these last men simply want the life of the herd, with no risk, and no suffering. What this implies, however, is a kind of tyranny. The herd must be penned in, in order to achieve an abolition of suffering which is impossible. As Nietzsche writes later in the same work: “for when all people are equal, then no one needs ‘rights’ any more.”
One is reminded of the poignant warning of CS Lewis, writing a few decades after Nietzsche:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
Furthermore, note the chief symptom Nietzsche associates with the last men – they have no solitude. This symptom is exacerbated to a degree perhaps unimaginable to Nietzsche by social media – the very mechanism which was captured by our expert class in order to maintain herd beliefs.
Finally, for our purposes, and most chillingly, Nietzsche identifies the last men as tarantulas who will terrorize the world in their tyranny masquerading as virtue. Again from Zarathustra:
“Thus do I speak unto you in parable, ye who make the soul giddy, ye preachers of equality! Tarantulas are ye unto me, and secretly revengeful ones! Because, for man to be redeemed from revenge—that is for me the bridge to the highest hope, and a rainbow after long storms. Otherwise, however, would the tarantulas have it.”
“‘Let it be very justice for the world to become full of the storms of our vengeance’—thus do they talk to one another. ‘Vengeance will we use, and insult, against all who are not like us’—thus do the tarantula-hearts pledge themselves…”
“Ye preachers of equality, the tyrant-frenzy of impotence crieth thus in you for ‘equality’: your most secret tyrant-longings disguise themselves thus in virtue-words!”
It would be difficult to dispute that Nietzsche correctly foresaw the psychology of the future polity of the West. He did not need to envision a Covid Event in order to predict a tyranny arising to keep us ‘safe’, or that the desire for equality and safety would be weaponized by a new class of ‘free spirits’ who wanted anything but freedom.
Thus, in our Orwellian world, liberty comes to mean its opposite.
Caesars with the Soul of Christ
Nietzsche shows no easy way out of the grip of decadent will to power. Instead he proposes that each person take in the worst of realities, a resentful and flattening society, and somehow sublimate them into an independence of spirit, a disciplining of one’s self toward some kind of greatness. This is the source of his most famous aphorism: that which does not kill me, only makes me stronger.
He described this kind of spirit as ‘a Caesar with the soul of Christ’. (Christians would counter that this merely describes Christ, who is a King who suffers with us.) Such a man masters benevolence and compassion, such that it does not become vengeful. In challenging the great levelling and class suicide of our time, he avoids becoming a kind of tarantula himself.
In the face of our decadent and global will to power, we need to find our own healthy will to power, not motivated by revenge and resentment, but by an aristocratic spirit that can face a nihilistic world but still seek to overcome, and seek this overcoming and victory of health even without the prospect of success.
For Nietzsche, that meant abandoning German politics and academia, walking high mountains, and writing unpopular books, in a bid to bring about a new epoch in European thought.
Nietzsche would suffer a catastrophic breakdown in the midst of these contradictions. He would not achieve the Übermensch. But he did write something intriguing to those who wonder about the state of his own soul – “only where there are tombs, are there resurrections.”
Western society is a tomb, and its own death may be at hand. But even if we are headed into some kind of dystopian nightmare, it is not Nietzschean, or Christian, to despair.
Only where there are tombs, are there resurrections.
Chris Waldburger is a South African writer, teacher, student of literature and philosophy. He can be followed on his Substack.