Friedrich, Martin, and Don: The Will to Power as @realDonaldTrump

Friedrich, Martin, and Don: The Will to Power as @realDonaldTrump

By William F. Zachmann, Semeiotic

“Of what is great one must either be silent or speak with greatness. With greatness ─ that means cynically and with innocence. What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism. This history can be related even now; for necessity itself is at work here. This future speaks even now in a hundred signs; this destiny announces itself everywhere; for this music of the future all ears are cocked even now. For some time now, our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect.”  Friedrich Nietzsche.

These words, written between November 1887 and March 1888, begin the “Preface” of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s book, “The Will to Power: Attempt at a Revaluation of all Values”,  that really was not a book but rather an assembly of some of his notes, written between 1883 and his mental breakdown at the end of 1888, that were subsequently collected, edited, in various ways distorted, and published (in 1901) after his death in 1900 at the age of 55, by his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche.

By far the most insightful, thoughtful, and fundamental analysis and interpretation of Nietzsche’s work is that of Martin Heidegger, himself the most important European philosopher of the 20th Century, in a series of courses, lectures, and publications spanning more than three decades from the 1930s through the 1960s. Heidegger’s most important works on Nietzsche are available in English in four volumes edited by David Farrell Krell under the overall title “Nietzsche: By Martin Heidegger” including “Volume I: The Will to Power as Art”; “Volume II: The Eternal Recurrence of the Same”; “Volume III: The Will to Power as Knowledge and as Metaphysics”; and “Volume IV: Nihilism”.

Donald J. Trump, who is about to lock up the Republican nomination and will very likely win the election in November and become the 45th President of the United States of America in January 2017, embodies in some quite remarkable and even astonishing ways not only the continued unfolding of the “history of the next two centuries” that Nietzsche said he would “relate” some 130 years ago, but the essential themes of the path of Nietzsche’s thought as further examined, explored, and traveled by Heidegger. Trump’s unconventional approach to politics (and to life) resounds with echoes of Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s thought about “will to power” as the ultimate end yet also the indispensable condition of a necessary “revaluation of all values” in what has come to be called our “postmodern” age.

Nietzsche is best and most conventionally known for words first spoken by the main character in his book “Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One” published in 1883: “God is dead.” Heidegger correctly understands this not to refer specifically to the God of Christianity but, rather, to the transcendental world ‘above’ (or ‘beyond’) the world as we ordinarily experience it that has been part of the “Western” world picture since Plato’s articulation, two and a half millennia ago, of a timeless ‘superior’ realm of pure ideas of which things that we encounter in lives are ‘mere shadows’.

Plato’s ‘realer than real’ eternal world of ideas is taken up and transformed, in medieval Christianity, into a theology that characterizes the world as we know it as a “veil of sin, tears, and suffering” redemption from which through Jesus Christ into an eternal “heavenly” realm is the only valid, meaningful aim and purpose of human existence. But with the Protestant Reformation and the dawn of modern ‘science’ in the 16th Century the Medieval theological ‘consensus’ begins to come apart. The “natural laws” of math and science begin to emerge as independent of the “divine laws” of Scripture. A succession of thinkers from Descartes through Kant and Hegel re-think the “two worlds” as apparent and real, being and becoming, true and false in ways that make it increasingly difficult to reconcile.

By the second half of the 19th Century, when Nietzsche begins seriously to think about it, Plato’s transcendental world of timeless ideas has been reduced, at least as Nietzsche sees it, to little more than a realm of ‘values’ that are somehow tacked onto ‘things’ understood as merely transitory extended stuff (matter) in motion (energy) and as such the subjects of the various ‘objective’ sciences. The once assured meaning of the divinely given theological values in scripture become increasingly arbitrary as sects and ideologies proliferate in the essentially value-less world of science and practical use. This is at least approximately what Nietzsche and Heidegger name as ‘nihilism’.

At the end of the 19th Century (and of Nietzsche’s life) there was a strong trend of optimism and even utopian expectation for “the progress of mankind onward and upward forever” as scientific discovery practically applied would create a ‘rational’ society and a harmonious civilization for the world as a whole. Nietzsche, however, even before his breakdown in 1888, saw a much more dangerous, darker world ahead. He foresaw a coming breakdown of traditional values exposed not as divine ordinances but, rather, as creations of human subjectivity. To him, the scientific positivism of the late 1800s was but a vestigial remnant of traditional values in decline accompanied by a naïve unthinking assumption that material progress could somehow automatically create values out of nothing.

For Nietzsche, the only viable option for the future was a re-creation of values by a superior type (the ‘overman’ or ‘superman’) who, realizing that creation of values was not only a power inherent in human life as such, but that it is itself a manifestation of the “will to power” as the fundamental being of all that is who would, in effect, create new values rather than look for them ‘outside’ in some no-longer-plausible ‘superior’ realm. He distinguished sharply between the “last man” who simply un-thinkingly muddles alongside what is already taken for granted and the “overman” who would preside over the destruction of the remnants of the ‘transcendental’ values and create new values out of the full exercise of the will to power as such.

While it is probably best not to try to make too much of the comparison, there certainly seems to be a very interesting if rather rough parallel between the “last men” of the American political establishment, on the one hand (including, by the way Hillary Clinton as well as Jeb Bush and his family) and the “overman” as represented by Donald J. Trump (and to a somewhat lesser extent by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders as well). Trump clearly refuses to allow himself or his possibilities to be defined by the “conventional wisdom” by “what you are supposed to do” or, for that matter, by the typically unchallenged “you can’t do that!” assumed ‘values’ of “political correctness”.

Like Alexander the Great when faced (in legend at least) with the Gordian Knot, Trump refuses and rejects the assumption that the only way to loosen the knot is to attempt, patiently and painstakingly to untie it bit by bit. He, instead, draws his sharp sword of focused intent, swings the blade, and slices through the ‘not’. Whether this proves, in the end, to be a good thing or not remains to be determined. But that it is an ongoing occurrence, happening now and on a very grand scale, is well beyond doubt.