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Der Fall Hitchens

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Sacred cows make the best hamburger.

- Misattributed to Mark Twain, actual source unknown.

 

A woman in my undergrad political science class once told me that I had to respect other cultures, even if they exhibited intolerance. I told her she didn’t understand what the word respect means. To respect something is to admire it, to hold it in esteem or high regard. There is nothing admirable about intolerance that is predicated on nothing but tradition. It’s nothing more than the lazy idea that a pattern of behavior should continue for no other reason than, “It’s always been this way.”

That being said, I respect Christopher Hitchens as an iconoclast.* I admire the man because to him nothing was inherently sacred. To Hitchens, respect was never free. It was not a birthright. I share his views on many points—champagne, lobster, and anal sex are definitely overrated. I also disagree with him—picnics are quite enjoyable.

This brings me to Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was a guiding voice for me at a time when I could clearly see the world for what it was, but couldn’t put into words what I was seeing. Like so many other young skeptics I was drawn in by his provocative declaration that “God is dead.” But where many pick up his works merely to acquire a collection of appetizers used to impress their equally shallow-minded friends with at get-togethers, I stayed for the meat. The rub about Nietzsche—and consequently why he is so often maligned—is that a shallow reading of his ideas reveals nothing. His quotes must be considered in context, and that context is rarely limited to the book in which it was written. Each of his books is merely a snapshot of his philosophy. To fully understand his ideas, one must read the entirety of his work.

Hitchens used one of his last columns for Vanity Fair as a vehicle to attack Nietzsche. The attack came in the form of a reflection on the part of Hitchens on one of Nietzsche’s more mainstream quotes: What does not destroy me, makes me stronger— more often paraphrased as: Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. The fact that Hitchens attacked Nietzsche itself does not offend me, but rather it was in the way my mentor was attacked. Dismissive and shallow.

Hitchens begins by saying that Nietzsche is not the originator of the quote because Nietzsche wasn’t poetic enough to think of something which sounds so beautiful in the original German.

I now sometimes wonder why I ever thought it profound. It is usually attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche: Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker. In German it reads and sounds more like poetry, which is why it seems probable to me that Nietzsche borrowed it from Goethe, who was writing a century earlier.

I must concede that I have never read Goethe. On that alone it is possible that Nietzsche did take the line from him and I simply never knew, but Hitchens never offers the source. He merely dismisses the very notion that Nietzsche was creative enough to pen such a line. In the age of [citation needed] this is an unacceptable half measure.

But being dismissive is not Hitchens’s only crime. His entire interpretation of the quote is shallow. Hitchens mentions that he once walked away from a car accident feeling that he had been “toughened by the encounter.” He does not elaborate on what “toughened” means to him. When Nietzsche says “makes me stronger,” he is not limiting it to mere physical strength or even strength of will. Nietzsche is talking about his idea of the will to power, which is all-encompassing. Physical strength, ambition, humility, perspective, and empathy are all related to the will to power. In his column, Hitchens hints at times of a deeper understanding, but he ultimately chooses to focus on the purely physical aspect of the quote. In doing so he is guilty of the very thing he often accused his opponents of doing, which is to say, ignoring his actual position and substituting a distorted or exaggerated version of that position.**

People have a tendency to deify great thinkers. Hitchens was deified by many of his fans who accepted his words as gospel. I’m certain the irony would not be lost on him. Hitchens looked at Nietzsche from a singular angle in his column, and I fear that many of those who read it will accept it at face-value. That is no way to go through life. Hitchens was a man who questioned the status quo and I would hope his fans took that lesson from him if nothing else. Sometimes that means questioning the man who taught you the lesson in the first place.

Nietzsche wrote that reality was like a great Greek sculpture. You can look at the sculpture just from the front and surely appreciate its beauty from that alone, but to fully understand and appreciate the sculpture one must look at it from all angles. The list of logical fallacies and cognitive biases that humans are prone to is staggering. This means that the first impression is always flawed, or at best incomplete, because of its limited context. If we want to truly understand something or someone, we must look at our subject with a moving perspective rather than being fixed in a particular point of view. That is not to say you must abandon your opinions, or that all perspectives are equally valid, but only that we shouldn't feel so timid about exploring other angles.

Should you discover that David's nose is too big when viewed up close, you are not forbidden from returning to your original vantage point and appreciating the work big nose notwithstanding. You might feel a slight bit of disappointment in learning the flaws in someone or something you admire, but the alternative is far worse, letting idolization keep you locked in place for fear of what you might discover.


* I use the present tense when discussing Hitchens because his ideas are alive and well; preserved for as long as servers and hard-drives exist. I invite you to explore his work. ^

** See: Straw Man Fallacy ^

[Read more from Shadow Hand]


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