Nietzsche and the scarecrow

7 07 2013


Nietzsche has been much on my mind this week, specifically his call for a revaluation of our values. The old system of good and evil, Nietzsche declares, is outdated and what we need is a new way forward so that we can rise to noble values, such as courage, feelings of fullness and ‘overflowing power.’

If Nietzsche were alive today he would be a leader in the new enterprise culture. His originality of thought, his provocation, his challenge never to accept the status quo, belong to the current age of uncertainty. In order to thrive in a world where there are no jobs for life, we need to be bold and we need to be innovative. We need to move beyond comparison and resentment of those of higher status and into a different sort of pride that allows us to be generous. In this new Nietzsche-inspired moral landscape, self-deprecation causes confusion. Instead of putting ourselves down, Nietzsche would argue, what we must do is to be honest and to share our best creative efforts.

Nietzsche’s aim for humanity was a form of ‘self-overcoming.’ According to his assessment, discrimination between the rulers and the ruled had created a master and slave mentality that in turn led to a morality based on resentment of the strong by those in subordinate positions. This unhealthy power structure still dominates many institutions today. I gave up taking breaks in staff room because of it. Griping is part of the curriculum in every school I’ve worked in.  If Nietzsche were still around to see what we have done with our magnificent education, I have no doubt that he would be appalled. So many brilliant minds creating so many meaningless work sheets and teacher tasks.

Of course, not all of what we have done to education is wrong. Many young people thrive under our current system, but few who work in education truly believe that we have the best-designed schools and programmes of learning. Anyone who has ever worked in a school could come up with at least one idea of how things might be done either more thoughtfully or imaginatively. Schools still tend to value efficiency over innovation. And sadly schools still tend to promote what Nietzsche called the ‘herd’ mentality. Speaking out, standing up for what you believe in, taking risks, is still seen in many educational establishments as, well, just too risky.

Nevertheless much of Nietzsche’s philosophy just does not work for me. His attacks on the philosophers who came before him, notably ‘old Kant,’ are juvenile and much of his writing is clever-showy and attention-seeking. If he had resisted his own resentments and his tendency to hurl grenades at previous moral thinking, he would be worth listening to. Much of what he says is a rant, interesting and exuberant, but still a rant. In style, Kant cannot be compared; he is no brilliant essayist, but in his series of critiques he does the hard spade work of thinking through morality and leaves us with far, far more than we need: an entire ethical system based on treating each other with respect.

This leads me to my photo of the scarecrow. This afternoon I stopped my car on a narrow lane to take the shot of my first encounter in years with a real scarecrow, by which I mean one put into a field to actually scare things rather than one featuring in a festival. Lifting my camera, a white van came storming up the lane straight into my view. I went over and politely explained that I wanted to take a photograph and I didn’t want the van in the shot.

The white van driver’s response was: ‘And I don’t want to stop.’

I had a choice. I could have switched off the camera and got back into my car. There was no passing space and so the white van driver would have had to wait for me to reverse all the way back up the lane. Nietzsche whispered in my ear: ‘Tell him he’s an arse.’

Kant stepped in to prevent me from getting punched: ‘Oh, that’s really not very generous of you. I only need five minutes to take the picture.’

The white van driver squinted down the lane: ‘Five minutes?’

‘Less, in fact I could probably do it in three minutes.’

The white van driver’s features softened. I saw that underneath his scowling impatience he was really quite pleasant and I smiled.

Two minutes later, I had my scarecrow shot and in true Kantian spirit to acknowledge the van driver’s respect, I decided to do my duty and reverse back up the lane. He waved and I waved and we both went on our way.

Duty and the dollars

19 06 2013


I once got myself into a bit of a tight spot at an African airport when I didn’t have twenty dollars for the departure tax. I had completely forgotten I needed the cash and the friends who had dropped me off had stuffed some wonderful gourds into my bag at the last minute, but had also forgotten the essential tax. On trying to leave, I was faced with some officials who clearly didn’t believe me when I said I was sorry and that I didn’t have the money. They eyed me up and down and I became uneasy when one of the officials pointed to my laptop and made a comment to his colleague. My protestations that the laptop was ‘for work’ and ‘not worth anything,’ did not convince them. All the money I had on me was a little local currency, worth around ten pence, and when I offered this instead the officials thought that I was trying it on with them. Their attitude said that I was a foreigner, a rich white tourist, surely twenty dollars was nothing to me?

A fellow traveller witnessed this tricky situation and decided to act. As he passed me, he swiftly and unobtrusively pressed a twenty dollar bill into my hand. I can still feel the texture of that note unfurling like a new leaf into my sweating palm; never have I felt such cool relief as at that moment. Those twenty dollars saved my skin.

After boarding the aircraft, I discovered that I was sitting next to a friend of the anonymous benefactor and when I told him what had just happened, he smiled and shrugged: ‘That’s just the kind of thing he would do.”  He pointed out where his friend was sitting nonchalantly reading. I scrawled a note saying how much his generous action had meant to me and sent the note down the aisle. He read it and then he twisted in his seat and waved at me once before turning back to his book. It was nothing, his gesture said, forget about it.

But I have never forgotten those twenty dollars. For me, his action was one of the most supremely considerate acts I have encountered. He acted instinctively and without thought of reward. The twenty dollars really meant nothing to him. He noticed a person in a tight spot and helped them to get out of it with a simple, swift and elegant solution.

Thinking through Kant’s ethics for my philosophy session last night reminded me of the airport situation. Kant would have approved of my benefactor’s approach. Kant’s ethics are anchored in a sense of good will to others and central to this good will is a sense of duty. Kant urges us to act humanely, to treat other human beings as we would wish to be treated ourselves. My fellow traveller handed over the twenty dollars out of a sense of duty to another traveller who needed to get home. He didn’t stop and ask me whether he could help, or try to pay the officials for me, or make a show of being generous as some people might have done. In putting the solution into my hand, he acted flawlessly.

I would like to think that if ever I saw someone in a similar situation at any remote immigration point, I would do the same. No fuss. No hesitation. No thinking: is this right, what if that woman has just spent all their dollars on drink or drugs? What is she uses it to buy crack? What if she follows me and begs for more money? What if…

Kant reminds us is that when we act from duty we act on the side of humanity.  When we act from duty in the way in which I understand Kant to mean it, we don’t need to equivocate, or look at consequences, or think of the implications of our actions. We simply act. One human being reaching out to another touching lives briefly and then moving on. No guilt. No reward. When we act from duty, we move in the direction of right conduct as part of the flow of life.

Duty in this understanding does not require effort or strain; it is not about obedience, or doing things because you have no choice. It is not even about overcoming laziness or selfishness. It is simply about acting without ulterior motive. It is acting from a point of absolute integrity.

For Kant, these sort of duty-driven actions are not emotional or personal. If we wish to live ethically, and Kant assumes that we do, then acting from duty and not treating people as a means, but as an end in themselves, actually frees us.  Viewing the world through Kantian eyes makes it possible for us to see others not as individuals who might trap us with complex needs that might impinge on our lives and make things uncomfortable for us, but as a mirror of ourselves.

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