Do not as we say, lest you be like us

The recent publication of Heidegger’s “black notebooks” caused controversy. It is now commonplace, not only in Heidegger circles, but more widely too, to raise the question of how Heidegger’s involvement in Nazism should affect our understanding of his philosophy. Can we separate the man’s personality from his philosophy? Should we? Or are they entwined? And if so, how?

It’s not my aim to examine those questions here.

Instead, I draw attention to two other philosophers—Nietzsche and Foucault.

Both, in his way, are titans of moral relativism. And though many analytic philosophers especially are quick to try to dissociate themselves from what they take to be the obscurities of Foucault’s postmodernism, the fact remains that relativism, skepticism, and nihilism are far from unusual in value theory. Foucault would approve.

The question therefore deserves asking: why do the humanities popularize Foucault’s views on humanity, when, in his own life’s case, such views led directly to his untimely demise? Is the fact that Foucault died from a lifestyle embodying his tastes irrelevant to assessing those ideas? Should we take the ideas seriously of a man who himself died in part from their enactment?

Then there is Nietzsche and the question of his madness. Until very recently, his acolytes were able to forestall the question of whether Nietzsche’s ideas are undermined by the fact of his mental disintegration, explaining away his madness as the unfortunate (but inevitable) result of syphilis. The syphilis hypothesis, however, is no longer tenable. Things are more mysterious.

So we are left with a man who died from frequenting bathhouses and another who descended into madness. Are these the kind of men to whom we should aspire to follow? Are they deserving of the academic admiration they receive?

Even if it’s become something of a cliche to note that the best words are those to live by, that measure is as relevant here as elsewhere. Are theirs to live by? No, with these two there is only death. In a society whose death wish becomes more evident by the day, is it any wonder that Nietzsche and Foucault are two of its greatest idols?

That Single Individual

Striving to be set apart from the shrewdness of today's world of academic philosophy, That Single Individual does philosophy in the hope that his work might stir others to faith in Jesus. This flippant disregard for career idolatry has made him unpopular in certain circles, a fact he only considers cause for thanksgiving, since it means he knows something the placement directors and esteemed chairs won't admit to anyone, especially themselves: there are in fact fates worse than never becoming an assistant professor!

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  1. I haven’t really noticed Nietzsche being a major idol of the leftist academe, but Foucault definitely is. As you rightly point out, neither was much to look up to.

  2. I think you’re quite right that Nietzsche is not perhaps mentioned explicitly as often as Foucault. But his views are very often implicit in so much of what is taught and said, not just in publications but also just in general conversation at conferences, seminars, etc. I am no Nietzsche expert, but from what I do understand, a key component of his philosophy is the idea that humans are to look for the meaning of what it is to be what they are without reference to the Christian God. The notion that what it is to be a human is to be created in the image of God is simply no longer tenable, according to him. Values don’t descend from heaven, for we are to given them to ourselves.

    In turn, the meaning of life becomes a process of self-overcoming. One transforms oneself by striving to overcome through the deployment of will-to-power. I think so much of our society is premised on this basic idea, this idea that we are supposed to be looking for value and meaning through our own efforts and accomplishments, that we are blind to how prevalent it has become. Most people, especially in the academy, essentially take it as a given that it is up to us–apart from God–to define what it is to be who we are, and that it is this project of self-transformation that makes life what it is (and worthwhile). Our eyes are completely set on the ends of the earth. That is secular humanism at its core, and it is a worldview that was popularized by Nietzsche.

    So even if many would quibble about whether the particulars of their own view accord with his–or even perhaps outright deny that they are Nietzscheans at all–I think, at bottom, he has a massive influence on what we take to be normal in the academy and society writ large.

    • I agree. That seems plausible enough.

      A lot of the ideas of contemporary philosophers seem to me to be pretty heavily connected to Epicurus as well.

    • Pooh,

      It has been a while since I’ve read any Epicurus, and even when I did it was really only cursory reading. Do you mind elaborating? I’d be interested to hear more. How do you see Epicurus fitting in?

  3. Epicurus had a proto-Darwinian creation myth. He had a hedonistic ethical framework, a belief that religions were invented to explain things we didn’t understand and to alleviate the fear of death, and also a belief that we shouldn’t fear non-existence (after an annihilatory death) since it’s just like it was before we were born. Essentially, he was Richard Dawkins over 2000 years ago (hopefully with a more endearing personality though.)

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