My summer reading: Willem Barrett’s 1959 classic, Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy
During the Franco-Prussian War, Nietzsche watched his old regiment ride by on their way to their likely deaths. As he told the story, it was in that instant that he realized that ‘the strongest and highest will to life does not lie in the puny struggle to exist, but in the Will to war, the Will to Power.’
Barrett suggests Nietzsche’s ideas on the subject were heavily influenced by both his life-long battle with ill-health and his fascination with classical notions of virtue (virtus), which celebrated courage and martial prowess. This is in stark contrast to the ‘modern’ understanding of virtue as relating primarily to righteousness and morality. In formulating his concept of the Will to Power, Nietzsche was harking back to ancient Rome and Greece, when the ego-fueled power to divide and conquer had been highly prized.
Despite the volumes written about Nietzsche’s Will to Power, the concept can be summed up simply as the dynamic discharge of (personal) power. This power is aimed at actively engaging to transform the world to our liking rather allowing the world to transform us by default. Barrett reminds us that such powers still remain so highly prized by Western society that they are deemed to be God-given unalienable rights such as those enshrined by America’s forefathers in the Declaration of Independence, to wit, ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’
Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s Will to Power often gets bad press. Barrett suggests this is because we tend to think of power of this sort as ‘power over’ someone; this affronts our sense of justice. Barrett also reminds us that to the extent this is the case, it is not the doing of Nietzsche, but instead of Descartes, whose ‘dualism’ created the subject/object dichotomy with which we are all too familiar – ‘I do XYZ or ABC to you.’
Equally unfortunate, the Will to Power leads directly to nihilism or the belief that life is meaningless. This is because power begets the need for more and more power and more power until – valuing nothing but power, one tips over the cliff edge into the pool of ‘nothingness’. Although many future existentialists would follow in Nietzsche’s footsteps on these points, not all did and this brings us to the next subject of my summer reading, Heidegger.