Enter the Übermensch
In the last post we looked at Peterson’s conception of the human dominance hierarchy – a kind of ladder of social status, with winners at the top (the rich, powerful and famous) and the losers at the bottom (the deprived underclasses). We noted the tendency for one’s direction of travel on this ladder to be reinforced, whether you are going up or down i.e.
You win - you feel like a winner – so you’re more likely to win again
You lose - your confidence is shaken – so you’re more likely to lose again.
Our central nervous systems produce the neurochemicals that drive this reinforcing dynamic and, for the greater part, it is out of our conscious control. The way other people treat us - whether it be with deference, with respect, with indifference or with contempt - is a reflection of our social status. It will influence our neurochemistry and the levels of feel-good chemicals, like serotonin, in our bloodstreams. That in turn affects the way we behave – perhaps making us bold and assertive if we are treated respectfully, or making us shy and furtive if we are treated disrespectfully. This, in turn, comes full circle because our behaviour affects the way others treat us and, consequently, our neurochemistry. The challenge, when caught in a downward cycle, is pulling out of the dive before you plunge to the bottom, so you can re-establish a strong, healthy upward trajectory.
HOW DO YOU FEEL?
It should be obvious where you are right now in the dominance hierarchy and if you are moving up or down. Quite aside from looking at the way others treat you, you can simply reflect on your own feelings. On balance, do you feel good about yourself? Are you broadly optimistic about the future? Do you feel capable of dealing with life’s challenges and resilient in the face of life’s misfortunes? Do other people listen when you speak? If so, these are good signs.
Alternatively, are you fretting about the future? Do you feel like you have little control over your circumstances? Do you feel intimidated, humiliated or pushed around by others? Are you nursing burning resentments against people who seem, for want of a better word, luckier than you? If so, this may be may an indicator that your position in the dominance hierarchy is low, deteriorating or under threat.
It should be acknowledged that there are other factors, aside from social status, that will impact your feelings too: health, fitness, money, friendships, sexual success, a fulfilling career, leisure time and so on. But the truth is, the more of these assets you have, the more likely you are to be riding high in the dominance hierarchy. Correspondingly, the higher you are in the dominance hierarchy, the more of these assets you will probably be enjoying. So even with these other considerations, our feelings are still a pretty good gauge of our social status.
To be fulfilled as human beings we desire a sense of control; a sense of security; high self-esteem and esteem from others; confidence that we have some power over our destinies; feelings of competence in our abilities and adequate opportunities to exercise our talents. These are all associated with being higher in the dominance hierarchy. These desires also, collectively, form part of Nietzsche’s Will to Power. For Nietzsche, this is what really drives us all. Not pleasure, not justice, not fairness, not duty, not any greater good. Power alone. And those other purported motivations are merely masks, proxies or substitutes for the Will to Power.
‘What is good? — All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man.
What is bad? — All that proceeds from weakness.
What is happiness? — The feeling that power increases — that a resistance is overcome.’
When you ascend through the strata of the dominance hierarchy, you experience an increase in power. When you descend, you experience a loss of power.
ENVY AND AGON
Envying those higher up in the hierarchy is understandable, and manifests itself, in a healthy way, as strong - even violent - competitive rivalry. This is the Agon of the Greeks – the spirit of competition. It is a mobilising lust for life.
Despite Christianity’s condemnation of it, envy is a natural and powerful impulse that can drive us to improve our situations. It is an expression of the forever restless Will to Power. Against Christianity, the Will to Power says: do not be content with your lot!
There is a less edifying form of envy though: Resentment. Resentment is the twisted cousin of envy. It is bitter, internalised rage - very far from healthy. It lambasts the injustice of its subordination but is too impotent or too fearful to do anything practical about it. Resentment is a kind of stagnant envy; a toxic emotion that festers in the bosom and even taints enjoyment of the blessings you already have, while you fixate on the ones you lack.
Envy wants what the other has; is even ready to take it from them. Resentment instead wants that what the other has be taken away from them. It is even prepared to forgo the desired thing itself as long as the other is denied it too. It spites.
We should not repress or deny our envies, but instead use the impetus they provide to drive us to greater achievements. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche writes ‘I know the hatred and envy of your hearts. You are not great enough not to know of hatred and envy. Then be great enough not to be ashamed of them!’ Here, while advocating for the acceptance of envy, he alludes to a state beyond it: an elevated self-sufficiency. It should be obvious, of course, that obsessing about your position in the dominance hierarchy is itself a sign of weakness. For one thing, it betrays status insecurity. The truly higher man or woman will be above such anxieties, operating within the framework of their own values, impervious to the judgements of others. They have transcended the dominance hierarchy and so are truly independent of it.
THE HIGHER TYPE AND THE HERD
The higher man or woman will be the antithesis of the ordinary human being, vying desperately for increased social status; what Nietzsche calls the ‘herd animal’. In Beyond Good and Evil he describes the herd animal (us?) in these unflattering terms: ‘a smaller, almost ridiculous type, a herd animal, something eager to please, sickly, and mediocre.’ Whilst the higher type has ‘a solitude within him that is inaccessible to praise or blame, his own justice that is beyond appeal' - from The Will to Power
So, the plaudits of the masses will be of little consequence to these higher types, and their estimations of themselves will be their sole criterion of value. Invariably, they will be proud and supremely confident. Their indifference to their relative social status among others may well, ironically, elevate them in the eyes of others – though not necessarily.
Though the higher man and woman may be found at the summits of the human dominance hierarchy, it does not follow that those in the uppermost echelons of the human dominance hierarchy are higher men and women. We know that people can get lucky, they can be born into the aristocracy, they can inherit fabulous wealth or they can be rich and famous for asinine reasons, such as the kind of popular celebrity associated with reality TV. Even if you are one of the very rare minority who built your personal fortune from absolutely nothing, being a millionaire does not make you a genius. It hardly bears pointing out that the rich and powerful are sometimes shallow, uncreative, uneducated, defensive and narcissistic.
It can also be the case that the higher type is actually vilified, mocked and sneered at by society. Society’s superficial evaluations may be unable to appreciate the nascent greatness that is emerging. It stands to reason that the radical pioneer could be so far ahead that their works are incomprehensible to us from our current cultural perspective. Loneliness and social isolation may be the necessary price of genius for some.
FREE TO BE
At some point, the higher types (or those trying to discover if they have greatness in them) undoubtedly require some degree of independence from distractions such as the unending battles of the human dominance hierarchy. Unfortunately, unless you have independent means, the need to work in order to provide for the basics of life can embroil you in social struggles whether you like it or not. Your boss at work wants to demean you, or social-climbing colleagues want to undermine your position so they can leapfrog you for a promotion, or your subordinates express their resentment of you in subtle, passive-aggressive challenges to your authority. One must rise above all this, sublimate it all by turning even the most mundane ordeals into opportunities for growth (see my previous post) – all the while maintaining one’s integrity, one’s personal mission, one’s detachment. Wear the world as a loose cloak.
‘The concept of greatness entails being noble, wanting to be by oneself, being able to be different, standing alone and having to live independently.’ Beyond Good and Evil
Such a man or woman: bold, capable, strong, unencumbered by the petty rivalries of the crowd, legislating their own values, honing their talents and manifesting all their capacities – that is to say, expressing their overflowing Will to Power abundantly – such a man or woman begins to resemble The Übermensch.
Next post: Meak, Weak and Bleak
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