Belmont Club

The Most Important Phrase of the 20th Century

Many supporters of the Euro will readily grant the difficulties — even the near impossibilities — that must be overcome in order for the single currency to exist over so disparate a set of economies. But they will insist that those problems must be overcome because the European Project is too important not to be left unachieved. It must happen, come what may.

But this insistence clashes head on with one of the most basic tenets of market economies: the idea that nothing should be exempted from the failure of its own mistakes. The market answer to the question “is it possible to save Europe” may be “no”. But since that answer is politically unacceptable it will be rejected. The right answer must always be “yes”, so everyone must try harder to save Europe.

Where does this insistence come from? It’s roots go back to the 19th century. With the rise of the idea of the Death of God it became natural to assume that Man could impose his will upon the universe.  Thus there were no inherent limits to fiat money, the power of the state, to what was moral or immoral. Man was Superman and if he willed something hard enough, then it would be.

Eventually this philosophical attitude became expressed in the great totalitarianisms which promised to create a New Man and New Earth. Given the millions of lives expended on defeating Hitler it is strange that today very few remember that most important phrase of the 20th century: “the triumph of the will”.

The “triumph of the will”. The answer must never be “no”.

The forging of this term, first used in Nietzsche’s Richard Wagner in Bayreuth (1876), was beyond all question influenced by Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung.” …

In Nietzsche, however, it is directly concerned with man’s social and moral attitude towards his fellow-men, and aims at becoming a direct and fundamental guide to moral (or, rather, unmoral) human existence. With him the phrase is essentially connected with his theory of the Superman.

This term, so much used of late years in every part of the world, did not originate with Nietzsche. In fact it goes back to the ancient Greek poets, to Homer and Hesiod and to Lucian. In Seneca we have the phrase “supra hominem est.” In German the term ” Uebermensch,” besides occurring in the writings of Hippel, Jean Paul, Grabbe, and others, is found in two famous passages in Goethe’s Faust. Goethe probably derived his use of the term from Herder, who again borrowed it from the numerous theological writers of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These theological writers used the term in a very different-in fact, in an opposite, significance to that attached to it by Nietzsche.

The term Superman has only become a commonplace in the modern sense through Nietzsche, who sees in him a forceful being to whom nothing is good but what he wills and who overthrows ruthlessly whatsoever opposes him. No doubt the conception of “Rulersmorality” and of the “Blond Beast” was introduced by others. Nietzsche himself saw in the Superman only a higher ideal step made by humanity, which was thus to develop in the same degree as is found in the step from animal to man.

Nietzsche in his Essay Beyond Good and Evil (1886), where he asserts that there exists ” a morality for Rulers, and a Morality for Slaves” (Es gibt Herren-moral und Sklaven-morat); and further maintains that “morality in Europe is to-day the morality of herded animals ” (Moral ist heute Herdentier-moral). Furthermore, in his Essay on the Genealogy of Morals (1887) (probably influenced by de Gobineau), he refers to the “need of all aristocratic races ” to compensate themselves for the social constraint, which in times of Peace they must impose upon themselves, by means of cruelty to other races; and thus, as exulting monsters, to return to the innocence of the predatory animals (Raubtier Gewisseri), as the glorious “Blond Beast,” lustfully roaming about in search of prey and victory; and this term of the Blond Beast especially refers to the German nation as that of the Blond Germanic Beast (Blonde Germanische Bestie).

Probably best known among the captured German films is the full-length version of “Triumph of the Will,” which has been the object of repeated, and often intensive, study by students from many disciplines. Directed by Leni Riefenstahl for the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, this film remains a monumental record of the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, spectacularly staged by the Nazis with the future success of this film in mind. Brilliantly edited, it captures some of the intangibles of Nazism: its idealism, its mystique, and the personal charisma of Hitler.

It became fashionable to associate the phrase only with Nazism. But that was untrue.

In the interests of preserving the allied coalition that defeated Hitler in 1945, it was expedient to ignore the fact that only one of the two totalitarianism of the 20th century lay smoking in ruins. The other totalitarianism — Communism — stood triumphant over the rubble of Berlin. And it had its adherents in the West, all the more fanatical because they had not the hard reality of the Soviet state to set against its vaunting dreams.

It too had its own version of the “triumph of the will”; the belief that human endeavor was unmoored from anything so confining as natural law or even reality. The depth of that world view was captured in George Orwell’s 1984. The Party could do anything because it could manufacture any narrative to suit and consign any dissent to the Memory Hole.

Like its counterpart in the East it set about trying to remake humanity, with its codes of political correctness, revisionist history, and the economics of deficit financing. “Why of course I can!”  Have sex with an 8 year old, award myself a right to a decent living, declare all culture identical and all morals valueless.  All one had to do was want — and it was society’s responsibility to make it so.

But the current economic crisis reminds Europe — has reminded us — that reality, or God if you prefer, kicks back. Eventually the reckoning comes, whatever the will says.  French President Nicholas Sarkozy came close to admitting this when he said:

All economies became totally under the mechanism of finance, the speculative logic. We’ve seen how it’s affected industry. Also how it’s degraded the value of work. We can no longer go into debt. We cannot create larger and larger debt. Because those that lend to us no longer want to lend to us. Now we have to begin a new economic cycle, a new age.

Yet nothing in his subsequent actions suggests he’s really had a change of heart. He’s still the good statist.  Government failed now but it will succeed in time. What Sarkozy probably means is that some new route, another possible approach, yet another attempt must be made towards the cherished goal of Europe. And if the result of that attempt is yet another failure, why never mind. Try harder since if we wish for something hard enough then the will shall triumph in the end. Man over God. Man over Reality. Debt over Repayment.

This is not to say that humanity must accept anything as permanently impossible, for if nature as expressed in physics and natural philosophy provides a way which is as yet hidden, then we should take it when we see it. But in no sense should people beat their heads against the hard rock of reality in willful defiance. Intelligence is valuable because it shows us which ways work and which don’t. It is madness which makes us insist that what won’t work will.

“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” — Galatians 6-7

“For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind: the stalk has no bud: it shall yield no meal: if so be it does yield, the aliens shall swallow it up.” — Hosea 8-7

But that is old think. George Bernard Shaw asked in Back to Methuselah whether such limitations should not be twitched aside.

EVE. What is birth?

THE SERPENT. The serpent never dies. Some day you shall see me come out of this beautiful skin, a new snake with a new and lovelier skin. That is birth.

EVE. I have seen that. It is wonderful.

THE SERPENT. If I can do that, what can I not do? I tell you I am very subtle. When you and Adam talk, I hear you say ‘Why?’ Always ‘Why?’ You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’ I made the word dead to describe my old skin that I cast when I am renewed. I call that renewal being born.

EVE. Born is a beautiful word.

THE SERPENT. Why not be born again and again as I am, new and beautiful every time?

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