David Strauss: the Confessor and Writer
Untimely Meditation #1 Friedrich Nietzsche Whoever is reading this falls into one of two categories: either you currently participate in the creation of culture (and therefore serve the unifying of the disparate elements of our current culture), or I believe you wish to do so. Let’s assume America (I no longer call them united states) currently has a predominant culture and not a staggering number of subcultures (even though we know this is not true). What kind of culture could we consider it? Let us start by defining its characteristics. The main thread of our society today is deception, specifically selfdeception. We believe we are strong when in reality we are weak. Our actions, feelings, thoughts all conform to the belief that we are strong (and therefore correct); what we do, feel, and think are healthy because we are strong. We can say then, since we really are weak, that these things which we do, feel, and think are actually unhealthy, and thus by way of our self-deception we have come to turn reality upside down, to confuse one thing for its opposite, and, thinking that all things gravitate upwards, we have started with our ceilings on the ground. Little surprise if we bang our heads on the floor! We’re talking about the soul. Now. I start with America but Nietzsche clearly starts with Germany and, more specifically, Germany in the aftermath of the FrancoPrussian war. Many Germans mistakenly considered their military victory a triumph of culture, and this first Meditation is essentially Nietzsche’s attempt to clarify the difference between popular and genuine culture. It was popular, in the newspapers and in the streets, for Germans to celebrate success and carry themselves with a dignity they had earned through strategy and diligence—something that did not exist in the characters of those celebrating—not as a cause of authentic ideology or national character. The Germans merely outmanned and outsmarted the enemy. In no way did they defeat French culture, because in order for one culture to defeat another, Nietzsche argues, there have to be two cultures to begin with... and Germany then owed much of its language, mannerisms, and, in short, culture to the French. Cultural victory through military conquest. Popular identity founded on national strength.
We are no strangers to these themes. What is the danger facing America now; what was the danger facing the Germans of 1873? That this culture, this idea of ourselves—formed on the basis of military strength alone—will dissolve, evaporate, as soon as our military falls. The spirit of the German people grew to a monstrous size all the way through WWII. As military success continued, the people’s spirits grew proportionately. But what happened when they were finally defeated? And what did they have to come to terms with besides military loss! ‘We did what?!’ You can almost still hear this disbelief today, and even now there are multitudes who deny facts well-documented. What we have is a spirit dependent on dominating others, or, to put it perhaps less offensively, a spirit that presumes its own superiority over other cultures. The man of American culture acts as if he is the flower of every civilization before him, as if all times and peoples have come to a culmination through him, in him, and that therefore he is the crowning achievement of all life. This belief, when in actuality there is no culture, no unified expression of life! Nietzsche uses the term cultural philistine to denote such people – those who are the antithesis of culture but believe they are its very essence. We seem to believe the foundation has been established and we are the building that sits upon it. No more building is needed, only maintenance, and that only when we have something to gain from it personally. The German foundation of culture is to be found in the likes of Goethe, Schiller, et al, men who devoted their lives to the creation of something truly unique and valuable. David Strauss, for example, reverts back to these founders in order to illuminate his current period, claiming that he and the modern German people are the direct result of the great founders’ efforts, that modern Germany is in fact the creation of those great men. But, as Nietzsche points out, the only way to pay tribute to such men is to seek value as relentlessly as they sought without ever succumbing to weariness or personal comfort. To build for the future, not to assume one is the future of someone else’s building! The modern man asks: “Why seek? Why build? Were those men not great? How beautiful their visions were! And we ARE their visions!” Thus it should come as no surprise that the cultural philistine spends his time praising the works and visions and lives of the great men before him, for in his eyes the greater his predecessors, the greater he is himself (and the less there is to do). But let us ask: what is our foundation? The founding fathers, the constitution, the various myths of our country’s greatness. We point to the documents written by great men long dead as proof or at least foundation of our greatness. We say “We the people of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, of justice.” At this point little can be said
about the myths; no one believes them. We have too often pointed to them as proof, brought them out, mishandled them. As Nietzsche says of the Straussian philistine: we “live by destroying, admire by consuming, and revere by digesting” (25). Instead of creating something new and valuable we point to the past, and lodge ourselves there as if we were incapable of creating something greater… rather than just unwilling. In David Strauss’ work in question, The Old Faith and the New, A Confession, Strauss claims to be outlining “the ideal for a new philosophy of life” (35) but is heralded by his own German ‘culture’ because the ‘new’ faith he purports to put forth, his “universal highway to the future,” is actually a modern depiction of common thought, and his readers, recognizing themselves in the ideal philosophy of the future, are pleased and eager to accept it. “That is exactly how I think!” they declare, and “joyously go their way.” This new philosophy requires that modern man do nothing but go his way, and that is exactly what he wishes to hear most. This is the reason David Strauss is successful, and this the reason Nietzsche harpoons him so sharply. Not only is he a cultural philistine—which in its core means someone who is not honest with himself—but he also heralds his faith and philosophy as something new and a step to the future when actually it is nothing more than a degenerate statement: one can be a philistine without being a barbarian. Why should we accept this statement to be true? Why should we say of the average American, caught up in popular culture and indifferent to substantiality—why should we call this anything other than barbarism, this uncultivated assemblage of disparate styles and ideas… And these people—why should we call them anything but barbarians? Strauss seems to argue, even though he does not realize it, that it’s alright to belong to a culture without adding to it. But if you don’t add culture to culture, then you dilute culture.