How Nietzsche’s Will to Power Still Leads Us Astray
Whether or not God is dead, Nietzsche’s “will to power” holds sway in America’s halls of power. Consider a recent exchange between former assistant attorney general Barbara Babcock and a 33-year-old female lawyer during a forum on women in the law at the New York City Bar Association. (Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was also on the panel.) A few excerpts from that Q&A demonstrate the degree to which Nietzsche has replaced classical understandings of work and life’s purpose:
Audience member: I am a 33-year-old single female attorney. That leaves a question I sadly get asked more often, if I am getting my eggs frozen, because I don’t have children and I’m supposed to apparently, at my age. At this place in my life I find myself at a crossroads in my career. Do I move on and become more powerful and advance my career, or do I stay where I am and try to develop that other side of my life? I’m finding myself stuck…. I don’t know which way to go.
Barbara Babcock: I would really say work on your career…. You can do other things at the same time, but your career is the important thing to get. Because you will get better at it the more that you do it. That is what I would say. Don’t give up on that. You might find other things. There are so many things you can do in the law. You may find other things to do, but concentrate on what you would call your career…. If you are a good lawyer and are getting better all the time, you’ll always have a meaningful, good life.
Perhaps most arresting in this exchange is how the audience member contextualizes her dilemma regarding career and family: to “become more powerful.” There is no ideal of self-sacrificial public service as with Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Babcock, herself a former public servant, does nothing to repudiate the questioner’s perspective, instead exhorting her to focus on her career as a means to personal fulfillment. And there are plenty of other flawed premises in this exchange: that one can only “get better” by prioritizing one’s profession; that a career is the only means to a “meaningful, good life”; that children are our possessions, notches on the belt of our self-actualization.
Feminism and careerism, as with many other contemporary “isms”—materialism, utilitarianism, globalism—all embrace this Nietzschean paradigm that ranks power as the essential quality. As Nietzsche himself put it:
My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (—its will to power:) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on…
This thinking is inimical not only to the American political experiment as the Founders envisioned it—with their emphasis on virtue, sacrifice, and service—but to our nature as human beings. There is a different vision of ourselves and our role in the republic that we should promote, one with ancient pedigree and the potential to engender meaningful and good lives that will also bless our communities. It is the paradigm of gift and self-gift.
Demonstrative of how little humans have changed in the past 2,500 years, Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics notes that many seek to find their ends by gaining renown, or sensual pleasure, or wealth and possessions. Yet all of these pursuits, Aristotle argues, are fleeting, even though all are pursued in order to achieve a greater good, that of happiness. Happiness, Aristotle argues, must be “something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.” In contrast to Babcock, Aristotle argues this happiness is achieved through a pursuit of virtue:
For no function of man has so much permanence as virtuous activities…and of these themselves the most valuable are more durable because those who are happy spend their life most readily and most continuously in these; for this seems to be the reason why we do not forget them. The attribute in question, then, will belong to the happy man, and he will be happy throughout his life….
Even if misfortune attends such a person, virtue will enable him or her to persevere through trial: “Yet even in these nobility shines through, when a man bears with resignation many great misfortunes, not through insensibility to pain but through nobility and greatness of soul.” In his Politics, Aristotle connects this idea to the role of the citizen in society, who must exemplify virtues like prudence, temperance, and justice in order to fulfill his role for the good of the city.
For Aristotle, man must pursue the virtuous life of the good citizen to achieve his natural end. He sketches an inchoate concept of life as gift (i.e. with a supernatural origin and end) in his Metaphysics when he cites an “unmoved mover” from which all being originates. This idea acquires fuller form in Thomas Aquinas, who, drawing on both classical philosophy and biblical theology, presumes that life is gift. In his Summa Theologiae, Aquinas speaks of a “First Good” that diffuses itself to all things, and says that all goods “share the power of diffusion.” Whether one calls this being an “unmoved mover,” a “first good,” the “origin of the universe,” or God, life originates as gift from this external source.
Such a belief was widespread and influential among America’s Founders. Thomas Jefferson, for example, argued: “He [God] has taken care to impress its precepts so indelibly on our hearts that they shall not be effaced by the subtleties of our brain.” George Washington in turn begged that God “dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy.” This idea also appears in the Declaration of Independence and its reference to man being “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” The Pledge of Allegiance likewise declares “one nation under God.”
If our lives are indeed “not our own” but gifts from some external source, the appropriate response is certainly gratefulness, but also justice in the sense of giving to others what is their due. “To whom much is given, much is required.” Yet our obligation to pursue the good of society reaps manifold benefits—as Aristotle and Aquinas argue, the pursuit of virtue is the means by which we realize our own happiness. Indeed, in pursuing “the good life” (conceived classically), we create a society more just, more temperate, and more loving. In giving ourselves, we don’t lose anything, but become better, more capable men and women.
Alternatively, the unquenchable thirst for power makes us less men and more beasts, casting us into unending competition that exhausts our bodies and progressively warps our minds and intellects back onto ourselves. We stack up awards, trophies, and accolades in a cult of self-worship that barely outlasts our existence on this planet. If we pursue families and children as an extension of this cult of vanity, they too will disappoint; when we then choose to ignore or leave them, the damage inflicted will ripple throughout kin and society.
If instead we interpret our careers not as sociological experiments for personal actualization, but as gifts and the means to grow in virtue, we create something that blesses our families and communities. We make our professions, like our families, opportunities for self-gift, where we willingly offer up a part of ourselves in service to something greater. Similarly, when we seek spouses and children “to love and to serve,” rather than to use for our own purposes, we contribute to a good that transcends us and brings us deeper contentment.
Furthermore, defining life as gift and self-gift rather than the appropriation of power allows us to perceive many social and political issues through a different lens. A society should protect life in the womb because the embryo is a gift, and in the gift of self necessarily required by fatherhood and motherhood, we manifest our humanity. Similarly, a society should reject the euthanasia of the elderly, terminally ill, and depressed, because their lives, no matter painful, remain gifts and opportunities for self-gift, both for those who suffer and those who should love them. Nor should we repudiate our sexual biology—it too is an essential element of our gifted nature as human persons and the means by which we gift ourselves to others to create life.
When we understand life as randomly derived and defined by “survival of the fittest” and aimed at maximizing power, we inevitably hurt not only ourselves but our nation. We compete for an ephemeral glory that fades with our bodies and intellects only to be largely forgotten apart from a few paragraphs in the local newspaper. When we understand life as a gift that calls us to live in humility and thankfulness, eager to grow in virtue and serve our fellow man, we find a truer sense of fulfillment that fosters beautiful societies that cooperate in the common good. We build families and flesh-and-blood networks that stand the test of time.
Babcock and Ginsberg should not have told that young lawyer to press forward in her materialist enterprise for power and personal fulfillment. Nor should they have told her to quit her job, find a man, and start a family out of some societal obligation or biological necessity. Rather, Babcock and Ginsberg should have corrected the deeper problem with the attorney’s view of herself and the world. However that young professional determines to spend the rest of her life, she should spend it not on herself, but on others, for their good and that of the polis. Think of what a different America we’d have if more lawyers took that road “less traveled by.”
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion for TAC.