How do we reduce the animal that is man to the point where he can witness the murderer of his daughter walking off unprosecuted and then shrug it off with a sterile version of “Can’t win all the time…”? You tell me. I know the Dutch have a reputation for being ‘sober’ and ‘down to Earth’, but perhaps, we’ve crossed a line somewhere. And I have a suspicion that we are neither the first nor the last in doing so, but if we really are the European political-cultural weather vane as some say we are, then consider the next story a warning shot.
What I’m getting at here is a report about a recent murder trial in the Netherlands (link in Dutch). Ron P., accused of murdering a Dutch teen in 2005, was released from further trial due to a lack of evidence, despite having all appearances against him. The response of the father was as calculated as it was perplexing. Staring placidly into the camera, he gave a response which translates as follows: “We must acknowledge that it is a privilege to live in a constitutional state, but even that has its disadvantages, and today, we are experiencing these to a high degree.”
How can we make sense of this? I cannot for the life of me explain why this father’s response was either wrong or right (if these labels even apply here at all). What baffles me is the surreal lack of emotional commitment, a superhuman capacity to speak of such unresolved tragedy like a mechanic would speak of engine failure. This blog isn’t here to pass judgment on individuals or to give you answers about the condition humaine, it is ‘merely’ asking questions. I put ‘merely’ in quotation marks because questions are never neutral or without personal agenda, but still the questions remain, first and foremost being: what is it about human culture that domesticates our violent and natural tendencies, and which makes us willfully submit to an authority that doesn’t even seem to recognize us as an individual, but merely as someone in a certain relation to a set of laws?
So I promised no definite answers here (hey, I’m not that conceited…). But perhaps some explanations are more likely to be true than others. To start with the obvious: the warrior code is a thing of the past. Whereas in the old days, the earlier mentioned verdict would (and from their perspective: should) have ended with a violent mob swinging blood-stained axes around, it now ended in the losing side, deprived of vengeance (better known by its contemporary euphemism justice), conceding to the decision of an impersonal court (again, courts are impersonal by definition). Then again, would there even have been such a thing as a court in the first place?
There’s a scene I absolutely love in the animated movie Beowulf, somewhere after the halfway point, where an old and burned-out Beowulf gloomily looks down on the battle with the Frisians in a valley underneath, and merely sighs: “The time of heroes is dead: the Christ-god has killed it, leaving humankind with nothing but weeping martyrs and fear and shame.” Beowulf laments the end of the warrior age: it’s a world where ‘Valhalla’ is just a word from a backwards culture, and where people aspire to be weak instead of strong.
Was he right? Those who have read their Nietzsche must immediately recognize what this CGI Beowulf was hinting at: there has been an inversion of the moral compass. The world has turned upside-down and Beowulf feels himself slipping off the edge. In the days of pagan Greece and Rome, ‘good’ was what strong and virile men brought into the world, and ‘bad’ was whatever tried to oppose it but failed. The good was a spontaneous creation that had nothing to do with the bad. But then came the revolt of the slaves, who convinced the world that this ‘bad’ is in fact the ‘good’; that it is proper for a man to be meek and ill-constituted, and to wait for a divine retribution of those who oppose you. So what was first ‘bad’ now became ‘good’, and the slaves convinced everyone that this is opposed to ‘evil’. It was like a congregation of lambs deciding that the hawks who wanted to eat them were evil, and therefore anyone who was not acting like a hawk was good. Master-morality was loved to death by slave-morality. In short, the warrior king has been domesticated by his slaves. As Nietzsche put it in On the Genealogy of Morals: “Which of them has been provisionally victorious, Rome or Judea? but there is not a shadow of doubt; just consider to whom in Rome itself nowadays you bow down, as though before the quintessence of all the highest values – and not only in Rome, but almost over half the world, everywhere man has been tamed or is about to be tamed.”
But it this really such a bad thing? I mean, they won, right? Fair and square. If the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, then so be it!
What is terrifying about the new-found good, claims Nietzsche, is that it is opposed to Life itself. It is a negative moral compass: whereas the pagan warrior code is an affirmative and positive guide to life (or as Beowulf bluntly puts it: “Mine is Strength, and Lust, and Power. I AM BEOWULF!”), the slave morality is a negative guide: it is about binding this instinct to power in man. And most damning of all: it needs evil in order to justify itself. This new morality isn’t consciously taken in and propagated by everyone in our society, it’s cunning is in how most people have come to see it as self-evident. We have forgotten the origins of ‘good and evil’ because the slave revolt was successful.
By the end of the 19th century, Nietzsche warned us of the coming of nihilism, that our blind faith in rationality and reason would stifle the spontaneous expression of creative and life-affirming acts, and that this could only end in insanity. Perhaps he was right, and this mass hysteria found its ultimate expression in the violent, irrational monstrosities of the modern warfare of the 20th century, or perhaps more cunningly, in the silent, everyday submission to a moral code whose origins we don’t even recognize.