As this blog creeps forward I’m likely to spend a fair amount of time talking about the work of Alan Moore. I’ve read a significant portion of Moore’s body of work, as well as having engaged in academic study of same. There is also the fact that portions of Moore’s work are obviously influenced by the work of certain philosophers. V for Vendetta and From Hell being two that instantly spring to mind. As the title of this post hints, however, I will not be talking about either of those worthy works, but am currently focusing on a small element of Watchmen.
Watchmen is considered to be a cornerstone upon which the modern comics genre rests. Many words have been spent discussing the sociological, political and philosophical content embedded in the work. There is even a “Pop Culture and Philosophy” volume devoted to it in the form of Watchmen and Philosophy: A Rorschach Test. As with the other volumes in this series WaP is made up of various articles which attempt to introduce non-philosopher readers to philosophical concepts through media they are already familiar with. A worthy task, indeed the selfsame task as I hope to achieve through this blog and elsewhere. One of the articles in WaP sets out to analyze the characters of the comics in light of Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch.
To provide a bit of background, Nietzsche was a 19th century German philosopher who is perhaps best known for his scathing critique of Western culture and thought, a critique which included philosophy. He is the man who originated the oft repeated, and frequently misunderstood phrase, “God is dead.” This isn’t meant as an actual pronouncement of death. Nietzsche didn’t believe that there was a god to which could have died. Instead, what Nietzsche was pronouncing was the failure of Western ways of being, particularly in the very ways we define the world. For Nietzsche, one of our biggest failures was dividing the world in two, and telling a story that kept us focused on living our lives for something other than the here and now (philosophers generally refer to this as a teleological narrative, which is more or less a fancy way of saying goal-oriented story). Perhaps the most familiar form of this comes in the Abrahamic idea of a physical, lower realm separated from the realm of Heaven, though in truth this is a rather old idea that can be traced all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Nietzsche also did not limit this particular critique to religion, but leveled this charge against Marxist socialism and other belief systems.
I could spend a great deal of words simply talking about this particular element of Nietzsche’s philosophy, but the thrust of it is that when we are confronted with the failure of Western thought we fall into a state of nihilism, a state in which because we are forced to face the fact that there is no transcendent value, everything must therefore be valueless. This is another area where those who haven’t really paid attention to Nietzsche get Nietzsche wrong. Nietzsche was not a nihilist. He did not want us to sit around being emo; the tearing of hair, gnashing of teeth and wailing for lost hope is not the desired end result, it is just a necessary first step. This is where the Übermensch, the “overman,” comes in. Now, I’ll be the first to tell you that we navel-gazing philosophy types can’t quite agree on what the overman is supposed to be. For that matter most people will probably tell you to look for clues in Thus Spoke Zarthustra. Like many Continentalists I seem to be rather contrary by nature, and I say that one should turn toward The Gay Science not only to learn about the overman, but for Nietzsche’s most robust work.
Philosophical bickering aside, the one thing that is generally agreed on is that the overman is one who overcomes this state of nihilism, and rather than becoming a servant to the failed values that have come before him, instead becomes a creator of new values. From here we can go back to both Watchmen as well as Watchmen and Philosophy. Is Adrian Veidt an Übermensch? He gave up an inherited fortune to recreate himself (and earn gobs more money in the process). When the world is on the brink of annihilation he takes it upon himself to “transcend” traditional morality and save humanity from itself. Then again, maybe note. More than one article in Watchmen and Philosophy accuses Veidt of consequentialist thinking. As the name implies, consequentialism is an ethical stance in which one measures one’s actions in light of their consequences. In the case of Veidt he decides that it is ethically better to kill a few million people now, then to let humanity turn the world into an irradiated cinder. The ethics of his actions are debatable, and we could ponder all day over whether or not one can be the overman and engage in consequentialist thinking. At the moment I’m not particularly concerned with that, because there are more telling reasons why Veidt fails as an overman.
Adrian Veidt, Ozymandias, never actually creates himself. Veidt’s early life, those years in which, like Batman he journeyed the world, were dominated by an obsessive focus to recreate himself as a modern Ramesses II. Recreating one’s self in the image of a dead guy, particularly a dead guy from the elite caste of a culture obsessed with the afterlife is not exactly a great start for a candidate to the title of overman. While I would argue that this alone is enough to disqualify Veidt, there is a more telling failure. In section 353 of The Gay Science Nietzsche talks about Paul and the formation of Christianity. Nietzsche charges Paul with having come upon individuals who were already living a certain kind of life, and even though that life was not a virtuous one in a Nietzschean sense, Paul praised that life, endowing it with virtue. In particular he endowed it with that wicked teleological narrative that gave it “higher” virtues than could be found in the physical world. While it is not an exact match, I see Veidt as doing exactly this. It doesn’t matter what ethical mathematics his decision was based on. Veidt “saved” the world not by overcoming the nihilistic virtures of the world, but by strengthening them. He hatched a plot that simply rechanneled the world’s violence and xenophobia, he creates peace through paranoia.
Adrian Veidt did look into the abyss, and he flinched. Worse yet, in his own weakness he put a bandaid on an amputated limb and told himself he was saving the world. Adrian Veidt is not the Übermensch. Rather, I would say he is an Üntermensch, an underman. Whatever charges Nietzsche lays against the teleological narratives that have trapped humanity, what Veidt does in the course of Watchmen‘s narrative is as bad or worse.
At this point I have spent nearly 1200 words, and have yet to mention how this is actually important to you, the reader. As I mentioned in my introductory post it is Nietzsche who I feel best articulates what philosophy should be, and what it means to live philosophically. Life is life, and life is to be lived. I will not tell you that one must give up faith, and discard all teleological narratives to do so, though I suspect Nietzsche would applaud that decision. However, it does mean that we should not live our lives for tomorrow’s paradise, be it Heaven or the the mythical destruction of private property. We should strive every day to make a paradise of this world, because it is in this world that each and every one of us must live. I’ll admit that isn’t going to be an easy task, because so far we’ve a shit track record at doing the job, and at this point I’m not sure it’s a job we’re up to doing. Now get out there and prove me wrong.