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A few days ago, as I was organizing my bookshelf, I came across a book that I read in my freshman year, a work which many Harvard students read at some point during their four years here: Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On the Genealogy of Morality.” Seeing the book reminded me of the discussion that seems constantly to permeate today’s political discourse, including conversations among many students at Harvard—the question of how we, as members of contemporary society, should remember the historical figures of our past, especially when individuals hold perspectives that appall us today.
As I flipped through the pages of Nietzsche’s book, I couldn’t help but be struck by the same dilemma when considering the awesome complexity of Nietzsche the philosopher.
In this particular work, Nietzsche puts forth his view that our existing system of morality obscures the true and natural instincts of human beings in favor of a “slave morality,” where self-denial of human desires has become the basis for both religious piety and our conception of goodness. In short, the work invites us to ask ourselves how humanity developed moral values that emphasize restraint rather than the satisfaction of our instinctual pleasures. This central thesis is brilliant and prompted me to think deeply as few other works have done. In reading it, I could see clearly why it’s taught in so many introductory classes at Harvard alone.
Yet, as captivating as Nietzsche is in his insights about the fundamental questions of human nature, he is equally frightening in his blatant prejudice, ranging from his polemics against the Jews to his tirades against the Chinese. The complexity lies in the fact that the same thinker whose analysis of morality is so profound could simultaneously hold such revolting views. Yet, philosophy and humanities and social science departments from across the country continue to teach his work. And they should. To throw him out because of his mistakes would prevent students and scholars from experiencing him at his finest. It would disregard the enormous good that his writing has accomplished in advancing philosophy, and the value that he has added to our society.
When judged alongside other historical figures, Nietzsche turns out to be the rule rather than the exception. This is important to note, especially as our society considers reevaluating people from the past. Almost every individual from a previous era held views that would be considered unacceptable now; if our litmus test for honoring historical figures included the criteria that they must have been as tolerant and open-minded as Americans today, few, if any, of the greatest change makers in history would be spared.
For one, George Washington, the father of our country, would certainly be toppled from his perch on Mount Rushmore for having owned slaves; so too would Abraham Lincoln, who famously said as President that if he “could save the Union without freeing any slave [he] would do it” — that he would not object to keeping human beings enslaved if this was required for a reunited nation. Not to mention FDR, who — even after helping to lead America through the Great Depression and the Second World War — can still be considered immoral for his internment of 100,000 Japanese Americans without due process. Even Martin Luther King Jr., one of the greatest champions of civil rights, wrote that being gay was “a problem” that required the attention of “a good psychiatrist”; his views of BGLTQ identities were questionable, at best, by today’s standards.
If we are sanctimonious enough, the monuments to Washington, Lincoln, FDR, and MLK can be disqualified from having a place of honor in our society. So too can the great people of our time (whose defining actions and movements have yet to come), as our descendants look back on us. As students at Harvard, we may think that our views are morally and ethically sound — the best that they can be. Yet, as difficult as it is for us to imagine, we can be assured that future eras will inevitably find faults with our thinking and see us as appalling in some way.
Where we draw this line in our generation will determine whether we continue to commemorate those who deserve the recognition. And certainly, Washington and MLK should continue to be honored for their work in forming a more perfect union. As scholars who understand the complex nature of human minds—and the differences in the views of various eras—we must err increasingly on the side of caution as we evaluate the figures of our past.
We should first remember the good that they have done and undertake the careful balancing act that a rigorous study of history necessitates; the fairness of our evaluation will depend entirely on our ability to accept that many individuals whose views were objectionable to modern society still contributed in great measure to it—that these figures, although deeply flawed, built and saved our republic, and in some way, laid the groundwork for the country that we have today.
On that note, I think it’s fair to say that Nietzsche has done us a great service. For, if nothing else, he provides us with a prime example of the duality inherent in even the most brilliant people and reminds us that our greatest fallacy is to think, somehow, that we are perfect.
Andrew W. Liang ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Adams House.
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