What do the Dark Knight's Joker and the late 19th century philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche have in common? Lets look at that idea through his idea of the Ubermensch and the Will to Power.
- The Dark Knight movie
- The Joker
- Friedrich Nietzsche
- The Will to Power
- The Ubermensch
- The Parable of the Madman
Worth picking up
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The Joker as Nietzsche's Ubermensh, on this episode of the Sci Phi Show
The second Christopher Nolan Batman movies, The Dark Knight, regarded as the best of the three, has Heath Ledger in one of his last performances, taking on the role of the Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker. The Joker, a violent sociopath that knows no limits or boundaries, who will kill on a whim and seems, in the words of Alfred, to just want to “Watch the world burn”. A man who murders allies and enemies with equal abandon and fears nothing. Who pursues whatever anarchic vision he wishes without regard to lives he damages or destroys.
To contrast this dangerous lunatic, we have a late 19th century philosopher who was by all accounts a largely peaceful man with a compassion for animals, a man whose last act in life before a breakdown and descent into madness was to defend a horse from an owner who was savagely whipping it. This man was the philosopher Frederich Nietzsche. What could these two possibly have in common?
Nietzsche is a philosopher who cast a long shadow over the 20th century, who was an inspiration for communists, Nazi's, anarchists … and many others. His big ideas centered on how to reinvent and rebuild society now that, in the words of a mad prophet in his book The Gay Science, we had killed God. Nietzsche saw that after such an act man would need to rebuild a new, his foundations for the social order and that the attempts by the 19th century to limp along on the vestiges of christian morality could not last now that the reason for that moral framework had been abandoned. He spoke of trans-valuing values and moving beyond good and evil. Nietzsche also spoke of the idea of the Will to power and his conception of the Ubermensch that would be its greatest proponent.
It should be noted that the term Ubermensch is a German word that is translated into English as “superman” or “overman” and was adopted with relish by the Nazi's as a description of their soldiers. I suspect Nietzsche would not have been impressed with the way the Nazi's ran with his ideology, but at the same time I don't think they particularly perverted it either as some have claimed.
Schweitzer had a concept of what he terms “slave morality”, by which he meant the ancient Christian moral framework that had informed western civilization for centuries and he saw this morality as something no longer binding on us. That we needed to “grow up” and move beyond this.
So what is the will to power and who is the ubermensch? Perhaps that is the wrong place to start as they are ideas that Nietzsche is left with after the death of God, which is so memorably described by his lantern wielding madman who proclaims that God is Dead and we have murdered him, that we are now set adrift in the universe without the divine as an anchoring point. That churches have become God's Tomb. Nietzsche saw in this a chance for liberation but also he feared an abyss of nihilism that would flow from this deed. Obviously he did not mean that we had literally killed God but that we had instead simply jettisoned the old idea and moved beyond it. Nietzsche understood that unmoored from the old theological foundation we could not continue to borrow all of the features of it any more we would have to rebuild on a new different foundation and start over. The Will to Power and the Ubermensh was his vision for this reinvention of ourselves.
If you remember back the recent series on Thomas Aquinas one of the possibilities for happiness that was tried was Power and when examined we discovered that Thomas didn't just mean political power but the ability and freedom to exercise your will as you see fit. This is the sort of power Nietzsche is talking about, the freedom and willingness to exercise your naked will to achieve whatever ends you set yourself. The Ubermensch is one strong enough to seize and exercise this will to power for themselves. Because of the death of God there literally is nothing else to life, the old shackles of the tablets of the law the defined right from wrong are broken and no longer restrain our actions. The strong assert their will as they please and this is the new highest good according to Nietzsche. He proclaimed that we needed to “live beyond good and evil”, to do away with the old christian “herd morality”.
Strangely he simply took the death of God for granted and never really offered much in the way of an argument for this position. It was simply assumed to be settled. Nietzsche did offer one thoroughly irrationalist argument in his boo The Anti-Christ that went as follows, “I will now disprove the existence of all gods. If there were gods, how could I bear not to be a god? Consequently, there are no gods.” I don't know how convincing you find such an argument but i'm a bit skeptical of its force. Still, it seems Nietzsche's task was less to provide an argument but instead to work out the implications of this assumed atheism. Now that the news of the lantern wielding mad man had arrived, how do we live in this brave new world.
So why is the Dark Knights Joker the Ubermensh? How could he not be? He does as he wills at every point in the movie unless his will is thwarted by someone more powerful. There is no internal limits on his behavior or his will, he simply kills and destroys as he wishes in pursuit of whatever strange goals he has. He murders with absolute impunity and when he encounters someone who threatens to stop him, in the form of Batman, he targets those close to Batman and threatens and kills them without hesitation. All that matters to the Joker is his goals, everything else is secondary to that. Perhaps the Joker is not ultimately an example of the Ubermensch because he is thwarted by Batman but that would suggest the Jokers problem is that he was not strongly willed enough to overcome his enemies. Given his willingness to blow up a passenger boat full of innocents, i'm not sure how much more beyond “good and evil” he could get, even if part of that was to show the citizens of Gotham that even their good and innocent people could be just as ruthless and murderous as him when their lives were on the line.
As a slight digression I did think that was one of the most interesting scenes in a film filled with them. The two boat loads of people, one murderous convicts the other a random collection of commuters, each told they must sacrifice the other if they are to live. Would they follow the Joker into the new Will to Power future and unflinchingly sacrifice others so they may live or will they succumb to the old herd morality that values all life even at the risk or loss of their own. Would they be strong enough, in the Nietzschian sense to do what was required, or would they fail and fall back into the herd morality of Socrates that said it was better to suffer evil than to commit it.
Need the will to power be this way? Perfectly exemplified in the behavior of a clown faced homicidal maniac? I'm not sure how else it could be. I suppose you could will the good of your fellow man and will their best and sacrifice your goals and wishes to their needs and desires if that is what you will, but this sort of behavior is the old “slave morality” and besides it would seem everyone who does behave in such a manner is saint of the old sort. I am not sure how the Will to Power could ever end up in a place different from something like the Joker. Perhaps not quite so psychotic and not so much wishing to simply watch the world burn, but it doesn't seem the creed of a hero but only the creed of a villain.
Now unsurprisingly, I disagree with Nietzsche on just about every point, I'm a firm believer in the older Aristotelian and Thomistic vision of the universe that is ordered and ruled over by a benevolent creator but I do have a great deal of respect for Nietzsche. He took his philosophy seriously and followed the implications where they may without regard for squeamishness. I would fault him for reaching the end and then not considering seriously that perhaps his premises are wrong, but at least he took the task before him seriously.
Could you construct a version of the Will to Power that doesn't end in some sort of sociopathy or megalomania? Perhaps to ask the question like that is to start from the wrong place because if all there is, is the Will to Power then you just have to take the universe the way you find it and living without limits or constraints and actualizing your naked will as fully as possible isn't the behavior of a sociopath or a megalomaniac but the actions of a supremely rational being. Now you might want to be pretty sure that is the case before you embark on such a course but if Will to Power is all there is then it seems honest to run with it and the designation of “megalomaniac” or “sociopath” is just the misguided designation of the insufficiently enlightened.
But lets consider the question anyway, Can you construct a psycho free version of the will to power? Could you simply will to be kind and good to others, self sacrificing and benevolent as your manifestation of the Will to Power? I'm not sure but I don't think so. All the saints, and that is what this conception of the will to power would make you, do not ascribe to this sort of “transvaluation” of values. Nietzsche would seemingly reject it as “slave morality” unfit for an Ubermensch and I think on his conception of things he would be right too. It seems it might be the same basic problem as the idea of Utilitarian Saints. It is just an idea that is irreconcilable with the basic idea of the Will to Power. What do you think?
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