Fridays with Fred: Existentialism and Entertainment
“One hears a lot of talk about men, but none at all about man.” So wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in his Aphorisms on Love and Hate. To the skim reader, you might want to reread that first sentence. Nietzsche subtly distinguishes between the activities of individuals and our ideas about mankind. His term for the latter is “psychological observation” or dissection, which he recognised in exceptional authors and philosophers. We might also call this existentialism.
According to Nietzsche, such observation during the 19th century was superficial, bordering on the meaningless and taken up with events and personalities. This is a fitting description for the 21st century, when more people can tell you about Joe Exotic than existentialism. We are captured by what comes to us on our screens but unable to reflect deeply on reality, values, virtues and meaning. When we sit down to dinner we can trade information but struggle to engage with ideas. Thus I agree with Nietzsche, we talk a lot about men and women but rarely about mankind.
But, you might ask, why is this a problem? What does it matter? Isn’t what Nietzsche describes the work for academics, a highbrow hobby? Well, no. Nietzsche actually appeals to psychological observation on the grounds of entertainment: “Meditating on things human is one of the means by which man can ease life’s burden…exercising this art, one can secure entertainment amid boring surroundings.” But Nietzsche, you will likely retort, have you heard of Netflix? He hadn’t. He was lucky enough to die before the entertainment industry was digitally divinised. Therefore he doesn’t compare the two. But his description of contemplative observation rightly earns it the adjective: “stimulant”. For reflection and careful thought is stimulating. Netflix might light up your eyes for a second but study enlightens one for a lifetime. For it is not passive entertainment. It demands something on the part of the observer. Something more than skipping the intro or choosing what to watch next. Doing this internal work, so often wrongly associated with intellectuals is therefore, as Nietzsche says, richly rewarding.
In addition to being an entertaining stimulant, Nietzsche considers psychological observation to be one of life’s best “remedies or palliatives.” Again, the competition today is steep: memes, GIFs and - of course - streaming services present us with an almost infinite wealth of what we might call palliatives. But in the end these are little more than distractions, an escape. Those things can at best only suspend reality, temporarily. Even the best story can only provide us with a window to another world. But it cannot take us out of this one, “from the thorniest and unhappiest phases of one’s own life.” On the other hand, probing our lived reality can “secure presence of mind in difficult situations.” Exploring the depths can prepare us to face the darkness. Neither Nietzsche nor myself are suggesting that you only ever fight these existential monsters, gazing far too long into the abyss. There is a place for entertainment, even the 19th century German philosopher understood this. In fact, one can often sense delight in his writing, despite painfully wrestling with reality. But grappling with existence and meaning surely better prepares us to live through trying periods. Contemplating life is a way for us to run towards and not from it.
Why don’t we do the above? Why do we prefer the shallows of human existence, fixating on events and personalities? I’ve already suggested one reason: we are spoilt for choice when it comes to how we might spend our time. But Nietzsche offered a different and disturbing reason. He suggested that the reason we don’t explore the depths of humanity is that we are afraid of what we will find. He wrote, “A certain blind faith in the goodness of human nature, an inculcated aversion to dissecting human behaviour, a kind of shame with respect to the naked soul, may really be more desirable for man’s overall happiness than the trait of psychological sharpsightedness.” It is easier to believe in human goodness and virtue. Uncovering motives can be a frightening exercise. Nietzsche wrote about “the black mark of man’s nature.” Many will accuse Nietzsche of being overly skeptical, but only because he strikes at the root of 21st century dogma. Are people good and kind? Is humanity virtuous, behind all its foibles and failings? I think Nietzsche would have called that idea a fairytale. He could do so because he faced reality, studied our internal abyss and grappled with the darkness. We dismiss his observations for the same reason that we refuse to make our own: we are afraid of what we will find.