Nietzsche has a terrible reputation among some people. To some extent he provoked this reaction by using titles like Beyond Good and Evil and The Antichrist. But he would have been horrified at being associated with the Nazis, for he was no statist and no anti-Semite and would have thought Hitler to be an “Underman” (i.e. a troll) rather than an “Overman.”

But even if you discount the association with the Nazis, Nietzsche is still wrong about most things. He is wrong that entities don’t exist except as linguistic fictions. He is wrong to challenge the idea of cause and effect. He is wrong in his rejection of free will. He is wrong to reduce the idea of good and evil to slave morality. He is wrong that some kind of “will to power” is the force behind inanimate and animate beings.

So why do I like Nietzsche when he is so often mistaken? First of all, he’s right about many things: he’s right about atheism. He’s right in rejecting mind-body dualism. He’s right in rejecting Christian-altruist morality. He’s right about the importance of physical and psychological health (although he thinks some of the most interesting specimens are half-sick ones like himself). He’s right in rejecting Kant’s idea of the thing-in-itself. Nietzsche is nothing if not provocative. He says things that just might be true, such as his thoughts on the origins of Christianity.

But perhaps the most important thing about Nietzsche to me is that he is concerned with greatness. We see this in the idea of the Overman. The Overman is frequently construed as the next step in human evolution, but that is not correct, because Nietzsche did not agree with Darwinian evolution. Furthermore, there have been Overmen around for a long time. Nietzsche would cite Julius Caesar and Goethe as examples.

The Overman is the fully-realized individual. His “will to power” does not consist in the domination of others but in the actualization of his potential. He does not “master” himself but regards great tasks as play. Nietzsche conceives of greatness as health, and his many insights into health and sickness are fascinating.

Nietzsche’s vision of greatness, along with the many gems of wisdom scattered among his strings of aphorisms, keep me interested in this always problematic thinker.

A Light Through the Trees

Forest Light, Colorado, by Christopher Burkett

Christopher Burkett, as an Orthodox Christian, sees the light of God in nature. I am not going to argue with him.

The Marionette Who Cuts His Own Strings

Another project I have been working on, which should be ready to publish on Kindle in May of 2012 is called “Free Will: A Response to Sam Harris.” This long essay is an answer to Harris’ short book on determinism, also entitled Free Will.

I very much disagree with Harris’ examples and arguments. His biggest problem is that none of the examples of choice that he deconstructs involve using reason to any serious degree. They are just examples of selecting something off the top of your head. I agree with Ayn Rand that our reason is our free will, so this seems to me to be a striking omission on Harris’ part. It’s pretty easy to say that we don’t have free will in situations where all you’re doing talking about is letting an idea come into your head.

Anyway, I address Harris’ examples, the neurology experiments he cites and the philosophic presuppositions his case rests on. Then I give an account based on Ayn Rand’s, Nathaniel Branden’s, Leonard Peikoff’s and my thinking on the subject.

When Rand described our choice to use reason, she used the metaphor of focus. By entering into a rational state of mind we make the world clearer and can really start “seeing,” i.e. knowing. I think this is an excellent metaphor, but we need to remember that it is just a metaphor. An interesting exercise might be how to vividly describe conceptual level attention to a blind person.

I have a suggestion, which is from the essay. It might also make human volition a little clearer (⇐ note the optical metaphor!).

I would liken coming to attention to — coming to attention, i.e. standing up straight. It takes an effort to stand up straight but ultimately it reduces effort. When you stand up straight you are ready for action. Your joints and muscles are in their optimum relationship. You can move briskly and pleasurably. And you “define” yourself.

All this is true of coming to conceptual attention as well. It takes an effort to sustain but it makes everything easier as you go along. You are ready for action when you enter into a deliberative state of mind. Your inner environment starts to sort itself out as soon as you focus and can be further sorted out if you care to put in the work. It makes life clean and bracing. And you “define” yourself.

This metaphor does not settle the free will issue, of course, but I hope it does make it more intuitive what Ayn Rand meant when she spoke of “focus.”

The Atrium of the Bradbury Building

The Atrium of the Bradbury Building

This 1893 Italian Renaissance-style building was used as a set in the movie Blade Runner, but I think it looks better here, especially since it was renovated in 1991.

The word I would use to describe the atrium is “atmospheric.” The big space has grandeur. The wrought-iron ornament gives it texture. The wood and stone give it richness of color. The cage elevators in their open shafts give it a steampunk feeling.

I love atmosphere. It’s one of the great things about novels by Victor Hugo. Romantic art in general specialized in it, with all those poems and paintings about ruined churches. It is frequently spooky, but I don’t think it has to be. (It isn’t in this picture.) At some point I hope to write more about atmosphere and romanticism.

You can see (and buy) more photos of great buildings at

Please leave a comment, with a link if possible, about your favorite example of atmosphere.

Plutarch Goes to the Movies

Following up on the last post, I’m making notes for a future book on cinema. It’s tentatively titled “Parallel Movies,” and it consists of paired film criticism. (I got the idea from Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans.) An example might be Public Enemies and The Untouchables. The former is in a subtle way about the War on Terror while the latter is about the War on Drugs. They have different takes on when it is acceptable for government to cross the line into torture and murder. The former is about a Pretender who stops being one, while the latter is about a non-Pretender who becomes one.

At this point you might think I have Pretenders on the brain! (See the previous post.) Well, I do think that they are very common and the concept will show up in some of the criticism. But other things will be highlighted as well. I might make a triple review out of We the Living, Notorious and Lust, Caution, which all about a woman sleeping with a man she despises in order to gain some personal or political advantage. How does the woman view herself, how do others view her, what happens between the man and the woman? Those are all interesting questions. And what about the underlying idea, which is that for a woman to “give herself” to a man like that is more ethically and spiritually compromising that a man doing the corresponding thing with a woman he despises, an act which bothers the typical male action hero not at all.

Other examples might include Apocalypse Now and M*A*S*H, and North by Northwest and some early James Bond film.

If you have a pair of movies you think would make for a good review, please leave a comment.

The Pretender Goes to the Movies

One problem I had with Killing Cool is that I didn’t want to label living people as Pretenders, i.e. persons who unconsciously assume a false sense of life. I also did not want to open myself up to charges of libel. So what I did was to comment exclusively on dead public figures, like Ronald Reagan and fictional ones like Jem and Scout Finch. At first I felt bad not being completely up-to-date and relevant, but later I was glad of it. I don’t think it’s nice to label living people.

I have come up with a list of movie and TV characters who are Pretending a false sense of life. I’m not sure whether or where to include it in the book. I’ll share some of it here.

Some actors specialize in playing Pretenders. I hope that doesn’t say anything about these actors in real life. Examples: Samuel L. Jackson, Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino. Interestingly, they are capable of doing other things. Take Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. That character was not a Pretender. He was authentically cold and evil.

My favorite female Pretenders are Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Notice how revved up all these characters, male and female are, how self-regarding, how inappropriate in their humor. Those are all marks of the Pretender type.

Some actors specialize in playing non-Pretenders too, although the only example I can think of is Sidney Poitier. Perhaps Harrison Ford would count, at least post-Star Wars. Of the older generation, perhaps Henry Fonda would count.

Sometimes you get a non-Pretender/Pretender pair of characters in the same production. In Tombstone Wyatt Earp wasn’t a Pretender and Doc Holliday was. In Deadwood Seth Bullock wasn’t and Al Swearengen was. It makes for an interesting dynamic. In Tombstone the non-Pretender gives hope to the Pretender. In Deadwood the Pretender sees through the non-Pretender in a cynical way, but also admires his moral character.

There are a lot of Pretenders in the movies (and in books and plays, too). I’ve done a bit of searching and I have yet to find someone else who describes the Pretender type in anything like the same way I do. But artists have been implicitly aware of the type for a long time, since Mark Twain at least: Tom Sawyer is a Pretender, while Huck Finn is not. Artists always know more and can portray more than they can articulate.

Drawing from Experience

Killing Cool is a personal book for me. Almost every part of it comes from my own experience or the experience of others I knew first-hand. When I wrote some of the original drafts I used an impersonal, almost academic style, and as a result it wasn’t accessible and inviting. I realized, with the help of my best critic, my wife Stephanie, that I had to put more of myself and my discovery process in the essays.

The reason that I didn’t do this in the first place is that I learned to write and think from Ayn Rand. She sometimes injected a personal note into her essays, but most of the time her style was, well, objective. It worked for that writer and that audience, but not for me and mine.

And I have something different to say. As I wrote more essays in my new style, I realized that I was implicitly making a point: we all have things in our experience that would be interesting, perhaps even unique, if we tried to identify them. I don’t think Rand’s approach, for all its value in other ways, encourages people to get in touch with their impressions. So it was fortuitous that I came up with another approach that I hope will let me convey my observations effectively. I am also excited by the prospect of hearing about some of my readers’ original perceptions!

Killing Cool

My forthcoming book, Killing Cool: Slaying the False Self and Finding True Awareness, is a bit of a mongrel. On one level, it’s culture criticism. I identify reasons why people like vampire stories and what is the nature of cool.

On another level, it’s psychology. I describe the personality type that Theodore Roosevelt has in common with the major characters from Quentin Tarantino movies.

But it’s also philosophy, as I offer a worldview that would help one stay true to oneself. For example, I discuss how the world does not contain any spiritual forces outside of those in human consciousness.

Lastly, there is a personal development component to it, insofar as I not only talk about the things that hold people back, but also discuss what to do about them. On this subject I give an example from a 75-year old self-help book, among other things.

This mixture may seem to make the book eclectic, but it does have a unified theme as reflected in the subtitle. It certainly makes it hard to classify. I suppose it belongs in the philosophy section, alongside Ayn Rand and Nietzsche. If there was a general category of “essays,” it might belong in there with George Orwell and Paul Fussell.

Except for purposes of marketing the book, the question of how to classify it does not trouble me. I regard it as a multi-faceted look at one aspect of a single subject: authenticity, that is, being who you are. The diversity of its topics is just a consequence of the complex nature of human life.

The Upward Path

Why do so many people not reach their potential? This is a question I have thought about for decades.

I believe that people obscure, deny and fragment themselves. In my forthcoming book, Killing Cool, I contrast the false self with the authentic one. The problem is that most of us do not know how to think or to let ourselves feel. Religious people substitute a kind of wishful thinking for reason and “hip” people hook into an imaginary zeitgeist. Living with a false self prevents the true self, the core self from realizing itself. In the book I try to illuminate an upward path.

In another book on the drawing board, I plan to write about how one achieves freedom from self-imposed limitations. The scope of our free will is so much larger than the scope of things we would ever seriously consider doing. To some extent this is appropriate, since otherwise we would be robbing banks and walking down the street making bird noises, but there are many things we should try that we don’t because of our assumptions, such as “real men don’t do that,” and false dichotomies, such as reason versus playfulness.

Still another book, way on the back burner for now, is about the integration of mind and body. I believe that many people take themselves to be just a mind, a soul or a body, with the other part regarded as a mere appendage. How to achieve wholeness is first of all a philosophical task, but it is also a psychological one, and I hope to bring both together. I have been working on this book, off and on for about five years. What is holding me back is the problem of how to make it accessible to a general audience, but I hope to solve that soon.

In between other projects I plan to write a little literary and film criticism and just have some fun with my writing. I hope you’ll follow along with me on my adventure and share your own.