Evil, Nietzsche’s “amor fati,” Prometheus, and Thomas Edison

What is evil?

If we call evil whatever outrages a human imagination’s ordering will and vitality; that is, if we define evil in its relation to us, then we quickly notice that evil comes in three forms:

  • There are natural evils that may hit us out of the blue (earthquakes; illness; etc.).
  • There are necessary evils (many humans have to work; other humans, not having access to medication, must suffer pain in childbirth; all of us, confined as we are to our bodies, cannot be, even if we desperately wish it, in two places at once).
  • There are man-made evils (a malicious gossiper ruins our reputation; an indifferent bureaucrat, “just doing his job,” signs off on papers that put us on a train to Auschwitz).

Friedrich Nietzsche problematizes these categories with his concept of amor fati (love of fate). Nietzsche would have us embrace the difficult and absurd contingencies of our existence—whether coming from a natural, necessary, or man-made source—as the raw stuff on which we show our power, exercising our freedom and shaping will. According to Nietzsche, we should not want our lives to be otherwise, exchanging one set of contingencies for another. Instead, we should embrace our lives exactly as they are and work with our obstacles and suffering to then do our will.

In Matt Ridley’s new book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (Harper 2010), there is a great quote from a modern Promethean figure famous for stealing a form of fire (electricity) from heaven, Thomas Edison (246):

I am ashamed at the number of things around my house and shops that are done by animals—human beings, I mean—and ought to be done by a motor without any sense of fatigue or pain. Hereafter a motor must do all the chores.

This is the great Promethean gesture: using techne, in defiance of all prohibiting gods or obstacles, to overcome historic human evils. In a seeming paradox, we embrace our fate—amor fati—even as we strive to shape it to our will. As Nietzsche put it (in the voice of Zarathustra):

God is supposition, but I want your supposing to reach no further than your creating will. Could you create a god? [No.] So be silent about all gods. But you could surely create the Superman.

 Amor fati, then overgo.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to Evil, Nietzsche’s “amor fati,” Prometheus, and Thomas Edison

  1. rationaloptimist says:

    Those interested in Ridley’s very good book might wish to know about my own book, THE CASE FOR RATIONAL OPTIMISM (Transaction Books, Rutgers University, 2009), which makes quite similar points and arguments, but develops the case for optimism over a rather broader range of subject areas. See http://www.fsrcoin.com/k.htm

  2. santitafarella says:

    Frank (rationaloptimist):

    Great! Thanks for the link, and I’ll check out your book.

    By the way, what’s your take on Nietzsche?

    —Santi

  3. rationaloptimist says:

    Nietzsche — not a simple answer. My one reference to him in my book says that what he was basically preaching was anti-human. I see a lot more virtue in ordinary people than he was willing to recognize.

  4. santitafarella says:

    Frank (rationaloptimist):

    Since you’ve recommended a book, I’ll suggest one as well: Nietzsche against the Crucified by Alistair Kee. If you end up getting a copy and reading it, feel free to share your thoughts. And, of course, you might revisit Thus Spoke Zarathustra (if you haven’t read it in a while or have never read it).

    I’m obviously on a Nietzsche kick right now, but he really does bring you, as a reader, to the edge of your intellectual resources (if you are a secular humanist, as I am).

    —Santi

  5. rationaloptimist says:

    I consider myself a secular humanist, but emphasize the HUMANist part. Whatever Nietzsche was, he was not a lover of humanity.

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