November 17, 2018

Steven Pinker Is Missing the Point on Nietzsche

“‘You are going to women? Do not forget the whip.”

This is one of several excerpts from the 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche that, in his book “Enlightenment Now,” Steven Pinker cites as examples of Nietzsche’s “genocidal ravings.” But it’s deceptive to pluck this remark—and the others on Mr. Pinker’s list—out of context. To understand what Nietzsche means, one must read his books.

I’ll stick with this “whip” remark because it seems inflammatory, yet its context tells a different story. Those words come from “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” which is a novel. It can’t be assumed those words reflect Nietzsche’s view of women any more than Petruchio’s remark in “The Taming of the Shrew”—“Women are made to bear”—reflects Shakespeare’s.

In Nietzsche’s story, the words are spoken by an old woman who symbolizes life. Is she advising Zarathustra to whip women? Or warning him that the women he’ll encounter have suffered under the lash of men? If you read the book, the answer is clear.”

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